Violence, in particular violence against women, is a topic often visited by journalists. The February Harper’s includes an article called “Tiny Little Laws: A Plague of Sexual Violence in Indian Country” by Kathy Dobie. (Thanks to Dave Lull for tipping me to the article.) It’s about Sioux in Dakota, a tougher rez than the Blackfeet in Montana where I am, but to some degree reservations are alike. Canadian indigenous women have fought and fought to get official attention for the problem of disappearance of their sisters. I wish I could remember the title of a knockout Canadian movie about it filmed in Vancouver, B.C. with Tantoo Cardinal. Was it “Tales of an Urban Indian?”
The whole time I was reading this article by Dobie I kept thinking something was missing. Clergy.
If it weren’t still winter here, remnants of official snow emergency still hanging on, I’d drive around a little bit and interview some present reservation clergy but it will be an excuse to return to the subject later. I should say up front that when I came in 1961, I attended the Browning Methodist Church and in 1988-89, the year after I withdrew (with honor — I have a letter) from the Unitarian Universalist ministry, I served as the unofficial interim for the Methodists. Their “called” minister unexpectedly couldn’t come for a year. The Bishop, whose task it is to assign ministers to churches, always struggled to figure out what to do about the rez parish, which includes Browning, Babb and Heart Butte. Lots of stories to tell, but that’s not what I’m after this time. Anyway, he settled on me. I spent the year very happily preaching creation instead of creator.
I need to provide background since there are Europeans and Asians reading this blog. A reservation, from the beginning, was an ambiguous enterprise and they were set up differently from each other as they were invented from the first efforts to push all the Indians to the West and let them have Oklahoma and the prairies (“Indian country”) to the late “rancherias” in California.
The US and Canada had contrasting approaches even on the prairie. On the Canadian side, a reserve was meant to be like a wildlife reserve with white people excluded to protect the indigenous, who were totally different from the immigrants. On the US side a reservation tended to be “wasteland” provided to stop war. When the lands turned out to be valuable, like Black Hills gold, the war immediately proceeded. Blackfeet were lucky to have their backs up against the Rockies and to have delayed long enough for the War Between the States to have slaked some of the appetite for war.
In the beginning the Euro-based US government was white (with black slaves), though it was a mix of countries, and it was Christian in the broad sense. (One of the three Abramic religions, the one filtered through the Roman Empire and split by the Protestant reformation.) The assumptions were that religion was a matter of dogma, big buildings for worship, bureaucracy with all the trappings of grandiose authority, threatened but impalpable rewards and punishments in an afterlife, and documents, especially very old ones like the sources of the Bible. Some of this might have been more familiar to the south in the mighty empires of the Mayans and Incans, but not on the northern prairie.
For the northern plains tribes, religion was simply an aspect of everything. The emphasis was on propriety, right behavior, with two major sources of discipline: good fortune in war and hunting or vengeance through family and clan affiliations. Their culture was seamless, immediate, and deeply derived from their relationship to the land.
To Christians the Indian religion simply did not compute as religion. Therefore, the people were pagans, barely removed from being animals and therefore, in Catholic terms, souls for the harvest but in Protestant terms, savages to eliminate. Of course, as always, when individuals became familiar with the indigenous people, many of them realized their personhood. As always, some of the people back East romanticized them to the point of near-sainthood.
You know all this stuff.
The first missionaries were mostly Jesuits who used schools and gardens to soften their determination to convert. Today there are long-time parishes in Browning, Heart Butte, Babb, East Glacier, and Holy Family which is the remnant of a mission residential school. As everywhere, there is a shortage of priests but the churches are packed.
At some point the reservations — they were corrupt from the onset — were assigned to various denominations which were supposed to reform but who were immediately drawn into war with the Jesuits. The Methodists have tended to be a church for what was a sort of colonial enclave of white shopkeepers and administrators but now is more mixed-blood nurses, teachers, ranchers. The Baptists and Pentecostals are truly grassroots, self-governed and led by inspired but Bible-based clergy. They are highly emotional, often very conservative, and definitely indigenous. The original Blackfeet and Cree ceremonies persist and are sometimes friendly to whites — for a price. No one persecutes them and bits of their ceremony slip into Christian worship.
Putting aside these issues of history, style and sociology, what would I like to see these clergypeople address when they mount into the pulpit? Here’s my list:
The nature of justice: the importance of principles even if there are many “rules” in terms of law and in conventional behavior. Some might call this prophesy or even witness.
The removal of stigma: discouraging the blaming of victims (not labeling anyone as deserving of abuse), encouraging repentance and reform. This is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament and ought to be the defining characteristic of a Christian.
Finding courage and faith to persist over years, decades, centuries and millenia in what many call “the Good Fight,” the struggle everywhere for good people to find better ways and to insist on them.
Practical strategy for dealing with bureaucracies. Church people KNOW about this stuff. Don’t tell me any clergypersons are innocent about it.
Personal salvation, of course, however you define it. There’s a lot of variation here, but private piety should not justify evasion.
The most important one is forming the community, constantly reminding them of the good of the whole, the power of the saving remnant, the need to protect the least of these, and all the other human ways of setting the norm for what the people can be. We’ve got to move from “winner take all” to “protection of the minority.” The most erosive force on a reservation is the idea that Indians are “like that,” that bad behavior is to be expected on a reservation, that there is some kind of curse that hangs over the whole population, that forces from other places have done this to a captive people and therefore all change has to come from the outside.
I will be returning to something like this subject for months. Clergy or not, female or not, Indian or not, it is our lifework.
(Cover Photo: Visual Photos; Image no. IS098R17V)