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against the world
Friday, 28 May 2010
religion vs religion

In addition to its various Christian roots, America, quite early on, took on its own religious importance, became its own civil religion, a belief system built around rugged individualism, Protestant-fueled commerce, and stability through consensus. In the face of America, expanding into occupied territory, the natives, with their indigenous religions, “were destined either for extinction or assimilation into American society. The powers of Progress and Improvement were seen to be such that no primitive race could survive intact” [1]. How a native could survive was  to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man” [2]. But, what resulted from these attempts to make the Indian conform, to “actively… improve Indian lives” was the “self-destruction of native communities though addiction, violence, and suicide” [3]. This wholesale destruction of what it was to be an Indian [4], this cultural genocide broke the spirits of those subjected to it. So, even when they made the effort to assimilate, to fit in at the residential schools, to go along to get along, psychologically, it could be more damaging than rewarding.

The residential schools, specifically, though they were “more effective than attempting to educate [children] while they remained under the influence of their parents and communities” [5], led to a lot of psychological damage because, in these institutions, separated as they were, isolated as they were, they involved “absolute, unchecked institutional control over the powerless” which Niezen, in Spirit Wars, calls “a recipe for social disaster” [6]. Niezen suggests that Indian children were “in serious danger of severe physical and emotional abuse,” and this separate from the overt mental destruction of their native beliefs, language, and culture. Upon arriving in the residential school, the Indian child had his hair chopped off, had his name taken away, replaced with a good Christian name. Before he’d even been taught one lesson in how to be a good American, his individual identity was already being stripped away. In 1998, the Government of Canada, which put Indians through a similar process as that America used, “acknowledged the connection between its programs of Indian residential education and an immense toll of suffering still being felt in the native population resulting from cultural loss, separation from families, and victimization through physical and sexual abuse” [7]. An ongoing, institutionalized process of social and spiritual destruction led, naturally, to an ongoing process of social and spiritual self-destruction. What choice did these children have, taken from their homes and their parents and their way of life and constantly told how uncivilized and even evil those things were?

America represented the common good, regardless of what form of Christianity one followed—though, of course, one had to conform in following one form thereof, as “civilization and Christianity must go together” [8]—and Americans, as a whole and often individually, believed it their duty first to educate and indoctrinate the Indian before they turned to outright destruction like the slaughter at Wounded Knee. They believed that “even the most savage people could be improved by association with more rational beings” [9]. And, of course, they were “more rational beings;” they were the better people come from far away to inhabit, to improve, and, eventually, to embody America. By the late 1700s, they saw the “native North Americans as representative of an earlier form of life from which Europeans had emerged as the pinnacle of human achievement” [10]. This Whiggish take on history made it virtually inevitable that any primitive society would be inculcated or trampled.

Native healing and ceremonialism was seen by missionaries a “satanic,” by medical reformers as “superstitious,” and by government agents as “seditious” [11]. Any Christian notions about Indian inferiority simply fueled further American notions about which culture was dominant, and these both led government officials to find new ways to stop Indian practices, outlawing everyday practices as well as ceremonial practices, when not taking children to put in the residential schools. The Indians had to “take part in civilized life by leaving behind their attachments to ‘thraldom’ and ‘superstition’ and learning a new and better language, religion, and means of livelihood” [12].

This entire notion of the better language, the better religion, the better means of livelihood—this is inherent in any organized society, so inherent that Rousseau coined the term “civil religion” to explain the often religious way citizens adhere to and become prideful of the core ideology of their society, even when their individual religious (or not) beliefs may differ. America is the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” with no room for the primitive Indian. Canada, similarly, had God to “keep our land glorious and free” in the “True North,” its “home and native land” also having no room for the native, as long as he insists on acting in his native manner. Coming to the New World, settlers and colonists brought a very simple notion of how people should live. And, though they may have peacefully coexisted with some natives for a time, eventually, the glaring differences between how the Indian lived and how the European lived, meant one would have to change to fit the other or be destroyed… the distinction between these two options not necessarily a very big one.

[1] Ronald Niezen. Spirit Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 162.

[2] Richard H. Pratt, Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, 1892. Quoted ibid, 46.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Despite the racist lumping together here under the term “Indian,” I will continue to use it through this essay, as it is important to realize tribal distinctions did not matter to white America and, ultimately, were meaningless in the face of cultural genocide. In fact, reactionary religious notions, like the Ghost Dance movement, crossed tribal lines and formed, perhaps, a more cohesive indigenous whole, at least in appearance, that matched what white America already saw.

[5] Niezen, 223.

[6] Ibid, 76.

[7] Cited ibid, 86.

[8] Ibid, 47.

[9] Bruce Trigger. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Reconsidered. Quoted ibid, 49.

[10] Ibid, 50.

[11] Ibid, 224.

[12] Ibid, 223. And, while I only barely touch on it here, it is certainly worth noting that one thing government did was “teach the Indian to divide up land and farm it, to live the agricultural lifestyle that Americans did, taking away even the core of how Indians subsisted from day to day.




Posted by ca4/muaddib at 6:45 PM PDT
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