by Holly Haile Thompson
This September I dedicate my writing to the loving memory of Miss Ann Margaret Wing, 1965 – 2013, a Ute Mountain Ute woman, a September baby, who was my friend; and to the 772,000+ people who have died around the earth due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Each day rise and give thanks. Pray while the sun rises in the Eastern Sky… Waapenai Kumatwaenu” – A Shinnecock Prayer
It is well documented how and when Christianity has been – and continues to be – weaponized. If the so-called “Bearer of Christ” (i) truly cared only for the immortal souls of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Indigenous Peoples of Africa, then Doctrine of Discovery would have been neither desired nor imagined.
“That woman is a Christian?!?” erupted aloud from the visibly shaken woman standing in front and a little to the right of me in the crowd. The Annual Shinnecock Indian Pow Wow held each Labor Day weekend since 1946 has hosted crowds numbering as many as 20,000. As Chee Chee Thunder Bird began her prayer dance as part of the opening ceremonies, following the Emcee and the local pastor – both of whom were Native men – and for whom no one gasped in consternation, the distressed woman looked around to try and find affirmation or denial of her preposterous conclusion. Sounding like the victim of a dirty trick she seemed to need some sort of explanation for this happening. I leaned over and asked her why it should surprise her to witness a Shinnecock woman offering the Lord’s Prayer through an expression of her Native Culture?
“The epitome of this blithe ignorance is the work of the Presbyterian Church among the Shinnecocks on Long Island… [a]t a missionary conference”, Dr. Vine Deloria Jr. wrote, following a presentation by the denomination’s representative in charge of Indian work, Dr. Deloria asked how long the Presbyterians planned to continue mission activities among a tribe that had lived as Christians for over 350 years – to which the presenter said, “Until the job is done.” Dr. Deloria’s reaction to that pompous and presumptuous answer, “Christianity, which had laid the ancient world prostrate in less than 300 years and conquered the mighty Roman Empire, had not been able in the same time period to subdue one hundred Indians huddled on Long Island.” (ii)
As a Shinnecock theologian, I wonder at the abilities of the missionizers, I am suspicious of their objectives and the efficacy of a brand of Christianity that, apparently, won’t consider their job done until my people cease to be Shinnecock Indians. One of my own conclusions is that Indigenous Peoples’ spiritual capacities are anathema to the Church. A concerted effort attempting to ‘undo’ what Creator has done necessitates centuries of brazen greed and arrogance; and yet the Church and State (or Church and Crown) (iii) are still teamed up to intensify their ill-conceived enterprise. “Until the job is done” surely didn’t mean that ‘Presby-Mission-man’ was aware that many Native People continued traditional spiritual ways without Church sanction; he meant that the Indians are still Indians, so, therefore, can’t be Christian.
This month’s lections from Matthew’s Gospel are quite concerned with ‘authority’ – over unpopular individuals who won’t ‘get with the program’ in the Church; ‘authority’ by which some are forgiven and others are not eligible for the same liberty; ‘authority’ whose focused justice is resented by their ‘entitled’ underlings; and ‘authority’ not so much from those who wield religion, but ‘authority’ over one’s own words, deeds and commitment to the well-being of other people.
Young Native hunters take deer and caribou meat to the Elders in their community, just as Natives who fish or clam take their catch to the ‘old folks’ because our spiritual practices – so heathen and non-capitalistic – protect and nourish ‘community’. No Church and no Governmental authority tells Cousin Greg to bring around a jar of clams, he was raised knowing that it is the proper thing to do. And contemporary American Christianity thinks it is ok to imagine having a ‘red, white and blue’ beer with Jesus; and lustily singing God and Guns; while demanding that everybody else (a.k.a. “you people”) just get over our violent and deadly past, present and future. Ignoring something – racism, poverty, militarism, ecological devastation (iv), patriarchy, Covid-19, injustice – will not make it go away, and it won’t simply disappear one day…
Picking up the weapons of one’s enemy can be dangerous and deadly; we must take care when we encounter a religion which is still justifying the genocide of Indigenous Peoples and cultures. Why would I willingly take part in my own oppression? Why would I accept or employ methods or weapons that I don’t want used on anyone I love?
Was it rough-rider cowboys and war-whooping Indians with horses and six guns in stereotypical boilerplate fashion that our ‘powwow visitor’ both feared and expected? Did the experience of a peaceful, graceful, deerskin-clad, wampum-wearing Native Elder become too real or too human or too sacred in that moment?
A Shinnecock woman prays in dance; I remember my grandfather burning tobacco – yet as incongruous as these holy practices are to the religious establishment, there will always be a sacred and eternal relationship between our Indigenous Peoples and the Land given us by the Great Spirit, the Land of which we are Caretakers. No misappropriated piety or perceived Christian religious authority can make our prayers unworthy.
i. Christopher Columbus whose first name means “Christ-bearer”
ii. Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins, 1969; Chapter 5
iii. Mitzi J. Smith, Resisting the Great Co-mission, Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, Ed. Steve Heinrichs, Mennonite Church Canada, p. 185
iv. Poor Peoples Campaign’s re-stating of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Evil Triplets” to which has been added Ecological Devastation as the dangers of climate change are now upon us
The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”
Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.