Indigenous Religions and Christianity: Acculturation and Assimilation–A summary

“…a continuous conflict between two mutually exclusive views of the world” (Deloria, 238)

This is how Vine Deloria describes the history of conflict between Indigenous peoples of America and the White settlers. My project is a response to this statement. I had three questions I wanted to answer in my project:

  1. 1.     Are Christianity and Indigenous Religions truly mutually exclusive?
  2. 2.     What attempts have been made towards a synthesis of the two (or at least a peaceful and productive coexistence)
  3. 3.     Given the violent history of contact between Natives and “representatives” or Christianity why do Natives choose to be Christians?

“For generations, indigenous civilization in this continent had evolved a sophisticated monotheism. Much like Christianity, there were variations on the central theme, but basically the core vision of a creator God who remained in contact with life and invited humanity to live in harmony now…was constant” (Rev. Steven Charleston, 100)

Additional info on Rev. Steven Charleston: He is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Episcopal Priest, and served as President of Episcopal Divinity School for 9 years in Cambridge Massachusetts from 1999-2008

This statement stands in direct contrast to Deloria’s statement above. Stevenson is claiming that, far from being mutually exclusive, many Indigenous Religions held similar beliefs to Christianity before Christianity ever came across the ocean. Regardless of the validity of a statement like this, it demonstrates that not all Native people agree with Deloria’s stance, and it begs the question: if it is not differences in the core beliefs of Christianity and Indigenous Religions, what prevented the two from coexisting peacefully?

Message Vs. Cultural Medium: “We have heard all that you have said and it is good, but now we will wait a while to see if your people live these words –Red Jacket, Chief of the Seneca People, 1750 – 1830” (Charleston, 100)

The message preached by missionaries was agreeable to many natives, but the gap between the Christian principles taught and the actions of white men was large. The issue was not with the message of Christianity, but the cultural medium within which it was presented—the White culture that wanted to dominate and exterminate the Indigenous cultures in order to “Christianize” them.

“The real ‘crime’ of historical Christian missions is…that they were not willing to receive Native American missionaries in return. There was no honest dialogue, no true exchange. Racism prevented that and left us with the legacy of a stunted Christian experience” (Charleston, 102). 

 There was no cultural dialogue or exchange between Western and Indigenous cultures. The interactions between Western and Indigenous were cultural one-way streets. The natives were expected to conform completely to the white culture that went along with Christianity without Christianity adapting at all to Native cultures.

Assimilation Vs. Acculturation

It seems that the argument for or against the possibility of synthesis/coexistence between Christianity and Indigenous religions becomes one of Assimilation or Acculturation.

  1. Assimilation: when a minority culture adapts to the majority culture by losing its traditions and beliefs and becoming essentially indistinguishable from the majority culture.

For Vine Deloria, assimilation is the inevitable outcome whenever Indigenous religions and Christianity interact.

  1. Acculturation: When a minority culture adapts to certain parts of minority culture while also maintaining their traditional culture and identity

“But then I was told I needed to become a Christian too, specifically a Euro-American Christian. I learned that only English speakers had the “Authorized” version of the Bible. I discovered the Christian culture, complete with Christian music, Christian T-shirts, and even Christian haircuts. It was almost as if the Bible read, “When a person becomes a Christian they become a new creation. Old things pass away and all things become white.”  -Richard Twiss

 This quote by Richard Twiss, a Lakota and Christian, demonstrates the problem of assimilation that many Natives run into when they want to become a Christian. There is often an assumption within the broader Christian culture that white culture is a necessary part of the Christian experience. Thus it is often difficult for Natives to become Christian while also holding onto their traditional beliefs and culture. After reading this I went looking for examples of acculturation between indigenous cultures and Christianity.


Acculturation: Kiowa Hymns

“With regards to meaning, Indian hymns are located within very particular tribal traditions. Hymns belong to tribal song repertoires as much as they belong to Christian song repertories…In this way, hymns simultaneously communicate a combination of Christian and tribal-specific experience” (Lassiter, 343)

 Many see Christian hymns in traditional languages as an example of Native Acculturation. The hymns connect traditional language, song structure, and the traditional practice of group singing with the western Christian experience. It is a way of expressing Christian beliefs in a form that is familiar and in line with more traditional practices.

“The use of native language also communicates a connection to that which has come before, that which is traditional, and, for many, that which is godly. Many elders say they pray in their language because it is the language that God gave to them specifically and uniquely”  (Lassiter, 346)

“But with time, the translated hymns took on a life of their own in the oral tradition. For many Ojibwe people today, the ritualized singing of these hymns…has become emblematic of who they are as a distinctive people with distinctive values” (McNally, 841)

 Here are two more quotes that demonstrate the importance of the use of traditional language and traditional song structure, even though the content and message of the songs is Christian, as a way of holding onto and expressing a unique cultural identity. The prevalence of Christian hymns translated into the native language in Kiowa, Ojibwe, and other Indigenous cultures helps support Stevenson’s idea of cultural medium vs. message—when it comes to the interaction between Christianity and Indigenous religions it is the cultural medium that is often more important than the message.

The link above is a video of a Kiowa hymn. The structure of the hymn is similar to the structure of more traditional songs like the ones we heard during ceremonies at Pine Ridge.


The Native American Church: The Acculturation of Peyote as a Sacred Symbol

 “To us [peyote] is a portion of the body of Christ,” Hensley said, “even as the communion bread is believed to be a portion of Christ’s body by other Christian denominations. Christ spoke of a Comforter who was to come. It never came to Indians until it was sent by God in the form of this Holy Medicine.” –Albert Hensley, 1908 (Albert Hensley was a Winnebago and member of the Native American Church)

 Peyote has not been traditionally used religiously in all tribes, but its use was documented in tribes, particularly tribes in Mexico, since Europeans set foot in the New World. And if not used religiously, it has been used medicinally (it has many antibiotic properties) within many Indigenous tribes throughout America. Hensley’s statement demonstrates the acculturation of a traditional native symbol—peyote—into the Christian belief system. In the Native American Church Peyote is similar, if not equivalent to, the wine and bread of communion—both symbolize the body of Christ.


Why Choose Christianity?

The next section of my presentation attempts to answer the question above. After some research, I found three main reasons that Indigenous peoples choose to be Christians:

  1. It is what they are used to

Natives whose parents and grandparents practiced Christianity due to the extensive and successful effort of the government to infuse the Native population with Christianity via boarding schools, etc. are likely to practice Christianity as well. It is for the same reason that many Natives prefer to call themselves Indian despite the negative connotations associated with the word—it is how their parents and grandparents referred to themselves.

  1. It speaks to them
  2. It heals them

These last two reasons are the same reasons that people all over the world choose Christianity—they find a kind of truth and healing in it.

“When Jesus came into my life and overwhelmed me with his love, I wanted nothing more than simply to follow him. I began a life of transformation because he rescued me from a life of addiction, abuse, self-destruction, and likely from a premature death. I longed for the same transformation for our people. Yet I found myself tripping over the cultural trappings of American Christianity. Following the ways of Jesus seemed one thing; becoming a white Christian quite another.Yet, in spite of all of this, I find in Jesus the possibility for forgiveness [and] reconciliation…” –Richard Twiss (A bit more info. on Richard Twiss: When he was 18 he helped take over and occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C. Later he became an alcoholic, spent some time in jail, and began to suffer from depression. )

 In this quote Richard acknowledges the difficulties of becoming a native Christian—the same difficulties that Vine Deloria thinks are too large to overcome—but believes they can be surmounted. And his story represents a reality that Deloria does not acknowledge or speak to: the reality that for many Natives Christianity is a real source of truth and healing. Deloria never acknowledges that there could be any inherent value in Christianity for Natives, and this stance ostracizes that many Natives that do find value in Christianity. For Deloria it is choice between traditional beliefs and Christianity, but that opinion implies that for people like Richard Twiss who find healing in Christianity it is a choice between traditional beliefs and alcoholism or Christianity and recovery. This doesn’t strike me as a fair choice.


The Environmental Movement and the Intersection of Shared Beliefs

As an example of what coexistence and finding common ground might look like with regards to a current issue, I went to the environmental movement because it is where I think the native concepts of the importance of land are most easily expressed in a way that they can be translated and understood in Western Thought.

Resolution of the Assembly of the Orthodox Diocese of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska Concerning the Sanctity of the Earth and the Responsibility all Alaskan Native People to serve as its Guardians and Protectors

The above bold text is the title of a resolution passed unanimously by the Diocese of Alaska of the Orthodox Church that urges federal agencies to deny permits to any commercial or economic project that threatens to damage or pollute the environment. The Diocese of Alaska is comprised in part by about 20,000 Alaska Natives in 95 Aleut, Yup’ik Eskimo, Athabaskan and Tlingit communities. The striking aspect of this resolution is that it is based on purely theological beleifs, not ecological ones. And these theological beliefs are beliefs that both the Alaska Orthodox Church and the Native peoples of Alaska share. Below I will paste a bit of the text from the actual resolution that explains in what ways the Christian church and the Alaskan Natives share beliefs that would result in such a resolution.

“Whereas, according to the traditions and teachings of Alaska Native peoples, the Earth and the whole creation have always been perceived and experienced as filled with the sacred presence of Life, and

 Whereas, historically Alaska Native peoples have approached all living and life-sustaining elements with reverence and respect, and

 Whereas, in the Sacred Scriptures our Orthodox Christian Tradition, the creation of the world began with the Spirit of God moving on the face of the Deep, and

 Whereas, God so loved the KOSMOS, meaning the whole creation, that He sent His Son into the world to bless, renew and sanctify it…”

This section of explains the religious beliefs regarding the sacredness of land that the Alaskan Orthodox Church and the Alaskan Natives share. This is an important point to make because for so long the way in which Natives view land (the sacredness of land has always been a integral part of Indigenous religions in America) and the way in which Western Christians view land has been a central source of conflict. This resolution demonstrates that Christianity does not necessarily result in differing views regarding the importance and sacredness of land than Indigenous religions.


“You must remember all the good our people have known and taught. Compare it to what you are now learning. Do not be ashamed of the good that we have taught and do not be ashamed of the good to be learned. Our way of life is changing, and there is much we must accept. But let it be only the good. And we must always remember the old ways. We must pass them on to our children and grandchildren so they too will recognize the good in the new ways”

                           -The words of an Ojibwe grandfather to his granddaughter                              as she goes off to boarding school

This is the quote I would like to end the presentation on because I think it beautifully and eloquently describes the ideal attitude with which one must approach the intersection of two cultures. It acknowledges the good in both new ways and old ways, and sets the two up in such a way that the good in the new ways is only good if it exists next to the good in the old ways. If the good in the new ways can only be apparent if it completely takes over and extinguishes the good in the old ways, then it is no longer good.

This quote, however, also has a slightly darker side. The grandfather and granddaughter may be hopeful of finding the good in the new ways while holding onto the old ways, but we know from history that the teachers at the boarding schools had no interest in finding any good in the old ways. And they had no intention of allowing their students to either. Like Rev. Steven Charleston points out, interactions between cultures and religions must be a two-way street, a dialogue, and opportunity for learning and growth for all involved—otherwise it is assimilation, not acculturation.

I will leave the reader with a final question that may or may not be a hopefully one: I believe that I have demonstrated that there is possibility and hope for synthesis/peaceful coexistence between Christianity and Indigenous religions, as long as the process is approached in a way that allows for the possibility of acculturation. However, mainstream American culture is becoming increasingly secularized. There is a growing expectation that people separate their daily lives from their religion. Is there hope than for indigenous cultures—cultures in which religion and daily life are much more intertwined and inseparable than Western culture—in a society that demands separation and secularization?




 Works Cited

 Bernstein, Kenneth J. “A Different Approach to Environmental Protection: Orthodox Diocese of Alaska.” A Different Approach to Environmental Protection: Orthodox Diocese of Alaska. KOS Media, 29 Oct. 2009. Web. 2219 Oct. 2014. <>.

Charleston, Rev. Steven. “The Good, The Bad And The New: The Native American Missionary Experience.” Dialog: A Journal Of Theology 40.2 (2001): 99. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. 3rd ed. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub., 2003. Print.

Lassiter, Luke Eric. “”From Here On, I Will Be Praying to You”: Indian Churches, Kiowa Hymns, and Native American Christianity in Southwestern Oklahoma.”Ethnomusicology 45.2 (2001): 338-52. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. <>.

McNally, Michael D. “The Practice Of Native American Christianity.” Church History 69.4 (2000): 834. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

“Native American Church {First Nation} – History.” RSS. Oklevueah Native American Church, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2014. <>.

Twiss, Richard. “Another Path of Jesus.” Christianity Today. Christianity Today, 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2014. <>.




–Isaac Radner


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *