Last weekend, I was asked to contribute to a missionary couple working in Central America, building and ma
intaining schools and overseeing other missionaries.
Not long ago, supporting such an effort would have been a no-brainer for me. Of course I want to help and maintain schools in poverty-stricken regions of the world.
However, in the past decade I’ve spent a good deal of time researching relations between native groups in North America and religious organizations. It began with the Utes and research for my book, “Troubled Trails,” but it has continued with the Ojibwe and mixed-blood families of the Lake Superior region and, more recently, with the Puebloan and Genizaro groups of northern New Mexico.
Historically, in each of these places, the missionaries from European religious groups, be they Catholic or Protestant — even if they were present with the best of intentions — worked to destroy or substantially diminish the cultural traditions of the natives — especially spiritual traditions.
Part of it was government inspired. In New Mexico initially, it was the Spanish colonial government that sought to obliterate the spiritual traditions of the Pueblans and Genizaro. There is a wonderful book called “The Witches of Abiquiu” that examines the witch trials in northern New Mexico in the mid-1700s. In this case, the “witches” were actually native shamans, spiritual leaders and healers who used animal imagery, potions, mysticism and even rock petroglyphs in their ceremonies.
In the United States, the official government policy for more than 150 years was to assimilate Indians into “civilized” society and rid them of any vestiges of their native culture. That’s why Indian schools forbid not only the practice of native religion, but native clothing, hairstyles and the speaking of native languages.
Surprisingly to me, the French Catholics of the Lake Superior region were more tolerant of indigenous views than the Protestant missionaries who came later. One exceptional book that examines a Protestant viewpoint in the region is called “The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely, 1833-1849,” edited by Theresa M. Schenck.
For more of a global perspective, there’s “Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Exchange.”
Regarding the missionaries to Central America, I visited a website that described their work, and it sounded wonderful. But on another website about the Maya people who reside in the region, I found this quote: “Fundamentalist missionaries are also responsible for destroying the Maya culture with a more insidious, though nonviolent, strategy.”
You don’t even have to be part of a church to go. There are websites that offer, for a price the opportunity to “Do Missionary Work With Mayan Indians.”
I am a Christian. And I believe religious organizations, especially Christian ones, have done a great deal of good in feeding, clothing, housing and educating those in need, ministering to the sick and those in prison. But the record of Christian missions to indigenous people has been far from spotless. So, before I contribute financially or by other means to missionaries attempting to minister to native groups, I’ll ask how the cultural traditions and history of the native people are taken into account while doing so.