Missionaries and the Maya

Last weekend, I was asked to contribute to a missionary couple working in Central America, building and ma

Mayan women in Guatemala

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.

Bob S.

2 thoughts on “Missionaries and the Maya

  1. I like the website and the article on missionaries. As to whether church-goers would be offended, I think Bible believing Christians would maybe disagree. I’m not completely clear on what you think the role of Christians are in the world. Here are some questions:

    Do you think the native spiritual beliefs should be preserved for historical value or because they are equally valid compared to Christian beliefs? Are you saying the missionaries have no business spreading their beliefs, or they should do it in a way that does not negate the native spiritual beliefs? How is that accomplished? Bigger question – are all beliefs equal and are there are many ways to God, or is there only one way to God?

    Does Jesus’ great commission extend to believers today, and that Christians have a responsibility to go out in the world and spread the Word as the first century disciples did? Or, are Christians only to go out and do good deeds throughout the world? Fight poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, and leave it at that?

    How did Paul and others deal with the different cultures as they spread the Word – Jews, Greeks, Asians, Romans, and so on? Did they encounter competing beliefs? (Yes, frequently, but usually, respectfully showed why the competing beliefs were irrelevant)

    How is it that we are Christians today? In our ancestral history did someone toss out a previous spiritual belief in favor of Christianity?

    I’m not supportive of everything Christian missionaries are doing or have done. Certainly, forcing Indian children away from their families into white schools and ways was wrong. Going into other cultures and telling them to do it our way is arrogant, and not helpful. On the other hand, it is arrogant to think that we have salvation through Christ, but let’s not impose our beliefs on the 3 billion people who have not been reached yet.


  2. I’m not sure I have the answers clear in my own mind, but I have a few thoughts.

    To begin with, I think the Christian mantra in missionary work — or in spreading the word in general — should be the same as a physicians: First, do no harm.

    Doing good deeds first, and offering voluntary religious instruction would be what seems best to me. Much of the problem has been caused by compulsory instruction and cultural change.

    I believe native cultures have a value in themselves, not just as historical artifacts. Often, but not always, they have a better sense of humanity’s relationship to the natural world. And the virtues values by Christianity are also found in most of these cultures, again with some exceptions. Should Christian missionaries blindly accept cannibalism because it is part of a native culture? Of course not. But instances of that are very rare. So are ritual human sacrifices. But there are cultural practices among indigenous people that many Christians find objectionable or that they just can’t understand. There is no Biblical prescription for sweat lodges, for instance, but many native groups use them to cleanse and purify before important events.

    I am aware of the great commission, but I’m not sure I fully understand it. What exactly did Jesus mean? The forced conversions practiced by Spanish Catholics? The rejection of all previous beliefs by a person or a culture, regardless of what those beliefs might have been? What if all nations don’t want to be made disciples? Is simply making people aware of Christian beliefs adequate?

    Finally, yes our ancestors beliefs were overturned or modified by conversion to Christianity. But not entirely. Reverence for evergreen trees, for instance, predates Christianity in Scandinavia and what’s now Germany. Evergreen trees or evergreen boughs were even brought into houses to ward off evil spirits. I wish I had learned more about those earlier, pagan beliefs.


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