© 2006 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.
A letter from an angry reader from Oklahoma chastised me for attempting to explain why the Iraqi people hate America. She wrote, "Tim Giago should realize that America is a Christian nation. Jesus Christ appeared to Black Elk, not to the Muslims."
I wonder how many Indian nations consider themselves to be "Christian nations." The two most potent weapons brought to the Western Hemisphere by the European invaders were disease and the Church. While the diseases unknown to the indigenous population destroyed millions of lives, the Church destroyed cultures, religions, traditions, languages and customs. The early demise of the Indian people can be equally attributed to both.
The letter writer, an Indian woman, continued, "We as Americans are crusaders. We bring democracy to a dark and ignorant country." Is that what the "crusaders" brought to the Indian people? Native Americans did not become included in America's form of "democracy" until 1924, nearly 150 years after America's settlers signed the Declaration of Independence. The "independence" and "democracy" was for white Americans only. It was not until 1946 when Arizona and New Mexico finally ratified the Constitutional Amendment that made Native Americans United States citizens. For the first 30 years of his life, my father, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a fluent Lakota speaker, was not a citizen of the United States.
The settlers who came to America in pursuit of religious freedom outlawed most religious rites of the Indian people. The Sacred Sun Dance of the Great Plains Indians was banned and its practitioners subject to arrest and incarceration.
The Church created the myth that Jesus appeared to Black Elk in order to convince other Lakota that Black Elk had seen the light and had become a Christian in the end. His own family members dispute this outlandish claim. As a matter of fact, Black Elk faced prosecution for practicing the traditional spirituality of his ancestors. He had to perform some of the sacred rites of the Lakota in secret.
The revival of the traditional religious practices of the American Indians has grown stronger over the years and came out in the open after passage of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act was passed in 1978. Can you imagine that "Freedom of Religion" was finally granted to the Indian people 202 years after the Declaration of Independence?
There are those Native Americans who have attempted to integrate their Christian roots and beliefs with Native spirituality. Can this happen? Would the practitioners of the ancient Indian religions allow this? I think not. First off, Christianity is foreign to the Native people of this Hemisphere. It was brought from across the sea by the invaders. For the most part Christianity is based on the teachings of a Jewish man named Jesus.
Whereas, the traditional spirituality of the Native people has existed long before the settlers landed on these shores. One Wicasa Wakan (Holy Man) named Rick Two Dog, an Oglala Lakota, can trace his spiritual family and advisers back more than 500 years. That even pre-dates the coming of the Pilgrims with their overly righteous views of Christianity.
Let's face it. The early settlers found the religious practices of the Native people difficult to understand and distasteful and they dismissed them, with a wave of the hand and a prayer, as heretical. Since the Native people did not, according to the settlers, have a religion, they were therefore pagans that had to be converted.
For an Indian man or woman to say that Jesus Christ is their Savior and Lord is to deny thousands of years of the inherent spirituality and religious customs of their own people. And to believe that they can incorporate this foreign religious concept into their traditional beliefs is now being discarded by many Indians that have returned to their own traditional customs and beliefs. They see with eyes wide open what Christianity has done to their ancestors and to themselves and they reject it.
I would like to hear from the Indian nations and have them tell me how many of them consider themselves to be "Christian nations."
I have no bone to pick with Christians or their beliefs as long as they practice those beliefs without interfering with my own beliefs and with the beliefs of those who are not Christians. I attended an Indian mission boarding school where Christianity was crammed down my throat from the minute I awoke to the minute I went to sleep. It's not that this was bad enough, but to debunk and criticize the traditional beliefs of my ancestors in order to implant this new religion into my young mind was outrageous. If the Church cannot apologize for the atrocities committed against the Native people, how can I be expected to forgive them and least of all participate in their religious hypocrisy?
The Founding Fathers of the Indian nations will not be found carved on Mount Rushmore. Instead their bones will be found in the dust of the land walked upon by they and their ancestors for thousands of years, long before the settlers came. And in the space of a short 500 years the newcomers have brought this continent to the brink of self-destruction.
America may well consider itself a Christian nation, but please do not willfully discard those of us who are not. We are also Americans and we are also citizens of our own nations.
(Tim Giago is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or by writing him at 2050 W. Main St., Suite 6, Rapid City, SD., 57702. He was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM firstname.lastname@example.org published his latest book, Children Left Behind