How many of us have ever gone through the age-old ritual of that standard, cliché, Indian greeting? You know the one where you put on your best blank stare, raise your right hand as if to take an oath in court, and with monotone voice, you say, “HOW.” In case you didn’t know, it is by no means a universal Native greeting,* and it’s not real funny to our Native neighbors. But it is a real sign that you are probably misinformed about a real people group living among us today.
As non-Indian American Christians, let’s turn that around and get informed. Perhaps we can convert an uncouth greeting into a prompt for a series of questions that will better align us with Christ’s purposes:
- How can we better love our unbelieving Native neighbors?
- How can we be better witnesses to the resurrection power of Jesus Christ to Native Americans?
- How can we avoid age-old, man-made stumbling blocks that get in the way of the Great Commission?
- How can we be better brothers and sisters to the Native American church?
- How can we change our assumptions, ignorance, and unchallenged ideas about Native Americans?
- How can we reach out to Native Americans as emissaries of peace for the kingdom of Christ rather than repelling them as just another misinformed generation of non-Native Americans?
- How can we better pray for Native America?
. . . and the list could go on.
Caricatures, Perspectives, and Reflections
I have met a lot of people with various perspectives on Native Americans. After a life-time of living among non-Indian Americans, and being one myself, I feel somewhat confident in my knowledge of what non-Indian Americans believe. Although not exhaustive, the list below provides a good cross-section of perspectives I have encountered during this past year in particular. I would like to say that they all are exaggerated caricatures, but I would have to cross my fingers behind my back. The reality is that many of us hold to a combination of these perspectives. The challenge for all of us is to read through the list and see where we find our reflection, and ask the Lord to give us His perspective through the lens of the gospel.
Six Common Perspectives on Native Americans
1. Relatively Oblivious – This person has little to no knowledge of Native Americans today. This person has never met a Native or at least has no knowledge of meeting one. This person doesn’t not know that reservations still exist, yet when they learn of that fact wonder if Indians still live in tee pees. I have even met people who thought the Indians were all gone.
2. History buff/antagonist perspective – This person read a lot of American history and is very eager to point out the sins of Native Americans by educating you on Indian attacks on white settlers. Recent court cases ruling in favor of a particular tribe that resulted in restitution are often cited.
3. Hollywood-informed, sympathetic perspective – You generally cheer for the underdog. You saw some movies like Indian in the Cupboard and Dances with Wolves. You have actually memorized the epic scene with Wind in His Hair’s emotional farewell to Dances with Wolves. Just thinking about it, you really want to watch it again. Go ahead and watch it here.
4. Hollywood-informed, unsympathetic perspective – This person saw a lot of John Wayne-type westerns and believes the narrative that the Indians were irrational, blood-thirsty savages who were getting in the way of the progress of American civilization. “The only good Injuns are dead.”
5. Politically-driven perspectives** – This person sees life mostly through political goggles, which usually have either red or blue lenses.
- Blue lenses seem to create an overwhelming sense of the proverbial “white guilt,” which can only be relieved by creating new tenants of political correctness enforced by yet more big government solutions. Oddly, the blue-lens perspective is just as paternalistic as our forefathers on both sides of the aisle in Washington, which has caused most of our problems today.
- Red lenses have a tendency to reject anything that smacks of political correctness. Typical mantras in this camp include: “Disband the reservations, tribes are socialistic anyway. Tax the casinos. Build that oil pipeline through their land, and frack, baby, frack! It’s all about jobs. Make them assimilate! Go Redskins!” The red-lens view often sees reservations as welfare states attributing all the social ills such as high addiction, crime, and suicide rates to the dependence on government subsidies. Although it recognizes the tragedies of the past, it believes that the best thing to do for Native Americans is to disband the reservations and take them off government “hand-outs.” Problem solved.
6. Pro-Western, seemingly biblically Reformed perspective ***– This perspective is related to the politically driven perspective, but now mixed with just enough theology to sound biblical. Foundational tenets include: 1. God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, 2. This is a nation based on Judeo-Christian principles, and 3. Providence has shown that God judged the Indians using a Christian/Western nation. Therefore, the U.S. was justified in its conquering the land and Natives. There are multiple variations of this view.
More can be added to the list, but these common perspectives are the most frequent I encounter when talking with people about our mission to Native America.
Two Views and the Truth about Native Americans
We should not subscribe to nor defend the romanticized “noble savage” caricature that is still in vogue today. That in itself is still another a stereotype that is not helping anyone. Nor should we accept to the blanket term ‘savage’ for the clear majority of Native American tribes throughout history. Most Indian nations were civil and had highly structured societies (ask Benjamin Franklin where he got the idea for our Constitution) and were known for their hospitality by many Europeans. Regardless of the most noble things Native Americans have achieved, they, like the rest of us, are sinners – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). They still are in need of the saving power of Jesus and the love of our heavenly Father, not the paternalistic control of earthly kingdoms cloaked in a robe of self-righteousness.
Back Where We Started
Change must begin in us. If people stumble, let it be because Jesus (1 Peter 2:8), not because of our sinful representation of Him. The gospel is offensive enough, we need not add to it with our lack of neighborly skills.
God has been at work in Native America for centuries. He has not given up on them, nor has he given up on us. We still have an open door to Native America. I hope you join us on our mission work with Native Christian leaders as they train up leaders at the Mokahum Ministry Center.
All for His Kingdom!
MTW Missionary to Native America
* How-Kola: For accuracy sake, the term “how” is most likely derived from the Lakota Sioux greeting, How-Kola, but randomly and carelessly applying that greeting, especially in a mocking fashion to any Native person from the many distinct tribes is disrespectful.
**Clarification: Yes, these political views are somewhat simplistic, but complex issues become simplistic in the political arena, leaving no room for complexity and nuance. I recognize there are more nuanced views, and altogether different political parties, but of the majority people I have met who have expressed political solutions, these two view-points are the most common.
***Theological Reflection: Not only does this view place too much confidence on an interpretation of providence without clear biblical passages to justify it, it is also guided by a Darwinian (‘survival of the fittest’) hermeneutic. God certainly does ordain whatsoever comes to pass (WCF, 3.1), and that includes American history with all her virtues and vices. But not all that unfolds in history receives God’s benediction. A decree and a benediction are two different things. Let us remember Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Joseph’s brother’s sins against him did not suddenly become acts of righteousness because God used them for redemptive purposes. Likewise, God does not pronounce benedictions on injustices performed by civil magistrates, U. S. or otherwise, who are supposed to be acting as ministers of justice.