With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Inculturation Through the Ages II: The Gospel Among The Native Americans

Our first examination of inculturation takes us to North America, to the work and accomplishment of Catholic missionaries with Native Americans.

Today, it is recognized that inculturation plays an integral part in the survival of Catholicism among Native Americans. Cardinal Arinze in his 1993 Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences in Asia, the Americas and Oceania pointed out that, “The Church respects the religions and cultures of peoples, and, in its encounter with them, wishes to preserve everything that is noble, true and good in their religions and cultures. To the extent that Traditional Religions are better understood, Christianity will be more suitably proclaimed.” Following Arinze’s recommendation, the United States Conference of Bishops not only founded the Lakota Inculturation Task Force in 1995, but undertook a survey among the Native Americans, trying to find their spiritual and physical needs, and released the results of their findings in the text, Native American Catholics at the Millennium.

It must be pointed out that this is only the continuation of a long, difficult process which begun with the first Catholic missions among the Native Americans. The missionaries had, to be sure, a variety of responses to the Native Americans. Some of them looked upon the Native Americans as savages whose cultures held no redeeming features, and the best way to evangelize them was to force them to adapt European standards. However, a greater number of missionaries, especially among the Jesuits, believed quite differently. They saw sophisticated religious practices and beliefs which often mirrored or complemented Christian beliefs. They actively sought to preserve the varied Native American cultures, recording Native American histories, myths, and rituals while preserving their languages. In part, many Native American customs and traditions continue to this day due to the efforts of these missionaries.

Native American leaders took notice to the respect that Catholic missionaries gave to them, and they in turn asked for a Catholic presence among their reservations. Red Cloud, for example, fought long and hard with United States authorities in order to get a Catholic mission founded upon the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The missionaries struggled to determine what aspects of the Native American traditions could be followed by converts. Could they, for example, partake in the Sun Dance? Some believed that these traditions were superstitious and would have to be given up. Others argued differently, believing that many of the native rituals could be baptized into the Christian tradition. Could not the Sun Dance, for example, be seen as a reflection of the work of Jesus Christ, who, like the dancers, undertook suffering for the wellbeing of his community, the Church?

While the work of the missionaries among the Native Americans actively engaged the same questions that are being asked today about the relationship that can be had of the Native American culture with the Gospel, perhaps it is more telling to note that the Native Americans themselves undertook this question seriously and lived it out in their daily lives.

One of the most inspiring examples of practical inculturation lies in the life and work of Nicholas Black Elk (c.1863 – 1950). From his youth, he was a Wichasha Wakan, an Oglala holy man, visionary, and healer. He learned, and was devoted to, the seven holy Oglala rites (The Sweat Lodge, The Vision Quest, Ghost Keeping, The Sun Dance, “The Making of Relatives,” The Girl’s Puberty Ritual, and The Throwing of the Ball). After his baptism on December 6, 1904, Black Elk continued to be a religious leader, this time undertaking the role of catechist and missionary among his native people. He did not turn his back upon his religious heritage, but saw that God had been at work among the Native Americans before Christianity had arrived, and that the two traditions should be seen as complementing each other. Near the end of his life, he discussed with Joseph Epes Brown about the Oglala traditions, and hoped that by telling about their practice, centered around the sacred pipe, he could be of help in bringing peace to the world, and show how God had been at work among the Native Americans:

Most people call it a “peace pipe,” yet now there is no peace on earth or even between neighbors, and I have been told that it has been a long time since there has been peace in the world. There is much talk of peace among the Christians, yet this is just talk. Perhaps it may be, and this is my prayer that, through our sacred pipe, and through this book in which I shall explain what our pipe really is, peace may come to those peoples who can understand, as understanding which must be of the heart and not of the head alone. Then they will realize that we Indians know the One true God, and that we pray to Him continually. -- Joseph Epes Brown. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), p.xx.

Black Elk preserved not only the religious and cultural legacy of his people, but sought to unite them to the Christian faith and show how the two traditions could penetrate each other. This he did in the early parts of the twentieth century, representing not only the fruits of the missionary activity among the Native Americans, but also as the first representation we have of how inculturation took place before Vatican Council II. Let us listen one last time as Black Elk speaks:

We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as He intends. Ibid.

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  • At 8/23/2006 4:18 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Nicely written, and what a great topic!
    I especially love that quote at the end, as well as the understanding of the heart and not just of the head. It reminds me of the lyrics of a certain song on a certain website: "My heart and my mind, are oceans apart, and I'm trying to find, the shores of my heart...Turn me around...."


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