The Cultural Conundrum of the Indigenous Christian
by Rachel Taber-Hamilton, Shackan First Nation
“What have you done?” asked my mother in weighty staccato, stressing each word individually. The sharp glare from her eyes pinned me like a bug to the place where I stood. The tone in her voice conveyed a gravitas as though I had robbed a bank, assassinated someone, or kicked her cat. My mother was actually a very kind woman with a talent for using an economy of words that — when paired with certain glaring glances — could communicate harrowing summary judgments about those she was addressing. As a Native woman, her technique was very effective in both childrearing and husband management. However, the object of her profound displeasure was the tiny golden cross hanging from the necklace at my throat.
I had just driven home from college for the summer following my junior year at the State University of New York in Geneseo. My mother met me in the driveway, and as I stepped out of the car to greet her, the glint of the modest cross I was wearing met the glint of her eye. I might as well have been wearing a live grenade. When I became Christian, my mother’s unspoken communication in that moment surpassed all my worst nightmares. She died before I went to seminary but not before I had shared with her that I felt called to the priesthood. That conversation was the moment in which I realized how I had fulfilled all her worst nightmares.
My mother’s Native American heritage was her basis for a deeply important connection to her much beloved and deceased Indigenous father. Within our Indigenous matriarchal lineage, her clear expectation for me as her only daughter was that I continue the connection to our Native ancestors and traditions. The role that I quietly and very willingly assumed as a young child was to carry the honored remnants of our Indigenous stories, history, spirituality, and traditions.
I understood that every teaching was vital to the physical and spiritual survival of the remaining people we represented. The historical memories of every tear fallen were to be collected as precious jewels gathered from a painful legacy of intergenerational determination and perseverance. There is a terrible beauty in inheriting such courage and resilience. Its legacy was entrusted to me, which is why my mother’s ultimate fear was that by becoming Christian I had been conquered by the same forces responsible for the genocide of our people. Her question, “What have you done?” hung in the space between the two of us like a crucifix carved from the bones of our ancestors.
My mother’s concerns were not unusual. For many Indigenous peoples who inhabit the continents and nations that have historically been subjected to European colonization, being both Native and Christian is an enormous socio-cultural challenge — the egregious harms committed against Indigenous people of the past and in the present are bound to the colonial weaponization of Christianity. For many non-Natives, the Doctrine of Discovery is a workshop to attend or a book to read for furthering needful personal education.
However, the effects of the Christian worldview that justified Indigenous genocide continue to inform the daily lived experience of Indigenous people today. The influence of European venture capitalism and its consequential exploitation of lands and people reverberate through time, from the moment Columbus enslaved the Indigenous peoples of Guanahaní (San Salvador) in 1492 to the assassinations of Indigenous rain forest protectors[CB1] in the Amazon in 2019; from the first English fort built in Jamestown in 1602 as part of the London Company’s commercial expedition, to the militarized security forces hired by big oil to suppress Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock in 2016.
Today in the United States, many white Christians in state and federal government continue to believe that personal prosperity at the cost of other people, the environment, and future generations is their God-given right. From the time that Constantine the Great first shackled Christianity to the foundational social column of empire in the fourth century, a faultline has existed in interpretation of Scripture that continues to inspire beliefs in the divine blessing of white supremacy. Even the earth itself is subjected to the will of white men bearing crosses. If left unmitigated, the societal faultline laid down by Western Christian history will shake our current church until it is merely rubble of culturally irrelevant remains.
In the Indigenous history of the Americas, the cross of Christ was used to cudgel Indigenous populations into submission. Churches and governments collaborated in what was considered to be a cost-effective way of dealing with the “Indian problem,” by stripping Indigenous communities of their rights, language, identity, and culture. The recent discoveries in Canada of unmarked graves of thousands of Indigenous children buried on the grounds of former Indigenous boarding schools has incited a response of burning down churches. Indigenous Christians who have come to see those churches as sacred places for worship, comfort, and support have been left without significant resources for aiding the processes of grief that Indigenous communities are now experiencing across Turtle Island. Yet, Episcopal congregations that consider themselves to be welcoming communities should not expect that Indigenous people will come to them in their need. You see, the past has not actually yet passed. The church in historical fact and in action represents the colonizing forces of empire, forces that continue to impose an exhausting toll of dominant-culture expectations on Indigenous members and Indigenous leadership in the church.
My mother was not wrong to worry on my behalf when I became Christian. I made a promise to her then that I would not leave my Native identity, values, and teachings behind in my spiritual journey. When I went through the ordination process in The Episcopal Church, the message that I regularly received was that I needed to make (white) people comfortable with me, that I was expected to be “a leader for the whole church.” I believe that phrase is actually dominant culture code telling me that I need to be “a leader for the white church” and that the standard measure of my success within the institution is directly correlative to that ability. The white leaders who repeatedly coded that message to me were not wrong.
There are several topics of concern for Indigenous members of The Episcopal Church today. Some of our collective issues include the challenges of developing local Indigenous leadership formation programs for ministry; environmental justice issues related to resource extraction; the need for economically sustainable models of our faith communities and living wages for Indigenous clergy; epidemics of suicide among Indigenous youth; the horrific phenomenon of murdered and missing Indigenous women and children;, and the apprehension we feel about what may be discovered on the grounds of former church-run Indigenous boarding schools in the United States.
This list of concerns informs how I tend to respond when faith leaders share with me that they want to develop land acknowledgements or want to consider the topic of reparations. To me, it’s as though those leaders want to improve a relationship they have never actually had in the first place. Conversations about land acknowledgement and reparations without first engaging the emotional labor of relating to Indigenous people in substantive and meaningful ways can be a dominant culture way of pole-vaulting over an unaddressed traumatic history and the racist reality that confronts Indigenous people on a daily basis, including the reality for Indigenous Episcopalians.
My mother’s question stays with me every day of my life. When I see the trauma, pain, and needs of Indigenous people around me, I hear her asking me, “What have you done” to bring healing and to stop the harm? When I shy away from opportunities to speak truth to power, I imagine my courageous mother chiding me, “What have you done” for those who rely on your voice and leadership? When I ignore my own trauma and do not keep the Indigenous practices that help me remain centered, balanced, and strong, I hear her gently asking me, “What have you done” to care for yourself and honor the gift of your life?
When I hear non-Native leadership in the church professing a deep and abiding concern to make things right for Indigenous people, to right the wrongs of history, and to embrace diversity in leadership and in worship, I know what I need to ask in order to discern if their intentions are genuine. My question is, “What are you willing to do?”
Yes, dear reader, I’m looking at you.
Rachel Taber-Hamilton was raised with a bicultural heritage of Shackan First Nations (Shackan, British Columbia) on her mother’s side and ancestors on her father’s side who sailed to the shores of North America on the second Mayflower in 1629. Her academic specialization includes a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, with a focus on the role of symbol systems and folk heroes within the adaptive processes of culture change. Rachel received her master of divinity degree from Loyola University Chicago in 1994 and is a board-certified healthcare chaplain. She was ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church in 2004 and specializes in organizational trauma recovery and development. Rachel is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, Washington, and serves on the board of the Anglican Indigenous Network, an international community of Indigenous leaders committed to education and advocacy for a post-colonial world. She is a co-founder and coordinator for the grassroots advocacy network of people of color and allies in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, Circles of Color