William Edelen: The American Indian

Special to The Desert Sun

As one who has studied the Plains Indians at the Graduate level at the University of Colorado, and as one who is ordained in the United Church of Christ (Congregational) the farce of Friday nights “debate” combined with the ignorance of one of the participants sent my blood pressure to a new level.

The bigotry and obscenities inflicted upon the American Indians by Christian missionaries constitute one of the most repugnant periods of American history.  But among the more enlightened elements of the Christian church there have been signs of maturing spirituality. I refer to the recent requests for forgiveness to the Native American people. The warm and touching apology from Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders of the Pacific Northwest reads as follows:

“Dear Brothers and Sisters: This is a formal apology on behalf of our churches for the destruction of Native American spiritual practices. Your spiritual power can be a great gift to us. We ask for  your forgiveness and blessing.”

This was signed by the senior Bishops, or Executives, of the Roman Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Congregational churches.

The United Church of Christ (Congregational), the church of my ordination issued another apology of their own:

“We bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the ongoing injustice and religious imperialism that have been so disruptive of the spiritual values of Indian life and culture. The effect of the Christian missionary legacy, and the Christian influence has been the disparagement and undermining of the Indian culture and a spiritual impoverishment. The missionaries were blinded by a religious ethnocentrism. The depth of this tragedy is now being realized. We take full responsibility for our part in the ongoing atrocity, and we express to you, our brothers and sisters, a deeply felt sorrow and penitent spirit.”

The United Church of Canada put their apology in these loving and tender words:

“Long before our people journeyed to this land, your people were here, and your understanding of the Mystery that surrounds us all was deep. and rich, and to be treasured.  We did not listen to you. We were closed to your spirituality. We tried to make you like us. We destroyed your vision. As a result the image of the Creator in us is twisted and blurred and we are not what we were meant to be. We ask you to forgive us.”

My limited space precludes duplicating the entire texts, but the words I have shared with you give you the heart, flavor and spirit of the requests for forgiveness, forgiveness for the Christian arrogance, ignorance and atrocities that they inflicted upon the Native Americans. One of my Anthropology professors at the University of Colorado would spend an entire week documenting the horrendous damage done to the people around the world by this kind of Christian arrogance and ignorance. There is no word for “religion” in any American Indian language. They had no need for artificial man made “religion.” Their every moment of every day was lived as an expression of the spiritual and sacred dimensions of existence. Jean Baptiste De Bienvile, upon  meeting the Nez Perce for the first time wrote these words in his diary: “Their honesty is immaculate and their purity of purpose most remarkable. They are more like a nation of saints… than ‘savages.’”

The SPIRITUAL LEGACY of the American Indian is a gift we, in our culture, should long cherish.