Saturday, January 17, 2015


Crow Tribal legislator C.J. Stewart discusses the new sign

An interesting phenomenon keeps popping up in my website feeds and personal friends’ contacts.  On the Crow reservation a strong Pentecostal movement has erected a billboard declaring that their rez is a “theocratic nation.”  They didn’t use that technical language but rather said: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  So they are mix/matching assumptions about what a nation is, what a religion is, what Christianity is, what lords and masters do anyway -- a confusion explored on “Downton Abbey” and shared with the Blackfeet tribe as well as the the US right wing politicians who aspire to being gentry.  This pervasiveness is what makes the subject worth thinking about: we are at the crux of some kind of social shift.  One premise is that being scared makes people go rule-ridden religious: superstitious.  But that's not all there is to pentecostalism.

One must bear in mind that I “identify with” the Blackfeet, who have mostly scorned Crows for collaborating with whites.  The Crow reservation is a gentler one so far as weather is concerned and the tribe has been treated more kindly by whites, so they have kept their language and been slightly more prosperous.  A handsome religion professor, Mark Clatterbuck, is studying this shift on the Crow.  In the past he has analyzed the interactions between Native Americans and Catholic missionaries as described in the book listed below:

Demons, Saints, & Patriots: Catholic Visions of Native America through The Indian Sentinel (1902-1962), by Mark Clatterbuck. ISBN-13: 978-0-87462-746-6 &; ISBN-10: 0-87462-746-X. Paper. 288 pp. $29. Bibliography. Index.  Marquette University

"This well-researched study illuminates the work of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions through the periodical it published from 1902 to 1962. Careful attention to the missionaries who wrote and the natives they wrote about yields impressive results—on the many varieties of missionaries and missionary motives, on the occasional successes and frequent tragedies of native development, and on the depth of human interactions that attended the missionary encounters. Mark Clatterbuck has written an important book on a rich, complex, and compelling subject." Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame.

"This is a lively, well documented account of Catholic missionaries, many of them foreigners to the U.S., alienated from their homes, defensive about their place in this country, ambivalent about the Natives whose souls they fought to save, and sometimes subject to the lure of reverse conversion to Indian ways." Christopher Vecsey, Colgate University.

If you google, you'll find much more information.  Look for the Billings Gazette.

Rocky Boy Cree Chippewa pow-wow

Also, Clutterback has written an article about another Montana rez which begins this way:

Sweet Grass Mass and Pow Wows for Jesus: 
Catholic and Pentecostal Missions on Rocky Boy’s Reservation

Carl Starkloff, borrowing imagery from a prayer he once heard by an Arapaho medicine man, often encouraged Native Catholics to permit a confluence of tribal and Catholic traditions to take place in their own religious lives, like the meeting of two rivers into one.  As a Catholic theologian and longtime Jesuit missionary among Native people in the United States and Canada, Starkloff began challenging the prevailing winds of “syncretophobia” at a time when many religious leaders and scholars regarded syncretism as a dirty word. Through the last two decades of his life, he came to see syncretic process not only as inevitable, but as a process possessing rich possibilities for increasingly authentic religious expressions—especially among communities, like Native American tribes, who find themselves living at the intersection of two or more religious traditions.

In July 2008, I spent ten days among the Chippewa-Cree on Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana, exploring through interviews the ways in which Native Christians are navigating the mingling of religious currents taking place there today. I was particularly interested in the syncretic confluence occurring among Native Catholics in contrast to Native Pentecostals on the reservation. During the course of my stay, I interviewed members of two mission congregations—Living Water Assembly of God and St. Mary’s Catholic Church—to hear firsthand how Christian and traditional ways are brought together, or kept apart, in their own lives. Whether one-on-one or in a group setting, we talked in Sunday School rooms and living rooms, on Sun Dance grounds and in parish halls. Our conversations continued over Indian tacos and buffalo stew, pulling weeds and splitting wood. My questions for them revolved chiefly around issues of religious and cultural identity. What tensions, if any, do you experience by being both Native and Christian? Are there traditional Indian practices your Christian faith prevents you from performing? Should traditional Native rituals be blended with Christian liturgical practice? What does Jesus mean to you? . . .

Mark Clatterbuck

Mark Clatterbuck has been actively engaged in the Christian-Native encounter for more than fifteen years, including teaching and parish work on the Rocky Boy’s Chippewa-Cree Reservation in Montana. He holds a PhD in Religion and Culture from the Catholic University of America. Currently he lives with his wife and two daughters in Lancaster, PA.

Repeating history, it appears that some Crow folks went looking for spiritual inspiration and guidance at a Los Angeles powerful Pentecostal church.  They came back “on fire,” to use a Pentecostal metaphor.  The English word “Pentecost” is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.” It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera, which means “fiftieth day.” In turn, that comes from Jewish history.  This is just enough to label a movement which is expressed both as a denomination and as an independent force within and without Christian context.  

The key story is that the Holy Spirit arrived, bringing the fire of emotional direct contact with the Sacred, and -- paradoxically -- in history prompted the formation of the first congregations.  The movement is strong on the Blackfeet reservation, too, both within and without local Christian churches.  People become seized by the spirit, possibly speaking in tongues.

The people bless their sign.

The remarkable event on the Crow reservation is that Pentecostal ideas have become conflated with the traditional pre-Christian ideas and practices.  (It's called "syncretism.")  This has caused some people to say the Pentecostals are heretics and others to object that they are destroying their identity as Indians, which means keeping alive the old ways and ideas as much as they can know them.  Militantly, they mutter about “Stockholm Syndrome” which means identifying with one’s captors, as Patty Hearst did.  

At seminary I was housed with a Konkokyo priest belonging to a religious conflation between Christian and Shinto ideas.  Japan has several of these combinations, mostly formed after WWII.  Teruo, the priest, saw no problem.  It is only because the preservation of Native American identities is such a hot topic, the sovereignty of tribes is somewhat related, and -- as one commentator said -- “we seem to have a choice between drunkenness and Christianity”, so even Cowboy Christianity, attached to the 19th century and expressed in popular songs has an influence.

Native American spirituality on the prairie is highly mystical, confronting the displacement of mental processing that comes from living in a place where one is likely to starve, thirst, be sun-stunned, get lost in white-outs, confront predators, and undergo other ordeals.  The management of one’s identity in the face of so many challenges is the “business” of religious practice so as to return people to normality with as little trauma as possible.  To voluntarily suffer, seek visions, and talk about other lands in the sky is to find a way to understand, to give events some human meaning.  Alcohol hooked into that.

“Primitive” Christianity -- meaning “prime” or “first” as in the Canadian phrase “First Nations” -- was about tribes, warriors, protecting resources -- not so different over there in the Middle East even though they were herding, fishing, trading people rather than buffalo-dependent.  But modern Christianity is hegemonic -- meaning it imposes its European culture as a source of power and money.  The United States as founded was hegemonic but probably other major factions of Crow are powerful enough to challenge even the feds.  Being Christian is good for business, but smart pastors -- like the ones here in Blackfeet country -- include Native American ceremonial elements in their services.  They are syncretistic.  Not all whites recognize the wisdom of that.

The recent tragedy in Paris, France, violently opposed two cultures against each other.  Until recently when I read a piece about the 17th and 18th century difficulties of reconciling the many local (tribal) languages of France into one national French language, I had not realized how recently in history the "nation" had formed.  This explains why France is so fussy about being “proper French speakers,” opposed to slang and variants as well as foreign words.  But devastating revolutions of the past have taught them to be secular, ironic, and post-modern. On the Crow rez,  people still feel they need to know the “right” way.

Clatterbuck and his wife know that the stream of life is the real Source.

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