Michael P. Guéno
Religion was a point of cultural conflict, political motivation, and legal justification throughout the European and American colonization of North America. Beginning in the 14th century, Catholic monarchs invoked Christian doctrine and papal law to claim Native American “heathenry” or “infidelity” as legal grounds that legitimized or mandated their policies of military invasion and territorial occupation. More progressive Christian thinkers argued for the recognition of Native Americans as human beings entitled to certain natural-law protections that morally obligated Spain to conquer and convert them for their own benefit. Spain and France worked with the church throughout the 16th and 17th centuries to establish missions throughout seized Native American territories, while English colonists often segregated Native Americans into “praying towns” for their moral benefit or the sanctity of the colonies.
After the United States declared independence, American politicians quickly identified dissolution of Native American cultures as a necessary step in undermining tribal saliency and in ensuring the political dominion of state and federal governments. By the 19th century, policymakers were convinced that encouraging Indians to put aside their “savage ways” would help tribal populations achieve cultural and spiritual salvation through Christianity. In 1869, President Grant initiated a “Peace Policy” that granted Christian missions contracts and federal funding to civilize and Christianize the Native American peoples of assigned reservations. The federal government established boarding schools for the children of tribal communities to teach English, Christianity, and occupational skills in order to “Kill the Indian in him and Save the Man.”
During the 19th and 20th centuries, federal legislation stripped Native Americans of lands, property, and rights, while federal agencies forbade the practice of indigenous Native American religions. Subsequent courts legitimated the historic claim of European nations to Native American lands pursuant to the “Doctrine of Discovery,” thus ruling these policies either legal or unreviewable. While judicial decisions throughout the 20th century also recognized tribal rights to land, water, and self-government as well as the legal obligation of the federal government to protect tribal resources, these rulings have been inconsistently realized. Throughout the history of the United States, law has articulated, in the language of privilege, right, and moral prescription, American values and visions of ideal relations. As American culture has changed, federal policy has swung back and forth among initiatives to relocate, terminate, assimilate, and appropriate Native American cultures. Religion and law have advanced agendas of conquest and colonization and become means by which Native Americans peoples have resisted those agendas.
Since the early 19th century, the expansion of American empire has constrained Native American autonomy and cultural expression. Native American history simply cannot be told apart from accounts of violent dispossession of land, languages, and lifeways. The pressures exerted on Native Americans by U.S. colonialism were intense and far-reaching: U.S. officials sought no less than the complete eradication of Native cultures through the assimilation policies they devised in the 19th century and beyond. Their efforts, however, never went uncontested. Despite significant asymmetries in political power and material resources, Native Americans developed a range of strategies to ensure the survival of their communities in the complicated colonial context created by American expansion. Their activism meant that U.S. colonialism operated as a dynamic process that facilitated various forms of cultural innovation. With survival as their goal, Native American responses to U.S. colonialism can be mapped on a continuum of resistance in which accommodation and militancy exist as related impulses. Native Americans selectively deployed various expressions of resistance according to the particular political circumstances they faced. This strategy allowed them to facilitate an array of cultural changes intended to preserve their own cultural integrity by mitigating the most damaging effects of white rule.
Because religion provided the language and logic of U.S. colonial expansion and Native American resistance, it functioned as a powerful medium for cross-cultural communication and exchange in the American colonial context. Religion facilitated engagement with white (mostly Protestant) Christian missionaries and allowed Native Americans to embrace some aspects of white American culture while rejecting others (even within the context of Native conversion to Christianity). It also allowed for flexible responses to U.S. consolidation policies intended to constrain Native autonomy still further by extending the reservation system, missionary oversight of indigenous communities, and land use in the late 19th century. Tribes that fought consolidation through the armed rebellions of the 1870s could find reasons to accept reservation life once continued military action became untenable. Once settled on reservations, these same tribes could deploy new strategies of resistance to make reservation life more tolerable. In this environment of religious innovation and resistance, new religious movements like the Ghost Dance and peyote religion arose to challenge the legitimacy of U.S. colonialism more directly through their revolutionary combinations of Native and Christian forms.