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The Gospel of Christianity Gone Bad in Two Native American Authors’ Works

Updated on August 1, 2014

Broken Promises

The authors’ attitudes towards Christianity are skewed towards a negative bias against the religion. These stories, told from the perspectives of characters who have rejected the tenets of Christianity, it is a matter of course, that these authors would not present Christianity, its tenets, methods and members in a positive light, nor give praise and adulation to the religion. In looking at Zitkala-Ŝa’s “American Indian Stories” and D’arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded, both authors depict Christianity in a negative light as its tenets make promises that cannot be fulfilled, its methods strip the culture of its richness and terrorize the children, and its people are well-intentioned persons who have gone astray of the true teachings of Christianity.

Throughout the course of both books, the stories encompass situations where Christianity sets itself up as a deliverer of promises, when in fact; none of the promises are able to be kept. Just as the Jews believed Christ’s appearance would hail a new era led by a conquering King who would free them from Rome’s tyranny, the Indians in McNickle’s The Surrounded saw Christianity as a vehicle that would lead them to victory. The Flathead Indians believed the power of the Jesuit priests would inhabit their tribe and make them victorious over opposing tribes. When this failed to happen, partly due to the Jesuit priests’ ignorance of the Flathead’s culture and present situation, the priests still made promises that could not be fulfilled. In The Surrounded, the priests promised the people a better life. Catharine’s father, the chief, is made the promise “we shall teach your child great happiness. She will be among the precious on earth” (McNickle, 21). Instead, Catharine is faced with a community that experiences poverty, strife, and struggle as “still the world grew no better” (McNickle, 131) when the next generation turns to crime and the “old people saw no hope” (McNickle, 131). The loss, poverty, desolation, and sorrow within the boundaries of Catharine’s Salish village are not foreign conditions to the overall Indian reservation experience. She, as an Indian notices it. Her husband, a Spaniard, notices it, and their half-breed son, Archilde, does as well. No one is blind to the bleakness amongst the reservation Indians. This bleakness led to “one day was like another…at the end of many days, a world of confusion, dread, and emptiness” (McNickle, 22). Where was the great happiness the priests promised? The Salish people grew more in debt, slowly starved, and Christianity and education did nothing to rescue them from a cycle of poverty and idleness. In thinking on her own education, Catharine reflects “the Sisters had taught her many arts but they had not quite taught her to be interested in using them” (McNickle, 171). She was taught domestic tasks, etiquette, reading and writing, but not one of the skills was something with long lasting effects. In essence the skills taught were unable to deliver a promised happiness because those skills had no relevancy within her culture or personal experience.

The Christian church was unable to keep their promise when poverty became a way of life for the Indians. White settlers coming in increased the population, the food supply diminished in hunting and fishing possibilities, and the village became divided into the white side of town and Indian town. Indian town was the less attractive side of town with “sway-backed cabins, rag-stuffed windows, refuse strewn about” (McNickle, 35), with little sanitation, and filled with “unused building falling into disrepair” (McNickle, 138). Max looking over the land described it as “much had been wasted, much destroyed, and men would have been richer if they had been satisfied with less” (McNickle, 82). Christianity’s promise was not fulfilled as the Salish Indians endured a survival with limited and dwindling resources and no respite from the poverty they were suffering.

The promises made in “American Indian Stories” are much more oblique and open to interpretation. No one promised great happiness. Through stories told by the missionaries, her older brother just returned from school, and children within her community, Zitkala-Ŝa is led to believe that traveling to the missionary school will provide adventure, an education, and as many red apples as she can pick and eat. She is promised excitement, fulfillment, and the pursuit of happiness in having her wishes granted. A missionary tells her “Little girl, the nice red apples are for those who pick them” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 85). As she writes about her school girl experiences, there is never any mention again of those apples. The missing apples are the first tangible, or in her case intangible since she never got to touch them, evidence of a promise not kept. Loosely interpreted, someone might be able to extrapolate that there was some adventure in riding the train for Zitkala-Ŝa and her classmates; however, being stared at like a curiosity at a carnival or an animal in the zoo is hardly the start of an adventure for these children. In no instances, does she relate any experiences that could be taken as adventurous in nature. She does receive an education, but at what cost? Her education makes her more aware of the injustices within her world, of the prejudices that she will face in school, in work, and in society, and in being made to feel as if she has no place left to fit in, neither fully white or fully Indian anymore, she must walk a path where she doesn’t identify freely with either culture.

Missionaries and Mission Schools

Both stories illustrate ways in which the methods of the Christian church left much to be desired as the Indians were stripped of their culture, treated like children, and their children terrorized with horror stories and abuse. In “The Cutting of My Long Hair”, Zitkala-Ŝa shares about her first day in the missionary school, where the regimental order of straight lines and ringing bells ordering the children when to sit, pray, and eat are the common methods in controlling these youngsters. As she stands in line, she sees that the other girls are now “in stiff shoes and closely clinging dresses…my blanket had been stripped from my shoulders. I looked hard at the Indian girls, who seemed not to care that they were even more immodestly dressed than I, in their tightly fitting clothes” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 90). The first change the students experience is to have their Indian clothes removed and exchanged for white people’s clothes. To Zitkala-Ŝa, it is shocking because she feels the clothes are too immodest. Hearing that her hair will be cut, she hides. When they find her, they tie her to a chair. There is no explanation made, no comfort, no sweet voice to say something about hygiene or how it’s easier to care for short hair. No one assuages her fears, wipes her tears and none of the whites make any attempt to understand where this little girl is coming from. Her culture’s belief in shorn hair as a sign of grief or dishonor is completely ignored as she is forced into conformity.

In “The Snow Episode” story, we see how vehemently the missionaries react to the children speaking their native tongue. The students are only allowed to speak English as their native languages are not only stripped from them, but beaten out of them. Forbidden to play in the snow, making snow angels, the girls only know one or two words in English. A misunderstanding ensues and Thowin, who can only say “no”, is beaten for continually answering no. Her insubordinate behavior is really her limited grasp of English, yet once again, there is no one who tries to get to the bottom of the situation, no one who talks to Thowin in a comforting voice or tries to understand what is happening. There is only a punishing hand and an angry voice disciplining an ignorant child.

Assimilation

Teepees are exchanged for cabins and houses and Zitkala-Ŝa’s own mother embraces some of these amenities, as well as the Christian religion. When she comes home from school, finding she doesn’t quite fit in anymore, her mother seeks to comfort her by giving her a Bible. “She tried to console me. ‘Here, my child, are the white man’s papers. Read a little from them,’ she said most piously” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 99). And yet, in instance after instance, her mother seems to be the one more torn in two than Zitkala-Ŝa is. Aside from believing there are apples aplenty in traveling East, Zitkala-Ŝa never indicates that she has bought in to any facets of the Christian religion. In fact, in “Retrospection”, she re-embraces her Indian roots, pagan beliefs, and quits her teaching job; whereas, her mother is more irresolute. The daughter stays distrusting and resentful towards the missionaries after her experience at the boarding school, and her mother goes from hatred to belief to prayer to curses. She seems to sway from favoring and disliking Christianity, the same as Catharine in The Surrounded transforms from believer to dissenter.

Zitkala-Ŝa sees the church as a group of people who teach superstition as in “The Great Spirit”, she is visited by a converted tribe member who wishes that she would come to church. He tells her “these godly men taught me also the folly of our old beliefs” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 116) and he cites heaven and hell as rationale for believing. He is the epitome of one stripped of his own culture as he has bought in completely to the falseness of his own upbringing.

The Salish people, too, were stripped of their culture. Their old traditions were lost as the Catholic Church denounced their practices. Where they used to right their wrongs against a neighbor through a “whipping” practice, the Church substituted confession (McNickle, 50). Upon conversion, new laws were put into place and old laws were abolished, yet the new laws were not followed or endorsed. The next generation of Indians without the traditions and laws that kept them honorable fell into a lawless halfway point between old and new. Sloth, greed, chaos, and disobedience thrived. The system was purposely against the Indians and they had a “poor understanding of what was expected of them” (McNickle, 151). When stripped of their culture, they weren’t rebuilt enough in the white culture to have any hope of success. The Christian church took too much away that it couldn’t replace or replenish and the culture was left with a gap, a hole that stayed unfilled.

Naughty Children and School Children

The Christians’ methods for dealing with the Indians were like a teacher with a naughty or ignorant child. Aside from giving them enough education to be knowledgeable, but not enough to be useful, the Christians fed the Indians’ minds with skills that were untranslatable to their current situation. Domestic skills are not useful if one is going to live in a teepee. Blacksmithing is not useful on a reservation where there is no iron. A cruel trick seemed to be in place when the Indians were given education, but not enough of one. This limited education allows the Christians to treat the Indians like children and not like adults who are capable and have the tools to succeed. In Zitkala-Ŝa’s book, her brother, Dawée, is assimilated into the white culture. He is educated, dresses like a white person, speaks English well, and holds a job with the government. He has the skills to succeed in this case, but not the trust of his employers. When he speaks out about the plight of the Indians, he loses his job. “Dawée has not been able to make use of the education the Eastern school has given him” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 109). If he had the trust and respect of his colleagues and employers, then his speaking out would not have earned him the discipline of firing. In McNickle’s book, Father Grepilloux’s reading of the missionaries’ journals to Max show the viewpoint the Christians had of the Indians as children. Various entries show the missionaries misunderstanding the Salish culture and the Indian’s motivations and rationale. They are seen as ignorant children, treated as wayward children, and not educated enough to be anything more than kept as children.

The Indian children, on the other hand, were treated less like children than like prisoners in an internment camp. Misunderstandings led to terrorizing events. Entering the school, Zitkala-Ŝa feels her first moment of terror when a white woman treats her like a living doll and throws her in the air. This culture shock, if not avoided, could have been alleviated with some kind of mediation or explanation taking place shortly thereafter, but the missionary teachers have no inclination to learn the Indian languages to communicate with their charges and treat them more like their platoon subjects, holding them to strict routines. As the culture of the Indians is slowly stripped, the missionaries also introduced the children to the most frightening of Bible stories, scaring the children with stories of the devil. Zitkala-Ŝa is shown a picture of the devil. “I looked in horror…I trembled in awe, and my heart throbbed in my throat, as I looked at the king of evil spirits. Then I heard the paleface woman say that this terrible creature roamed loose in the world and that little girls who disobeyed school regulations were to be tortured by him” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 94). The missionaries put the fear of Satan into the students. Bad behavior isn’t just punished, but the Devil will hunt down the evildoer and torture him or her! Rather than the missionaries appealing to children’s desire to please and their logic, giving them rationale for why they should follow the rules, the missionaries rule over the children with fear.

Nightmares are all Zitkala-Ŝa suffers, but McNickle’s characters are not as fortunate. When Archilde’s nephews come home from school “something was wrong. Mike was quieter” (McNickle, 186) and he had no interest in his normal hell-raising activities. Mike comes home afraid of the dark, brooding, and full of shame. He wakes up the household with piercing screams that startle the family and send his brother Narcisse into a corner to hide. Mike is a bed wetter and has changed from fearless to fearful. It is unclear exactly what occurred at the school to terrorize him so, but the reader knows that he misbehaved at Communion and was taken to a small room with indeterminate things inside. Locked in all day to an unknown punishment, Mike awakens his peers with a screaming nightmare. “He had been placed in the infirmary and had talked to no one, but they knew that he had been visited by the Evil One” (McNickle, 191). Whatever the punishment, it was enough to transform this little boy into a scared bed wetter with unreasonable fears. Archilde describes his own school experience to “one liv(ing) in the perpetual tyranny of the life-everlasting” (McNickle, 100). And although he remembers negative occurrences in the school and fear being instilled in him, he is able to break free from the tenets and believe it as false theatre.

The Palefaces and the Road to Hell

The members of the Christian religion are viewed in an ambivalent light, however, for the most part, I will refer to them as well-intentioned persons gone astray. Zitkala-Ŝa’s perspective is slightly harsher than McNickle’s in her treatment of the church members. Zitkala-Ŝa refers to the Christian people in several different manners. The woman taking role in “Iron Routine” has eyes that “pried nervously around the room” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 96). The missionaries’ may have been a little fearful of the Indians, giving explanation for some of their cruelty. After all, to conquer one’s fear, one must learn to dominate and control, or put on a face of bravery to fool the opposition.

The Indian students were so regimented that they weren’t allowed to be sick, although, a girl too sick to get out of bed is cared for by one of the missionary women “who was cooling her swollen hands and feet” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 96). There is some compassion in these missionaries, but the fact that the sick girl is rambling about Jesus in her delirium is enough for Zitkala-Ŝa to damn the missionary woman and “blame[1] the hard-working, well-meaning, ignorant woman who was inculcating in our hearts her superstitious ideas” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 97). Not sharing the same faith as the missionaries, it is little wonder that Zitkala-Ŝa would not be sympathetic to their beliefs and feel scorn for those who call themselves Christians. Unfortunately, the Christians she has been exposed to have not exemplified the traits that Jesus himself did, and so their actions all too human and fallible are full of ignorance, misunderstandings, fear, and misguided intentions. In the chapter titled “Retrospection”, she shares about the Christians she meets when she becomes a teacher in the Indian school. Some were there for “self-preservation” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 111) rather than to educate the Indians. She illustrates how a paycheck and job security is the foundation for teaching rather than any altruistic calling to aid the Indians. Her school houses an opium addict, an insulting Indian hater, and whenever officials from Washington visit, the staff takes part in a deception, presenting contrived work to show the students’ progress. “I was ready to curse men of small capacity for being the dwarfs that God had made them” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 111). She blames God and religion for the human nature that causes so many mistakes and mistrust.

In a later statement, Zitkala-Ŝa reduces all white people to the same genre, saying that whether from the country or the city, “both sorts of Christian palefaces were alike” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 112). This is one statement that the other authors, McNickle especially, have disagreed on. In The Surrounded, Max peering out across the plains and reflecting on the whites and the Indians comes to the conclusion that neither side is all good or all bad and “that individuals varied exceedingly” (McNickle, 42). The relationships the authors have had with Christians, I can only hazard a guess, are the basis for which they write. Their experiences shape their perspectives and it seems that possibly Zitkala-Ŝa’s experience impacted her more powerfully than McNickle’s. In “The Great Spirit” essay, a confrontation with a converted tribal member brings to mind a critic who commented negatively on one of her writings. She calls the critic a “Christian pugilist” (Zitkala-Ŝa, 117), harsh language showing her lowered opinion of Christians.

In The Surrounded, the members of the Christian religion are guilty of viewing the Indians as incapable children and not giving them the necessary tools to survive and they are guilty of purposely feeding on the fears of the children to bring them to the Christian faith. Father Grepilloux, for all his good intentions in helping the Indians, views them as children as he shares with Max journals kept by the first missionaries. Even as he realizes that the Indians got the worse end of the bargain, he still can only say at least “they have God” (McNickle, 59). This is a prime example of recognizing a problem, yet doing nothing to relieve or solve it. Unfortunately, although some people find the Christian faith to be a comfort and provide hope, Christianity cannot put food on the table, fill stomachs, provide jobs and paychecks, give dignity and restore all that has been lost to the Indians. Grepilloux notices the poverty and desolation of the Indian, but his only help is intangible, and not the tangible assistance of food, jobs, and various aid needed. He is complacent and therefore, just as guilty as the white people who were seeking to obliterate the Indians. To paraphrase a quote from Elie Wiesel’s Night, if you see an injustice and stay silent, than you have aided and abetted that injustice, making you just as culpable. Grepilloux’s good intentions don’t make anything better.

Archilde’s experience with Christians presents a rather more drastic effect. While in school in Oregon, he wanders away from his duties to listen to one of the instructors teaching music. The response for shirking his duties is a beating and the humiliating name calling of “You little sneak! You lazybones! You numbskull! Damme! Where’ve you been?” (McNickle, 92). During that time period, corporal punishment was still in effect in schools and in many white families; however, the discipline meted out by Snodgrass veers towards abuse rather than a simple spanking. “He pulled his left ear, then his right ear, rapped his head with his knuckles, jerked him from place to place, slapped his hands down when he lifted them as a shield, pinched his arms” (McNickle, 97-98). Within the context of his school years, Archilde is fed through stories of miracles, fear-inducing discipline, and signs and wonders. The presentation the Christians indulge in convinces him that church is nothing more than “theater of movement and ceremony” (McNickle, 103). Seeing behind the scenes, some of the fear wells up in him. The stronghold of his education lasts through adulthood. “It was inexplicable, but the dread which had been instilled into the mind of the child never quite disappeared from the mind of the grown man” (McNickle, 106). A religion based on fear and discipline has no hopes of sustaining throughout someone’s life. If these Christian people had presented a more balanced look at the Christian faith with more compassion, love, and respect, maybe the authors’ perspectives would have been altered.

As trite as it is, the cliché about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is an exceedingly apt description of these missionaries. It is all well and good to share ones faith, but to the extent of making promises that cannot and/or won’t be fulfilled, stripping the culture and terrorizing the children, and behaving in a way that does not value the Indians, but rather treats them as children and savages is no way to engender oneself or one’s religion to an entire culture of people. Both authors had enough of a negative experience with the Christian religion to treat it as a foreign entity capable of destruction, disrespect, and disillusionment. Is it any wonder that their treatment of the tenets, methods, and people are biased negatively against Christianity?


[1] NB: The book says “blamed”, but I need the present tense for my verb agreement.

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    • DaisysJourney profile image
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      DaisysJourney 3 years ago from Midwest, USA

      SayYes, it is difficult to realize how unjust our nation has been to our Native American residents. My father has been researching our tribal history (we are Choctaw) and a college class ignited my own research into this and it is overwhelming to see how Christianity, missions, and the "white" culture has kept on cycling through generations of injustice with different minority groups. I also have 2 Native American friends, from the Mohawk tribe, whom I met in a summer program. One of them I was able to reconnect with via Facebook, but the other has dropped off the map and all I have heard is something about drugs and depression. It is very sad to see the long term affects our country's actions have caused...

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      This was difficult for me to read. A long time ago, I had a best friend who is Navajo, from Monument Valley. She had gone to a boarding school as a young child. I wish I'd known a lot more about Native Americans then. I would have made an effort of being a much better friend and influence than I was.

      I was fortunate to call and talk with her 2 years ago. For 3 hours, we rehashed memories. Her phone has since been disconnected, and I don't know how to reach her.

      Thanks for writing this article and revealing the underhandedness that goes on in politics regarding Native Americans.