On Being a “Half-breed” Seminarian…

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Courtyard at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon.

A chill went through my spine as I heard several tribal songs yesterday morning at an event at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland. It was a Collins Lecture on “The Gospel of Conquest” with several Native speakers: George “Tink” Tinker (Osage Nation), Robert J. Miller (Eastern Shawnee), and Kim Recalma-Clutesi (Kwagiulth/Pentlatch). Since I had to be in Newberg for a Hebrew class by 6pm, I could only stay for the first two lectures by George and Robert. But I am glad that I did. I had never imagined that I would ever hear traditional tribal songs in church.

On my way home, I started thinking of how I had never expected to be studying just as much about Indigenous spirituality as I am Christian theology. Nor did I ever expect, when I left Eugene, to even meet a Native American professor teaching at a seminary. But yet here I am on the eve of turning in a writing sample of my thesis on Native Christologies, which will be turned in to the very same Native professor, Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee).

Back in March, when I had first started to consider potential thesis topics, I had a different idea in mind than studying Native Christologies. I had more of a desire to study Native theology more broadly or maybe study the book of Joshua from the postcolonial[1] perspective of Native peoples. Whichever topic I would decide to pursue, though, I knew that it would be an extremely personal endeavor. I knew that I would be unraveling my previous way of understanding my identity as I studied more on Native traditions, history, and spirituality.

My Cherokee half is the half that I have had to study on my own throughout my entire life. Since I have never known my Cherokee father, I have had to lean on white historians and euro-centric textbooks to teach me. You can probably see why this might be problematic.

In college I got a different look at Native identity. I took a Native American literature class and we read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo). It was the first time I learned about “half-breeds” from a non-white perspective. There was a great amount that I could finally identify with.

But the bridge between Native American literature to Christian theology was never really envisioned for me. Although my church settings had never dealt with Native teachings directly, there was always the assumption that because they were not “sound doctrine,” they were not worth looking into – certainly not worth joining any local Native community.

Yet as I have studied Native traditions and as I have considered the world these Native authors describe, I see a world more suitable for Christianity than the West will ever be able to establish. Why do I think this way? While I’m saving the longer discussions for my thesis, there are three areas in Western Christianity that are significantly different in Native spirituality.

Material-based.

Western culture in general is obsessed with material goods – clothes, technology, buildings, cars, etc. And Western Christianity doesn’t really shy away from this. Consider the places of worship for a minute: usually a nicely designed and decorated worship hall, maybe some professional stage lighting with a sweet stereo system, and probably either a couple of giant TV screens or projector screens to display the PowerPoint slides that go along with the sermon (and the handouts). Native places of worship involve very little – if any – human-created things. In the sweat lodges I have experienced, the only materials were the tarps that covered over the branches that connect to create the dome of the lodge with a few mats on the inside for people to sit on. Apart from those, there was nothing else. It was people, songs and prayers, and the earth.[2]

Text based.

Following along with the material focus, much of our Western world is text-based. Something that is written down has more authority in day-to-day life than something that is spoken. When we buy something, we receive a receipt to prove that we purchased that item. And yes this plays a major factor in land claims, which still happen today![3] When disputes arise, the U.S. points to the written contracts as official, mutually binding laws. But many Native traditions see written words as even more untrustworthy than spoken words. Spoken words demand relationship. Spoken words demand that the other listens – and not listen solely for the purpose of responding. When it comes to Christianity, especially Protestantism, our worship revolves around the Bible. This is precisely what “authority of Scripture” even means: that it is binding for our lives as we follow God. Native traditions involve something much more intimate, much more communal, and much more heart-driven (rather than doctrine-driven).

Celebration of diversity.

And the mention of doctrines leads to the third, but certainly not the final point: Western Christianity, being a product of Western culture, is inherently hegemonic. Western culture sees itself as inherently superior to all other cultures. In the wars that the U.S. has fought in the Middle East, part of the narrative was that we were spreading the gospel of democracy – as if our country did not experience comparable problems to those of the Middle East (they may have ISIS and Boko Haram, but we have Neo-Nazis and the KKK; there isn’t much of a difference). Western Christianity follows a similar path. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of denominations in Christianity and most of which were formed because someone somewhere disagreed with someone else and started their own church. But in Native traditions, diverse ways of understanding the world are actually expected. So something like creation narratives are going to differ – not unlike the two creation stories in Genesis.

Take all of this as you will, but over the last five or six years, Western Christianity has really exhausted my faith because of all these issues. Some church worship services are little different than concerts. Some discussions about the Bible only serve the purpose of proving someone else wrong. And some communities are so uniform both theologically and demographically speaking that I oftentimes do not feel welcomed simply by having brown skin and believing the Bible to be imperfect. In a way, this exploration into the other half of my heritage has saved and healed the half I grew up with.

So in a way, this seminary exploration is not at all what I had intended, but precisely what I needed.

Ah-ho.

[1] George Tinker joked about this word during his talk. He said, “When someone says ‘postcolonial,’ Natives say ‘When did it end?’”

[2] Powwows are worth mentioning here simply because they have the appearance of being material-based. But they really aren’t, at least not in the way Western culture is. Everything that Natives wear and use in Powwows is made from Natives themselves; not store bought from somewhere else. It is either that or they are handed down from generation to generation, which doesn’t really happen much in Western culture. But I have only been to one Powwow, so there are certainly other voices who could speak more accurately to how they function.

[3] Both Robert Miller and George Tinker shared with us that all U.S. laws pertaining to property rights are based upon the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the ridiculous belief that Europeans “discovered” the continents of North and South America before the Natives did (and thereby set the precedent for whoever “discovers” and then occupies a land gets to keep that land). Even right now, there are tribes that are still fighting both the U.S. government and the Canadian government for land disputes.

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Jeremy

Cherokee / Whovian / Sherlockian / Aspiring Auror / Lover of Jesus, Scripture, and creativity / MATS Student at George Fox Seminary.

One thought on “On Being a “Half-breed” Seminarian…”

  1. This was a great read, Jeremy-definitely enlightening! I especially enjoyed learning that it is native tradition to expect diversity (of thought). The only thing I have to say is that I wouldn’t compare today’s KKK to today’s ISIS (I would definitely compare the KKK of the past to the ISIS of today).

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