It wasn’t until I was ten or eleven when I stopped daydreaming I was a white kid. I have always been aware of my tan skin, but I haven’t always understood my tan skin as evidence of my Cherokee heritage. I had always thought I was just a really tan white kid and that some day I’d revert back to that white skin and start to match the kid I daydreamed myself to be.
That day will never come.
Doing my master’s thesis on Native American Christologies brought about a ton of challenges. (Re-)Learning the history of the relationship between American Indians and the U.S., deciphering where within postcolonial studies such a project fits despite there being nothing “post” about colonialism to Indigenous contexts, etc., etc. While academic challenges stretched my mind, emotional challenges made the project seem unbearable.
With nearly every page of material I read, I could see a connection between myself and colonialism. I could see exactly how my father’s parents were ripped from their traditions when they were probably sent to boarding schools, and how this left my father devoid of direction and a sense of responsibility. I could see how he was deprived of traditional values, which led to him feeling wayward. I could see why he chose to get high and steal. And I could see how this painful history was almost completely erased my identity when I was incorrectly labeled “white.”
Talking about Indigenous studies of almost any kind (theological, anthropological – though for me there really isn’t a separation) has become incredibly personal. Not only does it re-open wounds I had thought were healed, but it brings about a direct indictment of my Christian faith. Christianity played a major role in the dehumanization of countless tribes in both the U.S. and Canada (as well as other continents wherein indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their families and sacred land – sound familiar?). And sure, as many white Christians like to chime in, modern day Christians had nothing to do with that, so why bother bringing it up? Believe it or not, this question has come my way plenty of times. Answering it has often been frustrating and painful because a single answer does not do this topic justice. But here are a few of my reasons:
I bring it up because Christian missionaries were often the agents acting on behalf of the state to delegitimize Indigenous religious practices – leading to genocide of both life and culture.
I bring it up because Christianity’s marriage to colonialism orphaned countless Indian kids like me, forcing us to grow up without knowing one or both of our parents.
I bring it up because I am so sick and tired of being referenced to passages in the bible about forgiveness and loving one’s enemy, but not to the points where Jesus is directly addressing what we would call systemic racism.
I bring it up because I have never encountered such opposition as when I started posting and sharing things online that discuss race and police brutality – and that the predominant group of people hopping into my mentions and comment sections were white, Christian men.
I bring it up because I am so painfully exhausted that so many white Christians believe the Logos has only enlightened Christians rather than everyone, as John 1:9 tells us. This means that traditional Native stories that are often written off as “myths” (which depends on a skewed definition of “myth”) are actually speaking of the Creator.
I bring this all up because past pain has present realities.
If we wish to understand why there are states of emergency being declared among the First Nations of Canada, why countless tribes like the Navajo people are having their culture appropriated and ripped from them with no share in the profits, or why countless reservations are experiencing worse water conditions than Flint, Michigan (another example of systemic racism at work, considering Flint’s demographics) – we better understand how whiteness has manipulated the brown-skinned Jesus of Nazareth to justify mass destruction.
And we better not listen to white voices to learn these realities either. That only perpetuates the problem. Many whites have counter-argued that listening to only Native voices is “biased” and we should strive for objectivity. But those who make this argument don’t understand that their perspective has been socialized just as much as any Indigenous perspective – the only difference being their white opinion in a white-dominant society is treated as the “norm.” There is no such thing as true objectivity.
The near genocide of both Native peoples and cultures has led me to where I am now: only knowing half of my heritage. Unlike my white friends and family, I have to learn about my other heritage from books – which is antithetical to Indigenous world views because the written word is not trustworthy. In a manner of speaking, this process has been a rezurrection of sorts; bringing back to life Keetoowah traditions and values that were once dead to me.
And like blood returning to an uncirculated limb or oxygen to a constricted lung, the process has been painful.
Christianity often portrays Jesus’s resurrection as devoid of pain and understandably so – there is no play-by-play of Jesus coming out of the grave in Scripture. But after this experience of re-engaging Native traditions and values, it makes me wonder if, perhaps, it was a painful experience for Jesus, too. It makes me wonder that in the act of returning to his Creator nature, the knowledge of the events that would take place “in his name” brought him again to his knees, pleading that this cup of suffering would pass over him. Yes, his resurrection was and is glorious, but that does not necessarily mean it did not hurt.
Seeing Jesus through these new lenses of American Indian traditions and stories has been painful because of the realities they bring. But it doesn’t mean they are devoid of hope and healing. It simply means I am free to daydream as a Cherokee descendant, as I truly am.
It means I am free to be brown-skinned and normal.
 See “the Good Samaritan.”
 My advisor, Randy Woodley, is the only Keetoowah (“Cherokee”) I have ever met who has guided me through a lot of Keetoowah history and traditions. For 26 years of my life, I had to read books to find out about my heritage.
 Many Indigenous folks talk about “life on the rez,” so this spelling is intentional.