SATURDAY READING: New Indigenous Forms Of Christian Healing by Amanda Porterfield

New Indigenous Forms Of Christian Healing by Amanda Porterfield

From: Healing in the History of Christianity

In some contrast to the de-emphasis on transcendence in some forms of social justice theology, many converts integrated Christianity with traditional values and customs with an ease that caught many Western missionaries by surprise, if they understood what was happening.  These new indigenous forms of Christianity often revolved around healing and incorporated miracles of healing into modern forms of social consciousness.  Christians in Africa, Latin America, eastern Europe, and Asia combined social visions of Christian healing with practices of spiritual healing derived, at least in part, from indigenous traditions.  And investment in indigenous forms of spiritual healing stimulated new interest in the miracles of Jesus, Mary, and the apostles and saints.

As the historian and missionary theologian, Andrew Walls, observed about African Christianity, this-worldly emphases in African traditions influenced the development of Christianity, as did African practices of ancestor veneration.  Walls acknowledged that Christian missionaries introduced major changes in African religious thought, such as new emphasis on God’s presence and importance in everyday life and a simpler, more dualistic understanding of spiritual forces locked in combat between good and evil.  Missionaries also introduced Biblical stories about Israel, as well as about Christ as savior and inaugurator of a new Israel.  These themes became intertwined with African symbols, stories, and healing practices to produce expressions of Christianity that differed from Western forms.  This intertwining reflected Christianity’s capacity for adaption to different cultures as well as the continuing power of African traditions.  Belief in God’s incarnation in human form and the Bible’s validity in many different languages encouraged such adaptation, Walls argued, and helped to explain the tendencies of Christian converts to recognize their own deities in Biblical stories.  Thus, “all over sub-Saharan Africa,” Walls observed, “the Christian God is known by vernacular names.  The relationship between Africa’s old religion and its new one is cemented in the conventions of speech.”

Interplay between Christianity and indigenous religions occurred in the context of the revolutionary social and cultural changes Western expansion brought to virtually all regions of the world, including the development of market economies, the breakdown of traditional kinship structures, and the emergence of modern forms of individualism.  People turned to religion to manage these forces.  In many cases, religion served as a means of negotiating social change and exercising some control over it.  In this context, healing came to the fore, both as a means of coping with the suffering produced by social change and as a means of constructing new visions of society that would enable people to be healthier and more productive.

A sense of living connection to the healing miracles of Jesus and the apostles has been vital to Christianity’s reception in many places.  The emergence of Pentecostalism as a worldwide movement affirmed that miracles of healing rained down on God’s people in the midst of secularized societies.  And in many parts of the world, the healing miracles celebrated by Pentecostals offered continuity with traditional forms of religious healing, even as they addressed modern forms of social stress and alienation.  People highly conscious of the political and economic pressures of modernization, eager to bring elements of traditional religious healing forward to meet these pressures, embraced the healing miracles of Jesus and affirmed their reappearance in the modern world.

Before the development of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century, forces leading toward a modern revitalization of Christian healing were already in play.  As early as the sixteenth century, encounters with Christian missionaries in colonial situations politicized religious life and led to new religious movement in which miracles of healing supported resistance against social injustice.

Missionary Influence in American Indian Religious Movements

The arrival of Jesuit, Franciscan, Recollet, and Ursuline missionaries in North America coincided with the rampant spread of a variety of deadly new diseases and contributed to the destruction of traditional structures of authority, kinship, economic production, and social interaction.  Some American Indians feared Roman Catholic priests as carriers of disease, and not without reason, as the arrival of one tended to accompany the onset of the other.  As in the past, missionaries promoted Christianity as a religion in which human suffering carried redemptive value.  But unlike the emissaries of Christianity in medieval Europe, those in sixteenth-century North America encountered tremendous anxiety about Christianity’s malevolent power, as well as interest in its message of salvation and healing.  Thus, even in the sixteenth century, when Roman Catholic missionaries expressed beliefs about the reality of spiritual healing similar to those of the Native Americans they hoped to convert, the cultural disturbance associated with Christian conversion was profound.

The death toll among North American Indians from smallpox, influenza, measles, and other European diseases far exceeded deaths from battle or military conquest, and this drastic decline in native populations expedited conquest and also heightened anxiety about witchcraft.  In the territory French explorers claimed as New France, Huron and Iroquois Indians initially viewed Jesuits as healers, and Jesuit records from the 1630s include a number of accounts of healings attributed to priests and their sacred rites and objects.  One priest’s application of holy water caused a blind man to see, and another’s presentation of a picture of Jesus cured a woman of severe abdominal pains.  The Jesuits encouraged belief that baptism could heal and protect people from disease and went along with the idea that the sugar and raisins they dispensed had curative power.  But the hope people initially invested in these priests and their rituals and material objects soon evaporated as epidemics of smallpox and other diseases took their toll, reducing the population of Huron and Iroquois by half between 1634 and 1645 and raising suspicion that Jesuits were witches who inflicted disease.  Many Indians who had accepted baptism renounced it and returned to traditional healers.  Meanwhile, Jesuits were attacked, threatened, and forced into hiding.  One historian argued that the whole community of Jesuits in New France escaped massacre only because Huron and Iroquois entrepreneurs feared that such retaliation would diminish their trade with the French.  In one incident, a young man attacked a priest entering his village and was about to dispatch him with a hatchet when a woman intervened and begged him to stop.  The man let the priest go, took his crucifix, and then agreed to return it on the condition that Jesuits stop the smallpox.

As the Jesuits quickly discovered, Huron and Iroquois took dreams very seriously, regarding them as messages from the spirit world.  In ritual practices that affirmed the importance of individual experience for the group as well as for the individual dreamer, some dreams required communal guessing, ritual enactment, and gift giving.  The Jesuits discouraged these dream rituals (unless visions of Mary and Jesus were involved), as they did healing dances and recourse to shamans for healing cures.  But investment in all these practices intensified as suspicions about the Jesuits mounted.  In one Huron village, a man dreamed that the Creator told him the Jesuits would not be satisfied until every Huron had died.  After discussion in the village council, villagers gathered to guess the dream and to drink from a kettle of ritually purified water as an antidote to the baptismal rite that Jesuits performed.  In a similar reflection of fear of Christianity, a report circulated about a Huron woman who had returned from the dead to warn that the French guarded Heaven.  Indians were not admitted to the privileges of Heaven, the woman reported, but were held as prisoners of war there.  The souls of Indians fortunate enough to have escaped baptism lived happily in another part of the spirit world.

Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) represents a more positive appreciation of Christianity that inspires both Jesuits and Native American Roman Catholics today as a symbol of social unity as well as personal piety and healing power.  Born of an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father, Kateri was crippled, disfigured, and partly blinded in an outbreak of smallpox that killed her parents when she was a child.  Under the tutelage of Jesuits and hospital nuns, she converted to Roman Catholicism and became an ascetic famous for flagellating herself, consuming sand and glass, walking barefoot in winter, and devoting herself to acts of charity.  As historian Christopher Vecsey and other have pointed out, Kateri’s celibacy, extreme piety, and willingness to suffer not only demonstrated her devotion to the Blessed Virgin of Roman Catholic Christianity, but also carried forward an older Iroquois practice of young women withdrawing from society to gather the spiritual power of virginity for the welfare of the community.  In addition to revitalizing this traditional practice, Kateri came to be seen, in her disfigured and suffering body, as a powerful symbol of the plight of her people.  In her application of suffering toward spiritual and charitable ends, she represented the heroism of her people, as well as the Virgin’s powerful sorrow for the sufferings of her son.

Since her beatification in 1980, Kateri “has virtually been adopted by all Native Americans throughout the country,” according to Bishop Donald E. Pelotte.  “There are very few reservations where they don’t have her picture.”  While many await a final miracle to qualify her for official canonization as a saint, some claim that a miracle of a certain sort has already been achieved.  “It is the spirit of unification that has been growing among the various Native American nations since Kateri’s beautification,” a spokesman for the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions explained.  “There has been ‘a healing effect,’” according to Monsignor Lenz, “that has brought many tribes to work and pray together, despite past problems.”

Although many Native Americans embraced Christianity, others resisted it even as they borrowed elements for indigenous movements of religious and cultural revitalization.  In what some historians view as a parallel tradition to Christianity, Iroquois people told the story of a great peacemaker, born to a virgin mother, who sailed across the lakes in a white stone canoe, bringing peace to the warring Iroquois tribes.  Many Iroquois preferred this Christ-like hero of their own, named Dekanawidah, to the European God whose power they feared and whose people seemed as often vicious and harmful as not.  The story of Dekanawidah developed in conjunction with a rite of condolence, in which clan leaders from different Iroquois tribes gathered after the death of a chief to express their solidarity and swear off blood revenge among them.  This ceremony became the ritual centerpiece of the Iroquois confederacy, which maintained strong military and political forces in North America until the end of the French and Indian wars in 1763 and the War of American Independence, when the Americans defeated the Iroquois who fought with the British and absorbed considerable portions of Iroquois land.

Despite their formidable presence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by the turn of the nineteenth century, the Iroquois had lost most of their farmland and hunting ground to the Americans, and their Confederacy lay in a shambles.  Amid these demoralized, impoverished, and disease-stricken people, the prophet Handsome Lake (c. 1745-1815) emerged with visions of Heaven and hell similar to those of American Protestants who had moved into Iroquois territory.  Handsome Lake’s visions reflect both the influence of Christianity and Western culture and resistance to them, as well as strong elements of continuity with indigenous tradition.

In his visions, Handsome Lake encountered two roads in the spirit world, one leading to the house where Indians who succumbed to the vices of the white man were punished for their sins, and the other to a land of abundant fields and streams where faithful Indians lived in robust health.  On the road to the Heavenly place, Handsome Lake met Jesus, who showed him his wounds.  Jesus encouraged Handsome Lake on his way, saying he hoped the Iroquois people would treat their prophet better than Christians had treated him.  Handsome Lake also received a set of moral commandments from the Creator, parallel to those Moses received, to guide his people along the right road.  This Code of Handsome Lake known as Gai’wiio or “The Good Message,” established behavioral guidelines similar to those promoted by Protestant evangelicals but distinctive in ways that facilitated independent identity.

The religion of Handsome Lake is one example of traditional religion that incorporated certain aspects of Christian healing while recognizing the maintenance of traditional identity as a political necessity as well as religious good.  Christian conceptions of sin and connections between sin and sickness on one hand, and renunciation of sin and recovery of health on the other, led to regimens for pulling communities together as well as explanations of what had gone wrong.  If emphasis on sin blamed victims for their miseries, it also made them agents of their own fate, with power to set things right.

One of the most important of all North American Indian prophets was Wovoka (c. 1875-1932), a Paiute Indian from Nevada whose response to the predicament of Western Indians in the late nineteenth century led him to a new vision of Heaven and Earth related to Christianity.  Like the religion of Handsome Lake, the Ghost Dance founded by Wovoka incorporated aspects of Christian healing within a new religious movement that encouraged Native identity in the context of Western culture.  Along with a moral code similar to that of evangelical Protestantism, the Ghost Dance promoted images of community renewal that derived, in part, from Biblical stories of God’s restoration of health and fecundity to Israel in response to her repentance and faith.  Known to the Presbyterian family for whom he worked as Jack Wilson, Wovoka saw Heaven revealed and Indians there restored to health.  He saw whites in Heaven, too, although his vision gave priority to Indians as resurrected saints.  In a message of accommodation, he preached that Indians should get along with whites, and work for them.  At the same time, he recognized both the spiritual status and the political rights of Indians and drew parallels between Native people in the West and Americans in the East, and between his authority and that of the President of the United States.

Wovoka traveled to disseminate his message and received Ute, Shoshone, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Sioux, Bannock, and Mohave delegations at his home in Nevada.  His services as a healer were constantly in demand and, in addition to his personal ministrations to the sick and wounded, he sent out paint, feathers, clothes, and other material objects imbued with protective and healing powers through the mails.  Most important, he officiated at the ceremony from which his religious movement derived its name.  In a circle dance, sometimes with himself seated at the center, some participants fell to the ground and experienced visions of their deceased relatives in Heaven.

The Ghost Dance religion took on a more militant cast as it spread among Plains Indians known for their bravery in war, especially the Sioux.  Many of these Indians were penned up on reservations and prey to a variety of ills, including malnutrition, tuberculosis, alcoholism, grief, and despair.  When Sitting Bull and other war heroes on the Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge got involved, and some of the men took to wearing Ghost shirts depicting their visions, said to protect them from bullets, the U. S. Army became alarmed at the possibility of an armed uprising.  In 1893, amid provocation and panic on both sides, the soldiers opened fire on an encampment of Sioux families at Wounded Knee, killing 146 Sioux, including forty-four women and eighteen small children.  As a result of this tragedy, the Ghost Dance lost much of its appeal as a means of salvation.

With different outcomes, Nick Black Elk (1866-1950) articulated a vision of world healing that inspired many different people across North America and beyond.  An Oglala Sioux holy man and, during part of his life, a Roman Catholic catechist, Black Elk went further than earlier prophets in affirming Christian beliefs and in explaining Native American spirituality to a larger American and European audience.  He developed the implications of Native American healing with reference to Christian expectations of world renewal, making Native people exemplars of spiritual life.  Perhaps with images of Christ’s suffering and that of earlier saints in mind, he suggested that the sufferings endured by Native Americans inspired religious feeling in others and called attention to the humanity of people in pain.  For Black Elk, Native American spirituality amplified the meaning of Christianity and carried transformational, redemptive implications for the whole world.

In addition to his efforts to expand the meaning of Christianity in light of Native American experience, Black Elk lead the way in reconstructing traditional Oglala rites in response to the new demands for healing that reflected new social difficulties and political challenges.  As a leader of the Sun Dance revival on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Black Elk helped to transform an outmoded ritual of empowerment for free-riding hunters and warriors into a more relevant ritual of healing for people caught up in the disempowerment and suffering of modern Indian life.  In the Sun Dance that Black Elk helped to recreate, individuals found help with alcoholism and other forms of disease, failure, and misfortune.  They also found well-being through identification with a traditional religious community, as did the family members and friends who gathered to support them.  In its previous manifestation, the primary function of the Sun Dance was to imbue hunters and warriors with spiritual strength.  But it had always involved healing, both in various forms of shamanic doctoring that took place during the summer gathering and in thanksgiving to the spirits for cures that had occurred during the year.

In the new Sun Dance that Black Elk helped to recreate, healing moved even more to the fore.  The old association between valor in warfare and stoic endurance of ritually inflicted pain became recast in a modern ceremony of personal and cultural redemption that culminated in flesh cutting and piercing.  Christianity contributed to this transformation, at least indirectly.  Most of the participants in the new Sun Dance were baptized Christians who embraced the Christian ideas about redemptive suffering, even as they also respected the existence and powers of traditional spirits.  Flesh cutting and piercing evoked the crucifixion of Christ as well as the bravery of Native people and created a tacit link between their sufferings and the redemptive suffering of Christ.  At the same time, the Sun Dance maintained the integrity of the Oglala religion and its importance as a source of healing as well as of ethnic identity and pride.

With the help of American editors whose reputations rose with his, Black Elk conveyed his sense of the resonance between Christianity and Native American spirituality to a broader world.  In a vision inspired both by the Biblical book of Revelation and by traditional Native American visions of the spirit world, Black Elk Speaks described horses thundering in from four directions to signal the convergence of spiritual forces in response to the tragic defeats of the Sioux people.  A subsequent work, The Sacred Pipe, laid out the meaning and therapeutic benefits of the seven rituals sacred to Oglala Sioux, much as a catechism might introduce readers to the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.  For example, the purifying and redemptive effects of the sweat lodge ceremony paralleled the mystical, transforming, and cleansing power of Christ in baptism, repentance, and the Eucharist.  “When we use the water in the sweat lodge,” Black Elk explained in The Sacred Pipe, “we should think of Wakan-Tanka who is always flowing, giving his power and life to everything; we should even be as water which is lower than all things, yet stronger even than the rocks.”

In prescribing the Earth-oriented spirituality of Native Americans as a supplement to the truths of Christianity and an antidote for the ills associated with the arrogance, greed, and destructiveness of Western culture, Black Elk spoke both as a Christian thinker and as a spokesman for Native American spirituality.  “We should understand well,” Black Elk told his readers in the foreword to The Sacred Pipe, “that all things are the works of the Great Spirit.”  Christians had much to learn from Native Americans about this all-powerful, ever-present Creator, as well as having something to give, Black Elk asserted: “We should know that he is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that he is also above all these things and peoples.”  Once people realized that the transcendent Creator described in the Bible was the same Great Spirit that Native peoples experienced in nature, they would live in better harmony with each other and with the Earth: “When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as he intends.”

In these proclamations, Black Elk carried the ideas of earlier prophets to a new conclusion.  Like Handsome Lake and Wovoka, he was sensitive to the political baggage associated with the religion of those who subjugated Indian people and ruined their cultures.  Like Handsome Lake and Wovoka, he incorporated healing and redemptive elements of Christianity into a reconstruction of traditional religion geared to meet the challenge of modernization while preserving Native culture.  But Black Elk went beyond other prophets in developing the resonance between the sufferings of his people and those of Christ, and in suggesting that the religious traditions of Native people might help save the whole world.  He cast Native Americans as suffering messiahs in a cosmic drama of fall and redemption and as historical people whose understanding of the spiritual powers of nature was an antidote to the ills of a fallen world dominated by Western materialism.  In this creative reinterpretation of Christian history, Black Elk extended the meaning of Christian healing to include environmental and political concerns, with the understanding that these concerns were as much a matter of salvation from sin for Euro-Americans as they were a means of justice, empowerment, and healing for Indians.

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