Sunday, April 23, 2006

what canst thou DO?

Today I was reading a book for church history class called "You Have Stept Out of Your Place: A History of Women and Religion in America." A chapter I read today was about Native American women in the nineteenth century, and about the women who went to them as missionaries.

As I wrote about a little bit in my post on missions, often Christianity was so associated with "civilization," i.e. white Western culture, that missionaries ended up being more imperialists than anything religious. That was also the case a lot of times in missions to Native Americans. White women felt that converting Native American women to Christianity and to Western ways would elevate their status and give them more freedom. So to become a Christian meant to give up all their ways, take on the traditional gender roles of Western culture, change your main language and style of dress, and for women, to learn Western ways of keeping house and raising a family. Young girls were put in boarding schools so they would be kept away from their families and tribes and not have the "bad" influence of their culture.

The way we treated Native Americans is a huge dark spot on white Westerners' reputation. I'm not sure which was worse--the way they treated black slaves or Native Americans. To some degree, they treated black slaves better: they kept them in their communities and wanted them to live. At least they understood the humanity of Native Americans enough to realize they posed a threat, and they respected that personhood enough to know they had to kill them in order to take their land. But both ways were horrible.

It's hard now to know what to do about all that. I mean, we can say we're sorry, we can try to be more sensitive with other cultures in the future, we can do all we want to make sure various racial and ethnic groups are treated fairly in our nation now--but how much do these things really matter in the face of the fact that we destroyed many, many Native American cultures and decimated the ties of so many African Americans to their native land? We shouldn't be held responsible for the faults of our ancestors, but at the same time, in recognition of the pain and destruction that happened, and the fact that we are still benefitting from what slavery accomplished and from the land that was stolen, what can we do? It's impractical to think of giving all this land back. We certainly can't give lives back, and we can't bring back the habitat--the animals, the trees, the clean rivers--that we've destroyed.

But it seems that these people should receive some repayment...

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