Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape.
A new phase of Native American studies is coming into its own, enriching and expanding our perspective on native relationships with Christianity past and present. The old pervasive stereotype held, in general terms, that New World converts made a deliberate decision to abandon their indigenous culture and adopt fresh beliefs and behavioral norms derived from Euro-American standards. For at least the past decade, studies have emerged to point out that native converts did not endure an either/or transition but rather created new cultural amalgams that preserved a strong residuum of traditional identities and blended with them many aspects of Christianity in creatively syncretistic ways. This outstanding collection of twelve essays constitutes models of the new perspective. Each essay has intrinsic merit, based on more discerning use of evidence. But the whole assemblage is greater than the sum of its parts, and readers have the two editors to thank for their deliberate and inspired arrangement of topics and time periods, adding the force of cumulative voices to the importance of revised thinking in this field.
There are several familiar topics plus new ones offered for consideration in this collection of essays. The first topic features the thought and action of Samson Occom, a central but unappreciated Mohegan minister in eighteenth-century missions. Another probes the daunting problems involved with reconstructing shattered pieces of native life after King Philip's war. Then, in a promising entry, we are led to focus on events in 1740 New England with attendant questions of native resistance to, and acculturation within, white society. Cherokees have long been known for their adaptability, and we learn even more about this group within the context of several American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) missionaries and their support for indigenous cultural ends and independent political status. Another familiar figure is French Jesuit Jean de Brebeuf, and here one gains further knowledge about questions regarding his sainthood and advocacy of Huron autonomy. An additional dividend points to the role of the rosary in both Christian and indigenous religious practices. Another thoughtful piece focuses on native men (and women!) in early generations, inquiring into the degree to which literacy provided a means for natives to preserve their precontact ethos, reinvent themselves, and challenge missionaries' long-range expectations. Penultimately, we obtain much pertinent information about cross-cultural exchanges by highlighting an early nineteenth-century Mahican who challenged the predominate racial thinking of his day. Then finally, coming full circle, we acquire new data about the New England native refugee communities of Brotherton and Stockbridge, which were forced to remove to Oneida territory in New York State.
These splendid essays are not intentionally revisionist simply because the authors wish to embrace innovation for its own sake, preferring controversy to conformity. Rather, they break new ground because they are the product of serious, insightful, and well-grounded scholarship which just happens to revise old conclusions. They are based on careful assessments of previously overlooked material, and in these fresh insights they provide more careful assessments of activities in heretofore neglected cross-cultural perspectives. Each of these cutting-edge studies contains important lessons about the social processes of accommodation and perseverance. Many of their idiosyncratic features will remain "case specific," but since modern scholarship inevitably tries to formulate new interpretive paradigms, our collective body of knowledge will gradually develop more inclusive and integrated historical perspectives as well. Both views are compatible and welcome.
Henry Warner Bowden
Rutgers University, Emeritus
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|Author:||Bowden, Henry Warner|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2011|
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