Discovering Europeans: Indian Religious Responses

Rachel Knecht

The past fifty years have seen a complete about-face in the way we discuss Native American history. The bibliography below includes one book from the “bad old days” of colonial history: Alden Vaughn’s The New England Frontier, from 1965. Vaughn’s book falls toward the end of the scholarly tradition of seeing European colonists as bringing civilization to an uncharted wilderness. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, as a result of changes in history departments in American universities, as well as political events such as the American Indian Movement and the U.S. war in Vietnam, a new wave of scholars took this paradigm to task. Among the vanguard of this pushback was Francis Jennings, with his Invasion of America. Jennings cast the story of colonial North America as one of conquest and invasion, and he includes Christian missions as part of the story of European domination over Native peoples.

For the next fifteen or twenty years, there was a sense among scholars of Native American history that, while this sympathetic approach was a more correct way of understanding the past, those historians who worked on it were considered a little strange. As a result, many felt marginalized, ignored by “regular” colonial American historians. Since the mid-1990s, these two sides have integrated more successfully. Nevertheless, the proper way to write Native American history is perennially controversial, and historians are always conscious of its pitfalls. The “new Indian history” of the past ten years or so comprises a few important themes, which the bibliography below attempts to highlight. These books do not, in any way, present a comprehensive overview of Native American history, but instead deal primarily with religious encounters.

The first major theme that appears throughout these books is that of conversion to Christianity. Almost all of them deal with it in one form or another, even if they do not thoroughly investigate it. Historiographical debates over how best to discuss conversion are ongoing, because the process, and even the meaning of the word, is so fraught. The second key idea that emerges is that of lived religion and everyday practices, rather than doctrine. A focus on lived religion links historians talking about different places, times, cultures across the Americas. Finally, the third and most recent trend is an emphasis on Native-written text. Historians of colonial America have tended, by necessity, to privilege sources written by European white settlers. Nevertheless, recent historians, particularly those with a background in literary studies or in anthropology, have tried to bring Native-produced texts and materials to the fore as best they can.

In addition, some of the books address the idea, which is good in theory although perhaps harder to execute, that cultural interaction is a two-way street. These books try to suggest that European colonists’ culture was very much affected by their interaction with Native people. Others reflect an increasing effort among historians not end their stories in the eighteenth century, but to address the nineteenth, twentieth, or even twenty-first, in a last chapter or epilogue. Historians, particularly of Native people in the eastern United States or Canada, have recognized the problems of the “disappearance” narrative; while it originally came to the fore as part of the more sympathetic Native American history, it ignores the realities of life for Native people who actually remained.

Colonial North America and the United States

Comparative Studies & Collections

Axtell, James (ed.). After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Axtell’s collection of essays deal with cultural interaction of Native peoples and European colonists, with five chapters focusing on English and French missions in North America. An essay, “Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?” is also included, which argues against the historical narrative that Native conversion was superficial and done only under duress. Axtell argues that individual emotional or intellectual experiences were far more important.

Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Among the early histories of Native Americans with a new and sympathetic focus on Natives rather than colonizers, Bowden’s work calls attention the “neglected” religious aspect of Native-European encounters in English, French, and Spanish North America. He casts a broad scope, but still focuses on individual stories. He addresses the different empires in the 17th century, and then runs through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries in the United States.

Martin, Joel W. The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Martin lays out the cultural-religious pluralism of various, though far from all, Native groups in North America, and then incorporates the impact of Christianity in Chapter Three, transitioning to the colonial and then post-colonial periods. In keeping with the new wave of Indian history, he takes Native Christians seriously, considering cases of both forced and voluntary conversion. He also follows the story into the twentieth century, combatting the narrative of the “disappearance” of Native Americans.

Martin, Joel W. and Mark A. Nicholas (eds.). Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

This collection of essays is a good overview of the “new Indian history” in North America, with a cross-disciplinary emphasis. The essays focus on putting Native people at the center of the analysis; identifying and analyzing “lived” or “practicing” religion; and emphasizing the writings of Native American converts, in part to combat the necessity of difference and the ingrained theme of whiteness as a deathly threat to fragile Native cultures.

Pointer, Richard W. Encounters of the Spirit: Native Americans and European Colonial Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Pointer focuses on the ways that Native Americans made European colonizers rethink their own religious identity, thereby reshaping North American Protestantism, although he admits these changes were not widespread or truly lasting in either high theology or religious institutions. Instead, he focuses on the daily practices of colonial communities across North America and discusses Native peoples’ impact on Euro-American religious life.

Weaver, Jace (ed.). Native American Religious Identity: Unforgotten Gods. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998.

This collection of fifteen essays, all by Native American scholars, seeks to describe and rescue a variety of religious practices, and interactions with colonial Christianity, among Native people across the Americas. Although incomplete, as with others of its ilk, the collection brings modern Native American voices to the fore and suggests a strong push for a decolonizing view of pre- and post-colonial Native religion.

English North America & the United States

Bross, Kristina. Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians in Colonial America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Bross looks at “the effect of the English civil wars and Interregnum government on New England and its literature” in pursuit of a better understanding of colonial identity in the region. She finds that for a time, mission literature and Indian evangelism were in fact the true roots of New England identity, and argues that the imagined Praying Indian and the active presence of Native Americans rooted colonists’ sense of themselves.

Brooks, Joanna. American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

One of the only books on this list that extends into the history of the United States, Brooks’ work brings the religious literature of African- and Native Americans to the fore of her analysis, and uses them to detail the construction of a new Christianity during the era of the American Revolution. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she argues against hybridization, and argues that colonial African and Native use of Christian rhetoric was a mode of resistance rather than cultural melding or “bona fide” conversions.

Brooks, Lisa. The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Brooks, an Abenaki descendent, uses eighteenth and nineteenth century Algonquin and Iroquoian texts to explore the relationships between Native peoples and Europeans. Although coming at the question from the literary side, she is part of the ongoing effort in Indian history to bring Native-written texts to the forefront of cultural analysis.

Cave, Alfred. Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Cave focuses on a number of Native religious leaders, identified as Prophets, in order to illustrate and describe the uses of traditional Native religion as resistance during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in North America. He draws similarities and contrasts between the movements, particularly the creation of radical symbioses through a community’s history of both religious opposition and accommodation.

Fisher, Linford D. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Fisher’s book focuses on Native communities in southern New England between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, in an effort to contextualize the First Great Awakening in a longer story of religious interaction between Native peoples and European settlers. He argues that Native Christianity was a multi-generational effort, one that did not happen in a moment of “conversion” but instead as part of a long process of cultural contestation that had a great deal to do with land rights and education in addition to traditional religion and Christianity.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1975.

Jennings was among the first historians of Native Americans to attempt to correct the dominant narrative of European superiority by questioning the assumptions scholars made, and the words that they used to describe this history. As implied by the title, he casts the story of colonial North America as one of conquest and invasion, including Christian missions as part of the story of European domination over Native peoples.

Salisbury, Neal. Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Salisbury is another of the early historians of Native Americans to begin fighting the entrenched narrative of incompatible cultures and European superiority in histories of Native-colonist encounters. He does still draw a sharp contrast between Native and European culture, and doubts the validity of almost all Natives’ conversions to Christianity. Finally, he uses the “disappearance” narrative device as an epilogue.

Silverman, David J. Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Silverman uses a local, relatively under studied case of Native American Christianization in New England to complicate increasingly outdated ideas about conversion and Native Christians. He relies primarily on a mix of social and narrative history to flesh out the cultural complexities of the Wampanoag, carrying the story through the nineteenth century.

Stevens, Laura M. The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Stevens emphasizes the rhetoric used by British missionaries in their dealings with Native peoples to describe the ways in which that rhetoric was more about constructing a more solid British identity in the face of Native Americans than it was about benevolence toward those Natives. In doing so she dismisses the literal impact of the missionaries among Native Americans, instead focusing on the changing transatlantic British identity.

Vaughn, Alden T. The New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675. Boston: Norton, 1965.

Vaughn’s work was among the last influential books on the subject of North American colonial religious history to draw a sharp distinction between the (superior) culture of white Europeans and that of the (inferior) Native Americans. Since its 1965 publication, the book has gone through two more editions, in which some of this type of language is modified or eliminated. Nevertheless it stands as a good example of the “old” Indian history.

Wheeler, Rachel M. To Live Upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-Century Northeast. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Wheeler draws a comparative study between two Mohican communities, separated by a few years and about thirty miles, that both opted to practice a form of Christianity – in the former, Congregationalism, while the latter invited Moravians to join their community. The study focuses primarily on lived religion, rather than doctrine, and the ways that Native Americans used Christianity as part of their material lives as well as their spiritual ones.

Wyss, Hilary E. Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

Wyss uses various colonial writings (missionary tracts, captivity narratives, and the writings of English-speaking Natives) to argue that Native people adapted Christianity to suit their own purposes, thereby strengthening their traditional culture. Through these texts, she illustrates the intertwining of European and Native cultures through Christianity.

French North America

Anderson, Emma. The Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Colonial Native Convert. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Anderson uses a young Native convert to Catholicism to tell “the story of the momentous meeting of two very different cultural and religious worlds” in New France, and the immense complications involved in just one story of a Native American Catholic convert. Ultimately, the outcome of Pastedechouan’s experience was to strand him between two worlds, neither of which fully accepted him, and from which he was eventually estranged.

Greer, Allen. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Greer actually delivers a dual biography, both of Catherine Tekakwitha and her primary hagiographer, Jesuit Claude Chauchetiére. He parses out the literary elements of Catherine’s hagiography, while contextualizing them and fleshing out a more literal biography in order to get at the gray space of Native American Catholicism and missionary encounters.

Morrison, Kenneth M. The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian-French Religious Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Morrison presents a collection of his own essays, written over an extended period of time, in order to demonstrate the changing ways historians talk about Native American religious history, and contextualizes them within the relevant, broader scholarship, which he also criticizes in certain instances. He argues against the use of the word “conversion” in favor of a more nuanced understanding of Natives’ adaption of Christianity to suit their purposes.

Spanish North America

Hackel, Steven W. Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850. Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Hackel focuses on Spanish-Indian relations in a variety of missions across Alta California, and compares these interactions to those taking place in other parts of New Spain and early modern Europe. Like other studies of missions, it focuses primarily on local developments. Hackel also suggests that colonial California ought to be considered in thinking about the larger patterns of colonist-native encounters in the colonial United States.

Wade, Maria F. Missions, Missionaries, and Native Americans: Long-Term Processes and Daily Practices. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.

Wade analyzes cultural interaction between Spanish missionaries and Native Americans across a wide, diverse swath of New Spain, including Florida, Texas, and northern Mexico. She also compares conversion strategies of Franciscans and Jesuits. Her focus, as the title suggests, is on practiced, lived religion, rather than doctrinal theology, and she too asks nuanced questions about the meaning and reality of Native Catholicism.

Colonial Latin America and the Caribbean

Comparative Studies & Collections

Griffiths, Nicholas. Sacred Dialogues: Christianity and Native Religions in the Colonial Americas, 1492-1700. Lulu Enterprises: London, 2006.

Griffiths wrote his broad synthesis of the history of religious encounters between Christians and Native peoples in colonial North and Latin America for a general readership, using a non-academic publishing house to make it more accessible. Nevertheless, it also includes a fairly extensive bibliography of secondary sources. Part I covers Spanish America, while Part Two covers French and English America.

Marzal, Manuel M. (ed.). The Indian Face of God in Latin America. Penelope R. Hall, trans. New York: Maryknoll, 1996.

This collection of essays was written by Latin American Catholic indigenous people calling on Christians to recognize non-European forms of Christianity as being legitimate and “contributions to the larger Christian synthesis.” It is another of only a few examples on this bibliography of sources written by Native authors.

Sullivan, Lawrence E. (ed.). Native Religions and Cultures of Central and South America: Anthropology of the Sacred. New York: Continuum, 2002.

This collection of essays focuses on native religion in a variety of different places in Central and South America. Some of the essays address Christianity, but most of them do not, choosing instead to anthropologically address the religious aspects of indigenous culture. Sullivan also edited a companion volume on North America.

Colonial Central America

Burkhart, Louise M. The Slippery Earth: Nahua Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth Century Mexico. Tucson: University of AZ Press, 1989.

Burkhart’s work is another part of new scholarship on Indian voices in conversion narratives, rather than only Spaniards. He focuses on second wave of “spiritual conquest” after friars realized that the initial mass baptisms had been noticeably ineffective, and on the emergence of what he calls “Nahua-Christianity,” a hybrid religious culture.

Clendinnen, Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570. Cambridge Latin American Studies, vol. 61. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Clendinnen attempts to look at the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan from both the Native and European perspectives, and therefore divides the book into two distinct parts. The Spanish section examines soldiers, settlers, and missionaries, while the Maya section presents the Natives as active participants in the Spanish invasion, and looks at the way that people adapted Spanish culture (including religious culture) into their daily lives.

Farriss, Nancy. Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Farriss looks at how Maya culture survived under Spanish settlement, in part due to the Maya’s geographical advantage but also their ability to adapt. The book is divided into four sections: one on Spanish rule, one on pre-colonial Maya culture, one on cultural adaption under Spanish rule, including religion, and finally one on the Bourbon reforms. In her section on religious culture, Farriss sees an overlapping and fusion of Christianity and Maya religion and surviving Maya culture behind the outward, official Christianity.

Taylor, William B. Magistrates of the Sacred: Priest and Parishioners in Eighteenth Century Mexico. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Taylor focuses on the second half of the eighteenth century, primarily on the Mexican clergy and Bourbon reforms in rural Mexico. He also investigates the practice of native religion (the “parishioners” of the title), as well as the diversity of the clergy themselves. Within this network, Taylor also includes political officials and merchants in order to present a broad picture of everyday local religious life in the eighteenth century.

Colonial South America

Charles, John. Allies at Odds: The Andean Church and its Indigenous Agents, 1583-1671. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010.

Charles focuses on the relationship between “indigenous agents” of the Catholic Church and colonial officials through legal documents, particularly those written by indigenous officials. His argument is that literacy was essential in bringing Andean peoples into the Church, but it also gave them the means to resist evangelization or accept it on their own terms.

Dean, Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi and Colonial Cuzco, Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

In keeping with the new emphasis on lived religion, and in line with MacCormack, Dean focuses on religious culture and everyday practices. He sees Andean religion as both resistance to Spanish Catholicism and a means of continuing to sort out social and ethnic tensions among themselves, as they had in the pre-colonial period.

MacCormack, Sabine. Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

MacCormack uses Spanish colonial sources, very critically, to piece together the religious cultures of Spanish colonists and Incan peoples, both in their individual diversity and also in their social and political interaction. She illustrates the network and confrontations of colonial religious cultures between all participants, within their varied cultural constraints, rather than telling a story of missionaries’ coercive efforts to convert Native victims.

Mills, Kenneth. Idolatry and Its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 1640-1750. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Mills uses records from idolatry trials in order to challenge the conventional interpretation that situates “official” Christianity and traditional Andean religion as being in absolute opposition. In looking at everyday lived religion, he finds a more dynamic and adaptive colonial religious culture that included both colonists and Natives.

Ramos, Gabriela. Death and Conversion in the Andes: Lima and Cuzco, 1532-1670. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.

Ramos engages the question of conversion dynamics in colonial Peru. In looking at religious ideas about death, she challenges the received wisdom that all Native people retained their traditional religious views, and conversion to Catholicism was only a façade adopted under violent duress. Ramos examines finds a more complicated melding of religious cultures in funeral practices, and suggests the need for a more nuanced discussion of conversion.

Top