Evangelicals: Still Killing the Indian to Save the Man

Inspired by the case of Baby Veronica, America’s Evangelicals have begun to challenge the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

It’s not much of a surprise. The Western project of political imperialism never strayed too far from its Christian roots. In the global South, this meant that colonial governments often partnered with Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Colonial activity granted these missionaries unprecedented access to non-Christian people groups; in exchange, missionaries were expected to civilize the natives, making them more amenable to outside rule. The link between colonialism and missions work has been covered extensively in academic literature (including my own dissertation). But the phenomenon wasn’t limited to the global South. It also influenced the European colonization of North America.

Evangelical objections to ICWA are merely the latest iteration of an old prejudice.

Consider the mission schools. These schools were established for the express purpose of forcibly assimilating Native children into Western culture. The 1868 Annual Report of the Commissioner for Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior reveals just how integral these missions schools were to the US government’s colonial project.

John B. Riley, superintendent of an “Indian school,” wrote that, “However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction of the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home — if a mere place to eat and live in can be called a home. ”

“Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated, and the extra expense attendant thereon is more than compensated by the thoroughness of the work. ”

The same report quotes John C. Ward, a United States Indian Agent based in California: “The parents of these Indian children are ignorant, and know nothing of the value of education, and there are no elevating circumstances in the home circle to arouse the ambition of the children. Parental authority is hardly known or exercised among the Indians in this agency. The agent should be endowed with some kind of authority to enforce attendance. The agent here has found that a threat to depose a captain if he does not make the children attend school has had a good effect.”

As the term suggests, most mission schools were affiliated with a Christian denomination. Writing for Amnesty International Magazine in 2007, Andrea Smith revealed that at the height of the mission school movement, churches ran the lion’s share of active schools; 460, compared to 25 secular schools run by the government’s Bureau for Indian Affairs. For many students, Christianity became connected to the trauma of cultural violence. In the same piece, Smith quoted Willetta Lophus of the Cheyenne River Lakota tribe: “A little while ago, I was supposed to attend a Halloween party. I decided to dress as a nun because nuns were the scariest things I ever saw.” Lophus had survived a childhood at a Catholic-run mission school.

Church-affiliated mission schools mandated Christian worship and banned any semblance of Native culture, including Native languages. Administrators reported on their Native charges to the federal government (just like their counterparts in colonized Africa).  These schools were run on a model inspired by the Carlisle Indian School, founded by Captain Richard Pratt.

Pratt’s motivations were no secret.  “Kill the Indian and save the man,” he wrote, and that’s exactly what mission schools strove to accomplish.

Native parents weren’t given a choice about sending their children to mission schools. The US government forcibly removed Native children and systematically stripped them of their culture.

As a consequence, Native languages were decimated and even now, only a few have made a resurgence. For Native tribes, the mission schools movement delivered  a crushing strike at their traditions. And the ramifications have been severe. Reservations are plagued by disproportionately high rates of unemployment, suicide, addiction, and sexual assault, among other concerns. The recent controversy over the Violence Against Women Act, which allotted tribal governments the ability to prosecute non-Native men who assault Native women, is just further evidence that Native cultures and Native bodies are not respected by the colonizing government.

American Christians enabled this colonization. They participated in this cultural violence. Their confidence in the superiority of their beliefs translated into the arrogant conviction that Christianity could, and should, replace Native culture.

And now, having learned nothing from this, they are attacking a piece of legislation that they made necessary because of their abuse of Native children. Elizabeth Sharon Morris, who runs the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare, advocates for the repeal of ICWA and told the Huffington Post that she feels “sick to her stomach” at the thought of Baby Veronica returning to a Native home.

The Post also quotes Johnston Moore, executive director of adoption outfit Home Forever: “ICWA unfairly allows our child welfare and judicial systems to treat children differently if they happen to be eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe.” According to Moore, Baby Veronica has been “traumatically ripped” from her adoptive home because of her Native status.

On its website, Home Forever argues that adoption is a Biblical mandate. To date, Moore’s spent over $300,000 in legal fees in an on-going attempt to adopt two Native boys. His perspective is rather obvious: he believes he’s entitled to adopt Native children because the Bible tells him so.

It is worth noting that this perspective isn’t universal among American Christians, though the Christian adoption movement is growing in popularity. Journalist Kathryn Joyce investigated that movement for her most recent book, and I’ve also blogged about it here. These Christian-led attacks on ICWA are a timely and troubling reminder that colonialism is an active and thriving force, and it’s one not restrained to the global South. The consequences of colonialism are just as visible in the United States as they are overseas.

They’ve Got The Fear

These girls. These so-called “teenage exorcists.”

You’ve probably heard of them by now. Enabled by their parents (and I use ‘enabled’ deliberately here) they’ve travelled the world battling the forces of evil. They’ve taken culture war to a supernatural extreme. Adult me pities them. Adolescent me would have rolled her eyes–and probably envied them just a bit.

It sounds ludicrous. And it is ludicrous. The Harry Potter phobia and the conviction that the United Kingdom is a seething hotbed of demonic activity aren’t rational reactions. Nevertheless, I’m going to argue for a certain degree of leniency for these girls.

If you can, step inside my former world for a moment.

In that world, demons are real. And they are terrifying. I spent nights awake, soaked in  sweat, because I had been told that demons can possess people, even people who think they’re Christians. I’d been told that if you aren’t right with God, you’ve left a window open for the devil. So I prayed. I prayed until I fell asleep, and when I fell asleep, I had nightmares about witches and devils who would seek me out and take me over.

The dreams would routinely frighten me awake. One night, I ran for my parents, because I was a child and that’s what children do. My father then told me that I was actually correct to be frightened, because Satan is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

I didn’t go back to sleep that night.

And then there were the Rapture movies, with their gory martyrs. I secretly loved them, because for a long time Revelation was as close as I could get to science fiction. But at the same time they too filled me with fear, fear that I wasn’t really saved, that I was out of favor with God and would therefore fail to be Raptured upon Jesus’ imminent return. I spent so much of my early life effectively paralyzed by fear.

When you’re a child, and you’ve been told from your earliest days that evil isn’t just real, but that it’s an active force currently engaged in a war against you, it makes sense to go on the offensive. If you’re a girl, of course, your options are limited. You’re not allowed to hold a position of spiritual authority. You can be a ‘prayer warrior.’ You can share the gospel. But you certainly can’t lead an offensive against the devil. That’s men’s work.

Unless you’re Brynne Larsen or her friends, Tess and Savannah Scherkenback. These girls are the fundamentalist Scooby Doo gang. They’re almost certainly being controlled by Larsen’s father, a failed televangelist, but they’re doing something. They’ve seen the world. When I was a teenager, demonic possession seemed far more plausible than freedom.

People change as they grow. I lay the blame at Bob Larsen’s feet, and at the Scherkenbacks’ feet, for choosing to raise their children in a manner that has emotionally crippled them. Brynne, Tess and Savannah most likely believe they’re helping people.

I was 20 when someone tried to exorcise me. Specifically, she intended to set me free from depression, and somehow she thought laying her hands on my head in public, without prior warning, and praying the “depressed spirit” out of me would improve my outlook on life.

My exorcism wasn’t particularly violent. I’m grateful for this, because self-proclaimed exorcists have been known to carry things to a dangerous extreme. But it was invasive and humiliating. A year later, I left the church altogether–for a variety of reasons, of which the exorcism was only one.

It turns out that leaving the church did far more for my depression than exorcism ever did.

Brynne, Tess and Savannah have never been on the receiving end of exorcism. I suspect that if they underwent what they’re dishing out to others, their perspectives on the matter would change rather drastically.  But that’s my point, really: they’ve never been faced with any real to challenge to their indoctrination. They’ll be adults soon (and since Savannah’s 21, she’s really already there) and personal responsibility does play a role. But believe me, fundamentalists know how to brainwash. They’re terrifically successful at it. They saturate your every encounter with the world with such a blinding fear that it feels impossible to move or think, and waging culture war is the only proactive measure you can take.

It’s so pervasive that even now, as a secular adult, the occasional sleepless night is still ever so slightly tinged with fear.

If I’m going to be honest with myself, I don’t know that I’d have left the church if it weren’t for experiences like that exorcism. Perhaps I might have eventually, because the doubts were certainly present. But my departure might not have been so early, or so drastic. When I had cause to fear Christians and not the devil, it became much more difficult for me to convince myself that Christianity was worth the effort.

If we’re fortunate, Brynne, Tess and Savannah will learn from their travels. Maybe they’ll even join me and my friends among the ranks of the prodigals. I hope for their sake their journey is less frightening than mine.

Update: So it seems that Savannah Scherkenback has received an exorcism. Also for depression. I suppose becoming an exorcist yourself is certainly one way to prove to your fundamentalist community that you’re really “healed.” Maybe I’ve underestimated the level of fear (or arrogance) at work here. Thanks to Kathryn Brightbill for pointing this out.