The basic tenets of Christianity, existence of Creator, respect for fellow man, honor, generosity and sharing, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice for the good of the community were already institutionalized in the belief systems of many indigenous cultures before the missionization of North America. Therefore it was not difficult for Indians to “convert” to Christianity under pressure from the ever-increasing numbers of White men and a changing world. (Treat, 1996) However, Christian beliefs were likely to be added to Indian beliefs, rather than replacing them.

 Black Elk with his family. Source: Denver Public Library, Colorado Historical Society, and Denver Art Museum

San Xavier Mission on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation near Tucson, Arizona. Source: Wikipedia

Indian Beliefs

For example, the Lakota belief system (as recorded by the spiritual leader and warrior Black Elk) differs from Christianity in that belief is in a parallel spirit world rather than one above this world, and that any member of the Indian community may be given a vision by God to benefit the whole community living on this earth. Prior to European contact, the Lakota did not have a concept for sin, redemption, salvation, or eternal damnation, but many believed that spiritual guidance was sent in the form of visions to sustain the whole community (Rice, 1991).

Christian Missionaries

Many boarding school graduates and their descendents are Christian, since the boarding schools were run predominantly by Christian missionaries. Missionaries from different Protestant and Catholic denominations divided up the reservation and tribal lands among themselves, so as not to “compete for converts”. Therefore, the Christian denomination of the region may still be the religion of preference for Indian families, and denominational support is often solicited at the time of family crisis or serious illness (Hendrix, 1999). A survey conducted by the Indian community in 1992 in Santa Clara County, California, indicated that 35% of the 158 adult Indian respondents considered themselves “Christian”, 27% stated that they followed both traditional American Indian and Christian religion, and 16% stated that they followed only an Indian religion; 22% were unknown (Hendrix, 1999).