Alone But Not Alone and The Christian Imagination of History, By Kevin Gonzaga
Recently the indie Christian film Alone But Not Alone made some waves when it was nominated for an Oscar for best song, a number sung by Joni Eareckson Tada. This was controversial because it was such an obscure film that only grossed $133,000. The nomination has since been rescinded.
The film itself is about a Christian family on the frontier that is attacked by Indigenous people in the midst of the French and Indian war, with a number of them being taken into captivity. One of the adult women is forced into a marriage and the children begin to be raised as Indigenous people before they make a daring escape. You can see the trailer for the movie here.
I came from Christian circles not unlike the one that produced this movie. I have been familiar with Eareckson Tada’s personal story for some time and it is inspirational. However, I have also been attempting to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people, primarily in the Canada and the U.S., as they attempt to sort out decades of injustice. Because of this I could not help but wince as I watched the trailer for this movie and notice glaring issues with the story.
The movie relies upon a very selective retelling of history in order to pain Christians in a positive light. It reinforces this skewed version of history into its viewers and reinforces racist stereotypes about Indigenous people. In this Alone But Not Alone is another example of what I would call the Christian Imagination of History. In this post I will explore some aspects of the film to explain what I am talking about and why the Christian Imagination of History is problematic and dangerous.
As this poster highlights with its composition and content, one of the main sources of tension and fear in Alone But Not Alone is the forced marriage of a white woman to an Indigenous man and that man’s pursuit of the white family when they flee. The narrative of “Scary black/brown man wanting to rape a white woman” is older than the founding of this country. Alone But Not Alone uses this narrative to titillate audiences even as it reinforces stereotypes about men of color.
While Alone but Not Alone might be based on a true story, and the undertones of sexual violence might be an unavoidable part of telling that story, the story of this family is an extremely rare exception to historical reality of the day.
The true history of sexual violence in the U.S. and Canada was basically exactly the opposite of what is present in Alone Yet Not Alone.
White women, even those captured in raids, had little to fear from Indigenous men. Even colonial European sources show that Indigenous people rarely committed sexual violence against their prisoners.
This reality is encapsulated in the words of Mary Rowlandson, who after having been captured by Indigenous people, later said:
Anyone seeing that number needs to ask themselves why 40% of kidnapped people would voluntarily choose to remain with their captors. Was it a manifestation of what we now known as Stockholm syndrome? Was it that they had nothing in their old lives to go back to?
It has been argued that one of the main reason these women chose to stay is the fact that many Indigenous communities were literally centuries ahead of Western culture when it came to gender equality.
In many Indigenous communities women served as spiritual, political and military leaders and societies were organized according to matrilineal descent. While specific types of work were gendered both types were also valued equally.
It seems white women had more to fear from the oppressive patriarchy of Western culture, which was supported theologically by Christianity. It was white men who burned white women at the stake as witches in a form of gender violence aimed at culling free thinking women. It was white men who during this era could punish women for expressing their opinion by nailing their tongues to a tree.
On the other hand Indigenous women (and women anywhere European colonialism went) were sexually assaulted and violated in the most heinous of ways by white men. The white men who participated in such acts faced no consequence or censure for their acts. The theological argument put forward by Western Christians that non-Europeans were sub-human and made to serve white people no doubt provided passive support for the routine experience of sexual violence women of color experienced.
Maybe the creators of Alone Yet Not Alone were attempting to be true to the story the film was based on, and they were not intentionally demonizing Indigenous men to provide a villain to counter their Christian protagonists. Regardless, the fact that this story represents the exact opposite of what was really happening in regards to sexual violence during that era cannot, and should not have been, ignored.
Kidnapping Children and Forced Assimilation
The other main source of tension in Alone Yet Not Alone is the that some of the captive white children begin to be raised as Indigenous children. The test these children face is to hold fast to their Christian faith in the midst of Indigenous spirituality and customs and resist the temptation they face to change who they are.
Again, the reality of this narrative and tension is the exact opposite of what is presented in this movie.
First, would it really be bad if a white child was raised as an Indigenous person? I mean would a child socialized into a sustainable culture with gender equality and an inclusive understanding of LGBT people be the worst thing that’s ever happened?
Second, so many Europeans voluntarily adopted Indigenous ways and practices that it actually became a great concern for colonial empires who were attempting to establish cultural dominance over the land they wanted to exploit.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, if taking a child by force and raising them in a foreign culture is immoral or wrong, then the moral high ground on this issue clearly goes to Indigenous people.
Survivors of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
The governments of both the United States and Canada, with the support of both Protestant and Catholic Christians, formed Indian schools and later residential schools for Indigenous children aimed at assimilation. Indigenous children were often forcibly taken from their parents in massive numbers and forcibly assimilated into white culture. The infamous attitude of the day was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” These schools were rife with physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse. There are literally residential schools in Canada that have mass graves where child and animal bones were found buried together. These schools operated for many decades with the last one closing in 1996.
Sure, it may have been unjust for the white children in Alone Yet Not Alone to be captured and raised in a foreign culture. However, to employ this tension and ignore how the exact opposite was true and ignore how the forced assimilation of Indigenous people by Christians was far worse in scale, severity and length of time, is a slap in the face to Indigenous people.
The Christian Imagination of History
The makers of Alone But Not Alone highlighted a story that celebrates Christians and the Christian faith. This story conveniently side-steps the much larger systemic injustices of the day perpetrated or supported by Christian communities. By casting Indigenous people as the primary villains of the story, the oppressor is insultingly pretending to be the oppressed.
In employing a selective retelling of history to reverse the true roles and dynamics of injustice Alone But Not Alone is well…not alone. Christian culture in the United States and Canada rely upon a hazy collection of myths, half-truths and narrowly selected stories to form their understanding of these nations and the enduring nature of our societies. By relying on this false understanding, Christians can see themselves in an unblemished positive light. I call this phenomenon the Christian Imagination of History.
The Christian Imagination of History is why films like this get made. It is why family members of mine thanked the Pilgrims at our last Thanksgiving meal. It is why many Christians remain ignorant of a lot of injustices in the world perpetrated by Christians. It is why Christians become uncomfortable, annoyed, or defensive when the topics side-stepped by their imagination of history, like the genocide and displacement of Indigenous people or slavery, are brought up.
To be fair it is human nature to want to see oneself in a positive light. Because of this many (all?) individuals, families, communities and societies tend to remember their past very selectively. We all tend to gravitate towards the stories and parts of our past that makes us look good while downplaying or ignoring parts of our past that are embarrassing or outright immoral. Considered in this light, the Christian Imagination of History is not unique and to an extent is to be expected, but that does not make it right nor does it make it safe.
Why this Imagination is dangerous to everyone (including Christians)
The Christian Imagination of History is incredibly dangerous and needs to be addressed. The reliance upon the Christian Imagination of History in Christian culture keeps Christians from admitting responsibility for past misdeeds and maturing. It keeps those in Christian culture from recognizing and ceasing their present-day support or participation in current injustices. It prevents or hinders any sincere effort to preventing future similar issues from arising.
To look at it another way, in what world would watching Alone But Not Alone (or consuming similar Christian books, sermons, movies, songs, etc.) ever incline a Christian in Canada or the U.S. to begin to address the litany of injustices that have occurred since contact with Europeans and persist to this day?
Finally, I would argue that even Christianity as a whole loses when the Christian Imagination of History continues to reign. Those who are called to follow Christ are called to provide justice and aid to the poor, marginalized and oppressed. This is a consisten them throughout the Bible, present in every stage of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Looking at history through such a false and self-flattering lens keeps people unaware, content and inactive when they should be paying attention, pissed off, and active. In its worst manifestations, the Christian Imagination of History serves to keep Christians squarely in the role of the oppressor regardless of if they recognize it or not.
These injustices are also not locked safely in the past.
To that point I want to make it clear to my Christian readers that Indigenous people continue to face racial injustice, most of which is ignored or even sanctioned by the larger Christian communities in the United States and Canada.
In regards to sexual violence Indigenous women face the absolute worst rates of sexual violence in North America. Indigenous women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault when compared to any other demographic According to the CDC 26.9% of Indigenous women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. 17% of Indigenous women will be stalked in their lifetime.
The majority of the offenders in these situations are not Indigenous; 57% of the time it is white males who are the committing the sexual offences Indigenous women endure. Often offenders often get away with no penalty, even when identified, due to the complicated legal relationship between Tribal governments and the governments of Canada and the U.S. In 2011, 65% of the rape cases on Indigenous reservations were not prosecuted. This statistic is even more alarming when it is considered that many rapes go unreported.
While these stats present a glaring call to action this issue is largely ignored or even actively worked against. When the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was put again before Congress in 2012, they House of Representatives attempted to approve this legislation without additional protections for Indigenous women that would close some of these legal loopholes. The majority of the House of Representatives identify as Christians.
It appears society is also content with attempting to reinforce the concept of brown men as violent and prone to sexual violence despite the statistical reality. A search of major news articles regarding sexual violence in Indigenous communities from 1998-2004, found that the coverage was almost completely limited to instances where the suspected perpetrator was Indigenous (or identified as Indigenous) and the victim was a white woman.
The forced assimilation of Indigenous children continues as the residential school system has morphed into the adoption system. Even as heads of state apologize for the residential schools and the abuses that happened within them, the rates of Indigenous children forcibly taken from their parents and put in the foster care system and up for adoption has reached staggering levels. It was reported at Congressional hearings on the subject that 25% of all Indigenous children were either in foster care, adopted homes, or boarding schools. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that the State makes thousands of dollars for each child it takes from Indigenous families.
Taken in disproportionate numbers and often then placed with white families, the adoption system has become residential schools 2.0. The Indian Child Welfare Act was supposed to end this type of practice, and place Indigenous children with Indigenous families, but the state is largely failing to do so. This issue was recently highlighted in the controversy that erupted regarding Baby Veronica.
If Christian communities in the United States and Canada are going to do more than live out the status quo of history, a status quo where Christians exploit and oppress other people and then forget about it, these communities must meaningfully own their past. Spinning tall tales, myths and cherry picked stories like Alone But Not Alone that distort or conceal the truth hinder any meaningful progress towards atoning for past mistakes and working with other communities towards ending present injustices. A true and accurate account of history is a necessary first step towards a better present and a better future.
This whole project might be an uncomfortable or even painful process, as Christian communities must lay down their natural defensiveness, listen to other communities, accept responsibility for past issues and allow themselves to be taken down a notch. However, this process must happen for Christian communities to make tangible progress towards achieving the goals, morals and ethics they themselves espouse.
[Author's Note: I want to thank the many Indigenous people who have patiently talked to me about many of these topics over the years. Additionally, I am deeply indebted to Andrea Smith as much of my information and references, especially regarding sexual violence and gender relationships during the colonial era, come from her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.]