Since time immemorial, indigenous people (the “First People”) occupied the land now known as the United States of America. For years, the First People held and practiced a variety of spiritual customs, beliefs, and ceremonies, which varied widely between tribes, clans, and bands. “Dances and religious ceremonies often centered on The Great Spirit, believed by many Native Americans to be the [faceless] creator of life, or the supreme being . . . Festivals and ceremonies included chanting, singing, and dancing. The clothing worn by both males and females of the tribes were extraordinarily detailed.”¹ Tragically, the First Peoples’ free exercise of peaceful religious practices and beliefs did not last forever. The arrival of conquerors and colonizers with weapons in each hand — a gun in their right and a bible in their left — would mean the widespread oppression, persecution, and condemnation of the spiritual beliefs and practices that were so central to the First Peoples’ lives.
From the earliest days of conquest, Protestant Christianity and Catholicism emerged as major influences. After his initial encounter with the First People, Christopher Columbus wrote: “I gave them many beautiful things in order to win their affection, and that they might become Christians … they are very ready for conversion to the holy faith in Christ … [they] are so naïve and so free with their possession that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it.”² Columbus asked the Crown for more crewmen and supplies for future voyages. In return, Columbus promised to bring back “as much gold as [the Crown] need[s] … and as many slaves as [the Crown] asks … Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”³ His second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men.⁴
Columbus paved the way for more religious conquerors and colonizers. “The first enslavement of Africans and conquest of Indian lands were not justified by race, but by religion and national difference.”⁵ Spanish colonizers, relying on Pope Nicholas V’s papal decree, enslaved the First People because they were enemies of Christ. “Indians became the conscripted laborers, forced into the mines and the fields as slaves and encomenderos, the property of the Spanish conquistador who had been granted their land.”⁶
Decades of horrific battles, wars, genocide, and diseases decreased the population of the First People by the millions. One major colony leader saw the acquisition of Native American bodies (through death or souls) as gain: “Governor John Winthrop’s letters . . . refer[ed] to smallpox epidemics as the means by which ‘God hath . . . cle[a]red our title to this place,’ and a sign that the Lord was ‘pleased with our inheriting these parts . . . taking it from a people who had long usurped upon him, and abused his Creatures.”⁷ Many of the First People were met with two choices: convert or be killed. Physical death or spiritual death.
In the early 1800s, the remaining First People who did not perish by murder, in battles, or by disease, were forced into reservations boundaries established unilaterally by the U.S. government.⁸ But despite the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing the “free exercise” of religion and despite the fact that many of the colonizers themselves fled religious persecution in Europe, the First People were not even able to freely practice their spiritual beliefs and ceremonies within these reservations.
Religious oppression was codified into law. Between the 1830s and the late 1970s, several state and federal laws were enacted — some still on the books today — that called for banning and criminalizing the practice of First People spiritual traditions such as ceremonial hair braiding, dancing, and feasts.⁹ “On a regular basis, the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reminded the Indian agents of the need to suppress Indian religions.”¹⁰ For example, on the Hopi Reservation, the Indian agent forced a number of men to cut their hair, completely disregarding the ceremonial purpose of long hair. One elder described this forced hair cutting: “Native People walk the Sacred Path of the Creator God, Our Hair, the physical extension of our thoughts, allows for our direction along the Path of Life . . . cutting of hair by oppressors has long representing the submission and defeat of a People, through humiliation.”¹¹
The First People children, who were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools established by Christian missionaries, were made to attend Christian church services as part of their education. These children were either encouraged — or more likely forced — to abandon their indigenous identities and cultures.¹² In the name of religious progress, “Native children were forced into government-sponsored denominationally run boarding schools where many were abused physically, sexually, emotionally and spiritually, and where many of them died. The rallying cry to civilize/Christianize Indigenous children was ‘kill the Indian, save the child.’”¹³
It was not until 1978 when many of the laws restricting Native American religious practices were overturned. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was enacted to return basic civil liberties to the First People (such as access to sacred sites, freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites, and use and possession of sacred objects). However, the Act is loosely worded and does not contain any internal enforcement mechanisms. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association, the United States Supreme Court held that “the American Indian Religious Freedom Act does not create any enforceable legal right.”¹⁴ While restrictive laws are no longer on the books, First People still experience de-facto spiritual oppression and religious restriction today.
The European colonizers and conquerors did not misinterpret the bible. They did not twist the bible’s words. No, their actions were truly supported by biblical commandments, because the bible is violent and the Abrahamic god is “the most unpleasant character in all fiction,” fittingly described by author Dan Barker. The bible calls for, and Jehovah-God advocates for righteous violence — precisely what empowered the conquerors and colonizers to attack the First People.
Just one example: “If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant, And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; . . . Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.”¹⁵ Indeed, puritan missionaries justified their actions with the bible: Psalms 2:8 states “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Romans 13:2 similarly appealed to the colonizers: “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
It is imperative that we thoughtfully and critically examine the role Christianity and Catholicism played in the development of our country. Such an ugly past was fueled by the same bible that so many read and learn from today. The same bible that is preached as a book of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Sure, passages in the bible do advocate for love and compassion, but those must be read in contradiction to the passages of violence, rage, and eternal punishment for unbelievers.
I walked away from religion almost four years ago, after a decade of questions went unanswered. But many Native Americans — most of whom are descendants of forcefully converted First People — still practice Catholicism or Christianity today. Some Native Americans practice traditional Catholic and Christian beliefs, and some incorporate Native beliefs and practices to create their own religious spin-offs. But knowing the depths of degradation Native American people have gone through at the hands of the church and religion, and as a Native woman myself, I have trouble understanding Native Christians and Catholics. Specifically, I have trouble understanding why Native people accept and adhere to a set of beliefs and practices that were forced upon their ancestors and used as justification to murder and rape their culture. It is the worst and most tragic display of Stockholm Syndrome.
The bible is still used today to inflict widespread oppression and cultural cleansing throughout the world, all in the name of “saving souls.” Churches feel righteously justified to “spread the gospel” — but that will unavoidably mean the cleansing and eradicating of cultural practices that do not align with biblical doctrines (living in nakedness, matriarchies, and same-sex relationships, just to name a few). As a society, we need to talk about the ugly truth behind the world-wide spread of the gospel — a truth that includes genocide, a truth that includes oppression, a truth that includes racism, and a truth that includes silencing.
By Crystal Pardue
 Native American Indian Culture: Rituals, Dances and Ceremonies, People’s Path, http://www.yvwiiusdinvnohii.net/native-american-indian-culture-rituals-dances-and-ceremonies/ (last accessed Feb. 21, 2018).
 Columbus reports on his first voyage, 1493, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/content/columbus-reports-his-first-voyage-1493 (last accessed Jan. 12, 2018).
 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 3 (1980).
 Bethany Berger, Red: Racism and the American Indian, 56 UCLA L. Rev. 591, 603 (2009).
 Id at 604.
 Id at 605.
 Indian Removal 1814–1858, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2959.html (last accessed Jan. 12, 2018).
 Christopher Vacsey, Handbook of American Indian Religious Freedom (1991).
 Ojibwa, Outlawing American Indian Religions, http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/2063 (Jan. 14, 2016).
 Elders talk about the significance of long hair in Native American Cultures, White Wolf Pack, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2013/08/elders-talk-about-significance-of-long.html (last accessed Feb. 21, 2018).
 Bosworth, Dee Ann, American Indian Boarding Schools: An Exploration of Global, Ethnic & Cultural Cleansing, The Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, http://www.sagchip.org/ziibiwing/planyourvisit/pdf/aibscurrguide.pdf (last accessed Jan. 12, 2018).
 Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, Native American Christianity: Through Bullets and Arrows to Peace, Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-randy-s-woodley/native-american-christianity-through-bullets-and-arrows-to-peace_b_1826126.html
 Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, 485 U.S. 439, 440 (1988).
 Deuteronomy 17:2–5 (KJV).