Reconciling Christianity and Native Beliefs: Bridging the Gap

Richard Walker
12/25/11

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, EuropeanAmerican religion was hostile to the North American continent’s First Nations.

Federal policy makers supported the efforts of missionaries to convert the First Peoples. They were convinced, as Rutgers University professor emeritus Henry Warner Bowden wrote, “that one set of cultural standards—the one shared by churchmen and politicians—promoted both spiritual progress and national stability.”

Elon University professor Clyde Ellis wrote, “Church leaders and politicians believed that conversion to Christianity would quickly, humanely and permanently solve the Indian question.”

In 1869 the Board of Indian Commissioners even noted in its annual report that where assimilating Indians was concerned, “the religion of our blessed Savior is...the most effective agent for the civilization of any people.”

Jesuit priest and author Patrick J. Twohy writes in Finding a Way Home: Indian and Catholic Spiritual Paths of the Plateau Tribes, that it wasn’t always this way: “In the first day of their meeting, Indian, Blackrobe and White Man met with equal strength. They had the eyes and heart of respect for each other. They stood strongly in each other’s presence. Ignorance, war and greed put an end to that, and the endless years of sadness, confusion, bitterness began.”

Twohy is a Washingtonian of Irish ancestry who has worked among the Plateau and Coast Salish peoples for almost 40 years. In Colville he was given the name Ki­yulgstk. His book, Finding a Way Home, first published in 1983, is in its fifth printing, the latest made possible by a grant from the Puyallup Tribe. It is illustrated by Sam and Virginia Leadercharge (Sicangu Sioux and Colville) and Charlene Teeters Raymond (Spokane); and includes commentary by Johnny Arlee (Flathead), Clara Covington (Spokane), Frank Halfmoon (Cayuse­Nez Perce), Michael Paul (Colville), and Clarence Woodcock (Flathead).

Twohy says that Christian and Native spiritual beliefs were not all that different. What European­Americans knew as “God” the First Peoples knew as “Something that runs like blood in the veins of the People, Something that remembers and carries us all, Something that holds the roots of all plants and trees.... Something that shakes the earth with thunder, Something wide as the most distant waters....” In other words, for Twohy, same God, different name. Finding a Way Home is an attempt at reconciling Christianity and such Native spiritual beliefs, identifying the common thread: “The God the ancestors knew as the Maker, the One­Up­Above, has walked with the People and walks with them today.”

Pope John Paul II spoke of this common thread in his homily at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, on September 15, 1984: “Thus the one faith is expressed in different ways.... Through his Gospel, Christ confirms the Native peoples in their belief in God, their awareness of his presence, their ability to discover him in creation, their dependence on him, their desire to worship him, their sense of gratitude for the land, their responsible stewardship of the earth, their reverence for all his great works, their respect for their elders. The world needs to see these values....”

Finding a Way Home is written to honor what Twohy sees as a spiritual heritage that has always existed on this continent. Regardless of one’s beliefs, the book’s thoughtfulness inspires self­reflection.

“From old times the People lived lives that were simple, unpretentious, honest and generous,” Twohy writes. “They wanted to have a right heart toward everyone and all living things, as much as possible. There were many who lived flawless, impeccable lives of great purpose and dignity. They were kind and generous men and women, filled with tremendous faith in their Creator and full of the knowledge of His Ways in our world.”

The book is essentially meant as a guide to help readers see value in faith. Twohy believes that through faith one can be an instrument of change in one’s family, workplace and community. The author writes about what it means to be Christian and what it means to be indigenous, and the connection between Native spirituality and Native lifeways. Plateau elders offer commentary to explain Native ways in relation to baptism; confirmation;prayer; reconciliation; anointing the sick; marriage and family life; helping others; and the need to heal, forgive and be forgiven.

Like his second book, Beginnings: A Meditation on Coast Salish Lifeways (1999), Finding a Way Home reveals Twohy’s poetic style and his deep reverence for Catholic and Native beliefs and tradition.

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