"Columbus Takes Possession of the New World" by Cont Vittorio Bianchini (1797-1880 Italian). The Christian faith brought emphasis on the individual. (Full image below)

Traditional Kinship Versus Christian Individualism

Duane Champagne

A key innovation introduced into the history of social change by the Christian faith is the emphasis on individualism, both secularly and spiritually. Christianity seeks to create a community of individuals each seeking individual spiritual salvation.

In contrast, tribal nations are often deeply structured by kinship and a community that seeks harmony and order in everyday life and with cosmic forces. A fundamental contribution to present-day modernism by Christianity is the separation of individuals from kinship structures in favor of individual spirituality and individual interpretations of the world.

Christian individuals seek pathways to salvation and eternal life in heaven. In many indigenous cultures, there is also a form of individuality that has different orientations than Christian views. A person who is seeking a vision, or young adults sent on vision quests, are looking to find spiritual instructions about how to lead their lives and what tasks or roles they may take on in their lives.

This indigenous individuality is quite distinct, and once a person has a vision, the dreamer’s spiritual instructions cannot be countermanded by anybody. Often vision quests and callings are only shared with elders, and the pathway for an individual is often secret, not shared, but can have great implications for the individual and the community. Vision quests and collective ceremonial undertakings seek knowledge that informs the roles a person will undertake during their lifetime, and provide information in support of community well-being. The strong sense of individuality one finds in indigenous communities is usually associated with a belief in individual spiritual uniqueness that is part of the community and cosmological pathway of the creator. Each person, male or female, has specific tasks to perform within a larger social and cosmological framework.

When Christians converted Indians, they introduced a Christian form of individualism among Indian communities. Christian missionaries actively discouraged indigenous kinship, government, and ceremonies, and tried to replace indigenous ways with Christian ways of individualist beliefs. Christian missionaries hoped for quick conversions and abandonment of indigenous traditions, but indigenous communities usually were not willing to wholly abandon their traditions, kinship systems, or governments.

"Columbus Takes Possession of the New World" by Cont Vittorio Bianchini (1797-1880 Italian). The Christian faith brought emphasis on the individual. (Getty)

Christian community, as a group of individual believers, was a forerunner to contemporary Western understandings of nation, citizen, or subject, as these expressions were understood as collections of committed individuals, who act with their own free will. Secular versions of Christian organization now populate contemporary social organization in much of the world. The expression voluntary association describes much of modern social organization as a group of individuals who agree to specific rules, laws, constitutions, and thereafter are ruled by those ordinances.

Getting Indigenous Peoples to adopt Christian community forms was a pathway for inclusion and assimilation into secular forms of Western government, and social and cultural organization.   Through Christianity, missionaries were hoping to reorganize indigenous communities, kinship and worldviews, and prepare indigenous people for participation in Christian secular and spiritual society.

Nevertheless, many indigenous communities and individuals, while accepting many Christian doctrines, also wanted to keep participating in their own ceremonies, kinship groups, and political institutions. Indigenous communities often support both Christian and indigenous ceremonies and forms of organization. Christianity not only directly challenged indigenous worldviews, but also introduced new forms of social and cultural organization, and discouraged tribal life. Most contemporary indigenous communities continue use of traditional forms, but also engage in Western forms of social and political organization.

For most Indigenous Peoples, the world today is not a strictly tribal world, but rather a mixing, integration, synthesis of voluntary associations and traditional tribal forms of organization, political processes, and worldviews. Living within an indigenous community in contemporary times is a multi-cultural, multi-institutional, multi-world view and multi-political community context. Indigenous individuals and indigenous nations have choices and responsibilities to choose which complex social and political options available today best foster their goals and interests.

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Carrie Smith
Carrie Smith
Submitted by Carrie Smith on
Great article. Any religion that if forceful in their conversion is not following the example of Jesus. We are given free will and Jesus loved all cultures and people. Christianity means Christ like. It doesn't mean give up your culture, it means giving up your sins.

Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
Complex analytics suggests that the devil is not in the details but the devil is the details. Christianity and Indian spiritual beliefs ‘do not mix’. Christian Indian is an oxymoron. Fog is a four letter word, avoid it.

Ohoyo Chahta's picture
Ohoyo Chahta
Submitted by Ohoyo Chahta on
With all due respect, Ms. Smith, thinking there is such a thing as "giving up your sins" requires being in Christian worldview. Sin is a Christian concept. So Indians who "give up their sins" have in fact given up a significant part of traditional cultural spirituality. They have indeed given up their culture.