Tuesday, March 06, 2007

JK: Missionaries, Indians, and History

I have a little pet peeve and that’s that those who talk about the West often assume that missionaries were the greatest downfall to Native American people. I'm not sure if this muddles an issue, but in my own research about the impact of missionaries on native people, I came to see that another group had an even more significant impact on changing native lives and that was the commercial world of business and engineering. The earliest diseases were brought to the northwest by merchant and exploring ships (as early as the 1700s, long before missionaries arrived) taking out furs and leaving smallpox behind. By the time many missionaries appeared in the Willamette Valley in the 1830s, most of the Oregon tribes were already decimated by diseases, and the missionaries found themselves less engaged in saving souls as in building up orphanages for the children left behind.

If one adds to that those who came to commercialize fur trade (Lewis and Clark, 1805-06, David Thompson (Canadian, 1805 +) John Jacob Astor, 1811-1812 etc) or to commercialize fishing operations, drying fish for shipment back to the states (1830s) and the road builders who thus opened areas for settlement and then those who put in dams and fences and built the railroads, the very landscapes of native people and thus the foundations (spiritual, traditional, familial aspects) of their lives were changed forever, especially as the landscape was/is such a significant aspect of their religious experiences and family traditions.

There is also significant evidence that the earliest missionaries to western native people were other native people who had become Christians via the Jesuits (Iroquois, for example). The Nez Perce, as early as 1825, sent four men back to St. Louis requesting missionaries to come west (which is how the Spauldings got out to the Clearwater and published the primer of Nez Perce, the first book published west of the Rocky Mountains in 1838). Granted, all did not go well as other missionaries showed up among the Cayuse, uninvited and ultimately brought about the Whitman massacre and later devastation of the Cayuse tribe. But the real changes to the Nez Perce and other tribes, in my opinion, came not from missionaries but from settlement and accompanying business ventures and their impact.

I remember a Spokane legend reported as early as the 1700s that said one day a white man would come west carrying a book that would change the native lives forever. I'd always thought that referred to missionaries until I began writing about that era. If you follow history and disease and business development, it's hard not to see that it was a surveyor's book perhaps or a bankers book that was the real life-changer for native people.Just a couple of additional thoughts about history....

Jane Kirkpatrick, http://www.jkbooks.com


At 7:55 AM, Blogger batgirl said...

Very interesting. I home school my little girls and love trying to find out the "real deal" with History before teaching it. Most of if has been so twisted. Your post reminded me of revelations I had when we studied slavery and the Civil War. Of course I focused on what a heinous evil the whole slavery thing was (and is), but we found something else. We started reading biographies about black men and women who actually thanked God for their trials because as a result of being kidnapped and sold as slaves in America they learned about Christianity and got saved. God used the evil for good. Wow. Never heard that in school.

At 12:28 AM, Blogger Karen said...

The Native American Indians are still being treated wrong by the majority of society. I think one of our greatest sins as Christians in this country now, is forgetting them and the current issues they face in their communities.


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