Introduction

Every interpretation of the Bible regarding what it means for present communities is an act of intercultural interpretation fraught with disastrous perils and wondrous possibilities. What is distinct about Native American interpretation is its attempt to make the Bible meaningful to the experiences, traditions, and struggles of Native Americans while also giving due dignity to their heritage and lives. Native American interpretation begins with the assumption that the Creator God of Israel who revealed Godself to Moses had not simply ignored the Indigenous Peoples of North America until the arrival of Spanish and French missionaries. Rather, this Creator had long been present and made its mark upon the stories, rituals, land, and lifeways of Indigenous Peoples. Working from this assumption, it then becomes the prerogative of Native theologians to discern how such stories, rituals, and lifeways—what could be considered the “Native Covenant”—both inform and are informed by their interpretation of Christian scripture in order to empower, inspire, and guide Native American lives.

Native American Interpretive Frameworks

Some Native American interpretations read biblical narratives according to frameworks and categories derived from their heritage. Such readings often emphasize previously unnoticed elements within biblical prose and narratives or resignify the meaning of technical terms or narrative elements and figures according to such frameworks and categories. For example, both John the Baptist and Jesus are recognized as sharing affinities with the figure of the Trickster insofar as each transgresses cultural boundaries that lead us to reflect upon the artifice and meaning of our social conventions surrounding propriety, purity, and morality (Weaver, “Trickster”). In his harmonization of the four gospels, Terry M. Wildman (Ojibwe/Yaqui) retells the story of the baptism of Creator Sets Free (Jesus) by He Shows Goodwill (John) as a purification ceremony that honored the Great Spirit (Wildman 2014, 37). Steven Charleston (Choctaw) reads Matthew’s account of Jesus’s experience in the wilderness in terms of the Native experience of vision quests. Although the exact nature of vision quests varies across tribes, vision quests are often preceded by a period of prayer and purification, and entail a physical challenge to one’s endurance and spirit that provokes lamentation and the recognition of one’s own vulnerability and need of God. The goal is to receive a transformative vision that reveals something about one’s character or place within the community and is seen as a source of “good medicine” or divine blessing (Charleston 2015, 10–22, 51). In resonance with Native American experiences, Jesus undertakes his own vision quest, having purified himself in his baptism at the Jordan River and having centered himself in prayer through fasting in the wilderness for forty days and nights (Matthew 4:2). The concept of a devil who embodies evil as the apocalyptic enemy of God is foreign to Native conceptions of evil, therefore Charleston resignifies both the meaning of the visions Jesus receives and the figure of the devil, who in the narrative tempts Jesus to misuse his power toward self-serving ends. Within a Native American reading, the devil is reinterpreted as a literary personification of our self-serving and destructive desires that promote discord within the created order. Indeed, “sin” itself is commonly reconceptualized as the imposition of our selfish desires over against the balance and harmony of established social-kinship relationships (Dellinger, “Sin,” 124–125, 127). For Charleston, Jesus’s visions of the stones, the sky, and the mountaintop can each be read as underlining the longstanding Native wisdom that we inter-exist and are interdependent with the created world and our communities; that we are to live not only for ourselves, but for the sustainability of our relatives and kin, which includes nature itself. For example, the stones that Jesus is tempted to turn to bread are recognized by Charleston as our oldest relatives who embody the oneness of God and help Jesus return to his proper spiritual balance of recognizing his oneness and solidarity with his people and God (Charleston 2015, 106).

Wrestling with the Biblical Text

For some Native Americans, the Bible becomes a site to wrestle with the existential question of reconciling their Indigenous identities with their participation in a religious system that was complicit with the oppression and near genocide of their ancestors and cultural heritage. The Exodus, with its resonances of liberation, travel in the wilderness, and conquest of a promised land, is a particularly rich, yet troubling text among Native theologians who juxtapose their tribes’ experiences with events and figures from the story. In his reflection upon the Choctaw’s preservation of ancestral traditions within their Christian faith, Charleston overlays Exodus’s depiction of the Israelites carrying the bones of their patriarch Joseph out of Egypt (Exod 13:19) with the image of Choctaws bearing the bones of their ancestors along the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma. This juxtaposition commemorates the immense suffering of “the Long Walk” and underlines the hypocrisy and racism of American Christians, whose greed for land and wealth led to their dehumanization and exile of fellow Christians (Charleston 2015, 97). Although the story of Exodus has been central to liberation theologies among African American and Latinx theologians, Robert Allen Warrior (Osage) has been critically suspicious of its applicability for Native Americans. Indigenous Peoples, Warrior suggests, should identify with the Canaanites, the Indigenous Peoples of the Promised Land, who were subsequently conquered and obliterated by the Israelites. The god of liberation, Warrior warns, is also the god of conquest. Regardless of how biblical scholars might reinterpret the actual fate of the historical Canaanites and the extent to which they intermixed with the Israelites, the narrative Canaanites of Exodus are to be destroyed and removed (Exodus 23:23–33). It is within this framework that numerous Puritan preachers depicted fellow white colonists as the “chosen people,” who had been given a land filled with Amalekites and Canaanites. Warrior criticizes this ideology, arguing that “America’s self-image as a ‘chosen people’ has provided the rhetoric to mystify domination” (“Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” 99). In response to Warrior, William Baldridge (Cherokee) looks to the story of the Canaanite woman, whose request for Jesus to heal her daughter is initially dismissed since she is not an Israelite, but “a dog” (Matt 15:21–26). However, the woman dares to talk back to Jesus and advocates for her daughter. Then, in a miraculous moment, “[t]he son of the god of Canaanite oppression repents” and the daughter is healed (Baldridge, “Native American Theology,” 101). Just as the Canaanite woman is able to change the heart and mind of Jesus to heal her daughter (Matt 15:27–28), so also can Native Americans “change the very heart of God” and “his chosen people” toward solidarity with their plight (Baldridge, 101). Jace Weaver (Cherokee) identifies another possible biblical paradigm for Native American/Canaanite liberation in the account of Zelophehad’s daughters (Num 27 and Josh 17). In the biblical narratives, the daughters advocate for themselves before Moses and Joshua to receive their father’s inheritance, on account of there being no male heirs. According to Weaver, the names of the five daughters correspond to known towns in northern Canaan in the land of Hepher, suggesting that these daughters were not in fact Israelites, but rather Canaanites. Thus, these stories not only encourage the oppressed to speak out for themselves, but also validate the “maintenance of the Hepherites’ cultural and territorial integrity” in the midst of a foreign people, a scenario with which modern Indigenous Peoples are all too familiar (Weaver, “A Biblical Paradigm for Native Liberation,” 104).

Stories and Rituals in Conversation with Scripture

Traditional stories and rituals are also brought into conversation with scripture. Casey Church (Potawatomi) incorporates Christian scripture into his ritual performances and finds biblical justification for the smudging ritual (the burning of herbs, including sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco as an incense) in the Hebrew practice of burning incense over the ark of the Covenant (e.g., Exod 30:1–6, 34–36; Luke 1:8–10) (Church 2017, 89–90). George E. “Tink” Tinker (Osage) reinterprets the meaning and implications of the Passion narrative in view of traditional conceptions of vicarious suffering associated with such purification ceremonies as the sun dance and the sweat lodge and recounted in such traditional tales as the Corn Mother narratives, which abound in Native traditions across North America (Tinker, “Christology,” 62–65, 79–83). Suffering on behalf of others within such rituals and stories functions to realign and maintain the harmony or balance of sacred energy within the cosmos and to strengthen prayers to the Creator. Foreign to such ceremonial and narrative understandings of suffering is the idea that one’s suffering, even that of Christ, placates the anger of a wrathful god, overcomes original sin, or brings reconciliation between humanity and God. As Weaver notes, many Native Americans simply hold the crucifixion to be the tragic work of humanity. When Jesus was murdered, God wept, but then laughed at the folly of humanity (Psalm 2), and resurrected Jesus in vindication of his life and teachings (Weaver 1997, 182 n172).

The self-giving death of Christ resonates with the self-sacrifice of the Corn Mother, in whom, according to Tinker, Native Americans have already experienced God’s Logos or communication of “creativity and healing or salvation to human beings” (Tinker, “Christology,” 76–83). While there is no single Corn Mother story, each narrative describes the willing self-sacrifice of a divine woman on behalf of the community’s survival. In a Penobscot retelling, the First Mother, distressed over the cries of her starving children tells her husband to kill her and to drag her body across the fields such that her flesh, blood, and bones might comingle with the soil. Months later corn begins to grow. In a word reminiscent of the Christian Eucharist, the First Man tells his people: “Remember and take good care of First Mother’s flesh, because it is goodness become substance … she has given her life so that you might live” (Erdoes and Ortiz 1984, 13). In a Cherokee retelling shared by Baldridge, the mother produces corn by rubbing or shaking her body and is killed by her own children, who take her to be a witch after discovering this confounding miracle. Here, too, the buried body produces corn eternally, the source of life-nourishing bread for the Cherokee (Baldridge, “Reclaiming Our Histories,” 87). According to Tinker, the Corn Mother story underscores the interrelatedness of all creation and thus the sacredness of food and gathering together to eat. Like the sacrifice of Jesus, the sacrifice of the Corn Mother brings people around the table in recognition of their shared kinship, in thankfulness for the gifts of the Mother (the pre-existent Christ), and in remembrance of relatives and ancestors. By locating Christ within Corn Mother and Corn Mother within Christ, Tinker and Baldridge seek to construct a more comprehensive vision of the Creator’s self-revelation that recognizes the divine presence and truth within their ancestral wisdom and lifeways.

Diversity in Native American Readings

It is important to emphasize that there is no singular Native American reading of scripture. On one end of the spectrum are grassroots theologians, including Marcus Briggs-Cloud (Maskoke, son of the Wind Clan), who advocate moving away from pan-Indigenous theological interpretations in favor of readings that closely attend to the cosmologies, ceremonies, and ideology of a particular Indigenous community (Briggs-Cloud, “Creation—The New Creation”). On the other side are ministers whose literalist readings of scripture are practically indistinguishable from conservative Christian interpretations. Examples can be observed from the pulpit of Pentecostal preachers among the Crow, who discourage participation in sweat lodges and smudging ceremonies (Clatterbuck 2017, 115–126, 241), or among the weekly devotional posts from the Choctaw Nation’s official chaplain in the “Chaplain’s Corner,” which promotes traditional Baptist teachings. For many Native Americans who identify as Christian, the Bible is regarded as a privileged site for encountering spiritual power toward the ends of connecting with God and seeking spiritual and socioeconomic blessings and healings within their lives. And yet, for many Native Christians, their receptiveness to literalist readings of scripture is not exclusive to their participation in traditional Indigenous ceremonies and affiliation with multiple religious communities (Smith, “Walking in Balance,” 182). As Mark Clatterbuck has documented in his interviews among the Crow, there are many baptized Pentecostals, Catholics, and Baptists who also participate in the Native American Church, which combines elements of Christianity with traditional Indigenous practices, including the ceremonial use of peyote (Clatterbuck 2017, 11–16).

Contributions

Herein lies the promise and peril of Native American hermeneutics. While Native American interpretations seek to reclaim the dignity and wisdom of their ancestral stories and customs, Native Americans disagree on how to reconcile contradictions between Indigenous and biblical conceptions of divinity, creation, sacrifice, sin, and salvation. If the Creator has manifested itself through its Spirit to both Native Americans and Israelites, then which revelation “corrects” or “supersedes” the other? Is the Great Spirit to be conceptualized as an essentially personal or impersonal power as is the case with Lakota understandings of Wakan tanka? Are stories like that of the Corn Mother merely ancestral myths that can be symbolically interpreted, while Christ’s atoning sacrifice is to be privileged in its own categorically distinct class of “reality” and “truth”? Or does the Corn Mother’s message of the interconnectedness of creation provide a corrective to Genesis 1:28, which enjoins the first humans to dominate and subdue creation—an ideology complicit with our deforestation and scarring of the earth in order to extract its resources at unsustainable rates? There is no simple or universally satisfying answer to these questions. Nevertheless, Native American interpretations of the Bible remain fertile ground for life-affirming theology, the power of which lies in their ability to reclaim and sustain traditions threatened by cultural extinction and to energize adherents through their poetic and constructive juxtaposition of Indigenous experiences, stories, and ceremonies with biblical narratives and theological concepts.

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T. Christopher Hoklotubbe (Choctaw)