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Published in Faith and Ecology

This will be a two-part blog post about one Native American theologian (George E. “Tink” Tinker) and his most famous book, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty. But this is only partially a book review. In the second half I connect some of these thoughts to portions of a paper I just submitted to the journal Missiology. Indigenous peoples, and American Indians in particular, have much to teach us theologically. Tinker is right: creation theology should be the starting point of all Christian theology. To do so also serves to “decolonize” it.

[This is also picking up where I left off in my two-part blog post in 2017 on the heels of the months-long protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, “Theological Reflections on the Fourth World”]

To begin, who is George Tinker? A citizen of the Osage Nation, Tinker’s mother was from a family of Norwegian immigrants. He clearly was closer to his father who came from a long line of leaders among the Osage people, because alongside his teaching career at the United Methodist Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, he served many years on the leadership council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and founded and directed for 25 years the Four Winds Indian Council in Denver, a center for Native Americans searching together how to connect their indigenous worldview, rituals and customs, to their faith in Jesus. Some of them concluded it was impossible and gave up on Jesus altogether (including his brother).

Surprisingly, there is very little biographical material on Tinker online. I wasn’t able to find his date of birth, but he did earn a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA in 1983 and in 2004 he was named “Alumn of the Year.” After 32 years of teaching at the Iliff seminary, he retired in 2017 and is today the Clifford Baldridge Emeritus Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions. He continues to be an invited guest speaker at various venues nationally and internationally.

Before diving into some of the content of Tinker’s book, I will first offer you a short glimpse of other Christian native Americans – either theologians or writers/speakers, if you want to dig deeper into this topic. Juliany Gonzales Nieves is a young Puerto Rican woman who earned a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois and blogs on her website, Glocal Theology: Bridging El Seminario & El Barrio. I found her post “18 Native American Voices to Learn From” very helpful. Besides Tinker, she points to other leading male voices and a few female ones as well.

Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) was one of the most prolific pioneers of this revival of Indigenous thought on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the years of protests that culminated in over two months of armed stand-off with the authorities at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1993 (the so-called Alcatraz-Red Power Movement). Among the several hundred of mostly armed protesters three were killed in the end, but it was in the forefront of America’s daily news and it attracted much popular sympathy for the cause of Native rights. Marlon Brando famously declined his Best Actor Oscar award that year, and wrote a manifesto supporting the protests at Wounded Knee and decrying the portrayal of American Indians in Hollywood films. Vine Deloria, Jr. had already made a dramatic entry into American culture with his 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. He followed up on that with his now classic God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (see its 30th anniversary edition in 2003).

Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, a member of the Cherokee nation, is currently the most active and prolific author (three books in 2022!) and is able to straddle the evangelical and Mainline Protestant worlds. He and his wife Edith (Eastern Shoshone Tribe) co-founded the Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice and is Director of the Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Portland Seminary.

You will also find some useful video clips, including a striking 4:37 minute one by Tinker and a 7:28 one by Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee Nation with a PhD from Harvard University and only the second indigenous tenure-track professor at Brown University. But be sure to watch this one too, an interview by the popular sociologist from Eastern University, Tony Campolo, of Richard Twiss (1954-2013), an author, speaker and pastor from the Sicangu Lakota Nation. His best-known book was published posthumously: Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way (IVP, 2015). He and his wife founded Wiconi International and he co-founded the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. He and most of those 18 “voices” have an evangelical connection. Tinker does not. More on that in the second half.

 

Settler colonialism and genocide

Most of us know that the aboriginal populations of South and North America were dramatically decimated following the arrival of the Spaniards and Portuguese after Columbus in 1492 and British and French colonists starting in the 17th century. Current research puts the number of aboriginal peoples in the Americas of the 15th century at well over 100 million. Columbus, it would seem, set the pattern for what was to follow:

 

“Columbus engaged nearly immediately in kidnapping and enslaving Native peoples in the Caribbean. As governor of the Caribbean for some eight years, he was directly responsible for the murder and death of some seven million aboriginal inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola alone [today’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic]” (5).

“In the centuries of colonization and genocide following Columbus, the christianization of these indigenous populations became one key strategy for their conquest, that is, facilitating the exploitation of their labor and natural resources. The conquest was brutal from the beginning. In almost every context, the European invaders initiated a very quick 90 to 95 percent (or higher) death rate among native populations through programs of mass murder and enslavement, through brutal military repression, and through the introduction of disease epidemics to which the natives lacked resistance . . . Within thirty years of the first invasion of Mexico, according to Bartolomé Casas, the Spanish had killed twenty million of the original twenty-five million native residents” (11).

 

[Tinker explains from the beginning that part of his project of decolonization is to do away with capitals for words like American, European, and words referring to Christian denominations and terms]

Tinker is right to point out the role of the Catholic Church in the brutal colonization of Latin America. Three papal decrees (or bulls) were instrumental for this: Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493). Recall that in the 15th century popes wielded immense political power in Europe. They were hereby giving a green light for engaging in these ventures of discovery and exploitation of new lands. The Good News (“gospel”) can be preached to new peoples and the merchants can exploit the bountiful treasures of these lands and all will be well, was the reasoning. Bartolomé de las Casas was a dissenting voice. A Dominican friar who arrived with the first Spaniards on the Island of Hispaniola, he soon freed all his Native slaves and spent the rest of his life in the Americas lobbying the Church and the Spanish authorities for the abolition of all slavery and for an end to the brutal crimes against the indigenous populations. He did not succeed, but his writings and his defense of the natives likely led to the Sublimis Deus bull in 1537 which in effect canceled some of the worse parts of the previous bulls: Native peoples should not be enslaved but given their freedom, including the right to property. But in practice, that was too little and too late for the small minority of survivors by that date.

Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, has been very aware of this shameful history. In 2015 he apologized to Indigenous leaders of Bolivia on behalf of the Church for the atrocities committed during the colonial era. Then in 2022, during a pilgrimage to Lac Sainte Anne in Canada, he promised to a group of Indigenous leaders that he would issue an official apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the launching of the genocidal conquests. On that occasion, he did publicly apologize for the residential schools in the last two centuries, and in a recent Religion News Services article, we read that on that occasion “he was met with demands for a formal repudiation of the papal bulls.”

The official document apologizing for the Doctrine of Discovery was issued in March 30, 2023:

 

“The Vatican on Thursday (March 30) responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ the theories backed by 15th-century “papal bulls” that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property laws today.”

 

This was not entirely satisfactory for the Indigenous leaders. And it’s not because the “Doctrine of Discovery” technically refers to a “1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they ‘discovered’ it.” That was actually about the United States looking for a convenient way to justify its “Manifest Destiny” doctrine – despite its anti-Catholic animus at the time! No, the reason this apology doesn’t go far enough is that it states that the bulls, in that they “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples,” were never considered true Catholic doctrine. In effect, they were “manipulated” by the colonial authorities who used them to justify their greed and violent methods. The text does recognize, however, that these “immoral acts against Indigenous peoples . . . were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities.”

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee and Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Center and has been writing about the Doctrine of Discovery for over three decades now. In 1992 he wrote Pope John Paul II, urging him to denounce it. His 2008 book is entitled, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. A follow-up article in RNS mentions both him and Mark Charles (Navajo) who co-wrote Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery with Korean American theologian Soong-Cha Rah. Agreeing with several other Native leaders, Charles is quoted in this article as saying:

 

“In what could have been a groundbreaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers.”

 

By the way, Mark Charles ran for U.S. president in the 2020 elections.

But for all the genocidal acts committed against the Native population of Latin American, the American case is classic “settler colonialism,” that is, the invaders came in greater and greater numbers, taking over the Indigenous lands by force. Tinker writes, “Hence, this was a more persistent and concerted effort . . . to deal in decisive ways with aboriginal landowners. The result, Tinker points out, was a persistent ethnic cleansing of the continental territory that became the United States” (12). Andrew Jackson’s presidential platform called for the removal of Indian tribes from the southern states. He was elected and what followed is known as the “Trail of Tears.”

After the Civil War, two factions vied for supremacy in this debate about what to do with the surviving Indian population. The extreme view was that they had to be exterminated or removed from the West so that White settlers could occupy their lands. It was also the most popular view, as overwhelmingly reflected in the print media of the Western states at the time. The “Eastern liberals,” as Tinker puts it, believed in “civilizing” these peoples. In the end, they won the day and this is what led to the horrific residential school system, in which Indigenous children were forcibly integrated with the goal of erasing their belief system, language, and customs. Put otherwise, it was a cultural genocide project.

I just came across the latest issues of the journal Religions, which is entirely dedicated to “The Future of Islamic Liberation Theology.” The editor of this special issue is a young Canadian scholar, Shadaab Rahemtulla, a professor at the Divinity School of Edinburgh University in the UK. His article is entitled, “Decolonising Islam: Indigenous Peoples, Muslim Communities, and the Canadian Context.” His central argument is that Muslim immigrants in Canada are now living as a minority in the midst of a colonial settler majority. They cannot just wash their hands of that ugly past of their adopted nation, since they now have become a part of. They have now become settlers themselves, benefitting from the web of structural injustices that continue to this very day. What does he mean?

Rahemtulla is citing a 2006 article by Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” (Journal of Genocide Research 18, 387-409). He is applying Wolfe’s thesis to the situation of Muslims (and of all recent immigrants of color) who see themselves as migrants and therefore have no part in past sins of the wider “settler” society:

 

“But settler colonialism, as Wolfe presciently notes, is not a historical ‘event’—a thing of the past—and therefore something that is over, but rather an ongoing ‘structure’ which reflects a ‘continuity through time’ (Wolfe 2006, p. 390). The passage of time, after all, does not erase crime. This is a key principle in international law. Canada, or the US, or Australia are no less settler colonies today than they were yesterday. And yet, the manifest settler-hood of these states continues to be rendered invisible.”

 

This idea that the heinous and systemic injustices perpetrated against Indigenous populations in the past are still operative and destructive today is a theoretical tool that can help explain many other forms of racism in contemporary America. In fact, using a legal lens brings into sharper focus the wider concept of systemic racism, argues Distinguished Professor and Professor of Law at Yale University Natsu Taylor Saito, a woman of Japanese descent, in her 2020 book, Settler Colonialism, Race, and the Law (NYU Press). I mention this, only to emphasize that settler colonialism is a growing sub-discipline with already much research to back it up.

This is the context in which I want to place Tinker’s argument, the subject of the next section.

 

“Tink” Tinker’s Challenge to White society

In the summer of 2020, Syracuse University’s Department of Religion teamed up with Indigenous Values Initiative and American Indian Law Alliance to sponsor a virtual conference on the theme, “Mother Earth’s Pandemic: The Doctrine of Discovery.” In this 23-min. clip of Tinker’s address, notice what he says, starting around minute four. Speaking (rhetorically) to all the Mainline Protestant denomination that publicly denounced the Doctrine of Discovery (and a few evangelical ones), he says with tongue in cheek, “OK, you’ve renounced discovery. Aren’t you wonderful!” Then the follow-up: “What happened? … How much land did Indian people get back? Or was this just an internal dialogue y’all had to make y’all feel better for living on Indian land?” Then he adds – an understatement, for sure, “our non-Indian allies will have a lot of work to do!”

Already in the first Chapter of American Indian Liberation, Tinker writes, “We want our lives back, our ways of being – rooted, of course, in connection to the land itself. We want back our sovereignty that was ours before the invasion of European colonizers . . . American Indians who are the most engaged in struggle and resistance refuse to acknowledge the validity or legality of the United States’ claim for the occupation and governance of north America; nor do they recognize the right of the United States to any claim on our lands or on our peoples as subjects” (24).

In a further chapter, Tinker argues that giving back to Native nations their land and sovereignty would be beneficial for all other populations – despite the initial pain and costly disruptions to our Western consumerist societies. “Indeed, such a political move will necessitate a rethinking of consumption patterns in the north, and a shift in the economics of the north will cause a concomitant shift also in the Two-Thirds World of the South. The relatively simple act of recognizing the sovereignty of the Sioux Nation and returning to them all state-held lands in the Black Hills (for example, national forest, national park, and South Dakota state park lands) would generate immediate international interest in the rights of indigenous, tribal peoples in all state territories. In the United States alone, it is estimated that the Indian nations still have legitimate (moral and legal) claim to some two-thirds of the U.S. land mass” (81).

That would be the biggest gauntlet Tinker (and all his colleagues and fellow American Indians) would throw at the majority White settler population of our nation. But there is another defining aspect of contemporary American Indian life he mentions several times in the book – poverty and demoralization, plainly the result of so many past indignities, starting with their loss of ancestral lands. In his words, “With a poverty level that puts American Indians chronically at the bottom of nearly every social indicator, we suffer a resulting level of community dysfunctionality that increases our lack of sustainability and makes us all the more susceptible to forces of external political and economic power.” He continues with some telling statistics:

 

“Indian unemployment is stuck chronically at more than 50 percent across the continent. Per capita income is the lowest of any ethnic community in the United States. Longevity figures for Indians are more than twenty years less than the american average. The infant mortality rate is the highest of any group in the United States. And diseases such as tuberculosis (nearly eradicated for most of the U.S. population) and diabetes occur at seven and six times the average U.S. rates. In some states (e.g., Montana and South Dakota) Indian inmates number more than half of the state’s prison population, even though the general Indian population in the state is under 10 percent” (80).

 

Tinker in his last chapter (“Culture and Domination: A ‘Postcolonial’ Quandary”) tells the sad story of his older brother, his inspiration and the true genius behind the Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver. Though he knows few details of his growing up, he does know that “by the time he was six years old, he had already been physically and emotionally abused by his parents, themselves already the product of the abuse of colonization” (153). It was then that the Bureau of Indian Affairs put him in a mission school. There, one evening, he and his best friend were raped by a priest and then threatened “with physical punishment and eternal perdition” if they ever told anyone about it. Tragically, and not surprisingly for those who suffer such trauma, his best friend committed suicide at age seventeen, leaving him “with a deep, enduring sense of responsibility not only for his own shame but for the death of his young friend.” His brother, as a result, suffered from alcoholism and in 1995, on the anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, “combined his antidepressant drugs with prodigious amounts of alcohol and quietly left the world of the living” (152).

Sadly, this story is told again and again in connection to Indian country residential schools. It is “pervasive,” Tinker writes. After five hundred years of conquest and domination, the American Indian community is “damaged merchandise.” The list of traumatic injustices forced upon them seems endless: mass murders, loss of land, ongoing experience of racism and “marginalizing disempowerment,” the experience of “living in rather intimate closeness with [one’s] abuser” and the burden of being made to adopt the values and culture of one’s colonizers (154).

 

Tinker’s overall objective

I just mentioned how dysfunctional, oppressed and demoralized the Native American population is as a whole. Tinker obviously wants his readers to understand and feel deeply the trauma inflicted upon our Native population. But to what end? Already in the Introduction, Tinker articulates his objective in this way: “I write with the hope that we will be able to initiate a symbiotic healing process whereby Indian poverty and devastation can find healing even as White America begins to find healing from its ongoing history of violence and the resulting culture of violence that seems to have captured the north american present” (4-5). He ends the book with nine steps “that we can take together in order to change our world of violence and to restore the balance of creation” (160). I’ll end with a summary in three short points.

 

1. White Americans (and following Rehemtulla, all those middle and upper-class immigrants of color) “must courageously own their past – without guilt but with great intentionality – to change the present and the future” (160). Confession and repentance are about facing “the systemic and engrained violence” (including our recent overseas wars of choice). It also means identifying “the systemic structures of oppression” and working to dismantle them. This could be quite costly.

2. We will need to change our lifestyle – “get serious about reducing consumption.” (161).

3. White Americans should take a long and careful look at all that is embedded in the system of white supremacy so that they will find ways to break it down. One way is to develop genuine friendships with people of color and Indigenous people in particular. Showing respect will mean to listen and learn from them. How can we extend our natural concern for individual well-being (a typical liberal, Western worldview) to a concern for community well-being? It can start with a neighborhood, then expand to a city, a state, a nation, and finally encompassing our world – “two-leggeds,” as Tinker has it, restoring harmony and balance among all our relatives, animals and each part of the natural world. That is the subject of the second half of this post.

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