Savages: Lessons from Alaska Natives Part II

Savages.  It was not the Tlingit name for themselves.  It was a name thrust upon them by people who did not know them; Americans who used it to describe Native Alaskans.  Calling them savages acquitted Americans from the responsibility of listening and learning. After all, what can you learn from a savage?  When a dominant culture puts a name on another, it is a point of control.  Savages – wild, uncultivated, uncivilized, brutish, untamable, ferocious.

Americans knew their way of life was superior to the Native Alaskans and so they sought to bring civilization to these inferior people.  The American goal regarding Alaskan Natives was to educate and assimilate.  This had been going on for some time in the states and territories south.  In 1885, the US government contracted with missionaries to provide state-funded education in Alaska. Children were forcibly removed from their villages and sent to the schools.  This would not only introduce western concepts into the Alaskan children, but would bring them into the moral consciousness of Christian faith (thereby saving them from hell).  Boarding schools were the norm in Alaska until the late 1940s.

Boarding School

Public school No. 2 at Sitka 1880 Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Edward DeGroff Collection.

Capt. Richard H. Pratt captured the predominant view among Americans with his statement regarding education for native born children, “kill the Indian to save the man.” At the schools, the children were forbidden to speak their languages, to tell their stories, to sing their songs or to dance their dances.  They were acculturated into American values.  Indoctrination. Years later when they were returned to their villages they no longer knew their language or culture or had any skills to bring to the village way of life.  Powerless in their environment and unable to fit into either culture, their loss of identity lead to alienation, drinking, drugs, violence and suicide.  Rather than assimilation, they experienced alienation.

Ernestine Hayes, Assistant Professor at UAS, gave a talk on Tlingit history in November, 2012, as part of the Evenings at Egan lecture series.  She asked her audience to “suspend disbelief and imagine a future in which the United States itself was taken over by an unfamiliar civilization… what would we do if, in the year of 2015, three years from now, this American culture was suddenly subdued by one that believed theirs was the superior way of living, their god was the one true god, their language the only worthwhile speech, their history the only history that mattered?”

Do I have to wait until 2015?  Do I need to suspend disbelief?  Hasn’t something like that already been happening as America becomes increasingly hostile to Evangelical Christianity?  I have seen Christianity reduced to superstition in the academy and listened as Christians are written off as unsophisticated and “clinging to guns and religion” – troglodyte, flat-earthers cornered by their own ignorance in the face of a sophisticated, progressive agenda.  Wild, uncultivated, uncivilized, savage.

Recently I found myself driving behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, “So many Christians, so few lions” next to a bumper sticker that said “coexist.”  How do I coexist with that? It would be beyond most of our sensibilities to imagine mounting a bumper sticker on our cars that said such things about Jews, Muslims or Hindus.  Yet Christians seem to be fair game for ridicule.  Christians are regularly lampooned in the media as ignorant and out-of-touch.  To be fair, there are some high-profile Christians who beg to be lampooned, but the average Christian in America is probably a good contributor to American society.

The fact is that in our in our increasingly secularized America, Christianity has lost its dominance in the public arena.  And not surprisingly, many Christians are seeing their way of life threatened by changes in our society. Many would regard our schools as places of indoctrination into a foreign way of thinking. Certainly it is nothing like the sweeping changes that overwhelmed the Native Alaskans, but they are changes nonetheless.  Political decisions have been made that create dilemmas for many believers who want to both live by their convictions and at the same time obey their government.  How do evangelicals live out a commitment to Jesus Christ in a country that is sometimes hostile towards our values?

Well, we are not without an example.  Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah gave a warning given to the people of Judah…

For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear.  And the word of the Lord will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little, that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken. (Isaiah 28:11-13, ESV)

The people of God were under judgment for their neglect of foreigners, widows and orphans.  The charge?  Injustice.  Even “good” people would take the long walk to Babylon.  In fact, Jeremiah told the people to plan on a long time in captivity and to make homes in Babylon and live as God’s people in that society (Jeremiah 29:4-14).  Isaiah spoke of a time when His obstinate people would be under the yoke of people who were not like them.  They were to be exiled into Babylon and be ruled by people who spoke a different language and believed in other gods.  Through these oppressors God would speak to his people.  He would rebuild their faith precept by precept until they humbled themselves under the hand of God.  Only then would He restore them.

Nations are not judged with respect to eternal consequence, since they are temporal.  Rather they are judged in the here and now.  Is it possible that the injustices we have ignored (thereby tacitly approved), to Native Americans, slaves and the unborn are coming under judgment?  Are we listening to false prophets, like the ones Jeremiah warned of, who said that they would be led back to their city in triumph?

I am always hopeful for a change in the heart of my country.  No, I am not putting trust in a particular political party.  My hope is in God’s people, who “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16, ESV)”

Maybe it is time for the Christian church in America to take a lesson from people who have walked through suffering, marginalization and obscurity; people who held onto their identity and taught it in precious story to their children.  They stood for righteousness and brought challenges to the prevailing culture, at times with risk to their own lives.  It is time for our theology, formed by our expectation of triumph, to give way to a theology learned through suffering in the humble dependence on the presence and faithfulness of God.

It is hard to believe that this country would be at odds with Christianity.  Impossible?

Well… many of us savages have already suspended disbelief.

About marknicklas

Mark Nicklas is a husband, father, son and follower of Jesus Christ. He is a pastor at Beaverton Foursquare Church and an adjunct professor at Multnomah University, where he earned his doctorate in Cultural Engagement. Like Jacob wrestled with God at Jabbok, this site is a place for talking about the identity of the church with respect to the cultures we live in. You are invited to share the journey.
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9 Responses to Savages: Lessons from Alaska Natives Part II

  1. rmiller says:

    As someone who seems to be just on that fence between claiming Christianity and not, I see it from both sides. I see how many people seem to be hateful and angry towards Christians for perceived (and actual) slights and abuses, and I see how many Christians seem to have no concept of actually showing love and compassion towards others in the name of their God. I found the interaction between your teacher and the Zen Buddhists to be a fine example of how to break down that wall. It has nothing at all to do with triumph, it has to do with love and reconciliation. That is truly, in my opinion, the only possible way forward.

    Christians are losing the culture war and will need to learn to coexist rather than dominate. In the short term, that may even lead to a bit of domination, as that’s what happens when a war is lost. But then, I have to ask, was the culture war really worth fighting in the first place? Is any war that is dedicated to the dominance of culture rather than the dominance of love worth waging? I think the answer to that question is becoming clear. It’s a new reality, and I think in many ways a much better one. I would rather coexist with Christians (and I don’t think Christians should be thrown to the lions) rather than be dominated by them.

  2. marknicklas says:

    Thanks, Russell. Key to Paul’s interaction with the Zen Buddhists is a willingness to discuss our differences rather than to gloss over them as if they don’t exist. That is what used to define tolerance – the ability to live with differences. Tolerance seems to have been redefined to mean that we walk on eggshells with one another as we try not to offend our hypersensitivity. Sometimes honest discourse has to risk offense, that is if learning is to take place.

    Also, I would suggest that the culture war that Christians are losing may not even be the one people think they are fighting. Excepting some self-appointed spokesmen for “what Christians think,” I believe most Christians are more concerned that there has been a movement away from the restraint inherent in our Constitution and a tendency towards activism. The nation has been redefining a number of values. Given time, such things are likely to become consensus in time (even if I personally would not consent, i would add). But activism bypasses society’s way of making adjustments, which is to change attitudes.

    Will there be an erosion of religious liberty underlying the redefining of American values and principles? There are already indications that there will be. Why? Because progressives think our “savage” values need to challenged (and even ignored). Consider two mandates that are deeply troubling to Christians – the provision of abortions at taxpayer expense and the provision of birth control in the Affordable Care Act that requires even Catholic hospitals to go against their basic religious beliefs. I can only hope that we will not redefine important blood-fought principles in the Bill of Rights. Still, if we do, I want to understand a right Christian response, not a political one.

  3. rmiller says:

    I am not a fan of the “walking on eggshells” type of tolerance – and you and I have had, and will continue to have, some very frank discussions that have left a bunch of eggshells scattered to the four winds of discourse, discourse that has changed both of us.

    There are two kinds of religious liberty. One kind is that of being able to worship in any way that one chooses. The other kind is that of being able to prevent others from worshipping in any way that they choose. There are Christians out there who see it as the latter, rather than the former. I submit that some Christians feel that they are being persecuted because they are losing the latter kind of liberty, rather than the former. And others, while believing in the former, use the term “religious liberty”, which language has been hijacked by those who define it in terms of the latter. When many nonbelievers hear the words “religions liberty”, the first thought that runs through their head is “oh great, who are those spoiled Christians going to persecute this time?”

    There aren’t any easy answers. Not to the wars being fought amongst the nonbelievers, not to the wars being fought amongst the believers, and not to the wars being fought between believers and nonbelievers. But it does strike me that as long as there are people perverting the language for their own ends, there will be continue to be problems.

    And, to be clear, my thoughts on “tolerance” have moderated lately as well. I recognize that some people confuse “tolerance” with “acceptance”. I don’t confuse those two things anymore, and it makes things that much easier for me. 🙂

    • bkieselhorst says:

      Your distinction between “tolerance” and “acceptance” is an important one for Christians to understand in the context of religious liberty. People are who they are, and the expressions of that humanity are vast (multiculturalism, pluralism). Our task is not to change them or to convert them but to love them in Christ. Christ does the transforming. By honoring another in Christ, I simply receive who he/she is, listen to their story from their heart, and share the grace that is mine to share in the context of this relationship. This is “witness,” because of the Spirit Who is within me. If I violate the relationship by prematurely dumping a load of my religion on them, then I’ve probably lost a potential friend. If I respond in the Spirit of Christ, I’ve potentially gained a friend and the privilege of sharing God’s grace in future encounters. And if my life expresses grace, why would anyone refuse grace? It’s our agenda that people distrust, and why shouldn’t they?

      Many Evangelical Christians think that engagement with nonbelievers is “accommodation” – buying into their agenda – and they fear that. Meanwhile, we dump our agenda on them! Acceptance in Christ is honoring another as a brother or sister human. I am not better or more than. But my story includes, is infused by, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, Who indwells me and expresses Himself through me somehow (it likely is not via my canned evangelistic methods). I simply share my story in the context of relationship, holding the relationship (the other) as sacred ground – a place where God is working. Engagement is not accommodation – it’s our mission. The fruit of it – the outcome – belongs to Christ. We need to lighten up and be the people Christ has made us.

      • rmiller says:

        I like what you say here. I only have a couple of things to say here: I think the word “prematurely” is poorly chosen. There’s no such thing as “prematurely dumping my religion on them” – if you do it at *all* it can be a violation of relationship. You have to let them set the pace – and they may never want you to do that. I know that’s kind of what “prematurely” means but I think that you have to be careful of the mindset that “prematurely” entails – it suggests you’re going to do it at some point. And the other comment I want to make is your “canned evangelistic methods” likely don’t work anyway and just serve to push people away. Your heart is in the right place, I think. And it’s sad that I think this is rare in evangelical circles.

  4. Brent Mills says:


    I like your perspective. As you and I have talked about in person, the conflict of being a disciple of Jesus Christ and an American citizen in 2013 continues to be something we wrestle with. While I cannot speak for Jesus for many obvious reasons, I have a strong suspicion that if he were to walk our streets today, he would be repulsed by most of our political ideologies on both sides of the aisle. Any time in human history that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been used to affect societal change through governmental or imperialistic means, horrific failure and tragedy has been the result. We really shouldn’t be surprised – the people closest to Jesus when he came to earth made the same mistakes in thinking that he was arriving on the scene to overthrow a government. Instead, he was looking to expand an unseen heavenly kingdom one heart at a time.

    I find it ironic that I’m posting this comment on July 4. My personal life and history has been filled with a strong sense of patriotism in this great nation. However, we are a nation of immigrants – nearly as of us came from somewhere, and it saddens me to think that just because one people group came as immigrants earlier than another, they feel justified to impose a sense of imperialism on immigrants who came to America more recently. (much less a people group that truly is native to our land)

    The more I study God’s word and have opportunities to interact with the great diversity of people living in this country, the more convinced I am that I want nothing to do with a “culture war” In the political arena. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not aim for societal change – however, the love of God passionately goes after each and every one of us, seeking to effect a complete and total personal transformation. It is certainly possible that a large number of personal transformations could bring about societal change on a larger level, but we cannot get those priorities out of order. I find an ironic tension in the fact that God in his wisdom calls upon people to reach out and bring this loving Gospel to others. So often, in the process of trying to do that, we get caught up in other pursuits, and the heart of the Gospel gets lost.

    I have a conviction in my heart that if Christians took less time to advance political ideology, and more time to love people in Jesus name, we wouldn’t have to do nearly as much repair work in relationships like you guys are doing in Alaska. (And I’m really thankful you are) For me, the process of shedding a narrow-minded political ideology, in order to embrace an ever-growing vision of what I perceive as God’s heart for all mankind, has been a difficult one. Many long-standing “American” values have come under scrutiny in my mind, and I am continually re-assessing how I should live in light of God’s word. Don’t get me wrong – I do not believe that God has changed his mind about issues of right and wrong, and neither should I. However, I feel like a Bible – centered worldview has started to make me unpopular with just about everybody in our society.

    It is nearly impossible to measure the effectiveness of any mission work that we involved in, and I get to take absolutely no credit for any lives that are transformed. Somehow, I think that’s exactly how God wants it to be.

    • marknicklas says:

      Well said, Brent. It is a growing tension in me. My values are certainly conservative and I politically align with strict constitutionalists. So I get to vote. And that is about all that is available to me short of getting directly involved in politics (I won’t). Like you said, God has called us to follow the humble, servant example of Jesus Christ. It will always be our challenge to live as Christ in a world that is under the influence of the prince of the air. That you for commenting, my friend.

  5. rmiller says:

    Brent, you’ve said very little I disagree with on a macro level. And Mark will tell you how rare that is. 🙂 Societal change cannot be effectively imposed.

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