In the previous blog entry, the topic came up about syncretism of Christianity and traditional Lakota religion/spirituality. I felt that my response was somewhat deflective of the question. I would like at this time to put down some thoughts on the subject in a more theological way.
The Lakota/Dakota name for God, or more precisely translated as “great spirit,” is Wakantanka. As I have come to understand the traditional Lakota way of life in the last few weeks, religion apparently permeated every aspect of life. Life was all part of the “circle of Spirit.” This is not unique to the culture of the Lakota, but is found in various forms in many Native American traditional religions.
The white man (and woman) brought the Lakota people into contact with a new religion that could have been both an affront to the culture but also had the ability to complement Lakota traditional culture incredibly well. I say that it was an affront, especially to the men, because men were expected to become warriors and hunters. To refuse to hunt or fight, and thus be degraded into farming the land like the whites, a Lakota man was confronted in his cultural identity by some of the primary elements of Christianity like “loving your enemy.” Women, on the other hand, were not culturally expected to fight or to hunt, and so Lakota women became the first converts to Christianity. The expected role of women as wives and mothers need not be abandoned nor ridiculed by others.
It was this step of women converts that Christianity apparently made its first steps into being accepted into Lakota culture. For the men, however, I believe this is coupled with the acceptance of Christianity as an acceptance of the God of their conquerors. That is to say that it was a search to find the power that fueled the whites.
Episcopal missionaries did try to make the transition to Christianity more palatable by referring to God as “Wakantanka” in both sermons and hymns. However, that was largely the extent of the syncretism that was allowed by missionaries in the Victorian era. As I stated in the previous blog, the Episcopal Church was much more syncretized with Victorian white culture and ethnocentrism (read: racism). Missionaries were more focused on eradicating Lakota culture because it reeked of paganism.
Despite its best efforts, the Episcopal church began to flourish within Lakota culture because, fortunately, the Lakota were better at being able to fit their cultural outlook into the Episcopal liturgy and traditions. Many Lakota could relate to the color and richness of the Episcopal liturgy because it reminded them of their own traditional ceremonies. Similar to the revival of beautiful things in the Oxford movement, Feast days and other high Holy Days also gave a much needed diversion and beauty to otherwise dreadful existence.
Ceremonies marking the transitions of the life cycle were also found in abundance in the Episcopal way. Baptism and Confirmation became sufficient substitutes for the rites of passage found in the traditional way. The burial of the dead also gave the honor and mystery of life and death that was important to traditional Lakota funerals. The “giveaway” and final feasts were quite compatible with what was already present in Lakota culture.
Christianity has the ability to merge and adapt, such as with Celtic and Hellenistic culture. There is still a fear in some present day circles about how far to take syncretism, especially in Native American contexts. While I believe it is important that traditional religion and the basic tenets of Christianity do not become so merged as to be indistinguishable, I think we must also keep in mind that the beauty of Christianity is that we find how God is at work in a culture. We can use this for the betterment of the Kingdom. Culture is much easier to be utilized in this Missio Dei as an ally and not an adversary.