Facing the Ambiguities of Christian Missions

11 Jan

President Franklin Roosevelt signed what is often referred to today as “the Indian New Deal” in June of 1934, at the time Kuipers’ first novel, Deep Snow, was published. How Kuipers notes the positions he held from 1934 to 1939 in his own vitae–“Statistical assignments with TC-BIA Dept of Agri. Technical Cooperation BIA”–requires some historical background.

Designed to enhance opportunities for Native people on reservations, the “Indian New Deal” hired anthropologists to team with scientists, agronomists, economists, and others to try to determine how significant change in reservation environments would alter Native life and cultures. In the American Southwest, the “TC-BIA” attempted to undertake good water and land management on the reservations, but at the same time tried to be sure that change did not harm Native cultures.

Which is, of course, impossible. Building reservoirs might well insure sufficient water supply for Zuni sheep, but adequate annual supply of water would disrupt religious rituals like rain dances, rituals that had been the soul of religious life in the pueblo for centuries. Furthermore, strengthening Zuni shepherds was not something their Anglo neighbors relished. “TC-BIA” attempted balancing acts that were difficult, to say the least.

That’s what Casey Kuipers was doing when his novels were published, trying to determine how little harm could be done to Native life and still achieve something beneficial, and that’s the experience only research can unpack from his pithy account of what he did during those years: “Statistical assignments with TC-BIA Dept of Agri. Technical Cooperation BIA.” Kuipers himself is long gone, and it’s doubtful anyone alive remembers; his children were toddlers.

So writes James Schaap, Professor Emeritus of English at Dordt College. He has been reading and writing about the Christian Reformed and American Indians for several years now.

In this piece, he goes on to reflect about the ambiguities of Christian missions. That is, while the gospel is cross-cultural, taking it across cultures always entails bringing along cultural baggage. The gospel and the baggage bring change. Change is often bittersweet, and it brings unanticipated fruit.

You can find Schaap’s entire piece here: the12 – James Schaap.

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