David White

Whose Civilization?

There is a lot of darkness in Native history. There was a time not that long ago when Native children were forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in distant boarding schools with the intent to force assimilation into American culture.

During and following the Victorian era (1837-1914), the doctrine of ‘Social Evolution’ became a hot topic, especially among the social elite. Several philanthropic societies were formed out of a desire to help the American Indians, thought to be uncivilized, join civilization. (Note: Darwin’s seminal book on the theory of evolution, “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured [sic] Races in the Struggle of Life,” was published in 1853 and may have been the impetus of the Social Evolution movement).

In 1879 a Christian group, the Women’s National Indian Association, began meeting in the basement of a Baptist church in Philadelphia to discuss the Indian problem. Based on accepted 19th-century scientific knowledge, they determined that educating young Native people out of their Indian culture and ways and into a modern civilized culture was the answer to preserving the Indian race. This became a common argument in favor of acculturation by Indian schools as it would “quicken the process of cultural evolution.”

Today most of us cringe at the prejudice and ethnocentricity of these statements, especially with the current prevalent mindset of inclusivism. Yet, at that time, these good people thought they were doing the right thing.

Recently, while in Billings, Montana, I met the great-great-grandson of a very famous historical Native. I helped him load a piece of equipment onto his truck, and in so doing, it was not long before I knew who he was and a little of his personal history. My classes at the community college prepared me to recognize his family name and know some of the history associated with it. I asked him at least a dozen questions about his famous grandfather, and he seemed genuinely happy to answer my questions. Before we parted, he told me that Natives have an intuitive sense of the heart, knowing if a person is genuine or not. He said I had a good heart and then jokingly added that he was also a modern Indian and wanted $500.00 for the cultural lesson. We both had a good laugh and traded phone numbers. When I get back to Billings, I hope to see him again. I consider him kona, my friend.

Natives are proud of their heritage and family name. They know the importance of belonging. Their history, tribal identity and family name are essential. Perhaps more so because they almost lost all of it. Family and community (tribe) are two of humanity’s most important relationships. Isolate a rat from other rats (not to imply that any of us are rats), and it starts getting aggressive and quirky. Community is important. God made us relational; we need each other. We also need to know our history, for it defines who we are.

This Christmas, enjoy your family, celebrate your heritage in your own unique cultural way and remember the day will soon come when we, the followers of the Son of God, shall stand on a sea of glass united as a family with a six-thousand-year heritage. Merry Christmas! Thank you for your prayers and support.

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