`Faith-Based' Social Services: For Native Americans, It Was A Trail of Tears

Article excerpt

"Faith-based" social services is not an original idea with President George W. Bush or the current Christian right. It is a concept that has been tried before, and it eventually proved to be a disaster for all concerned -- for the federal government, for the churches and for the population it was intended to serve.

In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant began turning over the full responsibility for the administration of Indian agencies to American churches and missionary bodies, whose assumed honesty and charitable motives were expected to give them success in achieving pacification and assimilation of the tribes. Within three years, Indian agencies had been apportioned among the Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Episcopalians and other denominations. Missionaries filled federal offices as Indian agents and were in full charge of education and other activities on the reservation.

On the whole, it was a disaster for most of the tribes of Native Americans. Some of the agents lived up to the expectations and acquitted themselves honorably. Others proved to be corrupt and incompetent. On numerous reservations, the missionary agents were fanatically determined to "Christianize" (in their own denomination) their wards and destroy everything they considered heathenish.

Acting as bigoted dictators and backed by Army troops, they tyrannized Native Americans with orders that banned their ceremonies, their dances, the telling of legends and myths and all other manifestations of Native religion and culture. Those who resisted, particularly medicine men and tribal leaders, were treated with stern measures, ranging from harassment and the withholding of rations to imprisonment, banishment or death.

During this same period, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a number of attempts to suppress Native American religion with a series of departmental regulations. This was a direct violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution and, without a doubt, one of the greatest violations of human rights committed against a native population.

Enthusiastic missionaries bent on the destruction of what they saw as a pagan religion, as well as reformers who saw assimilation as the only way to solve the "Indian problem," zealously implemented repressive government regulations. Children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent off to schools, often far distances from their reservations. When tribal leaders objected, they were held back by troops or thrown in jail without due process. In effect, all Native religious practices were banned.

The policy of entrusting reservations to the churches eventually failed because of the Native Americans' resistance, a growing public concern about Native rights and the treatment by the missionaries. …