In autobiographies by both Native Americans and African Americans for more than 150 years, in writers with vastly differing religious beliefs and political agendas, the fundamental question addressed to white readers is whether they understand–in practice, in the effect on the lives of people of color in the United States–the full implications of the difference between Christianity and the white man’s religion.

John D. Barbour, Versions of Deconversion

There are a lot of teachings from this fire. . . . It’s like the fire is our mother, because she cooks for us, keeps us warm, gives us light wherever we want to go. . . . Try and take care of the fire.

Tommy Nez, Indian Ecumenical Conference

“Teachings from This Fire”

In the summer of 1988 I was browsing the used books section at Moe’s, less than two blocks from the rooming house where I stayed, when I discovered a perfect hardbound copy of John Snow’s These Mountains Are Our Sacred Places. I had seen references to the book–and to the Indian Ecumenical Conference–in my research on native religious traditions, an interest that was intensifying after a year of exploring various subjects through course work at the Graduate Theological Union. How this obscure Canadian publication had made its way to a Telegraph Avenue bookstore in Berkeley was a mystery to me, but I did recognize the out-of-print book as a bargain at seventeen dollars and quickly added it to my meager library.  A year later Snow’s insights on creation, natural law, revelation, biculturalism, and “the Indian Religious Movement” figured into my master’s thesis, titled “Native Americans, Theology, and Liberation.” The research conducted for that project eventually led to the publication of two edited volumes, each of which contains brief mention of the Conference.

I entered the doctoral program on Holy Hill in the fall of 1989, when I also started working as a teaching assistant for the Native American Studies department at the University of California. I still had doubts about pursuing an academic vocation, but I was enjoying the intellectual life, and I appreciated the opportunity to help teach courses in native history, contemporary issues, literature, and composition. Thanks to friends involved with the Bay Area Native American Ministry, an ecumenical agency based in inner-city Oakland, I also began to see how my scholarly work might speak to some of the problems still facing native communities–and many non-native people as well. My first disciplined research into the Conference was conducted during the fall semester of 1990 for a graduate seminar called “American Indian Social Movements.” I presented the Conference as an example of “intertribal revitalization through interreligious cooperation,” and the following year I submitted an expanded version of this term paper as one of my comprehensive examinations, a comparative and methodological study titled “Cross-Cultural Religious Phenomena: Revitalization Movements.”

By the end of 1991 I was considering several possible dissertation topics: I remained interested in native Christian theology; I had done some preliminary research on independent tribal churches; with the Columbus Quincentenary looming on the horizon, I had also gotten involved in analyzing–and confronting–the triumphalist hoopla being promoted by the dominant culture. I eventually settled on writing about the Conference, hoping to address the growing body of literature on interreligious dialogue while documenting an overlooked aspect of the postwar native experience.  I already knew that this important movement deserved a historical treatment, but the dissertation had to be framed as a theoretical project to satisfy the rubrics of my academic program, so I proposed using the Conference as a case study for exploring “contemporary native religious identity.”

A week after my prospectus was approved, televisual humorist Andy Rooney syndicated a pathetic diatribe scolding native activists for protesting racist sports mascots. “While American Indians have a grand past, the impact of their culture on the world has been slight,” he opined.  “The time for the way Indians lived is gone and it’s doubly sad because they refuse to accept it. They hang onto remnants of their religion and superstition that may have been useful to savages 500 years ago but which are meaningless in 1992.” It was a timely provocation, to say the least.  In the course of my research I learned that the Conference was being revived that summer, and in July I flew from San Francisco to Calgary, where I rented a small car and drove to Morley.

I had arrived a couple of days early so I could explore the archives at the Nakoda Institute, a Stoney research center located on the reserve. My first night in Stoney Indian Park was very quiet, but the next morning work crews began setting up camp, and Conference participants rolled in throughout the day. One of the first people I met that afternoon was Tommy Nez, a Navajo roadman from Gallup, who invited me into his tipi while he visited with old friends about the legal status of peyote. Stewart and Clara Etsitty arrived a little later, along with several grandchildren, and I mostly watched while Nez and another man put up a tipi for them to stay in. By nightfall the place was alive with the sounds of an intertribal gathering, people visiting from camp to camp and sharing provisions for the evening meal. John Snow and other Conference organizers were anticipating a crowd of fifteen hundred; there might have been a hundred people on hand by the time I turned in.

The 1992 Conference began with opening ceremonies on the morning of Monday, July 27. Tommy Nez used a flint to light some wood shavings, stoked the flames with his eagle feather fan, and burned some cedar incense in the fire. Navajo medicine man Joe Bia blessed the grounds with water and the arbor with corn pollen, acknowledging the four directions.  Stewart Etsitty recalled the founding of the Conference in English and then offered a long prayer in Navajo. Assiniboine elder Jerome Fourstar took the lead for a pipe ceremony, smudging with a braid of sweetgrass before lighting the tobacco. John Snow concluded the morning agenda by welcoming everyone to the Stoney Reserve and explaining the purpose of this event:  as pre-Conference publicity had indicated, this was an “Indian Cultural and Spiritual Gathering” reinforcing native traditions and introducing them to those who were too young to have participated in previous Conferences.  It was also being held in response to the Columbus Quincentenary and in recognition of the “International Year for the World’s Indigenous People” proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. Conference sessions were being filmed by a crew from the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of the American Indian. Canada’s minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and five local commercial interests had donated money toward Conference expenses, allowing the Stoneys to serve three meals a day.

After a spartan lunch of sandwiches and fruit, a few dozen people returned to the arbor and settled in for the afternoon session. Adam Cuthand chaired the proceedings, commenting on the history and significance of this ecumenical movement and then inviting the native participants on hand to share from their own experiences. “This is a sacred ground,” he said. “It has been made sacred since that time” in 1971 when the Conference was first held at Stoney Indian Park. “This is the platform on which our native people talk.” Several individuals found the courage to stand up and speak: a Catholic deacon and Anishinabe pipe carrier told about his ministry to prison inmates in northern Minnesota; a young Mohawk woman born at Kahnawake lamented the cultural conflict and language loss she experienced growing up in an urban environment; a Stoney tribal council member recounted her journey through the residential school system, various Christian denominations, and ten years of alcohol abuse on the way back to the spiritual traditions of her grandmother, a medicine woman; an Assiniboine man, retired from the military and “pushing sixty,” voiced humble words of encouragement to those of us resting in the shade of the arbor.

Others related their own insights over the next three days. Each speaker stood on a short rostrum directly behind the sacred fire; with a slight breeze blowing in from the back of the arbor, those who spoke were often veiled in smoke and sprinkled by flecks of ash. Wind, water, and other earthly elements were occasionally invoked as religious metaphors, but the central and unifying motif of this intertribal gathering was natural combustion. One person after another extemporized on the sacred fire and its symbolic meaning in the context of native spiritual revival. Conference old-timers were especially taken with this situational tradition, which was now over two decades old. “There are a lot of teachings from this fire,” said Tommy Nez before drawing sparks from his flint. “It’s like the fire is our mother, because she cooks for us, keeps us warm, gives us light wherever we want to go” when things are dark. “Try and take care of the fire.” After the opening ceremonies John Snow read his poem “The Sacred Fire,” and he recited it again on the last morning, just before closing ceremonies. He prefaced the first reading with an imperative: “This is a sacred fire. You respect the fire–you come here to pray, you come here to meditate, you come here to share religious experiences with others. Many people have come here, they used to gather here in the evenings and share stories, spiritual teachings,” and other personal narratives. The sacred fire is “a very special place, and many have expressed that they found something here.”

One of the oldest individuals to speak was Stewart Etsitty, the most senior Conference leader in attendance. On Monday morning he reminisced about the 1971 gathering at Stoney Indian Park, where Bob Thomas had laid their first sacred fire. “I know around this fireplace there’s a lot of prayers been said, a lot of teaching. The word of wisdom been said around this fireplace here.” Etsitty mourned the passing of Thomas and other Steering Committee colleagues who were gone–Albert Lightning, Andrew Ahenakew, Ernest Tootoosis, Clifton Hill–and called for a moment of silent prayer to remember them. He also appreciated the many intertribal and transnational relationships he had formed through his work on behalf of the ecumenical movement. Toward the end of the Conference, Etsitty returned to the microphone:  “There’s already been a lot of things said about the fire. I don’t think anybody knows the power of fire. The scientists all over the world measure different things,” but “the power of that fire no one knows. If they do find out, something’s going to happen if they don’t be careful with it. You know, we all know, just a tiny little spark will move a big automobile, trucks, train, things like that. A little tiny spark will send a man to the moon.” Tribal medicine people also know a few things about fire, but “I don’t know if there’s any limit to the power of fire.”

An omnipotent flame may have been at the center of this spiritual gathering, but it was not a hegemonic force. The fire was sacred yet open to interpretation, a dynamic focal point that looked different from every angle. Those who gathered under the arbor in 1992 embodied the four directions, their homes scattered from the Northwest Territories to the American Southwest, from the East Coast to the Pacific Rim; indigenous visitors representing the Mapuches of Chile and the Maoris of New Zealand had joined the circle as well. Conference sessions were chaired by an Assiniboine traditionalist and an Anglican priest and a peyote roadman, and various participants spoke on the basis of their familiarity with tribal creeds or denominational customs or some combination of native and Christian traditions. During the four-day event we heard from octogenarians and teenagers and those somewhere in-between. Three speakers needed translators to convey their verbal messages.  This casual program of testimony, prayer, storytelling, and gentle exhortation was interspersed with the occasional joke and a few tears. Despite the passage of time, the ecumenical movement still sustained a multifaceted conversation transcending political and ethnic and linguistic boundaries, closing the geographic and religious and generational distances separating native people.  The Conference had preserved its egalitarian ethos, even if the 1992 gathering was a pale reflection of the movement’s mid-seventies glory days.

On Tuesday afternoon I met Darin Keewatin, who would become my good friend. I enjoyed visiting with him and sharing a buffalo steak dinner while standing under the eaves of the cookhouse, and his rambunctious son, Russell, turned out to be a reliable source of comic relief. Later that evening I stopped by Tommy Nez’s tipi, where he and some Navajo friends were singing peyote songs to the beat of a water drum; Colleen Seymour, a Shuswap teacher from Kamloops, served homemade herbal tea to those of us listening. There were other evening activities as well: a twelve-step meeting, a talking circle for women, and two teaching sessions with the youth. The powwow on Wednesday night was a small, subdued affair but featured some impressive music by the Nakoda Nation Singers, a local drum group.

Closing ceremonies began late Thursday morning, and the sacred fire was extinguished a couple of hours later. There were less than a hundred people on hand; many paused to collect ashes from the fire before breaking camp. John Snow announced that the Steering Committee had reached a consensus on gathering again in 1993, and other Conference leaders voiced support for the idea, though it seemed a tentative gesture.  The Committee had met twice to discuss plans for coming years, but those who spoke during morning and afternoon sessions spent more time recalling past pilgrimages to Morley than they did envisioning the future of the movement. The 1992 Conference felt more like a reunion than a revival, and overall attendance–less than three hundred people, mostly from southern Alberta–did not suggest a groundswell of interest in the transnational spiritual gathering.  Indian country was a different place than it had been in 1969. A good share of the credit for this remarkable transformation could be assigned to the ecumenical movement.

Writing in 1992, Vine Deloria, Jr., praised Conference leaders for having “succeeded in reaching people of all ages far beyond their most optimistic expectations.” He recognized that the ecumenical movement had played a crucial role in the rise of “modern traditionalism” in many native communities. During the seventies and eighties “an impressive number of young people abandoned their careers in Indian organizational work and returned to their reservations determined to learn the tribal ways and become carriers of the traditions. Since the conditions under which the old ways were practiced no longer exist, the most satisfactory solution for these young people was to derive principles of action and understanding from the traditions and apply them to modern circumstances in which they found themselves.”  The Conference helped define modern traditionalism by seeking to “transform old ways of behaving into standards of action with definable limits set by the conception of Indian identity itself. Indians therefore find themselves at a unique point in their history,” Deloria inferred, and the future of native communities in Canada and the U.S. will hinge on the contest between modern traditionalism and its polar alternatives, assimilative progressivism and obstinate conservatism.

*        *        *

I returned to Berkeley on the last day of July and dived back into my dissertation, finishing a draft six weeks later. The Columbus Quincentenary came and went, accompanied by dubious fanfare on both sides of the colonial divide. Looking for an appropriate way to conclude my interdisciplinary study of the Indian Ecumenical Conference, I was drawn to a compelling narrative by another kind of Indian. Born and raised in Bombay, Jayant Kothare learned to revere the Hindu traditions of his devout Brahmin family. His parents and grandparents also encouraged him to explore other religious communities in the city, and among his earliest memories were the “huge Victorian Gothic church buildings looming over poor housing areas. There, surrounded by war memorials and monuments of imperial Britain, brown Anglicans worshipped in strict adherence to the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, in blissful ignorance of the rich indigenous spirituality of India.” Kothare later migrated to Germany and then Canada, converting to Christianity along the way and seeking ordination as a Christian minister. “I was twice stripped of my ordinand status in two mainline churches of Canada because of my concern to incorporate my Hindu spiritual tradition into my Christian faith,” he recalled. “As a convert from an ancient spiritual tradition, I have watched over the years the monochrome European church painting itself into a lonely corner, slowly but surely alienating itself from Christians hailing from different religious and different racial backgrounds.”

Kothare eventually found a home in the Anglican Church of Canada, working with several native parishes while completing his seminary education. He “had little difficulty in making a connection” between what he had witnessed at the Bombay cathedral and “the cultural and spiritual alienation of native Christians in Regina, Saskatchewan, or Kenora, Ontario.”  He attended the Indian Ecumenical Conference four times during the mid-seventies; his sensitive reflection on what he discovered there was the antithesis of Andy Rooney’s shallow invective. “Each visit was a blessing and an enrichment of my spiritual life,” Kothare wrote. “I would spend most of my time walking around, meeting and talking to people. These were ordinary native folk with extraordinary insights into the dilemma of modern civilization and the possible ways of healing Mother Earth and her children.” He was struck by the “sensual, earthy, incarnational quality to their experiences, so unlike the earth-negating pseudo-spirituality prevalent among the bohemian white people disenchanted with materialism.” Every native person he met seemed to understand that “mystical insight was not the prerogative of a chosen few but the birthright of every individual who was willing to live in harmony with creation. It was a democratic mysticism.”

“When I listened to the elders holding forth in the sacred arbour,” Kothare continued, “this theme of democratic mysticism was repeated again and again. Spirituality and justice issues were mentioned in the same breath with no contradiction as you would find in the traditional teaching of the church.” The “bottom line” was this: “Everything spiritual had to be earthed, made incarnate, and shared through a sacramental relationship with everybody around. The feeling of sacredness that permeated the entire proceedings of the Conference was infectious.” He had never been around such large crowds while experiencing “so little tension, stress, panic. People looked each other in the eyes. There were long silences and lively banterings. No formalities, no unctuous courtesies.” Kothare was a perceptive critic, though many had made similar observations about the annual gatherings.  What distinguished this particular narrative was Kothare’s reflexive candor:  “The time spent at the four Conferences was probably the most enriching time of my life as a Christian minister,” he confessed, which is a remarkable admission for a non-native cleric to make. “I had experiences which one normally would not have in the white man’s straight and cerebral world.”  Attending the Conference “opened my whole being–body, mind, and soul–to the Numinous and the Holy as no experience in the church setting has ever done for me either before or since.”

I defended my dissertation in December 1992. A few weeks later I moved to Santa Cruz, where I soon found myself engrossed in teaching undergraduates about native people. Over the next decade I published several analytical articles on the Conference while immersing myself in recent scholarship on narrative strategies in historiography, ethnography, and literary criticism; I was particularly inspired by native writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Charles Alexander Eastman, and Joy Harjo, whose work helped me think about the importance of orality, experience, commitment, and perception in any attempt at textual representation. Continuing my research into the history of the Conference, I also tried to keep track of ongoing developments related to the ecumenical movement.

After twelve consecutive terms of office, John Snow met defeat in the biennial band elections held at the end of 1992. He was an influential voice among political leaders on the regional and national levels, but he had become one of the more controversial figures in Stoney affairs. The factionalism that accompanied his twenty-four-year reign also made him a convenient target for the frontier journalism that flares up wherever native people assert their rights. Snow’s successor focused on wellness programs addressing the Stoneys’ many social problems; he had no particular interest in hosting an intertribal religious gathering, so the 1993 Conference envisioned by Steering Committee members a year earlier did not take place.  Snow managed to get reelected in 1996 and served as chief of the Wesley band for four more years. It was an unusually contentious period in Stoney history–complete with court-ordered investigations, grassroots civil disobedience, and federal control of band finances–and Snow was turned out of office again in 2000. Stoney Indian Park remained a scenic destination, perhaps even a sacred site, but its tenure as home of the Indian Ecumenical Conference had come to an end.

The Anglican Church of Canada stopped funding the annual gatherings in the early eighties, around the time Adam Cuthand resigned his Church House position, but native issues continued to play a prominent role in the life of the denomination. Throughout the seventies and eighties Anglican leaders took an active interest in northern development and its effect on native people, advocating on their behalf and publishing materials critical of government policies and corporate practices. The Sub-Committee on Native Affairs was elevated in status in 1980 and renamed the Council for Native Ministries in 1988. In October of that year the denomination sponsored its first National Native Convocation, a weeklong gathering of nearly two hundred native Anglicans, and three months later the first native Anglican bishop was consecrated. In 1991 Anglican executives established the Residential Schools Working Group to coordinate their response amid the growing controversy over historic abuses in the residential school system; at a second National Native Convocation in 1993, the Anglican primate read a formal statement apologizing for the suffering caused by these colonial institutions. In 1994 native Anglican leaders drafted and signed a covenant pledging to “call our people into unity in a new, self-determining community within the Anglican Church of Canada.” They also reorganized their administrative body as the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples. By the turn of the millennium, when residential schools litigation threatened to bankrupt Canada’s mainline denominations, the Anglican church had documented its support for native concerns in numerous books and videos, including a 1998 reprint of the Hendry report.

The Anglican and United churches played a critical role in another important legacy of the ecumenical movement. In 1971, after the Steering Committee declared June 21 as a National Indian Day of Prayer, both denominations passed resolutions endorsing this action and encouraging their parishes and congregations to participate. Conference leaders promoted the observance as long as Bob Thomas was involved in the movement, and many Christian bodies continued to support the annual commemoration throughout the seventies. In 1982 the newly formed Assembly of First Nations–led by David Ahenakew, a nephew of Andrew Ahenakew–launched a campaign to get June 21 designated as National Aboriginal Solidarity Day in Canada. The first official response came in 1990, when the Quebec legislature acknowledged June 21 as a day to celebrate native cultural traditions. Delegates to the 1995 Sacred Assembly, an ecumenical gathering of native and non-native religious leaders organized by Ojibwa-Cree politician Elijah Harper, renewed the call for a national commemoration. In 1996 the Canadian government finally responded by proclaiming June 21 to be National Aboriginal Day, which is now celebrated annually at hundreds of events across the country. Few Canadians realize that this holiday began as a holy day conceived at the Indian Ecumenical Conference, fewer still that the idea was first suggested by Browning Pipestem, an Otoe-Missouria lawyer from the U.S.

Bob Thomas and Ian MacKenzie had both withdrawn from the movement by the summer of 1974. Unable to persuade the Steering Committee to institutionalize the Conference by adopting a corporate structure and establishing an administrative headquarters, they set up their own organization.  The first board meeting of the Centre for Indian Scholars was held in August 1975 at Masset in the Queen Charlotte Islands, a Haida settlement where MacKenzie served as Anglican priest. The Centre sponsored a number of small ecumenical gatherings over the years, organizing native spiritual leaders at the regional level, but never obtained the funding necessary for a large-scale effort.  In the mid-eighties the Centre developed a close relationship with the Native Ministries Consortium based at the Vancouver School of Theology, an interdenominational seminary affiliated with the University of British Columbia. Thomas chaired the Centre for Indian Scholars until his death in August 1991, after which the organization increasingly focused on commemorating his life and work.

Over the course of his forty-year career, Bob Thomas had come to know a multitude of academics, activists, and just plain folks.  He was a Cherokee traditionalist from the U.S. whose personal experiences convinced him of the importance of working in intertribal, ecumenical, and transnational contexts. His many friends and colleagues remembered him smoking a pipe, and wearing a variety of hats: social scientist, grassroots organizer, college teacher, postcolonial theorist, spiritual leader. A lengthy collection of essays published in his honor credited him with numerous professional accomplishments, not the least of which was founding the Indian Ecumenical Conference. “The fact that it held together at all is a miracle,” Thomas admitted in a lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology during the summer of 1986. “Considering the difficulties, I think it was a smashing success,” since “a lot of positive things” came out of the movement. “I think I would be game for starting it again, and may yet.”

He would not live long enough to achieve that goal, though he did fulfill a “lifelong dream” just before his untimely death.  During the 1957-58 academic year, while conducting field research among the Eastern Cherokees, Thomas had noted some interest in “reviving the old Cherokee religion. Many of them talked about this in informal groups all through the winter and spring.” When he finished his work in June, one of the local leaders told him that “sometime next winter we may want you to ask some of those Oklahoma chiefs to come down here and teach us all about the fire.” Thomas kept in touch with the North Carolina Cherokees and other tribal communities in the eastern U.S., and thirty years later the time was finally right for “lighting the Cherokee fire” on the Qualla Boundary Reservation.  In September 1989 a delegation of Oklahoma Cherokees laid a fire at the Raven Rock Ceremonial Grounds, then joined their eastern relatives for an all-night stomp dance, the first such event there in over sixty years. The following summer Thomas and his colleagues helped the Eastern Cherokees revive their green corn ceremony, a four-day undertaking. “There are few things I have wanted more in my life than to see a Fire again in North Carolina,” he told those who had made financial contributions to the effort. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart, my friends. God bless you!”

Stoney Indian Park, the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, National Aboriginal Day, the Centre for Indian Scholars, Raven Rock Ceremonial Grounds–these are some of the more conspicuous sites where the impact of the Indian Ecumenical Conference can be documented. Organizational developments involving government institutions, Christian denominations, and modern tribal communities leave paper trails that are relatively easy to follow. It is considerably more difficult to map the boundaries of a social phenomenon as expansive as the ecumenical movement, particularly when this indeterminate domain overlaps the territory claimed for other cultural nationalisms. The resolutions approved at the first three Conferences, for example, expressed concerns that were also voiced through various community associations, tribal governments, advocacy groups, and militant organizations during the early seventies.

One of the most far-reaching effects of the Conference was a product of its unanticipated transformation from interreligious conversation to intergenerational encounter. Phillip Deere and his AIM advisees were not the only people to borrow the Conference model in planning their own spiritual event; as Adam Cuthand and Elizabeth Boyd noted in the late seventies, “elders and youth” gatherings were becoming a popular communal practice throughout Indian country. During the three decades since the Conference began catering to urban youth, local encampments bringing together tribal elders and young people have become a familiar feature of native life, especially during the summer months. Formalizing the pedagogical relationships that once characterized daily existence–before the proliferation of modern communication and transportation technologies–these annual events typically focus on demonstrating the contemporary relevance of tribal cultural traditions. Some elders-and-youth gatherings are offspring of the Conference, having been founded by people who witnessed the model firsthand at Stoney Indian Park. Other such gatherings followed, organized as part of a more general movement of cultural revitalization.  Like the competition powwow circuit that developed in the postwar period, this casual network of intergenerational encampments is an emergent intertribal expression.

The grassroots popularity of elders-and-youth gatherings, competition powwows, and other modern cultural institutions highlights a deficiency in the historiography of contemporary intertribal activism. Conventional accounts of recent native history foreground the militant groups that attracted media attention during the early seventies. Embracing the sensationalist biases of their journalistic precursors, most scholars portray the Red Power era as a pageantry of confrontational protest, an interpretive approach that fails to account for much of what has transpired in tribal communities since that time. Privileging the more flamboyant expressions of native activism also oversimplifies the politics of Indian country; many tribal people were critical of the militant groups, and many remain so today. Writing in the mid-seventies under the Cherokee pseudonym of Stand Middlestriker, Bob Thomas suggested that “many of the young Indian people who are called militants have learned to think like young city whites.” Living in a world of “symbol and image,” these “Indian revolutionaries” began “wearing long hair and feathers, not to express their Indianness, but to be an Indian, to create themselves an image.” Few could see that “the ultimate ‘cop out’ is to try to create your own self, as do young whites, by hanging symbols on you to project an image.” While many native militants are sincere, “they are pretty misguided.  They go out and protest for justice. They have a big public tantrum which just shows off how politically powerless we are and how much we have learned to perform for whites. Whites won’t pay attention to their own children unless they have a tantrum, so our young people have learned to act like white children.”

“And all of that protesting will come to naught, anyhow,” Thomas continued. “Powerful whites won’t keep their agreements anyway. We just get ‘set up’ in our war with whites to get it socked to us again. Further, what young Indians don’t know when they go out and protest, I think, is that protesting just ties us in more to the system,” which manages dissent by co-opting dissenters. “We not only look foolish and we are not only playing a no-win game, but we are becoming more involved with whites.  Every time powerful whites in the system meet the demands of a minority it just means that the minority has to work more with whites and to become more involved with them in some way.” Both militant rhetoric and the co-optive response it provokes tend to exacerbate tribal factionalism. “Nowadays, since the Indian religion is a big fad among young whites, the fad has rubbed off on some Indians so they go around playing Indian traditionalists, wearing a lot of bead work and going to a lot of ceremonies. At the same time, some of them violate the most important thing in the Indian religion and that is the harmony that has to be among the Indians to make our medicine work.”  Secular academics have inscribed the militant activists as the leading voices of their generation, and materialist books and articles keep rolling off the presses. Readers can already choose from among nine published volumes recounting the occupation of Alcatraz Island, for example, and there are at least forty graduate theses documenting the heyday of the American Indian Movement. As fascinating as these historic episodes may be, there were many other expressions of native activism that helped make Indian country what it is today. And a lot of native activists during the Red Power era were inspired by motivations more substantive than those driving the angry outbursts viewers occasionally witnessed on the evening news.

Writers who privilege political organizing among native people, like native activists who chase concessions from modern nation-states, usually end up reinforcing the nationalist ideology that is a hallmark of colonial aggression. Less concerned with recognition than autonomy, the Indian Ecumenical Conference developed out of a different tradition of grassroots activism. Founded by native leaders from both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, the ecumenical movement was postnationalist at its inception, and it remained so through an era when tribal sovereignty evolved into the leading euphemism for postmodern vassalage. The movement’s transnational orientation corresponded with the inclusivity signaled by the three terms of its official designation:  the Indian Ecumenical Conference was an intertribal interreligious interchange.  These descriptors suggest constructive contacts between diverse social realities, transcending boundaries to generate reciprocal solidarities among human communities separated by cultural, spiritual, and geographic distances. “Indians get pressured all the time into planning these big programs,” Bob Thomas wrote in the mid-seventies. “That’s bound to fail” because “it’s not the way things are done in our communities. Everything I’ve seen succeed happened when a small group of Indians sat down and decided what they wanted to do and then went ahead and did it. And whatever organizations that formed simply came out of that getting together and doing it. Organizations among the Indians” emerge out of “what we are doing together and what we have going among each other and what kind of relationships we have to each other.”

The Conference emerged out of an interreligious conversation, and although this agenda was eventually overshadowed by the intergenerational encounter, ecumenical solidarity remained a central–if sometimes controversial–goal throughout the life of the movement. Participating in the annual gatherings inspired many to ecumenical activism back home, and helped some gain a broader understanding of the ecumenical strategies being developed by native people. “From talking to most of the spiritual leaders at the Conference,” Thomas ascertained that “the majority want to achieve some spiritual unity in their home communities.” He identified “seven different paths” various tribal communities were following, illustrating each ecumenical path with specific examples. Some Choctaws “are trying to strengthen their native religion without causing trouble between people who follow Christianity and those who are more traditional.” Some Ojibways “want to revive their religion,” hoping that tribal traditions such as Ojibway-language hymn singing “will also bridge the gap between Anglican and Catholic factions on the reserve.” Some Dogribs “are trying to integrate their two religions,” working to achieve “what some of the Southwestern tribes have had for years.”  Some Yaquis “integrated Christianity and their old religion years ago” and “simply want to hold that integration, but white church officials are now attacking that integration.” Some Cheyennes “have been both devout Christians and devout in their native religion for many years,” an accommodation now under attack, “and they want to hold the line.” Some Iroquois “simply want to develop some kind of peaceful co-existence and cooperation between the separate religious groups” among their people. Some Navajos “are trying to integrate the Peyote religion and the old native religion together and at the same time make some kind of peace between the Christians on one hand and the native and Peyote people on the other hand.”

This typology of tribal ecumenism is just one example of the theoretical insights elaborated through the ecumenical movement. Bob Thomas and many of his friends and colleagues believed the Conference had demonstrated that interreligious organizing can be a powerful mechanism of social change, particularly when it is guided by personalist values. Interpersonal relationships are among the most precarious of vocations, but community-building is also our highest calling. Religious conflict may be an intractable feature of the human condition; embracing our differences, wrestling them to the ground with all the humility we can muster, is a more pragmatic response than the cocksure proselytizing of fundamentalists and materialists alike. Bureaucratic elites–spiritual leaders as well as scholars of religion–can learn a great deal from those who gave life to the Conference:  effective interreligious dialogue has less to do with theologies and liturgies and polities than with a shared commitment to meaningful coexistence. In framing each chapter of this book with paired epigraphs from religious scholars and Conference participants, I have pointed to some ways in which the story of the ecumenical movement speaks to recent scholarship on religion in Canada and the U.S.

Of course, dialogue sometimes entails criticism, especially when the relationships involved have been compromised by chronic social inequity. “Native Americans and African Americans have criticized whites’ use of Christianity to justify power and privilege over people of color,” observes John D. Barbour in Versions of Deconversion. “Writers as diverse as Frederick Douglass, Charles Eastman, Malcolm X, and Lame Deer have sought to deconvert white readers from various false understandings of Christianity that sanction such injustices.” Barbour’s book is a comparative study of Autobiography and the Loss of Faith, exploring the flip side of the conversion narrative. “The ‘turning from’ and ‘turning to’ are alternative perspectives on the same process of personal metamorphosis, stressing either the rejected past of the old self or the present convictions of the reborn self.” The loss of faith has become a modern metaphor for “experiences of change involving radical doubt, moral revulsion from a way of life, emotional upheaval, and rejection of a community.” Deconversion “expresses modernity’s search for authenticity, which so often takes the form of a flight from authority, from inherited paradigms of thought, and from various forms of pressure to conform.” In the hands of minority writers, both the genre of autobiography and the metaphor of deconversion are powerful weapons in the struggle for social justice.

“What is most striking about multicultural autobiography,” Barbour writes, “is the commonality of the central goal of seeking the reader’s deconversion from the white man’s religion,” a heresy of racist proportions.  “In autobiographies by both Native Americans and African Americans for more than 150 years, in writers with vastly differing religious beliefs and political agendas, the fundamental question addressed to white readers is whether they understand–in practice, in the effect on the lives of people of color in the United States–the full implications of the difference between Christianity and the white man’s religion.” Recognizing this difference “has not always come easy for white people, since there are deep-rooted and tenacious links between certain Christian attitudes and the belief in white superiority.”  Encouraging deconversion from the white man’s religion “is a central goal of autobiographies of persons of color. This has been so whether the author is a Christian, is committed to some other religious tradition, or is reassessing an ambivalent relationship to Christianity,” three categories that also typify those who attended the Indian Ecumenical Conference. “The autobiographer’s effort to discriminate between Christianity and the white man’s religion represents not only a critique of ideology but an act of religious imagination, of identity formation, and of cultural creativity.”

If it is difficult to trace the contours of the ecumenical movement as a social phenomenon, how much more enigmatic is its meaning in the lives of individual participants? Spiritual experience is a mysterious reality, even at firsthand, and hardly something susceptible to objective representation. “The religious dimension of autobiography is not simply located in an author’s record of past loyalties but also in the ‘autobiographical act,’” Barbour notes, “in the author’s process of writing, as the articulation of those central convictions that shape a perspective on the past.” How people today recount their memories of the Conference is bound up with where those experiences have led them, just as writing this book is now part of my own pilgrimage, and reading it part of yours. Like religious personalities the world over, “autobiographical writing itself reenacts, continues, and extends in new directions the essentially religious quest for truth and human community.”

Fair enough, but literacy is a hallowed dogma of the white man’s religion and his irreligion as well, bibliophilia a central sacrament. The printed word has become a formidable tradition; still, writing and reading can never be more than penultimate feats. Verbal artifacts that terminate in psychological revision are less remedy than symptom. The deconversionist tract in your hands closes with two critical questions, a modest confession, and an overture: Is peaceful coexistence possible in a world of divergent truth claims and fierce competition over material resources? I believe it is. Will we survive our own epistemological arrogance and ravenous desire?  Perhaps, if enough literates moderate their textual devotions in deference to the priority of interpersonal experience.