Sharing, the great Indian tradition, can be the basis of a new thrust in religious development. Religion is not synonymous with a large organizational structure in Indian eyes. Spontaneous communal activity is more important. Thus any religious movement of the future would be wise to model itself on existing Indian behavioral patterns. This would mean returning religion to the Indian people.

Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins

We should have started something like this a long time ago. We have almost let all this religious squabbling smother our spiritual power and destroy us as a strong people.

Andrew Dreadfulwater, Indian Ecumenical Conference

“All This Religious Squabbling”

I had cold feet. My boots had been wet all day, soaked through by the dew still heavy in a thick carpet of summer grass.  Morning sun had given way to overcast and the smell of rain; a light breeze tumbled down the eastern slope of the Rockies, filling the Bow River valley with the exhalation of glaciers. Waiting for dinner to be served, I stood next to the open door of my rent-a-car organizing my things and my thoughts.  Fog covered the Kananaskis Country to the west and shadows moved across the clearing as thunderclouds jockeyed for position above my small, leaky tent.

We were nearing the end of the second day of the Indian Ecumenical Conference, an intertribal gathering being held once again in 1992 after a hiatus of several years. Stoney Indian Park in western Alberta had been the home of the religious encampment for over two decades, since the second annual meeting convened there in 1971. The Stoney Reserve at Morley is an idyllic setting in late July, full of natural drama. Traces of the forest, of weeds and wildflowers, of scattered campfires hung in the air as I jotted down some notes on events of the day. A herd of bison grazed in the meadow at the lower end of the valley. Mosquitoes scouted my neck and a streamliner sounded a crossing in the distance, every noise muffled by the moist atmosphere. Children played among the evergreens and white poplars that enclose the camping area, a plateau overlooking the river with room enough for a circle of tipis surrounded by other transient accommodations–canvas cabins, nylon A-frames, pickup truck campers. I could practically taste the fresh buffalo steak being grilled in the cookhouse nearby.

Glancing up from my meditations, I noticed someone walking toward my campsite: late twenties, about six feet tall with a long, braided ponytail of black hair, wearing glasses. I recognized him from Conference sessions under the brush arbor. We exchanged greetings as he approached from the other side of my car, then struck up a conversation across the roof of the rental as the skies began to drizzle. His name was Darin. Formerly a journalist, he had gone back to school to finish his bachelor’s degree and was studying social work at the University of Calgary fifty miles to the east. I told him a little about myself: an American graduate student from Berkeley, finishing up a doctoral program in religious studies, concerned about the relationship between tribal and Christian traditions in native communities. He was surprised to hear how far I had traveled to participate in this event. I explained that I had been interested in the Conference since learning about it several years earlier. It was a popular and influential movement during the seventies, which made it a useful case study in interreligious relations, and it had never been documented in any systematic fashion, which made it a good dissertation topic. I had heard about the planned revival earlier in the year, while researching the history of the Conference, and managed to scrape together enough money for airfare. Drizzle turned to rain, so Darin and I took shelter in the automobile and continued our conversation.

The Indian Ecumenical Conference began during the fall of 1969 as an experiment in grassroots organizing among native spiritual leaders. Conference founders believed the survival of native communities would hinge on transcending the antagonisms between tribal and Christian traditions–a problem as old as the European colonization of the Americas–and they hoped to cultivate religious self-determination among native people by facilitating dialogue, understanding, and cooperation between diverse tribal nations and spiritual persuasions. The first Conference was held in August 1970 on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana. Respected elders, ceremonial leaders, medicine people, and ordained clergy met for four days to discuss the religious conflicts ravaging their communities throughout Canada and the U.S. They also joined in daily sunrise ceremonies, traded stories over shared meals, and socialized during the evenings. By the end of the gathering Conference delegates had discovered a new sense of unity and purpose. They formed an inclusive fellowship of native leaders committed to religious revival through toleration and respect, and they agreed to meet again the following year.

The movement grew by leaps and bounds and soon took on a life of its own, attracting scores of urban youth eager to spend time around elderly mentors. By the mid-seventies thousands of people were crowding into Stoney Indian Park for annual weeklong encampments. The Conference played a pivotal role in stimulating spiritual revitalization among native people on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, yet is rarely mentioned in written accounts of the period. Most historical studies of Indian country in the seventies highlight the American Indian Movement and other outspoken groups, organizations known more for their militant rhetoric and flamboyant style than for their success at achieving specific goals. The grassroots spiritual leaders who gave life to the Indian Ecumenical Conference strategized for social change in ways that differed from their youthful counterparts.  The open-ended deliberations Darin and I were witnessing around the sacred fire were the living legacy of this movement, an important but overlooked dimension of native activism during the Red Power era.

Darin seemed interested in learning about the history of the Conference, and I appreciated his company. Discussing the day’s proceedings, we discovered a shared fascination with the comments made by various participants, especially one young man who had recounted his personal visionary insights as cosmic prophecy. Other speakers were more humble, describing their own spiritual struggles and offering encouragement to those of us facing similar difficulties. The Conference was already a memorable experience, and we both were glad for the chance to make new friends across cultural, spiritual, and geographic distances. The ebb and flow of the rainstorm punctuated our dialogue as Darin and I got better acquainted.

Darin Keewatin is Plains Cree. His surname refers to the north wind and is drawn from oral tradition, invoking a story about the last storm before spring, sent as a reminder of winter’s power. Darin was raised in southern Alberta not far from the U.S. border. The Keewatins were the only native family in a Mormon settlement that seemed more American than Canadian, and they were also among the few Catholics in town. Darin served as an altar boy until he was sixteen, when he and his folks finally lost interest in the formalities of bureaucratic religion and withdrew from church involvement. The following year he moved to northeastern Alberta to stay with his maternal grandparents on the Kehewin Reserve. Life on the reserve was a dramatic change from the dominant culture he had been immersed in since childhood, and these new surroundings also provided him with his first opportunity to participate regularly in tribal ceremonies. After a long period of watching and learning, he eventually made a conscious effort to practice Plains Cree spiritual traditions, and several years later he was presented with a pipe. During his early twenties he worked as a reporter and then editor for a native newspaper based in Hobbema. He went back to college when it became clear he wanted to be a social worker, following in his grandmother’s footsteps. In 1992 he was juggling course work with the responsibilities of a single parent; his three-year-old son Russell napped in their tent while we visited.

I am mixed, with immigrant and indigenous ancestors on both sides of the family. Creeks and Cherokees populate the maternal line; we are enrolled with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in eastern Oklahoma.  I was born in the western part of the state, where my father served as the missionary pastor of three country churches among the Wichitas, Kiowas, and Apaches. We left Anadarko when I was two and lived in off-reservation communities in Kansas and South Dakota. I grew up as a typical Baptist preacher’s kid, active in all aspects of church life whether I liked it or not. During my college years I explored several possible career paths before graduating with a degree in engineering. I also found myself drawn into religious leadership, a curious development in light of my adolescent aversion to my father’s vocational legacy. I even became a full-time activist for a while, volunteering with several church-related organizations. But I eventually grew disillusioned with conservative Christianity, frustrated by its theological excesses and moral failings, and enrolled in graduate school to sort myself out. I took courses in religion and ethnic studies for several years while holding down technical jobs to pay the bills. In 1992 I was working as a teaching assistant and trying to focus on my writing.

I hoped to produce a manuscript addressing the problem of religious conflict in the contemporary period. Scholarly interest in developing nonsectarian approaches to interreligious dialogue is a fairly recent phenomenon, a product of postwar ecumenism among Protestants in Europe and North America, Catholic reforms initiated at the Second Vatican Council, and various postcolonial opportunities in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Unfortunately, most of this academic literature focuses on relationships among the so-called world religions; scholars have practically ignored the dialogical significance of the religious traditions maintained by tribal communities. I thought a multidisciplinary interpretation of the Indian Ecumenical Conference might speak to this burgeoning–though still parochial–discourse on the theory and practice of interreligious relations. Religious contention is a root cause of many current political disputes, and even religious differences that stop short of provoking political division can frustrate community life. Is peaceful coexistence possible in a world of divergent truth claims and fierce competition over material resources?  I wondered.

We paused as the downpour modulated, rain turning to hail. Frozen exclamation points bounced off the hood and impaled the grass around us. For a moment Darin and I reveled in this natural display of power and punctuation, though the weather seemed to be overacting just a bit. There was, after all, nothing particularly remarkable about our conversation:  two young men interested in religion discussing religious traditions at a conference on religion. I have since come to realize, however, that if our meeting was unexceptional it was nonetheless unique, as singular an event as Darin and I are individuals. A year later he would fly to the Bay Area for my graduation ceremony, and a couple of months after that I would travel to the Kehewin Reserve for his wedding. Other transnational visits would follow along with the occasional letter, telephone call, or e-mail sharing news and good humor. Our collegial interaction at Stoney Indian Park inaugurated a friendship, a durable connection closing the gap between disparate worlds. It was the kind of experience that had always been at the heart of the Indian Ecumenical Conference.

“We talked about the Conference speeches,” I wrote in my notebook later that evening. “He seems like a very intelligent, interesting person and we had a good talk.” This terse account of our meeting strikes me now as a rather feeble gesture, especially in light of the relationship that ensued. Who can really explain the meaning of a human encounter, much less predict its subsequent significance? It has been hard enough to reconstruct the events of that summer day in 1992, even though I can rely on the luxury of memory along with my daily journal and interview notes, promotional materials and other documentary fragments, and hours of unedited videotape footage produced by a professional crew. I cannot help wondering now–as I did ten years ago–how I should narrate the history of a movement that was so important to so many people. Only the most callous scholar could fail to perceive the epistemological and ethical pitfalls of such a project. The obvious dilemma: How to appreciate and convey the subtle, complex, visceral qualities of religious experience, ineffable realities that elude description and defy analysis.

In 1992 I already knew that an analytical rendering of the Conference would not do it justice. The rationalist performances favored among academic audiences might serve the interests of social science, but they have little power to effect the kind of social change envisioned by Conference founders. Worse yet, the native people who appear as characters in such objectivist dramas often do not recognize themselves in these textual productions. I pondered methodological issues for years before settling on a discursive approach compatible with the subject matter–and practicable, given my own mortal limitations. My historical research on the movement and my experience at the 1992 gathering had shaken my faith in the authority of linear logic and argumentative discourse; whatever I might end up saying about the Indian Ecumenical Conference, it was going to be informed by personalist ideals and expressed in a narrative mode. I have tried to write a book that is relational, dialogical, and reflexive, that situates the movement in space and time, that illuminates the intersections of religion, culture, and politics in a diverse and conflicted world. At the very least, I hope to encourage the kinds of conversations that Darin and I heard under the arbor ten years ago, and that we ourselves enjoyed while passing time during a late-afternoon shower.

The storm subsided to a light sprinkle. From our vantage point in the car we could see people beginning to gather at the cookhouse, huddling under the eaves and feasting on buffalo and trimmings. My academic musings on the turmoil of tribal and Christian traditions evaporated in the moment–intellectual morsels are no match for a hearty meal among friends.  The clouds were starting to clear and a small patch of blue sky appeared overhead, liberating a ray of light. Its sharp angle suggested the sun would drop behind the mountains before long; I shivered in my boots, then realized my toes had begun to warm slightly. I still had cold feet, but I also felt a little more optimistic about how this project might turn out. Leaving my notebook on the backseat, I walked with Darin to the dinner line.

*        *        *

One of the more provocative religious titles published during the fall of 1969 was Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria, Jr. Subtitled An Indian Manifesto, this influential best-seller brought national attention to the young Yankton Sioux author and secured his reputation as a leading commentator on Indian affairs. He was uniquely qualified for the role: seminary graduate, law student, and former director of the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s foremost intertribal organization.  The title phrase originated as a theological gibe at American Christianity, suggesting an analogy between the biblical dialectic of covenant and atonement and the frontier pattern of treaty making and warfare.  Custer Died for Your Sins appeared at a pivotal moment in native history, documenting changes already under way and anticipating transformations that would unfold very soon. The book was a prophetic intervention, both as social critique rooted in religious values and as accurate prediction of a “tribal regrouping” comparable to the Hebrew exodus from Egypt after four centuries of oppression.

Deloria covered a wide range of contemporary issues in eleven topical chapters, with the Christian churches making an appearance in every one. He described his family background of religious leadership and cross-cultural mediation in an autobiographical afterword, where he also disclosed his goals in writing the book. He wanted to “raise some issues for younger Indians which they have not been raising for themselves,” and to “give some idea to white people of the unspoken but often felt antagonisms I have detected in Indian people toward them, and the reasons for such antagonism.”  Deloria’s revealing account of the “unrealities” facing native people in American society maps the divide between indigenous and immigrant lives.  The European colonization of the Americas interposed many new values and behaviors, including some that menace spiritual sensibilities. “The largest difference I can see between Indian religion and Christian religions is in inter-personal relationships,” Deloria wrote. “Indian religion taught that sharing one’s goods with another human being was the highest form of behavior.  The Indian people have tenaciously held to this tradition of sharing their goods with other people in spite of all attempts by churches, government agencies, and schools to break them of the custom.”

Among the most impassioned parts of the book, reflecting Deloria’s personal background and his enduring interest in religion, is a chapter titled “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum.” Here he surveyed the history of interreligious relations in the U.S., highlighting the symbiotic relationship between proselytism and dispossession and offering an assessment of the missionary enterprise and its aftermath. “While the thrust of Christian missions was to save the individual Indian, its result was to shatter Indian societies and destroy the cohesiveness of Indian communities,” he observed.  “The creedal rhetoric of Christianity filled the vacuum it had created by its redefinition of religion as a commodity to be controlled.” Legal proscriptions and assimilation programs have also taken their toll on tribal traditions, leaving native communities fraught with “religious competition, which fractures present tribal life.” Noting that theological obsolescence and institutional racism have eroded interest in reservation parishes, Deloria halfheartedly challenged the denominations to create “a national Indian Christian Church” that would “incorporate all existing missions and programs into one national church to be wholly in the hands of Indian people.” He believed that “an Indian version of Christianity could do much for our society.”

If Deloria was skeptical about the willingness of the nation’s churchly bureaucracies to take such a leap of faith, he was considerably more optimistic about “the coming religious revival that many tribes expect in the next decade.” Suggesting that “the impotence and irrelevancy of the Christian message has meant a return to traditional religion by Indian people,” he pointed out that “more and more they are returning to Indian dances and celebrations for their religious expressions.” Brief comments predicting a “national Indian awakening” during the seventies appear throughout Custer Died for Your Sins; an atmosphere of imminent revival is one of the most powerful themes animating the book. Native people throughout the land were engaged in self-examination and redefinition, “reordering their priorities” in a way that “threatens to make this decade the most decisive in history for Indian people.” Deloria called this period “the modern era of Indian emergence,” anticipating “the coming Indian movement” when “the new Indian nationalism” would lead to “total Indian renaissance.” He concluded that “tribalism is the strongest force at work in the world today. And Indian people are the most tribal of all groups in America. They are also in the most advantageous position of any tribal people in the world,” so “an understanding of the forces and ideas brought forward by Indian people to solve particular problems during the next decade should prove to be useful information for solving similar problems elsewhere in the world.”

Nevertheless, Deloria’s optimism regarding the revival of tribal traditions was tempered by pragmatic concerns about impediments to intertribal solidarity. “Unity for unity’s sake is not yet a concept that has been accepted by the tribes,” he explained. “If there is one single cause which has importance today for Indian people, it is tribalism,” and “any cooperative movement must come to terms with tribalism in the Indian context.” Deloria devoted an entire chapter to “The Problem of Indian Leadership,” examining the impact of the reservation system on tribal political and social institutions and surveying historic attempts at forging intertribal alliances.  “To understand Indians,” he advised, “one must look at unity through Indian eyes. Unity is strictly a social function of the tribes. Indians prefer to meet and have a good time; conventions are when you have a chance to get together and renew old friendships and learn to trust one another,” laying the foundation for intertribal cooperation. “What, after all, is unity but the fellowship of people?” Acknowledging the inherent limitations of a group such as the National Congress of American Indians, Deloria offered a more compelling vision of the future. “As Indians we will never have the efficient organization that gains great concessions from society in the marketplace.  We will never have a powerful lobby or be a smashing political force. But we will have the intangible unity which has carried us through four centuries of persecution and we will survive. We will survive because we are a people unified by our humanity,” he announced. “Above all, and this is our strongest affirmation, we SHALL ENDURE as a people.”

In November 1969, just one month after Deloria’s prophetic manifesto appeared on bookstore shelves, a small group of native leaders gathered in Winnipeg to discuss the religious confusion, fragmentation, and conflict immobilizing tribal life throughout Canada and the U.S. Present at the three-day meeting were a dozen people representing native communities from the four directions: Creek and Cherokee, Apache and Sioux, Kwakiutl and Cowichan, Odawa and Cree. These religious elders and lay activists practiced a variety of tribal and Christian spiritual traditions, and they quickly reached a consensus that a similar gathering on a much larger scale would be the best way to begin the healing process. They resolved to hold an Indian Ecumenical Conference during the summer of 1970 and organized themselves into a Steering Committee to plan the event. They hoped this transnational gathering might lead to ecumenical meetings at the regional and local levels, sparking a general movement of interreligious cooperation among native people.  Committee members met again several months later and reiterated their commitment to ecumenical activism. “We should have started something like this a long time ago,” Cherokee leader Andrew Dreadfulwater remarked. “We have almost let all this religious squabbling smother our spiritual power and destroy us as a strong people.” Deloria had anticipated these events in his perceptive juxtaposition of tribal values and Christian individualism: “Sharing, the great Indian tradition, can be the basis of a new thrust in religious development.  Religion is not synonymous with a large organizational structure in Indian eyes. Spontaneous communal activity is more important. Thus any religious movement of the future would be wise to model itself on existing Indian behavioral patterns. This would mean returning religion to the Indian people.”

The fall of 1969 was a bountiful season in Indian country, producing a harvest of controversy and hope. The Winnipeg meeting coincided with another dramatic turn of events: An intertribal group of urban radicals ventured into the San Francisco Bay and seized Alcatraz Island, just as Akwesasne Mohawk activists a year earlier had blockaded an international bridge that crosses the St. Lawrence River at Cornwall Island. These and other militant occupations captivated the national media in Canada and the U.S. and stirred the imaginations of native people from coast to coast. Deloria’s prophecies were bearing fruit in other ways as well: a grassroots movement among tribal traditionalists that Deloria considered to be one of the most potent forces for change; the ecumenical activism of Deloria’s friend Bob Thomas, a Cherokee anthropologist and tireless intertribal organizer; an encouraging ecclesiastical reformation unfolding in Canada within the Anglican communion of Deloria’s youth; and a native-run educational venture headed by an Odawa activist whom Deloria would later describe as a leading native spokesman. These four distinct developments were critical contexts for the Indian Ecumenical Conference, historical tributaries that converged in the fall of 1969. The following summer native spiritual leaders would initiate a series of free-flowing conversations when they gathered at Crow Agency, near an infamous battlefield on the Little Big Horn River and midway between the celebrated standoffs at Cornwall and Alcatraz. Over the coming years the unanticipated consequences of their venture would surface, carving new channels of thought and action through Indian country and beyond. This ecumenical movement is a fertile watershed that can and should be charted.