“The Land Is Always Stalking Us”

“The Land Is Always Stalking Us”

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PNEUMA 36 (2014) 397–406

“The Land is Always Stalking Us”

Pentecostalism, Race and Native Understandings of Sacred Land

Angela Tarango Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas



This article is a response to Willie Jennings’s bookThe Christian Imaginationand takes a brief look, using the case study of the Western Apache, at how Native Americans con- ceptualize the idea of sacred land and memory. It makes the argument that Pentecostal- ism has to accept Native understandings of land in order to create a truly indigenous form of Christianity and to move beyond ethnocentric formations of race.


Native Americans – Pentecostalism – missions – Western Apache – land – race – memory – Willie Jennings – Doctrine of Discovery – Keith Basso

The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right. The land looks after us. The land looks after people.1

For Native peoples, their traditional lands are alive in a way that non-Natives struggle to understand. In the above epigraph, an elder Apache woman, Annie

1 Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache

(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), 38.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2014 | doi: 10.1163/15700747-03603043




Peaches, gives white anthropologist Keith Basso her summation of the land that the Western Apache inhabit—and Basso, an anthropologist well respected by both whites and Apaches, spends a long time trying to puzzle out the meaning of her words. He admits in his bookWisdom Sits in Placesthat despite a career among the Western Apache, deciphering what Peaches means poses a challenge to him. Basso states, “The problem we face is a semiotic one, a barrier to constructing appropriate sense and significance which arises from the fact that all views constructed by Apache people are informed by their experience in a culturally constituted world of objects and events with which most of us are familiar. What sort of world is it?”2 Basso’s questions are important ones, especially in light of the conquest of the Americas and the racial constructions of Native Americans.

In his work The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, theologian Willie J. Jennings points out that “[g]eography matters for Race as well as for identity, vision, and the hope of how one might live life. It is this deep connection between place and identity that will be difficult for many people to grasp because people have been formed in a world in which such connections are only imagined, only fictions enabled solely by volition and market desire.”3 Jennings is correct in his assessment, especially among those who live in the western world. As Basso’s work on the Western Apache shows us, the very land that Native Americans inhabited and white Europeans attempted to conquer remains present in Native imagination, time, and space in a way that was never really erased. It still informs their sense of self, their tribe, and their collective memory. The “disappearing Indian” refused to disappear, and his “wild, and untamable land” refused to be entirely tamed. The land still stalks the people, it knows their stories, their grief and triumphs, their history—it is where the blood of their ancestors was spilled trying to hold back the tide of conquest, and it still holds their bones.

The fact that the land is still fundamental to Native Americans of all kinds continues to escape Christians, including groups who were not directly impli- cated in the colonization of the Americas. Pentecostalism has grown rapidly among Native tribes in the United States and Canada, as well as in Latin Amer- ica. It offers a message of power, through the Holy Spirit, that is appealing to converts, Native and non-Native. Its growth among Native tribes both in North and South America has been rapid and profound. Yet, while Pentecostals like

2 Ibid., 39.

3 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New

Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 289.

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to pride themselves on the fact that they were not a part of the initial conquest and colonization of the Americas, they continue to propagate ideas regarding racial inferiority, which is inevitably tangled up in beliefs of spiritual inferiority and an inability to understand the land as a place of power and memory that transcends Christian conversion.

This essay seeks to explore Pentecostalism through the Assemblies of God, its history of missionary work to Native Americans, and the propagation of the indigenous principle. While the ag has come to embrace the indigenous prin- ciple and sees it as a means to spread the gospel among Native Americans, it has not expanded the indigenous principle in a way that takes account for understanding Native land and memory. By not doing this, and by refusing the see the power of the land as more than something that is simply “there” or at worst as “demonic” and possessed by “evil spirits,” Pentecostalism can- not step beyond its ethnocentric history of missions to Native peoples. In order to fully incorporate Christianity into Native culture, Pentecostalism must address the problem of land and the memory that the land holds, or else it will never grow into a truly indigenous Christianity. Therefore the indigenous principle, as articulated by the ag, has to extend to the Native understand- ing of land—it must acknowledge the importance of land, the memory of the land and the people that inhabit it—and therefore it must step beyond its original intention as a tool of colonization. By widening the indigenous prin- ciple to actually acknowledge the complexities of Native cultures and their relationship to the land, Pentecostalism would finally address what makes Native peoples native, and it would begin to transcend problematic notions of race that are tied up in the colonization and conquest of Native peoples’ land.

The Indigenous Principle

The indigenous principle is the core of the pentecostal theology of missions. It is not a new idea—in fact, Pentecostals root it in the “Pauline example,” that is to say, in the way in which the Apostle Paul took Christianity and spread it among non-Jews in the early Christian world. As an idea, indigenous church planting has a long history in missions among American Protestants that pre- dates Pentecostalism. The termindigenous principlewith regard to missions to Native Americans came into vogue in the mid-1950s with the work of the ag missiologist Melvin Hodges, who wrote two seminal works on the subject,The IndigenousChurchandTheIndigenousChurchandtheMissionary. His work was later seized by Native American Pentecostals who became missionaries as a

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way to criticize the Assemblies of God for ethnocentrism within the organiza- tion and for not fully living up to the missionary ideal.

Hodges’s indigenous principle was articulated in his writings and by his work as an instructor at the ag’s Central Bible Institute in Springfield, mo. It is, simply put, the idea that Christianity should be rooted in the culture of the missionized and that missionaries should put into place the structures to encourage immediately indigenous leadership among those they convert. He places tremendous emphasis on the Native peoples themselves and points out that “[t]he ‘pearl of great price’ in building the church is a sense of responsibility on the part of believers. With it, other things being equal, the church will prosper. Without it, although bolstered with a thousand foreign props, in the end the church will succumb to the inertia and resistance of the world.”4 In Hodges’s view missionaries could sow the seeds of belief, but only the local Native peoples could grow a church that was truly indigenous and rooted in the local culture.

Hodges is also the first Pentecostal missiologist to point out strongly the evils of ethnocentrism as well of as paternalism and to decry missionaries’ empha- sis on the “mission” versus building an actual church. The distinction that he makes between the two is not to be taken lightly: missions were funded by out- side sources and therefore are controlled by outsiders, while actual churches, on the other hand, must be self-supporting, that is, funded by the congregation. In other words, the local people have more at stake in an actual church than in a mission because they are financially and socially responsible for keeping a church going. Hodges’s main points are insightful when the history of Native peoples within the ag is considered, because white missionaries, district offi- cials, and white leaders had a very hard time coming to terms with what the actual indigenous principle would entail.

Hodges’s indigenous principle cast a wide net on ag missionary activities, so Hodges said very little about specifics of the cultures that the missionaries encountered, and for this reason his understanding of the indigenous principle needs to be expanded, especially in the case of Native Americans. It is one thing to say that Christianity should be rooted in the culture of the missionized, but it is another to consider what that really means. For Native Americans this brings up the inevitable problem of land. The land each tribe lives on defines their particular traditional beliefs as well as their rituals, lifeways, customs, and memory. Until Pentecostals understand the full meaning of the land in Native

4 Melvin Hodges,The Indigenous Church(Springfield, mo: The Gospel Publishing House, 2009),


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American terms, they will never be able to understand fully the complexity of Nativeculture,and they will not be able fully toenact the indigenousprinciple.5

The Land and the Western Apache

For Native people, the way the land that they lived on was perceived and treated underscored their terrible experience of colonialism. Native author Vine Deloria Jr. states, “The status of Native peoples around the globe was firmly cemented by the intervention of Christianity into the political affairs of exploration and colonization. They were regarded as not having ownership of their lands, but as merely existing on them at the pleasure of the Christian God who has now given them to the nations of Europe.”6 When European explorers showed up on their doorsteps the Natives were simply in the way and the land was for the taking, because Europeans understood that they had a God-given right tothe land. This Christian framework, knownas the Doctrine of Discovery, was used by multiple colonialist powers that came to the New World in search of land and riches.7 Even well after colonization, the justification of God was used in instances such as Manifest Destiny, when Americans pushed West and disrupted the tribes on the Plains and in the Desert Southwest. Natives were seen as not exploiting the land to its full potential, and therefore whites were justified in their push to take over the whole continent.

It is, however, hard for non-Indians to conceptualize what Native under- standings of land are. Deloria touches on this in his writings: “Non-Indian inter- est seems to focus on the sacredness of land, the perception that Indians under- stand land much more profoundly than other peoples, and on the possibility of adopting or transferring that kind of relationship to the larger social whole.”8 Deloria has misgivings about this sort of approach, as he explains: “However, I also believe that this assertion is being made by people who do not really think deeply about what land and sacredness are.”9 There are key caveats to remember when considering Native attitudes toward land. As Deloria states:

5 For more on the indigenous principle and how Native American Pentecostals understood it

please see: Angela Tarango, Choosing the Jesus Way: Native American Pentecostals and their

Fight for the Indigenous Principle(Chapel Hill, nc: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.) 6 Vine Deloria,God is Red (Golden, co: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003), 259.

7 For more on the Doctrine of Discovery see: Steven Newcombe, Pagans in the Promised Land:

Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Golden, co: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008.) 8 Vine Deloria, For This Land (New York: Routledge, 1999), 250.

9 Ibid.

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“Within tribal traditions there is a real apprehension of and appreciation for the sacredness of land, and more specifically, for the sacred nature of places; the two ideas are but different expressions of the underlying relationship of humans with the world around them.”10 Native knowledge of the land is com- munal, not individual, and is handed down over generations, and the land itself informs the memory of the people who live on it. Such an understanding of land is uncommon among non-Native Americans, many of whom do not live in the same place for very long, or who do not have collective memory of the land dating back hundreds of years. It is the collective memory that is the most important; while some American families may have lived on a particular piece of land for generations, they typically do not have the collective tribal memo- ries that connect them to the land with the same communal ethos that Native peoples have.

The stories of the land in Native cultures are fluid; they continually shift with the land and with who is currently living on the land. When exploring the meaning of place with the Western Apache, Basso discovered that the Apache sense of history is very much unlike western understandings of history. “Weakly empirical, thinly chronological, and rarely written down, Western Apache his- tory as practiced by Apaches advances no theories, tests no hypothesis, and offers no general models. What it does instead, and has likely done for cen- turies, is fashion possible worlds, give them expressive shape and present them for contemplation as images of the past that can deepen and enlarge awareness of the present.”11 History, and subsequently place, as understood by the West- ern Apache are not items that are in the past; instead they are vividly alive and continue to explain and inform the present.

In his study Basso went out and visited with various members of the Western Apache tribe, who are, in general, cattlemen. Basso rode with them by horse- back for weeks in order to be privy to the information that he recorded, while they explored different places on Apache land. Once at those places his infor- mants gave him the “story” or “memory” of the place, often recounting a tale of how a place got its name or an important piece of history that occurred at the particular place. Many of the places among the Western Apache have evoca- tive names such as “Shades of Shit,” “Lizards Dart Away in Front,” or “Two Old Women are Buried.”12 Each place comes with its own story, its own memory, and its own lesson that is unique to Western Apache culture.

10 Ibid., 251.

11 Basso,Wisdom Sits in Places, 32. 12 Ibid., 29.

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The implications of a history informed by place or land, a history that is not dead but that is alive when recounted at a particular place, are key to understanding the people who live upon the land that holds the memory, according to Basso.

The place-maker often speaks as a witness on the scene, describing ances- tral events “as they are occurring” and creating in the process a vivid sense that what happened long ago—right here, on this very spot—could be happening now. Within this narrative frame, all is movement and ani- mated talk: the ancestors come and go, voicing their thoughts and feel- ings, always engaged in pressing activities (naming places and clans, cul- tivating corn, guarding against enemies), occasionally elated, often sub- dued, constantly concerned with staying alive. Leaders lead, followers follow, and most of the time things are done correctly. But now and again mistakes are made, serious trouble ensues, and social life is shattered. Pathos reigns and the air is charged with suspense.13

Therefore the memory, and the story, live both with the land and the people and guide their further interactions and future memory of who the Western Apache are. Inexorably tied with the land, the “place stories” that Basso recounts in his essay also offer moral and emotional guidance to the people. The stories warn the Western Apache of taboos, highlight their moral failings, and also give them a framework with which to navigate their lives and roles within the Apache groups. In other words, the distinct place stories that Basso unearthed in his research are not simply “stories,” but rather are the way the Western Apache relate to their landscape, kinship networks, and moral codes.

Many Pentecostals, and indeed many Christians, view the power that Native peoples assign to the land on which they live on as suspect, dark, or even demonic. For example, Pentecostal believers in Guatemala often treat the land traditionally inhabited by the Mayan peoples as demonic and wage “spiritual warfare” on it in order to cleanse it of the old Mayan gods.14 By making this value judgment on the land, the same judgment is levied against the people who live upon it and hold its memory in their own collective minds, because in Native terms the land and the memory of the land cannot be untangled from the people, as Basso carefully notes.

13 Ibid., 32–33. Author’s use of quotations preserved as in the original.

14 Kevin Lewis O’Neil, City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2010), 87–114.

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The Apache landscape is full of name locations where time and space have fused and where, through the agency of historical tales, their inter- section is “made visible for human contemplation.” It is also apparent that such locations, charged as they are with personal and social signif- icance, work in important ways to shape the images that Apaches have— or should have—of themselves. Speaking to people like Nick Thompson and Ronnie Lupe, to Annie Peaches and Benson Lewis, one forms the impression that Apaches view the landscape as a repository of distilled wisdom, a stern but benevolent keeper of tradition, an ever vigilant ally in the efforts of individuals and whole communities to maintain a set of standards for social living that is uniquely or distinctly their own. In the world that the Western Apaches have constituted for themselves, features of the landscape have become symbols of and for this way of living, the symbols of a culture and enduring moral character of its peo- ple.15

The land’s power isn’t some actual power that is unknown, magical, spooky, and therefore to be feared; its power lies in the way it holds the memory and therefore the culture of the people. The Western Apache have been shaped by their particular landscape, one that is strikingly both beautiful and harsh, and that landscape is what makes them Apaches, just as the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina hold the memory of the Cherokee or the forest and wild rice bogs of the great northern woods hold the memories of the Ojibwa. The land and the Native memory of it is not something that Pentecostals should fear; it is not something that is evil or dark. It is simply a repository and shaper of the memory of a particular people.

It is a bit ironic that the clearest understanding (for a non-Native audience) of the meaning of the land and place names of the Western Apache was articulated by a white anthropologist, but Basso’s gift to his readers is the way he manages to show a western audience how the Apache relate to their land in a manner indicative of their entire culture. The point is that the land is tied to culture, which is tied to memory and the Western Apache’s understanding of their own history. Indeed, the “land is always stalking the people.” So long as there are Western Apaches living on their ancestral land, the memory of the land and the place names will always be there.

15 Basso,Wisdom Sits in Places, 63. Author’s quotes preserved as in the original.

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What does any of this have to do with the indigenous principle? Willie Jennings states, “There is no mystery to race. But until we reckon with its substitution for place and place-centered identity, its power will remain and remain mys- teriously ever renewing with each generation of race-formed children.”16 If the core of the indigenousprinciple is that Christianity has tobe realizedwithin the culture of those who are missionized, and if Pentecostalism specifically wants to move beyond the mistakes committed by the Christians who conquered the New World as well as their own problematic history regarding race, then the indigenous principle must integrate the fact that Native peoples’ land contains, influences, and helps maintain their history and culture in order to be truly indigenous. The people cannot be divorced from their land, the memories that the land holds will never go away, and the only way to proclaim an authen- tic indigenous Christianity is to acknowledge the importance of the land and to make it a point to do so. In understanding that the land created Native peo- ples, that the people created the land, and that each holds the other’s memories in their possession, Pentecostalism and Christianity at large will begin to free themselves of the impulse for conquest.

Pentecostalism will probably never accept many aspects of traditional Na- tive religions, but acknowledging that the land that Native peoples live on holds their history and memory is not a threat to Pentecostal Christianity. Developing a deeper understanding of the land begins to peel away some of the colonialist past of Christianity—it recognizes that Native culture is valid and that indige- nous peoples inhabit a particular place, and that place is collectively important to the people. Basso spent the last few decades of his life helping the Western Apache record their place names and map their traditional lands so that the elders could have a record of this information, because he believed that impos- ing western (English) place names was a form of colonization and imperialism. It was his way of giving back to the Western Apache who had given him so much in his career as an anthropologist, and an acknowledgment that the land he spent a lifetime studying was their land, and that he was a guest on that land.

Native American believers have given Pentecostalism, and specifically the Assemblies of God, a rich history of belief, struggle, and toil on the missionary front. The Assemblies of God needs to acknowledge that, and in doing that they need, like Basso, to move toward accepting indigenous peoples on their own terms. Pentecostalism can be pushed forward to address the issues of Christian

16 Jennings,Christian Imagination, 289.

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colonization and racism; it can never be detached from that history, because that is a part of its history, yet it can challenge that past and think about what it means to construct a pentecostal identity that accepts all people of all races and backgrounds. It is time for Pentecostalism to reckon with what it really means to be an indigenous person. It is time for the indigenous principle to become truly indigenous.

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