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Erasing Native American Religious Traditions: Introduction

Array ( [0] => ENGL 6330 Spring 2018 [1] => no-show [2] => student exhibit )

You know how best to take care of your land.  You know best how to conserve this land for generations.

--President Trump, Utah State Capitol, 1

Flag of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Native American people have faced threats of cultural erasure from when white settlers and explorers first set foot in the New World to well into the twenty-first century.  While the literal killing of Native Americans has left a visible scar on North America, the attempts to extinguish their cultures is just as damaging.  Many white, Christian pioneers, missionaries, and idealists, believed it was their duty to save the native people of the American colonies.  Many did not take into consideration Native American beliefs.

I will discuss the effects of several important flash-points that may have had a significant impact on how white settlers dealt with their native neighbours.




  • John Eliot, a Puritan missionary, translated the Bible into Algonquian, the native language of the native people of Massachusetts.  He believed the Native Americans he preached to would be more willing to listen if a book of scripture was in their own tongue.  He spent 14 years translating the Bible into the Algonquian language with the help of Cockenoe, a Massachusett captured in battle.
  • David Brainerd, American born, dedicated his life to preaching among the Delaware.  He spent much of his time in New Jersey, proselyting amid the Delaware tribe.  He was able to preach with the backing of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge.
  • The Female American, a fictional castaway influenced by Robinson Crusoe, is an example of a half-white, half-native woman, who after being stranded on an island, took it upon herself to convert every Native American she met.  She assumed it was her duty to do so, regardless of how the Native people she taught felt.
  • The Bear River Massacre, which occurred in Southern Idaho in 1863, was originally a military effort that gained religious connections when the Mormon church became involved.  After the Bear River Massacre many Shoshone, including Chief Sagwitch, converted to the Mormon faith.  The lingering effects of the massacre can still be felt today, from how the massacre is portrayed to the fact that the exact site was still in question more than a decade into the twenty-first century. 
  • In the twentieth-century efforts to suppress Native American culture were still being realized.  Non-Christian religions were completely prohibited on Native American Reservations until 1935, and it wasn’t until the late twentieth century when efforts were made to allow, let alone encourage, the practice of Native American traditions and beliefs.
  • In 2017, President Trump signed a bill decreasing the size of Bears Ears National Monument by eighty-five percent.  He stated the people knew how to take care of their land.  Bears Ears was surrounded by controversy when it was originally designated a National Monument in 2016 by President Obama.


Each of these flash-points highlights a determined effort to replace a people’s culture with something deemed superior by the supplanters.  While many tribes have significantly diminished, Native American people have made a concerted effort to preserve their cultures.

This exhibit highlights how both individuals and institutions, however altruistic, have made attempts to replace the cultures of hundreds of tribes. 


Trump, Donald. Remarks by President Trump on Antiquities Act Designations. 4 Dec. 2017. Utah State Capitol. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

Image Credits

United States Department of the Interior. Flag of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 25 Spr. 2013. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_the_United_States_Bureau_of_Indian_Affairs.png. Accessed 19 Apr. 2018.