Is this still the 19th century?

One hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, pious Christian churches would gather donations to fund missionary work — they’d send people to Africa or to Indian reservations to ‘enlighten’ the heathen, which often meant chastising native peoples for living life without proper obedience to Christian authorities. These frequently had horrible consequences. Here in the US, we had boarding schools, forced separation from family, and vicious denigration of native culture. Kids died. Communities were trapped in poverty. And it was all to ‘save’ people from an imaginary hell.

It’s still going on.

The Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona spans 2,625 square miles – just a little larger than the state of Delaware, but with a population just over 14,600.

Based on our reporting and speaking with members of the tribe, there are over 80 churches on the reservation, representing 27 different Christian denominations. The tribe indicated that there was an official list the churches operating on the reservation but no list has been delivered.

East Fork Lutheran school was founded in 1951 by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (Wels), a religious group which has been active in Arizona since 1893 as part of its Apache Mission – an effort to convert “unreached tribes” to Christianity. This was one of many schools built on the reservation by Wels. The mission has shifted to now being focused on training Native American Christians to lead in the ministry and serve as missionaries to other Indigenous nations throughout the US and Canada.

Oh god. WELS. I grew up in a very liberal Lutheran church, where we learned that the Wisconsin synod was the wellspring of the devil — extremely conservative, tied tightly to hateful conservative politics, and consorting with them was even worse than hanging out with the Baptists* (isn’t sectarianism wonderful?). We’d get that message in between the Sunday calls to support our mission in Africa.

WELS is running a school in Arizona, and they recently expelled a couple of young Apache girls for…DANCING. It was satanic, don’t you know.

The way the school saw it, it was devil worship.

In October 2019, three teenage girls were punished for participating in a spiritual ceremony. Their Arizona school expelled two of them, and let the third off with a warning, citing their attendance as a violation of school policy and grounds for expulsion.

Caitlyn, now 18, says she and her friends were disciplined for participating in a Sunrise Dance, a traditional Native ceremony at the core of White Mountain Apache culture.

The Monday after the dance, Caitlyn’s parents told her to stay home that day. They had received a call from East Fork Lutheran school telling them not to send their daughter in. She didn’t know why. Then around noon, her mom got another phone call. The principal wanted to meet with Caitlyn, her parents and the local preacher. The principal and preacher also invited the two other girls and their families to their own private meetings with school leadership.

The Sunrise Dance was a very big deal for young women in their culture, but the church hated it. You’re not allowed to think differently in their church, and some of the stuff taught in the Apache community was competition with white Christian mythology, so it must be crushed.

For the first 12 years of her life, Caitlyn looked forward to having her own dance – a sacred coming-of-age experience celebrating the transition from girlhood to womanhood. It’s a great financial sacrifice for the family. Over four days, a girl’s community prays for her. They offer her gifts and witness her as she participates in rituals symbolizing her maturity and growth. A medicine man presides over the event, praying and singing with holy members of the community called Crown Dancers, who recite the creation story to the audience.

The idea meant the world to Caitlyn. But she didn’t have her own Sunrise Dance: if she were found out, she would be expelled from school immediately, a stain on on her permanent record that could affect her college opportunities.

At the time, her private school’s teachers were mostly white people who would often discuss the satanic nature of Apache traditions. When Caitlyn was in fifth grade, she was given an F on an art project for drawing the White Mountain Apache crest and including an eagle feather. An “A” student, she was devastated to be chastised this way. As Caitlyn remembers it, her teacher smiled and explained that this kind of project wasn’t allowed because it denoted “pagan worship”. Her father was furious but the family couldn’t do anything about it. It was what the girl and her family expected from the white people who worked on the reservation.

That Apache creation myth is wild. It’s longer and more detailed and far more interesting than what is contained in the book of Genesis, so I can see why Christians were concerned. If, in my youth, I’d been presented with Genesis and the Apache myth as alternatives, I would have rejected both, but I’d have been tempted by the far more appealing Apache tradition. I can see why stuffy old evangelical missionaries would want to stamp out the competition.

The problem here is that this exclusive attitude means depriving young women of an opportunity for a good education, because Christian schools tend to be better supported financially by their sanctimonious and devout external donors, while as usual, public schools limp along — especially reservation schools, which are usually woefully undersupported. I think these girls are better off being evicted from a religious school, and that the secular schools are going to be far more beneficial for their identity and progress.

When it came time for registration, Maria did not receive any notification from the school. It finally notified her two weeks before the school year started that her children would not be invited back. She had to move them to the public school. “Now that they’re in a public school, and they’ve adjusted to it, they are more proud of their traditions or culture, they’re more proud of who they are,” she said.

But there are 80 churches on that one reservation? I am reminded of how ticks can swarm and kill moose.

*My wife was brought up Baptist. Neither of us are at all religious.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    At least the old Norse religious tradition is entertaining. Loki tricking much stronger opponents. Thor getting drunk.
    I fail to see why anyone would trade that for christianity.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    BTW the Apache do not call themselves the Apache. I forget the real name of the tribe/nation/polity.

    And like the Norse, the native Americans have a shamanic tradition, they even have ‘trickster’ entities (Coyote instead of Loki). Technically they are closer religious relatives than the monotheists from the levant and their patriarchal tradition.

  3. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “At least the old Norse religious tradition is entertaining. Loki tricking much stronger opponents.”

    Isn’t it disturbingly common for good* people to have old relatives that are Trump supporters, for whatever random reason? Yeah. I know.

    (* which I do not claim)

  4. birgerjohansson says

    I am sure the congregations on the reservation gave priority to prayer during Covid…
    Which is why I mention many people were trampled to death during a recent prayer meeting in northern India. Different religion and continent, I am just noting the absence of divine protection.

  5. StevoR says

    @ ^ birgerjohansson : Then there’s the thousand plus who died of heatstroke douing the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca..


    Is this still the 19th century?

    Starting to wonder if we’ve even left the 17th century,

    Slight hyperbole – but only slight..

    .. if you needed further proof that Alito is pure evil and wants to take the U.S. back to a time when women’s bodies were property for men to control, know that one of the people he cited in his opinion was an English jurist who defended marital rape and had women executed for “witchcraft.”

    Source : WARNING : Semi=-paywalled. Grrrr..

  6. StevoR says

    PS. Seen ppl saying on social media that the SCOTUS actually gives tyrants more power than the British monarchs had after the Magna Carta. Which was 1215 with bad King John the only who followed a king of England who literally spent more time abroad than at home fighting in the Crusades. Who was before the relatively enlighted* – aside from mountains of skulls and genocide of cities in Eurasia Mingol empire which was roughly 13th Century. So SCOTUS is kinda actually right wing of Ghenghis Khan and literally Medie-evil or before. Tangential I know but ..

    .* Tolerant to those who surrendered and submitted to their rule, totally NOT to those who didn’t but.

  7. Robert Webster says

    I watched a Native American evangelist once. He was depressed, resigned, and defeated. VERY sad.

  8. gijoel says

    I’m starting to think that the Andaman islanders might be on to something with their ‘kill all interlopers’ policy. Is 80 churches for a 14000 population normal? It doesn’t sound normal, but this is America.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    birgerjohansson @ # 2: … the Apache. I forget the real name of the tribe/nation/polity.

    “Dineh”, according to my history/anthropology readings (a rubric shared by Apaches and Navajos).

    I never got around to asking anybody who would really know, when I lived in the US Southwest.

  10. amts says

    That is what I recall from my classes as well – and – for what its worth – so says google:

    How do you pronounce Dine’, the name for the Navajo people and why is Dine’ preferred over the name “Navajo”? Pronounce the word as “Di Nay”. The word Dine’ is from their own language and means “the people.” The word “Navajo” comes from a Tewa-puebloan, word “nava hu” meaning “place of large planted fields”.Jun 2, 2023

  11. says

    i don’t know about Apache creation myths but Australian aboriginal creation myths are far more interesting and grounded than Genesis. There is no God gave this to you to rule over and use as you please. Instead it is you come from the soil the air and the water around you which nourishes and sustains you. You are part of the land. It gives you a firm connection with the environment around you and a duty to care for and sustain it. That is why they don’t refer to themselves as owners of the land, rather as custodians of it.

  12. Stuart Smith says

    I mean, just taking the definition of the term on its face, this is genocidal behavior. Like, literally, just straight up qualifies under the UN definition.

  13. Erp says

    @6 StevoR
    “Seen ppl saying on social media that the SCOTUS actually gives tyrants more power than the British monarchs had after the Magna Carta. Which was 1215 with bad King John the only who followed a king of England who literally spent more time abroad than at home fighting in the Crusades.”
    There were a lot of customary restrictions on kings (well there still are and if anything even more). When England got rid of its king in 1653 and put in a “Lord Protector” (Oliver Cromwell) they fairly quickly discovered that none of those customary restrictions applied to the Lord Protector. After Cromwell’s death they fairly quickly brought back a king.

    Going back to the topic. WELS probably still adheres to ‘kill the Indian save the man’ which was the philosophy of late 19th and much of the 20th century policy vis a vis the First Nations. The Christian churches on the reservation include some that have merged the Apache traditions with Christianity as well as those imposing white culture. And sometimes it depends entirely on the minister (for instance the Catholic priest responsible for removing a picture of Jesus as an Apache just days after the American Catholic bishops voted an apology for failing to understand indigenous culture).

  14. John Morales says

    Erp, wow! That is most informative.

    And sometimes it depends entirely on the minister (for instance the Catholic priest responsible for removing a picture of Jesus as an Apache just days after the American Catholic bishops voted an apology for failing to understand indigenous culture).

    I quote from the adduced article:
    “What has happened in the past few days reminds me of something from the nineteenth century, when it was not uncommon in New Mexico or Arizona for a posse of white men to sneak up on an Indian village in the dark of night for an ambush,” wrote Lentz in the statement. “The ‘posse’ in this case was made up of men from a conservative Catholic organization in a military town, on the other side of a mountain range, 30 miles from Mescalero. That they were led by the priest currently assigned to Mescalero only adds to the shame.”

  15. John Morales says

    [unfortunate I read that as ‘necronline’, I’ve been hovering around the Black Library a bit too much, recently]

  16. John Morales says

    Gotta admit that Catholic Father obs has a great relationship with his children.

    Were it a Protestant Pastor, then it would be the Pastor as a great relationship with his sheep, of course.

  17. microraptor says

    birgerjohansson @2: There are many different Native American/First Nations religious traditions. Some of which feature Coyote and many of which that do not. But nearly every polytheistic religion on every continent features some sort of trickster archetype character, whether that’s Loki, Hermes, Coyote, Anansi the spider from the Akan region of West Africa, Maui of Polynesian mythology…

  18. Sonja says

    Christians: Without us, you’d still be worshipping the sun!

    Tribe: Dude… the sun is real

  19. NitricAcid says

    Doesn’t the tribe have the authority to evict the churches or schools that are out to screw up the kids?

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