The Great Smoky Mountains in the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee
Overlooking the Quallah Boundary of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, Cherokee, NC

For over a decade, I took groups of university students on a week of service-learning to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in western North Carolina. There we had occasion to learn about Cherokee history (including the long history of oppression and suffering), culture, tradition, politics, and faith. On one such trip, we were speaking with Bo Taylor, an expert in native dance and music at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. He is also a committed Christian who continues to embrace traditional Cherokee spirituality as well. He told us a story, which I will paraphrase as follows:

When the white men first came to our lands, they saw us singing songs to the sun and they said, “Ah, they’re sun worshipers!” Then they saw us dancing around the fire and singing songs and said, “Ah, they’re worshiping the fire!” And so they thought that we were savages and heathens. But that’s only because they never stopped to ask us what we were doing. Because if they had, we would have told them that there is only one Great Spirit who is the Creator of all things. The Creator has an emblem in the sky: the sun, the fire that burns in the heavens. That fire also burns on the earth and is a sign of the Great Spirit in our midst. And we know that that fire burns within us giving us life: the first thing that happens after you die is that the fire goes out and the body grows cold. Now, let me ask you, have you ever heard of a fire in the heavens, the fire that dwells on earth with us, and the fire that dwells within?

Of course, at this point, all the Christians in the room sheepishly admitted that this was one way of understanding the Trinity. We said as much. Bo continued:

We had the same religion that you had. We just used different names. But you never stopped to ask us. You just assumed we were heathens and savages and that we needed to be forcibly converted to your religion. But we’d already had it.

Bo Taylor, image for essay Indigenous peoples, colonialism, and metaphor
Bo Taylor

Bo’s story is the perfect illustration of what happens when we confuse our metaphors for the reality they point to. Both sets of metaphors, the traditional Christian articulation of the Trinity and the Cherokee sun and fire, point to an ineffable reality beyond ordinary experience. But in this case, the white evangelists could not distinguish between the metaphors they employed and the reality those metaphors pointed to. As a result, they were incapable of seeing another set of metaphors pointing to the same reality they were purporting to proclaim.

The consequences of this incapability were tragic. There were aggressive missionary activities. Religious organizations founded boarding schools where Native children were sent by government order to be educated away from their parents. In these boarding schools Native culture, language, and spirituality were—at times literally—beaten out of Native children. “Kill the Indian, save the man,” was one of the mottoes of this effort—an effort led by those whose failure to see the value and merit of indigenous culture aided their complicity in the attempted eradication of that culture.

It need not have been this way. But the enterprise of colonialism and imperialism all but guaranteed that indigenous culture would not be respected or treated with dignity.

The Certainty of Colonialism

One of the elements of the colonial enterprise is the certainty that the colonizer’s culture is superior to that of the colonized. The colonizers tend to view their own culture as normative and as one that should rightfully displace any other, especially one that is deemed inferior.

In the history of European colonization of the Americas, rarely has anyone outside of a handful of repentant missionaries ever deigned to think that indigenous cultures had anything to offer the colonizer. Instead, as Bo’s story revealed above, there has been an inclination to see indigenous culture as necessarily backward, heathen, and as “other.” This attitude is compounded when the colonizer is absolutely certain about the rightness of their perspective.

Life size diorama at Museum of the Cherokee Indian depicting the end of the trail of tears
The end of the Trail of Tears: Oklahoma. (Exhibit at Museum of the Cherokee Indian)

This kind of certainty leads to a willingness to write such cultures off and erase them from the plan of history. Only a people convinced of the rightness of their enterprise to the exclusion of all others can enslave indigenous people in order to pillage their lands. Only those convinced of the rightness of their cultural superiority can engage in the systematic displacement of other peoples, regardless of their longstanding connections to the land. Only those so certain of their rightness can remove tens of thousands on a forced march west on a journey that would result in the deaths of thousands along the way.

It need not have been this way and it need not be this way in the future.

Metaphor and Multiculturalism

A culture that is willing to accept that even its most valued beliefs and traditions might be metaphors, and thus are pointing to a deeper reality not perfectly understood, is more open to the fact that other cultures might be doing the same thing. Such a culture might have understood the symbols of sun, fire, and heat in ways that resonated with its own metaphors, rather than dismissing another culture as an inferior expression of faith.

Embracing metaphor is a powerful way to reject the legacy of colonialism and to affirm the value of indigenous peoples and cultures. It is a way to embrace both the diversity of different cultural expressions and a greater unity across cultural differences. When we see our own cultural and religious beliefs as metaphors for some deeper reality we are striving to understand, we are more open to seeing other cultures and religious traditions not as competing truth-claims but as different metaphorical systems engaged in the same quest for truth and understanding. No longer do others have to be wrong for us to be right; we can affirm the value of our beliefs and cultural perspective without having to denigrate or subordinate others. We can appreciate the Old World Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the Cherokee Sun, Fire, and Heat without the need to denigrate or force the other into conformity.

On Indigenous Peoples Day, we have the opportunity to reflect on the sins of the past and commit ourselves to a different future. One way to do so is to begin to honor indigenous cultures not as modern cultures in-waiting, as primitive versions of our own, or even as cultures with an elevated spirituality and “native wisdom” that the majority culture can appropriate. Instead, we can appreciate indigenous cultures for what they are: rich and complex cultures that neither yield to nor supersede one’s own, but stand side by side in dignity and worth.

Some sections excerpted from The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue, by Mark Schaefer