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.

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