It is written (Niehardt – Black Elk Speaks – 1932) that in the end, Black Elk converted to Catholicism and it is also well-known that Lakota Chief Red Cloud also converted to Catholicism and this brings me to ask: Why?
There have been many very traditional Lakota who never gave up their inherent spirituality for Catholicism or any of the other foreign religion that came from Europe. Crazy Horse, one of the truly great Lakota leaders, went to his grave still holding on to the traditional spiritual beliefs of his ancestors. Why did so many Lakota, Navajo, Pueblo, and other tribal people give up their centuries old beliefs and convert to a foreign religion?
Were the traditional religious beliefs of the indigenous people so weak that its practitioners could give it up so willingly? Or were the persuasive powers of the missionaries so overwhelming that they could cause a people with spiritual beliefs much older than their own to toss them aside and embrace their religion?
This begs the question: How strong were the traditional beliefs of the indigenous people? The Bible says that Christians felt so strongly about their religion they marched into the den of hungry lions singing the praises of their creator. We may never know how many Indians reacted in the same fashion when asked to give up their traditional beliefs and accept a new one. We do know that many Indians chose death before they would accept a new belief.
It is said by Christians that it doesn’t really matter if one believes in the Indian way or in the Christian way because we all worship the same God. If that is true, why were Native Americans forced to push aside the way they worshipped their God and forced to accept worshipping another God in another way?
The invading Christians labeled the indigenous people as heathens. They set out with a vengeance to cleanse the land of these heathens. The dictates of the Spanish conquerors were, “Convert or die.”
The Christian’s concept of heaven was that if the heathen Indians were not Christians they would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Heaven seemed to be the ultimate goal of the settlers and they never considered that that indigenous people had their own version of heaven.
After his conversion Chief Red Cloud gave up the land where Holy Rosary Mission was built. He asked to be buried at the Holy Rosary cemetery in the black robe of the Catholic priests. He was granted his wish. He and other tribal leaders then proceeded to give up land for other religious orders to build their churches and schools.
Would Crazy Horse have done the same if he had surrendered his freedom to become an Agency Indian?
We will never know the answer to that question, but perhaps Native Americans in the year 2016 should re-examine their concept of Christianity and look back on all of the spiritual beliefs they gave up. The beliefs of the indigenous people appear to be far superior to those of the doom and gloom religions of the European settlers. The “Happy Hunting Grounds” cliché that has become a part of the vernacular would suggest that the Indians preferred happy to hell, fire and brimstone.
In my observance and participation in the spiritual practices of the Lakota, I find that these traditional ways are so much more profound, or down to earth, than the practices of the religions that came across the ocean. It is no wonder that the Native Americans that met the first settlers had a hard time understanding their apparent lack of humor and the shame they felt about the human body.
Because the Indians dressed to accommodate the seasons, they were immediately called naked savages. The Indians had no shame of their bodies, but it was not long before the Indian women were forced to cover their naked breasts by the invading Christians. The settlers forced their self-shame upon the women.
Perhaps it was an act of white supremacy that caused the settlers to totally block out and begin to destroy the faith and ideologies of the indigenous people. There was never an effort made to understand their beliefs. It was automatically assumed that they were inferior and therefore their spirituality and traditions were worthless. They took from the indigenous people the tools to survive and cast aside all others. If they converted to Christianity they would be saved and much more, they would be civilized. Thousands of converted Christian Indians still died at the hands of the settlers. Many died while on their knees praying to their new god.
I am still left with the question that has bothered me all of my life: Why did so many indigenous people convert to the religions that came from a foreign land with a Bible in which not one indigenous tribe in the Western Hemisphere is ever mentioned?
–Tim Giago, Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times which was re-named Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at