In the conclusion of his book on sin, Derek Nelson proposes the following summary statements. First, “How does sin relate to the human as soil? The human can succumb to being less than one is called to be. Karl Barth called this the sin of sloth. Reinhold Niebuhr called it the sin of sensuality.” Second he asks, “How does sin relate to the human as spirit? The human can claim to be more than one is called to be. Barth, Niebuhr, and a whole host of others call this the sin of pride.”
I recently saw an internet meme depicting an Inuit man with the following text overlay:
Eskimo: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?
Priest: No, not if you did not know.
Eskimo: Then why did you tell me?
This joke captures the sort of humour common among Native peoples exchanged around an often traumatic history of Christian colonization and conversion.
Many authors have noted that Native peoples did not have a word for sin in their language, let alone original sin, akin to that of amer-european Christianity. The perceptions of the Native peoples that the missionaries had were, however, as sinners, pagans, heathens, and some even went so far as to refer to Native peoples “as Amelkites and Canaanites—in other words, people who, if they would not be converted, were worthy of annihilation.” The Canaanite identification was key in articulating the notion of sin, and particularly original sin, to both amer-european and Native peoples. As Andrea Smith has astutely observed, “[i]n the colonial imagination, Native bodies are […] immanently polluted with sexual sin. […] What makes Canaanites supposedly worthy of destruction in the biblical narrative and Indian peoples supposedly worthy of destruction in the eyes of their colonizers is that they both personify sin.” The examples she gives are striking:
Alexander Whitaker, a minister in Virginia, wrote in 1613: “They live naked in bodie, as if their shame of their sinne deserved no covering: Their names are as naked as their bodie: They esteem it a virtue to lie, deceive and steale as their master the divell teacheth them.” Furthermore, according to Bernardino de Minaya, a Dominican cleric, “Their marriages are not sacrament but a sacrilege. They are idolatrous, libidinous, and commit sodomy. Their chief desire is to eat, drink, worship heathen idols, and commit bestial obscenities.”
Notice the emphasis on the inherent “sexual perversity” of Native peoples, and this association with inherent (read original) sin. The echoes of Augustine’s autobiography should not elude us here. In addition to inherently sexually perverse, the Native peoples were also considered inherently dirty, based on their life ways.
Native peoples are a permanent “present absence” in the […] colonial imagination, an “absence” that reinforces at every turn the conviction that Native peoples are indeed vanishing and that the conquest of Native lands is justified. […] This “absence” is effected through the metaphorical transformation of Native bodies into a pollution of which the colonial body must constantly purify itself. For instance, as white Californians described them in the 1860s, Native people were “the dirtiest lot of human beings on earth.” They wear “filthy rags, with their persons unwashed, hair uncombed and swarming with vermin.”
Dirt, animal-hide clothing, uncombed hair, nakedness, ceremonies: these are the marks of the inherent (read original) sinful nature of Native peoples according to amer-european colonizers. To be an Indian was to be a sinner. This conflation of Native culture and identity with sin is what produced the missionary task to “kill the Indian, save the man.”
The prominence with which the doctrine of original sin figured in evangelism and the missionary’s conception of conversion is striking. In his study of Protestant missions between 1787-1862, Robert Berkhofer has observed that Protestant mission societies across the board maintained that the teaching of original sin was paramount to teaching salvation. Berkhofer provides countless excerpts from mission reports, and it is worth quoting him at length here:
A sincere belief in the depravity of human nature divided the Christian Indian from his pagan brother just as it did among the whites. Only after an acceptance of human depravity was hope on Christ’s atonement meaningful. In fact, only prior acceptance of man’s fall made Christ’s sacrifice sensible. So important was the concept of sin that the Bishop of Mann in his book, The Knowledge and Practice of Christianity Made Easy to the Meanest Capacities; or, an Essay towards an Instruction for the Indians made his dialogue, “Of the Corruption of Our Nature,” only second to the explanation of God. For this reason missionaries of all denominations endeavored to convince the Indians of their sinfulness. The first missionary sent out by the New York Missionary Society directors was charged to impress on the “rude minds” of the Cherokees “that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God—that by the works of the law no flesh living can be justified—that sinners are justified, freely by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus—and that his blood cleanseth from all sin.” One of Kingsbury’s first sermons to this tribe nearly two decades later endeavored to “explain and enforce the doctrine of total depravity.” In his first sermon to the Nez Percés, Samuel Parker explained man’s fall, the transgressor’s deserts, and Christ’s atonement. […] A Methodist missionary to Choctaws explained clearly his successful approach to Indian conversion: “Our plan of preaching to them was, to convince them of their guild, misery, and helplessness by reason and experience: not appealing to the Scriptures as the law by which they were condemned, but to their knowledge of right and wrong; and the misery felt from the consciousness that they have done wrong. The gospel proffering to them an immediate change of heart, was seized by them as Heavens best blessing of ruined man.” At the heart of the conversion experience was a deep emotional conviction of one’s depravity.
It would be difficult to manufacture a theology and a conversion operation more Augustinian than this. Moreover, in the colonial imagination, becoming Christian meant leaving Native identity behind and conforming to amer-european cultural ideals; becoming Christian meant becoming white. Or, as Berkhofer puts it, “[t]o become truly Christian was to become anti-Indian. The good Indian convert realized that his former religion was superstitious and his former habits slothful and sinful,” and one could add sensual, in reference both to their life ways (dirt) and nature-oriented ceremonies (sexual promiscuity) as described by Smith. It is this construal of sin that I take issue with; the conflation of dirt/nature with sensuality and sin. I submit that, given the Ojibwa and Lakota cosmology described above, this division of soil and spirit is nonsensical (and an obviously western, rather platonic one) and that the association of these with being less or more than one is called to be is dissonant with the life ways of Native peoples and their indigeneity.
*Because this is part of a larger piece of writing, some of the references and arguments might appear incomplete
**No written portion of this blog post may be reproduced without permission from the author.
 Nelson, Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed, 117. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 118. Original emphasis.
 The quote is attributed to Annie Dillard.
 Vine Deloria, Jr. devotes an entire chapter to “Indian Humor” in Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (New York: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969), 147-67.
 Kidwell, Noley, Tinker, A Native American Theology, 18.
 Warrior, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” 7. See also Albert Cave, “Canaanites in a Promised Land,” American Indian Quarterly, (Fall 1988); H.C. Porter, The Inconstant Savage (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1979).
 Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Brooklyn: South End Press, 2005), 10.
 Alexander Whitaker quoted in Robert Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian (New York: Vintage, 1978) in Smith, Conquest, 10.
 Bernardino de Minaya quoted in David Stannard, American Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) quoted in Smith, Conquest, 10.
 James Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1997) quoted in Smith, 9.
 This well-known comment is attributed to Captain Richard H. Pratt. He wrote: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” In Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260.
 Charge to Joseph Bullen by John Rodgers, March 21, 1799, in Two Sermons, Delivered before the New York Missionary Society (New York, 1799), 75-84, italics in the original, quoted in Berkhofer, 52.
 Brainerd Journal, March 2, 1817 American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABC) 18.5.3.I:91 quoted in Berkhofer, 52.
 Report of Exploring Tour beyond the Rocky Mountains, September 6, 1835, ABC 18.3.1.IX:195 cited in Berkhofer, 52.
 Alexander Talley to Mississippi Annual Conference, n.d., in Christian Advocate, III (March 13, 1829), 110 quoted in Berkhofer, 52-53.
 Berkhofer, 51-53, emphasis is mine.