Original(izing) Sin and the Conquest of Native Bodies

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.”[1]  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.”[2]

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?[3]
This joke captures the sort of humour common among Native peoples exchanged around an often traumatic history of Christian colonization and conversion.[4]

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.[5]  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.”[6]  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.”[7]  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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.”[10]

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.”[11]

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.”[12]  One of Kingsbury’s first sermons to this tribe nearly two decades later endeavored to “explain and enforce the doctrine of total depravity.”[13]  In his first sermon to the Nez Percés, Samuel Parker explained man’s fall, the transgressor’s deserts, and Christ’s atonement.[14] […] 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.”[15] At the heart of the conversion experience was a deep emotional conviction of one’s depravity.[16]

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.


[1] Nelson, Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed, 117. Original emphasis.

[2] Ibid., 118. Original emphasis.

[3] The quote is attributed to Annie Dillard.

[4] 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.

[5] Kidwell, Noley, Tinker, A Native American Theology, 18.

[6] 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).

[7] Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Brooklyn: South End Press, 2005), 10.

[8] Alexander Whitaker quoted in Robert Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian (New York: Vintage, 1978) in Smith, Conquest, 10.

[9] Bernardino de Minaya quoted in David Stannard, American Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) quoted in Smith, Conquest, 10.

[10] James Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1997) quoted in Smith, 9.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] Brainerd Journal, March 2, 1817 American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABC) 18.5.3.I:91 quoted in Berkhofer, 52.

[14] Report of Exploring Tour beyond the Rocky Mountains, September 6, 1835, ABC 18.3.1.IX:195 cited in Berkhofer, 52.

[15] Alexander Talley to Mississippi Annual Conference, n.d., in Christian Advocate, III (March 13, 1829), 110 quoted in Berkhofer, 52-53.

[16] Berkhofer, 51-53, emphasis is mine.




10 comments on “Original(izing) Sin and the Conquest of Native Bodies

  1. dbarber says:

    It’s really striking to me — though probably already obvious! — how much of a resonance there is between “kill the Indian, save the man” and “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Really powerful way of pointing out how the human (as sinner, and as man) is articulated both as a kind of “neutral / universal” substrate for all particular identities / predicates / actions and as an object to which one must convert.

    • Kampen says:

      I actually hadn’t thought of that! Though I should have…Thanks for pointing that out.
      Another, more Augustine articulation, would be “the fall of the Indian, the ascent of (white)man.”

  2. tapji says:

    Thanks for this Melanie. The relation between original sin , sexuality & racism brings a few things to mind. Dan already mentioned the similarity between “kill the Indian , save the man” and “hate the sin , love the sinner.”

    One of the things that came to my mind , was the ongoing murder and abduction of Aboriginal Women , and the apathy and indifference surrounding it. Within the legal system & the media , these woman are seen as sexually deviant to the point where there is plenty of Indian to kill and no man to save. Even in ‘secular’ (whatever that means) society , this understanding of sin , is alive and kicking. I think it is almost instinctive for Amer-Europeans to use this model of original sin (In its original Christian form , or some kind of secular version) , to categorize those who are ‘racially other’ as deviant (often sexually).

    I don’t know. Does that make sense?

    • Kampen says:

      I think you’re absolutely right, Tapji. With regards to the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, the man to save is not somehow to be found within the Indian, but points to the way in which the system (the man) serves and protects primarily white (male) bodies. And I agree with your point on Christianity and the secular; it’s the same logic.

  3. Joel says:

    “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…. 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.”

    Naively, I see two choices: First, we are fallen; therefore this renders “Christ’s atonement meaningful.” Second, we/all humans (and beasts?) are not fallen; therefore Christ’s atonement becomes less meaningful and more as one choice among others for (a) salvation of some sort. In other words, can you develop what you mean by “nonsensical” ? I can see the problem with projecting a fallen nature towards native peoples and it’s use by the privileged, but I have a hard time grasping what the alternative is for “we are *all* fallen.”

    • Kampen says:

      We are all broken. Or rather, the circle, is broken. And since we are all related, we are all broken. The image of a broken hoop is sometimes used. A hoop is a circle, not a line, thus there is no place to fall from. But the hoop is broken and must be healed to balance again.

      • Gerald Ens says:

        But this is (in brief form) how I’ve always heard (orthodox) Christian understandings of original sin articulated.

        For example, Williams (as orthodox as they come and Augustinian to boot) in his introduction to Christian belief writes:

        Peace and praise, reconciliation and delight; these are the purposes of God. But they are not at all in evidence in our world. Human lives are not in general very obviously reconciled to each other; the praise of God has to be listened for very hard…. The familiar world is one in which people do not habitually give to each other as they could, let alone giving to God. It is a world with powerful defences between individuals, nations, ethnic groups, classes and religions. / So we’re not where we could and should be, in a state where peace is sealed by what some like to call an ‘economy of gift’, living by one another’s generosity…. And each of us knows how readily we will take the path of least resistance if giving to another becomes complicated or demanding or puts us at a real disadvantage. Pause between the last sentence and the next, as I do in writing this, and think of the last twenty-four hours…And the Christian belief that is summed up in the language of ‘original sin’ is basically a way of saying that this is a tangle that goes back to the very roots of humanity. The image that comes to mind is one familiar from the country rodas of Monmouthshire in the days when, as Bishop of Monmouth, I travelled each week to outlying parishes: miss one obscure sign, take one wrong turning, and you can’t set it right just by another simple right turn. In humanity’s history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn how to be human only as we also learn the habits of self-absorption…. / Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way. To speak of original sin isn’t necessarily to speak as if there were a great metaphysical curse hanging over the human race; it’s just to observe that our learning how to exist is mixed in with learning what does not make for our life or our joy. And every failure and wrong turn in the history of a person as in the history of our species locks us more and more firmly into ourselves. No wonder we drift further and further from peace, become less and less free to give. Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle.

        Okay. So that’s a long quote, obviously. I’m putting it there at such length because I think I have a pretty good grasp of it and if you orient yourself in regards to it then I might have a better sense of what you’re arguing for – because now I’m confused. When you first wrote this post I thought you wanted to jettison the idea of original sin, which is interesting to think about and could (of course) go in all sorts of theologically suspect or theologically astute directions (e.g., I’ve heard Jarem Sawatzky speak really eloquently and convincingly on why he thinks we need to get rid of the doctrine). But then I read your reply to Joel as saying that, really, what we need to do is reclaim a properly Christian account of original sin over and against evangelicals etc. I don’t see how both of these can be true. Do I misread your comment when I see it as an abbreviated version of what Williams says? Or does Williams not actually give a proper account of original sin, even though he thinks he does? Or do you actually want original sin, just properly understood? Or is there some other option that I’m missing?

        • Kampen says:

          Where do you see me reclaiming a properly Christian account of original sin? My reply to Joel on the broken circle is a way of talking about sin but certainly not original sin (which is why I said there is no place to fall from). I would also disagree with your claim that the image of a broken circle is how orthodoxy talks about original sin. Western orthodox theology is fundamentally linear and temporal. A circular, spatial thinking about sin comes from Native theologies and other non-western theologies. If you want to know more about this difference, I posted in summer about “Thinking Spatiality.” My comments on the broken circle come from Native theology. To see this as an abbreviated version of what Williams says is problematic in two ways. First, when Williams writes “To speak of original sin isn’t necessarily to speak as if there were a great metaphysical curse hanging over the human race” – actually, that’s exactly what the doctrine of original sin holds – a state of depravity propagated through the whole human race through nature and seminal inheritance. Williams just sounds like he wants to reclaim the language of original sin (because it’s orthodox?) but define it differently. Secondly, I think bringing Williams up as your preferred frame of reference for thinking about sin/original sin is problematic. I see this as a way of resisting exactly what I’ve posted in the original blog post. To me, bringing up Williams as a figure of orthodoxy who redefines the doctrine of original sin is a way of saying “look, not all white, male, western orthodox, theology is like that!” Why should I, or any non-western theologies, orient themselves to Williams to explain our theology? That’s just a reinscription of white-patriarchal dominance. The point is to decolonize western theology, and in this case, specifically the doctrine of original sin. So, no, I don’t want the doctrine of original sin. And I don’t want Williams’ flowery revisionist definition of it either.

          • Gerald Ens says:

            Looking back at my comment, my questions look like an attempt to put you into a corner. Such was not my intent. I read your post back in February and found it interesting, but wondered whether the historical examples you cite were good use of a bad doctrine or a misuse of a doctrine that may not be above some sort of redemption. I was content to just ponder over that.
            But then, really, I mis-read your reply to Joel as how I have always heard original sin articulated, which made me wonder about your position vis-à-vis original sin. So I tried to ask for clarification of this.
            Having said that, some points of contention.

            1. I am not the one who gets you to orient your theology (in this particular post) in regards to the dominant theological positions of white men. Had your post been a positive construction of an account of sin, drawing from Native and other non-western theologians, then you’re probably right that bringing in Williams would be quite inappropriate. But this is not what your post does; your post aims demonstrate the problems of original sin. It orients itself as a negation of orthodox theology. There’s no reason why you should have to orient yourself to a good articular of orthodox theology, unless you have already taken this theology as your starting point (as in this post) and as the only object of attention. In such a case I think it is very appropriate to bring up Williams. (I also, very intentionally, did not introduce Williams as my preferred frame of reference, but as someone who I think I understand. But you correctly judge that I do like Williams a lot, so I can let this one go.)

            2. Since having read Vine Deloria Jr. I am less and less convinced that Christian theology is in fact overwhelmingly linear. A linear temporal logic is strictly opposed to the relational understanding of time we see in Christian pilgrimage, for example, in which time is always storied and simultaneously reaches back into the past and ahead into the future. Consider Dante’s Divine Comedy, which centres around the cyclical retelling of Holy Week, instead of progressing in any sort of straightforward fashion; his story begins in the middle and ends not at a destination but at the ongoing movement of being taken up into the circle of God’s love. I do worry about a certain “temporal imperialism” in Christian theology; but this temporal imperialism has more to do with the way Christianity purports to interrupt and give us time than the way it organizes time into a linear fashion.

            3. You point out that a fundamental difference between you and Williams is your claim that “there is no place to fall from.” I missed this in my first reading of your comment; thanks for bringing it to my attention. I take this to mean that we are broken in some sort of fundamental way – that God made us broken or that God is not able to create us unbroken. (Maybe that’s unfair.) I bring this up because I think it relates to Joel’s question, which I don’t think you answered. Many Anabaptists have been quite uncomfortable with original sin; it depends how one reads the tradition, but there are signs of discomfort going back almost to the beginning. In continuity with this, I was raised with a sort of ambiguous position towards original sin and see many problems with it, such that I’ve often wondered (often with the prompting of Peace and Conflict friends) if we should get rid of it. However, my reticence to do this comes with the fact that there is also a persistent tendency in Mennonite theology and practice to think that we save ourselves. I suspect that these twin leanings are linked, and I think the latter is very problematic. If the hoop has always been broken, is it not then up to us to repair it? I’m trying to re-ask Joel’s question here. If we’re not all fallen, does not Jesus become one lord whose salvation becomes a bit of help he can give us here and there?

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