During the 1950s and '60s, when tribal leaders and activists were pressing for alternative policies to termination, there were calls for the Christian churches to join in the struggle for tribal sovereignty and more accommodating policies. Some activists solicited the churches in both U.S. and Canada, and held a variety of meetings through the '60s and '70s. The Civil Rights movement was strengthened and supported by Christian churches from many denominations. Indian leaders and intellectuals, many of them Christians, believed the churches would play a significant role in the struggle for American Indian self-determination. However, the churches did not play a significant supportive role in the self-determination movement. Why not?
In the black community, and in the Civil Rights Movement, churches were often the main way in which black people were organized into communities. Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement was aimed at individual political and economic inclusion into American society. The Civil Rights Movement upheld central American values, goals and law. The problem was the United States was not implementing its own values and law in ways that were consistent with the Constitution or the values it expressed. Disadvantaged minority groups wanted inclusion, acceptance and entry into full U.S. citizenship. Generally, the Christian churches were supportive of the goals and values of the Civil Rights Movement and the changes in U.S. society and law that resulted.
The movement toward American Indian self-determination, however, gained less support from the churches. While many American Indians have converted to Christianity, most tribal communities and governments are not organized around Christian belief. When American Indians convert to Christianity, they often do not give up their identity as Indians, or ties to their community or government. In some communities, the introduction of Christianity created cultural and often political breaks with non-converts. Christianity, ultimately, demands a cultural transformation of the individual with internalization of Christian values and lifeways. Converts are often asked to give up traditional values, ceremonies and traditional ways of living; which also translate into preferences for Western or U.S.-style community and political organization. In some communities, Christianity introduced cultural and political conflict over future directions. Nevertheless, many Indian communities found ways to reconcile the inclusion of Christian groups. In some communities, Christianity is seen as one of several paths to the sacred. In these nations, some spiritual leaders practice a Christian religion, often Catholicism, as well as the Native American Church, and participate in the Sun Dance. One is only enjoined not to mix the doctrines of the various religions. Other communities respect the decisions of individuals and villages to take on Christianity or to practice the traditional spiritual path and ceremonies.
When self-determination activists started to look to reservation communities for spiritual guidance, they started to view the Christian churches and their views as assimilationist. The churches and church activists withdrew from the movement, in part because of the religious revival and veneration for the traditional religions, and because the churches never seemed quite comfortable supporting American Indian political and cultural autonomy. In recent comments, Pope Benedict suggests that renewal of indigenous culture and beliefs are a step backward.
Nevertheless, there are many prominent Christian Indian leaders who are devoted to American Indian issues and future welfare. Despite the official positions of the Christian churches, most American Indian Christians are strong defenders of tribal sovereignty. The churches should listen more carefully to the spiritual and worldly needs of their Indian members, and develop a rationale for the Christian defense of indigenous rights. Christianity and tribal sovereignty are reconcilable for many Indian people. In practice, tribal sovereignty does not exclude Christian beliefs or members. Christian belief should not exclude the rights and values of indigenous peoples.