We Shall Meet the Same Lord Together: Native Women and Christianity in the Early Republic

Jessica Criales

Exterior of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Oneida, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Depending on your political perspective, the fact that Christian churchgoers voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016 was either moral vindication or a terrible tragedy. Either way, however, the very existence of this voting block has only reinforced a pervasive assumption in American culture: To be Christian in the United States is to be conservative, Republican, and white.

Northern Wisconsin might not, at first glance, seem like the right place to start unpacking that assumption. But in the spring of 2016, as part of a conference on Episcopalian and Anglican history, I had the privilege of attending a service at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Oneida, Wisconsin. It concluded with a litany, a sung series of invocations asking for prayers, first from the members of the Trinity, the apostles, and martyrs. Then a list of names less familiar to me: Holy Pendleton Oakenhater, Holy Cornelius Hill, Holy Midwewinind, Holy Kateri Tekakwitha. The prayer service was, in fact, led by members of the Oneida Nation, and honored their ancestors, as well as other Indigenous people of North America, who had embraced and promoted Christianity in centuries past. Holy Apostles, in fact, is one of the oldest churches in Wisconsin, and was established in 1822 by Christian Oneida migrants to the region.

Hidden throughout early American history are many other stories similar to the foundation of Holy Apostles, that defy the easy association of Christianity with white supremacy. My current research project focuses on Indigenous women who embraced Christianity as a tool of resistance to colonialism and racial prejudice in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Far from being white or conservative, these women used Christian identity to exert their own agency in defense of Indigenous sovereignty. Specifically, I study women who were members of “Christian Indian” tribes, such as Brothertown and Stockbridge in New York, both founded around 1785. When I explain my research topic, most people are surprised at the very existence of tribes that formed around Christian identity, not to mention the strong involvement of indigenous women. (In fact, women outnumbered men in the early decades of both tribes.) The next question is often: Why did these women so strongly identify as Christian?

For starters, I think Christian doctrine offered Native women a method of dealing with the psychological stress of colonization. For example, facing white settler expansion in New York, a portion of the Stockbridge tribe decided to move west to Indiana in 1819. A letter from a Stockbridge woman named Mary Konkapot demonstrates her belief that Christianity could help overcome the pain of being separated from family. “You do not love to have me go into this new country,” she wrote to her father, who had remained in New York, “but the same Lord is here that is there, and if you will pray every day, I will pray too, so we shall meet the same Lord together.”[1] Through being supernaturally reunited with her family members through the Christian concept of resurrection, Konkapot expressed her hope that dispossession from their native lands would not be the end of the story for the Stockbridge.

The state of New York paid out a portion of the annuity due the Brothertown in “premiums,” individual rewards for agriculture and weaving. Women participated in this program at a higher rate than men and early more money overall. Photo by author. New York State Archives, A0832: Entry documentation submitted by the Indian Commissioner for annuities paid to the Indians, 1796-1925, Box 3, unnumbered folder.

Equally as important, Indigenous women in the early republic were often able to wield their identity as “good Christian Indians” in order to sway government and church officials. In the 1810s, a Stockbridge woman named Mary Doxtator successfully used her reputation as a faithful Christian to acquire material support for her tribe. Multiple white ministers in the area encouraged their congregations to send donations directly to Doxtator, stating they had “entire confidence” in her ability to use the donations wisely because she was “known to be a woman of good moral character.”[2] Brothertown women used slightly different strategy to earn money: They worked together to produce cloth in exchange for monetary “premiums” paid by the state of New York, a system put in place partly because the Indian Commissioners were impressed by the virtuousness and industry of the women of the tribe. Another Stockbridge woman, Electa Quinney, became the first public schoolteacher in Wisconsin in the late 1820s, gaining the respect of both indigenous and white populations in the area. Publicly claiming both Christian and indigenous identity was, of course, not the only strategy used by Native women to carve out spaces of agency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but it was a fairly successful one.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the political landscape the United States had shifted. Growing nationalism, expanding settler colonialism, and the popularity of the “Manifest Destiny” rhetoric meant that meant that government leaders were ever-more insistent on removal policies and less likely to be dissuaded in their efforts by indigenous claims to civility or Christianity. Tribes like Brothertown and Stockbridge moved several times in the hopes of finding land where they could dwell securely; the Brothertown in particular also turned toward more typical Euro American gender roles in an attempt to prove their equality with white citizens, subjecting the women of the tribe to legal codes like marital coverture. Standing at the intersection of Christian and indigenous identity no longer had the impact it once did.

As Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood demonstrated in their landmark book Come Shouting to Zion, African and African American slaves in the pre-Civil War South used religious practice, including affiliation with specific Christian denominations, as a way of preserving their culture and demonstrating agency. The Native women I study offer a similar reminder that the development of Christianity in the Americas did not always follow the paths laid out by Euro Americans. Women in Christian Indian communities conceptualized and utilized Christian theology in unique ways, constructing identities for themselves that incorporated non-whiteness into European Christian rhetoric. Those who embrace cries to return to a specific type of past “greatness” of American Christianity may find themselves surprised to discover the wide range of beliefs, practices, and racial identities that characterized Christianity in the early republic.


Endnotes

[1] Letter of Mary Konkapot, Sept. 9, 1819, copied into the journal of John Sergeant, Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library.

[2] Statement on behalf of Mary Doxtator from the inhabitants of the town of Onondaga Hollow, New York, Jan. 18, 1821, Indiana State Archives, Dean Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 10.

2 December 2019

About the Author

Jessica Criales is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

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