Wednesday, November 15, 2006

savages or saints?

The following passage is quoted in Orthodox Alaska (Michael Oleksa, p. 171) from the autobiography of Rev. S. Hall Young, a Presbyterian minister who was influential on U. S. educational policy in Alaska in the late 19th c., after purchase of the territory from Russia:
I realized . . . that the task of making an English-speaking race of these Natives was much easier than the task of of making a civilized and Christian language out of the Native languages. We should let the old tongues with their superstitions and sin die--the sooner the better--and replace these languages with that of Christian civilization, and compel the Natives in our schools to speak English and English only.
Now, it should be kept in mind that by this point Orthodoxy had been planted and growing among the Aleuts for roughly 100 years. They had comprised the majority of the Christian population even before the Russians left, and after the U. S. took possession of Alaska, the Orthodox Church was kept going by almost exclusively indigenous clergy.

To suggest that any language was incapable of conveying Christian ideas would have been chauvinistic enough; to make this assertion about a language and culture that over the course of a century had so fully embraced Orthodox Christianity that it has ever since been treated as part of their native tradition is downright laughable.

Of course, this crowd probably didn't consider Orthodoxy to be a real form of Christianity anyway. They may have been English-speaking Protestants, but they seemed to differ little from the gang of Spanish Catholics who put to death St. Peter the Aleut a half-century earlier for refusing to convert. I don't want to give the impression that all Protestant missionaries are this culturally insensitive (any more than I would want to say all Catholic priests are murderous oppressors), but it is interesting to see the consistent tensions generated by Western attitudes. In this case, the plights of Orthodox Christianity and Native American culture run together, suggesting that in the end it really does come down to the West vs. everyone else.

Holy Martyr Peter, pray for us!

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