Native Spiritualism vs. Evangelical Christianity in Southeast Alaska

In Southeast Alaska many Native American groups have begun to face in the past thirty years the issues of contrasting culture that many Plains and Eastern Natives dealt with in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the central issues is the clash between traditional Native spiritualism and the influx of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. In Kirk Dumbrowski’s book Against Culture: Development, Politics, and Religion in Indian Alaska (2001) he asserts, “both church members and their critics continue to view native culture and Pentecostal religion as hopelessly at odds” (p. 6). Dumbrowski (2001) writes that there are twenty to twenty-five Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in the villages and even larger towns of this area. This large presence that has grown in the past thirty to forty years has created conflicts religiously, culturally, socially, and even politically. In Native Alaskan communities, society works as a force over political and economic problems, as well as problems with the clash between traditional views and the encroaching modern views of American society. Religion as a whole is a complex issue and sociologists have had much to say on this topic. Though varying opinions dominate the field, including directly contrasting ideas, each religious issue is so complex numerous sociologists have come to correct conclusions that can all be applied to one religious group and or ideology. In this paper I will explore the success and function of the Pentecostal churches in Southeast Alaska as reinforcing the ideas of Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Robertson Smith, and Milton Yinger.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The Native led churches in Southeast Alaska have become an outlet of social pressures for many marginalized Natives and the churches successes reinforce many of Emile Durkheim’s views on the social nature of religion as related by Malcolm Hamilton (1995) in his book The Sociology of Religion. “Religion, then, for Durkheim, is nothing other than the collective force of society over the individual” (Hamilton, 1995, p. 113). And, as Dumbrowski tells us, “to understand Pentecostal church membership in Southeast Alaska today, one must examine it as part of the broader interrelation within and between village communities and their surroundings” (p. 8). These communities find something dysfunctional in their own traditional beliefs that prompts them to turn from Native spiritualism to this new form of religion: Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism, in fact, challenges Native beliefs and asks members or those who want to join to question the function of native religious objects. This aspect of Pentecostalism forces members to chose one or the other between new and old. This choice ultimately changes the society members will be affected by. With the strong clash between traditionalism and Pentecostalism members are choosing a new social atmosphere as much as they are choosing a new religious following. “In contrast to the popular assumption that issues of conscience are entirely personal, belief and cosmology are always social entities. They always involve acting with, upon, or against others” (Dumbrowski, 2001, p. 9-10). Those Natives that choose to convert to Pentecostalism are choosing to act against their traditional beliefs and act within the new Christian beliefs preached in Pentecostal churches and missions. Which directly reinforces Durkheim’s view that “religion is something which is eminently social” (Hamilton, 1999, 110). If one assumes that by choosing to convert one knows what they are choosing and what they are changing in their lives. Thus, social factors must play a role in the decision to convert from one belief to the other and thus in the enacting of those religious beliefs in the individuals religious life. Emile Durkheim’s ideas that religion must be (at least partially) based in the effects of society are reinforced by these ideas. Also, due to the volatile cultural, economic, and political issues facing Alaskan Native communities, it is almost impossible to argue that the outlying social factors have no effect on the practicing of religion.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Karl Marx, when discussing the issues of religion, focused on these volatile aspects of Native culture, those of economics and politics. He saw religion as “an expression of protest against oppression, and a form of resignation and consolation in the face of oppression” (Hamilton, 1999, p. 91). Many Natives are dependent on subsistence fishing, which is being more and more affected by modern fish hatcheries. This influx of modern economic practices influencing traditional and, in many instances, the only choice for income among Natives leads to this relationship of oppressor versus oppressed that Marx discusses. In Marx’s view, this clash between the economically stable and less stable class leads to religious practices. A burning of traditional totem poles had taken place in the early twentieth century in Southeast Alaska, prompted by Christian converts who had become leaders in the community. This was done partly to “demonstrate to mission sponsors that the town had fully embraced modern ways” (Dumbrowski, 2001, p.6). These mission sponsors had also financed many community businesses and thus were all the more important to impress (Dumbrowski, 2001). Therefore, Natives were acting religiously as partially motivated by the economics of the upper class that just happened to be important figures in the Christian mission efforts. Groups acting against a certain event and/or structure of society is where Marx and Durkheim (and also Robertson Smith whom I will discuss later) begin to overlap. Dumbrowski (2001) writes of Native Alaskans:Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½ What makes the stuff of religion and culture intrinsic to the local and large divisions that�¯�¿�½
�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½ we usually call political economy is that none of these-belief, identity, cosmology-is�¯�¿�½
�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½ ever something that can be had entirely individually. (p. 9)

These actions, that may be reaction to this Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½political economy’ cannot be individual and therefore must be social. Perhaps, overlap isn’t the right word here, but instead these two men’s opinions feed off each other in relation to Dumbrowski’s quote. One almost always must act due to social factors as a group, especially in the face of class oppression. With Marx and Durkheim, religion has more to do with outside factors than it does with inside ideology and ritual practice. Though each seems to exaggerate their claim, each still creates a valid point that when applied to the Pentecostal movement in Native Alaskan communities works within certain aspects of the religious culture.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

This idea of the lack of individuality in belief and identity goes straight back to the ideas of Robertson Smith who felt that “ReligionâÂ?¦is not to do with the saving of souls but with the consolidation of the group” (Hamilton, 1999, p. 110). Though at first glance this seems to be the exact opposite of the goal of Pentecostalism, the role of Pentecostalism in Native Alaskan communities works in both. At the heart of the Pentecostal religion is the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½testimony’, which is where a church participant or member relates how they became saved (Dumbrowski, 2001, p. 142). This salvation thus plays an integral part in the Pentecostal religion. However, the very aspect of joining the Pentecostal church creates a consolidated group that is in direct conflict with another group. Dumbrowski (2001) notes that, “Church members view outsiders as a constant potential source of demonic danger” (153), thus consolidating the group against traditional following natives as much as “saving souls.” Also, returning to the story of early twentieth century missionaries who formed the financial backing for a lot of businesses, these Christians were trying to consolidate a group to their standard of living, both religiously and politically/economically/socially, as much as they were trying to bring Natives to Jesus. Though Smith totally rules out saving souls as an important part of religion and this is not necessarily true in the Pentecostal religion, the second portion of his statement does ring true in many Pentecostal activities in Southeast Alaska. Dumbrowski (2001) also argues that Pentecostal church membership is a way for natives to “live against their culture” (p. 14). This act of living against their culture becomes a group effort, if we accept that idea that belief and identity cannot be created or held individually. Thus, the religion consolidates the group just as Smith argued that it would.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Departing from the work of groups as affecting how religion is accepted within these native communities, Martin Yinger attempts to put religion in the lens of problem solving, somewhat like Marx does with his theories of religious endeavors acting against oppression. Yinger believed that “religion is an attempt to deal with problems that cannot be dealt with in any other way or by any other means” (Hamilton, 1999, p. 135). Pentecostalism is used in this manner as a response to a variety of problems that are both unique to Native culture and respective to all of society regardless of place or ethnicity. Dumbrowski (2001) offers a very pertinent example of this discussing the lives of natives after converting to Pentecostalism:
Most people’s lives, before receiving Christ, are disappointing, painful, and depressing. After being born again, however, these same lives-and everything in them, including what most natives would think of as what it meant to them to Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½be native’-can be viewed as lessons on the path to salvation. (p. 157)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The disappointments and depressing aspects of their lives take on new meaning once they convert, thus these people are using religion as a means to deal with the aspects of their life they can’t seem to control effectively, reasserting Yinger’s ideas. Native life in a transitional phase, where modernity begins to force itself onto a particular culture, faces a lot of problems that seem insurmountable. From the economic hardships of subsistence fishing to the fierce divisions in politics down to the religiously charged conflicts between modernism and traditional spiritualism and values, Natives face many problems that cannot be effectively dealt with on their own. They are left helpless and thus many have to turn to other worldly means of dealing with these issues. However, where Yinger fails to illuminate is on the motivations behind which religion one might choose when faced with unsolvable problems. But, where Yinger fails, Marx and Durkheim pick up some of the slack. Marx gives us economic or political reasons one might join a certain group, while Durkheim offers social reasons. Both of these explanations can be applied to the Pentecostal Native in Alaska. Those in the church have an economical advantage over traditionalists. By choosing a religion in response to the problem of poverty, one individual might be trying to help their economic situation as much as they might be trying to save their soul. By going along with a socially prominent group that offers a more stable society than a traditional spiritual stance an individual is using social factors as much as they might depend on a religious ideology. Dumbrowski (2001) also points out that, “In many ways, Pentecostal practice involves the adoption of an entirely new language and way of seeing the world-one in which being a Native American has no significance” (p.15). And, since being a Native American is the issue that creates many of these economic and social problems, that is why many Natives turn to Pentecostalism. If they feel it relieves them of the burden of being a Native American and dealing with the problems that go along with that, they are choosing to deal with their economic and social problems by choosing religion, Pentecostal religion.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The complex issue of religion cannot be explored without using more than one opinion. Though Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Robertson Smith, and Martin Yinger differ in specifics, overall their ideas and messages can all be applied to one very specific religion in one very specific region. By exploring a broad set of ideas relating to the sociology of religion and applying them to a specific group, one gets a better understanding of the motivations and outside factors that lead an individual to belief and ritual.

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