Today’s offering is an opinion piece by Yvonne Aburrow. They are the author of several books on inclusive Wicca, the inner work of Witchcraft, and served as the co-editor of Pagan Consent Culture. They blog at Dowsing for Divinity. They live in Ontario, Canada, in the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, the Hodinöhsö:ni’, and the Attawandaron.
Recently there was an excellent column on The Wild Hunt by Luke Babb, Reckoning with Racism through a Pagan Lens. It was a good analysis of the relationship of Protestant Christianity with racism, and of attempts to use that tradition to justify racism.
In the column’s comments section, some readers said they felt that the evidence offered for the intimate connection of racism and Christianity was insufficient. The disconnect seemed to stem from a conception of racism as only being its more extreme manifestations – that is, as actual expressions of violence toward Black, Indigenous, and other people of color – rather than the everyday reinforcement of white supremacy and privilege by those who choose to ignore the fact that they are living in a colonial state that grew rich from the exploitation, dispossession, and destruction of Black and Indigenous communities.
Three major pieces of evidence – the concept of terra nullius, the activities of Christian missionaries, and Indian residential schools – reinforce the relationship between Christianity, colonialism, and racism, and reaffirm the points Babb made in their original article.
The first piece of evidence is the Doctrine of Terra Nullius, also known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The Assembly of First Nations explains:
The Doctrine of Discovery emanates from a series of Papal Bulls (formal statements from the Pope) and extensions, originating in the 1400s. Discovery was used as legal and moral justification for colonial dispossession of sovereign Indigenous Nations, including First Nations in what is now Canada. During the European “Age of Discovery”, Christian explorers “claimed” lands for their monarchs who felt they could exploit the land, regardless of the original inhabitants. This was invalidly based on the presumed racial superiority of European Christian peoples and was used to dehumanize, exploit, and subjugate Indigenous Peoples and dispossess us of our most basic rights. This was the very foundation of genocide. Such ideology led to practices that continue through modern-day laws and policies.
Prior to the discovery of Turtle Island (North America), Christian countries had already used a similar principle to dispossess ancient pagan peoples of their lands.
The entire pagan population of Old Prussia was slaughtered and replaced with Teutonic Knights and their vassals in the Prussian Crusade. In some cases, they even claimed that the local Christian population was still pagan and used that as a justification for stealing their land.
The Prussian Crusade was a series of 13th-century campaigns of Roman Catholic crusaders, primarily led by the Teutonic Knights, to Christianize under duress the pagan Old Prussians. Invited after earlier unsuccessful expeditions against the Prussians by Christian Polish kings, the Teutonic Knights began campaigning against the Prussians, Lithuanians and Samogitians in 1230. By the end of the century, having quelled several Prussian Uprisings, the Knights had established control over Prussia and administered the conquered Prussians through their monastic state, eventually erasing the Prussian language, culture and pre-Christian religion by a combination of physical and ideological force. Some Prussians took refuge in neighboring Lithuania.
Similarly, the Northern Crusades, between 1198 and 1290, were the violent overthrow, colonization, and Christianization of the Baltic states.
The Northern Crusades or Baltic Crusades were Christian colonization and Christianization campaigns undertaken by Catholic Christian military orders and kingdoms, primarily against the pagan Baltic, Finnic and West Slavic peoples around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, and to a lesser extent also against Orthodox Christian Slavs (East Slavs).
The most notable campaigns were the Livonian and Prussian crusades. Some of these wars were called crusades during the Middle Ages, but others, including most of the Swedish ones, were first dubbed crusades by 19th-century romantic nationalist historians. However, crusades against Baltic indigenous peoples were authorized by Pope Alexander III in the bull Non parum animus noster, in 1171 or 1172.
So the Catholic Church already had a long tradition behind it of declaring an area to be available for colonization because it was occupied by pagans, and this tradition was continued when they encountered the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. Australia, for instance, despite 65,000 years of Indigeneous habitation, was considered “no man’s land” when European settlers arrived in 1788 – a status that endorsed white colonization and Indigeneous genocide.
Even after the Reformation, Protestants continued to use the Doctrine of Discovery as justification for taking over and colonizing the lands of non-Christian peoples. Several settler-colonial states still have not repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, nor endorsed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Canadian government spent several years claiming that UNDRIP could not be incorporated into Canadian law, then claimed they would implement it in Canada, but they have only produced a watered-down version of it.
The second strain of evidence is the efforts of the various Christian churches to convert people of other faiths to their religion. Orthodox Christianity has generally aimed to preserve as much of the culture of converted peoples as they could, while the policy of the Catholic Church has varied dramatically on the preservation of culture, but the approach of Protestant missionaries has generally been to try to inculcate their converts with Western culture. (Honorable exceptions to this include the Unitarians, who did not send out missionaries, and the Quakers, who sought to strengthen and preserve Seneca culture.)
The assumption that one’s own faith and culture is automatically better than another’s is generally racist, and often missionaries carried an assumption of racial superiority over those they attempted to convert. The more destructive of culture, language, and sacred traditions these missionary efforts were (and are), the more they amount to cultural genocide.
When there were outbreaks of smallpox in Canada, the Jesuits inoculated converted Indigenous people, but those who had not converted to Christianity viewed the vaccinations with suspicion, so rather than trying to convince them, the Jesuits often just dismissed their deaths as an act of God. The Hodinöhsö:ni’ (the “Iroquois”) and the Hurons often viewed baptism as some sort of sorcery that caused people’s deaths, because the missionaries would baptize people just before they died.
Residential Schools / Indian Boarding Schools
Residential schools were the continuation of cultural genocide by other means, and in both the USA and Canada, were sponsored by the state and run by churches.
At its height around 1930, the residential school system [in Canada] totaled 80 institutions. The Roman Catholic Church operated three-fifths of the schools, the Anglican Church one-quarter, and the United and Presbyterian Churches the remainder. (Before 1925, the Methodist Church also operated residential schools; however, when the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, most of the Presbyterian and all the Methodist schools became United Church schools.)
The residential schools were a deliberate attempt to force Indigenous children to forget their Indigenous language and culture, indoctrinate them with Christianity, and train them in industrial skills. Many of the children at these schools died of tuberculosis or malnutrition. The schools experimented on many of the children, and they were often sexually abused.
In the USA, these schools were known as Indian Boarding Schools. The social, cultural, and economic repercussions of this disastrous and monstrous attempt to destroy Indigenous cultures is still being felt. It is one of the reasons why there is such a shortage of Indigenous elders who can pass along Indigenous languages and cultures, and why many Indigenous languages are endangered.
Thankfully, Indigenous peoples are currently engaged in a process of resurgence – reclaiming their lands, cultures, languages, and religious traditions. They have established powwows, cultural programs, language teaching, and protests to protect the lands and waters from pipelines, dams, and other destructive and exploitative projects.
The forced conversion of Indigenous Peoples to Christianity, and the theft of their lands, was a direct continuation of the policy of exterminating Pagans and stealing their lands that had existed in the 13th and 14th centuries, just prior to the European invasion of the Americas. Even today, many Christians still do not accept either Pagan or Indigineous religions as valid. They are still sending missionaries to uncontacted tribes – often with disastrous results, given that they risk infecting them with European diseases.
As Pagans, we should repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and we should support the efforts of Indigenous peoples to get their land back. One way to start this process to to find out whose lands we live on and to acknowledge this in meaningful ways.
For more information on this movement, see the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and Red Paper: Land Back from the Yellowhead Institute, or this short article, Land Back: what do we mean? from the 4Rs Youth Movement:
So, what does “Land Back” mean? While these words seem straight forward enough, this phrase encompasses a complicated and intergenerational web of ideas/movements. When I hear Indigenous youth and land protectors chant “Land Back!” at a rally, I know it can mean the literal restoration of land ownership. When grandmothers and knowledge keepers say it, I tend to think it means more the stewardship and protection of mother earth. When Indigenous political leaders say it, it often means comprehensive land claims and self-governing agreements. No matter what meaning is attached, we as Indigenous nations have an urge to reconnect with our land in meaningful ways.