Becoming White In America

November 2, 2011

Today is the second day of Native American Heritage Month.  It seems appropriate consider how and if the writing on the Doctrine of Discovery over the last six months, matters.  Today’s entry looks at one example of what it has meant to have the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Disciples) develop a Christian Home for Yakama children in 1921.  If you have missed these writings, they are now located in one blog where you can read them from beginning to end without interruption (

Nearly nine decades after children first walked through the doors at the American Tepee Christian Mission, Ms. “L,” a young woman, got off a plane in Yakima in late spring.  She arrived at the Mission with dark blond hair that ended just above her shoulders and white-Danish skin sorely in need of sunscreen with its first meeting of the Yakama sun.  Ms. “L” arrived telling a story about the adoption of her great -grandmother off the reservation.  She also talked about childhood stories concerning her great and grandparents being shrouded and obscure.  When Ms. “L” arrived at the Mission (now known as the Yakama Christian Mission) she was unable to explain why she came other than to say this was the place of her great-grandparent’s birth.  However, it was also clear that she felt a need to be in the landscape of where she had once been, generations before.

Ms “L” was born and raised in a predominately White community.  Self-assured with a quick wit, thoughtful of the world around her, and with a compassion for animals, she grew up in an attentive and caring community and  attended one of the communities best high schools.  Her community (e.g., school and church) helped instill a mindset committed to social and spiritual justice.  Thanks to the questioning of her home church community, she arrived at the Mission with an inquisitive attitude.

It was not long before Ms. “L’s” caring nature had children coming and telling her stories in confidence (“Did you know the Praying Mantis changes its colors so it can be friends with whatever plant it lives on?”  “Yes, Yes, I do.  Just like you when you help fill Sam’s sand bucket!).  As weeks passed, adult conversations led to consideration of the differences between life at home and life on the reservation.  Ms. “L” spoke about those familial and cultural attributes she loved: her Danish roots (the roots of her dark blond hair and light skin), her traditional foods—Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas ham, and Easter lamb, and her religious family—Disciples of Christ.  When speaking about race or ethnic issues she identified as White, Anglo, and Danish.  Conversation over the weeks led to a community realization; Miss “L’s” life reflected the hopes, desires, and prayers of the 1921 American Tepee Christian Mission and the U.S. Government: the young brown-skin Yakama girl who left the reservation in the 1920’s had returned, no longer Indian, but as White, educated, civilized, Christian, Disciple, and American.


Over the last decade, I have learned Ms. “L’s” story is not unique, but normal.  People return the reservation and Mission each year looking to fill an unexplainable embodied hollowness.  However, the search for rootedness on the reservation, for one whose family has experienced generational removal, brings up a type of hurt and loss few are able to confront.  To engage in the reflective work needed to confront White culture, which robbed a person of their roots, history, and parental culture, and replaced the void with White privilege, is simply overwhelming.  And who can criticize…after all, how many non-Indian people, have seriously engaged in considering the loss of family story, food, name (it has been at least a generation since the last “Olga” in my family), or dress since becoming American?

There is a great need for conversation pertaining to American Christianities supporting role of the Doctrine of Discovery.  And while there is a need for every Christian denomination to engage in the conversation, it is critical for those, like Disciples, who directly participated in the attempt to remove culture and identity from the indigenous peoples of the American landscape.  This is important, for if denominations do not confront their Doctrine of Discovery history (and its embedment within their identity) concurrently while they jump on to the transformational-missional-emerging church bandwagon, the best they can achieve is a new look and a new sound.  But true reformation is lost and the attributes of the Doctrine of Discovery (e.g., white privilege, Christian superiority, monoculture) will remain institutionally embodied.

© David B. Bell 2011

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