06/08/2011 10:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

Gimme That Old Time (Native American) Religion

About a week ago, I participated in a series of talks my local church sponsored called, "Gutsy Women of Faith." My assignment was to go through my just-published book, "Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans," choose a number of Native women who had spoken to me about faith and discuss them.

Like everything connected to Native Americana, at least in my view, things were complicated.

For starters, I realized I had never specifically asked any of the women, or men, about their beliefs. Instead, they themselves broached this most personal subject, as they broached many, many other personal subjects, such as their backgrounds. Read: non-Native grandparent or parent or spouse. As I glanced up from my computer screen to my frequently consulted Map of American Indian Nations, whose land base looks to comprise about one percent of the United States, I realized that virtually every person I interviewed had spoken about faith, either in terms of religious practice or beliefs. (This is unlike the majority of my non-Native friends, who rarely bring up the subject.)

As one of those happy results of being asked to look at one's work in a new way, I also realized something else.

To my audience, predominated by the sponsoring group, Women of Westminster (Presbyterian Church), I said the Native women I had met -- indeed, I can extrapolate here and say Native women and men -- mostly fit three categories:

One was Christian. I mean full on Southern Baptist Christian. These were North Carolina Lumbees, whose original faiths and language long had vanished. There were other Christians, too, including a Lakota woman who became a Mormon, she told me, because the missionaries promised her a new suitcase. Done!

A second group of Native people are that fortunate minority whose families managed to maintain their original faith in spite of prodigious attempts by centuries of federal government administrations and many, many, many missionaries to obliterate it. A phrase heard in certain quarters is "cultural genocide," which goes hand in hand with self-hatred.

The third group I find the most compelling. These are men and women (more often women) who are attempting to pick up where their ancestors were left off. They were brought up in a religion foisted upon them, including often by a parent who had been missionaried-to, who accepted the infamous dictum of killing the Indian to spare the man.

At some point, these interviewees, former Catholics especially, said no. Rosemary Berens, an Ojibwe, recalled being a teenager and storming out of Mass, rejecting the idea that she was sinful. A Yakama woman appreciated her priest's encouragement to divorce her abusing husband, then eventually wended her way back to the Yakama Nation and prays in a traditional longhouse. A Hopi woman who grew up in Catholic (mother) and traditional Hopi (father) household, seems all Hopi now. ("Hopi New Year!" she says.)

Several women's return to tradition draws ridicule, including from family members. A Seneca Tonawanda woman told me, "My cousins say, 'Why don't you just wear feathers and buckskin?'" Another Lakota woman said she at first did not feel "worthy" to practice Lakota spiritual traditions, because she has a white mother. Yet she feels fortunate a group of friends inspired and encouraged her.

Of all the stories told me, I was especially moved by Rosemary Berens, whose mother had tried everything possible to repress Ojibwe affections in her, until one day she watched Rosemary, by then honored as a drumkeeper, at a powwow. "I went out and sat in the middle and smoked my pipe and did all the things I had to do, and we had a small ceremony." Later, her mother asked for forgiveness. Rosemary quoted her" "All of these years I hounded you and hounded you to go to church. I saw you there today and this is where you belong. This is what you were meant to be doing."

I contend they both are gutsy.

I also contend, as a Protestant who grew up happily singing "Jesus Loves Me" (that being the tradition in my family), that one size of religion does not fit all, including in Native America. And attempts to make the fit never should have been tried.