Inculturation, Cultural Appropriation and Obliteration

Navajo Last Supper, Portrait displayed at St. Michael’s Indian School, Window Rock, Arizona. Photo Copyright by Steve Herrera

Bruno Mars, a popular musician and singer, was recently accused of cultural appropriation in terms of his music. Cultural appropriation, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” ( CNN Article, “After Bruno Mars is accused of cultural appropriation, black celebrities come to his defense” by Deena Zaru 2017, March 13, 2018).

Missionaries as well can be accused of something similar to this, in disrespect and lack of understanding. The difference is, rather than taking from another religious tradition what was not their own, many missionaries would impose their own cultural frameworks onto other religious traditions without regard for the indigenous cultural context of the people they were “colonizing.” In the process, they would therefore obliterate customs, practices and beliefs of those being “converted.”

Another way to appreciate diverse religious and cultural differences is through the process of inculturation. Dictionaries define this process as a gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by a large or small group — an individual, another culture, and so on. One example is found in “the adaptation of Christian liturgy to a non-Christian cultural background” (Google Online Dictionary).

Inculturation is a positive way to view the integration of non European cultural elements into Christianity. In my decades of leading immersion trips through the Apache, Navajo and Hopi reservations, and through working closely with indigenous elders, I’ve seen the dramatic difference between obliteration and inculturation first-hand. For example, in the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Whiteriver Arizona, Christ on the Cross is portrayed as an Apache, rather than a Caucasian with blue eye. And on the Navajo Reservation, at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Chinle, Arizona, Jesus is portrayed as a Navajo holy man. These are both examples that affirm native cultures and adapt dominant-culture Christian iconography so as to respect indigenous cultural expressions. In other words: inculturation.

Another example from the Apache reservation: in St. Francis Church on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, Jesus appears on the cross behind the altar in the middle of the four poles traditionally used in the Sunrise ceremony for the coming of age ceremony of Apache girls. The Sunrise ceremony is rich in symbolism and represents, among other things, new life. What more appropriate way is there than to use indigenous symbols to frame the cross of Christ, also a sign of new life?

On the Navajo Reservation in Chinle, Arizona one of the ways the Catholic Church adapted to the indigenous culture was by placing the tabernacle, in which the in which the Body of Christ is placed, on top of what appears to be a rock pile. This is an adaptation that honors an indigenous religion tradition. it represents the rock piles you can find on Navajo lands, where rock after rock is placed on the same spot so that you eventually have a rock pile; each rock represents a prayer request:

“In Navajo belief, rocks are placed atop of one another as a symbol of prayer, called a prayer pile. In Our Lady of Fatima, the table on which the Eucharist sits is a kind of prayer pile. When the church was under construction, members brought in prayers written on pieces of paper. Within the prayer pile table of cement and petrified rock, those prayers act as perpetual petitions. The tabernacle, a container built to resemble a Navajo summer home, sits atop the table and house the Eucharist” (Kelly Ettenborough, Arizona’s Sanctuaries, Retreats, and Sacred Places, Westcliff, 2003, p. 173).

In Our Lady of Fatima Church on the Navajo Reservation remarkable respect for Navajo traditions can be seen in the architecture of the church itself, which is built in the style of a hogan. In addition, this church inculturated the stations of the cross by placing them to the left side of the entry into the church. This was done because, just as the work is done on the left side of the Navajo hogan, the work of the salvation of Christ portrayed in the stations is also on the left.

On the right side of Our Lady of Fatima Church are statues of the saints. In the Catholic tradition, the saints represent role models of balance who have walked in the paths of peace. Behind them, in this church, is a yellow strip. This form of inculturation is paying homage to what the Navajos refer to as the Pollen Path:

According to Navajo weaver D. Y. Begay, the “Pollen Path refers to corn pollen that we sprinkle to honor a new day and to ask for a blessing and balance in our life. We collect the pollen in late summer when the tips of the corn stalks start pollinating. The pollen is collected in the very early morning before the sun rises. Pollen Path reflects peace, beauty and gratification in life.”

The Navajo/Diné traditional prayer is called “The Beauty Way.” Here it is in Diné, the Navajo name for their nation, with an English translation.

The Beauty Way
By Sallie Bingham (September 14, 2016)

In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again

Hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shitsijí’ hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shikéédéé hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shideigi hózhóogo naasháa doo
T’áá altso shinaagóó hózhóogo naasháa doo
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’

Despite the respect given by Catholics to the culture of native peoples, is it good to practice inculturation? Or is it just another form of cultural domination and oppression?

The pastor at the Holy Spirit Church in Maggotty, Jamaica answered this question. He has a statue of Mary portrayed with tan skin. Was this another attempt at inculturation? The pastor, Father Mark, told me this story the last time I was there: The statue (along with the pews and altar furnishings) was a donation from a Pennsylvania parish, and it portrayed Mary as a blue-eyed blonde. He would explain to his native Jamaican parishioners that Mary was their mother too. They would say, “But she doesn’t look like us. She is white, and we and our children and our parents are black. How can she be our mother?” In response, Father Mark said, “Color doesn’t matter. The Spirit matters. We can paint her.” And so the parishioners, with their pastor’s encouragement and blessing, painted Mary to look like them.

Inculturation is the process of adapting a religion’s expressions to the cultural context in which it finds itself, out of respect for that culture. We find a final example of this in the Holy Trinity Catholic Church next to the Kariobangi slum in Nairobi, Kenya. All of the art in this church does just that: it portrays all the characters in traditional Christian stories as Africans, out of respect for Kenyans.

To identify a specific culture as the best way to express a particular religious belief is to demean that belief and to subordinate other cultural expressions because they are inferior. All cultures can reflect the beauty of the divine.

Steve has studied Hindu mysticism, Shinnyo-en Buddhism, Catholicism.and has been involved in Interfaith activities with teenagers and adults since 2007.

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