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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 202–212 

Thoughts About Missionaries to Native Peoples

C. Roderick Wilson

In my childhood I attended church (when we lived near one), so I grew up aware of missionaries. This awareness was heightened by two factors. First, at about fourteen years of age, I attended the Evangelical Free Church in Langley, BC. Its pastor, Ted Handy, had been “gloriously saved” from the life of an alcoholic circus roustabout and stevedore. After graduating from Prairie Bible Institute (PBI) he had started this now thriving church. One of its features was a steady stream of visiting missionary speakers. As a youth I saw more slides of smiling natives and setting suns than I care to contemplate. To be blunt, while I appreciated the obvious vitality of the missionaries, the idea that people around the globe could be happy only because they now “had Jesus in their hearts” became self-evidently preposterous to me.

She gave a half hour exposition in Spanish to a non-Spanish speaking group, and then exclaimed, “There, they have heard the gospel!”

The other factor was Aunt Tina. She had a wonderfully warm personality and an amazing life. She was everyone’s favorite. A registered nurse, {203} she had served with the Canadian army in Europe during the Second World War. When that ended, she attended PBI and joined the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), serving in Ethiopia. Initially she worked in a hospital in Addis Ababa, but she was later assigned to pioneer work in the remote villages of the southern highlands. She worked there until a communist government took over.

Aunt Tina was a great letter writer, but she also spent two sabbaticals living with us while she upgraded her nursing skills in the local hospital. So I heard great stories first-hand about her lone ventures by donkey-back into remote regions of Ethiopia, where she was sometimes the first white woman locals had ever seen. I remember her description of removing shrapnel from a man who had been wounded in the Italian invasion decades earlier. “You know, Rod, it’s amazing the effect of even a few aspirin on someone who has never had even one in his entire life.” I remember her telling us how she amputated a man’s leg with a carpenter saw. It was not something you would expect a nurse to do, but it needed doing and so she did it. She was that kind of person.

Perhaps more importantly, Aunt Tina constantly professed her high regard for Ethiopians. They exemplified all the virtues. Her reason for going to them was quite simple: they still needed salvation in Christ and she had committed herself to that work. She embodied for me what a Christian life could be. I don’t think I idealized her, but she personified Christian ideals and planted in my mind the idea that being a missionary was a reasonable possibility.

Only later did I notice what I would call problems with her attitudes. Once, as I drove her through the Pine Ridge Reservation, she expressed contempt for the people and their “slum-like conditions.” God might love them, but she did not even respect them. More interestingly, she did not consider the Coptic Church, that ancient Ethiopian ecclesiastical community, to be Christian. This attitude, I am sure, was rooted in Aunt Tina’s personal history. She and her Lutheran siblings had to live in Calgary to attend high school. Their principal there was the very charismatic “Bible Bill” Aberhart. Consequently they all became his kind of Baptists, firm believers in adult conversion as the only route to salvation. Copts failed the test.

Her Baptist fundamentalism reared its head again at an extended family reunion at a Lutheran church in Iowa, where some of our ancestors had lived and were buried. The Sunday service happened to include a baptism, an infant baptism. My beloved missionary aunt could not conceal her contempt for this “pagan sprinkling.”

As historic Christian conflicts and controversies go, these examples are trivial. Yet they speak to an ongoing reality: devout, sincere Christians have starkly different views of how one becomes Christian and lives a Christian {204} life. I offer no resolution, but in this paper I will relate instances of this conflict and how they affected the lives of real people. I won’t discuss relevant analytic literature either. Interested readers, however, cannot do better than consult Jones (1989), who identifies five distinct “theological worlds” that differ sharply in their understanding of our common faith and lead to very different (but equally biblical) expressions of that faith.


The summer of 1967 saw me engaged with a team of researchers from the University of Colorado on the Tohono O’odham Reservation (then named the Papago Reservation) in the Upper Sonoran Desert west of Tucson. Our work was largely demographic (primarily documenting residential and employment histories). Funded by the National Institutes of Health, it was part of a larger, multi-year project pursued in active collaboration with the tribal government (Hackenberg). The work required extensive directed conversations with individuals with a broad range of experiences. It was interesting and rather exotic employment.

The point I wish to discuss here is the sharply contrasting style and substance of the two Roman Catholic missionary priests then ministering on the reservation. To do this we need first to establish context.

The Tohono O’odham (literally the desert people, hereinafter referred to as O’odham), like all peoples, had indigenous religious beliefs and practices. The first Christian missionary work in the region was started in 1687 by the pioneer Jesuit, Eusebio Francisco Kino. Kino travelled extensively throughout the region, exploring, establishing missions and cattle ranches to support them, and generally fostering strong Christian communities. In 1700 he opened the Mission San Xavier del Bac near what later became Tucson. It was the center of work among the O’odham. The contemporary O’odham Roman Catholic mission churches are lineal descendants of Kino’s efforts.

But looking at things on the ground, I suggest that the dominant religious force in the community is the local folk Catholicism, also known as Sonoran Catholicism. The minority view on its origins was shared with me by my friend, co-worker, and teacher, the late Cipriano Manuel (1967). The view in his tradition was that before Kino arrived the people had already become Christian. An O’odham woman had married into a community some distance to the south and there became aware of the basics of Christianity. The gospel seemed to her to be good news indeed, and she determined that her people should hear it. So she returned and relayed what she had learned. Somehow the entire population accepted her message. So, as Manuel put it, all O’odham since that time are born and raised as Sonoran Catholics. And then, at a different level, they also choose to become {205} Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, or (since about 1950) members of some evangelical group.

The primary authority on these matters, Ruth Underhill (1969: 316, 317), places this O’odham woman much later in time than the legend suggests, and limits her contribution primarily to the ubiquitous house churches, one-roomed adobe structures. In either case, the main point is valid: the O’odham lived over 200 years without priests, so they were free to develop a truly O’odham version of Christianity. Very briefly, in Sonoran belief their traditional deity, I’itoi, is equated with God, and traditional shamans continue to lead, heal, teach, and serve the community. Traditional rituals were supplemented but not replaced by new rituals, including most centrally an annual pilgrimage to Magdalena in Sonora, where Father Kino’s remains are buried. It is significant that the most faithful participant in the formal Roman Catholic mass in any village is likely be the local Sonoran shaman.

Now, to our two priests. The “liberal” priest, for want of a better word, was stationed at the outlying village of Pisinimo. The church appeared quite ordinary from the exterior, apart from the yard’s saguaro cacti crowned with iron crosses. But the interior of the church was stunning. The walls were painted with O’odham traditional geometric patterns in bold colors, and from the ceiling hung numerous mobiles made from gourds decorated with traditional basket patterns. The design and ornamentation brilliantly reflected the local culture. During the summer a parishioner died. I did not attend the funeral, but I was told that the priest performed the required rituals and then quietly departed, leaving the shaman to perform traditional rituals and comfort family and friends. In effect he sanctioned the role and ministry of the shaman.

Understand that O’odham shamans are highly trained and gifted people. This I learned from long conversations with my friend Cip. Cip was born into a family that was traditionally active in this role. In his teens he spent countless hours memorizing his people’s oral literature as it had been passed down through generations. In their own tradition, shamans earn the respect they are accorded.

A second event that summer involved this same priest. A personal highlight for me was attending a major all-day celebration. It started mid-morning and had a county fair atmosphere with lots of food for sale and various events, including 100-yard dashes with contestants as old as eighty! The day concluded in the evening with a dance featuring a Mexican mariachi band. The key event, however, was a traditional ritual that took most of the afternoon. It featured drummers and singers in the center of the plaza, numerous icons held by elders, and perhaps twenty youth dressed in white, graduates of a program of intense systematic instruction in O’odham {206} learning. And the point? This ceremonial complex had fallen into disuse but had been revived at the instigation of the priest. A dying O’odham tradition was resuscitated by a Christian priest.

That same summer, I was told, a very different scenario unfolded after the death of an O’odham man in Sells, the agency town. The resident priest, personally devout but also firmly committed to doctrinal purity and church reform, particularly among people like the O’odham whose Catholicism he found suspect, had acted according to his convictions. Because the deceased had recently contravened the priest’s edict and attended the Magdalena pilgrimage, the priest told his grieving family that the man could not be buried in sanctified ground. They would have to make other arrangements. In effect, the priest was posthumously excommunicating the man for having participated in unorthodox activity.

Two brief comments. First, the introduction of Christianity to the O’odham was minimally disruptive. Christianity was seen as elaborating truths which the community had long known. Second, while the two priests undoubtedly shared much in their understanding, they differed fundamentally in what it means to be Christian, to become Christian, and to live a life of faith.


In 1978/79 my wife and I, with our eight-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son, spent the year with Wycliffe Bible Translators, eight months of it with the Waorani team in Amazonian Ecuador. The Waorani (or Auca, as they were once known) had burst on the world scene in 1956 after slaughtering five young Protestant missionaries (Elliot 1957; 1961). After the killings, the widow of one and the sister of another murdered missionary decided to continue the work among the Waorani. They contacted a Waorani woman named Dayuma, who in 1947 had fled her people in terror for her life and was now living at a hacienda. The missionary women stayed with her to learn the native language. As the three got to know each other, Dayuma decided to return to her home. She was thus able to introduce the two American women to her people and begin the first sustained peaceful contact between outsiders and Waorani.

At this point the Waorani totaled about five hundred people, occupying some 8,100 square miles (Wilson and Yost, 121). They were divided into four groups, all mutually hostile. Seldom in history were a people as ready for change as the Waorani when the three women arrived and proclaimed that God loved them and wanted them to live in peace. Within an amazingly short time, members of the small group to which Dayuma had returned had accepted the message of peace and were actively attempting to share it with their fellow Waorani. They were soon joined by a group {207} of fifty. In 1968 a group of about 108 came in. In 1969 the government established a protectorate of about 620 square miles. By the next year there were three hundred people living there. Year by year more joined, so that in the mid-1970s there were some five hundred on the protectorate and only one hundred off it.

This case is similar to the O’odham story in that it involved a woman returning to her own people with the gospel. With intimate knowledge of the people such a person would seem to be the ultimate missionary. It is clear from the response to the simple version of the gospel that Dayuma, Elizabeth Elliott, and Rachel Saint presented that their message hit its target. On the other hand, Dayuma had distinct disadvantages as a missionary, for the gospel was not all she had learned during her years at the hacienda. She had learned much about money, capitalism, and social hierarchy, all unknown to the Waorani. Thus when Rachel Saint assigned Dayuma the task of distributing used clothing from the proverbial missionary barrels, it became a means to personal enrichment and power.

For example, one afternoon a man gave Dayuma a newly woven hammock. The background was that a few months earlier she, as medical aide (in which she had received basic training from Wycliffe) had given him medicine for a sick child, who had fully recovered. From his point of view, still living in the traditional culture practicing generalized reciprocity, she had given him something (to which no specific value was attached) and he had now given her something (again, with no sense of any particular monetary value) and so they were even. Dayuma, however, living in a different world (but in the same village) was heard to gloat to a friend about the substantial profit she had just made. The reader should also understand that the profit of which she spoke was not merely monetary. Her profit also translated directly into power, the power to shape events in the village in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. To Ecuadorian nationals, Dayuma thus became an “Auca queen.”

In her life at the hacienda Dayuma had also learned to despise her own culture and language, as appropriate only for naked and savage killers. So she strongly opposed Wycliffe’s literacy program: it was not “real education” because not conducted in Spanish (even though virtually all the people were still functionally monolingual Waorani).

Whether or not these changes are in any sense “good” is for the reader to determine. My point is that such changes are not what is usually meant when speaking of the transformative power of the gospel. I might add that most members of the Waorani team as I knew them found these kinds of changes both unnecessary and negative.

Let us now turn the kind of approach favored by the Waorani team. They were well aware of the long litany of criticisms of the authoritarian {208} practices of missionaries. My friend Jim Yost sought always to resist those practices. For example, when Jim happened upon a man and his grandson returning from an afternoon of fishing, he was told they had gone several miles down-stream. At one time, one could productively fish anywhere, even in the village, but recent residential immobility, population concentration, and poor practices like dumping DDT in the stream to kill fish had changed that. Here was an opportunity to plant the seed of an idea. Jim asked how far the man thought his grandson would have to go to find fish when he was fully grown. “I don’t know,” he said. “That will be his problem.”

This is not exactly a success story, but it illustrates the limits of active intervention in community life that guided Jim. On the other hand, in the years just prior to my stay there he worked hard to have the government establish the protectorate mentioned above. The rationale for taking this action was simple: by the time the Waorani were knowledgeable enough to take political action for themselves, it would have been too late—the land would long ago have been assigned to other uses.

Embodying the gospel is always difficult. Doing so in an alien culture is even more challenging, not least of all intellectually. Like all peoples, the Waorani have beliefs and practices regarding health and illness. They know how to treat sprains and simple fractures, and they know of plants with medicinal properties. They are not a people given to witchcraft, but it exists. And here we come to a profoundly complicating traditional belief. Inherent in anyone claiming to be able heal the ailment of another is the tacit admission that you caused the illness. Healing is possible only by witches!

In spite of this, a highly valued member of the Waorani team was a registered nurse. And by patiently and lovingly caring for the sick and injured, she was eventually accepted and appreciated, to the point where many villages now had indigenous people with basic medical training and supplies. A gentle approach that respects but still ultimately challenges the local culture is possible.

The Yosts eventually resigned from Wycliffe, returning to Colorado. But their personal commitment to the Waorani continues. Virtually every year since, at least one member of the family has returned, often for months at a time, to provide practical assistance to the Waorani in becoming a functional part of modern Ecuador.

Let me conclude this section with a comment stemming from my personal ambivalence in writing this. I am a cultural anthropologist and a practicing Christian with missionary involvement. These disciplines have a history of mutual antipathy and criticism. We anthropologists pride ourselves on having a greater depth of experience and understanding of {209} our subjects than other social scientists have of theirs. Typically a PhD is awarded for a dissertation based on field work that lasts about a year. In a sense, Jim Yost’s early experience with the Waorani exemplifies this. Before he started living with them he had learned all that he could about them, including their language. As he told me, after living with them for a year he was confident he could write their ethnography. A decade later, he knew he did not yet have the knowledge to do so, but he knew quite specifically what he lacked.


A dimension in which missionaries obviously differ from anthropologists is the extent to which they enter the life of their adopted communities—or, as some put it, the degree to which they become incarnational. Let me start by referring to a long-term Wycliffe family we met in Ecuador. Bubs and Bobbie Borman worked with the Cofan of northern Ecuador. I cannot say I knew them well, but I did visit them in some Cofan villages as well as at the Wycliffe center in Limoncocha. By this time much of the Bible had been translated and there were strong indigenous churches.

When I was visiting the Bormans, Bubs lent me his personal, annotated copy of a very recent PhD dissertation in anthropology. Much of the field work for the project had been conducted in the very village we were in. At one point it discussed a conflict that had arisen while the research was underway. In the margin alongside a key paragraph, Bubs had written that the anthropologist had obviously been talking with X, but that if he had talked to Y or Z he would have heard two other stories! This substantiated my belief that some missionaries truly become expert in the culture and language of their chosen community. But in this case it went far beyond that: the Bormans were intimately familiar with the details of the social life of the community.

But to make the case that this family was seriously incarnational, let us turn to their son Randy. Randy was then in his early twenties, had spent a year attending university in the United States on a soccer scholarship, and had returned to Ecuador. He wanted to be with the Cofan where, he was convinced, he truly belonged. Randy had a reputation for being as fully competent in the jungle as any Cofan. The Bormans had deliberately chosen to live as much as possible with the Cofan, knowing that their children would become “children of the village.” Shortly after we left Ecuador, Randy married a Cofan woman, and they still live where they met. Eventually the Cofan elected him chief, a role in which he has been remarkably successful. The people are widely recognized for securing legal rights to their traditional territory, for active participation in the modern economy, and much more. {210}

A sense of how successful Randy has been as chief can be found in the promo for a May 2014 presentation he made at Stanford University:

Our rainforest is THE hotspot for the mechanisms which forests do best, scrubbing the air, filtering and recycling the water, starting and maintaining normal climate, and sequestering excess carbon from the atmosphere. Its effects on every corner of the globe are subtle but multiple. However, short term interests would like to exploit gold, oil, copper, and the agricultural potential of the area we protect. The battle is constant.

Starting out as social justice/indigenous rights work, my work focused on recovering and protecting Cofan lands in Ecuador, but grew into something much bigger, as we became aware that it wasn’t just about saving an indigenous culture, or even the biodiversity or forests, but about saving the entire world as we realized our forest—one million acres of incredible ecosystems—was necessary not just for us but for everyone. We want you on board with us. This is a real place and a real situation. (

I cite Chief Borman here because he represents something more than is usually envisioned by those who use the language of incarnational theology. But should this be the case?

Another example of this incarnational approach to mission is one that some readers will no doubt find disturbing. Dr. Joseph Couture (“Joe”) was raised in a Métis community in northeastern Alberta, but he was educated by Oblates in Edmonton and eventually became an Oblate priest. By the time I met him in 1969 he had left the priesthood, had married, and was a graduate student. He obtained a PhD in psychology and went on to a distinguished academic career. (The shape of Canadian Native Studies programs and Native ministry in federal prisons owes much to him.) As time went on he and I found ourselves in a casually friendly relationship, our children playing together on occasion and the two of us engaging in informal conversation whenever our paths crossed. The summer of 1971 was pivotal for Joe as he found himself in Wyoming, learning from an Arapahoe traditional elder and healer. He eventually had a thrice-repeated vision that defined his subsequent life. The vision involved the Chalice and the Pipe and the “oneness” of true spirituality around the world. He took it as his particular divine task to attempt to bridge Western Christianity and Native spirituality. This was central to the rest of his life.

In 1983 this work took a new turn. Joe held an extended workshop involving twenty-three people, the central core being Oblates ministering to Natives in Alberta. I was a participant. The idea (as I understood it) was {211} that while there is a place for learning about Natives (and God) through instruction, the goal here was to learn in the Native fashion. This involved ritual sweats and other ceremonies and a four-day fast (in the Cree fashion, abstaining from both food and water), and listening for the voice of the Creator, primarily in stark isolation. It was a significant experience for me, although not revolutionary. I experienced it as a Christian and believe it was God I encountered in the sweat and extended meditation. (For more information on Joe’s work, see Couture and McGowan, 2013.)

There is obviously a spectrum of missional approaches, from deep incarnation (complete cultural immersion) at one end and mere verbal proclamation of the gospel (preaching) at the other. Some would never consider the incarnation option. I remember the Wycliffe translator in Colombia telling me about the national Christian who found her way to the community she was in and took over a community meeting. She gave a half hour exposition in Spanish to a non-Spanish speaking group, and then exclaimed, “There, they have heard the gospel!” More common would be a pastor who accepted a short-term assignment in Africa, a place unknown to him, who did not hesitate to teach a course on the family structure that God intended for his people. I would hope that my readers would reject both approaches. But how far should one go?


I conclude my reflection with two vignettes. In my home church in Edmonton, a mission organization working with indigenous people made a presentation one evening. Much of it was commendable (to me). But I am haunted by the comment of a sweet young Cree in her early teens. She had never met one of her two grandfathers, but she knew him to be a traditional healer. She planned to meet him in the coming summer—and tell the “devil worshipper” about Jesus. To me it was heart-breaking, particularly since traditional Cree are keenly aware that not all who present themselves as healers are to be trusted. Widely known elderly healers bear the stamp of having been publicly validated as serving the Creator. Unfortunately the theology of this young woman did not allow for that point of view.

We spent some time in Kenya with Mennonite Central Committee (my favorite mission!). We chose to worship and serve in a Kenyan church in one of Nairobi’s huge slums. The pastor of the church said to us, “You are willing to eat from the same dish we do.” What a simple statement, but so profound, both in his assessment of us and of others! It stands as possibly the highest commendation I have ever received.

So yes, how we choose to read the Bible makes a difference, and sometimes the consequences of our choice are tragic. I write this in Edmonton, where earlier this year (2014) we had another Truth and Reconciliation {212} Commission meeting to listen to the stories of Indian Residential School survivors. As Canadians struggle not very successfully to come to terms with the horrors of the Residential School program, let us not forget that at heart it was a missionary enterprise.


  • Couture, Ruth, and Virginia McGowan, eds. 2013. A Metaphoric mind: Selected writings of Joseph Couture. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press.
  • Elliot, Elizabeth. 1957. Through gates of splendor: The martyrdom of five missionaries in the Ecuadorian jungle. New York: Harper and Brothers.
  • ———. 1961. The Savage my kinsman. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Hackenberg, Robert A. 1967. Parameters of an ethnic group: A method for studying the total tribe. American Anthropologist 69: 478–492.
  • Jones, W. Paul. 1989. Theological worlds: Understanding the alternative rhythms of Christian belief. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Manuel, Cipriano. 1967. Personal communication. Sells, AZ.
  • Underhill, Ruth M. 1969. Papago Indian religion. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Wilson, C. Roderick, and James A. Yost. 2002. The Creation of social hierarchy. In Ethnographic essays in cultural anthropology: A problem based approach, ed. R. Bruce Morrison and C. Roderick Wilson. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.
Rod Wilson, is a retired professor of anthropology who taught at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB, for many years. He has a life-long interest in Christian missions. Prior to obtaining his academic degrees, he earned a diploma in the four-year program at Prairie Bible Institute, with concentrations in Biblical Literature, Missions, and Christian Education. His academic work was concerned with the gradually changing cultural activities of Amerindians. He has served internationally with both Wycliffe Bible Translators and Mennonite Central Committee, and been involved in Canadian MCC projects for some thirty years.

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