RED JACKET VS. CHRISTIANITY:
THE NATIVE AMERICAN AS RATIONALIST
Editorial note by T.C. McLuhan: Sa-go-ye-wat-ha, or Red Jacket, Seneca chief, and great orator of the Six Nations, was born near the present site of Geneva, New York, in 1750. In 1805, a young missionary named Cram was sent into the country of the Iroquois by the Evangelical Missonary Society of Massachusetts to "spread the Word." A council was held at Buffalo, New York, and Red Jacket made the following reply telling Cram why he did not wish to have the missionary stay with them. N.B. Wood, in Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, recounts that after making his statement Red Jacket moved to shake hands with the missionary; Cram refused saying, "There was no fellowship between the religion of God and the Devil." According to Wood, the Indians smiled and retired peacefully.
Brothers, our seats were once large, and yours were small. You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us.
Brother, continue to listen. You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeable to his mind; and if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right, and we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given to us — and not only to us, but to our forefathers — the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?
Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you can all read the book?
Brother, we do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also, have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all favors we receive; to love each other, and be united. We never quarrel about religion, because it is a matter which concerns each man and the Great Spirit.
Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you; we only want to enjoy our own.
Brother, we have been told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors: We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will consider again of what you have said.
Editorial note by T.C. McLuhan: Red Jacket’s hostility toward Christianity erupted on every occasion. Referring to the unwise missionary Cram, he once said: "The White people were not content with the wrongs they had done his people, but wanted to cram their doctrines down their throats." When asked by a gentleman in 1824, why he was so opposed to missionaries, he replied:
They do us no good. If they are not useful to the white people and do them no good, why do they send them among the Indians? If they are useful to the white people and do them good, why do they not keep them at home? They [the white men] are surely bad enough to need the labor of everyone who can make them better. These men [the missionaries] know we do not understand their religion. We cannot read their book — they tell us different stories about what it contains, and we believe they make the book talk to suit themselves. If we had no money, no land and no country to be cheated out of these black coats would not trouble themselves about our good hereafter. The Great Spirit will not punish us for what we do not know. He will do justice to his red children. These black coats talk to the Great Spirit, and ask for light that we may see as they do, when they are blind themselves and quarrel about the light that guides them. These things we do not understand, and the light which they give us makes the straight and plain path trod by our fathers, dark and dreary. The black coats tell us to work and raise corn; they do nothing themselves and would starve to death if someone did not feed them. All they do is to pray to the Great Spirit; but that will not make corn and potatoes grow; if it will why do they beg from us and from the white people. The red men knew nothing of trouble until it came from the white men; as soon as they crossed the great waters they wanted our country, and in return have always been ready to teach us to quarrel about their religion. Red Jacket can never be the friend of such men. If they [the Indians] were raised among white people, and learned to work and read as they do, it would only make their situation worse.... We are few and weak, but may for a long time be happy if we hold fast to our country, and the religion of our fathers.
SOURCE: McLuhan, T.C. Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence (New York: Promontory Press, 1971), pp. 60, 61, 63.
Hodge, F.W., ed. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Bulletin 30, Bulletin of American Ethnology, 1907, vol. 2, pp. 360-363.
Stone, William L. Life and Times of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket (New York; London: Wiley & Putnam, 1841), pp. 189-193, 334.
Wood, Norman B. Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs (Aurora, IL: American Indian Historical Publishing Company, 1906), pp. 254-256.
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