As Native American, who is aware of the symbology of Christianity, historically and currently, the cross represents two major views. One is held by those Native Americans who continue to follow the traditional beliefs of their ancestors prior to Western contact. This feat was particularly hard won as U.S. federal policy was, and remains so, to completely assimilate American Indians. Since initial contact with western ideas of being civilized, various ways and means have been employed by U.S federal policy, all aimed at assimilation. In the words of a former captain in the union army, Charles Pratt “Kill the Indian, save the man” became the framing of federal policy towards American Indians. Of course, this meant total eradication of whole cultural lifeways of social and political organization, economic systems, cultural belief systems and in particular, tribal languages. The assault launched through federal policy was not only brutal but carried long lasting negative impacts resonating today. The Christian cross for them represents brutality, savagery, and complete lack of humanity. Despite being driven underground many such cultural belief systems managed to survive and with more tolerant policy, primarily the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, 1978, are being revived. Sweat lodges, ceremonies, reclaiming traditional languages are definitely “out in the open”. Along with this, one hears various expressions such as “these are not Christian ways”, “These are the ways of our ancestors – following the Pipe.”, and so forth. A number of Holy Men, traditional doctors, i.e. ‘medicine men’, explain the humanity expressed in following the ancestral ways of the Pipe: it is the sense of caring for all creation. So while there is no express repudiation of the Christian cross, the underlying message is that it represents how the colonial powers used this “new religion” to say good words, while behaving quite the opposite.
On the other hand, due to the dubious success of assimilation, many Native Americans have total belief in the cross and all it represents. Some are adherents of particular Christian religions. As such, possible inclusion of a traditional view is precluded. There is one such adaptation of Christianity and its core beliefs. The Native American Church is Christianity and all it represents expressed, however, on Native American terms. These terms are practices found nowhere in Sunday worship. Some of them are meeting at sundown and praying until sunrise inside a tipi, or other more modern settings such as a community building. It is very communal, often sharing food from a common bowl, etc. In addition, these Christians practices include the use of peyote as “sacrament” and considered sacred and holy. Included in these all-night Church meetings, are the use of traditional sacred substances of cedar, sage, and tobacco. The fourth, sweet grass is difficult to find and has limited use. Here, one also finds some of the Christian beliefs in charity, praying for community, and other such good works can be found. Those who are “members” of the Native American Church, particularly the Road Men and their wives lead exemplary lives never having a bad word or deed expressed towards others. These could be likened to church ministers, priests, etc. For this and other forms of Christian religions the cross is all benevolent and another ‘message’ from the Creator.
These two views appear to be in opposition to each other. Yet, a closer examination of the Native American Church practitioners seem to converge in usage and reliance upon traditional substances, prayers throughout the night, communal meals, and adherence to walking the “good” or “red” road. The primary differences lie in the representation of the cross as symbology for both. For traditional users of the Pipe, it recalls the brutality of the “civilizing” process and negating traditional beliefs of cultural lifeways of connectedness, relatedness, inter-dependency, and reciprocity. While these “traditionals” do not go out of their way to denigrate what the cross represents to them, they dissociate themselves completely from it and the religion it reflects. Native Americans who have wholly embraced the cross, i.e. Christianity, feel successful at being able to “live in two worlds”, as do, ironically, those holding traditional beliefs. Neither Native American Church Road Men or traditional Holy Men or Medicine Men speak harshly to anyone or use condemnatory language toward the other. The two views appear to be the current state regarding the symbology of the cross.
While working and collaborating on the much-anticipated exhibit on the Omaha Tribe’s cultural materials, we were somewhat surprised at the controversy surrounding the reconstruction of the Palace. It was equally surprising when we realized that such collaboration is not found in any museum in the United States. Rather than allowing for American Indians to provide any voice it is the museums themselves who make these important decisions. This approach leaves resentment, indignation, and ill feelings in the minds of the American Indians whose materials are on permanent display. The fact that the Berlin Museum was doing so became the primary focus and not the controversy. Of course, we understood the points of contention. Yet, if the exhibit was to be under the symbol of the cross, we did not feel compelled to object. Construction was happening with or without our input. As to the dome we have no familiarity with it. While there seems to be a greater ground swell in returning to one’s ancestral spiritual beliefs we could object to the cross. Yet, in doing so, we would not have the unity of the Omaha People, or the pride within the community for the planned exhibit. The God of the Christians is the same God for Native Americans. However, the trend toward returning to ancestral and traditional spiritual ways is an indictment on the representation of the cross as a “holy” symbol of the Christian belief it represents.”