Reflecting on Kan’s “Shamanism and Christianity”: Making Sense of Family Conversion Narratives

As the days grow shorter and winter winds weave their way through household doors and windows, I find myself spending longer hours curled in library corners reading about Indigenous history and the lives of Indigenous peoples outside of my hometown. The morning of 1 December, I had the pleasure of opening Hoxie et al’s American Nations: Encounters in Indian Country, 1850 to the Present (2001). I began by leafing through the text’s 504 pages and found myself reading Sergei Kan’s “Shamanism and Christianity” word-by-word before reaching the bottom of my coffee cup.

In his article, Kan argues that the Tlingit experienced cultural evolution not disconnection through their incorporation of Christian beliefs into Tlingit world-views Despite “converting” to Christianity, Tlingit elders remain connected to their pasts, recounting pre-Christian (his)stories of Tlingit shamans whose powers were real – sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes ineffective, but always real. Kan further argues that interpreting historical events can be more important than uncovering historical facts, suggesting that current recognition of “traditional” healing powers is a powerful assertion of Tlingit identity: Tlingit are not to be condescended to – their previous beliefs and practices were valid.[1]

PICTOGRAPH SITE, LAKE OF THE WOODS CIRCA 1990

While reading, as I often do, I attempted to relate Kan’s article to my personal experience. His work inspired critical reflection of conversion narratives existent within my own family. I never questioned the interplay between Anishinaabe and Anglican world-views in my own home.  That Mother encouraged us to pray for Grandpa Harry while Dad informed us to stop mourning when the last piece of cedar fell from above our beds, that we would be shipped out to Bible Camp and spend the remainder of the summer visiting long-standing spiritual sights, never raised questions of acculturation (or persistence). . We never stopped living to consider the meaning of a medicine wheel hanging above our doorway and a King James’ Bible sitting on our bed stands. But, how was the intersection of these two worlds explained?

My father, Allan (Ogemah) Luby, told my brother, sister and me that our family converted to Christianity long ago, when my Great-Great-Grandmother Martin (Okemahmasheek) was a girl. Indigenous historians and Kan himself have a tendency to view conversion as a response to the perceived spiritual power of Christian missionaries. Kan writes of the Tlingit:

The shamans, like the rest of the Tlingit, were trying to comprehend not only powerful new diseases but the impressive wealth and military might of the newcomers. Because in the traditional Tlingit culture such things were linked to the possession of spiritual power, the shamans must have concluded that the white man had a lot of it.[2]

Such lines of argument have become standard fare, leading Susan Neylan in The Heavens are Changing (2003) to identify them as the deprivation thesis. Neylan rejected the deprivation thesis, arguing that the adoption and/or conscious incorporation of Christian practices could support previous beliefs. Tsimshian peoples incorporated Christianity to develop new forms of Tsimshian power, thus empowering (rather than jeopardizing) their Indigenous ways of being. Christian practices didn’t necessitate conversion. But, my ancestors’ line of reasoning and subsequent practice – whether exceptional or standard fare has yet to be examined – followed a different trajectory.

My father explained that our family converted to Christianity when the Midewiwin Society grew too powerful (not less powerful in the face of Christian forces).[3] According to Dad, when the Midewiwin Society moved into Treaty #3, the “old ways started disappearing.  And, there was a lot of bad medicine.  The shaman started hurting people.” In our case, Christianity offered a spiritual shield; it was equal in power, a neutralizing force. If you invested in God – not the spiritual forces of the Midewiwin world – those forces could not penetrate God’s love. It was an entirely different ball game. Here, total conversion was a rational step and deep-seeded recognition of Midewiwin power. Our family was being affected by shaman-originated illness and sought a Christian neutralizer. It was not seeking foreign aid for foreign disease. This, of course, isn’t to suggest that my family was immune to Old World contagions. Quite the opposite. Okemahmasheek would lose her husband, baptized John Kipling, to tuberculosis. But, what does it mean to disconnect conversion from a supposed acknowledgement of Christianity’s superior spiritual power? What if Indigenous peoples converted to protect themselves from the spiritual strength of their traditional healers? Neylan outlines such activities amongst Tsimshian, evidencing conscious incorporation of Christian elements to enhance Indigenous spiritual powers. But, what if the forces were neutral? Would this fundamentally alter our (his)stories?

“CHIEF LINDSAY (LEFT) AND HIS WIFE MARY LINDSAY (MIDDLE)” IMAGE PROVIDED BY LAKE OF THE WOODS MUSEUM

The origins of our family’s conversion lie in the dream world and with Mrs. Jane Lindsay, Okemahmasheek’s grandmother. Around 1870, Jane Lindsay canoed her children from Dalles 38C to Whitedog Reservation, a 30 mile paddle by straight reckoning. She sought Ma-kuh-ta-we-koo-muk-ya or “the man who wears a black suit.” Affirming her decision to christen the family was a recurring dream: a man of God walking to and fro while she slept, a man in shoes instead of moccasins. Contrary to Carol Devens’ argument that women rejected Christianity to preserve the status and autonomy provided by traditional beliefs and practices, we see a woman from the Great Lakes district convincing her husband to fulfill her dreams of conversion. What happens if conversion offers equal power? What if, within communities, Christianity is a neutralizing force?

And, so I wonder, do other families share my history? Is conversion more complicated than accommodation? Is Indigenous agency more than the conscious incorporation of Christian beliefs into Indigenous thought-worlds? Can wholesale conversion reflect a total investment in “traditional” spiritual powers? And so, I sit and continue to wonder.


[1] Sergei Kan, “Shamanism and Christianity: Modern Tlingit Elders Look at the Past,” in American Nations: Encounters in Indian Country 1850 to the Present, eds. Frederick E. Hoxie et al. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 257.

[2] Ibid. 256.

[3] Midewiwin  refers to the Grand Medicine Society.   It is a “traditional” spiritual association.  To learn more about the Midewiwin  Society please see: Michael Angel, Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2002).

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