Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tinker's Missionary Conquest

My midterm paper was on Tinker's Missionary Conquest. The end result -- Tinker undermines his own argument by letting his propaganda interfere with his scholarship.

In the first place, he notes on the outset that he, in the book, was free to "reinterpret" (i.e. rewrite) the Native American side of all exchanges without telling us. I can see the reason for this -- if the story is told by the oppressors, it is easy to see how the oppressed's story could get misinterpreted.

However, it goes further than this. It turns out that there isn't any part of history he doesn't feel free to rewrite to make his point. I only looked up one of his primary sources in the book to check him out, and it turns out that Tinker rewrote both sides of the exchange to make the missionary look bad.

The specific case is that of De Smet. Now, I must say, I had never heard of any of these missionaries before, so I felt no implicit need to defend them. I was fully ready to believe that they were the bastards that Tinker portrayed. However, I kept on noticing that in De Smet's case, Tinker was relying almost entirely on innuendo to make his case. Then, in his clenching argument, he notes a story about De Smet praying for rain. Tinker portrayed the situation as if De Smet was mocking the Indians. He basically said that De Smet had put on a false rain dance, took credit for it in front of the Indians, and then told his friends in private that he had hoodwinked the Indians.

But in fact, if you look at Tinker's primary source, this is what happened:

  1. The Indians asked De Smet to ask God for rain

  2. De Smet gathered the leaders and prayed for them, and told them that if God was pleased with them, He would send rain.

  3. It rained that day.

  4. De Smet told his friends that the Indians would not believe that it was God who did it, but rather think that De Smet had some secret trick for making rain that he was not telling them.

  5. Sure enough, one of the Native Americans offered De Smet 10 horses to tell what his secret was, and never believed De Smet no matter how many times De Smet told him that it was based on being a Christian and praying.

  6. De Smet said "Did I not tell you that they would say I did it?"

Tinker tries to convince the reader that this last quote was him taking credit for successfully pulling off a mockery of the Native Americans, but in fact it was that the Native Americans would not believe the truth that De Smet kept trying to tell them!

Anyway, it is clear that this book is pure propaganda. I'm sure a lot of the things it says are true, but it is tough to take anything at face value after that! I mean, really, how do I know he's not BS'ing on the other stuff, too? Anyway, if someone knows of a more academically honest person who has written on this issue, please let me know.

Another thing that annoys me about the book is the co-option of the word "genocide". There are a few instances in the book that truly count as "genocide", but Tinker's definition would actually make any successful conversion of a whole culture equivalent with genocide! That is unjust to true instances of genocide.

Tinker also fails to present a positive model for how missionary work should work. He rightly criticizes the missionaries for confusing culture and gospel, but offers no opinion on where that line should be drawn.

Finally, for people who want to read about a missionary who respects culture, take a look at Bruchko, and also the followup work (though I haven't read that one). It is a great read on how to reach a culture for Christ without forcing them into a Western mold.


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