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The Heavens are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity

By Susan Neylan

November 4, 2013

Review By J.R. Miller

WRITING IN Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534 (University of Toronto Press, 1984, 250) of seventeenth-century Jesuit missions to the Huron, John Webster Grant quoted a Huron man as saying to a missionary, “You must know that we have a ‘yes’ that means ‘no’.” Grant was explaining the apparent reluctance of First Nations converts to embrace all of Christian doctrine or to give up Aboriginal practices completely. His introduction of the notion of ambivalence towards Christianity among supposedly converted Aboriginal people in Moon of Wintertime was an important first step in modifying historical analysis of mis-sionization, a process of revision that had been under way for over a decade in fur trade studies and was emerging in examinations of Indian policy about the time Grant published his landmark volume. Since then historians’ consideration of what “conversion” truly meant among Aboriginal peoples has advanced significantly. The process of revising and deepening understanding has also been noticeable in studies of evangelism on the Northwest Coast. To mention only one important work that contributed to the process of extending scholarly understanding of what Christian missionaries did and how they were received, Clarence Bolt’s Thomas Crosby and the Tsimshian: Small Shoes for Feet Too Large (UBC Press, 1992) explained that some Tsimshian recruited Methodist missionary Thomas Crosby for their own purposes and that his flock withdrew support from him when he ceased to be effective in representing their interests on the emerging land question. Over the past twenty years, then, the study of Christian missions to Aboriginal peoples has evolved to yield a more complex, more nuanced understanding of Aboriginal responses to Christianity. 

Susan Neylan’s The Heavens are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity a revision of her UBC doctoral dissertation, continues this advance in scholarly understanding of the impact of the mis-sionization process. A central argument of this uncommonly perceptive and persuasive work organized around the concepts of “syncretism, convergence, and dualism” (15) is that “religious encounters between Natives and missionaries were dialogic meetings” (270) in which each of the parties influenced the other. Focusing on “the cultural brokers and ‘middlemen,'” (22) Neylan takes the position that “Christianity … was indeed an ‘authentic’ Native experience” (26). To make her case, Neylan examines the spiritual topography of Tsimshian society and the missionaries’ outlook and arrival in Tsimshian territory before proceeding to an examination, first, of the process of “proselytizing from within” and then converting women and families. A general chapter on Native missionaries, an important and revealing group, is followed by a closer examination of one of them – Anglican Arthur Wellington Clah. The volume concludes with a series of topical examinations of prophets and revivals, of everyday practices (“The Politics of Everyday Life”), and of the implications of Tsimshian-Christian contentions over the organization of domestic space and public sites such as the potlatch and totem poles. 

Throughout, Neylan strives to keep the focus as much as possible on the Native “converts.” This is a noteworthy achievement because the plenitude of missionary sources and the challenge of interpreting Native evidence for a non-Native researcher push such an investigator towards seeing the process from the evangelists’ perspective. She is perceptive and imaginative in trying always to see the words, reactions, and emotions of the Native people she is studying from a Tsimshian cultural perspective as well as from a Christian Euro-Canadian viewpoint. So, for example, The Heavens are Changing reinterprets the familiar encounter between Tsimshian Legeex (Legaic) and Church Missionary Society evangelist William Duncan over the operation of his mission school during the winter feasting season. In the traditional literature, a potentially violent chief is faced down by a calm missionary, resulting in the Indian’s defeat and eventual conversion to a model Christian life (as a carpenter, no less). Neylan probes deeper. Using Tsimshian accounts of the same encounter, she explains that it was Legeex’s responsibility as leader of a feasting society to ensure the safety of Tsimshian involved in the winter observances. The ringing of the school bell was a menace that needed to be stopped because it could distract those involved in powerful ceremonies. “This was done to ensure the spiritual safety of the initiates undergoing important transformations” (98). The author provides similar bicultural readings, such as her depiction of the equally famous “religious excitement” at Metlakatla that challenged Duncan’s regime (192-7). The result of such readings is to enrich and deepen the reader’s understanding of what was taking place in the encounter between missionary and Native. 

The volume’s many insights and interpretations are unified by an approach that might be summarized as Death to Dichotomies! (At times one is reminded of Joy Parr’s critique of “binary oppositions” and “analytical dualism” in The Gender of Breadwinners: Women,Men, and Change in Two Industrial Towns 1880-1950 [University of Toronto Press, 1990].) Traditionally understood polarities in the encounter of Tsimshian and Christian messenger are invariably shown by Neylan to have been more complex, more ambivalent – and consequently more interesting – than was previously thought. So, for example, on the complicated issues of the land question and Canadian government attempts to assert sovereignty over the Tsimshian, Christianized Tsimshian did not always react in the same manner. “Christian Tsimshian aligned with [non-Native] Christians on some issues, and stood unified with their Aboriginal relations against the church on others” (275). The complexity of Tsimshian Christianity and the irrelevance of dichotomies is perhaps best symbolized in one of the closing images in The Heavens are Changing. Neylan tells of a Tsimshian chief who spoke on the land question. “As the chief spoke, he held a Bible in his left hand and an eagle feather, a Native symbol of peace, in his right hand. He told the chiefs and elders in attendance that one was not stronger than the other” (276). The image nicely captures the dialogic, inclusive quality of Tsimshian Christianity that the book explains so well. 

In such a fine study, there is little about which to complain. However, sometimes the author’s pursuit of a bicultural reading of an event or phenomenon seems strained. Seeing flag poles as substitutes for totem poles (263-4) is a bit of stretch, although the following reading of gravestones as substitutes for totem poles seems more plausible. Also unfortunate is Neylan’s neglect of some secondary literature that might have enriched her understanding of the missionary processes she was examining. For example, although the volume is noteworthy for its thorough canvass of relevant theoretical and monographic literature, material on Methodist missions among the Ojibwa in nineteenth-century Ontario is overlooked. The literature on Upper Canadian non-Native and Native missionaries, including in particular Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby, Sacred Feathers), might have been important background for understanding the ministrations of English-born but Ontario-trained Thomas Crosby among the Tsimshian. This neglect seems all the stranger given Neylan’s heavy and appropriate reliance on Grant’s Moon of Wintertime and William Westfall’s Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth-Century Ontario (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989). 

Minor cavils aside, The Heavens are Changing is an important work of reinterpretation that advances the historiography of the missionization process substantially. Moreover, its relevance transcends the Northwest Coast and British Columbia. The sophistication of its method and the sensitivity of the author’s interpretation represent a model that could well be applied to many other regions where indigenous peoples and Christianity got caught up, to use John Webster Grant’s formulation, in encounter.