The Christian Reformed mission at Zuni pueblo, New Mexico, in the 1920s
“Depression times made return to Zuni unlikely,” Casey Kuipers wrote on papers he typed for job applications, “so after schooling was finished, [I] obtained government positions for five years with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” Kuipers and the family left Albuquerque for Denver for most of those years.
Casey Kuipers, who was born at the turn of the 20th century in Orange City, Iowa, a tacher, missionary and eventually a pastor, wrote three novels in no more than five years while “surviving” and Great Depression (his description) with his wife and three children. He received his masters degree the University of New Mexico in 1934, by way of researching racial bias in intelligence testing, then, like millions of other unemployed Americans, took a job with the government.
One of the many projects designed by New Deal researchers during the mid-30s was titled “The Indian Reorganization Act,” a program to reinvigorate life on American reservations, rather than continue the failed legacy of the Dawes Act (1888), which had privatized land holdings on reservations and failed to accomplish any of its goals, while deeding even more Native land to white homesteaders.
President Franklin Roosevelt signed what is often referred to today as “the Indian New Deal” in June of 1934, at the time Kuipers’ first novel, Deep Snow, was published. How Kuipers notes the positions he held from 1934 to 1939 in his own vitae–“Statistical assignments with TC-BIA Dept of Agri. Technical Cooperation BIA”–requires some historical background.
Designed to enhance opportunities for Native people on reservations, the “Indian New Deal” hired anthropologists to team with scientists, agronomists, economists, and others to try to determine how significant change in reservation environments would alter Native life and cultures. In the American Southwest, the “TC-BIA” attempted to undertake good water and land management on the reservations, but at the same time tried to be sure that change did not harm Native cultures.
Which is, of course, impossible. Building reservoirs might well insure sufficent water supply for Zuni sheep, but adequate annual supply of water would disrupt religious rituals like rain dances, rituals that had been the soul of religious life in the pueblo for centuries. Furthermore, strenghthening Zuni shepherds was not something their Anglo neighbors relished. “TC-BIA” attempted balancing acts that were difficult, to say the least.
That’s what Casey Kuipers was doing when his novels were published, trying to determine how little harm could be done to Native life and still achieve something beneficial, and that’s the experience only research can unpack from his pithy account of what he did during those years: “Statistical assignments with TC-BIA Dept of Agri. Technical Cooperation BIA.” Kuipers himself is long gone, and it’s doubtful anyone alive remembers; his children were toddlers.
It’s understandable why Mr. Casey Kuipers would take a position with the TC-BIA for a few years during the Depression. He’d learned to tightrope before when, as a principal in the Zuni Mission School, he’d been walking precariously between the claims of the Christian gospel for all of life and the very real possibility that actual Christian conversion would alter Native lives and tribal existence into something that could look rather grotesque. His three novels, none of the classics, suggest he understood that the claims of Jesus Christ in the ancient Zuni pueblo were not as clear as they were to legions of good Christian people “back east” who were supporting the mission.
I say all of that because the New York Times, a week ago, featured an interesting column by Samuel Freedman that documents the ambiguous role of Christian missions–and Christian mission schools–in Africa. What the wordy title itself suggests (“”Mission Schools Opened World to Africans, but Left an Ambiguous Legacy”) is that even the explanation of the phenomenon is difficult. While a Christian mission school played a central role in the life of Nelson Mandela and a host of other important African leaders, that schooling frequently did not accomplish the goals the schools themselves set because those leaders didn’t become Christians. Still, or so the argument goes, those schools could not possibly teach kids that they were worthy of God’s love, as the Bible says, and not teach them they they worthy of say, political citizenship.
What Freedman argues and Casey Kuipers’ own life and experience suggests is that mission schools–and mission itself–frequently succeeded beyond the limits of their own dreams. And yet didn’t.
Dr. Charles Eastman’s life is well-documented, but worth remembering every mid-winter because 123 years ago he practiced medicine frantically in the Pine Ridge mission church where the survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre were brought when finally the firing and killing ceased. Eastman was a Santee Sioux from eastern South Dakota, a Dartmouth graduate, a medical doctor, the recipient of a mission school education. It seems a blessing from God that Big Foot’s people–wounded, some dying–could look up into the face of a Native doctor. His education was a true blessing.
But Eastman’s life too often encountered real disasters as he himself attempted to determine an answer to the question of his own identity. You can read that story anywhere, and you can feel the same problems in Mandela’s own summation of why he left the mission school he’d once looked upon as “Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one,” when he began to feel, as he said, “in an unpleasant state of limbo.”
There is ever more to say on the subject, as the very wordiness of the title of Freedman’s thoughtful article illustrates. It’s a remarkable story, really, and, these days especially, no one is telling all of it–for understandable reasons. Christians don’t want to know the truth about their obvious (and sometimes hideous) failures, but neither do secularists, because Nelson Mandela wouldn’t be Nelson Mandela without his mission school education.
I’m thinking that Casey Kuipers, born in 1897, right here in Orange City, Iowa, understood that more fully than he could let on to supporters of the Zuni mission, more fully even than he knew.