Native Americans and the Gospel: A Flight of Arrows

flight of arrowsLori Benton is a fine writer whose most recent novel, A Flight of Arrows, fascinated me with its approach to the Christian gospel message.

Since I do not believe Jesus Christ looked nor acted like a 21st century American, I’ve long been intrigued by how people portray him and his message in other cultures.

You can read my reaction to the Quechuan descriptions of the Gospel in Slash Marks the Very Good Trail, and how an Alaskan missionary commemorated Jesus’ message on a totem pole.

Lori recently answered a series of questions I posed about the writing of the book, set in 1777 upstate New York:

What sort of research did you do to determine HOW Native Americans of that time and place would respond to the Gospel?

“The same sort of research I do for any other aspect of my novels—a great deal of reading! I recommend anyone interested in learning more about this subject read Forgotten Allies by Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin.”

In particular, the word choices caught my attention–were those what was used or did you put those words into their mouths?

Some of both.

“As often as I could I would borrow the recorded words of Oneida believers and put them, or words similar, in the mouths of my characters.

“But as it is with sort of historical person you are trying to portray, the more you read and absorb their own words (from historical documents, journals, etc.), the easier it becomes to imagine similar characters saying similar words.You find the rhythm and the language and it begins to flow. You begin to think in their manner of expression.

“In the case of the Oneida, this comes after having researched not only their Christian beliefs at that time, but their traditional beliefs and their culture as well. I wanted to understand the life and mindset these men and women came from, as well as the new life in Christ they embraced. Or understand it as well as a person living in the 21st century can.

“The rest is filled by empathy and imagining what it is like to be another person, something all fiction writers have to master to some degree.”

How did you “translate” the Gospel into Oneida terminology for A Flight of Arrows?

“Through my research. Oneida believers of that time were often educated and literate. They left records of their beliefs, or others made records of their sermons and speeches. Yes, there were Oneidas who preached in their own, and other, churches in the 18th century.”

In the novel, settlers and Oneidas are divided and united by a choice a desperate soldier made 20 years before. The second book in the Pathfinder series presents the spiritual growth found by both sets of individuals after a recognition of the Gospel portrayed in the first book of the three-part series, The Wood’s Edge.

I appreciated Lori’s honesty in showing how reading the Bible and confronting difficult, grim circumstances as a result, played out in the character’s lives.

Different from many novels, the simple acceptance of the truth by the Oneidas in particular, touched me. I knew missionaries such as David Brainard had worked with native Americans in the area, but was Lori’s depiction of spiritual growth authentic? Did the native Americans have churches in their villages–which were relatively sophisticated even by the standards of the European settlers?

 “I tried not to present these characters in any way that wasn’t substantiated by my research, particularly the example of individuals recorded in history.

“Some Iroquois towns had their own churches, yes. There were as many variations and “flavors” of Christianity among them as among any people group.”

The Cherokees during the same time period lived in villages with churches in what was in many ways a superior culture to the Europeans around them.

Lori’s desire in writing about the exercising of faith was to present an accurate account and the best way to do that was through her own relationship to God.

“There is a lot of fervent prayer behind it. I really, really wanted to present this aspect of the novel respectfully, accurately, and unflinchingly. At times it seemed overwhelmingly beyond

me to do so.

“I try not to lose sight, daily, of my need for God’s inspiring Spirit to help me write my novels, from finding the right research sources to the daily choice of one word after the other.”

As with any novel that has inspiration at its heart, A Flight of Arrows relied on the author’s sensitivity to both the culture and God. Did writing the book affect her faith?

“I think it’s more a matter of my personal faith having had an impact on how I presented the cultural implications of the Gospel upon characters like Good Voice and Stone Thrower and Two Hawks.

“Specifically, I don’t believe accepting Christ as Savior means a person has to renounce their entire culture, whatever that may be, and mold themselves into a certain way of speaking, dressing, eating, and day to day living in order to be acceptably “Christian.”

“Otherwise I think we’d all be wearing togas or robes or whatever they wore in the first century AD.

“I do believe there are aspects of every culture, in every time period (including our secular culture in the United States), that do not glorify God, and a person must take seriously that we are to be sanctified, set apart, for God’s pleasure and purpose, and be clear about what that means between them and God.

“Sometimes this means refraining from some aspect of our culture we formerly embraced or thoughtlessly participated in. But it doesn’t mean we completely cease being who we are.

“It means that first and foremost our citizenship is in heaven. We are new creations in Christ, a new people in our hearts and minds. Whether we wear a toga, a breechclout, or a pair of Levis isn’t important.”

Image result for oneida indiansA Flight of Arrows can be read without a knowledge of its predecessor, The Wood’s Edge, not to mention the multi-Christy award winning Burning Sky, but Lori’s books are so splendid and written in such a beautiful way, why cheat yourself of an enjoyable experience?

Tweetables

Oneidas and Christianity during the Revolution. Click to Tweet

Cultural sensitivity, Oneidas and A Flight of Arrows. Click to Tweet

Author Lori Benton on spiritual authenticity and A Flight of Arrows. Click to Tweet

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for conducting this interesting interview, Michelle! Having some Native American ancestry, I’m intrigued by this series and plan to read one after my own deadline.

    Reply
  2. kda61

     /  April 29, 2016

    I have not read this series of Lori Benton’s books yet but i am looking forward to doing so. I am especially interested in the topic of Native Americans and the Gospel Outreach to them.
    Thank you for this enlightening interview.

    Reply

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