As the Western suburbs of Chicago go, it’s a spectacular view. To the distant north is the angular, imposing steeple of Wheaton Bible Church. To the south looms the imperious tower of Fermilab, guarding its unnaturally circular particle accelerator. But due west, between these two children of the modernity, lies one of her orphans. Through the bare January trees I can see what’s left of a winding, insignificant river that drew inhabitants here one thousand years ago, as evidenced by three mounds that rise delicately from the earthIndian burials. I can’t quite see the mounds from this hospital room, but I know they’re there because I visited them this week. I then turn around to see a different mound, or what’s left of it, lending a gentle slope to the sheets that cover my sleeping wife. Its onetime resident, my newborn son, lays in intensive care three floors below, where wicks of infant life are blown into flame by skilled sentinels of the night shift.
At this moment, I see my wife’s womb and an Indian burial mound in the same terms. If it is a strange judgment, it is also a Biblical one. “Curiously wrought in the depths of the earth,” cries the Psalmist, speaking of his own uterine life. David’s relating the womb to the earth makes each human life as much a direct product of divine artistry as was Adam, hand-wrought by God from the dust of the ground. And the Bible uses earthen womb imagery to describe resurrection as well. “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “The earth will give birth to the dead.” And that is what makes her, the earth, pregnant nowgravid with bodies awaiting the resurrection.
Countless mounds like the ones I look toward once speckled the land we now call the Midwest. Estimates of their total number rise up to one millionmostly since destroyed by farmers, vandals, or inept archeologists. Like the Great Pyramids of Egypt or the burial mounds of Chinese emperors, these monuments are testimony to collective humanity’s insistence that death not be the end. The most famous of the Midwestern mound complexes was Cahokia, an imperious corn kingdom just beyond what is now St. Louis, where what we know as the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers then met. I stood atop what was left of it this summer, seeing Ferguson off in the distance. The controversy was just then heating up, and I marveled that our culture can mourn the tragic loss of one young man’s life, which could not be taken for granted in this land a millennium ago. Human sacrifice was the order of that day. Not on the scale of the Aztecs, but it did happen, as evidenced by sacrificial victims discovered in Mound 72. Some surmise that the mounds I now overlook from the hospital were built by a settlement of escapees from lordly Cahokia, which, for unknown reasons, collapsed before European contact.
The sanctity of all human lifeeven the weakest, and even one’s own enemiesis revelation. No culture has deduced this doctrine on its own. But as the prodigious scholarship of Jaime Lara has lately uncovered, in spite of the atrocities committed by the colonists, native inhabitants of the Americas welcomed this divine disclosure, embracing the end of the order of human sacrifice as proclaimed by Franciscan missionaries. The Aztecs made crucifixes out of maize to illustrate the perfect offering of the corn-Christ. Lava stones, upon which men, women, and children were once filleted alive, were placed at the center of stone crosses in indigenous churches. The sun’s reflection off of these lava stones resembled the Eucharist, and suggested that Christian teaching did not dismiss sacrificial logic as much as it fulfilled it.
But here in North America, native thought scarcely gained the same consummation. On the mounds of Cahokia in 1699, the Jesuit Julien Binneteau aimed to preserve the indigenous Illini language, but the parish priest Marc Bergier attempted to steal his Illini dictionary to stop the effort. It was thought that the natives need become French before they become Christians. Protestants were even less sensitive to any precursors to the Gospel in native culture, and as the remaining Indians were forced to leave this land, the question of how their culture anticipated the Gospel departed with them.
Today, however, there are a signs that the indigenous question is resurfacing.
Chicago’s Kateri Center meets below a massive basilica in downtown Chicagoa tiny community, trying to resuscitate Binneteau’s vision for an indigenous Catholic liturgy. Prayer to the four directions precedes the Catholic Mass, and the ethereal sounds of native flute replace the organ. On the evangelical side, names like Richard Twiss and Cheryl Bear, and the NAIITS organization now headed by Terry LeBlanc, continue to seek indigenous Christian expressions. Those seeking ways to outmaneuver modernity should look to these resources as much as to Henri de Lubac, John Milbank, or Charles Taylor. One notable example of white engagement of Native thought in this area came from the evangelical minister Keith Drury, who walked the entire Trail of Death in an act of penitence for this horrifying eviction.
A sad, but nevertheless strong proof of Christianity is that it was accepted by so many natives of this continent despite the despicable witness of those who brought the message. At a recent Midwestern Pow Wow, some of the Indians that remain in this areaMenominee, Ojibwa, Potawatomiand anyone who cared to join them gathered in a reverent circle. The ceremony began with a reverent prayer lifted up in Jesus’s name. There followed a procession to honor native Veterans, many of whom bear crosses on their regalia. But at the height of the opening ceremony, these warriors made way for a six-year-old native child with Downs Syndrome. The drums beat, the elders cried their inimitable song, and she danced a joyful solo for ten full minutes as the crowd bore reverent witness to the goodness of her life.
By contrast, throughout this pregnancy, my wife was peppered with questions at every doctor’s visit. Questions designed, it seems quite evident, to enable her and I to abort our child if he was diagnosed with Downs or some other imperfection. As I gaze out my hospital window I find myself wondering if we are erecting some kind of new Cahokia. We ransack and level the wombs like white farmers once did to the sacred mounds of this land, hoping for a more efficient harvest, but cursing the land instead.
Matthew Milliner teaches art history at Wheaton College.