20 January 2019

Orthodoxy and indigenous solidarity

Orthodox celebration in Aleut community in Nikol’skoe, Russia

I am not going to pass direct comment on the Covington Catholic / Nathan Philips story, for the simple reason that I wasn’t there and am not in a position to pass comment. However, I do feel strongly about the ‘framing’ of the story, and the artificial way in which pro-life and indigenous-rights concerns were opposed to each other, on the basis of one being traditionally a concern of the American ‘left’, and the other a concern of the American ‘right’.

I won’t belabour the theological and anthropological reasons for Orthodox Christians to take such a stand, but Orthodox Christians in the United States are, for understandable and (in my own opinion) correct reasons, drawn to the cause of the defence of the unborn. That is well and good. However, I believe we can likewise draw a strong moral and practical case for Orthodox Christians to embrace the cause of indigenous rights.

I am not simply speaking of the ample historical witness of great Orthodox holy men who witnessed among indigenous peoples and spoke up on behalf of their dignity whenever it was trampled: Saint Mark the Evangelist, Venerable Tryphon of Pechenga; Saint Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska; Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow; Saint Jacob (Netsvetov); Archimandrite Andres (Girón) of blessed memory and Fr Themi (Adamopoulos) – though these witnesses are indeed important.

And I am not simply speaking of the general moral principles of justice within and between nations which hold that the only defensible war is a war of defence (and not a war of conquest), within the Church that peoples deserve a certain measure of collective identity outside of church and state, that cultural identity is not overridden by either religious or sæcular pretensions to a singular abstract universal truth – though, obviously, these are important too. Particularly when it comes to assessing questions of historiography.

At its best – or rather, when it holds to its own principles – Orthodox ecclesiology itself militates on behalf of indigenous peoples, for the simple reason that the Orthodox Church seeks to present the tactile and specific reality of the risen Christ to the people in a tongue that they can understand. Orthodoxy evades also the Protestant temptation to eradicate local customs – again, Orthodox missionaries seeking to redeem rather than erase and then superimpose foreign structures upon the cultures of the non-Christian peoples amongst whom they worked.

In addition, we must address the current realities. Orthodox Christianity, despite being the official religion of the Roman Empire for a significant length of time, nonetheless seems – at its best – to draw near to the crucified peoples of the world: the Arab Christians of Palestine and Syria, the Rusins – and historically, the Bulgarians and the Greeks. The plight of the Arab Christians in the Middle East is real: they face extinction at the hands of Sunnî fundamentalists and the revanchists of Turkey, Israel and Kurdistan. There is a very real affinity between the Orthodox historical witness and the current plight of the world’s indigenous peoples.

That plight is strikingly similar the world over. The Índios of Brazil, the Maya of Guatemala (many of them Orthodox) and Honduras – both face direct persecution and settler encroachment at the hands of right-wing governments. The indigenous inhabitants of the Congo have faced genocidal violence for over 20 years at the hands of neoliberal states after their mineral wealth. In East Asia, indigenous Taiwanese people face cultural discrimination and abridgement of their œconomic rights. The indigenous people of Okinawa are still fighting a battle against the American Marine base at Futenma, and for their land and water rights. And here in the United States, we have the indigenous resistance to the Tar Sands pipelines – first Standing Rock, and now Line 3 – and to the abuse and abduction of indigenous women.

Here’s the thing. Just as the plight of unborn children is not a ‘left’ issue or a ‘right’ issue, the plight of indigenous people is also not a ‘left’ issue or a ‘right’ issue; indeed it has some overlap with both. Indigenous values include traditional manhood, traditional womanhood, respect for the elderly and the sanctity and integrity of the child: all things which traditionalist conservatives can appreciate. On the other hand, indigenous worldviews also establish priorities for œcological and œconomic justice, promote reciprocality and generosity, and eschew acquisitive individualism: things which the socialist left can understand and admire. These are all, furthermore, concerns which the Orthodox Church also holds dear.


  1. FINALLY! Someone has the fortitude to bring up this issue! Ixehe (thank you in the Mescalero Apache language)!

  2. Welcome to the blog, and ixehe to you too, my friend, for the comment!

    1. Thou art most welcome! Is there a way to receive a pdf file of your article? Also will you write more on this? As I stated indirectly in my first comment, you are the first to make a statement concerning the plight of indigenous peoples, a subject that seems to be ignored by both east and west churches lately (at least from my observation). Please feel free to email me at Thonesto@aol.com Again, thank you for the response!

    2. I could send you the original, but that would have all kinds of HTML markups, and I don't think that would look particularly pretty. I will see what I can do, though, and I'll be in touch by e-mail.


  3. Yes.

    Have you read the responses of Orthodox clergy in Alaska to US attempts to assimilate the natives and suppress their culture?