Indigeneity and secularity:

Secular Christian power and the spiritual invention of nations

posted by Pamela Klassen

Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonIn the Americas, missionary colonialism prospered on the sharp edge of secular Christian power. Cutting up land with a blade that reflected Christian glory on one side and secular state governance on the other, the new nations of the Americas were made through a process of violent spiritual-political invention. New Christian-infused forms of spiritual jurisdiction—royal proclamations and constitutions—were written on top of already-existing Indigenous laws and alliances also rooted in spiritual claims. Indigenous scholars such as John Borrows and Audra Simpson have made clear that for scholars to understand ongoing Indigenous sovereignty requires attention to history, to protocol, and to how Indigenous stories are both told and withheld. I would add that thinking about Indigeneity in North America—or Turtle Island—requires careful attention to how ceremony, protocol, and invocations of the spirit have shaped all claims to sovereignty on this land, including those of settler-colonial nations.

Whether or not “church and state” were separated or nestled together, whether or not kings and queens “ruled” or democratically-elected heads of state “represented” the people, the new colonial nation-states in the Americas depended on faith in the righteousness of their own political power. This faith, in turn, depended on ongoing attempts through colonial laws and rituals to erase or deny many Indigenous sovereignties that claimed the land through stories, occupation, and regular patterns of movement. In “colonial-era” North America, fur traders, soldiers, missionaries, and colonial officials encountered the reality of Indigenous sovereignty on a regular basis, whether through engagement in ceremonial protocol with Indigenous people as they travelled through Indigenous territories, explicit treaty-making with Indigenous diplomats, violent resistance from Indigenous warriors, or carefully worded petitions written by Indigenous nations who countered the expansion of white settlement, sometimes even in the name of the Christian God.

Today, in the not-yet-over colonial era, whether at Standing Rock, the Canadian Senate Chambers, or the United Nations, Indigenous diplomats continue to turn to ceremony, invocations of the spirit, and public memory of a long history of treaties and protocol to argue for their ongoing sovereignty, more than five hundred years after the arrival of Europeans to this land.

One of the most obvious ways that colonial spiritual jurisdiction found its way onto the land was through the work of Christian missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic. Settler colonial nations in the Americas counted on missionaries to transform Indigenous lands into real estate and to convert Indigenous men, women, and children into laborers. Eventually, missionaries turned what they called their “Indian work” into “white work” through encouraging white settlement, and became the ritual experts who could provide ceremonial legitimacy for efforts in city-building and nation-building. Sometimes with nervous remorse and sometimes with glad avidity, missionaries participated in the work of colonial settlement. They surveyed land that enabled the state to steal it by way of a map; they brokered treaties that the state then broke by way of sleight of hand; they administered residential schools for Indigenous children that the state paid for as instruments of assimilation, isolation, and language obliteration; and they consecrated churches on reserves and in railway towns that planted the new nation by way of a cross and a flag.

As many scholars have argued, the categories of religious and secular are mutually constitutive—they need each other to make sense and to matter. In the North American settler colonial contexts I study, I would be even more specific: the categories of Christian and secular reflect each other, while delicately keeping their distance, in order to make real the sovereignty of the nation-state. The explicit goal of separating church and state in the Americas often had the effect of giving a latent, but still usable, power to Christianity as the template for religion writ large. Colonial secular ways of constituting the nation put Christianity in the sphere of religion and the state in the sphere of politics.

This division effectively pushed Indigenous spiritual jurisdiction into the realm of savagery and superstition. After centuries of treaty diplomacy in which Indigenous and colonial diplomats had both depended on a language of the sacred when making agreements to share access to land and resources, nineteenth-century waves of increased European settlement brought a new mix of secular Christian power that demonized Indigenous governance and ceremony. Laws such as Canada’s still extant Indian Act enabled and emboldened missionaries to fight against Indigenous traditions of feasting and to oversee the chopping down of totem poles, under the guise of both secular and Christian purification.

The piling up of legal decisions, laws, and by-laws gradually secularized North American jurisdictions—the saying of the law over a territory—by rooting them in a settler colonial legislative tradition hedged by time, revolutions, and disestablishment. The very notion of the separation of church and state enabled settler colonial nations to forget or obscure the Christian underpinnings of their claims to sovereignty—claims that for both Canada and the United States were first made in the name of the Crown. Even after a revolution in which the Americans abandoned the yoke of royal tyranny under King George III, the United States kept the land that had been claimed in the name of the Crown by way of its divinely sanctioned power. You could say that the new nation born after the American Revolution decided to expel just one of the King’s two bodies, rejecting the man but keeping his transcendence, submerging it into the ground in order to justify their possession of the land.

To offer just one knotted example of ongoing concepts that obscure the Christian grounding of secular power in North America, consider the legal/ritual concept of the corporation sole. I first came across this term when trying to sort out what had happened in a 1909 conflict over real estate between two Anglican churchmen on the far northwest coast, on Ts’msyen and Nisga’a land that the Anglicans considered to be the Diocese of Caledonia. An Anglican bishop, William Ridley, who retired from British Columbia and moved back to England, was trying to privately sell a block of land that, technically, was not his to sell. Under secular Christian law, Ridley had held the land as a consecrated bishop, and not as a private man. His successor, the Bishop Frederick Du Vernet, was trying to stop the sale of the land, and drew on the concept of the corporation sole to do so.

A corporation sole was a designation in British law that referred to a legal term for holding property by virtue of a ritually bestowed name. As Bishop of Caledonia, Frederick Du Vernet owned acres and acres of land in his ecclesiastical role, but this was not land that he could register under his own personal name. He was a landowner of such vast reaches because he was ritually invested with the name of bishop; this name allowed him to hold collective property for the church. Although no Canadian law would draw this parallel, as a bishop and a corporation sole, Du Vernet was imbued with authority similar to that of a clan leader among the Nisga’a or Ts’msyen: he held collective land for the good of the community that would not pass on to his heirs and would not remain his were he to retire from his episcopate. Consecrated as a bishop by the laying on of hands by three other bishops, and thereby joined to the spiritual kinship of apostolic succession stretching back to Jesus Christ, Du Vernet’s ability to hold land not as a man but as a bishop rested in his spiritual jurisdiction recognized by the secular state.

As a legal concept, the corporation sole had long been “a curious freak of English law” that ensured continuity of church property by designating an ecclesiastically sanctioned individual as holding the “fee simple” or title to a piece of church land not as a “person,” but as a legal entity.1 As Perry Dane has argued in the United States context, the corporation sole was an individual who was a collective representation, poised at the juncture of secular and church power as an “extraordinary, irregular, custom-tailored effort at translating religious principles into secular terms.”2 The Canadian state could recognize the right of the chief priest of the Anglican Diocese of Caledonia to buy and sell land as a collective representation, but refused to acknowledge the right of clan leaders of the Nisga’a or Ts’msyen to transfer their land through their own rituals of feasting. In fact, the Indian Act outlawed the feasting system under the name of the “potlatch” ban of 1885, and the Dominion Government counted on missionaries to prosecute any violators.

This differential acknowledgment of spiritual jurisdictions had everything to do with the lines that the settler-colonial state drew between “White” and “Indian,” and between “Christian” and “pagan.” In other words, it had everything to do with what Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields have called “racecraft,” in an echo of “witchcraft,” by which they mean the “human action and imagining” and the “pervasive belief” that depends on distinctions by race to account for, justify, and organize political and social inequity.3 For the Fields, racecraft, as both a collective and an individual project, draws at once on the unstable category of race and the persuasive power of ritual and everyday routine to generate its plausibility and effects; it is, they say, the “soul of inequality in American life.”

Race and stories of the sacred are still at the heart of how land came to be possessed in North America under the guise of secular Christian states and their myths of private and collectively-held property. With the widespread resurgence of Indigenous claims to sovereignty through ceremony and story in both Canada and the United States, however, the question of how twenty-first-century contests over spiritual jurisdiction will recalibrate racecraft and its powers of possession is at once urgent and volatile.

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This post draws from arguments that I have made in greater depth in three publications: Pamela E. Klassen, “Mentality, Fundamentality and the Colonial Secular; or How Real Is Real Estate?,” in Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics, ed. Rosi Braidotti, Bolette Blaagaard, and Eva Midden (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 175–94; Pamela E. Klassen, The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indian Land (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Forthcoming); Pamela E. Klassen, “Spiritual Jurisdictions: Treaty People and the Queen of Canada,” in Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church, State, and the People, by Paul Christopher Johnson, Pamela E. Klassen, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, TRIOS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Forthcoming).


  1. Frederic Maitland, “The Crown as Corporation,” Law Quarterly Review 17 (1901): 131.

  2. Perry Dane, “The Corporation Sole and the Encounter of Law and Church,” in Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organizations, ed. Nicholas Jay Demerath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 58.

  3. Also see Judith Weisenfeld’s discussion of the “religio-racial” in Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York: NYU Press, 2017).

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