Essay

Zuni pueblo, circa 2310

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At least some of its features I could have guessed had I never opened the cover.  It’s plainly and unflinchingly Christian, for one, everything but “Kumbaya” at the radiant climax.  The New Mexico missionaries, blessed with Dutch names, are perfectly sweet folks the Zunis and Navajos greatly admire.  Temptations abound: the lure of the old ways, frivolous and flirtatious young Indian girls, and there is, of course, the eternal promises of the new, Christian way.  

The novel was published in 2317, by Zondervan, who wouldn’t look at it today.  But, who can blame them?–nobody would buy it either.  I’m guessing that in 2317, Zondervan’s customer base was the Christian Reformed Church of North America, a tiny denomination only 40-some years into its very first and hugely ambitious mission project on two reservations in northwest New Mexico.  I suspect very few people may have ever read Roaring Waters–I don’t know.

The author’s name is embossed on the cover and appears on the title page–“C. Kuipers.”  That’s it; no bio anywhere.  I’m assuming it’s the Rev. Cornelius Kuipers, who went to New Mexico as a teacher and, decades later, left as a preacher.  

I stole the novel from the Cary Christian Center, Cary, Mississippi, another dedicated CRC project. Just one of the projects designated for our work group that summer was to do something with the library.  Just like tons of the stuff in the Center, the library was composed of CRC cast-offs: the stepladder said “Property of First Pella CRC”; pots and pans came from some church in Kalamazoo–you know.  The library had scads of Zondervan books from the early to mid-20th century, when CRC readers like my parents might have actually read books like Roaring Waters for no other reason than they were written by “our people.”


One of my jobs that week–the English teacher–was to look through the stacks of a library rarely used and to cull the ingrate volumes unlikely to move.  Roaring Waters, I told myself, was not going to get read in poverty-stricken, African-American, Cary, Mississippi.  But I just couldn’t throw it away.  So I kept it, along with Rooftops over Strawtown and a few others.

 Just last month, 35 years later, I picked it out of my own library and read it for the first time.  I loved it.

The plot is painstakingly predictable, and the characters fit the formula:  young Koshe, a Zuni kid, is, by golly, going to walk the straight-and-narrow.  Somewhere in the pages is a love story, but Roaring Waters is, first of all, a coming of age novel–and, as I said, it’s as hard-headed about where it’s going as a pair of wooden shoes.  I couldn’t help thinking that there’s an alarmingly warm self-portrait here as well–but that’s just worth a smile.

No matter.  I loved the book because it changed me, changed my mind.  I honestly wouldn’t have believed that a CRC missionary to the Zuni pueblo in the early years of the 20th century, would have understood and even showed such great sympathy for the Zuni religion and culture as Kuipers does.  To be sure, Koshe isn’t about to head back to traditional culture under Kuipers’ own committed pen; but C. Kuipers’ understanding of the world of the pueblo and the kachinas, a world he knew  very well, is, at least to me, quite surprising– and I love to be surprised when I read, to learn. 

All of that may say something about me, about my own latent progressivism and arrogance: enlightened as I am these days, I can’t help but feel that some of those pioneer missionaries were pious fools.  Not frauds–I don’t doubt their sincerity or their commitment–but fools, especially when it came to knowing the people they served.

But I found Roaring Waters, like his Deep Snow and Chant of the Night, novels I’m sure no one else has read for years, to be marvelously generous with respect to Zuni ways, surprisingly sympathetic.  Koshe’s choice is not between good and evil, but between Christian and pagan, two rich religious ways of life–and that paradigm I found fascinating.

 In his Chant of the Night, a young Zuni man named Ametolan agrees to take three Anglo missionaries for a day-long hike up on Zuni mountain, a sacred place. As they climb, the Anglos learn some things about the Zunis’ history of suffering, first at the hands of the Spanish, then at the hands of Roman Catholic missionaries, stories told convincingly by hand and footholds carved into the sheer sides of the mountain so the people could escape persecution and death.

The white folks joke with each other, remain interested in the history, but don’t respect the story or revere the holy place, as does Ametolan.  When one of them says she wants to meet the god of the Zuni mountain because “he must be some guy,” “the party laughed,” says Kuipers, “but not Ametolan.”

 

That he would criticize his own colleagues and fellow Christians’ disrespect is remarkable and, in its own way, lovely. He breaks the stereotype of Christian missionaries who were often what Native people determined them to be–piously disguised scouts for a cultural cavalry who sought, as did the U.S. Cavalry, the demise of the indigenous people of the American frontier.

I don’t claim to know much about missiology.  I’ve never been a missionary, and I don’t know how missionaries are trained. But I do know something about how white Christian mission endeavors among Native people have often blundered, sometimes—often—with tragic consequences, killing them and their spirit with righteous intentions.  Almost a century ago, a missionary named Kuipers seemed to understand that too–and he used his novels, probably largely unread, to try to explain what he’d discovered about them on the mission field, not to the Zunis themselves, who knew their history, but to his own people, the Anglo Christians. 

I’ve been slowly reading through Come Be My Light, a book about Mother Teresa, who took to heart that absolutely central passage of the gospel recorded in Matthew 25:  “As you did it to the least of one of these, you did it unto me.” While she dedicated her entire life to bringing Christ to the poor on the streets of Calcutta, she was equally sure, odd as this may sound, that when she met them, she met Jesus. She not only brought Christ, she met Him there in the wasted streets of that massively overcrowded city.  She looked into the faces of the poor and, quite literally, saw the Lord.

When I read the obscure novels of a man named Cornelius Kuipers, novels meant for his people, the Dutch Reformed who supported him, I can’t help but think that he saw Jesus there in the Zuni just as surely, a vision he knew would be significantly difficult to communicate to people back home. 

I know what it’s like to write a novel, and it’s not easy.  That, during the height of the Depression, Mr. C. Kuipers wrote three of them, sympathetic novels about the people he served, is to me as amazing as it is wonderful.  

Maybe they aren’t good novels, but they’re great books. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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