The Native Spirit
Published: July 7, 2011
By Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
Daniel Smith-Christopher’s “Christianity and Native America” course may be the only U.S. college offering that includes six days of classes on a train. But riding the rails is more than a novelty.
The summer session theology course is about the contact between European and Native American peoples and cultures in the Southwest, especially the interaction between religious traditions. When train travel “opened up” the Southwest in the 1800s, the Santa Fe Railroad was a vehicle of contact. For almost all of Smith-Christopher’s 27 students, the train trip was the vehicle of their first contact with Native America.
Smith-Christopher, professor of theology in the Department of Theological Studies, runs the class on campus for the first two weeks. Students examine the historical interaction — the better and the worse — of two disparate cultural and religious traditions, such as the abuse of native cultures by missionaries and the creative native expressions of Christian faith.
The last week starts at Los Angeles’ Union Station. Students and professor board three private vintage rail cars that are towed by Amtrak through special arrangements to Arizona, New Mexico and back.
The students journey to St. Jude Catholic Church in Tuba City, Ariz., and St. Michael Indian School in St. Michaels, Ariz., where Jeffrey Kress ’81 works as a teacher and campus minister. They also visit the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, in Ganado, Ariz., the first major European trading post in the Southwest, and Acoma Pueblo (“Sky City”), settled around the year 1100 and built on a New Mexico mesa.
“Christianity and Native America” is a course that weaves together theology, history and cultural interaction. It takes students to places that are both historically important and lived in today by people whose lives and communities continue to be shaped by the complex interaction of religious traditions. We accompanied Smith-Christopher’s class to document the course with photography and film. To see more, go to magazine.lmu.edu.