Colonial Soul

By Elesha Coffman, associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

Last week I stumbled across a rerun of the Thanksgiving episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Before you mock me, I was looking for the Cubs game. If you want to mock me for being a Cubs fan, go ahead.) The episode was actually very interesting. From what I could gather, an American Indian spirit-warrior had awakened and was avenging the centuries-old mistreatment of his people by killing folks in Buffy's town. Buffy found it difficult to slay him, because he seemed to have a legitimate cause.

Buffy's friends were divided on the issue. One girl had researched the tribe's history and unearthed the atrocities perpetrated against them: massacre, slavery, being herded into missions full of nasty European diseases, etc. She argued that the Indians had been "fluffy indigenous kittens" before whites came, and that it was the responsibility of the evil conquerors' descendents to make restitution. The male characters on the show disagreed, saying that nothing could make up for the past and everyone should just try to get over it.

The point here is not that we should all learn our history or ethics from Buffy, but that Americans—particularly those schooled with the "new" history books—have no healthy framework in which to process what we know of our nation's past. In the textbook clash of two seemingly monolithic groups (tomahawk-wielding "kittens" and shockingly vicious white Christians), nobody acts like a real person. We can't relate or understand—and there's certainly nothing to celebrate.

Into this dark drama steps Christian History contributor Mark Ammerman (see the Gallery in our current issue) with a historical fiction series called The Cross and the Tomahawk (Horizon). Ammerman, who counts Rhode Island founder Roger Williams among his ancestors, was drawn to these stories by an interest in the Praying Indians of colonial New England. Their chapter in history is seldom told—partially, I imagine, because it is essentially a missions story, and partially because these early converts to Christianity don't fit into either camp of recognized combatants. But in these native Christians, and in the men and women who ministered to them, Ammerman found plenty to celebrate.

The series so far comprises three books. The first, The Rain from God, follows Katanaquat, a Narragansett warrior, from birth to death, with lots of physical, interpersonal, and spiritual battles in between. He's fictional, though well researched, and he interacts with several historical figures, including Williams, William Bradford, Squanto (the original Indian guide), and native sachems Canonicus, Massasoit, and Miantonomi. Katanaquat's son Job Kattenait, a historical figure himself, narrates the second book, Ransom; events are adapted from his written accounts. The third book, Longshot, shifts the focus to westward expansion, and its narrator is based on one of the first Englishmen to explore west of the Ohio River. This book also features Kattenanit's daughter and grandson, for the family's spiritual journey is the thread uniting the series. Chronologically, the books begin before the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and end in the 1750s.

At the end of each book, Ammerman bends over backwards to show how much research stands behind his fiction. In addition to a bibliography, he gives a glossary of Narragansett words used in the book and historical notes on the characters and events. The "Summary of the Gospel among the New England Indians in the Seventeenth Century" at the end of Ransom is particularly helpful, describing in about five pages evangelism's tentative steps forward in the region. The endeavor's precipitous slide back during King Philip's War is detailed at the end of Longshot.

"I have made every effort to be historically and culturally accurate in the depiction of all tribes and peoples," Ammerman says. "Having done so, the picture that has emerged is one that doesn't quite fit the frames of either the politically correct or the traditional views of Native America and the earliest periods of English colonization."

The primary reason for this is not Ammerman's fictional approach, but the fact that he writes as a Christian. His worldview acknowledges that the Europeans had mixed motives, and sometimes their attitudes toward the Indians were drastically influenced by their theology (Roger Williams, for example, curtailed his missionary efforts among the Indians because he wasn't sure they were predestined for the kingdom). He can see the Indians as noble and fallen at the same time. Ammerman also understands that while religious conversion can transform lives and unite old enemies, the transformation can be halting, feigned, or incomplete. The complexities of colonial America mirror, in many ways, the complexities of the soul—a dimension largely ignored by mainstream history.

Not being an expert on this time period, I can't guarantee that Ammerman "got it right" on all counts. The prose is thick in spots ("Always his tears were clean, never bitter, washing him free of his chains each time they fell"), and contemporary sensibilities occasionally creep in (a Narragansett warrior cries to his father, "[Y]ou have never been a father to me. Never held me in your arms. Never given me one small bit of your heart or soul"). Even so, the books are readable and engaging, and they illuminate the past from a different angle than the glaring academic spotlights our eyes have been trained to follow.

* Books in The Cross and the Tomahawk series are available online at

Elesha can be reached at