Review: The Everlasting People

The Everlasting People (Hansen Lectureship Series). Matthew J. Milliner, Contributions by David Iglesias, David Hooker, and Amy Peeler, Foreword by Casey Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A series of reflections upon the writings and life of G. K. Chesterton and how they fostered an appreciation of the art and history of the First Nations peoples of the Midwest.

What an unusual idea! Matthew Milliner, a history professor at Wheaton College, connects the writings and life of G.K. Chesterton to the indigenous arts, beliefs, and tragic history of the First Nations people of the American Midwest. So how did he make this connection?

It came as he read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, noting Chesterton’s positive approach to pagan culture: “In so far as all this sort of paganism was innocent and in touch with nature, there is no reason why it should not be patronized by patron saints as much as by pagan gods.” In this work, part of the Hansen Lectureship Series, Milliner draws upon sources as diverse as Anishinabe sweat lodge experiences, the cosmology of Mississippian tribes, cave art, and archival and contemporary expressions of Christianity among First Nations people. What Chesterton did in recognizing the anticipation of Christian faith in European pagan experience, Milliner seeks to extend to the First Nations peoples of Midwest America, extending from the Ohio Country, the Great Lakes and as far west as Oklahoma.

While acknowledging the basis for criticism of Christian missions among indigenous peoples, he equally challenges the refashioning of First Nations religion into New Age religion. He contends that the relationship and integration of Christianity and Native religions extends back five centuries. Sadly, often times, the tragic history of the Midwest, as Milliner notes, involved Christians killing Christians, as happened at the peaceful settlement of Gnadenhutten, in my home state of Ohio on March 8, 1782 when Christian Lenni Lenape were slain after spending the night in prayer.

Having considered the tragic history, including the Trail of Death of Potawatami tribal members in the wake of the 1794 Treaty of Greenville (resulting in the removal of Native Peoples from their lands in my state), Milliner turns to a Chesterton poem on a Marian poem, The Queen of Seven Swords, focusing on the sufferings of Mary in the Passion of Jesus, recognized throughout the Midwest in numerous Catholic churches and cathedrals bearing the name of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Milliner believes these speak to the sufferings experienced in the settlement of those places, for those willing to consider the connection.

Milliner concludes with his experience of researching his own family history and how his forebears were implicated in the history of Native People in the American Midwest. This, for him is not an exercise in White shame but rather a reckoning of the cost of being a guest, as it were, on Turtle Island (the Native name for North America), on the lands of the First Nations. Furthermore, his engagement with Chesterton brings him an appreciation of the ways of God among the First Nations and their understanding of their place, which we have tragically ignored, reprising themes I’ve encountered in writers as diverse as Robin Wall Kimmerer (in Braiding Sweetgrass) and both Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.

At times, I wondered if Milliner’s efforts to draw connections (for example between Underwater Panthers and colonizers, and between the Thunderbird and the cross) were stretching things. However, Milliner also challenges me as one who lives in the Ohio Country of the American Midwest to think about the meaning of our place. From the arrowheads we found as kids to the names of our rivers, it should have been evident that we have taken the place of peoples with a very different way of life, a culture, a spirituality. He challenges me to learn more about their presence in the places I’ve called “home,” a journey of that I have a sense will illumine, humble, and make me re-think many aspects of our local history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.