THR Web Features   /   October 11, 2021

G.K. Chesterton and the Art of the First Nations

What the British writer understood about the work he never saw.

Matthew J. Milliner

( Photo of Petroglyphs at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park by Carol M. Highsmith. Via Library of Congress.)

A century ago this year the British journalist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) first visited North America, where he was received like a celebrity. He lectured to packed venues in the major cities of the East Coast, Canada, the Midwest, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Along the way he critiqued H.G. Wells’s naively optimistic view of progress as expressed in his Outline of History, which had been published the previous year in 1920. Wells saw humanity advancing beyond primitive cavemen toward a universal brotherhood (the “nascent Federal world State”) that surpassed traditional religion. Wells sought “religious emotion—stripped of corruptions and freed from its last priestly entanglements.” Chesterton saw in such utopianism a “dangerously optimist” view of history, which he believed remains “the first cry of Imperialism.” So-called cavemen, for Chesterton, were not a waystation en route to modernity but were themselves a wonder, as evidenced by the inexplicable creative activity of rock art. These paintings didn’t need to be “explained” with reductive theories (as they were in Chesterton’s day or ours); instead they testified to the inexplicable mystery of human consciousness itself. 

A century later, Chesterton’s vogue has been somewhat refreshed through the admiration of the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, but it would be hard to imagine his being received like a celebrity today by anyone but select admiring Catholics. Owing to the unforgiveable anti-Jewishness that riddles Chesterton’s massive output (entire books have been penned either indicting or exonerating him on that front), it may be best to just look the other way. Even if Chesterton anticipated Edward Said (“we have the cry for Imperialism in all our clubs at the very time when we have Orientalism in all our drawing rooms”); even if Chesterton was an economic Distributist (England, he felt, lacked “a widely scattered ownership,” while Communism reformed “the pickpocket by forbidding pockets”); and even if Chesterton attacked his own racism (“then I remembered, the great King…with a face like night; and I was ashamed”), it is probably safest to just leave the portly Prince of Paradox to his fawning admirers and move on. 

But then there is that European rock art he talked about when he was here in North America. What Chesterton did not understand about the continent he visited, and which sadly so few understand today, is that it was blessed by no less such art than his own continent was. As he crossed through Pennsylvania, Chesterton would have passed the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, which pushes our evidence for human migration to the Americas back thousands of years (19,000 according to some estimates). Not far from where Chesterton lectured in Toronto is the largest cache of rock art in Canada, known as Teaching Rock, dating to AD 900–1400. Near his lecture tour in Oklahoma are the recently published wonders of Picture Cave, Missouri, also a millennium old. The fact that it was just sold at auction to the great disappointment of the Osage perhaps betrays how little North Americans understand about the importance of these paintings.  

So I expect there might be something we Americans and Canadians still have to learn from G.K. Chesterton. Had he written a full history of North America, he would likely have placed the First Nations at the center no less than he placed the Irish at the center of his The Crimes of England (which Chesterton described as “a list of the real sins of the British Empire in modern history”). Disregard of Native Americans, for Chesterton, exhibited the “mental narrowness and the moral justice of the old Liberal.” Charles Dickens, Chesterton complains, “sees nothing in the Red Indian except that he is barbaric, retrograde, bellicose, uncleanly, and superstitious—in short, that he is not a member of the special civilisation of Birmingham or Brighton.” Instead of searching for winners, scanning the horizon for those who might propel civilization’s forward march, Chesterton instead has “a sympathy with the small or the defeated as such.” This, for Chesterton, “is the first law of practical courage. To be in the weakest camp is to be in the strongest school.” This sympathy, forged from a Christian perspective, is why Chesterton hammered H.G. Wells’s Outline of History into the shape of the cross.

And the cross is a long neglected interpretive key to understanding North American Indians as well. That the multifaceted wisdom of Native American culture stands on its own apart from Christianity is clear enough. But that Native American culture can be complemented and enhanced by Christianity has, for far too long—owing to the prejudice of researchers—been obfuscated. Until recently, that is. A spate of newer research has complicated our accounts of how Christianity was (and is) received by the First Nations. Christianity was of course used as a weapon of colonization, but it was used as a weapon against colonization as well. Christianity was often a strategy for legitimating, not overwriting, a given tribe’s pre-Christian ancestral wisdom. The word horde for the reconstruction of some native languages, for example, is limited to Scripture translations such as John Eliot’s Algonquin Bible. The flagrant displays of Christian faith by Indians forced along the Trail of Tears and Trail of Death is amply documented. This means that American evictions of Indigenous persons from so much of this continent was a war waged not only by Christians but also against them. Still, these efforts at evisceration notwithstanding, contemporary Indigenous theologians continue the same enterprise today, reconciling Indigenous and Biblical wisdom. This theological movement has recently been crowned by the First Nations translation of the New Testament

The Indigenous embrace of Christianity was on a scale large enough that it corresponds to what G.K. Chesterton said of European “paganism” in the book that came soon after his lecture tour to America, The Everlasting Man (1925): “[W]e can take lightly the load of antiquity and need not shudder at a nymph on a fountain or a cupid on a valentine,” wrote Chesterton, and the same goes for totem poles, sacred pipes, and pow-wows. “A white light as of a lost morning still lingers on the figure of Jupiter, of Pan or of the elder Apollo,” Chesterton wrote of pre-Christian Europe, and the same light lingers on pre-Christian Indigenous myths and rock art as well. Perhaps if we had such an intimation of their sacredness we would not be so fast to put them up for sale.

Christians have long credited the pagan poet Virgil, in his fourth eclogue, with prophesying Christ. In Chesterton’s day that view was becoming unfashionable, but he defended the interpretation. “Virgil…stand[s] for all that saner heathenism that had overthrown the insane heathenism of human sacrifice.” But whereas the case that Virgil anticipated Christ is disputable, and still looked upon with skepticism, the case that North American Indians anticipated Christianity is on much firmer ground. Nicholas Black Elk, whose Lakota wisdom is this continent’s analogue to Platonism, did not find that wisdom to be sufficient. He famously converted to Catholicism, brought hundreds to the same faith in his role as Catechist, and is up for sainthood. But that is only the most famous example. Chief Joseph River Wind claims that the entire Sundance ritual is itself a prophecy of the crucifixion, which—it turns out—is a rather common observation in Indigenous Christian communities. Indigenous encounters with Christ during the ecstatic ritual of the Ghost Dance, well documented in Louis Warren’s God’s Red Son, were common enough to frustrate white Christian missionaries who wanted natives to come to faith on their own terms.

Chesterton claimed that for pre-Christian Europeans, “It was an act of piety to forget God.” Pagan gods and goddesses may have abounded, but the supreme God was discreetly beyond view. In the same way, ethnographers on this continent tell us “the early Ojibwas did not organize a cult around a Supreme Being. Kitche Manitou [the Great Spirit] played no role in traditional Ojibwa myths, did not appear in visions, and did not speak in the shaking tent ceremonies…they expected no aid from a God so great as surely to be unconcerned about humans.” Interestingly, however, the same anthropologist tells us that when the Ojibwe converted to Christianity, they did feel that now the Supreme Being, and not just the manitou, heard their prayers. It is no wonder than when the “Picasso of the North,” Norval Morrisseau, began the Woodland School of painting, Christian subject matter—to the embarrassment of secular gallerists—immediately surfaced in both Morrisseau’s paintings and in those of his artistic heirs (from Jessie Oonark to Ovide Bighetty). Michelangelo may have Christianized Platonism, a fact which Chesterton celebrates at great length in his Resurrection of Rome (1930). But what Chesterton missed, and what North Americans no longer have to, is that the same thing has happened here.

We can uncritically adulate thinkers like Chesterton, or cancel them; but we can also update them based on what we know today. Chesterton’s first novel (which probably inspired Orwell’s 1984), The Napoleon of Notting Hill has already been described in Current Affairs as a “novel for the era of Standing Rock.” We can go further still. “God bade me love one spot and serve it,” says Innocent Smith in Chesterton’s novel Manalive, “and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinites and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere….” It follows that admirers of Chesterton should be as attentive to their own land, including its crimes, as they are of Chesterton’s England.

When this is understood, Peterborough, Ontario, becomes as holy as St. Peter’s itself, and Sault-Ste. Marie as sacred a destination as Santiago de Compostela. The secrets of Jerusalem are also lodged in Jacksonville, Joplin, and Joliet. If the relics of Christian martyrs sanctified Constantinople and Paris, they have also, owing to displaced and murdered Indians, sanctified Cincinnati and Peoria as well. Should we attend to this continent’s Indigenous wisdom, there may yet be a mysticism of the Illinois, Missouri, Platte, Fox, and Ohio Rivers no less than of the Rhine. One hundred years after Chesterton toured this continent, maybe he can help those who live here to see it—including its original art and peoples—for the first time.