Convention speech: Brent Michael Davids — Do you know an American Indian atheist?

Here is an edited version of the speech given by Brent Michael Davids at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 16, 2017.

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker introduced him:

I’ve known Brent Michael Davids for quite a while. If I can use the word in a nonreligious sense, we’re kind of like brothers. He is a member of the Mohican tribe of Indians, and I’m a member because of my great-grandmother of the Delaware Lenape tribe. They are somewhat related tribes. 

Brent Michael Davids is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning composer. He’s composed orchestral pieces, done a lot of film composing and composed for the Kronos Quartet and the Chanticleers. He was named by the Kennedy Center as one of 25 top American genius composers, he’s toured internationally, the Rockefeller Foundation gave him an award and the National Endowment for the Arts has named him among the most-celebrated choral composers. He integrates his vast knowledge of American Indian culture and traditions, including his ability to play flute, with Eurocentric orchestration.

Welcome, Brent Michael Davids.

By Brent Michael Davids

Brent Michael Davids is a citizen of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

I’m slightly intimidated because I’m sure the audience is brilliant, and I don’t usually speak in front of people. I’m usually behind the scenes writing the music, and someone else is doing the performing. Yes, I’m a composer of concert music and film scores. And I’m a citizen of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation. I live on my reservation here in Wisconsin, but we’re not originally from here.

We’ve had our own “trail of tears” several times, removed from our original territory in New York and Massachusetts, from what’s now called the Hudson River. The original name of the river is “Mahheconnituck.” “Mohican” means the “People of the ever-moving waters” and refers to the Mahheconnituck, which rises and falls with the ocean tides. Our population in the 1600s was 22,000, and our current population is 1,500.

If you’re familiar with the fictional book by James Fenimore Cooper, I often say I’m the “next to the last of the Mohicans”! Our tribe is younger than Dan Barker’s tribe, the Lenni Lenape; we refer to his people as the “grandfather” nation, but we belong to the same Algonquian language family.

Cornstalk girl

My first self-awareness of nonbelief came by way of a recurrent daydream about a cornstalk girl across a road that I was prohibited from ever crossing as a 4-year-old boy. At that time, as a child, I felt that this cornstalk girl and I had a mental connection, so we could speak together without saying anything out loud. She was way across the road at sunset, in a corn field I could never visit, her tassel hair ablaze in gold and orange as the light went low over the horizon. Sometimes the field looked like it was set on fire, and we mentally talked till sundown.

But one day I wondered, “How is this possible?” There are no wires, and thoughts carried by the wind don’t make sense. The wind is flowing in only one direction, and our communication is two ways. And, we’re talking much faster than the air would allow (the reasoning of my 4-year-old self).

What was interesting is that I had a fleeting intuition that the cornstalk girl’s thoughts were actually my own, “Ah, she’s me!” I’d invented an imaginary friend.

Later, I was baptized into a church, grew up in it, and forgot my former daydream completely. I accepted all the beliefs and practices of Christianity as normal, without questioning them, and tried my best to be good.

One summer, I went to a church camp and had a great time. Of all the church activities, summer camp was my all-time favorite. After a wonderful time at camp, I came back to normal church life in Chicago.

Our priest asked me if I might organize others to collect the offertory, as they were making an effort to include young people in church activities. I was 15. I agreed, and asked another person to help me collect the donations. Our job was to walk up and down the aisle and pass a bowl around to everyone.

A few days later, my parents got a call from the church, and they had a concerned look on their faces. The priest had phoned to schedule what was called a “priesthood visit” with me. These “visits” had two purposes, either to admonish someone for doing wrong, or to talk about advancing one’s service into the priesthood. My folks and I thought perhaps the church was grooming me to become a deacon, after my successful coordination of the offertory.

Two priests came one evening and whisked me off to a nearby restaurant for a talk. They admonished me for doing something against the church, and threatened to revoke my membership if I didn’t repent. Apparently, I was not supposed to ask a girl to assist in the offertory. I simply nodded, giving assurances that I did not know I had done anything wrong.

The girl I had asked to assist me was a friend from camp. At camp, friends would always ask others to help out with everything. I was shocked that I had done anything wrong. It was also shaming, because word spread and rumors started about my possible transgressions.

I was treated as a sinner who had wronged God, and I had no idea why. I felt the opposite, in fact. If I had done something so evil, why didn’t I feel bad about it? I was imagining that people who are truly bad must really enjoy their evil acts, so in my own lack of remorse, I thought I must be really evil!

But then, I started to realize there’s a difference between what church people think versus their religious claims. And I further reasoned, if that were true, than there’s no single Christianity, because there must be as many different Christianities as there are Christians. I reasoned that a singular Christianity doesn’t exit, and therefore the claims to knowing the “one true religion” are a falsehood. I came to realize that the church was being run by old white men in the back of the sanctuary, basically making things up as they went along. The cornstalk girl dream returned.

Around that time, I started composing music. I also eventually went on to study religion, and worked toward both music and religion degrees simultaneously. I finished the master of music degree, but not the master of religious studies. My music career took off, but I had gained what I wanted from the religious studies. I wanted to get the same training as those two priests. I suppose one could say I lost my faith, but for me it was more like remembering my nonbelief. In the end, I recaptured the memory of my inquisitive, creative, little boy self who had confidence in his own intuition.

Invisible Indians

Today there are 567 federally recognized Indian nations. The current Indian population in America stands at 0.9 percent, where it was once closer to 100 percent. America was founded on a systemic genocide to obtain rich land and resources. But, America moreover identifies itself with Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who paraphrased from the Sermon on the Mount, saying that the colonists would create “a city upon a hill.”

Seeing America as a beacon for the rest of the world is a more palatable alternative to the darker truth. Today, America’s genocide is ignored — effectively rendered invisible.

Equally so, America’s living reminders also are ignored. The indigenous history of America is not far from the minds of the tribes, however, and it also shapes Indian attitudes toward belief and nonbelief.

The first colonial encounters led to murderous land grabs, in what I think of as the “Extermination” period. The idea was to satiate the hunger for land and resources by compelling the signing of exploitative treaties and killing the inhabitants.

The myth of Christopher Columbus in 1492 stains our textbooks because he was really a murderous slave trader who didn’t even set foot in America. He funded his trips with the promise of a return in gold and spices, which he would take from whomever he conquered.

In 1609, Hendrick Hudson first sailed into the Mahheconnituck on a ship called the Half Moon, and met two Mohicans on the shore. A retelling of the encounter in 1881 by John Heckewelder, an American missionary, describes Hudson’s lust for land.

“[Hudson’s men] asked only for so much ground for a garden spot as, they said, the hide of a bullock would cover or encompass, which hide was spread before them. The Indians readily granted this apparently reasonable request; but the whites then took a knife, and beginning at one end of the hide, cut it up to a long rope, not thicker than a child’s finger, … they then took the rope at one end, and drew it gently along, carefully avoiding its breaking. It was drawn out into a circular form, and being closed at its ends, encompassed a large piece of ground. The Indians were surprised at the superior wit of the whites, but did not wish to contend with them about a little land, as they had still enough themselves.”


The first official Indian reservations were established under President Grant in the 1870s, mostly in response to the discovery of gold in Indian territory (though removal to lands later designated as reservations were set up under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, and the 1851 Indian Appropriations Act). The desire for Indian land was at a fever pitch, and Indians were being forcibly removed all across the country.

However, in 1879, a Ponca chief named Standing Bear faced the extinction of his people in a forced removal. A third of his tribe had already died from it. With the help of a newspaper man, Standing Bear sued Gen. Crook and the U.S. Army for violating his civil rights. He won the case, and the court ruled that Indians are “persons within the meaning of the law” and could not be forced onto reservations.

So, in 1879, Indians were finally considered people, and Standing Bear’s case effectively ended the reservation roundup period.

Well, Indians could now sue the government, so the next idea was to indoctrinate the children. The first boarding school, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, was founded in 1879 by Capt. Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt got the idea for Carlisle from his work at Hampton, a school for freed black slaves. Pratt’s motto was “Kill the Indian within him to save the man,” and the boarding school was a forced assimilation factory.

Very young children were sent alone by train to Carlisle for periods of five years, prohibited from contacting their families. Not speaking English, they often didn’t know where they were going or why. When they arrived, they were placed three to a room, from differing tribes, so they would be forced to speak English as a common language. Their hair was chopped short, which to them was a signifier of death. They were prohibited from their own cultures and forced into Christianity, including daily mealtime hymns.

They were malnourished, frightened, abused, and some even died at the school. In 1914, the school came under federal investigation for alleged misconduct. In 1918, the school was closed. But many more schools, modeled on Carlisle, appeared in the West.

Through all of these periods, and several others not mentioned, American Indians have suffered from abusive stereotyping. In Gov. Winthrop’s time, from writings in his journal, we know that Indians were viewed as “devils” who lived in a nature that was considered heinously “evil.”

The first colonists faced harsh conditions and they viewed nature as malevolent. Indians were viewed as wild savages. Jump ahead to a later century, and writers like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman exemplified a modern change, with the idea of nature being inherently good. At this point, Indians had a benevolent nature, but, still plagued by the primitive stereotype, became “noble savages.”

Even today, Christian Indians, traditional Indians, city Indians, reservation Indians and nontheistic Indians all live under the shadow of pervasive stereotypes and abusive history. And unlike the beacon of the United States of Amnesia, we see it face-to-face.

Indian atheists

So, do you know an American Indian atheist? If you know Dan Barker and perhaps come to know me, then the answer is yes. And maybe you know others, too. Of course, all Indians are not alike. The cultures are different, and so are the languages and modern realities. The 0.9 percent indigenous population suffers the greatest hardships per capita, the highest rates of suicide, alcohol abuse, fetal-alcohol syndrome, incarceration, unemployment — you name it. But American Indians have a unique view of the world, one that values extended kinship ties not only for humans, but for animals and Earth, as well.

Not to call what Indians do “religion,” perhaps “life-way” is better, but whatever we call this, it’s not proselytizing, and it’s not hierarchical. Indian life-ways exist in systems of cause-and-effect and of reciprocity, where the definition of personhood may extend outside the human species, and Indian life-ways don’t traditionally seek dominion over the Earth. They are life-and-death systems of reciprocity where the nonhuman “others” are seen as extended kin — family.

So, where a Western view might advocate saving an exotic species from extinction (man vs. nature), an Indian view might wish to form a kinship relationship with a nonhuman “relative” and find a balance for mutual benefit. It’s not a dominionist view, like time inching its way along a ruler. It’s cyclic and relational thinking.

I personally think it’s at this level of Indian reciprocity — the life-and-death, barter-and-exchange, cause-and-effect world of extended kinship ties that extend beyond humans to the Earth and everywhere — where I see potential intersections with those of us who are the “Nones.”

Yes, there are magical stories in Indian life, a continent formed on the back of a giant turtle, animals changing into people changing back into animals again, cannibal giants like Bigfoot and Sasquatch, abominable snow beasts roaming the land eating people, giant thunderbirds swooping down to snack on your children, or hungry witches that live inside the rocks.

There are Indians who take these magical stories as actual history, and some who see them as cultural or allegorical stories. Some American Indians deny the fact of evolution by natural selection, preferring that the first Indians were formed from clay, or Christian Indians who believe they descended from Adam and Eve.

But some Indians are also scientists, like Fred Begay, a distinguished nuclear scientist who worked at the Los Alamos labs.

He had an interesting idea to use the Navajo stories about “light” to help inspire his research on lasers to heat plasma. We also have Indian atheists such as writer Sherman Alexie, who tweeted, “Being atheist means you’ll argue with grown-ass adults who essentially believe in Santa,” and Jimi Hendrix, who said, “Music is my religion.”

I wonder if the current 24 percent statistic of the number of Nones in America holds true for American Indian populations, too. I can’t find any studies about that. But some of the Indian stories already leave a door open, if we wanted to troll the Christian God story.

The Yaqui creation story, for example, describes a time before God. The Indians were already there, prior to God, challenging the notion of an all-powerful creator of the universe. One day, the Indians heard a tree start singing. No one understood. After a special person arrived to translate, they learned the singing tree is God speaking about his coming arrival. Some Indians chose to accept God and become Yaqui, while others decided not to accept him and became ants who live underground.

So, God wasn’t around at the beginning, and didn’t create the universe or the Indians or the trees!

But, for example, the scientific method is cause-and-effect, and — minus the magical stories — the American Indian life-ways are, as well. What I’m suggesting is that there may exist, at a basic level, a ready-made meet-up for Indians and atheists. It would require more interaction, more understanding, and the formation of genuine relationships.

The arts may be another way for Indians and atheists to meet. Writer Heid E. Erdrich is an atheist and a poet. She writes, “As an Ojibwe tribal member, I come from deeply faithful people whose spiritual beliefs and practices infuse culture, language, governance, medicine — everything. And yet, as I open my life to my inherited culture, I find . . . my belief or lack thereof does not matter to my engagement of Ojibwe ways.

“Still, it pains me that my poems, and most Native American writers’ poems, are inevitably read as spiritual, which means religious.

“The idea of an American Indian atheist is unusual at best, unthinkable at worst. . . And now I shall make a profession of faithlessness. It seems required. As an atheist, I am not sure I can satisfy.

“I engage many Ojibwe practices as part of my way of living a good life, yet in my core understanding of the way of creation, I do not believe one all-powerful deity exists. To put it more directly, I have faith in and relation to creation itself rather than faith in a creator.”