A key innovation introduced into the history of social change by the Christian faith is the emphasis on individualism, both secularly and spiritually. Christianity seeks to create a community of individuals each seeking individual spiritual salvation.
In contrast, tribal nations are often deeply structured by kinship and a community that seeks harmony and order in everyday life and with cosmic forces. A fundamental contribution to present-day modernism by Christianity is the separation of individuals from kinship structures in favor of individual spirituality and individual interpretations of the world.
Christian individuals seek pathways to salvation and eternal life in heaven. In many indigenous cultures, there is also a form of individuality that has different orientations than Christian views. A person who is seeking a vision, or young adults sent on vision quests, are looking to find spiritual instructions about how to lead their lives and what tasks or roles they may take on in their lives.
This indigenous individuality is quite distinct, and once a person has a vision, the dreamer’s spiritual instructions cannot be countermanded by anybody. Often vision quests and callings are only shared with elders, and the pathway for an individual is often secret, not shared, but can have great implications for the individual and the community. Vision quests and collective ceremonial undertakings seek knowledge that informs the roles a person will undertake during their lifetime, and provide information in support of community well-being. The strong sense of individuality one finds in indigenous communities is usually associated with a belief in individual spiritual uniqueness that is part of the community and cosmological pathway of the creator. Each person, male or female, has specific tasks to perform within a larger social and cosmological framework.
When Christians converted Indians, they introduced a Christian form of individualism among Indian communities. Christian missionaries actively discouraged indigenous kinship, government, and ceremonies, and tried to replace indigenous ways with Christian ways of individualist beliefs. Christian missionaries hoped for quick conversions and abandonment of indigenous traditions, but indigenous communities usually were not willing to wholly abandon their traditions, kinship systems, or governments.
Christian community, as a group of individual believers, was a forerunner to contemporary Western understandings of nation, citizen, or subject, as these expressions were understood as collections of committed individuals, who act with their own free will. Secular versions of Christian organization now populate contemporary social organization in much of the world. The expression voluntary association describes much of modern social organization as a group of individuals who agree to specific rules, laws, constitutions, and thereafter are ruled by those ordinances.
Getting Indigenous Peoples to adopt Christian community forms was a pathway for inclusion and assimilation into secular forms of Western government, and social and cultural organization. Through Christianity, missionaries were hoping to reorganize indigenous communities, kinship and worldviews, and prepare indigenous people for participation in Christian secular and spiritual society.
Nevertheless, many indigenous communities and individuals, while accepting many Christian doctrines, also wanted to keep participating in their own ceremonies, kinship groups, and political institutions. Indigenous communities often support both Christian and indigenous ceremonies and forms of organization. Christianity not only directly challenged indigenous worldviews, but also introduced new forms of social and cultural organization, and discouraged tribal life. Most contemporary indigenous communities continue use of traditional forms, but also engage in Western forms of social and political organization.
For most Indigenous Peoples, the world today is not a strictly tribal world, but rather a mixing, integration, synthesis of voluntary associations and traditional tribal forms of organization, political processes, and worldviews. Living within an indigenous community in contemporary times is a multi-cultural, multi-institutional, multi-world view and multi-political community context. Indigenous individuals and indigenous nations have choices and responsibilities to choose which complex social and political options available today best foster their goals and interests.