A Review of
The Everlasting People:
G. K. Chesterton and the First Nations
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
If upon seeing the title and cover of Matthew Milliner’s new book, your response was to tilt your head and raise an eyebrow, you would not be the only one. As a pretty big fan of Chesterton’s writing (especially his non-fiction, though I do love the Father Brown mysteries), I was surprised, and if I’m honest, a bit incredulous about the idea of finding an entire book’s worth of material here. What light, after all, could be shed on the history and experience of North American Indigenous peoples through the lens of an early 1900s British essayist-journalist who himself had barely been to America, and employed the now-cringey term “Red Indian” when he did refer to the native peoples here? Well, to my delight, Milliner did indeed find plenty of substance from which to work. In fact, one of my only critiques of the book is a wish that it were longer.
Furthermore, after putting down Matthew Milliner’s The Everlasting People, one of my first thoughts was, “I wonder how G.K. Chesterton would respond to the idea of his own work being used to study the complicated intersections of North American Indigenous art, faith, Christianity, and European colonialism?” As Chesterton himself was a master of sharp writing, witticisms, and unexpected and insightful historical connections, I strongly suspect he would be delighted at seeing his own work applied to such surprising ends. This, to my mind, demonstrates a keen understanding of, and respect for, the source material Milliner worked with.
Indeed, respect, both for Indigenous art and Chesterton’s primary writings, pervades The Everlasting People, a scholarly respect that does not shy away from difficult history, but neither gives into simplistic interpretations. Milliner is not unaware of Chesterton’s blind spots and rough edges. “This adaptation (as opposed to adulation) of Chesterton strikes me as necessary, lest North American fascination with figures like Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis . . . devolve into a self-serving Christian intellectual subscription to BritBox. Instead of bewailing the limits of Chesterton’s richly Christian version of history, I aim therefore to extend it.” (10, emphasis added).
The Everlasting People is primarily composed of three separate topical essays, interspersed with reactions from various scholars and colleagues, rounding out the experience of reading the book as sitting in on an extended conversation. Milliner, primarily an art historian, brings a keen analytical eye to the presence of visual art and icons throughout history, and each essay considers how these visual pieces might be understood, or re-understood, given what we are continuing to learn about North American history, as well as the history of the European church and missionary movements, which at many points are uncomfortably entangled with colonialism and violence. Milliner refuses, however, to give into a flattening of history, in either direction. An example of this posture is worth quoting at length:
Yet it is too often forgotten that secular admiration of Indians can be as patronizingly violent in “editing” Indigenous Christianity as Christian missionaries had once been in attacking Indigenous ceremonies. The embarrassments of early Christian missionaries are real; but so is the appropriation and commercialization of Indigenous culture by the New Age movement at present. While the fusion of Indigenous and New Age thought is a recent invention, the fusion of Christianity and Indigenous North American culture is nearly five centuries old . . . Tutored by Chesterton’s humor, his taste for paradox, his love of legend and mythology, and his distrust of imperialism, this book continues the age-old conversation between Christianity and Indigenous North American life. (13)
I can only imagine Chesterton himself standing and applauding.
In my personal favorite essay, titled “The Sign of Jonah,” Milliner weaves light autobiographical elements into a piercing discussion of two symbols from Indigenous art: the Mishipeshu and the Thunderbird. He honestly reflects on how an embrace of Christianity led to comfort and flourishing in his own life, while the embrace of the very same religion led to suffering and martyrdom for the Lenape of Turtle Island.
At least one thing seems clear to me: that there are more spirits at work on this continent than the Holy Spirit. If Christianity alone were at work in this landscape, then the Lenape and I would have received similar treatment . . . The Lenape and many other Indigenous peoples intuited those dangerous powers, even painting them on caves, rock faces, and birch-bark scrolls. This chapter is simply an attempt to suggest they were right. (31, emphasis added)
Milliner, then, sensitively guides the reader into contemplation of how Indigenous art speaks to very strong historical tensions, and this also characterizes each of the three essays, which go on to carefully consider the symbology of the flag of Chicago and historical icons of the Virgin Mary. Yes, these are surprising connections, and I leave it to the intrigued reader to buy the book to see how Milliner does it.
Prior to reading this short, but insightful, monograph, I was relatively familiar with the broad strokes of Indigenous history in America, but woefully unfamiliar with Indigenous art of that same time period. As such, I found Milliner’s exposition of Mishipeshu emotionally arresting, and his presentation of the Thunderbird incredibly inspiring. I found my own curiosity and awe towards God’s mysterious movements throughout global history to be re-invigorated, and the fact that my overarching wish for the book was more material, more interpretations, and more developed historical arguments speaks to the yawning gap that Milliner’s work is beginning to address. Yes, The Everlasting People is an unexpected publication, but “unexpected” may be the most appropriate descriptor for historical study done in the legacy of the great G.K. Chesterton.