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Book Review: Jennifer Graber, The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West

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Jennifer Graber’s new book is an outstanding look at the white conquest of the West, examined through the lens of the various religious ideas and traditions involved in the conflict. Focusing on the Kiowas and the various Christian groups that tried to convert them and other tribes and covering the century from 1803 to 1903, Graber provides a powerful narrative of the centrality of religion to American genocide and its resistance.

The general story of the Kiowas and other tribes in the nineteenth century is well-known. The Louisiana Purchase vastly increased American size and power and the nation rapidly moved west, putting greater pressure on all the tribes. Indian Removal moved many eastern tribes west, but there were already peoples who lived, hunted, and raided there, including the Kiowas and their Comanche allies. This led to great violence between tribes, with dwindling land and food resources to be fought over. After the Civil War, the nation sought to crush the last Native resistance, which was from tribes on the Plains who had committed to horse cultures and the bison hunting and raiding economy that made them militarily fierce. Extermination of the bison and the wanton destruction of U.S. military campaigns subdued the tribes by the 1870s, but the reservation system and the increasing encroachment by white settlers led to greater tensions, more intense dispossession through the Dawes Act and the allotment that followed, and cultural genocide. Religion usually plays a supporting role in this story. People are well aware of the missions and the Indian schools and to some extent Native talk about the Great Spirit. But Graber places religion at the center of the story, both Christian and Kiowa. That’s her real contribution and the book shines a new light on the story of conquest and resistance that we know well.

The various Protestant denominations had different agendas when it came to Native Americans, but taken as a whole, they saw the tribes as part of the broader mission to convert people of color globally. Because some, especially the Quakers, defined themselves as “Friends of the Indian” because they opposed the worst genocidal policies, most famously Jeremiah Evarts’ noted opposition to Indian Removal, they are often seen favorably. But they were just as committed to cultural genocide as anyone else. As Graber puts it, they “could acquire land and achieve Native people’s cultural transformation by peaceful means.” This was the origin of repressive institutions such as the Indian schools, where Native children were effectively coerced to leave home, had their hair cut, and were beaten if they spoke their own languages. Backing all of this up was the U.S. military, which these so-called friends of the Indian could always call for support, and they sometimes did. Americanization was at the center of this agenda and no one personified that more than Richard Henry Pratt. The founder of the infamous Carlisle Indian School, Pratt had previously taken charge of Indian prisoners, including Kiowas, made them cut their hair and tried to convert them to Christianity while they were incarcerated. He gained widespread support for these coercive practices that fed into the Indian school movement with his “Kill the Indian and save the man” line that defined American policy toward Native Americans for a very long time. From this perspective, dispossession was actually a gift to Native peoples.

Catholics, facing their own discrimination in the United States, also wanted to open missions to the Kiowa and other tribes. This threatened Protestants in a number of ways, including their attempts to Americanize the tribes. Catholics wanted to transform Kiowa culture too, but were far less interested in coercive Americanization, accepting of more of Native culture after conversion. Many Natives had converted to Catholicism and they faced an additional layer of discrimination from Protestants and the government. So the Church began fighting for the religious freedom of their indigenous converts and wanted to start religious schools on the reservations that would keep peoples where they were instead of sending them to Pennsylvania or other faraway Indian school sites. Of course, Catholics had their own agenda and could not avoid talk of assimilation, but they had a very different approach from the Protestants.

Kiowas had their own strategies for dealing with these attacks, religious and otherwise. Graber usefully points out that the Kiowa really have no word for “religion” and it’s not quite right to talk about their belief system in that way. Rather, they had a wide variety of interactions with powerful forces that created a spiritual world. Eventually, they would talk about some of this as religion because it gave them political currency in the American world. Given that the Kiowa lacked a written language, sources are also hard to come by, but through the creative use of sources that include calendars, drawings, and white written sources, Graber paints an in depth portrait of how the Kiowa framed their experiences through their spiritual/religious experiences. This is the real heart of the book. She explores how the Kiowa placed power in objects and dreams, symbols that could gain or lose power depending on whether they protected fighters in battle. The annual Sun Dance, borrowed from the Crow, came to stand for the state of the tribe’s spiritual well-being, with it often being cancelled as their fortunes faded. Calendar makers provide concrete evidence of how the Kiowa fought to continue their ritauls in the face of hardships and American opposition. Drawings of Pratt preaching to them shows the tremendous power of white control. The Ghost Dance, the rise of peyote rites, and other movements were a response to the cultural apocalypse the Kiowa faced, but so was conversion to Christianity. Kiowa Christianity became a syncretic religion, with burial rites often incorporating both Christian and Native elements, for example. Throughout the century covered in the book, the Kiowa used spirituality to understand their world, even as it was rapidly changing. Moreover, in the face of Catholic and especially Protestant attempts to make them assimilate, the Kiowa continued to define themselves as a distinct people connected to their sacred places. The manifestation of spirituality may have changed over time, but that spiritual world continually helped the Kiowa resist.

This book is also quite beautiful, with many images including several color prints, powerfully illustrating the Kiowa response to the attacks on their land and culture. A well-written and engaging study, The Gods of Indian Country is well worth your money and time.

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