Jennifer Graber, The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and Struggle in the American West, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2018. 288 pp. $33.00. ISBN: 978-0-19-027961-5.
Numerous peoples have been forced to grapple with attempts by American settler communities to transform them. The realm called “the religious” is one site where these interactions have played out. In The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and Struggle in the American West, Jennifer Graber explores one such story. The book follows a series of encounters between the Kiowas Indians1 and settler Americans in the radically changing American West of the nineteenth century. Using a variety of primary source materials—most notably, Kiowas calendar entries, ledger drawings, tipis, and shields—Graber is able to describe in detail the significant changes that occurred among the Kiowas people in their movement from the open lands of Indian Country to the divided lands that resulted from the process of land allotment in the late-nineteenth century, paying particular attention to the role of ritual interactions with sacred power in this movement. Graber “tracks the ways that ‘religion’ was central to Americans’ acquisition of Indian lands, as well as Kiowa efforts to defend their sovereignty and secure their community’s survival in the face of American territorial expansion” (13). In the process, the reader is caught up in a story that unveils the harsh realities of colonial power, and the role that sacred objects and practices played in both the imposition of that power by settler communities and the attempts at response by the Kiowas.
Paying attention to the source materials from both the missional communities involved in the westward expansion of the United States and the Kiowas communities grappling with this expansion, Graber is able to draw out a number of key themes. She illustrates how Protestant reformers and missionaries working among Native communities in the American West constructed a particular designation—“Friends of the Indian”—in contrast to the dominant logics employed by Americans pushing for military approaches to the so-called “Indian problem.” Using letters, memoirs, governmental and denominational reports, and newspaper and magazine articles, Graber shows how Protestant ministers and missionaries, calling themselves “Friends of the Indian” would repeatedly work to acquire land in Indian Country and argue publicly for the transformation of Native peoples through peaceful means.2 They sought to both Christianize and civilize the Kiowas people in the face of American expansion, thus avoiding the need for military force in the settlement of the West. By naming themselves “Friends of the Indian,” they became situated among the Kiowas as a benevolent presence, actively working to change Kiowas ways of living without having to resort to military violence.
But this designation also served to mask their support and participation in the colonial violence that coincided with the expansion of the United States. Claiming to protect the Kiowas from the threat of American military aggression, the Friends of the Indian worked to acquire land among the Kiowas and pursue a variety of methods of “civilizing” them. During the nineteenth century, the Friends of the Indian mounted a successful campaign that directed Kiowas peoples onto newly formed reservations, over which the Friends of the Indian maintained full control, all in the hopes of both Christianizing and civilizing Kiowas through peaceful means. “To secure the West, white Protestants needed to control the region’s politics, economics, and religious life” (174). They opposed traditional Kiowa interactions with sacred power, and prescribed Indian assimilation through land dispossession and compulsory education, all the while presenting these strategies as gifts to Kiowas and proof of American benevolence. They were successfully keeping Kiowas safe from military aggression but still exposing them to the violence of colonial power through assimilation practices and land dispossession.
The Gods of Indian Country also shows how Kiowas survival of American occupation involved ritual interactions with sacred power, and their ability to adapt as needed. Using Kiowas primary sources, Graber demonstrates how, in the face of the expansion of colonial power in the American West, Kiowas Indians would employ a variety of new ritual practices to keep their people alive and well connected on an increasingly small stretch of land; they continued and adapted their practices and sacred objects as a means to sustain themselves in the face of the powers imposed upon them by the Friends of the Indian and the American state. As these pressures intensified toward the end of the century, they engaged new sources of power and new rites like peyote ingestion, Ghost Dancing, and affiliation with Christian schools. Graber, through her examination of Kiowas material culture, displays the resiliency of the Kiowas people in the face of colonial power as they maintained their long attachments to place and the sacred power that dwelled among them. A crucial part of their ability to do this was maintaining their ritual practices and adapting them when appropriate.
Graber’s text is academic in scope, bringing together a variety of scholarly fields (historiography, religious studies, Native studies) in intriguing ways. It also carries significance for the church as it engages in missional practices in North America and across the globe. Graber does well in showing how many of the Protestant missionaries and reformers engaging with the Kiowas were genuine in both their concern for protecting them from the threat of American military force and ensuring their continued survival in the changing American west. That they continued to obscure the ways in which they exposed the Kiowas to the violence and coercion of colonial expansion only adds to the tragedy of the story. Even good intentions can become violent and horrific when co-opted by colonial power.
What’s more, there are many ways in which we see this same impulse emerging in our churches today. For example, the language of friendship is often heard in the work of Indigenous-Settler Relations here in Canada. The desire to be friends with our Indigenous neighbours is growing among the Mennonite churches in my community. But I worry that this desire, especially when it remains severed from the work of actively dismantling the colonial powers that continue to take hold of Indigenous and settler communities across North America, will once again obscure the ways in which our efforts at befriending Indigenous peoples will nevertheless expose them to the continued violent realities of colonial power. Reading this book will remind readers of the need to constantly examine our missional practices, teasing out the ways in which even our best intentions can work to further encourage the expansion of colonial violence. The desire to be “friends of the Indian” is alive and well in a church whose missional impulses remain uncritically examined.
Jeff Friesen is Associate Pastor at Charleswood Mennonite Church, situated on Treaty 1 Territory and the Homeland of the Red River Métis in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Graber uses the term “Indian” because the term is commonly employed by American writers to refer to Indigenous people in North America. In Canada, the term has become more derogatory.
Mennonites were involved in this work. From 1880 to 1901, Mennonite Boarding Schools were established in the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indian Territory (later known as Oklahoma). For information on Mennonite involvements in Indian Country, see Steve Heinrichs, Confessing the Past: Mennonites and the Indian School System (Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2013), https://www.commonword.ca/FileDownload/18842/2013_IR_Confessing_the_Past.pdf?t=1.