The Gods of Indian Country

The story of the American Indians is an important story. It is too often neglected—perhaps because we gravitate toward the triumphalism of American power and progress. It is hard to tell—perhaps because of the death, sorrow, and injustice that mark it. And it is hard to tell well—perhaps because the narrative often reflects the values of the age in which it is told more than the actual story.

Jennifer Graber—Gwyn Shive, Anita Nordan Lindsay, and Joe and Cherry Gray Professor in the History of Christianity at the University of Texas at Austin—has made a contribution to this story through her book The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West* (Oxford University Press, 2018; source: publisher). What makes her book stand out among histories of the American West is its attention to religious elements in the long nineteenth-century narrative of white-Indian encounter, struggle, and settlement.

Graber develops her discussion by using the Kiowa tribe as the focus of her study. Other tribes appear in the narrative, but she narrows in on Kiowa experience to offer a lens through which to view forces at play during these decades.

The Gods of Indian Country* is structured around Indian relation to the land. Part 1 finds Indians in “open lands,” lands that they roamed freely even as whites began to enter the West. Whites in the early part of the nineteenth century did not pose so great a threat to Indians, and many Indians wrote them off as a nuisance. But gradually whites became more prevalent in the West, and everything changed after the Civil War opened up the West for exploration, speculation, and settlement.

Part 2 explores the rise of “closed lands” in the West, the establishment of reservations for Natives and the white efforts to civilize the Indians and bring them into mainstream American culture. Grant’s Peace Policy looms large in this period, and this part portrays Indian resistance and capitulation to the policy as well as white frustration and persistence. Much conflict between the parties marked this period, with many Indians fighting federal efforts to control Indian movement and many whites taking violent measures to secure their interests in the West.

Part 3 paints a picture of “divided lands,” when whites increased efforts to bring Indians into American society. Of particular note were the schooling of Indian children and the land allotment policies that emphasized individual property over against the historical communal life of Natives—in essence, dividing Indian parents from children and dividing Indian families from each other.

This three-part structure based on Indian relation to the land emphasizes the theme that whites were on the offensive and were ironically limiting freedom as they were seemingly bringing American freedom to the West. What is intriguing is the role that religion played in this story, both Indian religion and white religion.

Of the many themes in the volume we could discuss, Indian religion receives much attention. As the book cover shows, the Táimé was particularly important in Kiowa religion; it was an object that the people used in sun dances, a key aspect of their religious expression. Graber emphasizes the adaptability of Indian religion—Indians borrowed ceremonial elements from other tribes and eventually from whites, both in Protestant and Catholic forms. She celebrates Indian flexibility toward what she calls “sacred power,” a general term that includes all sorts of religious beliefs.

Another central theme to the book is the presence of the Protestant “friend of the Indian.” Many whites, including Protestant missionaries (especially Quakers, who served as reservation agents in the early years of the white expansion), viewed themselves as the Indian’s “friend” and sought to show that friendship in many ways. One of the key ways was by offering Indians freedom from “savagery” through civilizing boarding schools and agricultural training. The “friend of the Indian” believed that such a way of life would be better for the Indians because it would be more like white patterns of life.

Many of the policies these “friends of the Indian” championed, however, were also to the benefit of whites, particularly in the currency of land for white settlers. And as Graber shows, even white missionaries could speak about policies such as land allotment and assimilation as gifts to and blessings for the Indians.

At the same time, Graber acknowledges that Protestants also resisted some government policies, such as Indian removal, and decried the federal government’s legacy of broken treaties. At times, Protestants acted to defend the Indians from governmental injustice and to secure the promised food allocations that failed to arrive. These are realities that often go unnoticed. In Graber’s account, they are joined with caveats that even though Protestants may have acted in such ways for the Indians’ good, they were also too often coercive and ready to collaborate with the government to subdue Indians in the name of civilization and Christianization (e.g., 45, 65). I return to this issue below.

Let me first mention that I appreciated the way Graber highlights how the American Indian story connects to more commonly known elements in the American story. For example, the Louisiana Purchase made Indian removal from the eastern states to beyond the Mississippi possible, and many advocated the policy because they believed it would, like colonization of black slaves, solve the race problem by separating whites from Indians. What it failed to do was recognize that the West would one day—and soon—become an irresistible draw for Americans in the East, most notably in the Gold Rush of 1849.

Also, the Civil War, Graber reminds readers, was not only about the future of slavery but also about the future of the American West. Interestingly, some Indians joined Confederates in the war because they believed it would be most to their benefit to keep the federal government out of the West.

Graber also shows that the story of the Indians is a story of American engagement with many groups, particularly black slaves, Mormons, and Chinese. Interactions with these different groups of people were taking shape around the same time, and relations with one group colored how whites conducted themselves in relations with other groups.

On the whole, I found Graber’s book engaging and instructive. She has done extensive research and has sought to offer a balanced history that takes into account not just Protestant religion but also Catholic religion and Indian religion. These varied viewpoints offer a richer description of the story of the West and the role of religion in it.

While Graber, I believe, seeks to be fair to all parties involved, the narrative largely sympathizes with the Indians as an oppressed and mistreated group of people, which is a common reading in our own day. This becomes clear by the way she ends her book focusing on the importance of the Kiowa people maintaining their identity (“These are our songs”) in the face of assimilating forces.

I typically approach the narrative of white-Indian relations in the American West from this same angle. But I’m struck by the reality that our typical tendency today is to side with minority groups as being the oppressed and to view groups in power as being corrupt. Again, we are so hardwired to think this way in our culture that this is indeed how I myself tend to think. But that makes me wonder what we might miss in the past because of the glasses we wear when exploring it.

How might our telling of the white-Indian clash in the nineteenth-century West be clouded by our current culture? That is a very difficult question to answer, which is why I began this review by noting that the Indian story is so difficult to tell.

What I might say is this: It must not be denied that whites did indeed commit atrocities in the subduing of Natives in the West. Sand Creek and Wounded Knee are perhaps the clearest testaments to that fact. And as Graber’s narrative details, not just these obvious massacres but also seemingly innocuous policies could cause harm. At the same time, whites weren’t inherently evil simply because they had (or gained) power. And I wonder if sometimes it’s so easy to point out their faults because they were in power that we have difficulty seeing the good they may have accomplished.

One way to probe this question is the tension of the “friend of the Indian” who both defends the Indian and cooperates with government policies—this, I think, is one of the most important elements of Graber’s book. The “friends of the Indian” thought of themselves as truly doing good for the Indian. They had good intentions, and they put money, time, and even themselves on the line for the Indian. Such actions cannot simply be ignored or discounted.

Yet these “friends of the Indian” do appear to have deceived themselves. Too many Protestants overly valued the notion of Indian civilization and conflated that with Christianization. As I read this book, I wondered if their greatest folly was aligning with government and military too closely. In doing so, they failed to see that they turned the gospel into something more than the good news of Jesus Christ and to see that by adding “civilization” to the gospel, they actually cheapened it.

One question we have to ask is why what appears to us a contradiction (“friend of the Indian” yet supporting policies that opened up Indian land to whites) did not strike them as a contradiction. It is simplistic to simply read malice and deception into all of them.

We could take as an example Richard Pratt, one of the leading figures in Protestant efforts to both Christianize and civilize Native Americans. Pratt is quoted as saying, “Kill the Indian in him and save the man” (140). This strikes us in our current day as racially insensitive and demeaning. And frankly, I admit that it’s hard to see it any other way. But seeing it another way is important for the historian. We need to ask how the Protestant missionary could say this and not see how it was ethnocentric. And if we can step back and see things from his standpoint, we might be able to see that his motivations were for saving that which is most basic to his identity—his human nature (“the man”). Pratt wanted to preserve human beings. He obviously thought the best way to do so was to root out that which made those human beings distinct from him—their Indian culture. This is unfortunate and misguided, but it may also be simplistic to paint Pratt in entirely negative terms without recognizing his impulse toward saving humans.

In other words, Pratt and other “friends of the Indian” were complicated. It seemed to me that in The Gods of Indian Country, Graber sought to be evenhanded with people like Pratt, even as she interpreted the events through a particular framework. I sympathize with her viewpoint but also wonder if there are more complexities to the narrative that we in our day have difficulty seeing. And this raises the question, assuming such complexities do exist, of how one might find ways to see them.

One possibility is to explore the preaching of the missionaries further. What messages did they proclaim to the Indians? How might such sermons show us a fuller account of the motives of white Protestants? How might they complicate what seems to be the assumed narrative—that they were self-interested whites who abused their power to grab the Indians’ land? We all know that there were too many such whites in that day. But is it possible that some—even many—of the self-proclaimed “friends of the Indian” were truly friends of the Indian?

The story of the American Indians is an important story. And Graber’s account in The Gods of Indian Country* is well worth the time spent to delve into that story. I think the weight of the tragic events that marked much of the nineteenth-century interactions between whites and Indians remains with us today, seen at least in the grief of lost identity for Indians and the guilt of past atrocities for whites. And maybe those are greater reasons that make this story so difficult to tell fully and constructively. But telling the story and refining the story we must. And we can be grateful for Graber’s work that helps us move in that direction.


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***I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.