Book Review: The Gods of Indian Country by Jennifer Graber

A detailed description of a Kiowa Sun Dance ceremony from 1873 introduces the scene, as Graber jumps right into a comprehensive and impactful study of the relationship between Native Americans and Christian missionaries throughout the 19th century, in her 2018 book The Gods of Indian Country. This recent analysis of how Kiowa people responded to these direct and calculated attacks on their way of life is particularly powerful given Graber’s multifaceted narrative approach. Utilizing primary documents from both American Christians and Kiowa Natives, Graber argues that while religion was at the center of the conflict between these groups, the so-called pious aim of the missionaries on Native lands was just as sinister and harmful as the more militarized strategies presented by their White counterparts. 

Graber admits in her acknowledgements and introduction that this book was the result of thorough research of her contemporaries and of fields beyond her own, which is proven throughout her work and notes. It was not a surprise then to read that Graber herself is a Professor of Religious Studies, hence the lense through which she took on this historical narrative. Graber works chronologically through the nineteenth century, and seamlessly incorporates accurate and important presidential and political sentiments throughout her analysis. Politically, the impending civil war was a point of leverage for the Kiowa people, who could see through the threats of military pressure (67). Any history of Natives in the American West is remiss to not identify the ways in which Andrew Jackson’s Indian Policies impacted their ability to survive, but Graber is also keen to point out the attitudes of Jefferson and Grant and how this influenced missionary groups. Grant’s authorization of $2 million in federal spending so that the “friends of the Indian” could continue to “make peace” was a departure from what many historians would consider to be Grant’s core political beliefs (79). This may have been a small detail, but I found it to be indicative of the way in which Americans believed their civilizing missions were benevolent and righteous rather than a commission to erase a culture and destroy the spiritual and physical ties that bound them.

As the century progressed and Kiowas lost more and more of their land and autonomy, their people were persistent in the maintenance of their sacred rituals and were even adaptive when forced to assimilate. Graber explains the delicate way that Kiowa people accepted some American traditions, writing that while they believed were a “distinct people” and were dedicated to their own rituals, they also sometimes “took on cultural practices promoted by Americans” (118). The line was drawn when the treaties the Kiowa had signed or the connection to their land was threatened, and these changes the Americans required were always met with resistance. In her conclusion, Graber notes that “Colonial pressures not only prompted these new ways of relating to sacred power, but also new formats for addressing their altered situation” (200). The legacy of Native people, which has been threatened for hundreds of years and, as Graber writes in the epilogue, continues to be, is now one steeped in the aftermath of the civilizing missions of American Christians.  It is tragic, and yet, it is not overdramatized by Graber. Her work in The Gods of Indian Country is able to create a compelling overview of the complex, dynamic, and nuanced relationships between Kiowas and Christian missionaries without diluting the immense knowledge she has of both sides of the story.

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