- Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, 1700-1850
The tale of the 1847 attack on the Whitman Mission in Oregon Country and the public hanging of the five Cayuse men accused of perpetrating it often serves as a turning point in the narrative of the great overland migration to the Pacific and the demise of Indian peoples it presumably heralded. For historian Larry Cebula, however, the event marked the endpoint of a spiritual journey during which the Indian peoples of the Columbia Plateau used their religion to make sense of the actions of the white interlopers they encountered. According to Cebula, Plateau peoples believed that white traders and explorers held information that would allow them to navigate the changes the traders and explorers brought with them. Hence, they sought to acquire knowledge about the sources of white spirit power and to adapt it to their preexisting beliefs. After initially welcoming missionaries like the Whitmans, Indians gradually recognized that Euro-American religious beliefs did not offer the power they had earlier sought. The Cayuse attack on the Whitman Mission serves as the most vivid example of the depths of their rejection of Christian teachings.
Cebula presents his case in five concise chapters. The first describes the aboriginal spirit world and the complex ecological and social adaptations that underpinned it. Plateau religious practices provided a way to spread risk in an uncertain environment. The search for the spiritual [End Page 315] knowledge that would enable individuals or groups to secure supernatural power and enhance their chance of survival was paramount to plateau cosmology. In the second chapter, the author describes how Plateau Indians adjusted to the first indirect effects of white contact and the reordering of plateau life that they prompted. The horses, diseases, and trade goods—and the stories about them—that found their way into the Columbia Plateau prior to 1800, Cebula suggests, provoked both dramatic material changes and significant adjustments in plateau religious practices. In new religious rituals like the Prophet Dance, plateau peoples fused the knowledge of the imminent arrival of white people with existing spiritual practices to prepare themselves for the disruptions yet to come.
The spiritual effects of the multiplying connections between natives and newcomers after 1800 are the focus of the final three chapters. Cebula describes how Plateau Indians used their growing contacts with white fur traders as a window into white society. According to Cebula, Plateau Indians construed the material wealth of white traders and their apparent immunity to epidemic disease as signs of their abundant spirit power. The attempt by Indians to capture this power resulted in the creation, in the 1830s, of the syncretic "Columbian religion," the subject of the fourth chapter. Indeed, Cebula argues that the initial enthusiasm among Plateau Indians for the establishment of Protestant and Catholic missions in their midst arose from the continued desire for knowledge about white spirit power. His final chapter describes the difficulties missionaries faced as they attempted to capitalize on this early interest in Christianity. Their would-be converts soon discovered that Christianity offered them very little in return for the changes the missionaries demanded. Disheartened by the missionaries' demands, the feuding between Protestants and Catholics, the growth of white settler populations, and the continued ravages of disease, native peoples increasingly turned away from the missions and their message.
Cebula's study is committed to uncovering the role of native agency in the relations between natives and newcomers. In this story, native peoples are active agents who make pragmatic adaptations in the face of uncertain circumstances. Cebula shows that their decisions to seek information about Euro-American religious beliefs were rooted in calculated assessments of Euro-American society and the belief that greater knowledge of white religious beliefs might offer greater protection or power. Their subsequent rejection of missionary efforts, Cebula suggests, arose as it became clearer that Christianity was a poor fit with [End Page 316] plateau lifeways. Throughout, Cebula is attentive to the dynamic nature of Indian life. His...