- Healing Hills and Sacred Songs: Crow Pentecostalism, Anti-Traditionalism, and Native Religious Identity1
Of the many expressions of Christianity on Montana’s Crow Reservation today, Pentecostalism is the most dominant.2 Among Christian churches, the movement is represented by the largest number of congregations and carries the most significant socio-political influence within the tribal community. Significantly, the Crow Pentecostal movement has attracted, nurtured, and maintained more Native pastors, by far, than any other Christian denomination on the reservation. While other denominational missions on the reservation follow the national trend of struggling to develop a Native clergy, it is striking to note that every Pentecostal church on the reservation—nearly twenty of them—is currently served by a Crow pastor.
My decision to undertake this study was made one Sunday morning in the summer of 2010. I had just spent the better part of a week camped out in a tent in Pryor Valley, Crow Reservation, to observe the four day ceremony of the Shoshone-Crow Sun Dance in preparation for a university course I would be teaching that fall on Native American religions. More than sixty dancers participated in the ceremony, fasting, dancing, and praying inside the circular, rough-hewn lodge from Thursday evening until Sunday morning, abstaining from food and water throughout the grueling rite. From sunrise until well past sunset each day, under the gaze of an unrelenting sun and with only brief intervals of rest, dancers moved to the rhythm of the beating drum. Over and over, they made their way from the perimeter of the circular lodge to the large cottonwood tree planted at the center of the structure, their intentions and sacrifices charging the sacred pole with spiritual power. On Saturday afternoon, members of the tribal community were invited into the lodge for “doctoring,” in which the Sun Dance chief offered prayers of blessing and rituals of healing, using his sacred feather-fan to transfer spiritual “medicine” from the center pole to each supplicant who came for prayer. The fast was broken on Sunday morning when each dancer took a drink of water from a common cup, at which time they emerged from the lodge to join family and friends for a celebratory feast.3 [End Page 248]
Immediately following the feast, I drove a few miles up the road to the Mountain Crow Worship Center. Earlier in the week a friend of mine had invited me to visit the church; so I decided to stop in while the Sunday morning service was still underway. In many ways, the contrast between the Sun Dance ceremony and the Pentecostal service was startling. The circular, open-air enclosure of cottonwood and pine was replaced by a rectangular chapel of concrete blocks and vinyl siding; memorized songs and spontaneous prayers, all in the Crow language, were replaced by a Bible in every hand and English song lyrics projected on the sanctuary wall. At the same time, points of cultural and religious overlap were unmistakable. Both gatherings were led by Crow spiritual leaders and were attended almost exclusively by Crow participants. Both offered rituals of healing that involved the laying on of hands to transfer supernatural power from acknowledged spiritual leaders to earnest seekers of the spirit realm. Both utilized hypnotic musical rhythms, ecstatic dancing, and worshippers “slain” by spirit power. In significant ways, such parallels in ritual performance betray considerable complementarity between the two religious traditions, a point I’ll explore below at some length.4
Common ground, however, was not the theme of that morning’s service. The preacher, herself a tribally enrolled Crow, concluded the sermon with a passionate appeal for God to forgive the tribe for its participation in the “demonic” Sun Dance that had concluded earlier that morning. She prayed especially for the repentance of her uncle on whose ground the ceremony was held. Congregants left their seats to join her at the altar, pleading with tears, tongues, and outstretched arms that the dark spiritual forces behind the Sun Dance would be pushed back by the power of the Holy Spirit so that those involved would turn from their evil ways to worship, instead, “the true and living God...