- The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West by Jennifer Graber
Seeking to challenge notions of U.S. exceptionalism, historians of the nineteenth-century American West have in recent years replaced older frameworks such as "conquest" and "expansionism" with newer models, especially "empire" and "settler colonialism." This shift encourages transnational comparisons and invokes global contexts. Despite the centrality of religion to imperial and settler colonial projects worldwide, Western scholars have largely neglected religion as a causal force. Jennifer Graber's excellent The Gods of Indian Country demonstrates religion's power in shaping the trajectories of settler colonialism and U.S. empire-building. She convincingly argues that religion was crucial to the processes of dispossession, subjugation, and attempted cultural genocide that Native Americans faced and resisted during the nineteenth century.
Graber focuses on the history of the Kiowas, tracing their encounters with various groups of Americans on the southern plains from 1803 to 1903. Often allied with the Comanches, Kiowas opposed U.S. colonialism in numerous ways during that century both before and after being forced onto a reservation in present-day Oklahoma. Graber shows how Kiowa rituals and understandings of the sacred were integral to that opposition. She also reveals how white Americans' sometimes competing religious ideas and desires affected the contours of U.S. Indian policy and limited the options available to the Kiowas. Self-styled "Friends of the Indian," motivated by religious impulses as well as misguided notions of benevolence, attempted to eradicate Kiowa identity and culture in the name of God.
The book consists of seven chapters divided into three parts. Part 1, "Open Lands," chronicles the years 1803 to 1867, a period in which Kiowa lands became claimed and slowly settled by the United States. "Life was good" for the Kiowas, writes Graber, until the forced removal of eastern native groups to Indian Territory in the 1830s started a chain reaction in which the Kiowas found themselves attacked by displaced Osage Indians and exposed to Euro-American diseases (25). Increasing U.S. military presence in the southern plains forced the Kiowas into accepting a series of treaties that culminated in the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge, confining [End Page 640] them along with the Comanches and Apaches to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.
Part 2, "Closed Lands," examines the period 1868 to 1881, during which President Grant's "peace policy" put a succession of Quaker ministers in charge of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Reservation. Despite being pacifists and initially opposed to U.S. Army involvement, frustrated Quaker agents came to rely on military backup to better "civilize" and Christianize the Kiowas. Quakers also withheld food rations to coerce cooperation from the Kiowas. Kiowas' refusal to remain on the reservation, where they were starving to death, resulted in them being labeled "hostile" and attacked by the U.S. Army in the Red River War of 1874, which "crushed Kiowa armed resistance to American occupation" (113). Graber then follows twenty-seven Kiowa warriors to Fort Marion, Florida, where they were imprisoned for their involvement in the Red River War. Fort Marion was run by Richard Henry Pratt, who would go on to found Carlisle Indian Industrial School; he used Fort Marion as a sort of "civilization" laboratory where he took advantage of the overwhelming control he had over native prisoners' lives to force cultural and religious transformation. Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Fort Marion in 1875 and was impressed by what she saw: "We found no savages," she told readers (127).
The book's third part, "Divided Lands," tracks the Kiowas through the bleak era of allotment, 1882 to 1903. The 1882 Code of Indian Offenses criminalized native dancing, peyote use, polygamy, medicine men, and other vestiges of "heathenism" on reservations. As federal agents arrived on the reservation determined to distribute lands in severalty, the Kiowas sent annual delegations to Washington, D.C., to fight back, using both legal and religious arguments against allotment. Ultimately, however, the Kiowas' reservation lands were...