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The Power of Song in the Columbia Plateau
May 2nd, 2012 - Posted by Abby Mogollón

The book Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer by Chad Hamill explores the role of song as a transformative force in the lives of Indigenous peoples of the interior Northwest. In particular, it traces a cultural, spiritual, and musical encounter that began in the mid-nineteenth century when Catholic hymns introduced to Columbia Plateau tribes were reinterpreted and re-sung as expressions of an expanding Indigenous identity. Today we feature an excerpt from the new book, in which Hamill provides context for the twentieth century story of a Jesuit and his two Indian “grandfathers”—one a medicine man, the other a hymn singer—who together engaged in a collective search for the sacred through song.

Song and Identity
By Chad Hamill

The first official Catholic emissary to the Columbia Plateau was a young Jesuit by the name of Pierre-Jean DeSmet. His initial trip west from St. Louis in 1840 was a response to numerous entreaties made by Indigenous Plateau people, who sent four delegations to St. Louis throughout the 1830s in a perilous but determined effort to bring “Blackrobes” to the Plateau region. After erecting the first mission among the Salish in 1841, Father DeSmet and his Jesuit recruits built a string of missions in the interior Northwest, erecting missions for the Coeur d’Alene in 1842, the Kalispel in 1844, and the Colville in 1845. As part of his vision to establish an “empire of Christian Indians” (Peterson and Peers 1993:23), DeSmet and his fellow Jesuits set about translating Catholic hymns into Interior Salish, a method by which they sought to indoctrinate Indigenous Columbia Plateau people. Rather than Catholicizing Indians, however, the hymns were themselves indigenized—absorbed, reconstructed, and re-sung as expressions of Native identity.

In his landmark work, Putting a Song on Top of It: Expression and Identity on the San Carlos Reservation, David Samuels explores seemingly contradictory expressions of Apache identity enacted through rock, reggae, and country music, challenging popular notions of Native American culture as staunch and steadfastly anachronistic. Speaking to expressive forms of culture, Samuels finds that “the relationships between cultures and identities are not fixed. Rather, identities are emergent, produced out of the practices and expressive forms of everyday life. Traditions are not simply handed along from one generation to the next. Part of their enduring power comes from the possibility of their strategic reinvention in order to speak strongly in new social and political contexts” (2004:5). While leading Catholic Indian hymns, Mitch Michael was doing more than expressing Christian sentiments, he was invoking over one hundred years of collective Indigenous identity within which the strands of Catholicism were woven into the fabric of an Indigenous Coeur d’Alene worldview. The Coeur D’Alene became Catholics, this is true, but they were and would always be Indian.

Tracing the historical interactions between Russian Orthodox missionaries and the Tlingit people at the turn of the twentieth century, Sergei Kan found that a “growing body of ethnohistorical research shows that North American Indians have often reinterpreted Christian ideas, rituals, and institutions, and that their approach to Christianity has been selective, creative, and synthesizing. Christianity, as a result, frequently became indigenized” (1985:196 [original italics]). This perspective paints a picture contrary to the one with which we are most familiar, of Indigenous people as beleaguered and helpless in the face of inexorable Christian forces. Instead, it acknowledges individual and collective Indigenous agency within a process of cultural and religious negotiation, whereby Indigenous identity, or indigeneity, remains firmly intact.

It might be said that the first Jesuits in the Columbia Plateau region were unwitting partners in this process of Catholic indigenization. Although their efforts to cultivate communities of good Indian Christians were more accommodating than those of their Protestant and Methodist counterparts, cultural repression, whether direct or indirect, was employed as a tool of conversion. When intractable “Indian” characteristics or objects stood in the way, attempts were made to dispose of them. At the early missions, Indigenous ceremonies were discouraged or simply banned, and medicines used in non-Christian spiritual contexts, including medicine bundles, were buried or destroyed. Quoting Father Nicholas Point, his Jesuit compatriot in the Rocky Mountain mission enterprise, DeSmet writes that “from Christmas to Candlemas, the missionary’s fire was kept up with all that remained of the ancient ‘medicine.’ It was a beautiful sight to behold the principal supporters of it, with their own hands destroy the wretched instruments which hell had employed, to deceive their ignorance or give credit to their impostures. And in the long winter evenings, how many birds feathers, wolves’ tails, feet of hinds, hoofs of deers, bits of cloth, wooded images, and other superstitious objects were sacrificed!” (1985:32).

What the Jesuits perhaps failed to anticipate was the ingenuity and resilience of the cultures they encountered, comprising Indigenous identities both fluid and “emergent.” Despite Point’s assertion, much “remained” of the old medicine ways during the process of Catholic indigenization. The Salish hymns, freely sung in the light of day, and Indigenous ceremonies, driven into the recesses of a dark and muted underground, both contributed to a sense of collective indigeneity. Ultimately, this process of indigenization—of cultural integration, negotiation, and reinterpretation—could not be quelled. Nevertheless, the Jesuits found success. Unlike missionaries of other faiths who had abandoned their efforts, were driven from the Plateau, or were killed (Josephy 1965:252), the measured tolerance employed by the Jesuits ensured longevity and allowed for evolution and growth. What DeSmet could not have known as he set out west on the Oregon Trail in 1840 was that the path to Catholic indigenization had been laid a century before, when the Blackrobes first arrived within the vision of a Coeur d’Alene prophet. Unlike so many Native American peoples ambushed by Christian crusaders, the Coeur d’Alene were waiting for DeSmet and his religion, the answer to a promise borne through prophecy.

From Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer by Chad S. Hamill. © 2012 Chad S. Hamill. Reprinted by permission of Oregon State University Press.

Chad S. Hamill is an assistant professor of Ethnomusicology at Northern Arizona University, where he serves as Co-Chair for the Commission for Native Americans. Of Spokan and non-Indian descent, he has also served as Associate Director of the Plateau Center of American Indian Studies at Washington State University. Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer is now available from Oregon State University Press.

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