Missionary Influence and Plains Indian Culture

The story of the Cheyenne hymnbook1 is one of adaptability and perseverance in the face of intense cultural pressure. Government attitudes in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were especially hostile toward Native American culture. And while Christian missionaries were generally advocates for the various tribes they served, bridging the gap when conflicts arose with the broader government and society, they also inevitably acted as agents of cultural change. Christianity was packaged in the confines of "civilized" western culture. Through boarding schools, adoption, and travel away from the tribe, the new generation of Native people faced a rapidly changing cultural climate spreading even to the roots among elders on isolated reservations.

Indigenous music was only one small aspect of that larger cultural change. As Native Americans were taught of Christ and Christianity, they were hearing a new kind of music utterly foreign to their own musical understandings. The result was a new genre of music: indigenous Christian hymns. The lyrics reflect the spiritual understandings of Christianity and the melodies and rhythms include aspects of Plains Indian music and European music in varying degrees.

Yet historians and ethnologists seem to have paid little attention to this phenomenon for several possible reasons.

First, indigenous Christian hymns were not considered truly "Indian." Robert Lowie describes "a Crow imitation of a Baptist hymn" on an early wax cylinder recording of a Crow indigenous hymn made in the 1930s.2 Others in the Native American Christian community have described receiving songs inspired by the sounds of European church music,3 implying that the European hymns represent the celebration arts format through which God speaks. The theology expressed in the lyrics mirrors the theology of European hymns.4 Recognizable melodic phrases from European hymns are sometimes actually incorporated into indigenous hymns.5 The atmosphere of hostility between Christian and Native religion practitioners has led to rejection of this expression by both parties in the conflict between cultures.6 Truly, the indigenous expression of Christian hymnody has been influenced by its European predecessor. The European standard of celebration arts for Christian worship was the model for songs one should hear from the Creator in a dream or vision along the new Jesus road.

In keeping with the Spirit of the Creator, however, the emerging gift of indigenous hymns was not a mere imitation of European hymns, but rather the representation of something altogether new. Fortunately, whether intended consciously or not, Plains Indian Christians often failed to accurately imitate many essential musical qualities of European hymnody. Instead, their music is distinctly Native, but with a unique style and grammar to differentiate it from other genres within Native music. Markers such as the vocabulary and cadence of vocables (non-meaning syllables, see the "HE-EE" at the end of most songs), rhythm and pitch elements of melody all connect this new music with the new way of Jesus. Other genres (e.g., dance, lullaby, peyote, etc.), have different and distinct vocables, pitch, and rhythm markers in their own right. A Plains Indian musician can tell from portions of any song of his or her tribe the social or religious usage of that song. This tradition is unique, uniquely American, and worthy of respect and learning far beyond the environment of its origin.

Second, indigenous hymnody was private, according to the Plains Indian tradition regarding music. Songs are "received" (not composed) in private dreams or visions, and then privately "owned." Songs are sung privately for special gatherings and events. The tradition of Cheyenne hymns began in small meetings as Cheyenne singing preachers shared songs they had received.7 With only a few exceptions, these songs were not incorporated by white missionaries into Sunday morning worship. Instead, songs were shared in private among extended families, particularly during times of bereavement. The songs became memorials, especially as elders who knew their days were few would pass on a song to a younger person, in the Plains Indian tradition of "giving" a song. This was primarily the setting that preserved the Cheyenne hymns into the 1970s.

Finally, many missionaries to Plains Indians discouraged the use of indigenous hymns in worship. To both missionaries and civil authorities this music represented a pagan influence, albeit with Christian words. The melody and meter were different from western music, and it was feared that the music itself would encourage the Indians back to their sinful ways. Rodolphe Petter, long-time missionary to the Northern Cheyenne, wrote a letter to the mission headquarters in Newton, Kansas, regretting the visit by Southern Cheyenne singing preacher Harvey White Shield, who was leading prayer meetings in Lame Deer and singing his Southern Cheyenne music, harming the mission effort by "watering down the Gospel."8 Petter went to enormous work over several decades and editions to translate a large number of his favorite German and English hymns into Cheyenne to meet their musical needs in worship.9

Despite the obstacles, indigenous Christian hymns were recognized as a legitimate expression of Christian worship by some missionaries. Mennonite and Baptist missionaries to the Southern Cheyenne and Kiowa were not as hostile toward the development of indigenous hymnody.

J. B. Ediger, Mennonite missionary to the Southern Cheyenne in the 1930s, was one of few missionaries to the Cheyenne to affirm their indigenous hymnody. His daughters remember him starting to have the Cheyenne singers sing their hymns during Sunday worship. They remember that this was controversial with the sponsoring churches.

The Cheyenne Hymnbook

Mennonite missionary Malcolm Wenger and his wife Esther spoke with me soon after my first encounter with Cheyenne hymns at Birney, Montana, in 1973. They were long-time missionaries in Montana, considerably later than the Petters. Malcolm and Esther encouraged the indigenous hymn tradition in Montana as well as Oklahoma. They made a number of recordings on 1/4 inch tape, and did considerable writing of text. Their passion for this gift from the Creator was contagious to me, and we collaborated. They were aware of the decline in use of Cheyenne hymns in Oklahoma during the 1960s and 1970s. Malcolm was reflecting the concern of elders who knew the old "Cheyenne Gospel Songs". He first introduced me to Haalman Little Coyote in Seiling, Oklahoma the following year during a church conference, and helped me set up a recording session.

That was the beginning of the Cheyenne Hymns recording project. For the next several years I made more than a dozen trips to Oklahoma or to Montana to record people who explicitly wanted to contribute to the hymns project, to preserve the tradition for the younger generation. These were usually older people with a strong sense of mission. Sometimes elders arranged for younger persons, whom they had taught, to sing for the recording. The Cheyenne named on p. 195 of the hymnbook, in the handbook section, are the people who essentially made the Cheyenne hymnbook.

I spent little time deliberately promoting the hymnbook and the recording project. I simply went where I was asked to go to record someone who had hymns they wanted to contribute. Almost no money was exchanged; only informally for emergencies. Lawrence Hart, Southern Cheyenne traditional chief, and his wife Betty helped with making my appointments.

In Montana, Pastor Willis Busenitz did much of the organizational work and fund raising for publication. He arranged for Wycliffe missionary linguists, Wayne and Elena Leman, to come to Montana Cheyenne country. They saw the value of the hymns project and ended up doing the writing and syllabizing of the hymn texts. Their work, especially that with the Petter hymns, was essential.

Culture, Conflict, and Connection

When I was working in Oklahoma in the middle 1970s with a variety of elders who remembered the indigenous hymns, we had a "Mennonite Indian Leaders" conference in Clinton. An important item on the agenda for me was the Cheyenne hymnbook, and I presented several song pages from both the translated stream, produced by missionaries, and the indigenous stream, produced by the native converts. Afterwards, an argument developed between the Northern (missionary translated hymns) and Southern Cheyenne (indigenous), both unsure that the other really respected their own tradition. For a time the conversation was divisive. Unknown to me, the discussion continued late into the night at their place of lodging, and resulted in a miraculous gift of conflict resolution in a gifting ceremony between the Southern and Northern Cheyenne (Louise Fisher and Pastor Willis Busenitz remember this event).

The symbols on the cover of the hymnbook reflect this unity, and are especially meaningful to those who knew this conflict. The shield is the Northern Cheyenne symbol. The peace pipe is the Southern Cheyenne symbol. Their combination in one logo illustrates the unity found in the hymnbook. Petter's hymns and other translated hymns are interspersed with the indigenous hymns.10

While the primary goal of the Cheyenne Hymns project was to keep alive a valuable tradition, other goals were served as well. A second goal was the promotion of Cheyenne language use among Cheyenne. A third was to facilitate cultural awareness of both Cheyenne Christians and non-Cheyenne who shared with them in Christian ministry. Cheyenne hymns are used in Christian worship I think far beyond what would have happened without Tsese-Ma'heone-Nemeotótse.

I have a personal fourth goal, partially fulfilled. I believe the indigenous hymns tradition of the Cheyenne and Crow, as well as other ethnic groups, has equal validity to that of any other ethnic group, including the European. All the other American folk music has a European or African origin, and the style originates on other continents. The music of Native Americans is the only true indigenous American folk music.11 So I believe this style of music and dance should be at home in the mainstream of American musical culture. This change is beginning to happen.12

Reception and impact of the hymnbook

One thousand copies of the Cheyenne Hymnbook were produced, in hardback. The cost of publishing--music typesetting, layout, printing, and binding--exceeded $30,000. I volunteered typesetting the Cheyenne text underlayment, with free use of a proportional typewriter at Faith and Life Press. I also wrote the essays and the handbook notes, and oversaw the publication. Actually, volunteering is not quite adequate. I received support from New Creation Fellowship Mennonite Church for myself and my family while doing the field work, rough drafts, checking, underlayment, etc., off and on from 1978 through 1982.

The initial reception in Montana was good. People started using the hymnbook from that time and use has continued, even increased. The discovery of genuine "Indian hymns" of many families in Oklahoma greatly complemented the hymns of Maude Fightingbear in Montana, the only Montana Cheyenne with a significant number of indigenous Cheyenne hymns prior to the Cheyenne Hymnbook Project.

In Oklahoma the oral tradition was the origin. Now, the hymnbook is used as a reminder of the songs sung long ago. But this in itself has problems. Oral history is based on remembering personal relationships through stories, rather than pure events. Once something is written down, the paper is the source of remembering rather than a human relationship.

Songs were and still are possessed by individuals and families, regardless of the identity of the first singer. Family relationships properly determine whether and how a song is sung. When it's written on paper, relationships are devalued, and respect diminishes. This became more problematic as I found variants of hymns in different districts, both of which were claimed to be exactly like the original. I learned not to challenge these differences, just to let the variants be. Some I handled with footnotes, others with more significant changes I wrote out as separate hymns. I have come to deeply respect the validity of concerns for the negative impact of writing down an oral tradition.

Another concern, emphasized by anthropologists, is that writing down an oral tradition will irrevocably alter and possible destroy the original art form. This is still a concern. However, I was impressed that at the time the project began most of the newest hymns were decades old. The project itself encouraged at least one Cheyenne Christian to orally arrange a family song for inclusion in the hymnbook.13

The current work among Christians of the Crow Nation of Montana has encouraged new hymns, and the tradition seems revitalized by the choice of the Crow and the Cheyenne to use paper for preservation rather than depending totally on the oral tradition13.14

Some Samples

Hetseto ho'eva

Petter translated about a hundred hymns into Cheyenne from his own Swiss/English tradition to meet his musical needs for worship among the Cheyenne, in their verbal language. He did not accept their musical language. This music lacked the uniquely original American pitch inflection and rhythmic elements children of European immigrants still find incomprehensible or simply accidental in the music grammar that has existed on this continent for thousands of years. In compensation, the harmony and accompaniment by the piano represented a powerful new musical grammar for the American Plains nations. They accepted the cross-cultural musical challenge. Such a challenge was not reciprocated, except in the verbal Cheyenne language, at least for purposes of Christian worship.

This particular German hymn was published by Mennonites in the 1890 edition of "Gesangbuch mit Noten." See the additional information with the hymn header.

Jesus ne'anoheve'hoo

For a decade or more beginning in the 1980s, Emma Hart, Alberta Zotigh, and Nelly Jones blended their voices in traditional Cheyenne harmony at countless memorial services, wakes, and other Christian worship occasions. This hymn was written from their recording made at the Koinonia church in Clinton, Oklahoma, in the early 1980s. Notice the vocal bends, pitches out of tune, and irregular rhythmic expressions related to Cheyenne language. The actual grammatical analysis of this music would separate truly significant musical sounds from the irrelevant within the culture. Only linguists do this for languages, and ethnomusicologists for ethnic music. This element is what makes music no more a universal language than is English or Chinese. In fact, there are many languages of music, each with its cliché elements of sound incomprehensible to anyone outside the tradition. Yet human ears pick up all the data. It’s the human mind that filters the significant from the irrelevant, from cultural learning of sounds beginning even before birth.

In this song, the institution of Italian notation breaks down, because Italian notation is based on European musical grammar. So the unusual elements in the notation represent only a portion of the musical sounds in the memory of a Cheyenne musician. Even with tools of ethnomusicology used in writing, only hearing the music over and over with guidance from a musician allows comprehension of some of these significant sounds. It is remarkable that this is easier for children, who don’t need cognitive awareness to understand and employ the elements musically.

Hahoo Ma'heo'o

Many of the Cheyenne musicians who received songs for Christian worship from Ma’heo’o (Creator God) worked to adapt their music to the restrictions of new European standards for music. They had varying degrees of success. This hymn was one of the cross-cultural hymns selected by the hymnal committee of the Mennonite Church for inclusion in "Hymnal: A Worship Book" published in 1992. While it is a genuine ethnic Native American Hymn, it is also something of a hybrid. The elements of vocal inflection, scale intonation and rhythm are largely stripped away in favor of an Asian-style tuned pentatonic scale, making it compatible with European musical grammar. So this tune, lacking many clichés of the American Plains nations, adapts well to less obtrusive harmony from the European tradition, such as canon, augmentation, or duets. It can even be accompanied (carefully) on guitar or piano.

Ma'heo'o vehoomemeno

This hymn tune appears to have little European influence. The frequent inflection, low rhythmic continuity, and irregular phrasing are more closely tied to speech patterns, like traditional songs for children often sung without a drum. Here, Italian musical notation is especially inadequate Yet the artistic integrity is unmistakable.

Hahoo Jesus Tehvo'esta

One of Bertha Little Coyote’s favorite hymns. Mrs. Little Coyote was from Seiling.