Most of the literature on the Native experience in North America falls into one of two categories. There are, on one hand, the fictionalized novels and more substantial ethnographic studies—sometimes seriously researched, other times romanticized or over idealized—describing Native life, beliefs, and values prior to the encounter with white government officials, settlers, and missionaries. And then there are the reports and monographs, historical, linguistic, anthropological, etc., depicting what happened in the tragic encounter between these two populations with the subsequent demise of traditional Native life brought on by a seemingly endless trail of torture, tears, and broken treaties.
What has to date been far less present in the literature is a serious exploration of the profound Christian experience found among certain Native peoples for whom Christianity has become "a fundamental part of their culture and world" (The Jesus Road, p. 7). The fact that such a reality even exists will likely come as a surprise to many readers, since "scholars more often than not choose either to dismiss it altogether or pose it as mere assimilation into the American mainstream" (p. 5).
Yet the truth of this reality is the clear message and perhaps the single most fascinating contribution of The Jesus Road—a small but powerful volume about Christian faith among the Kiowas of southwestern Oklahoma.
The study acquires a particular richness due to the collaboration and diversity of its authors: Luke Eric Lassiter, an anthropology professor at Ball State University; Clyde Ellis, a history professor at Elon (N.C.) University; and Ralph Kotay, a singer, hymn-instructor, and member of Oklahoma's Kiowa Tribe. The "window" employed by the authors for gaining insight into Kiowa faith and understandings is the corpus of indigenous hymn texts composed, or "Spirit-inspired" as the Kiowas would describe it, by Kiowa Christians since the arrival of Christianity in their region during the final decades of the nineteenth century.
There are five principal sections to the book. In the introductory chapter (pp. 1-14), Luke Eric Lassiter provides background information on the migratory patterns and history of the Kiowa people and describes in some detail the genesis of the hymn-collecting project. Clyde Ellis follows with an historical section (pp. 16-68) in which he paints the broader picture of U.S. government policies and early missionary efforts on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation. Ellis also offers various explanations as to why so many Kiowas chose to follow "the Jesus road" during this period and how that decision has shaped their identity ever since.
A third section, by Lassiter, takes more of an anthropological approach (pp. 70-84), examining the cultural roots of traditional Kiowa songs and showing their musical and thematic connections to the hymns that have gained such significance in the Christian community. A fourth section, entitled "Kiowa Hymns and Their Deeper Meanings" (pp. 85-110) is edited by Lassiter and Kiowa singer, Ralph Kotay, and offers a song-by-song commentary on the twenty-six hymn selections found on the CD attached to the inside back cover of the book. An Afterword, written by all three authors, serves as the final section of the book (pp. 110-119) and emphasizes the importance of indigenous hymns as a valuable, though often overlooked, source for studying and understanding American Indian Christianity.
Mennonite readers will no doubt be interested to know what connection this study has to Mennonite churches and mission efforts in southwestern Oklahoma. Curiously, the word "Mennonite" is not listed in the book's index, though it does appear at numerous points throughout the text (pp. 24, 30, 43, 47, 58, 60, 61, 62, and 63). All of these references, so far as I can tell, are to Mennonite Brethren mission initiatives with the Comanche which first begin in the region in 1896.
It would appear from this study and other documents that the attitudes of early Mennonite missionaries to the creation and development of indigenous hymnody among Native American Christians reflected the spirit of the times. Christian converts, it was thought, should sing Christian hymns. And that, of course, meant European-American hymns—the ones loved, sung, and introduced to new believers by the missionaries themselves. Mennonite schools, like the one in Darlington and elsewhere, included in their curriculum hymn instruction classes. And considerable energy was exerted as early as the late 1890s to translate these hymns into local languages.
When Cheyenne songs with traditional Cheyenne tunes were introduced in certain Mennonite mission churches in the 1940s, General Conference missionary-linguist Rodolphe Petter no doubt captured the sentiments of many when he declared: "The new Cheyenne songs… are not the spiritual food or expression which growing Christians should have. They catch the Indians simply because their tune is like that of the heathen and peyote people" (in Lois Barrett, The Vision and the Reality, 1983, p. 31).
That is why The Jesus Road is such an important volume. It will force readers to take another look at the complex relationship between traditional spirituality and authentic, contextualized faith. And it will throw new light on the deeply grounded conviction of Vida Chenoweth and other Christian ethnomusicologists that, "when a people develops its own hymns with both vernacular words and music, it is good evidence that Christianity has truly taken root."
James R. Krabill
Senior Executive for Global Ministries
Mennonite Mission Network