The Gods of Indian Country

Religion and the Struggle for the American West

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Jennifer Graber
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jennifer Graber’s The Gods of Indian Country is one the most impressive books I have read in the last few years. The Gods of Indian Country tells a big story with a large cast of players, and yet still manages to focus on the particulars. Graber is right when she calls this a “big book” in the acknowledgements; it is a big book that delivers on multi-layered arguments. Additionally, it is beautifully written, carefully researched, well-organized, and broad yet nuanced. Most importantly, Graber tells an incredibly important story and offers a significant counter-perspective to how the field typically narrates 19th-century American religion. 

After an opening vignette about the Kiowa Sun Dance and a Quaker school teacher sets the stage, Graber introduces readers to two related arguments. First, she argues that Christian missionaries and reformers, calling themselves the “friends of the Indian,” styled themselves up as the alternative to Native annihilation. They claimed that they “could acquire land and achieve Native people’s cultural transformation through peaceful means” (11). But as Graber clearly shows, this made the self-identified “friends of the Indian” no less colonial than their white, armed counterparts. What they saw as benevolence was in actuality cultural genocide and colonialism. The second argument of Graber’s book focuses on the Kiowa Indians and their responses to white settler colonialism. They “relied on their practices of making kin, giving gifts, engaging in diplomacy, as well as their rights for engaged sacred power, to respond to American efforts to reduce their lands, change their way of living, and break their tribal bonds” (12). This is a story that considers the arguments and actions of both the white, Christian, reformers and the Kiowas, making it a complicated—yet clearly articulated—narrative. Graber’s book is indeed one that interrogates the gods (plural) of Indian country. 

Graber’s work offers two other very important contributions. Because this is both a work of history and a work of religious studies, the author pays close attention to the concept of “religion” and the various ways whites and Kiowas used or pushed back against the concept. For one it was a way of arguing for the need to “civilize” and Christianize the Kiowa, and in response, for the Kiowa, it was a means to defend sovereignty and survive. Graber’s book also fits in the field of indigenous studies by “placing Indian lands and nations at the story’s center” (14). This move forces scholars to take seriously settler colonialism and its pivotal but understudied role in American religious history

The book covers the 19th century (1803-1903) and unfolds chronologically in three parts: Open Lands, Closed Lands, and Divided Lands. Over the course of this century, the lands in the center of what would become the United States begin as Indian country and end under the primary ownership of white settlers (courtesy of the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act) punctuated with Indian reservations and Indian schools. It is a century of change and Graber’s focus on the Kiowas make this especially clear. The Kiowas adapted to these changes while still maintaining what was important to them: connections with kin, land, and sacred power. Surveying the course of those one hundred years, Graber introduces readers to a variety of persons, including Christian reformers (especially Quakers), Kiowa leaders, US leaders and their policies, and Kiowa children. Kiowas engaged with sacred power via dance, peyote, and mission churches. Yet even with all the historical changes Graber narrates and all the persons she introduces, the reader never feels lost or overwhelmed by the magnitude of her research. 

This is perhaps one of the most understated achievements of the book: it’s a big book with an intimate feel. It includes a glossary of important terms (following the impressive list of collections visited and cited) and an appendix on Kiowa names at the end. Some of Graber’s actors were recorded by multiple names and/or more than one spelling in the historical record. The glossary and appendix illustrate the meticulous, focused, and expansive research that went into The Gods of Indian Country. Graber also used a wide variety of sources. Similar to another recent and significant work in the field (Judith Wiesenfeld’s New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration, NYU Press, 2017), Graber shows the importance of complete and creative archival research. She does not just use traditional archives and records but includes Kiowa perspectives in a variety of ways. Some Kiowas wrote letters and diaries, but more often Graber relies on Kiowa calendars and ledgers, as well as shields and tipis. The book includes forty-five black and white images and eight plates in full color. Each of these images, and Graber’s analysis of them, helps to offer a fuller Kiowa perspective on the changes in and to their lands. 

This book is a model piece of scholarship for those working in American religious history and should be on the bookshelves of all in the field. It is a book that hit this reviewer hard and will sit with her for a very long time. Many pages are already dog-eared, have been re-read numerous times, and will be cited for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Suzanne Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Graber is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and an affiliated faculty member in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program.


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