Religious Revitalization among the Kiowas

The Ghost Dance, Peyote, and Christianity

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Benjamin R. Kracht
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , April
     342 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Benjamin R Kracht’s new book Religious Revitalization Among the Kiowas: The Ghost Dance, Peyote, and Christianity explores the often-intertwined histories of the Kiowa Ghost Dance, the Native American Church, and indigenous Christianity through the lens of revitalization movements. He argues that understanding all three religions in this way can help the reader embrace the fluidity and complexity of Native American religions overall. 

Kracht’s book is a work of anthropology, one that is in conversation with both the classics of Native religions such as Omar Stewart’s Peyote Religion (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993) but that also engages newer scholars in the field such as Kimberly Jenkins Marshall. Since the work begins during the early reservation era (1869), Kracht relies on the field notes of early anthropologists (especially James Mooney), missionaries, denominational records, Indian agents, and other federal officials, as well as Kiowa oral history in order to construct a record of late 19th and early 20th century Kiowa religiosity. Once the book moves into the middle 20th century he shifts more towards oral histories and, later, his own ethnographic field notes in order to round out modern Kiowa discussions of Peyote religion and indigenous forms of Christianity. 

The book is sectioned into four large chapters. The first sets up the religious “players” in the period up to Oklahoma statehood—Christian missionaries, Peyote, prophets and traditional shamanism. The second chapter, which is one of the standout sections of the book, focuses on the Kiowa Ghost Dance and how it went from being a pan-Plains prophetic movement to becoming something distinctly Kiowa until it was banned by Circular 1665 and pushed out of existence by missionaries and Indian agents in 1916. The last two chapters consider peyote and Christianity in the post-allotment period up to World War II and post-war, and how the two traditions overlapped and fused together to become something distinctly modern and Kiowa. 

Where Kracht’s work shines is in allowing the complexity of Kiowa religious belief as well as Kiowa religious politics to come through to his readers. In his section on the Kiowa Ghost Dance he notes that “the Kiowa Ghost Dance emerged as a syncretic amalgam of Christianity, prophecy, tribal beliefs and the Peyote Rite” (89). He then traces the dance’s inception to the Paiute prophet Wovoka, and describes how it spread across the Plains to the Kiowas and their neighbors. The singular experience of the Kiowa version appears to have been the trance state that dancers entered into, many seeking to be reunited with the dead. But despite its initial popularity, some Kiowas suspected the Ghost Dance as well as its prophet. Ä’piatañ, a Kiowa leader and skeptic of the Ghost Dance movement, went to visit Wovoka and “when the messiah could not resurrect his child or any other deceased persons, he became discouraged and decided that the prophet was not what people claimed him to be” (101). Ä’piatañ sent a letter outlining his skepticism ahead of his travels to the Kiowas to be read publicly, which many regarded with suspicion. After his return, Ä’piatañ publicly challenged Sitting Bull, who was leading the Ghost Dance among Arapahos and Kiowas in the region, and despite Sitting Bull’s attempt to defend the religion, his faction lost. This defeat punctured a hole in the Plains Ghost Dance movement among the Kiowa. The Ghost Dance was later revived by the Kiowa in their own distinct form. It also helped establish the Kiowa tradition of camping at religious ceremonies for a period of days to weeks, which would later be carried over to Christian camp meetings. It kept certain traditional songs alive, and when it was banned and fell out of favor in 1916, the tradition of dancing was carried on with other dances that transitioned to being “social dances” or “powwow dances.” 

Kracht’s work also illuminates the complicated relationship between peyote and Christianity. Despite a well-publicized anti-peyote campaign by Christian missionaries of all stripes against the new religious movement, Kiowas showed a deep flexibility towards the two religions. Kracht states that “in some instances Christian converts occasionally attended Peyote meetings so they could worship in the Indian way, and some Christians frequently called on Peyote doctors for emergencies” (179). Kracht notes toward the end of his book that even though the majority of Kiowas can be considered Christians by the start of the 21st century, peyote practice remains common enough among rural and older Kiowas, and Christian Kiowas with family members active in the peyote religion display a tolerant attitude toward it. 

Kracht’s main thesis is that what marks Kiowa religion is not that it is a specific kind of religion, but rather that it is syncretic and always borrowing from traditions around it. Thus, as an indigenous form of belief, Kiowa Christianity, for example, is informed and influenced by its relationship to the Ghost Dance, peyote ritual, and traditional shamanistic beliefs. In other words, Kiowa religion is influenced by both political and cultural trends but is constantly reinventing itself in the wake of colonization and modernity. Kracht’s argument is a convincing one that highlights many of the trends in recent books on Native religion. This is a strong work in the field of anthropology of religion and would be fantastic to read in a graduate seminar with Jennifer Graber’s Gods of Indian Country (Oxford University Press, 2018). Together the two works give scholars an all-encompassing and thorough look at how Kiowa religious beliefs are profoundly complicated and continue to challenge Western notions of “religion.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Angela Tarango is Associate Professor of Religion at Trinity University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin R. Kracht is Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He is the author of Kiowa Belief and Ritual (Nebraska, 2017).


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