Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
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Plains Folk: Kiowa Hymns
Tom Isern, Professor of History
It is a seasoned, expressive, I would say holy voice, that of Ralph Kotay, as he leads off with the first line of a Christian hymn in the Kiowa language. Others, members of his church or of his hymn singing class, pick up the tune and join in.
I cannot, for the words, as well as the modes and phrasing, are unfamiliar to me. Let me listen longer to this cd, comprising field recordings to accompany a new book from the University of Nebraska Press. It's called "The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns." The authors are Luke Eric Lassiter (anthropologist), Clyde Ellis (historian), and Ralph Kotay (traditional singer).
Notice that here we have a couple of academics mixed up with a regular person, a Kiowa singer. That's unusual enough, but the authors also involved many other Kiowas in the project, reviewing its chapters, correcting and commenting. That's sort of refreshing, given the checkered history of white academics breezing onto the res to gobble up cultural goodies.
The book is about songs, and about the Kiowa, but in a more general way it's about the relationship between plains Indians and Christianity, a subject that scholars have managed to muck up pretty badly over the years. Early writers, of course, assumed it was only proper that Indians should assimilate to white ways, including Christianity. Missionaries were heroes. Sometime during the 1960s and 1970s missionaries became villains. Scholars converted to the idea that missionaries were cultural aggressors intent on eradicating Indian cultures, cultural conquerors who gave nothing in return.
The stereotypes don't represent reality very well, and they aren't even very interesting. The story, on any plains reservation, is far more complex than that, and more beautiful. Certainly these Kiowa hymns are beautiful. I listen as I write.
Even considering how much is lost in translation from the Kiowa, isn't this an elegant stanza? Have you ever entered a church sanctuary with mixed emotions? Don't you wish you had a hymn that said so?
These hymns are not just Kiowa words to standard hymns. They are original folk compositions in Kiowa. Singers recall who made them, in what circumstances, and they tell their stories. Ralph Kotay didn't want the tradition to wither, and so, he says, when God spared him from a serious disease, he began a singing school. "The Jesus Road" is his school writ large.
I have climbed Rainy Mountain, lingered at Saddle Mountain, tramped the fields and cemeteries of Kiowa country, and visited the Rainy Mountain Baptist Church, where some say the first Kiowa hymn ("Who is he who has come to save us?") was sung. I can never do so again without hearing these hymns in my head.
When the Kiowa embraced Christianity they did not become white Baptists or Methodists. Rather they grafted Christianity onto their culture and shaped it to suit them. When they made their own hymns, they regarded them as gifts of God--as are their older songs, and their powwow songs.
God speaks Kiowa well. In Kiowa, one speaker explains, "You can say so much more."
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