Luke Eric Lassiter, Clyde Ellis, and Ralph Kotay, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Pp. 152. ($24.95-paperback) ISBN 0-8032-8005-X. Includes CD of 26 Kiowa hymns. Reviewed by James R. Krabill.
Mark Matthews, Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line: Conscientious Objectors During World War II. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Pp. 336 ($29.95) ISBN 978-0-8061-3766-7. Reviewed by Rachel Waltner Goossen.
Luke Eric Lassiter, Clyde Ellis, and Ralph Kotay, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Pp. 152. ($24.95-paperback) ISBN 0-8032-8005-X. Includes CD of 26 Kiowa hymns.
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 studiessometimes seriously researched, other times romanticized or over idealizeddescribing 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 Roada 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 hymnsthe 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
Mark Matthews, Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line: Conscientious Objectors During World War II. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Pp. 336 ($29.95) ISBN 978-0-8061-3766-7
Mark Matthews is a journalist based in Missoula, Montana, who since 1993 has worked as a seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. He brings a uniquely local perspective to the often romanticized slice of World War II homefront history known as smoke jumping. From 1943 to 1945, 250 American conscientious objectors trained and performed duties as firefighters at Civilian Public Service Camp Grand Menard near Huson, Montana. In addition to working at the smoke jumpers' base camp, some of the men traveled to assignments at spike camps in western Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and at fire lookout towers across the northern Rockies. Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line offers a sympathetic look at this uniquely western CPS experience, which shared its rationale and structure with the broader wartime Civilian Public Service program, but which offered more strenuous work as an alternative to military service than many other CPS locales and fostered strong camaraderie among the men who volunteered.
"If there ever could be a 'moral equivalent of war,'" Matthews argues, "then smoke jumping was it" (p. 265). He suggests that the smoke jumping program proved to be the "perfect" CPS arrangement, noting that drafted C.O.s came to their training at the Montana camp with high hopes for doing constructive, meaningful work, and that morale among the smoke jumpers remained high throughout the war. If there were discontented men in this CPS setting, Matthews has not managed to locate them - except for one, who thought that the camp was not an efficient use of public dollars. Overall, the CPS assignees were a heterogeneous, high-spirited group willing to perform government service in wartime, especially since smoke jumping was widely associated with ideals of bravery and sacrifice. Unlike CPS men assigned to many other camps across the U.S., the smoke jumpers enjoyed widespread support of local residents and mostly favorable coverage in the local and national media.
In researching the smoke jumpers' history, Matthews relied heavily on written accounts of CPS smoke jumpers themselves. Some of these, including a series of letters appearing in the book's appendix, date to the mid 1940s. Most of his sources, however, are reminiscences, collected and published by CPS camp director Roy Wenger, who with his wife Florence moved back to Missoula, Montana, in 1978 for retirement. Over the next quarter-century, Roy Wenger encouraged other former CPS smoke jumpers to write their memoirs, and he and his wife helped to organize reunions at five-year intervals. Beginning in 1990, Roy Wenger edited three privately-printed volumes of collected reminiscences. These, together with extensive interviews obtained before Wenger's death in 2004, are indispensable to Matthews's volume.
An additional set of interviews, with Earl Cooley, the National Forest Service trainer who coordinated the work of the wartime C.O. firefighters, provides still another affectionate perspective on the program. The CPS men won Cooley's respect over three years of hard work, but Cooley recalled feelings of stress and strain when the program was in its earliest phase, in 1943: "When I first heard we were hiring conscientious objectors, I considered joining the Army" (p. 110).
This book is aimed at audiences who may be unfamiliar with the historic peace church roots of the Civilian Public Service program. An introductory chapter sketches the history of conscientious objection in the U.S., beginning with the American Revolution. A second chapter outlines the traditions of the three historic peace church groups that collaborated in designing and sponsoring CPS the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Society of Friends. The author, while providing contextual background for the C.O.s' decision-making, does not delve deeply into the historical past of these religious bodies; his account lacks nuance and contains inaccurate statements. His portrayal of the Civilian Public Service program as a whole is similarly flawed (for example, he overstates the number of CPS camps and units in the United States).
On the history of smoke jumping, however, which began in 1939 with U.S. Forest Service-sponsored parachute jumps, Matthews is a more reliable guide. His reporting of developing technologies and visionary planning among Forest Service personnel in the late 1930s and early 1940s underscores that the methods used by the earliest smoke jumpers, and soon taken up by their CPS replacements, were experimental and pioneering. Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line traces the often-naïve entry of conscientious objectors from a variety of backgrounds into a forestry culture with its own lingo ("hit the silk" as a euphemism for parachuting); its own tools of the trade (the pulaski axe-hoe for digging fire lines) and its own wilderness hazards (black bears, lightning, and fast-spreading fires). Despite the dangers and close calls, the CPS smokejumpers suffered no deaths, although a number suffered ankle, foot, and back injuries.
By 1945, as the war ended and CPS camps began to close, some National Forest Service officials briefly considered offering more permanent jobs to these seasoned workers. But as smoke jumper and trainer Earl Cooley noted, "if these men had been retained, they would have been supervising or instructing returning veterans who would have resented them" (p. 251). By the time the CPS men moved on to their postwar lives, the art and science of fighting fires in western forests had become well-established, with jumpers active in five states in public and private land holdings from 1946 onward.
Nearly two dozen photographs, a map of national forests in the northwestern states, and a preface written by former Senator George McGovern (a veteran of World War II who writes of his admiration for the faith and service orientation of the CPSers), round out this volume.
Rachel Waltner Goossen
Associate Professor of History
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