United States: Songs Of Power And Prayer In The Columbia Plateau - The Jesuit, The Medicine Man, And The Indian Hymn Singer

Chad S. Hamill


Oregon State University Press

While conducting research of indigenous music in the Columbia Plateau for his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, Chad Hamill External link unearthed a story of three men who bridged the gap between the spiritual traditions of Native Americans and the sacred beliefs of Catholicism. Religious song was the catalyst for the men’s introduction and also the bond that held them together as lifelong friends. This work can best be described as a historical narrative that follows a chronological timeline from the mid-nineteenth century through the twentieth century that also depicts some cultural and social aspects of the indigenous population of the Columbia Plateau.

From the introduction through chapter three, Hamill weaves a historical account of the Columbia Plateau that includes the first encounters with Jesuit priests or Blackrobes, the emergence of reductions or Catholic townships, and attempts by Jesuits to directly or indirectly repress cultural expression in favor of the sacred tenets of Catholicism. Songs and musical instruments were the intended vehicle to lead Native Americans toward Christianity and hopefully abandon all objects and costumes from their pre-conversion. Traditional hymns were translated into Native languages and soon two versions of a song emerged that became part of the Catholic service. From the ethnomusicology perspective, I believe the sheet music and hymns included in this narrative have a definite place in the history of music for Plateau people. Beginning with chapter three, The Old Indian Hymns, the book presents examples of the songs with the Indian version and English translation. While the book does not include any supplemental material, I would consider an audio CD of these hymns sung in both the English and Indian translations an excellent addition to this work (Editors Note: see the audio files included on the website here External link).
At times, the narrative became stagnant in these first three chapters due to the background information on Jesuits and their entry into countries outside of North America. However, this information was necessary to compare their arrival into the Columbia Plateau. Although the inclusion of excerpts of oral accounts of prophecies and visions within these chapters added vibrant depictions of Native American cultural beliefs in the Plateau during this time period, these accounts also impeded the flow of the narrative.

The remaining chapters of the book read easily as the author brought to life the story of the Jesuit, Father Tom Connolly; the medicine man, Gibson Eli; and the Indian hymn singer, Mitch Michael. From Hamill’s initial meeting with Father Tom Connolly, the story of Gibson Eli and Mitch Michael emerges from Connolly’s extensive notes and accounts of working with these men in the Columbia Plateau. Connolly befriends both of these men and is an eyewitness and participant in Native ceremonies. In these ceremonies, Indian hymns are used as the conduit to reach the spiritual realm. Prayers became songs and were used to evoke the spiritual power to heal. This work meticulously recounts how Eli would prepare to perform a healing ceremony and Michael’s role as Indian hymn leader. Eli and Gibson were able to find a harmonious balance between their cultural traditions and their Catholic faith; this balance evolved into an Indian mass. Likewise, Father Tom Connolly embraces and accepts what he experiences when he accompanies his “two Indian grandfathers” on various journeys throughout the Plateau and Canada.

As noted by Hamill, this work could be challenging for an academic audience to digest. Therefore in telling the story of Mitch Michael and Gibson Eli, he is “intentionally distancing this story from Western ways of knowing” (8). Any discourse on the spiritual realm will evoke some responses of disbelief. When the subject matter includes the topics of spiritual power, visions, prophecies, and animal guides there is no scientific explanation. This information comes directly from the person who has these intangible powers or is an eyewitness to these ethereal events. I deem this historical narrative a credible contribution to the history of indigenous people in the Columbia Plateau in part by Hamill’s own Native Plateau ancestry. He relies on interviews with friends and family members of Michael and Eli, oral histories, and his extensive research within the Plateau community.

The portrait of what many people know of Native Americans and their culture is derived from the skewed lens of old Hollywood westerns. The majority of these movies promoted the stereotypical view of the indigenous population of the United States as savages with superstitious beliefs who had to be saved by the “white man” and made to accept the dominant culture. While the focus of this narrative is on the power of music, this work also highlights some social and cultural aspects of Native Americans during the mid-twentieth century. These aspects include strong familial bonds, close knit communities, and the importance of traditional ceremonies. In my opinion, this work can also be viewed as a study on cultural assimilation.

Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau External link is a fascinating account of the lives of three men who left an indelible mark on the Columbia Plateau. It is a glimpse into the social and cultural traditions of a time long gone. As with the passage of time, memories fade and cultural traditions fall along the wayside. This narrative recaptures that time in history and those traditions when all of these men were active role players. Finally, it shows how the seeds of music were planted in the nineteenth century Plateau to transform the lives of the indigenous population.
Reviewed by Muriel D. Nero; University of South Alabama.

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