Christian Prayers at Powwow: How Praying to Your Oppressor’s God Colonizes Your Soul

This past week, we remembered the children who were forced into Boarding Schools, and never left. As we wore orange shirts, and declared “never again”; “never forgotten”; and “bring them home”… there’s an even larger group of contemporary Native Americans who asked for all of these things in the name of Jesus Christ.

But, is it appropriate?

Praying to the god of the people who buried our ancestors in mass graves at boarding schools, while hand-in-hand with the descendants of the very same people responsible for the massacre[s], enslavement, and forced conversion of millions of Native Californians?

Indigenous Family Visiting a Mass Grave, in Canada, where Indigenous Children were buried in unmarked graves at an Indian Boarding School

This might seem like a big kumbaya moment for people who want to “Kill the Indian”, and “Save the Man”. This might seem like reconciliation for the horrors of Manifest Destiny, and the colonization of California, and the rest of the “New World”.

it’s not the truth.

Indigenous people should not be proud of their white-washed conversion to the Judeo-Christian faith; nor should they uplift the racist, violent, two-faced ethics that come with a set of beliefs that are (arguably) wholly responsible for the ills of modern Native American society.

Ills like colorism, homophobia, anti-blackness, syphilis, tuberculosis, and blood quantum. Just to name a few.

In a time when there is so much emphasis on Indigenous people “reconnecting” to their roots, and cultures; on learning our Native Tongues–I beg the question:

Why is the opening prayer at Powwows in English, and to the very God used as an excuse to kill and displace millions of the very same people gathered to dance and celebrate Native American/Indigenous culture?

In a time when the effigies of people like Junipero Serra are being torn down; when we oppose oil & gas pipelines, and lithium mines en masse; and we shout slogans like “Land Back”, and “Decolonize”…

Why are powwows a safe space for Colonization?

Probably because Pow-wow, and powwowing seem to have been created in New England, in the 17th Century, by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and German-speaking colonizers, as rituals and practices meant to heal people and livestock, using the Bible as their primary source of reference and power. The word powwow actually referred to the Priest performing these Catholic/Christian rituals–and not to any gathering, or specific ritual, itself.

“The Long Lost Friend”, German Powwow Book, published in 1819. Full Text Here

Whether the word powwow was created by the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island–to refer to a priest [which is the same meaning of the German word]–or whether the people simply re-appropriated the New English word to refer to their own medicine men (because that was something which white people could understand more easily than the true indigenous concept of a priest or holy person,) we will probably never know.

It is also possible that, when Roger Williams wrote “A Key into the Language of America”, in 1643, that he was unable to distinguish between a hybridized language–which had already been influenced by the Dutch and German speaking colonizers–and the actual, canonical, language used pre-contact by Narragansett people.

But the European roots of the word and practice of “powwow” cannot be ignored.

What’s more interesting, is the that opening prayer at many powwows are Christian prayers, in English, which closely match the prayers set forth in German powwow books, published three hundred years ago.

At first, I viewed powwows as sad, desperate dances that Native Americans were forced to perform in front of U.S. military officers, and their families–like how Spaniards forced Mission Indians to dance for their entertainment–but now it looks like the term, and concept, of “healing through dancing” is directly drawn from the Germanic roots of a European culture and practice of “powwow”.

And the reverence, and deference given to the Native American Powwow Master of Ceremonies–who speaks the opening prayer–bears no recognizable difference from the treatment given the German folk magic “powwow” priest.

This will obviously be upsetting to people who have based their entire identities around the Native American Powwow, and Powwow Dancing, but this could be the exact reason why powwows were able to exist throughout all decades of colonization–because powwows either are, or were seen as, direct analogs to something which exists within the German and European traditions of folk magic.

The erasure of indigenous culture hinges on Europeanizing indigenous beliefs and cultural & spiritual practices. Whether through Spanish Catholic, or Germanic/Dutch Christianity, religious analogs, and false equivocations were always used by white people for their own selfish aims: namely land and resources.

By re-writing the fundamental identity of, and Christianizing core indigenous beliefs, white people can more easily tell us who we are, and what we believe, to further their goal of the destruction of indigenous culture, and assimilation of indigenous people. Thereby completing the conversion of people they considered as “dirty heathens”, and achieving their stated goal of “Killing the Indian, and Saving The Man”.

Because, once you are under the jurisdiction of the White God, any white priest holds (or with-holds) the power of eternal salvation (or damnation) over you. This was the ultimate aim of Catholic Missions in California: the subjugation of indigenous people to the power of The Church.

But it appears that German and Dutch colonizers were able to re-write indigenous history and culture, while simultaneously “studying”, and attempting to “preserve it.”

This practice is most apparent during the “Salvage Archaeology” period. But it is also so insidious as to have been introduced to us by white people as our own culture and beliefs, after the colonizers’ very purposeful destruction of the same.

Image of Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, “Preaching to the Indians”

Without our records, our stories, and our histories, it is nearly impossible to fight the misinformation fed to us by white scholars and academia.

Indigenizing colonized spaces begins inside of you.

One way to fight indigenous erasure is to stop praying to our oppressors’ God; and to reject the concepts and trappings of a religion that was used as an excuse to kill millions of our ancestors in His name.

A Note To The Reader:

It is entirely speculation as to the true roots of what we call Powwows today. This subject has not been examined very closely by scholars, or researchers, as far as the author can tell. Any information and/or references that you have on this topic would be greatly appreciated. Please think critically about everything you are told regarding our past and history, and always take what you hear with a grain salt. But do your own research, and check the citations.