Surely I made a mistake. Perhaps mixed up a name? Or failed to note a date correctly? A return to the archival sources confirmed a strange confluence of events: In 1892, both Catholic and Protestant missionaries announced evangelistic triumphs in regard to Cûifā́gàui, a Kiowa Indian known to Americans as Lone Wolf. Baptists claimed he invited them to live in his camp and that his people were “begging for help.” Benedictine missionaries wrote about his visit to mass at their newly opened mission. During the service, “Old Chief Lone Wolf” bowed before the cross and thanked the “Great Spirit” for sending someone “to teach them about Jesus.” The Benedictines circulated the story in their mission newspaper. The Baptists went further, printing a fundraising pamphlet with biblical resonances entitled “Lone Wolf’s Appeal.”

It might have been enough to observe how Cûifā́gàui’s engagements with Christianity defied missionary expectations. What would these competing evangelists think of Cûifā́gàui’s participation in both Catholic and Protestant worship? But the archive from 1892 included even more stories about Cûifā́gàui. These sources told of his efforts to protect Kiowa lands. And it was these stories that eventually made Cûifā́gàui’s English name, Lone Wolf, easily recognizable among legal historians. At the same time Cûifā́gàui greeted Baptist missionaries and Catholic priests, he argued with US government officials seeking to dissolve the Kiowa reservation, assign individual plots of land to Kiowa men, and sell off more than one million “surplus” acres to white settlers. In 1892, Cûifā́gàui and his Kiowa supporters began a decade-long struggle calling on Congress to keep its treaty promises. By the turn of the century, his name was attached to one of the most important—and devastating—cases American Indians have brought before the Supreme Court. With their 1903 decision in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, the justices not only found that Congress could break its 1867 treaty with Kiowas and thereby take lands guaranteed to them, they also claimed that Congress had the authority to abrogate any treaty with Indian nations it deemed necessary.

I entered the archives wondering how Native ritual practices functioned and changed as westward expansion threatened lands and communities. I also had questions about Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, and their participation in the broader American effort to secure the West. Throughout my research, I encountered many stories like Cûifā́gàui’s, in which Native people struggled as traditional formats for accessing sacred power were foreclosed by ecological disaster and colonial violence. Like many Plains Indian nations, Kiowas affirmed that a superhuman power circulated in the universe and could be embodied in places, animals, and objects. As Native peoples across the West faced unprecedented challenges, they considered new power-seeking venues. My research also showed how closely American mission activity paralleled and related to federal efforts to claim, explore, and seize Indian lands.

These stories became the heart of The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West. The book, which covers Kiowa and American encounters between 1803 and 1903, makes two arguments. First, Catholic and Protestant leaders and missionaries interested in evangelizing Native people and settling the West constructed a notion of themselves as “friends of the Indian” in contrast to Americans calling for military expansion. This constructed identity, with the army as its foil, allowed these religious workers to mask their support for and participation in other forms of colonial violence. Second, Kiowas employed various strategies to survive American expansion and occupation. Ritual interactions with sacred power, as well as adaptation of those rituals and experimentation with new power sources, played a crucial role in that survival story.

Cûifā́gàui’s legal effort and Christian engagements appear toward the end of the book. Prior to that, I narrate how Kiowas maintained and adapted their Sun Dance, a rite in which they offered thanks to powers that had long sustained their people and way of life. By the early 1890s, however, depleted buffalo herds and American soldiers sent to monitor the ceremonies prompted Kiowas to seek other forms of empowerment. Cûifā́gàui considered affiliation with Christian missions. His nephew, who inherited his name and joined the legal case to save the land, eventually served as a Methodist preacher. But Kiowas considered a number of ritual alternatives. Some engaged in ceremonial peyote ingestion, receiving traditions from other Native peoples and adapting them to Kiowa life. Still others participated in what has been called the pan-Indian Ghost Dance, seeking healing and restoration through dance and song. Members of all these movements joined Cûifā́gàui in the effort to protect their land.

The missionaries who engaged Cûifā́gàui were inheritors of longtime Christian efforts to secure Native converts and Native lands. In earlier decades, missionaries cultivated their benevolent identity as the “Indian’s friend” by resisting President Andrew Jackson’s removal of Cherokee Indians, even as they supported removal in other circumstances. At mid-century and during the early reservation years, acting as the “Indian’s friend” involved calling on the government to fulfill treaty obligations, such as providing food rations for Native communities struggling in the transition to Euro-American agricultural forms. But by the 1890s, being a “friend of the Indian” had changed. Protestant groups, especially, supported federal efforts to dissolve reservations and establish individual landholding among Native Americans. One group of religious activists, calling themselves the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples, provided creative arguments for how such federal actions could be executed while avoiding accusations of treaty breaking. They called for an end to tribal landholding even as Native people like Cûifā́gàui argued that the land was theirs based on treaty promises.     

Over the course of the nineteenth century, religious practices, ideas about what constituted good “religion,” and the construction of religious identities mattered greatly as Native people defended their lands and Americans advanced projects to claim them. The Gods of Indian Country tracks these stories, placing land at the heart of our narratives of American religious history. In doing so, it offers an alternative to accounts of religion and American expansion that focus on Native reception or rejection of Christianity or, put differently, the persistence or loss of Native “traditions” in the face of colonial force. It focuses, instead, on the various ways Kiowas related to the power circulating in their lands and how those engagements changed as those lands came under threat. It also emphasizes the ways Christian missions paralleled American expansion and were reshaped by the experience of removing Indian nations, confining them on reservations, and ultimately dissolving tribally held lands.

With this emphasis on land—its sacralized defense and sanctified theft—the book also offers a backstory to twentieth and twenty-first century Native activism. Consider, for instance, the Standing Rock protests. Indigenous peoples from around the globe have gathered at the protest camp by the thousands. They represent dozens of independent peoples, as well as myriad religious positions. But as Greg Johnson and Siv Ellen Kraft have observed, religion is a “key register in the camps.” While activists are connected to distinct religious traditions, they invoke the power of “ceremony” in their shared work to “defend the sacred.” Once again, a look to the land and the forms of sacred power marshaled for its protection can make sense of what might initially seem riotously diverse. Or in the case of Cûifā́gàui and his forays into Protestant and Catholic worship, quite unorthodox.