Indian Country: Westward Expansion and the Transformation of American Religion

“… creating national unity out of a diverse populous. It asks present-day Christians to recall this history and consider its contemporary parallels. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Jennifer L Graber University of Texas at Austin Contact Me

About this sabbatical grant for researchers

This project argues that westward expansion and acquisition of Indian lands prompted a religious and moral crisis for nineteenth-century American Christians, as well as American Indian nations. Although expansion and land acquisition have been treated primarily by political, economic, and military historians, the struggle over Indian lands was deeply informed by theologies of mission, debates about the nature of religious and racial difference, and concerns for cultivating the nation’s religious identity.

I use historical methods to make this argument. I narrate one case of contact, expansion, and land acquisition - American entry into Kiowa Indian lands in what is now southwest Oklahoma - to illustrate these themes more broadly. I document American strategies to acquire these lands, as well as religious groups' and missionaries' efforts to transform Kiowas culturally and religiously. I use Kiowa visual sources to explore how losing autonomy within their lands impacted Kiowa religious practices. In particular, I focus on American missionaries' understanding of Kiowa religious traditions and their efforts to found churches on the reservation. I show Kiowa responses to these efforts and the particular concerns and commitments they brought to church participation.

Finally, I compare the religious transformations prompted by expansion and acquiring Indian lands to other moral dilemmas that divided American Protestants in this period. I make connections to debates about the treatment (and destiny) of a variety of religious and racial "others," including enslaved people of African descent, Mormons, Catholics, and Asian immigrants. By this comparison, I show that the religious crisis in Indian Country paralleled a wider set of concerns and disputes about American cultural and religious identity.

Image Title Year Type Contributor(s) Other Info
The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West 2018 Book Jennifer L Graber