Reading between the Lines: "A History of the Old and New Testaments in the Absaroki or Crow Indian Language"
Ishko wassako Akbatatdia makukurerak awe kondiak/Long ago, in the beginning, God heaven and earth he made.
So begins an extraordinary text in the Montana Historical Society's collections. Produced sometime around 1900, this handwritten translation of the Old and New Testaments was the work of an anonymous scribe known to us only as "a Missionary of the Society of Jesus." The author shows careful attention not just to biblical fundamentals, but also to the cultural expressions, grammar, arid nuances of the Crows, the people for whom the book was intended. At some point after the text was finished, interlinear translations in another hand dutifully parsed the text, bringing to life both the familiar stories of the Bible and the quirks and turns of a language that had to be manipulated to convey the life of John the Baptist, the agony of the crucifixion, and the Apostles' Creed.
"The New and Old Testaments in the Absaroki or Crow Indian Language by a Missionary of the Society of Jesus" came into the possession of the Montana Historical Society in August 2004. Created at the St. Xavier Mission in eastern Montana, the manuscript traveled (probably with its translator) back east to the Cardinal Hayes Library at Manhattan College in New York. There it remained until 1992 when the Hayes Library offered it for auction. Three years later the manuscript was purchased from a south London bookshop by Simon Evetts, a British sports-medicine researcher. Evetts, believing that the item ought to come home to Montana, offered it to the Montana Historical Society, where it is available to researchers today.1
In its entirety, the translation is a text that manages to reveal the Old and New Testaments in a new and unfamiliar tongue. Yet, if we turn our gaze slightly, it also suggests so much more. Even as we admire the author's dedication and skill, we should remember that this manuscript and others like it also reveal the complicated relationships and encounters that shaped Christianity in Indian country.
Is this a unique piece of work? Not entirely. Spanish fathers translated the testaments into dozens of languages and dialects, the Puritan divine John Eliot devoted himself to writing native-language Bibles, and nineteenth- and twentiethcentury American policymakers enthusiastically sent missionaries into Indian country to do the government's bidding. These politicians, like American church leaders, shared the conviction that Christianity would strip Indian people of their spiritual and cultural traditions and replace them with white, middle-class ones. The policymakers who intensified the nation's assimilation programs in the post-Civil War years routinely expressed their faith in the church's ability to overcome any obstacle. In 1869, for example, the annual report of the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners reminded readers that "the religion of our blessed Savior is ... the most effective agent for the civilization of any people."2
The Jesuit father who wrote the Crow language version of the Old and New Testaments surely shared such beliefs, and was surely motivated by the hope that traditional Crow religion would quickly give way to Christianity and all that it represented. But a more complicated reality emerged at Crow Agency, Fort Hall. Fort Belknap. Rocky Boy, Fort Peck, and Wind River-indeed, at every reservation and in every Indian community across the country. Did some Indian people make the transition fully to the white world? Yes. of this there is little doubt. But Indian people arid missionaries alike often found themselves negotiating encounters and relationships with profoundly important consequences that contradicted assimilation. And in this context, texts like the one described here have as much to tell us about the changing contours of Crow belief and identity as they do about white expectations and policies. To paraphrase James Clifford, these texts introduce us to stories of contact framed not by the typical narratives of resistance or absorption, but by permeable cultural boundaries and practices. ' This manuscript and the others like it should encourage us to ask questions about how, why, and with what consequences Crow people encountered Christianity, shaping it to fit their needs as an Indian institution.
How do such texts shed light on the decisions and changes made by Crow people one hundred years ago as they positioned themselves in a rapidly changing world? Did Christianity answer needs from a Crow perspective? Could these manuscripts also tell us something about how and why Crow people maintained their identity by adopting Christianity? James Treat is sure that they do. Native Christian liturgical forms, teachings, values, and traditions, he writes, suggest "innumerable demonstrations of their insightful historical and social analysis, their complex and sophisticated religious creativity, and their powerful devotion to personal and community survival." Ray DeMallie has commented that in the early twentieth century many Lakota communities used the church "to organize themselves with leaders and spokesmen who could represent their interests," while Bonnie Sue Lewis notes that Christian churches were "one of the best means of preserving the Dakota bands." Clara Sue Kidwell reminds us that Choctaw churches "provided a new voice for Choctaw leadership," and Jack Schultz points out that Indians and missionaries alike responded to "a shared history of interaction, communication, negotiation, and face-to-face encounters . . . not a fixed set of traits, behaviors, [or] structures."4
"The New and Old Testaments in the Absaroki or Crow Indian Language by a Missionary of the Society of Jesus" should encourage us to broaden our focus a bit in order to catch the wider perspective of the communities that read the Testaments, contemplated their meanings, and used them to articulate their identity as Crow people. It should also move us to discover other elements of the community's spiritual life-to hear the hymn singers, listen to the sermons, visit the cemeteries, and ponder just what kind of heaven and earth Akbatatdia created on the northern plains.
The Montana Historical Society holds an extensive collection of historic and contemporary native-language Bibles, sacred texts, dictionaries, and grammatical guides. These texts include the Jesuit Tel Kaiminitis Kolenzutin/Narrative from the Bible in Kalispel (1879), Dictionary of the Kalispel or Flat-head Indian Language (1879), Fraser Tolmie and George Dawson's Comparative Vocabularies of British Columbia (1884), the Jesuit Prayers in the Crow Language (1891), Selecta ex Historia Sacra (in Crow, 1891), The Life of Jesus Christ in Nez Perces Language (1914), and many more. For information about these and other historic sources, please visit the Montana Historical Society Research Center's online catalog or call (406) 444-2681.
1. "The New and Old Testaments in the Absaroki or Crow Indian Language by a Missionary of the Society of Jesus," circa 1900. SC 2400, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.
2. Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indian, 2 vols. (Lincoln, 1984), 1:510.
3. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 344.
4. James Treat, Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada (New York, 1996), 9-10; Raymond J. DeMallie, ed., The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Nfihardt (Lincoln, 1984), 15; Bonnie Sue Lewis, Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church (Norman, 2003), 96; Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi (Norman, 1995), 180,183; Jack Schulte, The Seminale Baptist Churches of Oklahoma: Maintaining a Traditional Community (Norman, 1999), 3-4.
CLYDE ELLIS is associate professor of history at Elon University, Elon, North Carolina, and author of A Dancing People: Powwow Culture on the Southern Plains (2003) and other books. CHARLENE PORSILD is director of the Montana Historical Society Research Center.