Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau
The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer
Songs of Power and Prayer explores the role of song as atransformative force in the twentieth century. It traces a cultural,spiritual, and musical encounter that upended notions of indigeneityand the rules of engagement for Indians and priests in the ColumbiaPlateau.
Chad Hamill’s narrative focuses on a Jesuit and his two Indian“grandfathers”—one a medicine man, the other a hymnsinger—who together engaged in a collective search for thesacred. The priest became a student of the medicine man. The medicineman became a Catholic. The Indian hymn singer brought indigenous songsto the Catholic mass. Using song as a thread, these men weaved togethertwo worlds previously at odds, realizing a promise born withinprophecies two centuries earlier.
Long before Jesuits appeared in Coeur d’Alene and Salishcountry, Indian prophets foretold their arrival. In their respectivevisions, Circling Raven and Shining Shirt were the first to behold theoddlooking men wearing long black robes, carrying with them little morethan “crossed sticks” and words of a foreign prophet wholived and died a world away. Roughly a century later, the“Blackrobes” arrived, immediately translating liturgicaltexts and hymns into the Salish language. Calling on centuries ofindigenous praxis in which song was prayer, the hymns were very quicklyand consciously embodied by the Salish and Coeur d’Alene people,reinterpreted and re-sung as expressions of indigenous identity andspiritual power.
Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau revealshow song can bridge worlds, both between the individual and Spirit andthe Jesuits and the Indians. Whether sung in an indigenous ceremony oradapted for Catholic Indian services, song abides as a force thatstrengthens Native identity and acts as a conduit for power andprayer.
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