Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




James Axtell


This study is an ethnohistorical examination of Indian religious responses to contact with Euroamericans on the Columbia Plateau, from 1600 to 1850. Plateau natives understood their encounter with European civilization primarily as a momentous spiritual event, and sought new sources of spiritual power to cope with their rapidly changing world. White people seemed to the Indians to have an abundance of spirit power, and many native religious efforts were aimed at capturing some of this power for themselves. These efforts included the protohistoric Prophet Dance, the syncretic "Columbian Religion" of the fur trade era, and the initial enthusiastic response to the first Christian missionaries on the Plateau. Each of these attempts was marked by great enthusiasm at first, and each was abandoned with bitter disappointment as the material condition of the natives worsened. By 1850, most Indians had abandoned the idea that the spirit power of the white people could ever be accessed by themselves, and new religious impulses took the form of nativist movements which sought to purge the natives of white influences.;Because both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries were active on the Plateau, I also compare the conversion efforts of the two faiths. to native eyes, the cultural flexibility, language skills, impressive ceremonies, and superior organizational structure of the Catholics compared favorably to the stem and incomprehensible doctrines of the Protestants. But in both cases most Indians accepted Christian doctrines only as a supplement, and not as a replacement of native beliefs. True converts proved rare before the reservation period.



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