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Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau

The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer

Chad S. Hamill

First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies

6 × 9 inches. Full color insert. B&W photographs. Bibliography. Index. 192 pages.

2012. ISBN 978-0-87071-675-1. Paperback, $21.95.

Songs of Power and Prayer explores the role of song as a transformative force in the twentieth century. It traces a cultural, spiritual, and musical encounter that upended notions of indigeneity and the rules of engagement for Indians and priests in the Columbia Plateau.

Chad Hamill’s narrative focuses on a Jesuit and his two Indian “grandfathers”—one a medicine man, the other a hymn singer—who together engaged in a collective search for the sacred. The priest became a student of the medicine man. The medicine man became a Catholic. The Indian hymn singer brought indigenous songs to the Catholic mass. Using song as a thread, these men weaved together two worlds previously at odds, realizing a promise born within prophecies two centuries earlier.

Long before Jesuits appeared in Coeur d’Alene and Salish country, Indian prophets foretold their arrival. In their respective visions, Circling Raven and Shining Shirt were the first to behold the oddlooking men wearing long black robes, carrying with them little more than “crossed sticks” and words of a foreign prophet who lived and died a world away. Roughly a century later, the “Blackrobes” arrived, immediately translating liturgical texts and hymns into the Salish language. Calling on centuries of indigenous praxis in which song was prayer, the hymns were very quickly and consciously embodied by the Salish and Coeur d’Alene people, reinterpreted and re-sung as expressions of indigenous identity and spiritual power.

Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau reveals how song can bridge worlds, both between the individual and Spirit and the Jesuits and the Indians. Whether sung in an indigenous ceremony or adapted for Catholic Indian services, song abides as a force that strengthens Native identity and acts as a conduit for power and prayer.

Listen to audio recordings of songs featured in the book at the Songs of Power and Prayer website.

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