Fusing myriad primary and secondary sources, historian Larry Cebula offers a compelling master narrative of the impact of Christianity on the Columbian Plateau peoples in the Pacific Northwest from 1700 to 1850.
For the Native peoples of the Columbian Plateau, the arrival of whites was understood primarily as a spiritual event, calling for religious explanations. Between 1700 and 1806, Native peoples of the Columbian Plateau experienced the presence of whites indirectly through the arrival of horses, some trade goods by long-distance exchange, and epidemic diseases that decimated their population and shook their faith in their religious beliefs. Many responded by participating in the Prophet Dance movement to restore their frayed links to the spirit world.
When whites arrived in the early nineteenth century, the Native peoples of the Columbian Plateau were more concerned with learning about white people's religious beliefs and spiritual power than with acquiring their trade goods; trading posts were seen as windows into another world rather than sources of goods. The whites’ strange appearance and seeming immunity to disease and the unique qualities of their goods and technologies suggested great spiritual power to the Native peoples. But disillusionment awaited: Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to teach the Native peoples about Christianity, yet these white spiritual practices failed to protect them from a new round of epidemic disease. By 1850, with their world devastatingly altered, most Plateau Indians had rejected Christianity
Larry Cebula is an associate professor of history at Missouri Southern State College.