An excerpt from the new Demons, Saints, & Patriots: Catholic Visions of Native America Through The Indian Sentinel (1902 – 1962).  The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions published The Indian Sentinel “as both a chronicle of Catholic Indian missions activities and an impassioned public relations tool to save a beleaguered missionary venture.”

By Mark Clatterbuck

Many missionaries through the 1920s no longer perceived Native customs and religious beliefs as a genuine threat to reservation Catholicism. In turn, spoofs on so-called Indian superstitions, and photographic gimmicks at the expense of tribal customs, were employed as humorous props in Sentinel advertisements and appeals for donations. This development paralleled a rising tide of Catholic triumphalism which rendered formerly-feared indigenous ways as largely benign relics of a fast-fading culture. In the contest between Church and paganism, the outcome was no longer in doubt in the great majority of missionaries’ minds. Christianity and civilization had conquered, and time was now on truth’s side.

In subsequent decades, the Indian as mission-prop did not disappear from Indian missionary literature so much as it morphed into a new version of itself. The practice gradually moved beyond photos of funny feathers and mock arrows to feature, instead, Indians role-playing staged versions of themselves. Beginning in the 1930s, then peaking in the 40s and 50s, Catholic Indian children were employed as actors and actresses portraying their former – more savage, more tribal, more “authentically Indian” – selves. Thus the feared Indian of yesterday, as he existed in the white imagination, literally became a plaything in the hands of missionary priests, mission school teachers, Sentinel readers, and unwitting white audiences across the country.

The shift from appropriating elements of traditional Native culture in quaintly humorous advertising ploys, to conscripting actual Indian converts as dramatic representations of their pre-Christianized ancestors, was presaged by a subtle but significant rhetorical development which took place in the mid-1930s. Previously, Indians in traditional dress who appeared in Sentinel photographs were either referred to simply as traditional or old-time Indians, or – even more likely – received no particular comment at all. Over time, missionary writers begin referring to such Indians, instead, as wearing costumes. For example, Indian children in traditional tribal dress at a 1933 Catholic Indian Congress are described as being “in costume.” A 1934 photo offers readers “Crow Indians in Tribal Costume.”  Another photograph from the same year, this one of a Zuni named Joe Quemap-hone in Navaho dress, carries the caption: “HOW INDIAN BOYS PLAY INDIAN.”  It is no longer traditional regalia which Indians wear, but “costumes” – something one puts on while pretending to be something one is not. The shift in rhetoric suggests that these Catholicized Sentinel subjects are no longer real Indians in the traditional sense. They are fake Indians, former Indians who, as new-Indian converts, occasionally play at being “real” Indians. It was most often the mission children who were dressed up by missionaries to play these presumed-dead shadows of themselves.

Reservation children dressed as "Indians" for Halloween.


The fascination with Indians-playing-Indians continues into the 1950s as the irony associated with the phenomenon is heightened through further cultural alienation taking place among the tribes. A Franciscan sister among the Northern Cheyenne of Montana tells the following playground tale. One day while the children of St. Labre Mission are out at recess, one of the children yells to his classmates, “Let’s play Indian!” The sister writes that “immediately the St. Labre playground resounded with blood-curdling yells. Little Indians were playing Indians!” But the purpose of the article is not to highlight the irony or the tragedy of the event, but rather to request donations to fund the food and resources necessary to “keep the 175 youngsters happy and healthy so that they can keep on ‘playing Indian’…”  In another article, a young music teacher offers a lengthy description of how his Indian students wear white clothes, have white hobbies, use white expressions, and glory in white fashion trends. Then he includes a photograph of his choir showing all the girls smiling in fringed buckskin dresses, and all the boys’ heads wrapped in Tontoesque bandanas as they prepare for a musical performance.  In this way, the Catholic-trained, white-cultured Indians of his school are transformed into make-believe performance Indians for white audiences by dressing them the way non-Natives imagined “real” Indians (meaning pre-Christianized Indians) must have dressed. It was a play within a play within a play: Indians at Catholic boarding school acting like whites acting like Indians.

The Indian-playacting trend heralded a campaign by missionaries to redefine for Native Catholics (and their white audiences) what it means to be a “real Indian.” They did so via a two-part strategy: first, by legitimating (on a variety of stages) the theatrical role of the “fake Indian” in American popular culture; second, by confining the image of the traditional Native American to the wasteland of an imaginary Past in the nation’s collective memory.


The shifting identity of the so-called “real Indian” (was she the Native traditionalist? the Catholic? the Catholic pretending to be a traditionalist?) presented obvious difficulties for the missionary priest struggling to sort out his own identity. As the trappings of Native cultures were increasingly viewed as innocuous relics of an irrecoverable (and thereby harmless) past, missionaries began experimenting with the extent to which they themselves could play the part of the Indian. And, so, Indians playing Indians for whites were joined by whites playing Indians for Indians. The highly decorated tribal headdress became the chief symbol of this popular movement. The earliest Sentinel photograph of a priest wearing a headdress appears in the May 1941 issue.  In February 1949, readers find a photograph of Father Vincent Egan in an elaborate headdress, holding a toy bow and arrows in his hand. He is dressed for his role in a pageant being performed by his Piute congregation for the benefit of a white audience celebrating Pioneer Day in Burns, Oregon.

A new trend is born -- priest in headdress.


Playing Indian – whether Indians for whites, or whites for Indians – boils down to a conflict of identities. How traditionally Native can an Indian remain once baptized a Catholic? How Native should (or can) a white missionary become to win an Indian to the Christian faith? Sister Ruthelda is clearly aware of such dilemmas in a reflective 1953 article entitled “Let’s Play Indian.” Far from being another attempt to dress up Catholic Indians as quaintly remembered savages, or to costume priests in tribal regalia, Ruthelda wrestles, instead, with the need for missionaries to realistically identify with Indians without assuming a false identity in the process. She writes that Indian missionaries are learning more and more that successful work requires them to follow the lead of Saint Paul in becoming “all things to all men.” Toward a clearer understanding of what this entails, she explicitly opposes attempts by missionaries to “play Indian.” Rather, to become Indian means “to take on in some way the feelings of the Indians and try to see their problems with their eyes.”  These reflections remind us that serious wrestling with Catholic-Native identity was taking place behind the mission stage curtains and rodeo spectacles. For while some missionaries were busy making faux-Indian pageants with their Catholic converts, others were engaged in a far more fruitful – and far more difficult – task: making a more authentically Indian religion out of reservation Catholicism.

Mark Clatterbuck has been actively engaged in the Native-Christian encounter in the US for more than fifteen years, including time spent living and teaching on the Rocky Boy’s Chippewa-Cree Reservation in Montana. His most recent articles include two oral history projects exploring dual religious identities of Native Catholics and Native Pentecostals among eastern Montana tribes (“Sweet Grass Mass and Pow Wows for Jesus” and “In Native Tongues”). He holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Culture from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Beginning this fall, he’ll be an Assistant Professor of Religion at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Disclaimer: Clatterbuck is a member of  The Revealer‘s literal family.

For more new books on Native Americans, see the New York Times June 13 book review, “Books About the Indian Wars.”