Native American Tribal Identity

Eighty-five years ago a small group of Crow Indians from southeast Montana took a train to Los Angeles to attend healing services led by a famous Pentecostal pioneer. When the group returned to the reservation, one of its members began blending traditional Crow practices with those of the nascent American Pentecostal movement. The ministry thrived, and Crow Pentecostal churches began to grow throughout the reservation.

Mark Clatterbuck headshotLast summer, Professor Mark Clatterbuck visited the Crow Reservation to explore the popular religious movement of Crow Pentecostalism. The professor of religion is one of only a few scholars researching what has become the most influential Christian movement on the reservation.

"What began in 1927 as a small band of Crow Foursquare Church converts has since become the most ubiquitous and influential Christian movement on the reservation, one that exerts enormous political, social, and religious influence on present day Crow tribal life," he notes.

Clatterbuck's research, "Real Indians Love Jesus: Anti-Nativism and the Reinvention of Tribal Identity Among Crow Pentecostals Today," points out that the movement has not been smooth or void of critics. While many Crow Pentecostal religious practices—including healing prayer, fasting in the hills, and vision-questing—are rooted in the traditional Crow religion, Crow Pentecostals publicly condemn many of the traditional ceremonies and ways of worship.

"Crow Pentecostals themselves have crafted an ingenious framework of religious identity whereby their embrace of Christianity and rejection of Crow traditionalism actually places them at the center of Crow tribal identity," Clatterbuck says, "even as so-called tribal traditionalists are re-cast as the real indigenous outsiders."

To illustrate the growth of Crow Pentecostalism on the Montana reservation, Clatterbuck points to the recent construction of an 11,000-square-foot church that holds 500 people. "It's the closest thing I've ever seen to a Native mega-church on the Northern Plains," he says.

Clatterbuck recently received a grant from the Louisville Institute to expand his studies for a project, "Jesus at Crow: Case Studies in Native Religious Identity," in which he will document the interreligious encounters taking place on the reservation between Christianity and Crow Traditionalism. The result will be a book based on his fieldwork that includes a video highlighting footage of Crow Christian worship and interviews with Crow religious practitioners. Helping Clatterbuck with his research will be a Crow interpreter, videographer, and two student research assistants.