In 1893, the American Baptist women’s missionary society assigned Isabel Crawford to go work among the Kiowa on their reservation in southwest Oklahoma. She carried with her girlhood memories of the annual Christmas tree at the mission her church had opened in a poor section of Woodstock, Ontario. Thus, as Christmas approached on the Oklahoma mission, Crawford made plans for a Christmas tree.
As a girl, Crawford had made gifts for the Sunday school Christmas tree out of odds and ends that she found at home. Here on the reservation, everything serviceable was put into use. There was but one source to be tapped: the missionary barrels. Congregations from churches around the country sent barrels of goods to the missions. The collections were well-intended, yet they often contained items like elaborate bonnets “which should have been burned at the stake before being allowed to enter the missionary field.” But Crawford was well experienced turning odds and ends into something useful, and she went to work. She hunted men’s shirts in the missionary barrel and also crocheted cuffs for the men; she found women’s clothing and she made sewing baskets for the women; and she prepared clothes and toys for the children.
When the great day arrived, the men, women, and children gathered around the tree, which was decorated with black and white skunk tails tied onto its branches. The Kiowa received the gifts with gratitude, but they often did not examine them until after the service had ended and they were seated around their own campfires. For Crawford, Christmas had always been a time of giving, and she taught that spirit to her Kiowa Christian converts. The highlight of the Christmas service for them was the opportunity to bring their gifts as a birthday present for the baby Jesus. They had little, but they brought their coins with gratitude. At first their offerings went to take the gospel to the Hopi on another reservation. As years went on, they began contributing toward the construction of their own church and toward the salary of their interpreter. Crawford had taught them well, and they, too, learned the joy of Christmas giving.
When Isabel Crawford received her assignment as a missionary to the “blanket Indians” in Oklahoma, she first said, “I won’t go.” She had pictured herself in a more civilized missionary setting like China or India where she could be “nice and good.” Many missionaries there lived together in missionary compound, venturing out to do their work but returning to the society, the culture that they knew for their daily living.
Gradually Crawford became reconciled to her first missionary assignment: after all, she had promised that she would go anywhere. She agreed to go, “if I’m scalped twenty four hours after I land.” Like so many North Americans, Crawford held an image of Indians as brutal savages, living in tipis, wearing war bonnets, and ruthlessly collecting scalps. How did this image, true of only a segment of the Native population, come to be seen as true of Native Americans across the continent?
There are many answers, including the depiction of Indians in action-oriented and often sensational dime novels. Another of the sources is the Wild West show, and this is explored in a book by L.G. Moses, Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1884-1933. William Cody (Buffalo Bill) and other organizers of the shows used predominantly Plains Indians in their casts, and this helped Plains Indian culture become the norm despite the wide variety in Native American culture.
The Kiowa among whom Isabel Crawford worked for thirteen years were Plains Indians, and yes, they had lived in tipis although they were making the transition to frame houses while Crawford worked among them. But even for these Plains Indians, much of the stereotype did not hold. They were protective of Crawford, and she soon realized that she felt no danger from them. In fact, she felt so confident that, after two and a half years on a small mission station, she left to start another mission by herself in a different Kiowa community.
During the recent Thanksgiving season, we have again been exposed to the outdated and inaccurate images. Read Moses’s book or perhaps Thomas King’s award-winning The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to understand better this cultural misunderstanding.