UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Indian Shaker Church : colonialism, continuity, and resistance, 1882-1920 Wright, Eric N.


The Indian Shaker Church is an indigenous spiritual tradition that incorporates Christian-in-origin elements into its practice that began in 1882 near Shelton, Washington. The existing academic literature on the church emphasizes how features of colonial contact between Euro-American resettlers and Indigenous peoples in the late-nineteenth-century, such as epidemic diseases, demographic changes and intense missionization, created a crisis of faith in Indigenous peoples’ spiritual beliefs. In these explanations, the emergence of the Indian Shaker Church is conceived of as a moment where Indigenous people “turned” to Christianity after having lost faith in the validity and efficacy of their own spiritual beliefs, supposedly rendered meaningless by colonial incursion and rapid cultural change. This paper argues instead that these same features of colonial contact in late-nineteenth-century southern Puget Sound, especially the presence of epidemic diseases, actually affirmed Indigenous peoples' spiritual beliefs. It further argues that one product of this affirmation was the Indian Shaker Church. The Shakers adopted Christian-in-origin practices, concepts and elements of material culture and turned them into spiritual resources in a fight against epidemic diseases, which they believed were a spiritual problem. At the same time as these Christian-in-origin elements in the Shaker Church became spiritual resources in a fight against epidemic diseases, they also expressed longstanding Coast Salish spiritual beliefs. The way in which the Indian Shakers expressed their longstanding spiritual beliefs through the religious concepts of the colonizer was an effective means of resistance to a campaign of persecution by American missionaries, Indian agents and lawmakers, who sought to stamp out the Shakers altogether. This paper draws attention to how the incorporation of Christian-in-origin elements into the spiritual practices of Indigenous people has consistently been made into a “conversion” moment by contemporary observers and historians of Indigenous Christianities. The ways in which the Shakers selectively adopted Christian-in-origin elements into their practice and re-interpreted them as expressions of Coast-Salish spiritual beliefs calls into question the historically-rooted assumption that the presence of Christian-in-origin elements in Indigenous peoples’ spiritual practices can be read simply as evidence of a “conversion moment,” in which Indigenous spiritual customs are replaced by Christian ones.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported