Prayer on Top of the Earth: The Spiritual Universe of the Plains Apache. By Kay Parker
Schweinfurth. (Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2002. Pp.
xxiv+239. Illustrations, preface, pronunciation guide, introduction, notes,
bibliography, index. ISBN o-87o81-656-X. $29.95, cloth.)
Native American accounts of their own history often conflict with non-Indian
tales of the same story. The reports conflict in part because of contrasting world-
views, differing cosmologies, and varying methodologies.
In this book, a lively social and cultural history, we get an Indian perspective
on the Plains Apache (or Kiowa Apache) spiritual and mythological world. The
author talks with seven Plains Apache historians and uses their reports to de-
scribe and discuss Apache spiritual connections with the land and the natural
world. It is oral history dominated by Plains Apache folklore, with animal sto-
ries, humorous fiction, tales from the deep past, pedagogical stories, and trick-
ster tales all forming a part of the history. For Plains Apache folklore, the
Coyote played a critical role in the trickster tales. According to the author, the
Coyote kept the people "in touch with reality" and he helped to provide balance
between the natural world and the supernatural one (p. xxiii).
The work had begun as an ethnographic study from extensive field notes that
Oklahoma anthropologist William F. Bittle had collected. Because of illness,
however, Bittle turned the notes over to his friend and former student, Kay Park-
er Schweinfurth, who used them to produce the attractive and valuable book.
Following brief pieces on the seven tribal historians and Plains Apache histor-
ical background, the author divides the numerous tales, stories, and lessons
that make up the book into broad subject chapters. The chapters cover such
topics as animals and spirits, birds and spirits, people and spirits, doctoring, cer-
emonial dance, pan-Indian religion, and medicine bundles. The several tales
and stories contained in each chapter vary in length, but none are long and all
If there is a unifying theme to the book, it is the role and presence of "symbol"
among the Plains Apaches. The symbol may be an owl's hoot, a lightning strike,
a raven's call, an eagle's feather, or any number of other common (or not so
common) phenomena. But the author shows that symbols-as well as prayers,
songs, and dances-contain power and messages and that they often take on
The book shows again the strong, even powerful, sense of spirituality
that is associated with most Plains Indian groups. As the author notes, the
Plains Apaches routinely called on their spirit helpers for strength and
courage, regularly offered prayers and pledges for aid and blessings, and
commonly underwent self-sacrifice for assistance.
It is a good book. One that in some ways is as much a natural and en-
vironmental history of the Plains Apache world as it is a study of their
Texas Tech Unzversity
Paul H. Carlson
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101223/. Accessed January 27, 2015.