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Religion in the New World: Native American Spirituality

Religion in the New World: Native American Spirituality

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Definition. The term Native American religion is actually a misnomer if we consider religion in a traditional western sense; that is, a coherent system based on a single text, remaining fairly consistent over many generations. It is more accurate to refer to Native American spirituality. However, Native American spirituality, while possessing certain similarities, differed from tribe to tribe and from region to region. As a whole, Native Americans considered their culture and social structure to be intimately connected to spirituality, which was an integral part of each aspect of community life. Ceremony and ritual were extensions of everyday existence, but often these celebrations held meaning only for a particular tribe.

The Natural World. Each Native American tribe had spiritual relationships with the natural world. The Earth and its fruits were gifts to be appreciated, not taken for granted. Depending on the tribe or language group, different animals held particular powers. For all tribes it was important not to abuse the animals, in order to avoid their wrath. Each Native American tribe worshiped many gods, with one god often possessing superior powers. Some men

also possessed spiritual powers. These were the shamans, who were thought to have supernatural powers as well as the ability to heal others. In this way Native Americans connected body and spirit; an ailing spirit would beget an ailing body. Shamans were also responsible for transmitting myths, which, instead of written texts, served as the Indians sacred words.

Varieties. A few examples illustrate the varieties of Native American spirituality, gods, and beliefs. The Micmacs, who lived south and west of the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, shared beliefs similar to those of other northern hunting tribes. They especially respected the bear and believed that bears and other animals could become transformed into other species. Gluskap was a mighty warrior who had gone away but would return to help the Micmacs when necessary. The main religious authority among the

IROQUOIAN CREATION MYTH

In a house in the Sky World, native traditions say, a man and woman lived on opposite sides of a fireplace. The two had great spiritual power because each had been isolated from other people until the age of puberty. Every day after their housemates went out to work, the woman crossed to the other side to comb the mans hair. Through mysterious means, she became pregnant and bore a daughter. Shortly thereafter, the man fell ill and announced that he would soon die. Because no one in the Sky World knew what death was, he had to explain to the woman what would happen to him and instruct her how to preserve his body. After he died, the womans growing daughter endured fits of weeping that, despite the best efforts of village neighbors to comfort her, could be relieved only by visits to the preserved corpse of the deceased, whose spirit told her that he was her father and taught her many things.

When the daughter, whom the Iroquois called Sky Woman, reached adulthood, her fathers spirit instructed her to take a dangerous journey to the village of a man destined to become her spouse. She brought her prospective husband loaves of bread baked with berries and then, enduring great travail, cooked him a potent soup that cured him of a long-troublesome ailment. In exchange he sent her home with a burden of venison that nearly filled her familys house. After Sky Woman returned to her husband, the pair always slept on opposite sides of the fire and refrained from sexual intercourse. Nevertheless, she, like her mother before her, inexplicably became pregnant. Stricken by jealousy, the husband again became ill and dreamed that a great tree near his house must be uprooted so that he and his spouse could look down through the resulting hole to the world below. To cure his sickness, all the people of the village worked together to pull it up. When Sky Woman looked over the edge of the abyss, her husband pushed her down.

As she fell toward the endless waters below, the spirit birds and animals of the sea held a council to decide how to rescue her. Ducks flew up to catch her on their wings and bring her safely down, and the Turtle agreed to provide a place for her to rest on his Back. Meantime, various animals tried to dive to the bottom of the lake and bring up earth on which the woman could walk; only the Muskrat succeeded. The material he placed on the Turtles Back grew, with Sky Womans help, into the living dry land of North America. Soon the celestial visitor gave birth to a daughter, who in time became supernaturally pregnant by the spirit of the Turtle. In the younger womans womb grew male twins, who began arguing over the best way to emerge from her body. The first, the Good Twin (Tharonhiawagon, Upholder of the Heavens, or Sky-Grasper), was born by the normal route. The second, the Evil Twin (Tawiskaron), burst forth from his mothers side and thus killed her. When Sky Woman asked which of her grandsons had slain her daughter, they blamed each other, but the Evil Twin was the more persistent and persuasive. The Grandmother cherished him, whom she loved; she turned the body and the head of the boys deceased mother into the sun and moon, respectively; and she threw the Good Twin out of her house, assuming he would die.

But he did not perish. Instead, with the aid of his father the Turtle, the Good Twin improved Iroquoia, making various animals, learning the secrets of cultivating maize and other crops, and finally bringing into existence mortal human beings. All of these things he did not create from nothingness; rather, they grew through a process of transformation and infusion of supernatural power from the living earth and from prototypical spirit beings who dwelled in the Sky World and beneath the waters. At each step, Sky Woman and the Evil Twin partially undid the Good Twins efforts in ways that forever after would make life difficult for humans. When the Good Twin constructed straight rivers that facilitated canoe travel by flowing both ways at once, the Evil Twin introduced rocks and hills to twist the streams and make their frequently obstructed waters fall in only one direction. When the Good Twin grew succulent ears of corn, Sky Woman threw ashes into his cooking pot and decreed that henceforth maize must be parched and ground before it could be eaten. When the Good Twin made animals readily give themselves to humans as food, the Evil Twin sealed them all in a cave, from which Sky-Grasper could rescue only a portion; the rest the Evil Twin turned into enemies of humans.

Finally, the two brothers fought, and the Good Twin triumphed. He could not, however, undo all the evil that his brother and Grandmother had left in the world. Instead he taught humans how to grow corn to support themselves and how to keep harm at bay through ceremonies of thanksgiving and propitiation to the spirit world. To keep these ceremonies, Sky-Grasper assigned roles to various camps of people he arbitrarily designated as clans named after such animals as the Wolf, the Bear, and the Turtle. But he knew that mortals could never keep the rituals adequately.

Source: Daniel Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), pp. 911.

Narragansetts in Rhode Island and Connecticut (they would figure prominently in Puritan New England in the seventeenth century) was the shaman. In each case the shaman, who was always male, had been selected as a result of a dream or vision which may have been induced by herbal infusions. Public rituals, such as those held at harvest time and in midwinter, honored the creator. The North Carolina Algonquians believed in various gods and spirits; the principal god had created lesser gods to create the world. Life after death assured treatment according to ones moral conduct in this world.

Other Beliefs. The Miwoks in northern California believed that all living things belonged to one of two distinct categories. For people this was either land or water, and each category was represented by animals. The South Sierra Miwoks symbols for land were the blue jay and the grizzly bear; the coyote represented water.

Sources

Handbook of North American Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 19781990);

Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

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Religion in the New World: The Huguenots in South Carolina

Religion in the New World: The Huguenots in South Carolina

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Safe Haven. As an extension of their colonizing Fort Caroline in Florida, Huguenots attempted several times to settle South Carolina. Generations before South Carolina was successfully colonized, French Protestants attempted to make it a safe haven for others facing persecution and destitution as a consequence of their religious beliefs.

Difficult Beginnings. In 1562 Jean Ribault and René Goulaine de Laudonnière tried to settle on St. Johns River. Unsatisfied there, they moved up the coast to Port Royal Harbor, within the bounds of present-day South Carolina. They constructed Charlesfort on Parris Island. While foundations of a colony were laid, the adventurers were unwilling to endure the hardships and returned to France. Ribaut and Laudonnière returned to Fort Caroline, but as they were defeated by the Spaniards the following year, further efforts to settle South Carolina were not made until 1629. The Huguenots kept their eyes on South Carolina, however. In that year the French Protestants contacted King Charles I of England to establish a colony in South Carolina. He issued a patent to Sir Robert Heath, who had worked with the Duc de Fontenany in conjunction with the Huguenots. Huguenots sailed from England in 1633 but landed in Virginia and ultimately returned to Europe. Finally, a permanent Huguenot colony was begun in South Carolina in 1670.

AZTEC MYTH

The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca brought the earth goddess Tlalteuctli down from on high. All the joints of her body were filled with eyes and mouths biting like wild beasts. Before they got down, there was water already below, upon which the goddess then moved back and forth. They did not know who had created it.

They said to each other, We must make the earth. So saying, they changed themselves into two great serpents, one of whom seized the goddess from the right hand down to the left foot, the other from the left hand down to the right foot. As they tightened their grip, she broke at the middle. The half with the shoulders became the earth. The remaining half they brought to the skywhich greatly displeased the other gods.

Afterward, to compensate the earth goddess for the damage those two had inflicted upon her, all the gods came down to console her, ordaining that all the produce required for human life would issue from her. From her hair they made trees, flowers, and grasses; from her skin, very fine grasses and tiny flowers; from her eyes, wells and fountains, and small caves; from her mouth, rivers and large caves; from her nose, valleys and mountains; from her shoulders, mountains.

Sometimes at night this goddess wails, thirsting for human hearts. She will not be silent until she receives them. Nor will she bear fruit unless she is watered with human blood.

Source: The Red Swan: Myths and Tales of the American Indians, edited by John Bierhorst (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976), pp. 5051.

Source

The Huguenot Connection: The Edict of Nantes, Its Revocation, and Early French Migration to South Carolina, edited by Richard M. Golden (Boston: Kluwer, 1988).

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Religion in the New World: America as “Virgin Land”

Religion in the New World: America as Virgin Land

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Origins of an Idea. The idea that the Americas were virgin lands, untouched and sequestered from the crowding, disease, and other problems plaguing Europe, may be said to have originated with Christopher Columbus. He compiled a book of sayings, opinions, and prophecies using biblical texts that stressed the urgency of recovering Mount Zion and Jerusalem and of converting native peoples in the Indies. Columbus tried to show that the discovery of the Indies was an important step in liberating Jerusalem from Muslim control and would usher in the days of salvation. He also assigned himself a prominent role in these events. In a letter written to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain from Jamaica in 1503, Columbus noted: Jerusalem and Mt. Zion will be rebuilt by a Christian; God tells who it will be through the mouth of the Prophet in the fourteenth psalm. The abbot Joachim said that this person would come from Spain.

Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh also emphasized the idea of America as virgin land. He organized an expedition to Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast in 1584. This failed, but he organized and led a second expedition to the Orinoco River in South America. To Raleigh, America held the promise of being an innocent, pure, and virtuous land, but those virtues might be ruined by the explorers coming to take advantage of the lands beauties and resources. Raleigh described the land in both material and sexual terms: Of Guiana, he wrote, The Ingas [Incas] had a garden of pleasure in an yland... where they went to recreat themselves, when they would take the aire of the sea, which had all kinde of garden-hearbs, flowers, and trees of gold and silver. The image took a firm hold in the minds of Europeans. Later generations of English settlers, especially

the Puritans who went to New England in the seventeenth century, were no doubt influenced by Columbus and Raleigh. The Puritans regarded New England as a virgin land perfect for creating the New Israel.

Sources

Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975);

The Book of Prophecies edited by Christopher Columbus, edited by Roberto Rusconi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

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Religion in the New World: Native American Myths

Religion in the New World: Native American Myths

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Oral Culture. Native American culture has been traditionally oral. Indians did not write down their myths and sacred histories; rather, they told and retold their stories. While the tales would, no doubt, change in each generations retelling, the fundamental vocabulary, intended moral, and mood remained the same. They gave to a tribe a sense of being and a sense that they had much to learn from the spiritual and natural worlds. The myths repetitions, through the generations, gave them spiritual power and authority. At the same time, as the historian of religion Mircea Eliade has postulated, by hearing a myth, listeners could put themselves into the spiritual sphere just as their ancestors had so placed themselves.

Creation Myths. One important theme of Native American myth is the creation of the world. Common to all of such stories are the animal and spiritual assistants who helped humans in the creation. Most of the tales relate that people came from Mother Earth. For example, the Cherokee tell the story of the Earths beginnings as a great island floating in a sea of water, flat, soft, and wet. Finally, the Earth dried, and the animals waiting between heaven and Earth came down upon the advice of the Great Buzzard. Animals and plants came first, followed by humans. Despite the differences, the myths gave the Native Americans a sense of their history and confirmed their belief in a higher power and in the power of the natural world.

Source

Bruce G. Trigger, The Children of Aatenaetsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, 2 volumes (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1976).

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Religion in the New World: Requierimento

Religion in the New World: Requierimento

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The Requirement. Upon arriving on the lands they wished to colonize and claim in the name of the monarchy and in Gods name, explorers from Spain and other countries, beginning with Christopher Columbus, were compelled to read aloud the kings summons to the Indians, the Requierimento, or Requirement. In essence this was the explorers way of taking possession of land for the Spanish monarchy and inform the natives of the truth of Christianity. This example was presented by Gov. Panfilo de Narváez: On behalf of the Catholic Caesarian Majesty of Don Carlos ... I ... notify and cause you to know in the best manner that I can, that God our Lord ... created the heaven and earth .... because of the infinity of offspring that followed in the five thousand years and more since the world was created, it has become necessary that some men should go in one direction and others in another, dividing into many kingdoms and provinces. The governor continued by saying that God required the Pope to be obeyed and be head of all the human race, where so ever they might live and be. The Spanish notary recorded the episode and obtained witnesses of signatures. The Spanish took this exercise seriously, with scrupulous regard for the law. Even though the Indians could not understand what was being said to them, the colonizers repeated this exercise with every arrival in a new land. Only Bartolomé de las Casas ridiculed the practice.

Source

James Axtell, Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

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Religion in the New World: Native American Spirituality: Shamans

Religion in the New World: Native American Spirituality: Shamans

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Role. Shamans in Native American culture were religious leaders and were believed to have extraordinary powers. Their most important function was not preaching or administering religious rites but healing. Shamans were also the Native Americans physicians. Indians believed that ones physical condition was linked to his or her spiritual condition. It was up to the shaman to determine the cause of a persons illnesswhat was missing from that individuals spiritand then to suggest a cure through prayer, surgery, or other means.

Power. With a greater connection to and understanding of the supernatural world (they were thought to mediate between the human and spirit world), shamans were tremendously respected in Native American societies. After revealing that they possessed shamanistic powers, made evident to them in dreams or visions, shamans went through initiation ceremonies to demonstrate further their powers and their wisdom. They were thought to experience the world more spiritually than did anyone else. As they grew older, shamans powers were believed to increase. Age was particularly honored, for the elders were the keepers of tradition. In a culture which lacked written texts, older people were the repository of history, knowledge, tradition, wisdom, and memory.

Source

The Red Swan: Myths and Tales of the American Indians, edited by John Bierhorst (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976).

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