North American Indians: Indians of California and the Intermountain Region

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The Intermountain Region of North America is framed on the east by the Rocky Mountains of Canada and the United States and on the west by the Cascade and the Sierra Nevada ranges. Ethnographers customarily divide this region into two indigenous "culture areas," the Plateau and the Great Basin. The Plateau is bounded on the north by the boreal forests beyond the Fraser Plateau of British Columbia and on the south by the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and the arid highlands of southern Oregon and northwestern Montana. It includes the Columbia River's plateau and drainage in Washington, Oregon, and a small portion of northern California. The Great Basin is the area of steppe-desert lying primarily in Nevada and Utah but including parts of southern Idaho, western Wyoming, and western Colorado. It runs south from the Salmon and Snake rivers of Idaho to the Colorado Plateau, is bounded by the Colorado River on the south, and includes the interior deserts of southwestern California. "California," as an indigenous culture area, thus comprises the lands west of the Sierra Nevada crest to the Pacific Ocean, most of southern California and northern Baja California, and most lands north from there to the present Oregon border.

California and the Plateau have supported large and varied native populations. The Great Basin, with its exceedingly restrictive ecology, has always been less heavily populated and more culturally uniform than either California or the Plateau. Nonetheless, even in the Basin, sweeping areal generalizations can serve only as starting points in investigating both intra- and inter-areal diversity among native peoples, for the three areas are foci of cultural adaptation, expression, and influence, rather than impermeably bounded cultural or historical isolates.

Although the indigenous peoples of the Basin were all speakers of closely related Numic languages, the languages of the Plateau were more varied, and those of California had a truly extraordinary diversity. Broadly speaking, cultural and linguistic diversity were correlated in the three areas. In terms of religious practice, the greatest diversity was in California and the least in the Basin, with the Plateau falling somewhere between.

General Themes

The pervasiveness of religious concerns and behavior in the daily lives of all of these peoples is suggested by the range of religious themes that are common to the three areas, despite the diverse, area-specific expressions given them.


Significant contacts with European influences occurred in the three areas beginning in the eighteenth century and had achieved devastating impact by the mid-nineteenth century. As will be seen, European influence tended to elevate concepts of anthropomorphic creator figures to new eminence. Before contact, however, a widespread perception of a diffuse, generalized, and impersonal cosmic force, often referred to today as "power," was far more significant. This energic field of all potentials is a neutral, amoral, and generative presence that produces all things.


In some cases, power was first manifested by a world creator who, through it, brought the world into its present form. Such creators might be culture heroes and transformers, such as Komokums among the Modoc, a people interstitial between California and the Plateau. Komokums and many others like him acted in conjunction with earth divers to form the earth from a bit of soil raised from the depths of a primordial sea. In other cases, especially in north-central California, world creators are likely to be true creator gods, thinking the world into existence or bringing it forth with a word. In southern California we find creation myths of great metaphysical complexity and subtlety, such as those of the Luiseño, for whom creation arose by steps, out of an absolute void. Even here, however, we find a transformer, Wiyot, shaping the present world from an earth that preceded his existence, and this seems the more typical pattern. Such gods and heroes tend to become otiose after their work is accomplished, rather than lingering on as moral overseers.

Unlike the Californians, neither the peoples of the Basin nor those of the Plateau seem to have been much concerned with world origins. Yet they shared with Californians a profound concern for a variety of prehuman spiritsusually animals, but also celestial beings, monsters, and otherswho aided in bringing the world to its present shape and in establishing culture. Thus, throughout the region one finds arrays of such prehuman beings, each exercising power for good or ill according to its innate proclivities. The actions of each are recounted in a broad spectrum of myths and stories. Commonly, one or more of these beings, most often Coyote but others as well, emerge as a trickster, undoing the good works of the heroes and creators through a peculiar blend of innocence, greed, and stupidity. Such tricksters may be creatively helpful as well as negatively influential, and sometimes creators and tricksters are one and the same, which accounts for the multivocality of existence. Often the trickster is the sibling of a culture hero, as Coyote ("little wolf") is of Wolf among the Shoshoni, Short-tailed Weasel is of Long-tailed Weasel among the Washo of the eastern Sierras, and Frog Woman is of Wiyot among the Luiseño.

Spirits and personal power

Many animal spirits, including tricksters, remained in the world as sources of specialized powers for human beings. Other unique power potentials might reside in celestial and landscape features and in common, manufactured objects. People might encounter such spirits, usually in their anthropomorphic forms, in visions or in dreams. Through such encounters individuals gained spirit-helpers, enhancing the power innate in themselves and gaining particular powers that, through volitional control, brought success in specific endeavors. Vision quests in many different forms are found throughout the three areas.

Seeking increased, specialized power and protection through intentional encounters with spirit-beings was a primary concern of the religions of the Plateau. In the Basin, visions and personal powers tended to come to individuals spontaneously, at the spirits' will, and were not often sought through formal quests. In California, spirit encounters sometimes resulted from stringent austerities and Plateau-style questing, as among the Achomawi and Atsugewi in the northeast. Often they were sought through participation in initiatory "schools" of pubescent boys seeking power collectively under the tutelage of older initiates. Such schools were central to the visionary religions of the south and the elaborate dance and healing societies of northern California.

In many such California initiation schools, sodalitiessecret, mythically chartered societieswere at the forefront. Membership in such sodalities was often restricted; males alone were accepted, and sometimes only those representative of elite kin groups. In parts of the Plateau, especially among the Nez Perce and the Tenino, specific guardian spirits might be transmitted through inheritance. In the notably egalitarian Plateau, however, this did not have the effect of centralizing both spiritual and social ascendency in elites, as did sodality membership in the more stratified of California groups.

More generally, both males and females had access to the spirits and, thus, to personal power. In the Plateau, young boys and girls alike often sought visions, although boys did so more frequently than girls. In the Basin, both males and females could receive spirit powers at any time during their lives, although it appears that men were more often so favored. The situation in California was more complex. In each of three major subareas, women were initiated into some groups but not into others and, among these groups, there were often varying, ranked degrees of male and female spirit acquisition and initiation.

Throughout the three culture areas, the specific spirits that one might encounter and the powers that they enabled were varied. Hunting or fishing skill, the ability to cure and to injure, success in courting and in fighting, finesse in crafts and in song making, gambling luck, wealth, wisdom, and many other potentials might be realized.

Although increased and specialized powers could be acquired and maximized through contacts with spirits, they could also be lost by offending those spirits through failure to adhere to taboos imposed in vision or dream; through misuse of songs, rituals, or power objects; through more general breach of custom, or simply through baffling happenstance. Every increase in an individual's power had its price.

Shamans. The shamans were the most powerful of people, the most respected for their spirit contacts, and the most feared. It was they who paid the highest price for their acumen. (Shaman here means a healer who obtains and exercises his powers through direct contact with spiritual beings.) In the Plateau, special effort was not usually exerted to obtain the guardian spirits that brought shamanic powers. Here, as in the Basin, both men and women could receive shamanic powers, although male shamans predominated. The same was largely true of Californians, although shamans among Shoshoni, Salinan, and some Yokuts groups were exclusively male, whereas in northwestern California female shamans vastly predominated, those who were the daughters and granddaughters of shamans having the greatest proclivity toward acquiring such powers.

Throughout the three areas, initial encounters with spirits capable of bestowing shamanic powers (sometimes volitionally sought in California and, to a lesser extent, in the Basin) were followed by intensive and often longterm training in the control of the spirit-power and an apprenticeship in its use under a recognized shaman. Such training might include initiation in the secrets of legerdemain, fire handling, and ventriloquism, on which shamanic performances often depended for their dramatic impact. Yet although shamans everywhere were expected to display their powers in such feats, and occasionally to best other shamans in public power contests, their primary function was as curative specialists, and the tricks of the trade were subordinate to success in this important function.

Theories of disease were fairly uniform. Illness came through magical objects projected into the sufferer's body by human sorcery or witchcraft. Again, ghosts or spirits whose rules for conduct had been ignored or whose special places had been defiled might make people ill. The spiritual essence of the patient could be called away by unseen beings or injured by a sorcerer or witch. Finally, one could be poisoned by a witch, either psychically or physically. In the Plateau all such power-related disease was distinguished from natural, physical illness; shamans treated only the former, whereas the latter were treated through exoteric remedies, often by lay specialists. Among the Washo of the Basin, however, all death was attributed to sorcerers.

As theories of spiritually induced disease were quite uniform, so were therapeutic measures. Shamans diagnosed the illness and then entered a trance through singing, dancing, and, occasionally, the ingestion of powerful substances. The shaman then sucked out the introjected objects and disposed of them or used his breath to blow off the "shadows" of offended spirits that had lodged in the patient's body. He might also heal through various forms of massage. Many shamans specialized in one or another approach to particular sorts of illnesses. Some, especially in the Plateau, traveled out of their bodies to find and retrieve the lost souls of patients or to regain these in other ways. Illnesses might be caused by the misdeeds of members of the community other than the patient himself, and both public confessions and the identification of sorcerers were common features of performances.

Shamans in most groups acquired other, noncurative powers and specialties as well. In the Great Basin, in southern California, and north through the central California subarea, rattlesnake handling was practiced by shamans specially related to this powerful creature and capable of curing its bites. Weather shamans who both caused and stopped rains were found in these areas as well. In the Basin, shamans served as hunt leaders, dreaming of quarry such as antelope, leading drives, and charming the game into enclosures. Other specialties abounded. Paiute shamans in the Basin and many in central and northern California became "bear doctors," imitating these animals and using their powers for both benign and malign ends. Others might gain the power to find lost objects, to predict the future, or to conjure, as among the Colville and the Kutenai of the Plateau, whose rites were similar to the shaking tent rites more common far to the east. Virtually everywhere, even among the Plateau and Basin groups whose shamans first obtained their powers without special questing, such practitioners often sought to augment their acumen through gaining additional spirit helpers, often seeking these in special places.

Power itself is neutral, its potential for good and ill being manifested at the discretion (or indiscretion) of those spirits, ghosts, or human beings who have more than usual control of it. Thus shamans were universally feared for their potential to use power in malign ways, as sorcerers. In the Basin and in much of California shamans were viewed with great suspicion; they were thought to induce or prolong illness in order to collect higher fees and to kill outright for a fee from an aggrieved party. Among the Mohave and other River Yuman groups in southeastern California, the killing of a shaman, on whatever grounds, was not considered reprehensible. Elsewhere shamans were killed only in the event of their patient's death. In northwestern California, shamans simply returned their fee should the patient die, greed being more commonly attributed to them than sorcery. The shaman's position was not always enviable, and, particularly in the Great Basin and Plateau, people tended to become shamans only at the behest of a spirit who could not be refused, or they refused to accept shamanic powers when opportunities to acquire them arose.

First-fruits rites

First-fruits rites, celebrated for a variety of resources throughout the region, were often conducted by shamans. This was true, for example, of the small, local first-salmon rites that were common along many of the rivers and streams of the Plateau, along the northern California coast south to San Francisco Bay, and among the Pyramid Lake Paviosto, the Lemhi Shoshoni, and some other groups in the northern Great Basin. In some cases, however, first-salmon and other first-fruits rites were incorporated into larger-scale renewal ceremonies, as in northwestern California, and were directed by specialized priestsintermediaries between the human and nonhuman worlds who, as holders of inherited and appointed offices, recited codified liturgies.

Girls' puberty and menstrual seclusion

The ritual initiation of females into adulthood at menarche and, often, the public celebration of this event constitute a second widespread ritual element in the religions of the three culture areas. In general, throughout the region women were isolated at menarche and placed under a variety of restrictions, their conduct during the time being thought to presage their future. Emphasis on girls' puberty tended to be greater among peoples more dependent on hunting than on gathering. Thus, periods of training might be as short as five days, as among the peoples of the western Basin, or extended as long as four years, as among the Carrier Indians of the northern Plateau. In coastal southern California, puberty was a community concern, and all young women reaching menarche during a given year were secluded and instructed together, sometimes being "cooked" in heated pits in a way reminiscent of the training of novice shamans to the north in California. Indeed, it can be argued that puberty rites in many groups represent a female equivalent of male spirit quests and sodality initiations. Such "cooking" of pubescent girls is found elsewhere, as among the Gosiute of the Basin. Communal rites are paralleled in the Plateau, where the Chilcotin, the Southern Okanogen, the Tenino, and the Nez Perce utilized communal seclusion huts for the initiation of young girls.

There were, however, no elaborate public female puberty celebrations in the southern Plateau, where girls' puberty was marked by simple elaborations of more general menstrual customs. Public ceremonies did occur, usually at the discretion of the girl's family, in the Great Basinas among the Washo and others. Here, girls' puberty might be celebrated in conjunction with a Big Time, an intergroup gathering for shared subsistence enterprises, ritual, feasting, trading, dancing, gambling, and games. In California, girls' puberty dances were held by many northern groups as the year's ritual highlightagain, often in conjunction with Big Times. Occasionally, and especially among the Athapascan-speaking groups of the northwest, such dances were the prerogative of elite Californian families.

The prevalence of concern for female puberty in the three areas is clearly related to a concern for menstruation in general. Menstrual blood was viewed as among the most powerful of substances, highly dangerous if not properly controlled and, although often of positive virture to the woman herself, inimical to the welfare of others, especially males. The isolation and restriction of girls at menarche was thus widely repeatedalthough with far less elaborationat each menses. Communal menstrual shelters were found in some Plateau communities and perhaps in parts of California. Elsewhere, a small hut for the individual menstruant was constructed, as in much of the Basin, or her movements were restricted to the family's dwelling, as among the River Yuman groups. Menstrual seclusion and dietary and other restrictions varied in duration from the time of the flow up to ten or twelve days, as in northwestern California.


Male concern for menstrual pollution and for other pollutants that might hinder the exercise or acquisition of power, or "luck," was certainly related to the prevalence of male sweating, carried out in a variety of sudatories in all three areas. Such sudatories might be small and temporary or large and permanent structures. In northwestern California, for example, "sweat houses" were sizeable, semisubterranean houses, men's clubs where all adult males slept, worked, and practiced rituals, as well as sweated. Among the Nomlaki substantial men's sweat houses were the domain of a male sodality, the huta. The religious nature of purification through regular sweating is evident in the veneration with which the sudatory was regarded. Among certain Plateau groups, such as the Sanpoil, the sweat house itself was the mundane manifestation of a powerful sweat-house god.

Major Religious Systems

In each area, and often in specifiable subareas, the general themes outlined above were manifested within the context ofand were given particular ideological inflections byarea-specific religious systems.

Among the peoples of the Great Basin, environmental conditions demanded small populations divided into highly mobile bands, reduced at times to the extended nuclear family, and expanding at more abundant times to small bands of such families. There was little need for social or political organization on a wider scale that would ensure the privileges of more complex kin groups or the territorial autonomy of a large political unit. By the same token, dispersed resources could not be collected in sufficient quantities to provide for the needs of frequent, large gatherings. Complex ritual systems depending on cyclic collective action did not develop in the Basin as they did in both California and the Plateau. By contrast, in these latter areas more sedentary peoples, enjoying richer resource bases and enacting more complex and farther-reaching kinship and political organizations, created religious systems through which large numbers of people were regularly assembled for collective ritual experience.

The Great Basin

Basin religion was largely an individual or small-band concern, and shamans provided spiritual leadership sufficient to the needs of most bands. Rituals, such as girls' puberty celebrations, that in other areas served as foci for large gatherings here tended to be small, family affairs. The healing performances of shamans might provide occasions for shared ritual participation, but such gatherings, too, were small, limited to band members, and not held according to a fixed schedule.

Large-scale Big Times did occur with some regularity among the Washo and Paiute of the western Great Basin, several bands gathering together for harvest of the more abundant wild crops (such as piñon nuts) for ritual, and for recreation. The Paiute reciprocated such Big Times with the Mono and Miwok of California. Interband antelope drives, sometimes in conjunction with Big Times, were ritually prepared and imbued with religious significance, as suggested by the many Basin rocks displaying petroglyphs and pictographs that date from the remote past through the nineteenth century.

The Big Times of the western Great Basin and California were supplanted in the eastern portion of the Basin area by other sorts of events. Ute and Shoshoni bands convened several times a year for "round dances." Among the Ute, a more ritually focused Bear Dance, marking the return of bears from hibernation and thus the renewal of the world in spring, was performed annually in late winter.

The Plateau

In the Plateau the common western theme of personal spirit-power was honed to its greatest refinement and served as the basis for an areal religious system keynoted by collective "winter spirit-dances." Although there were a great many variations in the specifics of individual guardian-spirit quests and of winter dances among Plateau tribes, a generalized account may be offered as an intro-duction.

Among the Sanpoil-Nespelem and most other Salish groups, boys and many young girls began spirit questing at or before puberty, often when they were as young as six or eight. (Sahaptin groups placed less emphasis on spirit quests, and others, such as the Carrier, restricted them to certain males.) The child was sent out to fast, scour himself with rough foliage, bathe in cold pools, and keep vigils in isolated places. In dreams, as among the Carrier, or in visions, the supplicant was visited by an animal spirit or the spirit of an object or place. The spirit instructed the person in a song that often had an associated dance step, and sometimes revealed power objects. In many groups, the supplicant, on returning from a successful quest, "forgot" both encounter and song. (The Kutenai, whose youths sought only a single, immediately effective spirit, present an exception.) Among the Salish, when the individual reached full adulthood, usually about age twenty-five for men, the spirit returned, often causing illness. With the aid of a shaman, the individual "remembered" the song and spirit. Once fully accepted, one's spirit became an intrinsic aspect of one's being, like a soul, a "partner" whose loss was life-threatening. Throughout their lives, people might seek different, additional spirits with associated powers and specialties.

During a two-month period in the winter, anyone who had a guardian spirita shaman or a laymanmight sponsor a spirit dance. The dances, held in a winter lodge, lasted two or three nights and were scheduled so that people of a given locale might attend several in a winter. Under the supervision of shamans, dancers imitated their own guardian spirits, singing their songs and performing their dance steps. New initiates to whom spirits had recently returned used the occasion to legitimize their relationships with their spirits. Other components of the dances included feasting and the giving of gifts to visitors, the offering of gifts to spirits at a center pole, and shamans' displays and contests. The conduct of the audience was rigidly controlled during the dances, and in some groups their behavior was policed by officiants.

Among the Sanpoil, Colville, Kutenai, Kalispel, Spokan, Coeur d'Alene, and Flathead, a society of men possessing Bluejay as guardian spirit served this policing function. These "Bluejay shamans" identified entirely with Bluejay during the winter dance period, painting their faces black, keeping to themselves, and scavenging food. The Bluejay shamans perched in the rafters of dance houses during performances, swooping down on those who broke the rules of conduct. They also performed services as finders of lost objects and as curers, and were ritually returned to a normal state at the end of the dance period. Although the Bluejay shamans suggest an at least latent sodality structure in the southeastern Plateau, such sodalities were fully developed only in California.


There were four major subareal ritual complexes in aboriginal California. Beyond serving as vehicles for religious expression, such complexes served important functions in social, economic, and ecological regulation, in ethnic maintenance, and, through creating unifying networks, in political organization.


From the Yuman tribes of the south, north through the Yokuts and, in diminished forms, to the Miwok, the use of Datura stramonium jimsonweed, or toloache (from the Nahuatl and Spanish)was a common and central feature of religious practice. A psychotropic decoction was made from the root of this highly toxic plant and carefully administered to initiates by shamans or by specialized priests. After a period of unconsciousness the initiates awoke to a trancelike state of long duration during which, guided by adepts, they acquired animal or celestial spirit-helpers. Such collective, drug-induced vision questing was often undertaken by males at puberty and in the context of an extended "school," as among the Luiseño-Juaneño, the Cahuilla, the Ipai-Tipai, the Cupeño, and the Gabrielino. Schooling included severe physical ordeals, instruction in mythic cosmology carried out through dry painting, and in some cases the creation of rock art. In such groups as the Chumash and the Serrano, training was restricted to the sons of an elite. In all cases, the group of initiated men, andamong the Monache and the Yokutswomen, formed a sodality that bore defined religious, economic, and political responsibilities. Among the Chumash, such an organization provided the basis for a highly complex, elite socioreligious guild, Iantap, led by priest-astronomers. Throughout the subarea, shamans made use of toloache in achieving curing trances.

In the extreme southeast, among the Mohave, the role of toloache was secondary to that of dreaming. Men learned clan myths through intentional dreaming and chanted these in long, collective "sings." Kin group solidarity was important to religious practice among other southern California groups as well, many keeping sib medicine bundles that were revealed only to toloache adepts.

Mourning anniversaries

With their stress on ritual death and rebirth, the toloache religions of southern and central California reflected an overriding concern with personal and cosmic death and renewal. A second feature, the "mourning anniversary," accompanied the toloache complex. In broad outline, mourning anniversaries were large public gatherings in which effigies of the year's dead, together with large quantities of property, were burned on poles erected in circular brush shelters, the assembled audience mourning its collective losses. The occasion often served as a vehicle for girls' puberty celebrations, for the giving of new names, for honoring chiefs, and for expressing reciprocity between kin groups. Often an Eagle (or Condor) Dance, in which shamans displayed their power by slowly killing a sacrificial bird, formed an important part of the event.

The mourning anniversary, with many local variations, was practiced by the Basin peoples of the southern portion of contemporary Californiathe Cheme-huevi, the Panamint, the Kawaiisu, and the Tubatulabalas well as by virtually all groups in the southern California culture area. The practice extended northward through the toloache- using groups and beyond, being performed by the Maidu and Nisenan of northern California in conjunction with another religious complex, the Kuksu cult.


In northern California the toloache complex gave way to a second great ritual system, the Kuksu cult. The term Kuksu derives from the Pomo name for a creator-hero who is impersonated by masked dancers in the periodic performances that are the focus of the religious system. A parallel figure, Hesi, was prominent in the performances of groups in the Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The Hill Maidu expression of the complex featured a third such figure, Aki, who is found together with Hesi among the Northwestern Maidu. Kuksu and Hesi are sometimes found together among other groups.

Masked and costumed dancers impersonated these and other spirits and mythic figures in elaborate ceremonials performed in dance houses before large audiences during gatherings that lasted several days. Dances at various ceremonial centers were reciprocally supported. As with toloache religions, the various Kuksu religions provided collective "schools" for pubescent initiates who were, through cultic indoctrination and participation, conducted into secret, often ranked sodalities. Such sodalities could exercise great political and economic influence, as well as spiritual power. The Kuksu dances themselves returned the world to its pristine, mythic condition and often included first-fruits and curing elements in their scope. Intergroup trading, gambling, shamans' contests, and recreation were features of the Big Times that usually followed Kuksu performances.

Among groups that had both Kuksu and Hesi sodalities, as well as some others, participation was open to young men and also to some young women, as among the Cahto and the Yuki. More commonly, membership in such sodalities was restricted to males. In some groups, membership was further restricted to elite cadres who worked their way up through the sodality's ranked levels, as among the Pomo-speaking groups. In such groups a second sodality, the Ghost society, was open to all young men, as among the Patwin, and sometimes to women as well, as among the Eastern Pomo. These less prestigious sodalities presented masked dances that paralleled those of the Kuksu type and emphasized the honoring of the departed, the curing of ghostdisease, and the continuity of generations. Such themes were present in the mourning anniversaries prevalent to the south. Thus, the Ghost society was not found among groups in the Kuksu subarea (such as the Maidu and the Nisenan) that practiced mourning anniversaries.

World renewal

Mythic reenactment, collective mourning, generational continuity, and world renewal are all motives present in the Kuksu religion that found other expressions in northwestern California, where a fourth areal ritual complex, the World Renewal cult, flourished. This complex featured cyclic ten-day ceremonials within more extended periods of ritual activity performed by specialized officiants. The various dances were given reciprocally at two- to three-year intervals at perhaps thirteen ceremonial centers in Yurok, Karok, and Hupa territories. Close equivalents of these World Renewal dances were held by Tolowa-Tututni, Wiyot, Chilula, and Shasta groups as well. The focal occasions were religious festivals, extended periods of public and private ritual, dancing, feasting, and communality that at times attracted several thousand participants. World Renewal festivals thus replaced both Big Times and mourning anniversaries in the northwestern subarea. However, the primary purpose of these large gatherings was the prevention of world disorder and the reaffirmation of interdependency. The world, potentially imbalanced by the weight of human misconduct, was "fixed" or "balanced" through the Jump Dance, the interdependence and abundance of all life reaffirmed and ensured through the Deerskin Dance. In both, teams of dancers displayed finery and power objects emblematic of the spiritual ascendency of their sponsors, and it was in this sense that such costumes and objects were considered "wealth."

The World Renewal religion was given different inflections by the different participating groups: the Yurok incorporated first-salmon rites and collective fishing as well as the rebuilding of a sacred structure; the Karok included "new fire" (new year) elements, as well as a first-salmon rite; and the Hupa celebrated a first-acorn rite, the rebuilding of a cosmographic structure, and so on. All stressed the reenactment, by priests, of the origins of the dances and their attendant rituals. The recitation of long, codified mythic scenarios was a central feature. School-like organizations of "helpers" were instructed by the priests. These organizations were similar to the initiatory sodalities of south and central California and included both men and women. Neither priests and their assistants nor dancers impersonated spirit beings, however, as was done in Kuksu performances or the spirit dances of the Plateau.

The sketches given here do not exhaust the aboriginal ritual inventories in any of the areas and subareas dealt with. There were many less prominent but no less meaningful ritual activities, both private and public. Throughout these areas religious knowledge and practice were fully integrated with social action. The European invasion of the American West, in disrupting ecological, social, and political systems, also disrupted religious systems.

Postcontact Religious Change

The religions of California, the Great Basin, and the Plateau have undergone thousands of years of slow change and development. They were probably changed most suddenly and drastically by the direct and indirect influences of Europeans and Euro-Americans that began in the eighteenth century.

The Roman Catholic missionization of California, beginning in 1769, had largely disastrous effects on the native populations of the area. Voluntary conversions took place, but forced baptism and forced residence in mission communities were more common. Ultimately, the successes of Catholic missionization north to San Francisco Bay were negated by the fearsome toll exacted by the diseases fostered by overcrowded missions and forced labor under the Spanish encomienda system. Success measured in lasting conversions was modest, and negative in terms of human welfare, but the missionaries contributed to native religious revitalization. For example, Catholicism seems to have provided the basis for a new high god, Chingichngish, in the toloache religions of the south. This moralistic, omniscient creator, which originated among the Gabrielino, also supplemented the mythic pantheons of the Luiseño-Juaneño, the Ipai-Tipai, the Chumash, and the Yokuts.

Other missionaries, primarily Protestant and Mormon, also made extended efforts in the nineteenth century in California, the Basin, and the Plateau. Yet the effects of later missionization were broadly similar: rather than supplanting native religions, Christianity provided symbolic means through which native religions found new forms to cope with the radically changing circumstances of life.

However, the effects of conquest were not limited to innovations informed by Christian ideology. The introduction of the horse onto the Plains and thence into the Plateau and the northwestern Basin in the early eighteenth century had an important impact on the peoples of these areas. Together with the horse came other Plains influences. Military sodalities were integrated into the religions of the Kutenai and the Flathead, as was the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance also spread to the Great Basin, where it was taken up by the Wind River Shoshoni and the Bannock and was introduced to the Utes by the Kiowa as late as 1890.

The preponderant contact phenomena evidenced in the religious life of all three areas, however, were the millenarian crisis cults inspired by a variety of "prophets" whose visions had been shaped by Christian influences. Typically, such visions occurred in deathlike states in which prophets met God or his emissary and received word of the coming millennium and the practices and moral codes that would ensure Indians' survival of it. Perhaps the best known of such crisis cults are the Paiute Ghost Dances of 1870 and 1890.

The first of these, initiated by the prophet Wodziwob in 1870, moved through the Basin and into central California. It was taken up by a number of California groups and moved north to the Shasta. The Ghost Dance doctrine stressed the destruction of the whites by the Creator, the return of the Indian dead, and the restoration of the earth to its pristine, precontact condition. It inspired a number of variants in the years following 1870. Most of these represented fusions of Kuksu-type and Ghost society dances with the new millenarianism. Such cults included the Earth Lodge religion practiced by many central and northern California peoples. Adherents awaited the millennium in large, semisubterranean dance houses. Other cults inspired by the 1870 Ghost Dance included the Big Head and Bole-Maru cults of the Hill Patwin, the Maidu, and the Pomo-speaking groups, and a succession of other local cults led by various "dreamers."

The 1890 Ghost Dance, initiated in 1889 by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, again spread through the Basin, this time moving east onto the Plains. It directly affected neither California nor the Plateau.

The two Ghost Dances are but the better known of a large number of similar efforts toward religious revitalization that flourished, particularly in the Plateau area, in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, many prophets, not acting in concert, spread the Prophet Dance through the central and southern Plateau. This round dance, always performed on Sundays and reflecting belief in a high god, showed Christian influence, although some have argued that it had aboriginal precedents as well. The dance took many forms under the guidance of many prophets and dreamers, of whom the best known is perhaps Smohalla, a Sahaptin dreamer who revived the Prophet Dance in the 1870s in a form that spread widely.

In 1881 a Salish Indian from Puget Sound named John Slocum underwent what was by that time the established visionary experience of a prophet. Together with his wife Mary he inaugurated the Indian Shaker church, a Christian church in which the presence of God's power, signified by physical trembling ("the shake"), was used by congregants to cure the sick. This mixture of Christian and native shamanistic elements proved highly appealing, and the Indian Shaker church spread into the Plateau, where it was accepted by Yakima, Umatilla, Wasco-Tenino, Klamath, and, to a lesser extent, Nez Perce Indians. In northwestern California in 1926, churches were built by Yurok, Tolowa, and Hupa congregations. The Shakers' popularity in California began to wane in the 1950s, the result of internal schism, competition with evangelical Christian churches, and increasing stress on "Indianness" and the accompanying return to old ways.

These two apparently conflicting ideologies, based on the salvific powers of Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and on an Indian identity perceived as traditional, on the other, seem to have reached mutual accommodation in peyotism and its institutionalized expression, the Native American Church. The Peyote Way has been accepted by a large number of Basin Indians, spreading among the Ute, Paiute, Gosiute, and Shoshoni in the early twentieth century, its acceptance perhaps facilitated by the collapse of the 1890 Ghost Dance. The Washo received peyote from Ute believers in 1936.

Peyotism spread through the Basin despite the resistance of many traditionalists, becoming itself the basis for a new traditionalism. It was not, however, established in California, although Indians from such cities as San Francisco make frequent trips to take part in peyote meetings sponsored by the Washo and others in Nevada.

Many other postcontact religious systems, including the Sun Dance, continue to be enacted. Chingichngish remains central to religious life on the Rincon and Pauma reservations in southern California; Smohalla's Prophet Dance is still practiced as the basis of the Pom Pom religion of the Yakima and Warm Springs Indians; and Bole-Maru and other postcontact transformations of Kuksu religions are viable among Pomo and other central Californian groups. The Indian Shaker church survives in many communities.

Since the 1960s Indians of all three culture areas have made concerted efforts to reassert religious, as well as political, autonomy; indeed, the two realms continue to be closely intertwined. Traditional religious specialists and, in many cases, collective ritual activities have survived both conquest and christianization. Younger Indians are increasingly turning to elderly specialists and investing themselves in old ritual practices. Annual mourning ceremonies are still prominent in parts of southern California; northwestern Californians continue to dance in World Renewal rituals; and shamanism survives in the Basin, as does spirit questing on the Plateau. A myriad of other native ritual events and private practices continue throughout the region. Such state agencies as California's Native American Heritage Commission, as well as federal legislation such as the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, support these efforts to a degree. Withal, one can see the durability of the ancient ways, their persistence, and their ability to continue through modern transformations.

See Also

Ghost Dance; Psychedelic Drugs; Sun Dance.


The most valuable sources in the beginning study of the religions of California, the Great Basin, and the Plateau are the pertinent volumes of the Handbook of North American Indians, 20 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1978). Volume 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, was issued in 1978. Heizer's California volume to an extent supplants A. L. Kroeber's Handbook of the Indians of California (1925; reprint, New York, 1976), although this earlier work remains of interest.

Useful bibliographies can be found in the volumes of the new Handbook and in several other important sources: Ethnographic Bibliography of North America, 4th ed., 5 vols., edited by George Peter Murdock and Timothy J. O'Leary (New Haven, 1975); Robert F. Heizer, The Indians of California: A Critical Bibliography (Bloomington, Ind., 1976); Joseph P. Jorgensen, Western Indians (San Francisco, 1980); and Omer C. Stewart, Indians of the Great Basin (Bloomington, Ind., 1982).

Jorgensen's Western Indians is a computer-assisted distributional study with chapters on a number of pertinent topics, placing religious practices in ecological and political context. As such, it is a sophisticated continuation of earlier culture-element distribution surveys. One such study by Harold E. Driver, "Girls' Puberty Rites in Western North America," University of California Publications in Anthropological Records 6 (1941/42): 2190, provides a comprehensive overview of its topic, an important one in all three culture areas under consideration here. Other such Western themes are explored in Willard Z. Park's Shamanism in Western North America (1938; reprint, New York, 1975) and in Erna Gunther's two analyses of first-salmon ceremonies in the American Anthropologist 28 (1926): 605617, and in Washington University Publications in Anthropology 2 (1928): 129173. Park's Shamanism contains a detailed account of Northern Paiute (Paviosto) shamanism and thus serves to introduce specific aspects of Great Basin religion, while Verne F. Ray's Cultural Relations in the Plateau of North America (Los Angeles, 1939) surveys the complexities of that area's religious life in a way that remains important.

There are various sources on the major religious systems of California. A. L. Kroeber and E. W. Gifford's "World Renewal: A Cult System of Native Northwestern California," University of California Publications in Anthropological Records 13 (1949): 156, gives good descriptive materials, although its interpretations are rather narrow. Edwin M. Loeb's "The Western Kuksu Cult" and "The Eastern Kuksu Cult," University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33 (1932/33): 1138, 139232, are comparable, Kroeberian works. More recent studies include IAntap: Californian Indian Political and Economic Organization, edited by Lowell John Bean and Thomas F. King (Ramona, Calif., 1974), and Raymond C. White's "The Luiseño Theory of 'Knowledge,'" American Anthropologist 59 (1957): 119. The two, together, provide entrée into the study of southern Californian religions. White's essay is also included in a volume of largely theoretical papers, Native Californians: A Theoretical Retrospective, edited by Lowell John Bean and Thomas C. Blackburn (Socorro, N. Mex., 1976), which provides a number of stimulating interpretations of aboriginal California religious systems.

Finally, the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology (Banning, Calif., 1979), succeeding the Journal of California Anthropology (19741979), publishes current explorations in the religions of California and the Great Basin fairly regularly.

Thomas Buckley (1987)


North American Indians: Indians of California and the Intermountain Region