Politics and Religion: Politics and Native American Religious Traditions

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The problem of determining the relationship between church and state, so prevalent in Western European history, is notably absent in the traditions and practices of American Indian tribes. Although tribal traditions lack church and state concepts, we can nevertheless find in tribal cultures practices suggesting separate realms. American Indian religion was characterized by rituals enabling individuals to attain a measure of extraordinary power bestowed by spirits in visions or dreams. Political leadership, meanwhile, demanded a reputation for courage and a man's continued good fortune in warfare. But no formal vesting of religious or political power in an institutional setting occurred. If an individual had personal charisma, projected spiritual gifts or courage in fighting, he became a leader and attracted a following.


For most Indian societies no mediating structure existed between the individual and the higher powers. Through vision quests, puberty rituals, sweat lodges, dances, and ceremonies welcoming the change of seasons or responding to personal crises, people had unusual experiences that could be called "religious" or "mystical." Most rituals were designed to remind people of the existence of higher spiritual powers from which they might seek help. People remembered clearly an unusual event, they listened carefully when they heard unusual voices, and they heeded the content of their dreams. Sometimes it was not necessary to approach the higher powers. They came in dreams or startling daytime events, identified themselves, and gave instructions to the person on how he or she should live thereafter. Almost always the individual received a song from the spirit and sang it whenever he needed the assistance of the spirit.

The spiritual message in American Indian religion was culturally and geographically specific. There was little of the general feeling of universal acceptance reported by mystics of both East and West. People did not feel they were merging with a timeless universal essence. Spiritual gifts were always practical and specific. No one felt compelled to convince others of the validity of his or her experience or to defend the knowledge received. Usually the person was given an herb or plant or taught a song to be used for specific purposes and situations. With the gift came the warning that the use of this power had limits.

A vision might impart prohibitions against killing certain creatures who assisted humans, although American Indian people generally already recognized such prohibitions. A man having a relationship with a particular creature would buy or trade goods so that he might obtain skins and feathers of his particular bird or animal. Thus members of the Fox society could not kill foxes but could trade with those who were permitted to kill them. People were sometimes told to avoid certain foods. The food might be a part of a particular animal, and the prohibition might have nothing to do with an assisting spirit animal. The Cheyennes, for example, were forbidden to eat a little piece of meat found in the chest area of the buffalo, because it represented the flesh of humans that the giant carnivorous buffalo had eaten in the previous world. Roman Nose (18301868), the great Cheyenne warrior, was prohibited from eating food that had been touched by metal, because the metal would remain in his body and attract bullets. He violated this prohibition at the battle of Beecher's Island and was mortally wounded. In general, special powers were meant to be used on behalf of community members, and witchcraft was forbidden and punished wherever it was identified.

Young people sought the advice of several spiritual elders before they engaged in rituals, so that they would know how to respond to the spirits when they came. Elders supervising a vision quest or other ritual seemed to have the power to monitor their protégé's progress and knew what the initiate was experiencing. Stories abound that describe how elders intervened when they saw the initiate endangered by a predator or an enemy. Following the ritual the initiate would be cleansed in a sweat lodge and asked to share what he or she could discuss about the experience. No one revealed the whole experience, because to do so would reveal the limitations of the person and thus make him or her vulnerable to the powers of hostile people. As a protection against fakery, though, the Plains tribes required the person performing the ritual or having a dream to demonstrate the powers they had been given in front of the community.

In each generation a tribe had a number of people able to perform amazing feats with the powers granted them by the spirits. One man might be able to foretell the future and would always be consulted when people prepared for a hunt or went to war. Another man might have the power to care for horses and dogs with special medicines, in order to enhance their abilities; in the case of the Appaloosa horse, such medicines might actually change the coloring of a colt. Some people could break fevers or set bones. The Ponca leader Luther Standing Bear (1829?1908) said that he had never seen anyone with amputated limbs until the wars with the whites, indicating that healing powers had served the people well. An unusual gift was the ability to use remote seeing to locate missing people and find lost things.

The Lummi Indians, who live in the far northwestern United States near the Canadian border, had a person who could perform a rain ceremony, which they needed despite living in a very rainy climate. The rainmaker used his power when a heavy snowfall threatened to trap people in their longhouses. His power would change the snow to rain and prevent large drifts from trapping people inside their houses. This gift was restricted to a particular family, and everyone knew that each generation of that family would have the power to perform the ritual.

Spiritual leaders, without fear of retribution, could pass onor sometimes sellthe powers given to them. In the Plains it was common to loan or give away small stones that performed many functions for tribal elders. A primary loyalty nonetheless existed between the stones and their original owners. A sale was thus actually a loan, because the second owner did not have complete control over the stone. Women had the primary knowledge of medicinal plants, and they passed this information down to their daughters and granddaughters, so that a family could become noted for its medicinal knowledge. Prohibitions against misuse of a sacred object also carried over through the generations. Even if people might no longer use the powers of a stone or pipe, it still kept its potency and so had to be respected long after its original owner had died.

Young people often served under a medicine man or spiritual leader in order to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to become practitioners of certain rituals. Their learning in some cases bound them to certain restrictions; for instance, initiates learning star knowledge could not use this knowledge until their teacher had passed on. Some scholars have described this apprenticeship as a priesthood of elders, but closer examination reveals no formal institutional practice comparable to the priesthood of Western religions. With the development of the Native American Church in the twentieth century, however, the Roadman (or ceremonial leader) played a role comparable to that of a priest. In general, however, people simply deferred to certain individuals known to have power to perform certain rituals.


When Europeans initially encountered Indian tribes, they looked for familiar political institutions. Thus they dubbed Indian leaders "kings"; accordingly, the daughters of these "kings" became princesses. Throughout American history, whites attempted to force the Indians to adopt Western political institutions. The period of initial contact occasioned many bitter lessons; for instance, a group of chiefs asked to cede lands might encounter opposition from another group, which would deny the sale and demand return of the land. Such incidents quickly gave rise to the custom of having both the chiefs and the headmen of smaller bands sign treaties. The U.S. government thereby hoped to reduce the chance that a dissident group would later challenge the legality of the transaction. Soon corrupted, however, the treaty system turned into a means of forcing land sales from weak peoples with no legitimate representation. Presidential peace medals or certificates were given at treaty negotiations as a way of identifying Indians who were subject to the treaty; Indians then had to present these tokens or documents at the next gathering, in order to confirm their status.

The traditional ways of organizing a community politically differed significantly from Western forms. The Six Nationswhich after 1722 comprised the Iroquois, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Tuscarorashad a formal council of over fifty chiefs who conducted the affairs of the Confederacy. Chieftain positions were distributed unevenly over the six Nations, but none complained about the manner of their allocation. The Clan Mothers chose the chiefs, so that anyone holding an office in the Confederacy had to respond to the concerns of the heads of families. The Red Lake Chippewa (Ojibwa) had a council of seven chiefs who conducted business on behalf of everyone in their tribe. The Pueblos had a formal council with specific responsibilities assigned to each member. When they came under Spanish domination the Pueblos simply created additional offices to deal specifically with the Spanish. The Sioux had a general council consisting of the important chiefs, but they also designated four outstanding younger leaders to represent the whole nation in dealing with the incursions of the white man.

According to custom and tradition, no formal political organizations existed, although there were some exceptions. Most Indian settlements and bands were small. Even the settlements of the Five Civilized Tribes (the Creeks, the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, the Choctaws, and the Seminoles) were tiny in comparison with most rural communities. Longhouses, used the by eastern woodland and Pacific Northwest peoples, often represented the basic political entity. The task of governing relied heavily on cultural kinship customs and the consensus of the community. Heads of families represented their relatives in informal meetings of the group. If a person showed strong leadership qualities, the community might designate him as the primary spokesman in encounters with other groups.

American Indian institutions became more formal as dangers from the outside escalated. In the 1820s the Cherokees, Creeks, and Choctaws modified their traditional councils to resemble more closely the government of the United States, eventually adopting written constitutions. After tribes were confined to reservations in the 1870s, Indian agents tried to appoint reservation governments, including courts, so that the people could control their own civil and criminal jurisdiction. Generally tribal communities maintained their allegiance to the old chief- or headman-based form of government, and the traditional chiefs quite often became representatives of the new governments.

Colonial Days

From the first decades of colonization, representatives of various Christian denominations, with the aid of colonial governments, worked to convert the natives. French colonial policy sought not only to convert Indian, but also to intermarry with them, in effect seeking to create a new society composed of a mixture of French and Indian genes and culture. The fortunes of the various French monastic orders shifted back and forth, subjecting the Indians to different interpretations of the Christian religion. Thus the Jesuit and Recollect orders had varying success with the different eastern tribes. So pervasive was the effort of the French that many tribes became strongly Roman Catholic and insisted on securing funds and lands for their priests when the United States began making treaties with them.

English settlement was quite different. The British sought to displace the Indians in favor of their own colonists, and they discouraged mixed marriages. Various denominations sent missionaries to the tribes of New England; the emphasis, typically Protestant, was to win individual converts from local tribes or from people living on the frontier. Education was regarded as a magic wand to change the Indians from hunters and farmers into staid English merchants. The British therefore established schools to educate Indian youth, so that they might appreciate the benefits of "civilization." Thus Dartmouth, Princeton, William and Mary, and other universities began as schools for Indian youth. With the increasing prosperity of the colonists, however, these institutions increasingly served middle- and upper-class whites rather than Indians. By the time Americans began to settle the Illinois country, there was no pretense of founding colleges to educate the Indians; instead, treaty moneys designated for Indian education were often sent to churches to build schools at Indian agencies. The Choctaw Academy in Kentucky was established in the 1820s for the leading families of that tribe and later for children from the Five Civilized Tribes. The academy closed after an epidemic killed a large portion of its students.

In mid-seventeenth-century New England, Puritan missionarieshaving deemed a sufficient number of Indians ready to live a "civilized" and Christian lifegathered the converts together and resettled them in villages known as "Praying Towns." These settlements consisted of Indians from several different tribes who had in common only their conversion to Christianity. The towns had the same status as other political subdivisions, with landholdings equal to those of the colonists' townships. As land became more valuable, however, the colonists assigned white trustees to the Praying Towns. These trustees gradually dissipated the Indian estates. Over the years white settlers attempted similar experiments with different tribes, but, as with the New England Praying Towns, the white man's greed for land undermined any initial religious or educational intentions. In one of the bloodier examples, a group of converted Delawares, convinced to move to western Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War, established their own town, Gnadenhütten. When frontier violence flared up in the Ohio country, a white militia invaded this peaceful town and on March 8, 1782 slaughtered the converts. During the Removal periodafter the passage of the Removal Act in 1830the missionary Isaac McCoy attempted to set up an Indian state west of the Mississippi, and in the 1850s missionaries founded the short-lived Hazelwood Republic of the Minnesota Sioux. But neither conversion to Christianity nor the adoption of Western-style forms of government proved sufficient to save American Indians from destruction.

Just prior to the passage of the Removal Act, rumors of fantastic gold deposits on the Cherokee lands within its borders led the state of Georgia to encourage its white residents to invade these lands. The conflict led to the two most famous Indian-related U.S. Supreme Court casesCherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. In the latter case Baptist missionaries insisted that their adherence to federal treaties gave them immunity from state penalties. Although the Supreme Court decided in their favor, they were nonetheless convicted under state law and sentenced to years of hard labor. Thereafter missionaries ensured that they had federal authorization to seek converts before investing in Indian missions.

Reservation Period

In 1869 the newly elected president, Ulysses S. Grant (18691877), sought the advice and support of Christian churches in formulating policy toward Indians on the western frontier. Popularly called the Peace Policy, the result of this church-state collaboration allowed Christian denominations to nominate Indian agents for reservations, gave churches primary responsibility for Indian education, and in many cases also granted them exclusive rights to establish missions on reservations. Here American hypocrisy reached its zenith. No white American questioned the idea that a "full blood Christian" was most fit to impart religion and civilization to a full-blooded Indian. With a few exceptions, however, church-appointed agents exploited the Indians and established dictatorial rule on the reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, created in 1824, ordered that Indians who did not work or who failed to send their children to school be denied rations. The use of tribal languages was permitted only if they had written forms, and the only materials available for reading were Christian religious writings. On all counts the Peace Policy brought only turmoil and despair to the tribes.

Because they lacked the complex bureaucratic organization of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant churches found it difficult to bear the financial burden of operating schools. The Bureau of Indian Affairs therefore allowed them to use secular tribal annuity funds for support of their schools. The Supreme Court upheld this practice in Quick Bear v. Leupp (1908), on the transparently spurious ground of providing religious freedom to the Indians. Eventually, however, the practice was discontinued. With no government funds coming to the Protestants, only the Catholic Church could afford to operate schools, which it continued to establish on Indian reservations until the 1960s.

Federal and state governments prohibited Sun Dances and ceremonies beginning in the 1880s, and the Courts of Indian Affairs on the reservations rigorously enforced these regulations. Some tribes skirted this oppression by pretending their dances celebrated American holidays such as the Fourth of July or presidents' birthdays. As late as the 1920s the government deliberately worked to isolate traditional religious practitioners and began to punish participation in Indian dances with fines. Only when the Pueblos allowed some visitors to view some of their more secular dances did they find some relief from government interference. One can also perhaps credit the Fred Harvey restaurants, which sprang up on the route of the Santa Fe Railroad beginning in the late nineteenth century, with helping to ease the rigor of government prohibition of dancesIndian dances provided spectacular entertainment, and thus a source of profits, at the major stations along the line.

The 1880s also saw the spread of peyote use in religious practices. Originating with the southwestern tribes, the practice spread to Oklahoma and eventually to the northern plains and Great Lakes areas. Practitioners held night-long singing ceremonies in which they ingested the peyote cactus button, a bitter herb (and hallucinogen), in order to aid in the seeing of visions. They employed some elements of the Christian ritual to explain the place of peyote in their religious practice, making it roughly equivalent to the bread and wine of the Christian mass. The attraction of peyote lay in its origins in traditional practices and in the idea that it could serve as the center of a new religion designed for Indians by the Creator. The famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker (1845?1911) was one of the more prominent adherents to this new religion; his prestige made it acceptable to tribes that had not practiced the ritual before.

Some tribes welcomed the new religion, while others bitterly opposed it, favoring either the old religion or Christianity. Missionaries condemned peyote rituals as the work of the devil, and religious conflict in some communities escalated so much so as to disrupt families. In 1919 the U.S. Congress held hearings on the subject and considered a bill to ban peyote use. Prohibitions against peyote had previously been justified with reference to alcohol laws, but it was not clear that these laws in fact applied. In spite of intense pressure from the Christian churches, the congressional committee considering the matter refused to send the bill to the floor. Secular social scientists sided with the Indians in the hearings, arguing that peyote use was an integral part of traditional Indian culture. On the reservation level the struggle continued, and since Indians regarded the practice as authentically theirs, the hearings only served to publicize and spread the religion. But practitioners realized that they would not be protected unless their religion could mimic the institutional organization of the Christian churches. They therefore incorporated "Native American Churches" in several states.

The Reform Era

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal (19331939) brought about radical changes in Indian religious life. The new Indian Commissioner John Collier (19331945), a strong supporter of traditional Indian customs and practices, changed the directives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to support rather than suppress dances and peyote use. The Wheeler-Howard Act (or Indian Reorganization Act) of 1934, which authorized the creation of tribal governments, allowed the tribes themselves to regulate religious practice on their own reservations. A few prohibited the Native American Church. Whereas the Pueblos generally struggled to convince their members not to join the new church, the Navajos formally passed a tribal ordinance banning the use of peyote. The federal district court upheld the ban on the basis that Indian tribes were sovereign nations "higher" in political status than states and therefore not subject to the Bill of Rights in religious matters.

The Protest Period

By the mid-1950s traditional dances were held openly on most reservations. Other ceremonies, however, had been neglected and could no longer be performed, and in some cases religious practitioners continued to mistrust the government and kept their rituals hidden. As the Indian protest movement began to grow in the early 1970s, traditional spiritual leaders supported the activists and often attended their rallies and gatherings. During the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in the fall of 1972 and the subsequent protest at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, during the winter of 1973, Sioux medicine men were prominent participants, giving a sense of legitimacy to the protest. During the trials following the occupation of Wounded Knee, some Indian defendants insisted on swearing oaths on the sacred pipe rather than the Bible, thereby alarming white Christian juries.

The watershed event in raising the status of tribal religions, however, was the restoration of the sacred Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo in 1970. The Pueblo had refused money for this mountain area of forty-four thousand acres after it sued the United States in the Indian Claims Commission, preferring to work toward restoration of lands through legislative action. With the backing of a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress, the land was returned. Not only did this legislation represent a major reversal of federal policy toward Indian lands, but it also placed the issue of sacred lands on the national agenda.

Modern Achievements

In 1978 Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Resolution, which ordered federal agencies to make special efforts to cooperate with tribes needing to use certain locations on federal lands for ceremonial purposes. Although the resolution contained no enforcement provisions, it did alert federal agencies, state governments, and museums that traditional Indian religions deserved respect. The more elevated legal status of traditional religion led to further reforms.

The lack of enforcement provisions in the Religious Freedom resolution created great uncertainty in Indian country. Litigation to stop various construction projects on the basis of the resolution were usually turned aside by rhetorical court decisions that failed to establish a clear interpretation of the resolution. In 1988 the Supreme Court heard Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a case involving the construction of a logging road in northern California that compromised the performance of certain rituals. In spite of factual findings by lower courts in favor of the Indians, the justices ruled that Indian religious freedom could not stand in the way of the routine bureaucratic activities of the federal government. This decision was a major setback, because it meant that any activity by the federal government, no matter how trivial, had priority over Indian religious practices.

Indians turned to Congress to change this situation, and in 1990 President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The initial demand for such a law had been triggered by the discovery by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawai'i that the Smithsonian Institution held nearly twenty-five thousand human skeletonsa substantial portion of which belonged to American Indiansthat had been stolen from graves or gathered as trophies after battles with the U.S. cavalry. Hearings leading up to the bill revealed widespread wrongdoing by most U.S. museums, most of which had skeletal materials and in some cases also sacred objects obtained through less than ethical means. The law had three basic purposes: First, to protect against further grave desecration, second, to repatriate thousands of dead relatives housed in museum display cases and vaults, and finally, to restore stolen or improperly acquired religious and cultural property to their rightful owners.

Archaeologists and museums curators were at first appalled by the scope of the bill and its broad and somewhat confusing language. Eventually, however, they found their position morally untenable and cooperated to help secure final passage of the bill. Not surprisingly, the institution most reluctant to engage in the process of repatriation was the Smithsonian, whose staff was doctrinally bound to outmoded studies of human skulls to determine race, intelligence, and moral character. During the 1990s a significant number of objects and skeletons were returned for reburial and continued ceremonial use. Some tribes, abhorring the idea of receiving skeletal matter for fear that it might affect their fortunes, asked the museums to preserve the materials until a time when their people might feel differently about repatriation.

Contemporary Issues

The problem of ensuring American Indian religious freedom in modern times has been twofold. Because Indians had been forced onto small tracts of land to make way for white settlers, many shrines and holy places were no longer accessible, as they now lay on federal land. Traditional practitioners seeking entrance to certain locations, such as the Bear's Lodge (Devil's Tower) in Wyoming, Zuni Heaven in Arizona, or Mount Shasta in California were subject to strict regulation under multiple-use doctrines on federal lands. The trend at the beginning of the twenty-first century has been to open more national lands to industry, changing forever the landscape of the American West and destroying many shrines. Although the Religious Freedom Resolution directs agencies to work with American Indians to avoid conflicts, rumors emanating from Washington indicated that some federal agencies had "war rooms" to prepare for conflict with Indians over possible claims.

The use of peyote off the reservations and in the cities became an issue in 1990, when Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of the State of Oregon v. Smith came before the Supreme Court. Alfred Smith and Galen Black, two Indians, were fired from their jobs at a private drug rehabilitation program because they ingested peyote in private religious ceremonies. When they applied for unemployment compensation from the state of Oregon, they were refused on the grounds that they had been discharged for work-related misconduct. On appeal they cited a well-grounded constitutional doctrine that the government must have a "compelling" interest in the enforcement of a law before it can be invoked to infringe on or restrict freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sadly, the court overturned this test of constitutionality, leaving all religious practitioners in a legal limbo regarding the application of general statutes to religious activities.

Following the Smith case, a coalition of religious bodies sought clarification of the decision in Congress. Unfortunately this coalition refused to allow Indians to participate in the reform movement, arguing out of ignorance that peyote was merely a drug. Indians instead fought for the passage of amendments to the Religious Freedom Resolution, and they succeeded in 1994. The amendments clarified much of the confusion that the Smith case had engendered and offered increased protection for the practices of the Native American Church. Since 1994 these new protections have been tested in a number of cases, the outcomes of which have not diluted the rights of Indians. These cases, however, raised novel questions regarding the manner in which the Native American Church authorizes, appoints, or anoints its ceremonial leader, the Roadman. Some non-Indians sought to become Roadmen, forecasting a major case some time in the future. The main problem faced by the Native American Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century was one of self-definition: whether it was to be a church with no missionary responsibilities, which it certainly was on reservations, or whether it should be a more universal church that can accept non-Indian members.

To understand the historical journey of American Indians and their religious traditions one must place the developments of the modern era within a broader context. Christianity, primarily through its involvement in Indian education, made tremendous inroads into tribal cultures. As education became a function of the secular federal government and state educational institutions, religious instruction faded and Indian children received the same tepid, occasional religious instruction as non-Indians. Improved roads and modern communications reduced the distance between reservation villages and outside society. With increased mobility, people no longer felt tied to the old ways and looked for more meaningful religious experiences. Traditional tribal religions and Pentecostal neighborhood churches became more attractive.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Indian membership in the mainstream Christian churches declined precipitously, as compared to the previous generation. Many reservation churches and chapels closed or consolidated. Membership was primarily made up of the elderly, who had grown up with church traditions. Some denominations have discussed merging their missionary activities for lack of clergy and active members. The vast majority of Indians simply lived secular lives or substituted secular cultural activities for religious commitment. Traditional religions gathered more followers, but practice of the old ceremonies, for the most part, lost its supernatural capability; as with contemporary Christian ceremonies, the feeling of mystery faded. Whether this experience can be restored in the world in which we live is yet to be determined.

See Also

Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Conversion; Cosmology, article on Indigenous North and Mesoamerican Cosmologies; Drama, article on North American Indian Dance and Drama; Ecology and Religion; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Native American Religious Tradition; Missions; Native American Christianities; Native American Church; North American Indian Religions; North American Indians; Performance and Ritual; Poetry, article on Native American Poetry and Religion; Rites of Passage, article on North American Indian Rites.


Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford Lytle. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. New York, 1984.

Fritz, Henry E. The Movement for Indian Assimilation: 18601890. Westport, Conn., 1981.

Irwin, Lee. The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Norman, Okla., 1994.

Keller, Robert H., Jr. American Protestantism and United States Indian Policy, 186982. Lincoln, Neb., 1983.

Smith, Huston, and Reuben Snake, comp. and eds. One Nation under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church. Santa Fe, N. Mex., 1996.

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Walker, James R. Lakota Belief and Ritual. Edited by Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner. Lincoln, Neb., 1980.

Vine Deloria, Jr. (2005)

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Politics and Religion: Politics and Native American Religious Traditions