Indian Religious Life

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INDIAN RELIGIOUS LIFE. One summer day in the early 1990s atop a grassy hill side on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, an ad hoc crew of young men gathered to set up a large tent in preparation of a service of the Native American Church. This service would involve the consumption of the church's sacrament, the flesh of peyote, a cactus that grows near the Texas-Mexico border. The tent poles, resting on the ground, were tree-size timbers. A man tied the tips of two of them together, and the men lifted the poles skyward. But the rope slipped and the poles slid apart. The process had to start all over. On the second attempt, the rope slipped and the poles misaligned another time. That's when one of the Yankton men said, "You know we have to do this four times." Everyone laughed. His joke played off of the fact that Yankton ceremonial protocol, to acknowledge the four cardinal directions and the spiritual powers associated with them, requires many ceremonial gestures and movements to be repeated four times. Tent construction, thankfully, does not. When their efforts succeeded the third time, that was it. The men began lifting other poles to rest within the V-shape formed where the first two raised poles crossed. Sheathing this skeleton with canvas, they enclosed a large space where dozens would later gather for worship.

A Navajo roadman had traveled to South Dakota to conduct the ceremony. He had spent an entire day sweeping, cleaning, and shaping the soil in accord with a very precise design, led an all-night service of prayer, song, and sacramental communion. For practitioners, peyote is a living, healing teacher who can help everyone, including individuals in dire need. Many stories relate how the spirit of peyote helped souls lost in the desert or drifting in despair, but the people gathered this particular evening radiated joy. They had a special reason to celebrate. The participants included many men and women who had just completed a Sun Dance, an age-old Plains Indian religious practice. In a near by ceremonial ground, the Sun Dancers had successfully endured four days of frequent dancing and constant fasting, concluding an entire year of dedicated prayer and preparation. Through the whole process, a Yankton medicine man had guided them. During the four days of the culminating ceremony, he had determined when they should start and stop dancing around the cottonwood tree, which had been specially selected and moved to the center of the circle. On his signal, the dancers lined up on a radius from that center and danced facing in one of the four cardinal directions. Then, again on his signal, they rotated one quarter of the way around the tree, lined up and danced to the next direction, and so on, until they had completed the fourfold circuit. They did this time and time again. Throughout the cycles, a community of relatives and friends, sitting in the brush arbor circling the dance ground, supported the dancers with good thoughts, prayers, gifts, and labor. Among other things, witnesses chopped wood to keep a fire going to heat rocks for a sweat lodge, a small domed tent where steam from water poured on the super-heated rocks cleansed the hearts and minds of the resting dancers.

After four days of dancing in the sun to the rhythmic voice of a large ceremonial drum, some of the dancers decided to make a final offering. Taking two razor cuts at a time to their shoulders or chests, they allowed a thin stick or bone skewer to be inserted through the fresh openings in their body. The dance leader then tied to the ends of the implanted stick a rope, pulled from the many attached to the top of the sacred tree. Toward the end of the dance, the now attached dancers approached the tree and rested their hands on it, then backed away until the ropes grew taut. They did this four times. The fourth time, they ran away from the tree and did not stop. The ropes grew taut, each dancer's skin stretched, and finally, with a popping sound, small divots of flesh tore away. These offerings recalled that of the primordial being, Inyan, one of the first superior gods, who allowed his blood to flow out to make all that is the living world. As the dancers emerged from the circle, they smiled and shook hands with everyone present. They had made a meaningful sacrifice for themselves, for relatives, for family members facing hard times, for the community, for their people.

Modern Challenges to Indian Religious Life

Not too long ago participants in these religious activities would have faced serious punishments. Indeed, during the latter decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth, federal agents sought to eradicate the Sun Dance among Plains Indian nations and to ban the peyote religion wherever they encountered it. State officials especially targeted peyote worship, classifying the cactus as a narcotic on a level with cocaine or hashish, even though the evidence suggests peyote is not addictive. Government officials also sought to extinguish communal dances among Pueblo Indians, potlatch ceremonies among northwestern tribes, world renewal ceremonies in northern California, fiestas in southern California, and other traditional practices. They assumed traditional ceremonies made Native men and women militant, pagan, and wasteful. They sought to replace these with Christianity.

During this period, the United States and Canada compelled Native children to attend boarding schools. In these institutions, teachers sought to force Indians to conform to white ways of acting, dressing, and believing. Facing these pressures from government authorities, all Native Americans developed ways to accommodate a hostile and powerful culture, without capitulating entirely or surrendering to despair. Some sought to continue their traditional practices, but in a way that did not attract attention. Some converted to Christianity and affiliated with established denominations. And many, including some Christians as well as some traditionalists, joined new Native-initiated religious movements.

New Religious Movements

During the late nineteenth century, Native Americans spread the peyote religion across Indian country, initially reaching Lipan Apaches, Tonkawas, Kiowas, and Comanches in Oklahoma and later winning and healing the hearts of Anishinabe, Menominee, Lakota (see Sioux), Navajo, Cree, and other peoples. Because different peoples interpreted this tradition in different ways, there are various forms of peyote ceremonialism. Most incorporate Christian teaching and values. Indeed, on 10 October 1918, peyotists in Oklahoma organized the Native American Church, which they described as a good way to teach "the Christian religion and morality." This denomination and others defend practitioners of this religion, who continue to encounter discrimination and harassment.

During the 1880s, another new religious movement emerged in the Pacific Northwest. Known as the Indian Shaker religion, it continues to provide meaning to peoples in this area. It began near Olympia, Washington, with a Squaxin man named John Slocum and his wife, Mary Slocum. Employing Native American singing and words as well as Christian crucifixes, images of Jesus, and candles, Indian Shakers seek to heal the ill by shaking over them, brushing them with spirit power, and bell ringing. Shakers in the Indian Full Gospel Shaker Church use the Bible. In contrast, Shakers in the Indian Shaker Church, also known as the "1910 Church," do not. This schism epitomizes the complicated and sometimes vexed relationship between many Native peoples' religious life and Christian texts, symbols, and practices.

Still another new religious movement began in Mason Valley, Nevada, and gained devotees across the West. In 1889, a visionary Paiute healer named Wovoka revealed that Native Americans, by dancing a round dance and observing a peaceful moral code, could help generate a new earth full of life and free of loss and death. This message attracted Native visitors from near and far, and they took the new dance back to their peoples in the Great Basin, California, the Northwest, and the Great Plains. Lakota Indians in South Dakota, sorely oppressed by the U.S. government, reinterpreted the religion as a way to bring back their ancestral ways and rid their land of white people. Although the Pauites called the religion Nänigükwa (Dance in a Circle), the Lakotas called it Wanagi Wacipi (Spirit Dance or Ghost Dance). Authorities, fearing anything that countered their control, brought in soldiers, and on 29 December 1890 massacred approximately three hundred Minneconjou and Oglala men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Cheyenne people developed yet another interpretation. They recognized Christian aspects in Wovoka's religion and referred to it as the "Dance to Christ." In a sense, participating in this movement provided some Native Americans with a fruitful way to appropriate elements of Christianity without converting to Christianity itself.

John Slocum and Wovoka were not the first Native prophets or visionaries to help people find new spiritual paths when ancestral ones were disrupted. All across the continent, an extraordinary range of fresh religious visions and new religious practices emerged to help Native American men and women respond to the challenges and opportunities associated with new peoples, technologies, plants, and animals as well as with colonialism, invasion, devastating new diseases, removal, forced assimilation, and missionization. Prophet-led revolts helped people from various tribes find common cause, but they also led to conflicts within Native nations and usually elicited brutal military responses and invasions by the armies of the United States. Witnessing these outcomes, many Native men and women gravitated toward less militant movements or made their peace with Christianity.

Even before the changes associated with contact and colonialism, there were religious innovators. During the fifteenth century in the Northeast, for example, a great leader called the Peacemaker taught thirteen laws that enabled Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas to live together in harmony and peace. United in a Great League of Peace and Power, they later brought the Tuscarora nation into their confederacy(1722) and called themselves the Haudenosaunee, "the people of the long-house." Other Indians referred to them with an Algonquian word, Irinakoiw, and the French, borrowing this name, called them Iroquois. Today, the Iroquois remain an important presence in upstate New York, where they have recently won some important lawsuits related to unsettled land claims, established gaming operations, and launched strong language revitalization programs.

Renewing Religions and Identities

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Native men and women were working to reclaim their rights and renew their traditions. In 1999, for example, young Makah men paddling a hand-carved canoe off the coast of Washington State pursued, harpooned, shot, landed, and butchered a gray whale. This act, which enraged some environmentalists, embodied the exercise of treaty rights guaranteed to a sovereign Native people. But it also symbolized the renewal of a profound relationship with the whale, a relationship vital in ancestral Makah tradition. Through whaling, the Makahs reclaimed an important part of their identity.

With great tenacity and imagination, with humor and legal argument, and with spirituality, contemporary Native Americans are strengthening their traditions. Yuchi men and women, like many speakers of endangered languages across the continent, are working to save their linguistic tradition. Zuni people have repatriated from museums statues of their war gods. Lakotas have reburied the ancestral remains of survivors of Wounded Knee and reclaimed from eastern museums clothing worn by its victims. Anishinabe people in Minnesota, Luiseño in California, and Nez Perce in Idaho have bought back tracts of land that hold spiritual and cultural significance to their peoples. Basket making and bird singing are regaining vigor in southern California, bringing Indians there into closer relationship with the land and giving new voice to ancestral stories of its creation. Cherokees are once again playing stickball in North Carolina.

Indian religious life has always enabled people to renew their worlds by providing the words, songs, acts, symbols, and values to deepen their participation in life and make things right again. But it is also the case that Native Americans have always sought to enrich their religious lives with fresh ideas, new visions, and original practices. As Indians reclaim their cultural patrimony, assert their treaty rights, regain some of their land bases, revitalize story telling traditions, and preserve their languages, they are also renewing the wellsprings of their religious life. Everything is connected; the vitality of Indian religious life reflects the condition of Native lands, languages, and the communities. As the latter are renewed, so the former gains strength. Thanks to the creativity, vision, sacrifices, and persistence of modern Native American men and women, Indian religious life has a strong future. The summer will return. The drum will sound. A new Sun Dance will begin.


Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

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

Kehoe, Alice Beck. The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization. Fort Worth, Tex.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1989.

Martin, Joel W. The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion. Oxford, U.K., and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Nelson, Richard K. Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Stewart, Omer C. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Treat, James, ed. Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Vecsey, Christopher. Imagine Ourselves Richly: Mythic Narratives of North American Indians. New York: Crossroad, 1988.

Joel W.Martin

See alsoIndian Bible, Eliot's ; Nativist Movements (American Indian Revival Movements) ; andvol. 9:A Dialogue between Piumbukhou and His Unconverted Relatives ; Land of the Spotted Eagle ; A Letter from Wovoka .

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