American Indian Religions

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American Indian Religions

The eras of the American Revolution and early Republic were turbulent times in Indian country. Waves of English and American settlers encroached on Indian lands, epidemic diseases winnowed indigenous populations, and the pangs of dependency—including the increase of the rum trade—gnawed at communities. Religion provided succor for many American Indians during these tumultuous times. Many found new hope and strength in religious revitalization movements that swept the Ohio Valley and Southeast. Others entered, voluntarily or involuntarily, Christian communities and encountered Christian missionaries who promised new hope. The American Revolution profoundly affected the religious experiences of American Indians.

American Indian religions were holistic. Ceremonies and worship connected people, nature, and animals. The ceremonies also emphasized harmony and efficacy. Religious practices ensured that hunters found game, that corn, beans, and squash grew plentifully, and that the universe remained in balance. When game disappeared, crops failed, or the universe was out of kilter, it suggested that the ceremonies had failed, been improperly practiced, or ignored, or a combination of all three factors. When such calamities befell the entire community, American Indians refashioned older ceremonies or adopted new ones. Thus American Indian religions were malleable and could incorporate other elements without losing strength. Contact with Europeans affected American Indian religious practice in diverse ways. For instance, some scholars trace the rise of the kachina ceremonies to the dispersal of the Anasazis because of drought and warfare. Kachinas bring rain, plentiful crops, and cooperation among villages. In a controversial stance, the scholar Calvin Martin argues that hunters in southern Canada blamed the spread of European epidemic diseases such as smallpox on the beaver and other animals and subsequently waged war on the animals. All across North and South America, the arrival of Europeans disrupted the native world. New diseases, slaving expeditions, and the introduction of new items (such as alcohol, trade goods, and weapons) forced Indians to adjust their religious lives.

religious revitalization in indian country

The succession of religious revivals that began in the 1730s in the colonies coincided with a period of intense religious revitalization among American Indians in the Northeast and Southeast. Native prophets such as Neolin, Handsome Lake, and Tenskwatawa preached a message of Indian unity, renewal, and rejection of Euro-Americans. Their messages combined Old and New World religious beliefs and spoke to the issues—disease, excessive alcohol consumption, and war—that affected Indian communities.

These religious movements resulted from the changes in Indian country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Disease and Iroquoian warfare had reduced many native populations, and, in response, surviving Algonquians, Hurons, and Winnebagos formed multitribal villages in the Ohio Valley and along the Great Lakes. These multiethnic villages served as centers of diplomacy, trade, and religious activity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Witnessing the deleterious effects of disease and trade dependency, shamans called for a rejection of Europeans and their trade goods. In 1737 a prophet told his followers that God told the animals to leave the Susquehanna Valley because Indians had traded furs for alcohol. In 1751 a Delaware woman informed followers that God had made three separate peoples—blacks, whites, and Indians—and that all should have different religions. These prophets, and others like them, outlined the forms of religious expression during this period. First, they preached Indian guilt. That is, Indians were to blame for their current problems (trade dependency, over-hunting, and alcohol), but Indian actions (forgoing alcohol, ending trade with Europeans, and giving up European trade items) could correct these issues. Second, they preached a pan-Indian message. All Indians, regardless of tribe, faced similar problems because of English encroachment, such as the pressure on their hunting lands and trade dependency. These messages of unity and anti-Europeanism became more salient after the 1750s.

The aftermath of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) fueled the shamans' fire. After the British forced France to withdraw from its North American colonies, British settlers on Indian land in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes prompted conflict between Indian and white settlers on the frontier. France's absence also left most Indians with only one trading partner—the British. Prices soared, the quality of goods declined, and British traders used rum liberally in their exchanges with Indians. These events laid the groundwork for a wave of religious expression. Sometime after France abandoned its colonies in North America, Neolin, a member of the Delaware tribe who lived at Tuscarawas Town, in present-day Ohio, received a visitor. This visitor told Neolin that before the Europeans arrived the Indians' path to heaven had been unimpeded. Now, whites blocked the Indians' path and irrevocably led them to hell. Neolin then began teaching the message of the Master of Life to the Delaware and others. He warned his followers of the dangers of alcohol and advocated that his followers surrender European goods. Neolin also suggested that American Indians were inherently different from Europeans, and thus all Indians should unite to combat English expansion. Neolin's message was accompanied by the use of the "Black Drink." Indians brewed this concoction, drank it, and then vomited so as to expel English influences from their bodies. Neolin also preached a message of warfare, predicting that Indians and Europeans would soon engage in battle. Neolin's message was extremely popular in the Ohio Valley and by the end of 1761 had reached all the Delaware villages in the region. By 1763 Neolin had followers among the Potawatomis in Michigan and Indiana.

Among Neolin's most influential followers was Pontiac, a member of the Ottawas. Pontiac told his followers that the Master of Life disliked the English but liked the French. Thus Indians should attack the English, force them to leave North America, and wait for the return of the French father. The ensuing conflict, Pontiac's War (1763–1766), fused religious and military messages to unite Indians in the Great Lakes. Indians across the region heeded Neolin's and Pontiac's call and lay siege to English forts. Some of these assaults were successful, but Pontiac himself failed to take Fort Detroit, a defeat with symbolic importance. Moreover, the demands of the hunt prevented Pontiac and others from keeping an army in the field year round. The brutal warfare on both sides (including General Jeffrey Amherst's use of blankets that had covered smallpox patients) ended the rebellion but not the importance of pan-Indian religious movements.

Thirty years later, similar social and economic conditions spawned another revival. After the American Revolution, Iroquois prestige and power declined. Between 1763 and 1776, the Iroquois acted as middlemen between the British government and the Indian nations in the Ohio Valley. However, the American ascension after the American Revolution stripped the Iroquois of influence and wealth. The Iroquois ceded large chunks of land to the United States (some of which actually belonged to Ohio Valley Indians) and lost their ability to act as political intermediaries and support their own economies. Subsequently, alcohol consumption in Iroquois country soared. In 1799 Handsome Lake, of the Senecas, lying on what seemed to be his deathbed, received a series of visions in which the Creator instructed him on how to revitalize Iroquoian communities. Handsome Lake's religious message fused American policy and religion with Iroquoian beliefs. First, he admonished the Iroquois to live at peace with the United States and each other. However, Handsome Lake protested any future Iroquoian land cessions to the United States. Second, he supported the United States' efforts to teach the Iroquois Euro-American modes of farming and education. Third, he denounced alcohol and sale of Iroquois land. Finally, Handsome Lake preached the return to older thanksgiving festivals. Handsome Lake spread this message throughout the Iroquois nation for the next fifteen years before passing away in an Onondaga town. This religion continues to have adherents among contemporary Iroquois.

Similar economic conditions plagued Ohio Valley Indians. After the American Revolution, Shawnees, Miamis, and other Indians reacted against American settlers on their homelands. Little Turtle (Miami) and Blue Jacket (Shawnee) resisted the United States, but Anthony Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers (21 August 1794) and the subsequent Treaty of Greenville (1795) forced them to surrender most of modern-day Ohio and Indiana. By 1800 Ohio Valley Indians found themselves deprived of lands on which to hunt and dependent on American traders for much of their livelihoods.

In the early nineteenth century, two members of the Shawnee tribe, the half-brothers Tecumseh (1768–1813) and Lelawithika (1768–1834), played a significant role in Indian relations with Americans. Chief Tecumseh attempted to rally Ohio Valley and Southeastern Indians to create a unified army to prevent United States expansion. Joining the British side in the War of 1812, he helped them capture Detroit. Behind this military effort to block U.S. encroachment was the religious influence of Lelawithika. In 1805 Lelawithika had a vision in which he visited with the Master of Life, who told Lelawithika to return to earth and preach his message. Lelawithika changed his name to Tenskwatawa, meaning "open door," and told his followers to throw off European trade items (especially alcohol) and return to older ceremonial practices. Tenskwatawa helped Tecumseh advocate for Indian confederacy, and his message spread to the Shawnees, Ottawas, and Wyandots. In 1808 Tenskwatawa, known among his followers as the Prophet, established Prophetstown, a settlement in modern-day Indiana, to accommodate them.

In 1811 William Henry Harrison, governor of the Northwest Territories, marched on Prophetstown. Before Tecumseh left for the Southeast, he warned his brother not to engage Harrison's troops, but Tenskwatawa ignored his brother's advice. In Tecumseh's absence, Harrison's force defeated Tenskwatawa's at Tippecanoe in 1811, and Tenskwatawa abandoned Prophetstown. He was discredited in the eyes of his followers and never regained prestige. Tecumseh's efforts for a pan-Indian alliance also failed. The Southeastern Indians (Choctaws and Creeks) rejected Tecumseh's call for unity, and he returned to burned-down Prophetstown. Tenskwatawa fled with other Shawnees to the west, and Tecumseh was killed by Harrison's forces in 1813.

During this time, a movement influenced by Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh emerged among the Muscogees in the Southeast. Muscogee shamans called for a rejection of Euro-American trappings, including livestock and alcohol, and a renewal of older ceremonies, such as the Black Drink Ritual and the Green Corn Ceremony. In 1810 some shamans went north and visited Tenskwatawa. However, the efforts of the Muscogee shamans fractured Muscogee society. Some chose to follow American policy and adopted farming and Christianity. Others, known as the Red Sticks for the ceremonial red sticks they carried with them into battle, remained hostile to this way of life. The Red Sticks resisted until 1813–1814, when Andrew Jackson delivered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (27 March 1814). The surviving Red Sticks retreated to the Everglades of Florida and teamed with Seminoles to provide resistance to Jackson and Indian Removal in the 1830s.

indians in christian communities

During the period of pan-Indian revitalization movements, other Indians lived in Christian communities throughout North America. Some Indians came to the communities voluntarily; others were forced. In the Northeast, Christian missionaries established communities for American Indians. For instance, Moravian missionaries created small communities for their Indian converts. Yet this placed many American Indians in harm's way. In 1763 in Pennsylvania, residents of Paxton descended on Conestoga, the home of Christian Susquehannocks who had moved to the town and lived under the protection of the colonial government. With passions and fears inflamed by Pontiac's Rebellion, the so-called Paxton boys attacked and killed six Susquehannocks. The Christian Indians then fled to nearby Lancaster, but the mob followed them there, broke into the warehouse where the Susquehannocks were hiding, and butchered them. Indians who adopted Christianity were not immune to the violence of Indian-hating colonists.

A different story emerged in the Spanish territory of California. Spanish officials, fearing British and Russian incursions from the Pacific Northwest, began establishing a series of Franciscan missions in California. Father Junípero Serra established the first mission in modern-day San Diego in 1769, and by 1834 the string of missions reached Solano, just north of San Francisco. The missions were the focal point of Spain's efforts to defend its northern frontier, which also included presidios (military bases) and pueblos (civilian communities).

At the missions, Franciscans sought to transform native ways of life. Soon, Indians replaced wild foods gleaned from hunting, fishing, and gathering with domesticated plants and animals, especially corn and beef. Indians began living in Spanish-style houses and dressing in Spanish-style clothing. Franciscan priests also sought to transform Indian social relations. They required unmarried men and women to live in separate dormitories (often in filthy conditions). They also squelched behaviors that conflicted with Christian morality. At one mission, priests and soldiers discovered a berdache—a man who dressed like a woman—and made him sweep and work in the plaza in the nude. After this punishment, the berdache fled into the interior of California.

Religious instruction was an important part of the mission environment, as was religious conversion. Spanish officials gathered Indians in the immediate area of the mission and sometimes sent military expeditions inland to gather potential converts. Franciscans oriented all aspects of daily life in the mission toward conversion, such as signaling work and prayer times by ringing bells and performing baptisms. Some Franciscans wanted Indians to learn the tenets of Catholicism before baptism, whereas others placed little emphasis on religious knowledge as a prerequisite for baptism.

Yet because of California's isolation, economic factors often overwhelmed the efforts at conversion. Until 1834 most land routes from northern Mexico and New Mexico to California were considered too dangerous to traverse; civilian and military outposts had only sporadic connections with Mexico City and, by extension, Spain. Therefore missions, with their large Indian workforces, strove to be as selfsufficient as possible. Under the direction of the friars, Indians harvested grain, tended cattle herds, and developed artisanal skills, such as leather working and soap making. The missions also traded with presidios and, to a lesser extent, pueblos. These activities left little time for the friars' efforts to convert the Indians.

Because conversions were limited, the Indian religions remained strong and vibrant in the missions. The influx of Indians from the interior of California also helped to maintain traditional Indian religious ways. Shamans continued to administer to followers and heal the sick, and Indian dances persisted. California Indian religions also blended Christian and native traditions. Among the Luiseño, Cupeño, Kumeyaay, and Chumash tribes, a new religion called Chingichngish gained in popularity. This religious expression was named after a cultural hero, manifested as a new creator or a condor, who emerged among the groups. Chingichngish was probably a response to epidemic diseases as well as to mission Indians who fled the Franciscan communities and brought tenets of Christianity inland. Indian participants, however, were extremely secretive about their practices and hid their religion from the Franciscans.

For many California Indians, living in missions meant death. On average, Indians survived only twelve years of mission life. Between 1769 and 1834, California's Indian population declined by almost one-third. Yet, unlike Spanish mission efforts in New Mexico and Texas, a large population in the interior of California provided ready sources of new converts and workers. Spanish soldiers made frequent forays into the San Joaquin Valley to capture gentiles (unbaptized Indians) and bring them back to the mission.

Poor living conditions and an influx of gentiles fostered discontent among the Indian population. Priests and soldiers attempted a number of methods of social control. When Indians committed criminal offenses, priests flogged Indian converts or put them in stocks. When priests considered crimes too egregious, Spanish officials executed Indians. In response, California Indians participated in a variety of resistance strategies. Many Indians ran away from the missions, sometimes for a few days, sometimes permanently. Other California Indians participated in open rebellion. In 1824, members of the Chumash tribe near Santa Barbara rose up, attacked, and occupied Mission Santa Barbara and Mission La Purisima.

christians come to indians

After the American Revolution, the architects of federal Indian policy debated what to do with the Indians living in the Ohio Valley and the Southeast. Anglo-Americans agreed on expanding onto Indian land; they disagreed on how to treat Indians living there. President George Washington, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and others decided the best way to ensure peaceful relations with Indians and open land for settlement was through the process of teaching Indians the rudiments of Euro-American farming, education, and religion. Toward this end, missionaries from a number of denominations, including Moravians and Presbyterians, descended on Indian communities in the Ohio Valley and Southeast. Some tribes, including the Cherokee, invited the missionaries.

The Cherokees had endured a tumultuous history since the Seven Years' War. Between 1760 and 1790, Cherokees had fought in all major conflicts and subsequently suffered from economic and political dislocation. In an effort to heal internal wounds and adapt to new circumstances, some Cherokees asked for Moravian and Presbyterian missionaries, primarily to teach school. Between 1811 and 1813, the influx of Christian missionaries and Euro-American ideas precipitated a Cherokee revival. Prophets attempted to direct and control social change. Some advocated expelling all Americans and American influences; others thought that the Cherokees should expel Americans but let their trade goods remain; and still others thought that the Cherokees should allow a few more Americans to enter their communities, but no more than were necessary. As with other contemporaneous religious movements—such as those of Tenskwatawa and the Red Sticks—the Cherokee religious revival blended Euro-American and Cherokee religious traditions. Some messages spoke of God and Heaven while at the same time proposing to minimize the influence of American culture. Although the Cherokee religious revival paralleled Tenskwatawa's, they were not affiliated. Still, many Americans, including the missionaries living in Cherokee territory, feared this movement and wanted the Cherokees to demonstrate their loyalty. During the Red Stick War (1813–1814), five hundred Cherokees enlisted with Andrew Jackson's force and helped defeat the Red Stick Creeks at Horseshoe Bend.

Between 1750 and 1815, warfare, epidemic diseases, and trade dependency forced American Indians to make difficult adjustments. In new religious expressions, American Indians sought to mediate these changes. Some, such as Neolin, Handsome Lake, and Tenskwatawa, fused Christian and native religions to support a pan-Indian effort to block American westward expansion. Others, such as the Susquehannocks, California Indians, and Cherokees, experienced Christian missionary efforts. Franciscans, Moravians, and Presbyterians descended on their communities and attempted to change the Indians from the inside. Yet throughout this period Indian religious expressions remained strong and vibrant. Handsome Lake's religion, Chingichngish, and others blended Christianity and native beliefs to make sense of a new world. These types of religious expressions would continue into the twentieth century, with the Ghost Dance and the Native American Church.

See alsoHorseshoe Bend, Battle of; Moravians; Pontiac's War; Presbyterians; Revivals and Revivalism; Tippecanoe, Battle of .


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William J. Bauer, Jr.

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American Indian Religions

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American Indian Religions