Native Americans: Religious Practices in the West

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Native Americans: Religious Practices in the West


Confrontation. By the early nineteenth century all Native Americans had been touched to various degrees by contact with Europeans. Historians often analyze the social, political, and economic challenges presented by white culture, yet to most Native Americans contact and its consequences had to be grasped first in religious terms. From the perspective of the Native American West, religion in the first half of the nineteenth century was characterized by the struggle to reconfigure sacred worlds in light of shifting circumstances. Unfortunately, most of the available information concerning nineteenth-century Indian religions comes not from the Indians themselves but from the observations of whites, whose cultural and individual biases influenced what they saw and recorded. Euro-Americans and Native

Americans had to fit their experience of the other into their own framework. The European understanding of different religions was generally based on a model of progress, with Christianity as the pinnacle. Yet each observers own opinion also came into play in the process of interpretation: to whites, Indian religiosity could represent either the darkness of heathenism, the primitive ways of an unenlightened culture, or the clear evidence of universal truths embedded in the Indian heart in common with the rest of humanity. In 1839 George Catlin published his famous journal of his travels among the Western tribes, and he responded to the different currents of opinion at that time:

I have heard it said by some very good men, and some who have even been preaching the Christian religion amongst them, that they have no religionthat all their zeal in their worship of the Great Spirit was but the foolish excess of ignorant superstitionthat their humble devotions and supplications to the Sun and the Moon, where many of them suppose that the Great Spirit resides, were but the absurd rantings of idolatry. I fearlessly assert to the world, (and I defy contradiction) that the North American Indian is everywhere, in his native state, a highly moral and religious being, endowed by his Maker, with an intuitive knowledge of some great Author of his being, and the Universe; in dread of whose displeasure he constantly lives, with the apprehension before him, of a future state, where he expects to be rewarded or punished according to the merits he has gained or forfeited in this world. Of their extraordinary modes and sincerity of worship, I speak with equal confidence; and although I am compelled to pity them for their ignorance, I am bound to say that I never saw any other people of any colour, who spend so much of their lives in humbling themselves before, and worshipping the Great Spirit, as some of these tribes do.

Clash of Worldviews. Regardless, white observers, no matter how sympathetic, were incapable of apprehending certain crucial aspects of how Native Americans viewed realityin particular, the spatial orientation that was very different from the temporal anchoring of European culture. This clash of perspectives was probably the most fundamental difference between the way whites and Indians considered their worlds. The Indians possessed a sense of place that was generally alien to Euro-Americans, who regarded land as a commodity. Native religion entailed a sacred geography, which was reflected in cosmology as well as in ceremony. The context of religious observance was therefore vital, for tribal traditions, events, and revelations were linked to specific sites. These connections were not transferable, and abandoning the ancestral places meant severing spiritual ties. By contrast Europeans saw themselves grounded in time and therefore in history. The past was a record that had to be scrutinized for its lessons, then hammered into a better future. Without this discipline civilizations would slide back into darkness. To the Indians such a linear, temporal progression made little sense, and the image of a circle captured better the movement of their sacred

history. As might be expected, then, Indian religions were not absorbed with promulgating moral precepts or points of doctrine against which the advance or decline of a person or group could be measured. Instead of emphasizing a past historical event (such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ), with its theological implications, the focus of native belief tended to be experiential, centered in ritual practice and the power gained thereby.

Diversity and Adaptability. The multiplicity of indigenous belief systems makes it difficult to do more than generalize about common features of Native American religion. Groups that shared linguistic ties also often shared religious traditions, but there were always local variations. Moreover, tribal rites and ceremonies were generally not static but assimilative. Indian religions continually merged ancient traditions with new introductions that seemed to offer another way of approaching the sacred. As the historian James Axtell has observed, in religious matters purposeful change and adjustment was the only norm, and the process of borrowing extended to myths, heroes, artifacts, ceremonies, and beliefs. Turned outward, this inclusive approach meant that other religious systems were regarded as different rather than wrong. Many groups, including the Cherokees, the Nez Perces, and the Navajos, considered themselves as the real people, but their special relationship with their Creator was not framed in opposition to another groups similar claim.

A Holistic Sensibility. Even before contact, then, Indian religions were diverse, adaptable, and holistic. A religious awareness permeated every activity, and there was no compartmentalization of religion from the rest of life. The physical world was so filled with potent spiritual energy that the supernatural and the natural merged. The kinship with nature arose from its spiritual animation: animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, and weather phenomena all possessed power and personality. Consequently, religious goals were focused on the search for and renewal of spiritual allies, who conferred power and favor when treated with respect (and removed favor when snubbed). Native Americans courted disaster in every aspect of life if they failed to honor all variety of sacred beings through the correct performance of ritual. Ceremonies and rites thus formed, in the phrase of the anthropologist Ruth Underhill, the very fabric of life, nourishing harmonious relationships with the spirit world and keeping the universe orderly.

Indigenous Ceremonies. There were common ceremonial themes throughout Native America, such as acknowledgment of the firstfruits of the hunt or the harvest, but each group shaped the exact form of a ritual, combining ancient usages with new elements to create a unique amalgam. To nineteenth-century white observers, two of the best-known indigenous ceremonies represented opposite sides of Indian religiosity. The Green Corn Dance, or Busk, was celebrated by some Eastern Woodlands cultures, usually in July or August, when ears of corn had grown to the roasting stage. The ceremony commemorated the renewal of connections between all parts of creation, and by extension, within the tribal community. Among the Creeks, for example, it served a healing function, for every infraction except murder could be absolved and the transgressors be reinstated into the tribe. Fire furnished the symbol of a fresh beginning, as all hearth fires were extinguished, then relit by drawing from a newly kindled community fire. To Anglo-Americans, such observances had a familiar, if primitive, ring, fulfilling the same function as a day of thanksgiving. Not so among the Plains Indians, who held a major ceremony at the conclusion of the hunting season. A dance lasting several days provided an opportunity to pay respect to all of creation and to seek its renewed favor, especially with regard to the buffalo. The ceremony was vital to the well-being of the tribe as well as to the prestige of the participants. Although each group had its own traditions and name for the event, the Lakota (Sioux) Sun Dance became famous through descriptions in travelers accounts. Among the Oglalas of the Teton Sioux, selftorture was a part of the dance and was undertaken as proof of the individuals intense commitment to seek a vision through pain. George Catlin visited the Mandans and the Lakotas in the 1830s and observed their inclusion of privation and torture in this communal ceremony. In both instances, splints were inserted into the body through strategic muscles in the chest, arms, and legs, and the individual was suspended from the center pole in the lodge, sometimes with additional weights applied. The Mandan boys were soon released, whereupon they willed themselves to resist exhaustion and join the dance outside the lodge. The Lakota adults, on the other hand, remained suspended and bleeding from sunrise to sunset, which put their chances of survival in doubt. Voluntarily participating in such a practice was so alien to Anglo-American concepts of civilized behavior that the Sun Dance was outlawed after the Civil War.

Vision Quests. The most intensely personal religious experience for Indians was achieved through the vision quest, which was the individuals acknowledgment of dependency on the spirit world. In general the vision quest was a rite of passage for all males reaching puberty, but in the Columbia Plateau both boys and girls could seek out a spirit guide. The person often spent several nights alone, fasting, praying constantly for a spiritual guide or contact, and perhaps even punishing his or her body by mutilation or by plunging into icy water. The goal was to have a tutelary or guardian spirit show itself in dream or vision, which would signify its unique spiritual linkage to that person throughout life. The spirit would offer instruction on what activities would bring success and what would lead to harm or failure. As a commemoration of their bond, the spirit might tell the individual to carry a specific token or to gather certain items and keep them in a sacred bundle, or might teach the person a special song that would call out the supernatural power. The more spirit helpers one obtained, the better, but only the exceptional seeker went beyond the initial vision quest.

Organization and Ritual. Religious organization varied throughout Native America, but it often influenced a groups ritualistic emphasis. For example, personal visions were not as important in the Puebloan culture of the Southwest, where religious activity was carefully structured around societies and priesthoods. There the priest candidate became qualified for his office by learning prescribed rituals and songs from a mentor. For less organized tribal religions, such as those in the Plains and the Columbia Plateau, direct interaction with the spirits through visions, dreams, or possession was highly valued. Those who achieved the status of shaman or medicine man were set apart not by training but because they demonstrated superior communication with the spirit world or with more powerful spirits. The proof was their ability to locate game, control the weather, cure illness, identify spirit guides, and perhaps even prophesy.

The Great Spirit. Although some indigenous belief systems (such as those on the Columbia Plateau) tended toward pantheism, others seemed to establish a hierarchy, topped by a single Great Spirit. This mysterious power animated the physical universe and could be employed for good as well as evil ends, which helped to explain the occurrence of misfortune and calamity. There were different interpretations of the Great Spirit, but the description of an Osage Indian in 1925 is suggestive: All life is wakan. So also is everything which exhibits power, whether in action, as the winds and drifting clouds, or in passive endurance, as the boulder by the wayside. For even the commonest sticks and stones have a spiritual essence which must be reverenced as a manifestation of the all-pervading mysterious power that fills the universe. The Oglalas, linguistic kin of the Osages, spoke of Wakonda, or Great Wakan, in the sense of supreme being, which encouraged the missionaries to adopt the word as a translation for the Christian God.

Religion and the Natural World. The Great Spirit, which differed in substance from the power connected with individual nature spirits, was not conceived in anthropomorphic terms. Because relations with nature were on an equal level with human relations, other parts of nature, from birds to fish to rocks, were in some sense people. In their ancestral form they behaved in human ways, and their activities explained a wide range of natural phenomena: from how night and day were divided (Creeks) to why dogs have long tongues (Caddos). Many tribal religions included a trickster, such as the coyote in the Plains, the blue jay or raven in the Northwest, and the rabbit in the Woodlands. Whether the tricksters activities benefitted or hurt human beings was a matter of chance. The rich traditions of myth and legend, which were an essential part of indigenous religious ceremony and of a particular groups history, often celebrated the exploits of these man-animals while simultaneously offering moral lessons on pride, greed, or folly to all who would listen. The stories that were so much a part of religious observance demonstrated the connection of native religions to experiences in the physical world, rather than to theological abstractions.


James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985);

John Bierhorst, The Mythology of North America (New York: William Morrow, 1985);

Vine Deloria, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1994);

Ruth Underhill, Red Mans Religion: Beliefs and Practices of the Indians North of Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

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Native Americans: Religious Practices in the West

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Native Americans: Religious Practices in the West