Tribal Mysteries

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Tribal Mysteries

The tribal cults that have emerged in the past 500 years offer a blend of Christianitythe majority religion of the conqueror and the slave ownerand the aboriginal belief structures of the Native American or African tribes that were subjugated or enslaved. While the early Christian missionaries, ministers, and priests were sincere in preaching what they considered to be the authentic word of God to the tribes of North and South America and Africa, they regarded their culture, customs, and religion as innately superior. Thus, a deeper understanding and respect between the missionaries and the tribal peoples was difficult to achieve.

"Lost in the dark the heathen doth languish," bemoans a familiar missionary hymn, soundly implying that there is but a single source of illumination. When the Christian clergy set forth on their spiritual journeys to convert the tribal peoples, they established themselves in the parental role and widened the gap of understanding between religious traditions.

On the North American continent, the Christian missionaries were intrigued to discover that tribe after tribe across the length and width of the continent had legends and myths which closely paralleled so many of the accounts found in Genesis and in other books of the Old Testament. The Delaware, to cite only one example, told the story of the Creation and the Great Deluge in pictographs. Some missionaries dealt with the mystery in the same manner that the early Spanish priests who accompanied the conquistadores had dealt with the Aztec myths that told stories similiar to those found in the Biblethey declared that the native people had been told these stories by Satan.

In a study of the aboriginal peoples of the United States written by a theologian in the late 1800s, Dr. John Tanner fulminated against such accounts related by the tribal priests and declared: "If the Great Spirit had communications to make, he would make them through a white man, not an Indian!"

Other Christian scholars and missionaries were not so certain, and, in an effort to explain the similarity between so many of the tribal legends and rites to the Judeo-Christian traditions, a theory was formulated that argued that the aboriginal peoples of the New World were the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. To add an intriguing credence to this theory was the enigma of the Mandan tribe blue-eyed, fair-complexioned native people of the central plains. Christian clergymen set out with renewed vigor to reclaim the scattered Israelite tribes, lost to the fold for so long, denied the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.) as the Messiah, condemned to wander a strange and pagan land with their holy traditions but dim memories.

In recent decades, the term "cult" has become negative, quickly applied to religious expressions that may seem different from the order of service in more conventional church bodies. In the twenty-first century, one should always be mindful that what seems to be a strange cult to one person is likely to be a sincere and serious form of worship to another; just because this "strange religious practice" may be an eclectic blend of several traditions does not make it any less serious to its practitioners.

Delving Deeper

crim, keith, ed. the perennial dictionary of world religions. san francisco: harper collins, 1989.

harvey, graham. indigenous religions. new york: cassell, 2000.

rosten, leo, ed. religions of america. new york: simon & schuster, 1975.

sharma, arvind, ed. women in world religions. albany: state university of new york press, 1987.

Ghost Dance

In 1890 Jack "Wovoka" Wilson (18561932), a Paiute who worked as a ranch hand for a white rancher, came down with an illness accompanied by a terrible fever. For three days, the Native American lay as if dead. When he returned to consciousness and to the arms of his wife Mary, he told the Paiute who had assembled around his "dead" body that his spirit had left his body and had walked with God, the Old Man, for those three days. As if that were not wonder enough, the Old Man had given him a powerful vision to share with the Paiute people.

Wovoka's vision had revealed that Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.) moved again upon the Earth Mother and that the dead of many tribes were alive in the spirit world, just waiting to be reborn. If the native people wished the buffalo to return, the grasses to grow tall, the rivers to run clean, they must not injure anyone; they must not do harm to any living thing; they must not make war. On the other hand, they must lead lives of purity, cease gambling, put away the alcohol, and guard themselves against all lusts and weaknesses of the flesh.

The most important part of the vision that God gave to Wovoka was how to perform the Ghost Dance. The Paiute prophet told his people that the dance had never been performed anywhere on Earth. It was the dance of the spirit people of the Other World. To perform this dance was to insure that God's blessings would be bestowed upon the tribe, and many ghosts would materialize during the dance to join with the living in celebration of the return of the old ways. Wovoka said that the Old Man had spoken to him as if he were his son, and God had assured him that many miracles would be worked through him. In his heart and in his life, Wovoka, also known in his tribe as "the Cutter," became Jesus; Mason Valley, Nevada became Galilee; and the Native American people received a messiah.

Wovoka's father had been the respected holy man Tavibo and his grandfather had been the esteemed prophet Wodziwob. And now he, too, had spent his time in imitation of death, lying in a trance-like state for three days, receiving his spiritual initiation in the Other World. Wovoka had emerged as a holy man and a prophet, and history would forever know him as the Paiute Messiah.

Soon, many representatives from various tribes visited the Paiute and saw them dance Wovoka's vision. They saw the truth of the Ghost Dance, and they began calling Wovoka, Jesus. His fame spread so far that newspaper reporters from St. Louis, New York, and Chicago came to see the Ghost Dance Messiah and record his words. Whites were pleased that Wovoka did not speak of war, only of the importance of all people living together in harmony.

Chief Big Foot (1825?1890) of the Sioux traveled from the camp in South Dakota to Nevada to see the Ghost Dance, and he returned to tell Sitting Bull (c. 18311890) about Wovoka's promise that the dead from many tribes would soon be joining the living in a restored world that would once again be filled with plentiful game, herds of buffalo, and the tall grasses of the prairie. All those whites who interfered with this would be swallowed up by the earth, and only those who practiced the ways of peace would be spared.

Sitting Bull, the great Sioux prophet and holy man, was impressed by Big Foot's report, but rather noncommittal toward the teachings of the Paiute Messiah. While he did not wholeheartedly endorse the Ghost Dance, neither did he prevent those Sioux who wished to join in the ritual from doing so.

Sometime during the fall of 1890, the Ghost Dance spread through the Sioux villages of the Dakota reservations with the addition of the Ghost Shirts, special shirts that could resist the bullets of the bluecoats, the soldiers who might attempt to stop the rebirth of the old ways. As the Sioux danced, sometimes through the night, believing they were hastening the return of the buffalo and their many relatives who had been killed in combat with the pony soldiers, the settlers and townsfolk in the Dakota territory became anxious. And when the Sioux at Sitting Bull's Grand River camp began to dance with rifles, it becme apparent to the white soldiers that the Ghost Dance was really a war dance after all.

After a nervous Indian agent at Pine Ridge wired his superiors in Washington that the Sioux were dancing in the snow and were acting crazy, it was decided that Sitting Bull and other Sioux leaders should be removed from the general population and confined in a military post until the fanatical interest in the Ghost Dance religion had subsided. Sitting Bull was killed by Sioux reservation police on December 15, 1890, and Big Foot and 350 of his people were brought to the edge of Wounded Knee to camp.

On December 28, Sioux police, Fouchet's Cavalry, and Drum's Infantry moved against the Sioux camp at Grand River. The aggressors also brought with them Hotchkiss multiple-firing guns and mountain howitzers. A shot rang out. The Sioux scattered to retrieve rifles that had been discarded or hidden. From all around the camp, fire from the automatic rifles, violent eruptions from the exploding shells, and volleys of bullets destroyed the village. As they were being slaughtered by two battalions of soldiers, the Sioux sang Ghost Dance songs, blended with their own death chants. Within a short period of time, approximately 300 Sioux had been killed, Big Foot among them, and 25 soldiers had lost their lives. The massacre at Wounded Knee ended the Native American tribes' widespread practice of the Ghost Dance religion and ended the Indian Wars.

It was said that Wovoka wept bitterly when he learned the fate of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. Jack Wilson, the Cutter, the Paiute Messiah, died in 1932.

Delving Deeper

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.

Harvey, Graham. Indigenous Religions. New York: Cassell, 2000.

La Barre, Weston. The Ghost Dance. New York: Delta Books, 1972.


The Macumba religion (also known as Spiritism, Candomble, and Umbanda) is practiced by a large number of Brazilians who cherish the ages-old relationship between a shaman and his or her people. In its outward appearances and in some of its practices, Macumba resembles voodoo ceremonies. Trance states among the practitioners are encouraged by dancing and drumming, and the evening ceremony is climaxed with an animal sacrifice.

Macumba was born in the 1550s from a compromise between the African spirit worship of the slaves who had been brought to Brazil and the Roman Catholicism of the slaveholders. Although they were forced to honor an array of Christian saints and the God of their masters, the native priests soon realized how complementary the two faiths could beespecially since, unlike the slaveowners in the United States, the Brazilians allowed the slaves to keep their drums. The Africans summoned their gods, the Orishas, with the sound of their drums and the rhythm of their dancing. From the melding of the two religious faiths, the Africans created the samba, the rhythm of the saints. The African god, Exu, became St. Anthony; Iemanja became Our Lady of the Glory; Oba became St. Joan of Arc; Oxala became Jesus Christ; Oxum became Our Lady of the Conception, and so on.

During this same period, Roman Catholic missionaries were attempting to convince the Native American tribes in Brazil to forsake their old religion and embrace Christianity. In many instances, Macumba provided the same kind of bridge between faiths for the indigenous people as it had for the Africans imported to the country by the slave trade. While they paid homage to the religious practices of the Europeans, they also could worship their nature spirits in the guise of paying homage to the Christian saints.

The ancient role of the shaman remains central to Macumba. He (it is most often a male) or she enters into a trance state and talks to the spirits in order to gain advice or aid for the supplicants. Before anyone can participate in a Macumba ceremony, he or she must undergo an initiation. The aspirants must enter a trance during the dancing and the drumming and allow a god to possess them. Once the possession has taken place, the shaman must determine which gods are in which initiate so the correct rituals may be performed. The process is assisted by the sacrifice of an animal and the shaman smearing blood over the initiates. Once the initiates have been blooded, they take an oath of loyalty to the cult. Later, when the trance state and the possessing spirit has left them, the aspirants, now members of the Macumba cult, usually have no memory of the ritual proceedings.

Delving Deeper

Huxley, Francis.The Invisibles. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

"Macumba," Occultopedia. [Online] 23 January 2002

Middleton, John, ed. Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing. Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press, 1967.

Sharma, Arvind, ed. Women in World Religions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Villodo, Alberto, and Stanley Krippner. Healing States: A Journey into the World of Spiritual Healing and Shamanism. New York: Fireside Books, 1987.


In April 1989, the religion of Santeria was dealt a negative blow to its image that has been difficult to overcome in the public consciousness. Police officials digging on the grounds of Rancho Santa Elena outside of Matamoros, Mexico, brought up a dozen human corpses that had all suffered ritual mutilations. And when it was learned that Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, the leader of the drug ring responsible for the murders, had a mother who was a practitioner of Santeria, a media frenzy swept across both Mexico and the United States. Santeria was most often defined in the media as an obscure cult that was a mixture of Satanism, voodoo, witchcraft, and demon-worship, rather than a religious amalgamation that evolved from a blending of African slaves' spirit worship with their Spanish Catholic masters' hierarchy of intercessory saints.

Constanzo, a drug smuggler, had created his own cruel concept of a cult and declared himself its high priest. He was joined by Sara Maria Aldrete, an attractive young woman, who led a bizarre double life as a high priestess and as an honor student at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville. Although, on the one hand, it seemed that the cruel executions were used as a disciplinary tool by the drug boss, as in all instances of ritual sacrifice it was learned from surviving gang members that Constanzo had promised his followers that they would be able to absorb the spiritual essence of the victims.

While Santeria's rites are controversial in that they may include the sacrifice of small animals, it is essentially a benign religion. Once a serious investigation was made of Constanzo's grotesque and gory version of a cult of human sacrifice, it was learned that he had combined aspects of Santeria, voodoo, and an ancient Aztec ritual known as santismo with elements of his own personal bloody cosmology. Mexican police officials had discovered the grisly handiwork of the drug ring by following one of its members to a large black cauldron in which a human brain, a turtle shell, a horseshoe, a human spinal column, and an assortment of human bones had been boiled in blood.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Constanzo's drug ring was actually composed of individuals who belonged to a number of religious groups common to the area, including Roman Catholicism, Santeria, and Palo Mayombe. Many members of the gang insisted that the true inspiration for the human sacrifices came from Constanzo's demand that each of them watch the motion picture The Believers (1987) 14 times. This thriller, starring Martin Sheen, Jimmy Smits, and Robert Loggia, took certain elements of Santeria, added numerous concepts foreign to the faithincluding a malevolent high priest with incredible supernatural powersthen climaxed these powerful ingredients with human sacrifice.

In spite of such public relations low points as the murders at Matamoros and negative depictions in motion picture and television presentations, Santeria continues to grow among Hispanics in Florida, New York City, and Los Angeles. Some estimates state that there are more than 300,000 practitioners of Santeria in New York alone. Although it was suppressed in Cuba during the 1960s, lessening of restrictions upon religious practices in the 1990s saw the practitioners of Santeria in that country increase in great numbers. While the rites remain secret and hidden from outsiders, a few churches have emerged that provide their members an opportunity to practice Santeria freely. The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye was formed in southern Florida in the early 1970s and won a landmark decision by the Supreme Court to be allowed to practice animal sacrifice. The African Theological Archministry, founded by Walter Eugene King in South Carolina, now reports approximately 10,000 members. The Church of Seven African Powers, also located in Florida, instructs its members how to use spells in their daily lives.

Santeria originated in Cuba around 1517 among the slaves who combined elements of the Western African Yoruba and Bantu religions with aspects of Spanish Catholicism. When they were forced to accept the religious practices of their masters, the African slaves were at first greatly distressed that they could no longer pay homage to their worship of the Orishas, their spiritual guardians. Since they were in no position to protest for the freedom to practice their native religion, their resourceful priests quickly noticed a number of parallels between the Yoruba religion and Catholicism. While paying respect and homage to various Christian saints, the Africans found that they could simply envision that they were praying to one of their own spirit beings. A secret religion was bornRegla de Ocha, "The Rule of the Orisha," or the common and most popular name, Santeria, "the way of the saints."

In Santeria, the principal God, the supreme deity, is referred to as Olorun or Olodumare, "the one who owns heaven." The lesser guardians, the Orisha, were the entities who were each associated with a different saint: Babalz Ayi became St. Lazaurus; Oggzn became St. Peter; Oshzn became Our Lady of Charity; Elegba became St. Anthony; Obatala became the Resurrected Christ, and so forth. Priests of the faith are called Santeros or Babalochas; priestesses are called Santeras or lyalochas. The term Olorisha may be applied to either a priest or a priestess.

Although little is known of the rites of Santeria, from what can be ascertained each celebration usually begins with an innovation of Olorun, the supreme deity. Dancing to the strong African rhythms continues until individuals are possessed by a particular Orisha and allow the spirits to speak through them. The ritual is climaxed with the blood sacrifice, usually a chicken.

Delving Deeper

Middleton, John, ed. Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing. Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press, 1967.

"Santeria," Alternative Religions. [Online] 23 January 2002.

Sharma, Arvind, ed. Women in World Religions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Villodo, Alberto, and Stanley Krippner. Healing States: A Journey into the World of Spiritual Healing and Shamanism. New York: Fireside Books, 1987.