Colonialism The Americas

Religious Beliefs of North American Indians

Discovery of the Indians For more than five hundred years the American Indian has been the most recognised symbol of the New World. To call the Native Americans Indians is a misnomer. When Columbus reached the islands of the Bahamas, he thought he had reached the Indies (India, China and Japan). The people he saw on the islands he called Los Indios, or the Indians. The term Indian or Red Indian has been used since then to refer to all aboriginal peoples living in the Americas except the Inuit of the Arctic and Eskimos of Alaska. Native Americans have lived here for thousands of years. The Vikings explored the East coast of North America around 1000 CE and made some contacts with the Natives. There is strong historical and geo- graphical evidence to suggest that Muslims from Spain and Africa had made contact with the Natives long before Columbus arrived in 1492. According to one source the first identifiable individual Muslim to have come to North America in 1539 is one Estevanico, a navigator with Marcos de Niza. As to how many Natives were there when Europeans arrived in 5Review of Religions – May 2002 Religious Beliefs of North American Indians By Zakaria Virk, Canada The Indians were the indigenous peoples of North America before the arrival of the Colonial Powers from Europe. At that point they were subjugated and in terms of religion, they were exposed to Christianity. However, research has shown that they had their own strong religious beliefs and concepts of morality and spirituality long before the advent of the Christians. The article takes a closer look at their culture and beliefs. The author lives in Canada and has had direct contact with some Indian peoples as part of his research. the New World, some have estimated it to be one million living within the present US, divided into 540 tribes, with more than 500 spoken languages. Some famous Native tribes are Cherokee, Navajo, Sioux, Blackfeet, Shawnee, Mohican and Cree. Today only 221 languages survive. Many scholars have tried in vain to relate these languages to Asia but it has proved inconclusive. All of the languages can be transcribed with a total of 100 letters, with a great variation in the order of the letters. Many languages still exist and are used in daily conversation. For instance on the reservations of the Western US, one can hear people converse in Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet and Navahos. In Peru more than 5 million people speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. In Paraguay, Gaurani is the official language of the country along with Spanish. In Canada many Natives speak Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Athapascan. At present there are close to 3 million Natives living in the US and more than 600,000 living in Canada. Most of them enjoy special treaty rights; they are citizens and have the right to vote. They are exempt from paying taxes; they carry special identification cards, can fish and hunt in any season. They live in tribes, speak their native tongues but most are conversant in English. Their names are distinct and sound strange to a listener i.e. George Longfish, Gerard Cornfoot, Tehanatoken, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Dull Kn i f e , Geronimo. They live on the allotted pieces of land called reserves. Reserves (or territories) are lands set aside for the exclusive use of Natives. In Canada there are close to 2250 reserves, the closest reserve to Kingston (where I live) is Tyendinaga Mohawk Te r r i t o r y. There is neither a single Indian nation nor a single Indian language; they have a wide range of racial characteristics and cultures. The Native Americans have been classified as a sub-division of Mongoloid race and of Asiatic origin. Scholars have spent long years trying to figure out the origin of Aboriginals, whether 6 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 they were Chinese, or descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The social organisation of Native Americans (a name they prefer to be called by) is based on family and clans or tribes. In the clans people traced themselves back through the male or the female line to a common ancestor. The clans were named after animals known as totems, which is an Algonquian word meaning brother. (In Kingston’s Lemoint Point Park there is a 20 feet tall totem pole, with a variety of colourful faces painted on it). The clan shared with the family the responsibilities of raising 7 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 children. To many Native Americans each animal and each tree had its own spirit with which the individual could establish contact through his or her own spirit. Some believed in a combined spiritual power that was unseen and filled the entire world. Some believed in personal guardian spirits and tried to have contact with them through dreams and visions. Several tribes worshipped a single creating force, a Supreme Being, or The Great Spirit. Four Groups of Native Americans There are four Native American groups that need to be mentioned here. 1. The Lakota were the ‘typical’ nomadic, equestrian Plains Indians who lived in tipis and hunted buffalo. They were notable, historically, for destroying Custer’s forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. 2. The Apache consisted of six tribes ranged over the American southwest. Their religion centered on the concept of a supernatural power that manifested itself in almost every facet of the Apache world. They believe that they can develop a healthy and co- operative relationship with this power. The power is believed to offer its services to the Apache through visionary experiences. 3. The Navajo live primarily on the Navajo Nation, a reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico. 4. The Iroquois comprised of five nations: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. They inhabited central New York State and claimed the Ohio Valley. Their federation of five tribes was the most complex of any Indian group. Ownership of Land The Indian leaders were talked of as spiritual guides, wizards, witch doctors or medicine men. At the heart of the conflict between the Europeans and the Natives were such fundamental concepts as individual’s use of land, or private ownership. Even to this day Natives do not understand the need for working all year round, saving for the future, or the reason for 8 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 cutting the mother earth with a plough. Many have a strong reverence for nature, and find the idea of dominion over the birds and beasts as repugnant. For Native Americans the land and its produce, the air and water were free for the use of the tribe. No one owned the land as personal property, however a tribe could claim certain lands as its territory for hunting and farming. Some Natives regarded the Earth as the mother of all life and would shudder at the thought of selling their mother. At Ta o s Pueblo (New Mexico, USA) Natives walked about on the land in soft soled shoes during the spring as they believed the Earth was pregnant. Some hated to use the steel bladed ploughs, so as not to open the breast of mother Earth. Religious Beliefs The Native Americans believed that the world started with a spirit world in the sky from where men and animals descended to live on the earth. At first the earth was covered with water, the animals dived to the bottom of the sea and brought up the mud from which the earth was made. The Cree people of Alabama and Georgia (USA) believed in a Master of Breath, equal to the sun and in the spirits of the stars and the winds. All Native tribes believed in the life of the Spirit after the death of the 9 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 ‘TO MANY NATIVE AMERICANS EACH ANIMAL AND EACH TREE HAD ITS OWN SPIRIT WITH WHICH THE INDIVIDUAL COULD E S TA B L I S H C O N TA C T T H R O U G H H I S O W N S P I R I T. SO M E BELIEVED IN A COMBINED SPIRITUAL POWER THAT WAS UNSEEN AND FILLED THE ENTIRE WORLD. SOME BELIEVED IN PERSONAL GUARDIAN SPIRITS AND TRIED TO HAVE CONTACT WITH THEM THROUGH DREAMS AND VISIONS. SEVERAL TRIBES WORSHIPPED A SINGLE CREATING FORCE, A SUPREME BEING, OR THE GREAT SPIRIT.’ body. Magic and the technique to compel people to do certain things by muttering incantations were quite prevalent. All Indians possessed amulets to protect them from harm or to cause harm to the enemy. Ceremonies Whereas western religions typically consider ceremony the servant of theology, Native American religions barely recog- nise the distinction between myth and ritual. There were ceremonies around the time of planting or harvesting of plants. There were rituals associated with menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and death. There were restrictions on sexual activity. The religious ceremonies were performed by medicine men that uttered prayers or performed rites including offerings, prayers, painting of the face or body and unfolding of packages containing sacred objects. The supplicant vowed that he would offer gifts if his wishes were fulfilled. Songs taught in a vision were given much importance. Plains Indians (such as the Apache) repeated songs according to their mystic numbers, the most prominent being four as well as seven. Sweatlodges The Inipi Ceremony is a purification ceremony common among many Northern Plains tribes. This is an Ikce Wicasa (common man) ceremony that means this ceremony does not require a medicine person; h o w e v e r, a person may be selected to lead the ceremony. This ceremony may serve several purposes such as healing (in which a medicine person would be required), or to assist one in tapping into the Creator that dwells within each of us, or for several other purposes. This ceremony is conducted inside a small lodge made of willow tree branches placed in the ground forming a circle. Then the branches are bent towards the centre and tied together at the tips, thus forming a dome-shaped structure about waist high. This structure can be built to fit in as many people as required for any particular type of Inipi 10 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 ceremony. Buffalo robes and/or other blankets are then thrown over the branches creating a small lodge with a small hole to be used as the entrance. The direction to which the entrance of a sweatlodge faces depends on the medicine person’s vision. Some sweatlodges have their entrances facing east, while others face west. Sage is also placed on the floor inside the sweatlodge for the participants to smudge themselves, or with which to wipe themselves. Other necessary items such as rocks, wood, and water must also be gathered. The wood is placed in a certain manner around and in between the rocks, which allows the rocks to be heated effectively. The person designated as the fire keeper is responsible for heating the rocks and for bringing the rocks into the lodge. The lodge is heated by fire, and then water is poured over heated stones to produce steam, which causes the participants to perspire. This was designed to purify the body, cure illness and influence the spirits. Prayers and songs are recited, after which water is placed on the rocks causing steam to rise, and the temperature begins to rise inside the lodge. More songs are sung. Then the medicine person begins to pray. Next, the participants begin to pray beginning from the medicine person’s/ceremony leader’s assistant and proceeding in a clockwise manner. Prayers may be said aloud or silently. Sweatlodges are distributed throughout North America. The modern Sauna is strikingly similar to a sweatlodge. The favourite incense used in ceremonies was made of sweetgrass. In Sun Dance lodges buffalo skulls were arranged in an excavated area called the altar. Masks were also used in these ceremonies. The Bull Dancers for instance wore Buffalo heads, and Iroquoies used a variety of masks. The Sun Dance (Wi w a n y a g Wacipi) Dancing, drumming, and singing accompanied all rituals and ceremonies. Some dances were sacred, and some were for pleasure only. All tribes used 11 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 the drum. Young men who were courting maidens used the flute. In some tribes an eagle- bone whistle is used in ceremonies like the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance is a most powerful ceremony. The dance is performed for four days and is usually held annually during the summer solstice. The Dance was held for various reasons such as healing, in thanksgiving of surviving a near death experi- ence, dancing for someone who was physically unable to do it or who is too ill, or to give thanks to the Creator for miracles they had received. Another reason is to make a vow to the Creator in asking for something from the C r e a t o r. There are other reasons kept personal between the Sun Dancer and the Creator. Before Sun Dancing, one must first have Hanbleciya (vision) to learn if he should perform it or not because not everyone is required to perform it. If his vision tells him that it is all right for him to Sun Dance, then he will prepare to perform the ceremony a year in a d v a n c e . The Dance was held in a lodge made of a suitable tree. Before raising the pole the builders put a bundle of brush, a buffalo hide and some offerings into the fork of the log. This was called Eagle’s Nest. The lodge was in fact a huge tipi with a circular enclosure whose cross beams rafters extended to the fork of the central pole. Inside the lodge buffalo skulls were placed at the altar. The dancers fasted and thirsted for several days, gazing at the top of the central pole as they danced and prayed for power. [Interesting that just as in more established monotheistic religions such as Islam and Judaism, fasting was used as a means of attaining spiritual enlightenment]. The dance itself was very simple, rising on their toes while blowing whistles. In some tribes the dancers were tortured by medicine men (like piercing the chest, arms or the back). Hence the US Government temporarily banned it in 1904. The Plains Indians performed the Buffalo Dance that would ensure success during the hunting season. The Green Corn Dance celebrated the summer’s 12 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 first corn crop. The ceremony lasted for four days. On the eve of the ceremony old clothing and household utensils were destroyed, and all house fires were extinguished. A new fire was started in the town’s central location. Women carried torches of the new fire to their homes to rekindle their hearths; new utensils were made to replace the old ones. In the Hopi Snake Dance, snakes were released to ask the rain god to send rain. Shamans (WAKAN) Many tribes believed in a spirit p o w e r, the Iroquois called it ORENDA, while the Sioux called it Wakonda. They believed that the Guardian Spirit helped guide a person through the hardships of life. When boys, and in some cases girls, reached their early teens, they went through a ceremony to help them find a Guardian Spirit. This was referred to as Vision Quest. The participant went without food, sleep, and water until he saw a vision. The Shamans were individuals with strong supernatural powers. In some tribes they were the medicine men or Wa k a n to native people. A shaman was believed to have close contact with the spirit world (just like pagan priests in Europe). He interceded for the individual or sometimes for the clan. They played different roles among different tribes from soothsayers, magicians, and trained priests who presided over the rituals. The Natives believed that an object in the body caused some disease. Shamans usually blew tobacco over the sick person as it was considered to have magical powers. They sucked on the body of the sick person until they found the object causing the sickness. They would spit out the stone or a stick, which was hidden in their mouth. Besides treating sick people, they could set bones and employed various herbal remedies. Many plants they used hundreds of years ago are still used by doctor’s today i.e. Curare Arrow poison to treat hydrophobia, and tetanus. They also used quinine which physicians prescribe to treat malaria. The treatment included 13 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 herbs, therapeutic potions and home-made remedies. Some Shamans specialised in certain treatments such as treating a woman at childbirth or someone bitten by a snake. Other medical techniques included massage, smoking, bleeding and cupping. To prove his extraordinary powers, a Shaman would summon people to a meeting and establish his superiority by performing tricks. These Shamans had an elaborate organisation, the master having a number of disciples. The Pawnee shaman handled burning corn-husks with his bare hands or stood on red-hot rocks. The Dakota Shaman could perform a fire-walking feat. The Crow Shamans took part in a public competition of their powers, one man trying to overcome those pitted against him. In Middle America the priests were ranked according to the gods they served. High political officials were priests as they had been formally trained. Their calendar was geared to the solar calendar with a name for each day of the week. Priests The priests performed public ceremonies for a given tribe, but a Shaman helped only an individual or a family. Pr i e s t s went through an extended period of training. They used equipment and had places of worship for performing cere- m o n i e s. The Pawnee Shamans were priests as well because they had undergone special instruction. Before ordination each priest had to demonstrate his skill to the tribe. The priesthood was h e r e d i t a r y, passing from its holder to the next of kin in the maternal line. Belief in the Hereafter The Aboriginals believed in the survival of the soul after death, but they did not believe in the notion of reward and punishment. They believed that the dead lived just as they had lived when they were alive, hunting buffalo, playing games, and living comfortably in the Tipis (tent shape living quar- ters). The Pawnee Indians believed that some souls travelled to the sky to turn into stars, while the Chiefs travelled 14 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 to a known destination. People who passed away from sickness joined with spirits in the South S t a r’s home, while White Morning Star held the fate of all others. The Crow Indians divided the souls into two groups, one that haunts in the grave and the other that travels to the here- a f t e r. Life after death was regarded as a continuation of man’s existence in another world. Later Europeans who under- stood it to be a land where everything will be easier than it had been in this world invented the term ‘happy hunting g r o u n d ’ . Dreams and Visions Most Native Americans (Sioux in particular) attached great importance to visions. The Great Spirit (Wakan Ta n k a ) would become audible to him during the vision giving him instructions. In order to have a vision, he would go into solitude, fast and stay thirsty for four days, and supplicate to the Spirit to have pity on him. A Crow Indian would usually cut off a part of the fingers joint of his left hand to arouse pity from the Spirit. The boys in a tribe were admonished that all success in life derived from visions. Hence the boys would go out to a solitary place to fast and pray for some benefit. A mature person would seek a vision if his children were sick, or if he longed to revenge a killing or wanted to recover lost property. The Ojibway Indian’s parents instructed their boys who were over the age of seven to fast to have the vision. In an auditory type of vision a person would hear sounds like the call of a bird, the rustling of 15 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 ‘THE ABORIGINALS BELIEVED IN THE SURVIVAL OF THE SOUL AFTER DEATH, BUT THEY DID NOT BELIEVE IN THE NOTION OF REWARD AND PUNISHMENT. THEY BELIEVED THAT THE DEAD LIVED JUST AS THEY HAD LIVED WHEN THEY WERE ALIVE, HUNTING BUFFALO, PLAYING GAMES, AND LIVING COMFORTABLY IN THE TIPIS.’ leaves, the speech of an alien tribe. In a visual type of vision he would see animals like buffalo, elk, bears, eagles, sparrow hawk, dogs or rabbits. Many coveted a revelation but few obtained it. Men and women in the Plains Indians sought visions through dreams. After fasting or self- torture the youth would dream that he was visited by a supernatural being who became his personal guardian. The spirit would teach him magical songs, prayers, good behaviour and tell him what objects to bring together to form his own personal charm. The sacred objects were wrapped in a skin that the Europeans referred to as ‘medicine bundle’. All tribes employed smoke signals and hand mirrors that reflected the Sun’s rays for communication across long distances. (It is noteworthy that the US government used Indians to send secret coded messages in their native tongues during the Second World war). The Plains was the scene of the last conflict between the Indians and the non-Indians. Systematic slaughter of buffalo herds that were the largest source of their food finally ended their ability to resist the Europeans. They were confined to live on restricted areas called reservations. New Religions Many new religions sprang up among the Native Americans. Most new religions started with a prophet, and they died with the death of the prophet. However in some cases there was a succession of prophets like Neolin among the Delaware. The new religions arose from the need to reassert, and redefine traditional cultures as they were threatened by assimilation into a foreign culture. John Eliot, who was considered to be the Apostle of the Indians in New England, converted many Indians to Christianity in Massachusetts. He translated the Bible into the Algonquian language which was published in 1663, the first Bible to be published in North America. 16 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 Hiawatha After the arrival of the Europeans a new type of leader appeared among the Natives who urged his followers to give up liquor (just as Islam had taught many centuries earlier). As this person could predict future events, the Europeans called him a prophet. One of the famous Indian prophets was Hiawatha, the Iroquois leader who formed the Iroquois League (of six nations Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) to end the wars between various tribes. Handsome Lake Another Iroquois prophet was Handsome Lake (1735–1815), who founded the Longhouse religion that combined elements of Christianity and Iroquois religion. The Longhouse religion is a religious tradition of the Iroquois people, active from 1818 to the present day. The central rite is the periodic recitation of the Code of Handsome Lake by acknowl- edged preachers during a three- to five-day ceremonial. The very first teaching in the Code is his teaching that the creator was saddened by his people’s use of whisky. His visions were the beginning of his prophetic c a r e e r. In one vision he is reported to have a conversation with Jesus(as). In 1802, Handsome Lake received a letter from President Thomas Jefferson advising the Iroquois nation to follow him which enhanced his position against opposition on some reservations. Wovoka Another prophet Wovoka (1856- 1932) founded the Ghost Dance religion in 1888. According to this religion the Great Spirit would one day restore the Indian way of life as it was before the Europeans arrived. Wovoka enjoined his followers to live in peace with the whites. He blended Christian ideas with pagan traditions, even pretending to be Christ return- ing to renew the earth. Renewing the earth was an age- old Indian idea. People from distant places came to visit Wovoka the messiah. The new faith gained followers among Dakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne Indian tribes. The famous Wounded Knee battle was 17 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 fought in 1890 by one of Wovoka’s followers in the Plains that resulted in the massacre of the Sioux tribe. This movement tabooed the white dress and fostered the vestiges of old life. In huge gatherings men and women danced into trances and told of visions when they came to their senses. This was called the Ghost Dance. To counter this movement, an inter-tribal Native American Church was founded. Native American Church Besides the traditional Native American religions, there are a large number of modified sects. The Native American Church (The Peyote Religion) claims a membership of 250,000, which would constitute the largest of the Native American religious organisations. Though the church traces the sacramental use of the peyote cactus back to thousands of years, the Native American Church was founded in 1918. The church incorporates Native traditional elements (visions, curing, seeking power through ordeals), with Christian teachings (references to Jesus, use of the Bible, and symbols like a cross), and the use of the peyote plant. The principal ceremony is an all-night ritual consisting of praying, singing, preaching, testimonies, and ingesting pieces of hallu- cinogenic peyote cactus. A person who is troubled by his health or sickness in the family sponsors the ritual. The ritual is believed to offer curative powers of both botanical and spiritual medi-cines. The church encourages Christian moral values like generosity, chastity, family solidarity and abstinence from alcohol. The Native American Church illustrates a trend of modifying the traditional Native spirituality. Indian Shaker Church The church originated in the spiritual experience of John Slocum, a member of the Salish tribe who received instructions from God while in a deathlike state in 1881. The church reached northwestern California in 1926, and Yurok, Hupa, and Tolowa congregations have built churches there. It remains strong t o d a y, often accompanying, rather than replacing, indigenous religious practices. 18 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 The church incorporates Protestant and native shamanistic traditions, although outwardly rejecting ‘Indian’ religious beliefs, and parapher- nalia. Meetings are held in specially built churches fea- turing simple altars with white- painted crosses and white candles. Singing and hand bells are used to induce trances in which God’s power is manifested by physical trembling, called ‘the shake.’ Debt to the Natives In many Native societies individual’s freedom of choice and the right to say in one’s affairs was part of the pattern of daily life. The Natives of the Atlantic seaboard taught the Europeans much in regard to freedom, dignity of the individual, democracy, representative government and the right to participate in settling one’s affairs. Many European philosophers and political thinkers were pro- foundly influenced by Native Indian political thought. When Europeans landed in the New World the Natives supplied the newcomers with food taught them how to plant, fish and hunt with Native methods. The newcomers were introduced to new utensils, tools, clothing and a peaceful way of life. No one in the Eastern Hemisphere knew of the useful crops such as potato, corn and tobacco. Today the Natives originally grew half of the world’s food supply of corn and potato. Also the Europeans were introduced to more than 80 plants like: peanuts, pumpkin, pineapple, avocado, chicle (for making chewing- gum), many kinds of beans, cocoa (for chocolate), sweet potato, tobacco. All cotton grown in the US as well as the cotton raised in Egypt is derived from the species cultivated in the US. Tobacco spread to the Old World from the New World and at least 59 new drugs were introduced including coca (for cocaine) curare (a muscle relaxant), cinchona (the source of quinine); datura (a pain reliever) and ephedra (a nasal remedy). International Boys and Girl scouts movements were pre- dominantly inspired by the lessons learned from the Indian way of life. Today the con- 19 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002 servation movement finds itself turning back to Indian land ideas. We have come to realise that the unborn children also have a claim on this land as much as we do. We all need to live in total harmony with nature just as the Natives have for thousands of years. Child psychologists are studying Indian methods of raising, educating and disciplining children. Rousseau was thinking of free Native Americans when he said ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ Summary There is no one religious expression common to the 250 distinct Native American peoples still surviving in the US and Canada. Few Native American people today can say for sure how their ancestors worshipped before the onslaught of the Europeans. Too much death lies between the present and pre- Columbian America, too much cultural devastation, and too many forced conversions to C h r i s t i a n i t y. For Native Americans the struggle to survive and to maintain some sense of identity is an on-going concern. Life on the reserves is marred by gambling, alcohol and without p u r p o s e . However, a study of the beliefs and practices of their ancestors shows a focus on the spiritual aspects of life, even if their practices were slightly different to conventional monotheistics faiths of the middle east. They believed in a Creator and turned to Him for help and sustenance. A deeper study would show a much more intricate and involved religion. Sources 1. The Indian Heritage of America by A.M. Josephy, NY 1968. 2. The Indian of the Plains by R.H. Lowie, NY 1954. 3. The European and the Indian by James Axtell. 4. The Indians by W. Brandon. 5. The American Indians by E. Spicer. 6. Red Man’s America by Ru t h Underhill. 7. 8. World Book of Encyclopedia, Volume 10. 9. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Volume 2, 1988. 20 Religious Belief of North American Indians Review of Religions – May 2002