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When the spirit moves them.


MUCH HAS BEEN written about American Indian religion, a very popular subject judging by the numerous volumes on this topic found in major bookstores, but a lot of what has been published is highly idealized and oversimplified. Admittedly, it is difficult to sort out the romantic and stereotypical from the factual and the present religious beliefs and practices of Indians. Just what is American Indian religion?

Traditionally, religion varied greatly from tribe to tribe, especially when they were located in different parts of the continent. Even within tribes, since religious beliefs were unwritten and not codified, individuals were free to hold variable and contrasting views of the supernatural world. Today, there are traditionalists who claim to hold to the beliefs of their ancestors but, within their own tribes, there are some members who dismiss such ideas as inauthentic and even dangerous. Native Americans started the Longhouse Religion, Ghost Dance Religion, and Native American Church, and their adherents were Indians but, theologically, they have very little in common--and then there are those New Age Wannabes who claim to be practicing Native American rituals. What do we do with them?

Most would agree that vision quests and sweat lodge purification rituals are examples of American Indian religion, but these activities never were part of the culture of many tribes. Although seemingly forgotten for a generation, they are regaining some popularity on numerous reservations. However, most religious American Indians do not engage in either activity, even though numerous European visitors pay handsomely to do so. Is it Indian religion when it is commercially staged for wealthy Germans? On reservations in the Southwest, most residents are Catholic. In the rest of the country, they are Protestant. Are Catholic and Protestant Indians practicing a religion that is not their own? Aren't their beliefs just as clearly Indian religion as the beliefs of their ancestors? So many questions.

Many Indians and Indian admirers, when discussing religious matters, prefer the term "spirituality." Spirituality, as a category of beliefs and practices, like the term "religion," lacks specificity and objectivity. Indian spirituality, as it is used, seems to emphasize the "good" things, such as sacred eagle feathers, Mother Earth, guardian spirits, heating rituals, and mystical insights--all those ideas that are fashionable and admired by Indians and whites alike. What is left out, of course, are the less attractive religious matters like missionaries, the Bible, Satan, churches, and denominational disputes, all of which tend to be important concerns on reservations. Understandably, Hollywood and popular literature prefer to focus on such spirituality rather than religion in general when featuring Indians.

There is a great deal of factual ethnographic information about traditional Indian religion as it existed before the missionaries arrived. We know that Indians believed in a variety of supernatural beings and powers, such as witchcraft, divination, and taboos. Each tribe had its own mythology to account for the origins of the people and their culture. There were sacred rituals to control illness, enemies, and hunger. Some had sacred objects (Zuni fetishes, Mandan medicine bundles, Iroquois masks, Cheyenne sacred arrows), and most had shamans who were considered capable of manipulating supernatural powers. These cultural traits were general throughout North America, and so are suitably considered typical of traditional American Indian religion. However, these same waits also were typical of precontact tribes in Africa and Asia.

Reverence for Mother Earth often is cited as a distinguishing cultural trait of North American Indians, the assumption being that their world view led them to live in harmony with nature, but the low environmental impact of these populations had far more to do with their low-impact technologies than with a philosophical commitment to environmentalism. If they had bulldozers and chain saws, they well might have used them. Archaeologists report that most Indian villages were squalid places and, when Indians settled on reservations, trash and litter quickly accumulated and is far from unusual today.

A similar misconception is that they worshiped the "Creator" or "Great Spirit." Many of the tribal origin myths passed on from one generation to the next included reference to creator deities but, even though they were important mythical figures, they were not subject to veneration. Usually, these beings were seen as having no interest in the tribe's current situation, and the Great Spirit so often referred to by Indians most likely is an interpretation of what the early Christian missionaries were teaching. There is no evidence that precontact American Indians were monotheistic.

Perhaps the most popular misconception regarding today's Indians is the off-repeated claim that their religion largely has been destroyed. It is true that what has survived from the precontact past consists of little more than a few rituals and mythology. Witchcraft to account for illness and magic to treat it were preserved, even enhanced, on reservations before modern health care was provided. Yet, even where such beliefs persist to some degree, most reservation residents, as well as those who live elsewhere, have been Christian for some time.

Around 1800, Handsome Lake, a Seneca influenced by Quakers, started the Longhouse Religion, which spread to other Iroquois tribes and continues to persist in modified form. In 1890, Wovoka, a Paiute influenced by Shakers, started the Ghost Dance Religion in the Northwest, and it spread quickly to the Plains. The Native American Church that began about 1900 also was influenced by Christian beliefs. Longhouse ceremonies still are conducted in upstate New York even though most participants are Protestants. The Ghost Dancers are all gone, but the Native American Church with its custom of using peyote to induce trances is active in various Western states.

Indians in recent decades have brought back some long neglected religions traditions, such as the sweat lodge purification rituals. If we consider religious survivals (witchcraft and magic), borrowed religions (Christianity), invented religions (Native American Church), and those traditional rituals now restored in Indian Country (the Sun Dance), that collectively is a lot of religion. Even those Indians who participate only in Christian church activities still have their own religion, no more or less than what their ancestors had.

Remember that it is the nature of religions beliefs and practices to change over time as the social and material environment evolves. For instance, when horses (brought here by the Spanish) became available to the settled horticultural ancestors of the Sioux and the Cheyenne, the nomadic equestrian buffalo hunting Plains Indian culture emerged and, with it, the elaborate annual rituals that required the attendance of the entire tribe. In this altered environment, military power based on tribal unity and the ability to coordinate a massive buffalo hunt each autumn became necessary to survive. Because of the nature of the food supply, tribes needed to scatter most of the year, so mandatory attendance at a sacred ritual such as the Sun Dance, believed to renew the supernatural power that sustained them, became an essential part of Plains Indian religion.

The religion of today's Native Americans may be quite different from that of the 18th century Plains Indians but, saying that their religion has been destroyed or even diminished, is misleading. Yes, their religion certainly has changed, along with their changing economic circumstances, just as it has for non-Indians.

The fact that religion evolves in this way may be illustrated by the more recent history of religion on reservations. Most of the earliest reservations west of the Mississippi River contained demoralized and impoverished populations. Sharing their meager resources with each other was essential to survival. These circumstances necessitated that hoarding be discouraged, that individuals and families be reluctant to conceal any surpluses. Witchcraft, the belief that some in the community have supernatural power to harm those whom they resent, had been part of their traditional religion, but now it was stressed to ensure strict conformity to their share ethic. Those who did not share might be accused of witchcraft, thus "explaining" their antisocial behavior. Those so accused were shunned or killed. Others strived to be seen as very generous so as to protect themselves from being harmed by a spiteful witch.

When the white authorities outlawed the killing of individuals accused of witchcraft, it was logical for Indians to conclude that the number of witches was growing. Consequently, belief in witches proved to be very adaptive by ensuring that those who could afford to share with less fortunate neighbors most likely would do so. Belief in witches was not conducive to a work ethic or savings, but since poverty and unemployment were general and persistent, it was a sound strategy (although not necessarily a conscious one) to help Indians survive.

The Ghost Dance emerged under the same circumstances. The buffalo had been killed off; the people were dependent on handouts from whites and were a subjugated population under the control of the U.S. Army or Indian agents assigned by the Federal government. Ghost Dancers believed that their rituals would bring back the buffalo herds and cause the pale face to disappear and be replaced by the resurrection of their dead ancestors. This revitalization movement promised a return to the precontact times when they were a proud and prosperous people led by prestigious war chiefs. This attempt to turn back the clock was doomed to failure because, unlike the concern with witches, it did not appreciably influence the material resources available to them; it only promised to do so by prophesizing the return of buffalo herds. When the Sioux added the belief that the shirts worn by the dancers were bulletproof, it was easy enough to demonstrate the unreliability of this claim. The Wounded Knee massacre of Ghost Dancers and the fact that the white man did not go away and the buffalo and the ancestors did not return ensured that this was to be a short-lived religion.

Reviving old rituals

However, reviving older religious rituals has proven to be beneficial in a number of ways. In the mid 20th century, it was assumed by many Americans that "real Indians" were disappearing rapidly, that acculturation and intermarriage bad brought about a melting pot effect. Accordingly, many in Washington concluded that the old Indian treaties and the continuing dependence of Indians on government handouts no longer were in the best interests of Native Americans, whose leaders recognized that something had to be done to assure the continuation of Federal programs designed to aid Indians (providing housing and health care, special scholarships, Bureau of Indian Affairs funding of reservation projects, etc.). What was required was something to demonstrate that Indians still were authentic.

Reviving sacred rituals proved quite effective in this regard. So, more and more Indian communities began to sponsor long-neglected religious rituals and powwows to present graphic evidence of their cultural distinctiveness. A sun dance, rain dance, traditional rite of passage, or healing ceremony became photo-ops for Native Americans to demonstrate their uniqueness as a people. Urban Indians made return trips to their reservations to participate in these rituals, thus confirming their tribal identity. Not only did all of this ceremonial behavior help to preserve Federal funding, it served as a means to attract tourists and their dollars. On many reservations, the biggest payoff of this campaign to prove their "Indianness" was being granted the right to own high-stakes gaming establishments and casinos. Had Indians not been able to convince national legislators to continue to honor the old treaties that promised perpetual Federal aid, they would not have casinos today.

By stressing their spirituality, connection to Mother Earth, and distinctive ceremonial life, Indians not only are fostering social unity and pride, they are doing relatively well in a practical sense. Many reservations suffer from prolonged poverty, but they benefit from an economic cushion provided by Washington and are understandably reluctant to give this up. Federal funding does not necessarily improve their standard of living, but it gives them very real security that they can depend on--and thanks to casinos, many reservations are experiencing significant economic development. In the 19th century, Indians used religion to adapt to economic dependence; today, religion is being used to promote economic independence.

Why religion? Had American Indians reverted to their precontact economies, foregoing the use of metal tools and machinery and no longer participating in wage labor, that too could have convinced Washington that they were authentic Indians, but at a terrible cost to their material welfare. They could have brought back the political system of their ancestors' egalitarian societies, giving up elected leaders who are well educated and prepared to deal authoritatively with outsiders such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That too would "prove" they are real Indians. If they had stopped teaching their children English and reverted exclusively to their traditional language, there would have been no doubt in Washington that they needed to be treated in a special way, but not speaking English would be a severe handicap in acquiring higher education and employment in this society. Reviving religious traditions avoided these negative consequences and solidified a significant degree of economic security in Indian Country.

Indian religion has not been constant in the past and can be expected to keep evolving in the future. When whites kept arriving in large numbers, it so altered the social environment of Indian populations that they became receptive to rather sudden cultural change, thus fostering the success of Christian missionaries. Today's Indians--those on reservations and who live in urban areas--continue to experience generational change, so we may expect that their religious beliefs and practices will follow suit.

Nostalgia aside, we need to recognize that such change is natural and inevitable. To the extent that we view American Indian religion as having been lost or destroyed, we fail to appreciate how successfully it has adapted to changing circumstances.

Anthony Layng is professor emeritus of anthropology at Elmira (N. Y.) College.
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Title Annotation:American Indians; Religion
Author:Layng, Anthony
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2010
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