In the Beginning
Native Americans and Their Religions
When Americans are asked to say what distinguishes our country from all other nations in the world, it isn’t long before we begin to talk about Native Americans. When talking about Native Americans it isn’t long before we say something about dances, rituals, ceremonies, spirituality, and stories. Today people the world over, but especially Americans, look to Native Americans to find inspiration, a spiritual centeredness, a religious connectedness to the land and to nature. Native American religions frequently play a role in film, television, and literature. Native American religions are important to the way we think about America. Significantly, Native American dancers represented the United States in the festivals that opened the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as well as the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The Vancouver Olympics in 2010 have designated three mascots based on First Nations culture and heritage.
There are four predominant categories of Native American religions in today’s America, categories that native practitioners may or may not recognize. Each category is distinguished not only by its form but also by its history. 1. Today many Native American religions are identified with specific cultures. We will call them tribal traditions. These religious cultures have distinctive histories running for hundreds, often thousands, of years. Each tribal tradition has its distinguishing character and history, but we find some common traits and attributes among them. For example, all of these traditions have a strong attachment to the specific landscape they designate as their place of origin and where they continue to flourish.
2. Missionaries were often successful in introducing various forms of Christianity to Native Americans. Today Christianity is their most widely practiced religion. Native American Christianity has taken on characteristics distinctive to specific Native American communities. There are fascinating surprises here.
3. Native Americans have developed new religious forms that extend beyond specific tribes, yet are distinct from European American religions. The most common of these is peyote religion, practiced in a variety of traditions and institutionalized as the Native American Church.
4. When Native Americans of different cultures talk to one another they often emphasize how they and their cultures differ. But when Native Americans of different cultures talk about their histories, or find themselves joined together to deal with the U.S. government or with Christian missionaries, they talk about an identity they hold in common, whatever their tribal identities. This “Indian” identity is often expressed as n alternative to the modern, technologically based, capitalistic, and materialistic character of much of America. Though this identity is political, it is also religious in that it strives to recover ancient sensitivities, particularly those that connect people religiously to the land, to nature, and to all living things. This Native American religiousness, called Indian spirituality, is at once old and new. It is the form of Native American religion publicly most observable in today’s America.
The following presentation of Native American religions in today’s America will explore each of these four categories more fully. Most Native Americans inhabit more than one of these categories either serially or simultaneously.
Since a time thousands of years before Columbus, hundreds of relatively small groups of people have lived on the lands we now know as the Americas. Many of these groups continue to exist today. It is difficult to know in much detail the religions of these peoples before Europeans began to write descriptions of them, and even these records are rather sketchy. There are some clear defining traits, however, that are present today as in the past.
The peoples of these cultures self-consciously distinguish themselves from their neighbors. They speak different languages than other tribes around them. They have distinctive houses and styles of clothes. Every tribe or nation has rules defining marriages. Some tribes are patrilineal—that is, they transmit lineage through the father as we do when we receive our father’s family name. Many other tribes are matrilineal—that is, a woman and her daughters and granddaughters are the lineage of the family. All of these many cultures tell their own stories, perform their own rituals, and have ritual leaders or medicine societies. These various factors, and many other things, make each of these cultures distinctive. So we must always think of Native American tribal traditions as many and varied and constantly changing. Today in North America there are still more than one hundred Native American tribal traditions. Most Native Americans now speak English, but many also speak their native languages. Many Native American communities understand that keeping alive their own native language is important to the survival of their culture.
While there are many Native American languages, none of them are written. You may have heard about a Cherokee man named Sequoya who developed a way to write the Cherokee language, but this is an exception and is not even much used by Cherokees. Native American tribal religious traditions are shaped by the fact that these languages are not written. Just think about how important scriptures, written histories, and interpretive writings are to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions in America. Native American tribal traditions are composed of stories told orally by one person to others and of rituals passed from one generation to the next.
Though the lack of a written tradition may involve some shortcomings, it also ensures that the religious lives of Native Americans have a sense of immediacy, urgency, and relevance. Native American traditions are always on the edge of extinction because what is not remembered, kept vital, or seen as important enough to pass on to the next generation is irrevocably lost. The wisdom, experience, knowledge, and achievement of a people gained throughout their history must be borne in the memories of the living members of the culture. Story and narrative are essential vehhicles for exclusively oral culture. Every person bears some responsibility for the history and wisdom of her or his culture.
America is obsessed with the development of literacy, the very emblem of civilization and the measure of superiority in the world. The verbal SAT score is a primary measure of our secondary educational system. Native Americans are not unaware of literacy. Some have even suggested reasons for resisting it. A member of the Carrier tribe in British Columbia told anthropologist Diamond Jenness, “The white man writes everything down in a book so that it might not be forgotten; but our ancestors married the animals, learned their ways, and passed on the knowledge from one generation to another.”1
An old Inuit (Eskimo) woman told the Danish ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, “Our forefathers talked much of the making of the world…. They did not understand how to hide words in strokes, like you do; they only told things by word of mouth, … they told many things … which we have heard repeated time after time, ever since we were children. Old women do not fling their words about without meaning, and we believe them. There are no lies with age.”2
The Zuni in New Mexico tell stories of their origins. In the earliest era the ancestors of the Zuni people lived in dark, crowded caves deep within the earth. The Sun Father sent his two warrior sons to lead the people out. When they emerged as “sunlight people” the Sun Father told them to travel in search of their home, “the middle place of the world.” During their travels the people found a rain priest. Their own rain priest prayed with him, and together they made it rain. A water strider, an insect that skates on the surface of the water, came along and stretched its legs out to the edges of the earth. Where its heart touched the earth marked the middle. The Zuni had finally found itiwana, the middle place of the world.
Today, as in the past, the Zuni see the world as divided into sections corresponding mainly with the four cardinal directions, but they also consider the regions above and below as important. The Zuni are matrilineal. Each person is born into her or his mother’s family and receives her clan, a named social designation. Each clan is associated with one of these directions. For example, if your mother’s clan is Evergreen-oak, this is your clan. Evergreen-oak, green even in winter, is associated with the north and with winter. Yellow, the color of morning and evening light in winter, is associated with northern clans. One’s clan determines the range of occupations and religious activities one has. Because the north correlates with war and destruction, a person in the Evergreen-oak clan would be encouraged to engage in war-related occupations and religious activities. One must always marry outside of one’s own clan.
The Zuni priesthoods stand at the pivot and meeting place of all these divisions. For the Zuni the center represents totality and summation. The Zuni annual calendar is divided at the solstices into two halves, each containing six lunar months. Around the time of the solstices are twenty-day periods of intense religious activities, known as itiwana, marking the center or turning places within the yearly cycle.
The Zuni village, known also as itiwana, bears the prestige and power of a center place, of being at the conjunction of all places in the universe.
The Seneca, who live in upper New York State, tell stories about a woman who fell from the sky into this world. A flock of birds caught this woman. The world was then covered by water, so the only support they could find for her was on the back of a turtle swimming in the water. One by one, many animals tried to dive to the bottom of the water to get a bit of earth from which to make the world. After many failed, one finally succeeded, and the Earth Maker, a creator, expanded this bit of soil into the present earth, which is supported on the back of the turtle.
The woman who fell from the sky gave birth to a daughter. The daughter was the mother of corn as well as of twin boys who represent the negative and positive forces constantly at struggle in life.
We may think that no one could really believe such a fanciful story, and we might even be a little suspicious of anyone who claimed they believed it. These stories are, however, quite interesting, and they are among the ways Native American people express such important things as what they understand to be good and bad, how the world came to be, what makes life meaningful, and how to relate to one another. These stories tell how members of a particular Native American culture strive to understand the world.
This kind of story, which we call a myth, can be used in very serious ways. For example, for decades the Navajo and Hopi peoples have been in conflict over lands declared for their joint use by a U.S. government treaty. Though there have been many court battles and efforts made by the federal government to resolve the situation, the peoples themselves remain unsatisfied. Several years ago the Hopi and Navajo tribal chairpersons met in public to discuss this conflict. Both appeared dressed in business suits. Both were well versed in the law and government policy. Each, when it was his time to speak, told the story of the creation of the world. Each showed how the particular landscape in question is essential to the identity of the people in his tribe.
Contemporary Indians refer often to the figure “Mother Earth” (sometimes connected with Father Sky). The frequency of this story across native cultures is remarkable. Comparative academic studies of the ideology, symbology, theology, mythology, language, ritual, and history of the hundreds of cultures that comprise native North America show that the differences among the cultures are so vast as to exclude almost anything held in common that is not also common to all human beings (one might think of archetypes). Yet Native Americans have increasingly identified Mother Earth as distinctive to Indian belief and identity, particularly as opposed to Americans with European ancestry. Studies of the historical record of the emergence of these references indicate that the figure known by the English term “Mother Earth” emerged from the discourse of Native Americans attempting to defend their ancestral lands against claims made by those of European heritage. Today, in broad terms, Mother Earth has become a powerful figure that is actively used to demonstrate Native American distinctiveness.
The Hopi tribal chairperson described how the Hopi people were led out of the lower worlds onto this surface of the earth through an emergence hole (sipapuni) in the canyon of the Little Colorado River. From there they migrated in clan groupings to their present homes atop the mesas in northeastern Arizona.
The Navajo tribal chairperson told the story of how, before the Navajo world was created, the Navajo ancestors traveled through worlds below this one. Eventually they emerged at a location somewhere in the four corners region, where present-day Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. The Navajo world was then created, bound by four mountains, one in each of the four cardinal directions, each identified with a mountain that Navajos can see in their land today.
While expressed in a political and legal setting, these stories are no less religiously significant today, for they continue to perform the cultural work of defining people to themselves and to others around them, including the federal government and the broader public. Both cultures depend for their very lives on the land they occupy. Each culture’s identity depends on its creation story and on living in the landscape created for it. These stories are the basis for a meaningful life for individuals and cultures.
Art and Architecture
Native Americans’ homes are commonly models of the universe. This makes homes religiously important. Every architectural feature, every way a house is used, reflects something meaningful. The way Native Americans build, divide up, and use parts of their houses correlates with their way of life. Many Native Americans perform ceremonials in the home. Yet there is also specialized religious architecture. Sweat lodges, found in many styles throughout North America, are small houses in which people go to purify themselves, to learn religious information, and to talk about serious things. Pueblo people use kivas, partly underground rooms, for performing rituals. Large Eskimo ceremonial houses called qasgiq are entered through a tunnel and a hole in the floor. These houses contain marionettes; for use in dramatic performances there are screens, behind which the performer can dress or otherwise prepare; even the entry tunnel and the skylight window are used to dramatic effect. Enormous clan houses of the Pacific Northwest have elaborately painted fronts and doorways that represent an orifice of the body of a mythic ancestor. Just imagine that every time you enter your house you step through the mouth or vagina of a mythic ancestor!
The designs on clothing, pottery, baskets, and tools frequently correspond with images from stories, features of the landscape, and clan symbols. By wearing clothing and using pottery and baskets, Native Americans are reminded of their stories; they are surrounded by the patterns that they associate with what makes their life and culture meaningful. For example, Navajos believe that closed circles constrict movement and thereby life. To bring harm to another, one need only draw a closed circle around her or his house. Navajos insist on openings in all encircling designs. The characteristic design woven into Navajo wedding baskets is always open, and the opening corresponds with the beginning and ending coil at the center and perimeter of the basket. The border designs in Navajo weavings always have a thread carried from the interior to the outside signifying the opening for the movement of life. A personified rainbow surrounds sandpaintings (discussed below) on three sides, being open on the east.
It is more appropriate to think of Native American art as a verb, as “arting,” to focus attention on the creation process and the use of the objects produced. In Eskimo carving, the carver picks up the raw material, a piece of ivory or stone. Turning it about, the carver tries to see the shape contained within. To assert one’s will upon the material is not the goal of carving. Rather the carver serves as an agent to reveal or release a shape already in the material—a seal, a bear, a whale.
Navajo sandpainting, so commonly known in the craft or fine art form, is always a part of a ritual process in traditional Navajo culture. Sandpainting is a ritual act of curing performed as a part of healing ceremonials that often last many days. These pictures are associated with stories about heroes or heroines who are cured of some illness they suffer. Sandpaintings are made on smooth, clean sand bases on the floors of Navajo hogans (houses). They are often ten feet or larger in diameter. The elaborate designs must be produced accurately, but none of the hundreds of paintings that can be prepared exists anywhere in permanent form. Their every detail must be remembered by the medicine people who know these ceremonials. When the painting is finished, the person to be treated walks on and sits in the middle of the painting. The medicine person or a masked spirit being known as ye’ii begins to treat the person. The medicine person’s or the ye’ii’s hands are moistened with an herbal medicine lotion and placed on the story figures in the picture. Particles of sand are transferred from the body parts of each fig...