For Ferdinand—and his father—the encounter between Europeans and the North American natives was in essence a meeting of Christians with non-Christians. European explorers and settlers in the New World fixed their identities within the frameworks of specific cultures: Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch. Yet in gauging their relationship with the inhabitants of the Americas, Europeans conceived themselves above all as representatives of Christian culture. Accordingly, Columbus and those who followed him undertook the
exploration of the New World under a conceptual umbrella that equated Christianity with civilization and that viewed indigenous cultures as “primitive” aggregations of “customs and ceremonies.” Such a view was reinforced over the centuries in a shorthand that identified persons as either Christians or Indians. Censuses, captains’ logs, mission registers, royal charters, plantation reports, military communications, and virtually every other official document of colonial rule repeatedly drove home the perception of the essential difference in the casual usage of those two words, “Christian” and “Indian.”2
The Taino story of what they saw that day has been lost. These people who met Columbus in the West Indies farmed and fished; played ball on rectangular courts; danced; organized authority in complex systems of chiefdoms; extolled the deeds of their ancestors; looked to shamans to heal their sick; and worshipped Yucahu, the lord of Cassava and the sea, and Atabey, his mother, who was associated with fresh water and human fertility.3
The Tainos were but one language group among hundreds in North America, and one small fraction of the continent’s fifteen million inhabitants.4
Over a period of thousands of years, their ancestors had explored the great American land masses, built civilizations, and developed distinctive religious worldviews.
A Distinctive Worldview
The Tainos were a tribal community, a society organized with respect to family relationships. North America at the time of Columbus was a quilt of tribes with a diversity of languages and religions and ways of life. Most North American tribes hunted. Some relied upon agriculture as well; others fished; some gathered food in other ways. The seasonal ebbs and flows of the many climatic zones of the North American continent shaped native cultures in the same way that geographical factors such as altitude, proximity to waterways and the sea, and types of vegetation conditioned the rhythms of everyday life. Through their experiences of nature, geography, and climate, as well as through their experiences within the tribe and with other tribes, and, when they came, with the Europeans, Native Americans fashioned religious worldviews. Those world-views, which were grounded in questions and answers about human origins and destiny, frequently overlapped from one tribe to another. But these worldviews, nevertheless, always encoded distinct meanings for the local community.
In order to speak of a North American “primal religious tradition,” we must recognize that our understanding of it is
necessarily qualified in several ways. First, Native American religion is in fact remarkably diverse. We should not expect, for example, that representations of the sacred among North American tribes translate intact from one context to another. A medicine bag containing snake rattles, cactus needles, white stones, scorpion carapaces, eagle feathers, and juniper berries is not likely to be recognized as a repository of sacred power in a place where there are no rattlesnakes, cacti, quartz, scorpions, and so forth. Second, primal worldviews are not always susceptible to analysis in Western terms. So, for example, the complex of meanings associated with the power of manitou (Big God, Spirit, Cosmic force) among the Algonquin simply do not fit traditional Judaeo-Christian-Islamic categories of theological investigation. We cannot expect to appreciate the intricacy of Native American religions unless we are willing to suspend some of our habits of thought about the phenomenon of religion. Third, we know only a part of the story. Our knowledge of Native American religions comes to us primarily through oral and ritual traditions and material culture. It is gleaned from stories passed by word of mouth from generation to generation and through the examination of the artifacts of ritual and everyday life: weaponry, dress, pottery, architecture, art, and so forth. Westerners, who traditionally have relied upon literary accounts to recover traces of the historical past, are only beginning to understand how to “read” a culture’s history in the slope of a roof or in a story told around a fire.
As the key unit of social organization, the tribe manifests various kinds of familial relationships. The experience of those relationships informs reflection about relationships between persons and nature, which likewise are conceived as familial bonds. The rationales for this ordering of relationships are imbedded in myths about the creation of the world, about heroes and trick-sters, about monsters and ghosts, and about the end of time. Native American myths overflow with representations of kinship among nature and people; of marriages between creatures of different species; of parenting by the sun, moon, and stars; and of the remembrance of ancestors by earth itself.
A Penobscot Indian story about the origins of humanity, corn, and tobacco begins in this way: “Kloskurbeh, the All-Maker, lived on Earth, there were no people yet. But one day when the sun was high, a youth appeared and called him ‘Uncle, brother of my mother.’” An Osage story of creation establishes at the outset a similar conception of kinship:
Way beyond the Earth, a part of the Osage lived in the sky. They wanted to know where they came from, so they went to the sun. He told them that they were his children. Then they wandered still farther and came to the moon.
She told them that she gave birth to them and that the sun was their father.
Conversations, arguments, and marriages between animals and people are grounded in this vision of family relatedness. A Sioux story comments on the bonds between people and rattlesnakes: “We Sioux think of rattlesnakes as our cousins. They always give warning before they strike, as if they wanted to say: ‘Uncle, don’t step on me; then we’ll get along.’” Sometimes in these encounters, the parties change their shapes, becoming like the other creature. A myth of the Potawatomi tells of a couple who had lost their only child. One day, the woman caught a fish, sang to it, and petted it, whence it turned into a baby. In other instances, people might become like other creatures even without actually changing shape, as in the case of a Pomo myth about the girl who married a rattlesnake, bore him four human boys, and eventually became more rattlesnake than human herself—although she remained human in appearance.5
In Native American cultures, nature—including humanity—is conceived as an interconnected web of family relations. And it is this vision that underlies the association of each clan of a tribe with a certain animal, fish, or other living thing.
Judaeo-Christian-Islamic cosmogonies are about the creation of the universe from nothing. Native American myths sometimes are structured in a similar way, with a cosmic creator playing the key role. That creator might be identified as seemingly impersonal as the Cherokee Someone Powerful, or, as in this Cheyenne cosmogony, as Great Medicine:
In the beginning the Great Medicine created the Earth, and the waters upon the Earth, and the sun, moon and stars. Then he made a beautiful country to spring up in the far north.… In this beautiful country the Great Medicine put animals, birds, insects, and fish of all kinds. Then he created human beings to live with the other creatures.6
Among the Yakima, the Great Chief Above performs the work of creation. And in Yuma myth, there is Kokomaht the Creator, who would seem to be named but who is described as “bodiless, nameless, breathless, and motionless,” and is two beings—twins—at once.
There are many kinds of Native American creation myths. Sometimes the creator is identified as female. In a Hopi tale of creation, two goddesses, a Haruing Wuhti of the east and another in the west, caused the waters to recede, fashioned people out of clay, and taught them language. In other cases, the first man is said to have followed from woman, as in a myth of the Plains tribes in which a woman bore the first man after she
was unknowingly impregnated by the sun while picking berries with her mother one day. And the Apache story of Gomoidema Pokoma-Kiaka tells of a maiden who survives a killing flood and conceives a daughter from sun and water, who, in turn, conceives the Son of God.7
Frequently, creation stories weave together the exploits of an extended cast of characters, each of whom has a role to play in creation. Many feature an earth-Diver, an animal who dives deep into the waters and returns with a lump of sod. Earth-Diver tales, which are among the oldest Native American myths, are distributed throughout the continent. These myths, which differ substantially from Western accounts of an all-powerful God who creates the world from nothing, sometimes take a tone that Westerners would find surprising. A tale among tribes in the Northeast recounts how a gluttonous and licentious trick-ster figure, Mesho, told Mink to dive beneath the waters and return with earth. Mink returns on the verge of death but with a mouthful of mud. Mesho revives him by administering artificial respiration to his anus, during which the mud pops from Mink’s mouth and is distributed to form the earth.8
Other creation myths tell of the emergence of people and animals from places beneath the surface of the earth. A Jicarilla Apache myth is representative: “In the beginning the Earth was covered with water, and all living things were below in the underworld. The people could talk, the animals could talk, the trees could talk, and the rocks could talk.” The animals and people played a game that ended in their building mounds that enabled them to crawl through a hole out onto the surface of the earth. Here, as in virtually all Native American mythology, the earth is a living creature, sharing with humans experiences of pleasure and pain, joy and sadness. As an Okanagon myth explains,
The Earth was once a human being, and she is alive yet; but she has been transformed… the soil is her flesh; the trees and vegetation are her hair; the rocks, her bones; and the wind is her breath.… She shivers and contracts when cold, and expands and perspires when hot.9
Creation stories tell more than how the world was created. They give meaning to everyday tribal life, orienting a people to the land and to spiritual values at the same time. In narrative and in symbols, these stories stake out the spiritual and moral landscape with reference to the physical landscape. A mountain canyon, a river, a grove of trees, and a certain formation of rocks are important in everyday life as living reminders of the power of the sacred that is manifest in the myths of creation. The hole in the earth’s crust through which the Jicarilla Apache originally climbed into the light of day is at the same
time an actual geologic feature of the land, the physical center of the culture, the standpoint by which the people orient themselves to their lives of work, play, sleep, celebration, and mourning. Landscape and myth overlap as a perennial reality, mutually reinforcing perceptions of what is valuable and good, and confirming the identity of the people and the order of the world.
The beings who populate cosmogonies and other myths perform heroic deeds, exercise enormous power, change shape, speak wisdom, and create beauty. Like humans, they also get angry, seek revenge, and are lazy, underhanded, and duplicitous. Mythological beings range from those that are readily recognizable—bear, eagle, beetle, muskrat, salmon—to those that bear little physical likeness to animals or people. In between are personified forces of nature, including plant life, geological features, bodies of water, and other elements of the natural world. Often there is fluidity in conceptions about the manner in which the sacred appears: For the Sioux, Wakan at times is a spiritual power that enlivens all of nature, whereas at other times it is identified as Wakan Tanka, a personification. In either case, the immediate and direct relationship to nature and the spiritual dimension of that experience are paramount to Native American cultures.
The religious life of Native Americans is rich with symbol, with the experience of the sacred, and with visions of kinship with people, animals, the land, and all of nature. In its ordering of the world, mythology also provides a template for morality, for guidelines about how people ought to act. A Cheyenne hero-myth begins in this way: “A long time ago the people had no laws, no rules of behavior—they hardly knew enough to survive. And they did shameful things out of ignorance, because they didn’t understand how to live.”10
To know “how to live,” to know the way of life of the tribe and to embrace it, is to live a moral life. But “moral” here is considerably broader in its implications than in the meanings of the word in Western monotheistic religions.