Ancient Mesoamerica: Maize (Corn)

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, they found that the indigenous people of the continent, generally called American Indians, had a highly developed agricultural system. While American Indians raised a great many different crops, one of the important plants was maize (Zea mays), often called corn in American English. In addition to maize, American Indians had also domesticated numerous other plants, including beans, squash, chili peppers, avocados, cotton, and others.

With regard to the importance of maize in the Americas, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, write:

“Maize was and is the very basis of settled life in Mexico and, in fact, throughout the regions of the New World civilized in Pre-Columbian times.”

The archaeological record shows that corn was originally domesticated in Mexico and then diffused north into the eastern portion of what is now the United States and into the American Southwest. It also diffused south into South America.

In general, the process of plant domestication was neither random nor sudden. Early hunters and gatherers had to have an intimate knowledge of ecology. They understood the seasonal cycle of plants and for thousands of years had deliberately  altered the environment through processes such as burning to enhance the plants they found most useful. With regard to the process of domestication, Emily McClung de Tapia, in an essay on the origins of food production in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, reports:

“The origin of agriculture represents the culmination of a number of interrelated processes, socioeconomic as well as biological and ecological. For instance, some plants such as maize or certain species of beans underwent mutations, altering their genetic composition and rendering them more amenable for harvesting, subsequent storage, and, finally, human consumption.”

A domesticated plant is one which has become genetically altered through human intervention so that it has become dependent on human actions for its continued reproduction. It should be pointed out that humans also cultivate and care for plants which have not become domesticated. In the process of domestication, humans deliberately select for favorable mutations and genetic change.

The search for the origins of maize involves three basic questions: (1) what was the ancestral plant for maize; (2) when was it first domesticated; and (3) where was it domesticated. In general, the search for the origins of maize has focused on Mexico in the period after 7000 BCE. Initially, archaeologists hypothesized that a wild grass known as teosinte (Zea mexicana) was the progenitor of maize (Zea mays) and recent findings from molecular biology support this hypothesis.

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of maize comes from the site of San Andrés on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco. At this site, evidence of maize in the form of phytoliths (tiny silicon particles contained in plants) dates to 4800 BCE. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“There are no known wild species of Zea native to coastal Tabasco, so these plants were introduced to the region, almost certainly by humans. At the same level the archaeologists found evidence of large-scale forest clearance of the type associated with maize cultivation in this area.”

In the highlands of Oaxaca, archaeologists found a maize cob in Guilá Naquitz cave which was dated to 4300 BCE.

The best-known evidence for the early domestication of maize comes from the Tehuacan Valley in Puebla. Originally, the cobs from caves in this valley were dated to about 5000 BCE, but more recent re-dating of the material suggests a date of only 3500 BCE.

The cobs found in both the Oaxaca and Tehuacan sites show that maize had already gone through significant evolution from teosinte. The data from these sites do not provide definitive answers to the questions about when and where maize was first domesticated. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz summarize the data this way:

“We have some way to go before we answer these questions, but the most important general fact remains: many thousands of years before Christ, the Indians of Mesoamerica had brought a very primitive, wild form of maize under their control.”

The development of agriculture had ramifications for social organization. While archaeologists used to talk about an agricultural revolution (called the Neolithic Revolution in Europe) which seem to imply rapid sociocultural change, the archaeological data today suggests a rather slow evolution. Gradually, the domesticated plants, such as maize in the Americas, became more important and with this came villages with permanent structures, storage facilities, and greater use of pottery. Looking at the archaeological data from Tehuacan, Emily McClung de Tapia writes:

“The transition to increased dependence upon cultivated food plants goes hand-in-hand with an increase in the region’s population together with increases in the duration of occupation of campsites.”

Religion on the Fort Hall Reservation, 1900 to 1934

During the nineteenth century, most government officials, missionaries, and social scientists had assumed that American Indians were a vanishing and vanquished people who would be gone by the twentieth century. It was assumed that reservations were to be temporary concentration camps to hold Indians as they either died off or fully assimilated into American culture. As a part of the assimilation efforts, the American government not only supported the activities of some Christian—primarily Protestant—missionary groups and actively worked to suppress Indian religions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, American Indian religions were illegal and those participating in Indian ceremonies could be jailed without the benefit of a trial.

The Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, created in 1869 for various Shoshone and Bannock tribes, continued to attract Christian missionary groups in the early twentieth century. With regard to Native religions, the reservation’s Indian agents were concerned with suppressing the Sun Dance and other ceremonials, and the pan-Indian religious movement known as the Native American Church. Suppression of the Native American Church was, and still is, based on the assumption that peyote, a cactus used as a sacrament in Native American Church ceremonies, is somehow harmful to Indians.

The active suppression of American Indian religions by the federal government (i.e. the Indian Office or the Bureau of Indian Affairs) changed in 1934 when the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, declared that suppression of Native religions was wrong and ordered the suppression to stop.

Christian Missionaries:

In 1900, the Episcopal Church took over the property of the Connecticut Indian Association on the Shoshone and Bannock Fort Hall Reservation. The church requested and received 160 acres of land.

In 1901, the Presbyterian Church was granted 160 acres on the Fort Hall Reservation. A new church building and living quarters were constructed on the property.

In 1908, the Episcopal Church requested a patent in fee for 160 acres of land on the Fort Hall Reservation which had been granted to them provisionally by the Shoshone and Bannock. Brigham Madsen reports:

“The order was approved without getting the consent of the Indians who very much opposed the change.”

Healing Ceremonies:

In 1902, the Indian agent for the Fort Hall Reservation ordered the arrest of all Shoshone and Bannock medicine men who held healing ceremonies.

Sun Dance:

       For many of the Indian nations of the Great Plains, Plateau, and Great Basin culture areas, the Sun Dance had been the central ceremony and often served as a unifying force to bring together the various hunting bands. While the actual ceremony and the frequency with which it was traditionally conducted varied among the tribes, there are several basic themes that are associated with the Sun Dance: (1) seasonal renewal, growth, and replenishment, and (2) the acquisition of spiritual power. Much of the government effort in suppressing Native religions in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was focused on this ancient ceremony.

The medicine man Bear sponsored a Sun Dance among the Shoshone-Bannock on the Fort Hall Reservation in 1901. Bear had failed to cure a woman because his powers had not been adequate and subsequently dreamed that he was to sponsor this dance. Bear had attended Sun Dances on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

In 1908, the Indian agent for the Fort Hall Reservation ordered the Shoshone and Bannock to stop their Sun Dance. He was concerned that it promoted immoral activities. Community leaders responded to the ban by sending a delegation to Washington, D.C. with a protest letter.

In 1913, the Shoshone and Bannock held a Sun Dance off the Fort Hall Reservation to avoid the Bureau of Indian Affair’s ban on the ceremony. However, the Indian agent for the Fort Hall Reservation sent in the Indian police to break up the dance. The Indians were angered over the incident as were the local Mormons who supported religious freedom.

In 1914, the Indian agent for the Fort Hall Reservation prohibited the Shoshone and Bannock from putting on their traditional Sun Dance as he felt that this was a backward influence on the community. Community leaders organized the Sun Dance in defiance of the ban and 1,500 Shoshone and Bannock attended.

In 1916, the Shoshone and Bannock once again attempted to hold a Sun Dance off the reservation. Indian police from the Fort Hall Reservation tore down the Sun Dance structure, cut up the poles, and confined seven of the ceremonial leaders to jail for ten days. There was, of course, no trial.

In 1926, the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation received permission to revive the Sun Dance. According to Brigham Madsen:

“It was true that some of the self-torture aspects had been eliminated, with the result being a kind of medicine dance, but it was held for the traditional three days.”

Native American Church

The Native American Church arose in the late nineteenth century as a pan-Indian religious movement. It incorporates many Christian elements as well as Indian elements. The difficulty that the church encounters is that it uses peyote as a sacrament. Since peyote is considered to be a hallucinogenic drug it is illegal under America’s war against drugs. Thus, those who attend the church services are sometimes subject to harassment by law enforcement as well as the possibility of arrest. The Native American Church is the only church in the United States whose membership is restricted by law to racial criteria.

In 1915, the Shoshone on the Fort Hall Reservation began to become involved with the Native American Church and the use of peyote as a sacrament. Sam Lone Bear (Sioux) was one of the proselytizers for the peyote religion.

In 1920, the peyote religion was brought to the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation by Shoshone spiritual leader Jack Edmo and by Sioux spiritual leader Cactus Pete. The new religion rapidly spread across the reservation and alarmed agency officials. Jack Edmo had first encountered peyote at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota during his summer travels. He soon began leading regular Saturday night peyote meetings. The Indian agent arrested Jack Edmo and others as he viewed peyote meetings as a form of immorality. He then contacted the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to see if he was authorized to try them for violating Indian Office Regulations against the practices of medicine men.

In 1921, the Indian agent for the Fort Hall Reservation, having been informed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that the use of peyote and peyote meetings were in violation of Indian Office Regulations, posted a notice informing the Shoshone and Bannock that the introduction, use, or possession of peyote was illegal.

In 1925, the Fort Hall Native American Church incorporated under state law. The language used in its statement of purpose was identical with that used by the Oklahoma Native American Church. The statement of purpose emphasizes that peyote was a sacrament and that the church stresses morality, sobriety, industry, charity, and right living.

The Northern Cheyenne Escape

At the 1851 Fort Laramie treaty council, United States officials failed to understand that there were two distinct Cheyenne tribes: the Northern Cheyenne whose territory included the Black Hills, and the Southern Cheyenne who had migrated to the southern plains. The United States assigned all of the Cheyennes, both Northern and Southern, to a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Northern Cheyenne, however, had no desire to relocate to the south and remained on the Northern Plains where they were allied with the Sioux.

In 1876, the 7th Cavalry under the leadership of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a peaceful Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Following the Indian victory, the Cheyenne moved back into the Bighorn Mountains. In Wyoming, an army of 1,000 cavalry attacked the Northern Cheyenne winter camp of Dull Knife, Wild Hog, and Little Wolf, destroying tipis, clothing, and food supplies.

In 1877, the main body of the Northern Cheyenne, which included Dull Knife, Little Wolf, Black Wolf, Standing Elk, Spotted Elk, and Magpie Eagle, surrendered to the Americans at the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska. The four Old Man Chiefs—Little Wolf, Morning Star, Dirty Moccasins, and Old Bear—were with this group. The Cheyenne were then force-marched for 70 days to the reservation in Indian Territory. When they surrendered they had expected reservation life, but they had not anticipated a 70-day forced march to a reservation far from their homeland.

In 1878, the Northern Cheyenne, under the leadership of Dull Knife, Wild Hog, and Little Wolf, left the reservation where they had been starving and began a trek north to their homelands. In his book Perilous Pursuit: The U.S. Cavalry and the Northern Cheyennes, Stanley Hoig reports:

“Although Dull Knife still held great influence and was a principal spokesman for the Cheyennes, Little Wolf was the main leader of the exodus and directed its course. Wild Hog was next in rank.”

They left the reservation with their lodges standing and their fires burning in order to deceive agency authorities. Of the 353 Northern Cheyenne who slipped away from the agency, only 60-70 were seasoned warriors.

The news media reported that the Cheyenne had “broken out” of the reservation and both soldiers and civilians pursued them. According to Smithsonian curator Herman Viola, in his book After Columbus: The Smithsonian Chronology of the North American Indians, the Cheyenne lacked tents and sufficient food in their “desperate dash for Montana.” In his book Tell Them We Are Going Home: The Odyssey of the Northern Cheyennes, historian John Monnett reports:

“Immediately the army marshaled the technological resources of a modern nation against them.”

The first military engagement between the fleeing Northern Cheyenne and the U.S. Calvary was at Turkey Springs in Oklahoma. Without authorization, a junior officer opened fire on the Cheyenne. Stanley Hoig reports:

“No sooner had the troops opened the hostilities than Cheyenne warriors emerged from ravines on both sides and in the rear to join those at the front in raking the troops with rifle fire.”

The cavalry retreated and the Cheyenne withdrew. Stanley Hoig sums up the encounter this way:

“The encounter with the Northern Cheyennes had been a near disaster for the Fort Reno troops.”

In Kansas, the Cheyenne ambushed the pursuing cavalry at Punished Woman’s Fork. Stanley Hoig (2002: 114) writes:

“Little Wolf’s strategy was to position his main fighting force among the rocks and cutbacks of the canyon, draw the troops into it, and then close the trap with riflemen posted along the canyon walls.”

The American troops were caught in an indefensible position and the soldiers, with their recent encounters with the Cheyenne fresh in their minds, attempted to flee as quickly as possible. In their haste, no one fought back and many of the horses bolted leaving the troops on foot.

In Nebraska, the troops who were pursuing the Cheyenne found an old man who was weak and who had fallen behind the main band. The soldiers did not harm the man, but turned him over to a group of Nebraska citizens. As the soldiers rode away, the Nebraskans shot the old man.

In western Nebraska, the Cheyenne came upon Milton Connors’ ranch. According to Walter Echo-Hawk, in his book In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided:

“Often traveling at night, they were guided by an elderly woman blessed with a mysterious power to see in the dark.”

The starving refugees captured 40 horses, 40 steers, and one mule from the ranch.

At the North Platte River, the Cheyenne broke into two groups: one group under the leadership of Little Wolf and the other under the leadership of Dull Knife.

Little Wolf led a group of 126 (40 men, 47 women, 39 children) with the intention of traveling to the Powder River country in Montana. Traveling with Little Wolf were the warriors Starving Elk, Black Coyote, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, and Black Crane. Little Wolf’s band avoided the military and travelled into the Dakotas and then into Montana. His band was met by scouts from Fort Keogh who assured Little Wolf that his people would not be harmed if they surrendered. They were given rations and followed the scouts back to the Fort. Many of the warriors enlisted in the army as scouts.

Many of Dull Knife’s people had relatives among the Oglala Sioux and so they set out for the Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson, Nebraska. According to historian John Monnett:

“Dull Knife had friends and relatives among the Lakotas who had been relocated to Pine Ridge, and he felt his people would be safe there even if they had to surrender to the soldiers.”

In Nebraska, Dull Knife’s Cheyenne band surrendered to the Americans at Fort Robinson. The Cheyenne leaders expressed their passionate determination not to return to Indian Territory before they surrendered to the Americans. They hoped to get permission to join the Oglala Sioux at the Red Cloud Agency. The Cheyenne were unaware that the Red Cloud Agency had been closed and the agency for the Sioux was now at Pine Ridge in South Dakota.

The Americans consider the Cheyenne as prisoners of war. The post surgeon reported that there were 149 Cheyenne: 46 men, 61 children, and 42 women. Most were near starvation and all were suffering from chills and fever. The leaders were Dull Knife, Bull Hump (Dull Knife’s son), Wild Hog, Tangle Hair, and Strong Left Hand. The Cheyenne were placed in a barracks.

At Fort Robinson, a number of Sioux chiefs—Red Cloud, Red Dog, Little Wound, and others—arranged to meet with the Cheyenne under strict military supervision. There was a joyous reunion between the two groups. Among the Cheyenne prisoners were the daughter of Sioux scout Two Lance and the sister of Chief Red Cloud.

The American commander told the Cheyenne:

“You must stay here for three months before the government will decide whether to send you south or to send you to the Sioux. While you are here, nothing bad will happen to you, but you must stay for three months. You will have the freedom of the post and may even go off into the mountains, but each night at suppertime you must be here.”

During the warmer days in December, the Army forced the women to work unloading grain wagons. Alan Boye, in his book Holding Stone Hands: On the Trail of the Cheyenne Exodus, reports:

“The women worked through bitterly cold days without gloves and considered it more slave labor than anything else.”

The Army viewed this as a way of giving the women exercise.

At Fort Robinson the Cheyenne asked for permission to join the Oglala at the Pine Ridge Reservation, but the Indian Office directed the army to return them to Oklahoma. They refused to return to Oklahoma. They were then denied food and water in an attempt to break their spirit and get them to agree to a peaceful return to Oklahoma. Dull Knife replies:

 “You may kill me here; but you cannot make me go back.”

The Americans arrested Wild Hog, Old Crow, and Strong Left Hand and held them as hostages as a way to force the Cheyenne to agree to return to the south.

In 1879, the army withdrew all food, water, and fuel from the Northern Cheyenne who were being held in a sealed room at Fort Robinson. The army hoped to starve them into submission so that they would return to Oklahoma. Dull Knife told the people:

“Let us never give up to these people, to be taken back south to the country we have run away from. We have given them everything we have and now they are starving us to death. We may as well die here as to be taken south and die there.”

Under the leadership of Little Shield, the Cheyenne broke out of the garrison in an act of desperation. During the first few minutes of the breakout, 21 Cheyenne were killed and nine more were killed later that morning. Of those killed, 22 were women and children.

During the next week, the Army tracked the Cheyenne in the winter snow, killing them when they found them. The War Department ordered the troops to attack without mercy. Finally, a group of 32 Cheyenne made their final stand in a pit above a creek and 25 were killed. By the end of the week a total of 72 Cheyenne had been killed.

After they were recaptured, 20 Cheyenne who were suspected of involvement in the killing of American settlers were sent to Oklahoma for trial. Among those taken to stand trial were Wild Hog, Tangle Hair, Strong Left Hand, Old Crow, Porcupine, Noisy Walker, and Blacksmith. The remaining survivors were escorted to the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota.

       Cheyenne leader Dull Knife, his wife Pawnee Woman, his son Bull Hump, and Bull Hump’s wife remained concealed in the bluffs for ten days after the Army defeated them. The small party of starving Cheyenne, who were so hungry that they were eating their moccasins, eventually made its way to the home of Gus Graven who was married to a Lakota woman and who was trusted by Dull Knife. Graven then hid the group in the home of William Rowland, an interpreter. Rowland then slipped the group in among Red Cloud’s Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

In an out of the way bluff on Wounded Knee Creek, a lodge was set up for Dull Knife and his family. It was here that he learned of the fate of the others in his band.

Religion on the Fort Hall Reservation, 1867 to 1899

Following the American Civil War, the federal policy toward Indians was to confine them to reservations and to reduce the size of reservation to accommodate non-Indian agricultural, grazing, mining, and railroad interests. On the reservation, Indians were to become farmers, even if the reservation land was not suitable to farming; they were to become English-speaking and use of Native languages was often punished; and they were to become Christian and to accomplish this Native religious practices were suppressed, sometimes with force of arms.

From the viewpoint of many federal officials, Indians were Indians were Indians: in other words, they often failed to recognize that there were differences between tribes. In creating reservations, the United States often put tribes which had different cultures, languages, and religions on the same reservation assuming that all Indians were the same.

The Fort Hall Reservation

       When the first non-Indians from the Mormon settlements in Utah began to discover what is now southern Idaho, they found that it was occupied by two somewhat related tribes: the Shoshone (also spelled Shoshoni) and the Bannock. Culturally, the two tribes shared a common heritage and a similar worldview. They spoke closely related languages. Historian John Heaton, in his book The Shoshone-Bannocks: Culture and Commerce at Fort Hall, 1870-1940 writes:

“Shoshones spoke Central Numic, whereas Bannocks, who began to intermarry with Shoshones in Idaho in the early eighteenth century, spoke Western Numic.”

The Shoshone tribes were found throughout the Great Basin area. Those who lived in southern Idaho are generally grouped together as Northern Shoshone and included the Fort Hall Shoshone, the Lemhi Shoshone, the Mountain Shoshone, the Bruneau Shoshone, and the Boise Shoshone.

The Bannock, who call themselves Bana’kwut (“Water People”), were called Buffalo Eaters and Honey Eaters by other tribes. The Bannock had migrated into the southern Idaho area from the desert areas of southeastern Oregon.

In 1867, President Andrew Johnson issued an executive order creating the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho for the Boise-Bruneau Shoshone. The executive order also set aside 1.8 million acres as a separate reservation for the Bannock. Two years later, the Fort Hall Reservation was formally opened for the Shoshone and Bannock. In their book An Introduction to the Shoshoni Language: Dammen Daigwape, Drusilla Gould and Christopheer Loether report:

“The opening of the reservation began a period of ethnic cleansing and hardship for the Shoshone-Bannock unlike anything they had ever experienced before. They were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to the reservation. On the reservation they found little food, no opportunities, and very little hope for the future.”

The Government and Christian Missionaries

In 1869, the Board of Indian Commissioners recommended that, with regard to Indians, it was the duty of government to:

“protect them, to educate them in industry, the arts of civilization, and the princi­ples of Christianity.”

The Board of Indian Commissioners also recommended that schools be established to introduce English to every tribe. According to the Board:

“The teachers employed should be nominated by some religious body having a mission nearest to the location of the school. The establishment of Christian missions should be encouraged, and their schools fostered.”

In 1870, President Ulysses Grant established his Peace Policy in which the administration of reservations was turned over to Christian missionary groups. According to James White in an article in Chronicles of Oklahoma:

“Under the terms of the Peace Policy, a single religious group had a franchise over the evangelizing efforts on each reservation.”

Under the Peace Policy, the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation were assigned to the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1871. The church, however, failed to send a missionary to the reservation. The Indian agent requested funds to build a mission and mission residence, but the federal government did not earmark any monies for this purpose. According to Brigham Madsen, in his book The Northern Shoshoni:

“When no funds were earmarked for these purposes, apparently the church again responded with dedicated apathy.”

In 1871, a Catholic priest visited the Shoshone and Bannock on the Fort Hall Reservation and requested that the reservation be re-assigned to the Catholic Church. The Department of the Interior responded by transferring it from the Methodists to the Catholics. The Catholic missionary, however, was on the reservation for only a few months and then left because there were no facilities for him.

In 1873, the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation were assigned to the Methodist Church. The new Indian agent preached sermons to the Indians, but one army officer charged that the agent was not promoting material progress on the reservation.

In 1875, an Indian teacher from the Methodist Episcopal Church was appointed to the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation. He organized a church society of six members, held church services every Sunday, and established a Sunday school.

In 1887, the Connecticut Indian Association, an auxiliary of the Women’s National Indian Association, contacted the Fort Hall Reservation. The Association was willing to send two missionaries to convert the Shoshone and Bannock if the government would build a cottage for them, provide them with 3-4 acres of land, and allow them to get supplies from the government store. As a result, two women missionaries arrived at the reservation.

Mormons

       Like American Indian religions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons, was discouraged by the American government and many reservations were closed to Mormon missionaries. The Mormon missionaries often worked among off-reservation Indians.

Mormon missionaries under the leadership of George Washington Hill traveled to southern Idaho in 1873 where they baptized about 100 Shoshone and Bannock. Lawrence Coates, in an article in Idaho Yesterdays, writes:

“Relying upon his previous experiences with the Shoshoni, Hill used his ability to speak their language to tell them of the Book of Mormon, depicting its story by placing pictures on a scroll.”

The Indians were then settled on farmland near Brigham City, Utah. The Indians named the community Washakie, after a Shoshone Chief.

In 1877, in response to the establishment of a Mormon farm for the Shoshone, non-Indians again demanded that the Indians be forcibly returned to the Fort Hall Reservation. Rumors circulated that the Indians were well-armed and that their horses were in good condition. The district attorney reported that the Indians had become members of the Mormon church, that they were under Mormon control, and thus they were “disloyal.” He recommended that the Indians be returned to the reservation and that the missionary should be charged with “illegally tampering with the Indians.” While the district attorney argued that military force be used to move the Indians, the Indian agent noted that the Indians in question had never resided at Fort Hall but had always made the Bear River area their home.

The agent of the Fort Hall Reservation in 1883 estimated that 300 Bannock and Shoshone were now members of the Mormon Church and he asked the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for help in stopping the Mormons from instructing the Indians in polygamy and other vile doctrines.

The Ghost Dances

       During the last part of the nineteenth century there were several indigenous religious movements which arose in response to the religious oppression forced upon Indian people by the United States. Two of these movements, both commonly called the Ghost Dance, came from Paiute prophets in Nevada and impacted the Fort Hall reservation.

In 1870, a new indigenous religious movement, known as the Ghost Dance, was started by the Paiute prophet Wodziwob in Nevada. The Shoshone and Bannock from the Fort Hall Reservation became active proselytizers for the new religion and sponsored a number of Ghost Dances.

In 1889, a Paiute named Wovoka died during an eclipse. He then returned to life with a message and a dance for his people. The message called for peace and promised an exclusively Indian world. Thus, the Ghost Dance (not to be confused with the earlier Ghost Dance movement of Wodziwob) was born. Wovoka’s message was distinctly Indian, but influenced by Christianity. According to Meldan Tanrisal, in an article in the Journal of the West:

“Wovoka had been influenced by Presbyterians on whose ranch he worked, by Mormons, and by the Indian Shaker Church.”

The Shoshone and Bannock quickly took up the new Ghost Dance. The Bannock, whose language is Northern Paiute, easily understood Wovoka’s doctrine and passed it on to their Shoshone neighbors who in turn passed it on to the Shoshone at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Brigham Madsen reports:

“Fort Hall, therefore, became one of the distribution centers of the new religion to the Indians of the northern plains.”

Indians as People Under the Law

Very soon after the Spanish began their invasion of this continent, both the European courts and clergy declared Indians to be “people” in a biological and spiritual sense. However, the concept of Indians as “people” in a legal sense was tested in the United States in 1879.

In 1877, the United States had forcibly removed the Ponca from their homeland in northern Nebraska and resettled far to the south in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). One-third of the tribe died from starvation and disease shortly after their arrival on the new reservation.

In 1879, Standing Bear and about 30 Ponca left their Oklahoma reservation and traveled to Decatur, Nebraska where they were welcomed by the Omaha (the tribe, not the city) and given food and shelter. Standing Bear explained why he left Oklahoma:

“My boy who died down there, as he was dying looked up to me and said, I would like you take my bones back and bury them where I was born. I promised him I would. I could not refuse the dying request of my boy. I have attempted to keep my word. His bones are in that trunk.”

At this time, Indians were not allowed free movement outside of their reservations. In order to leave the reservation they were required to have the written permission of their Indian agent. The Department of the Interior (the federal agency in charge of Indian affairs) notified the War Department that the Ponca had left without permission and the army was ordered to return them to the reservation. The Ponca were then detained by the army under the command of General George Crook at Fort Omaha. Illness among the Indians and the poor condition of their horses made it impossible to return them to Oklahoma immediately. During the delay, a local newspaper story about the plight of the Ponca stirred up interest and support which resulted in an historic court case. Carl Waldman, in his book Who Was Who in Native American History, writes:

“When the true purpose of Standing Bear’s journey was published, some whites, including Crook himself, showed sympathy.”

In an interview with newspaper editor Thomas Henry Tibbles, Ta-zha-but (Buffalo Chip) asked:

“I have done no wrong, and yet I am here a prisoner. Have you a law for white men, and a different law for those who are not white?”

In defending the arrest of Standing Bear’s people, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote:

“If the reservation system is to be maintained, discontented and restless or mischievous Indians cannot be permitted to leave their reservation at will and go where they please. If this were permitted the most necessary discipline of the reservations would soon be entirely broken up, all authority over the Indians would cease, and in a short time the Western country would swarm with roving and lawless bands of Indians, spreading a spirit of uneasiness and restlessness even among those Indians who are now at work and doing well.”

Under American law, everyone, including non-citizens, who is held by U.S. authorities has the right to challenge the legality of the custody through a writ of habeas corpus. Two attorneys, John Webster and Andrew Poppleton, volunteered their services to the captive Poncas and filed a writ of habeas corpus to free them from Army custody. The U.S. Attorney argued that Indians were not persons under the law and therefore were not entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. According to the government an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen within the meaning of the law, and therefore could bring no suit of any kind against the government.

After hearing the case of Standing Bear v Crook, the United States District Court found that if Indians must obey the laws of the land, then they must be afforded the protection of these laws. In other words, Indians are “people” under United States law and therefore have the right to sue for a writ of habeas corpus. The judge observed:

“On the one side, we have a few of the remnants of a once numerous and powerful, but now weak, insignificant, unlettered and generally despised race. On the other, we have the representatives of one of the most powerful, most enlightened, and most Christianized nations of modern times.”

The Court’s ruling ordered Crook to release Standing Bear and his people.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs responded to the judge’s ruling by noting that it–

“is regarded by the Government as a heavy blow to the present Indian system, that, if sustained, will prove extremely dangerous alike to whites and Indians.”

Not all Americans agreed with the Court’s decision. One writer in New York City, asked of the Ponca: “What right have they to be in the country, anyhow?” The writer goes on to say:

“They are nothing but barbarians; they have no vote; while we are Christians and voters. Therefore, the land they occupy is unprofitable, and I for one cannot see why any white man who is a voter, and desires the land, should not make a claim to it, and if necessary, get help from the Government to obtain it.”

In theory, this ruling should have changed the legal relationships for Indian people on reservations throughout the United States. However, it was almost universally ignored by the Indian Service (later known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs), Indian agents (the people in charge of the reservations), the army, and the local courts. The ruling was not appealed as it was felt that it would probably be upheld by the Supreme Court and this would only give it more weight in American law.

With regard to the Standing Bear case, in his book In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided, attorney Walter Echo-Hawk writes:

“This decision opened Indian eyes to the possibility of protecting their rights through litigation.”

Following the Standing Bear versus Crook decision, newspaper editor Henry Tibbles arranged a six-month lecture tour of eastern cities for Standing Bear. When Standing Bear traveled, he would wear European-style clothing. On stage, however, he would wear buckskins, feathers, beaded belt, claw necklace, and red blanket. In Boston, Standing Bear’s lecture was attended by Helen Hunt Jackson, Senator Henry Dawes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other notables who were so moved that they formed the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee to fight for the rights of the Ponca and other Indians.

In 1880, Congress appointed a committee to study the Ponca situation. As a result, Standing Bear and his small band were given a permanent home in Nebraska.

Ancient America: Some Aztec Gods

For the general public, the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) are probably the best-known ancient American civilization. Like the Christians who later conquered much of the Americas, the Aztecs established their empire through religiously inspired military conquest.

The religion of the Aztecs, likes those of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, was polytheistic: that is, many different gods were worshiped. In comparing the Aztec pantheon of gods with those of the Greeks, archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes of the Aztec gods:

“They were related to one another, but in no systematic way as, say, many of the Greek deities were. Nor was there a hierarchy of gods and goddesses.”

As with religions elsewhere in the world, such as Christianity, the religion of the Aztecs incorporated the beliefs, ceremonies, and deities of earlier religions. Some of the deities were the patron deities of social, political, or economic groups; some were tribal deities. Brian Fagan reports:

“Even individual people might have their own special divine patrons, usually the deity associated with the day of their birth.”

With regard to the importance of the deities and religion to the daily lives of the Aztecs, Brian Fagan writes:

“The Mexica believed that they lived only through the grace of the gods, the deities who gave them sustenance, rain, and everything that flourished on earth. Almost every act, however trivial, was surrounded with a religious symbolism that is difficult for us to understand.”

Today, we don’t know exactly how many deities (gods and goddesses) were worshiped by the Aztecs. To confuse the issue for non-Aztec people, the deities often have several names reflecting their many aspects. In his book Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, Miguel León-Portilla writes:

“Quite often they are designated by a number of different names. In addition, the myths interweave, overlap, merge, and become tinted with local color.”

Listed below are a few of the better-known Aztec deities:

  • Ometeotl: this is an all-pervasive deity who is often portrayed as bisexual. In their book Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson report:

“The god was a combination of the male and female generative forces, associated with fire and maize and also called the Old Sorcerer.”

  • Tezcatlipoca: this is a youthful, virile, and all-knowing deity who is associated with the four directions. This god is of Toltec origin. Tezcatlipoca was the patron of young warriors.
  • Quetzalcoatl: the feathered serpent is an ancient concept in Mesoamerica and certainly predates the rise of the Aztec. He has a major role in the religions and ceremonies of many different cultures. Quetzalcoatl is associated with divination, astronomy, and astrology.
  • Huitzilopochtli: called Hummingbird on the Left, this is the patron god of the Aztecs. Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson write:

“Huitzilopochtli appears in the earliest histories of the Aztec, as patron and protector on the long journey out of Aztlan to Tenochtitlan.”

Brian Fagan writes:

“A minor god elevated to greatness by imperial propagandists, Huitzilopochtli became the very personification of virile warriorhood, a young, brave god, who sought constant human sacrifices as his rightful due.”

Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, describe Huitzilipochtli this way:

“…he was the tutelary divinity of the Aztec people; the terrible warrior god of the Sun, he needed the hearts and blood of sacrificed human warriors so that he would rise from the east each morning after a nightly trip through the Underworld.”

With regard to his prowess as a war god, Huitzilopochtli provided miraculous powers to the Aztecs which enabled them to defeat their enemies and expand their empire.

  • Xiuhtecutli: is the fire god and was associated with the coronation of rulers.
  • Tlaloc: is the god who controls the rain. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“One of the more horrifying Aztec practices was the sacrifice of small children on mountain tops to bring rain at the end of the dry season, in propitiation of Tlaloc. It was said that the more the children cried, the more the Rain God was pleased.”

The wife of Tlaloc is Chalchiuhtlicue (The Lady of the Jade Skirt) who is the goddess of water.

  • Chicomecoatl: is the goddess of the young maize plants. She is also associated with pulque, the intoxicating (i.e. alcoholic) beverage that is brewed from the maguey plant.
  • Teteoinnan: this goddess is the Earth Mother who was worshipped by doctors and midwives.
  • Xipe Totec: “Our Lord the Flayed One” is a fertility god who is portrayed as wearing a human skin. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“He was the god of spring and the renewal of the vegetation, impersonated by priests and those doing penance, wearing the skin of a flayed captive—the new skin symbolizing the ‘skin’ of vegetation which the earth puts on when the rains come.”