For the Central Alaska Yup’ik Eskimo, spirituality was focused largely on the need to secure food for hunting. As with other animistic hunting peoples, animals were felt to have souls which would be reincarnated. Thus, rituals sought to appease the soul of the animal so that it would give itself to the Yup’ik hunters who needed its meat.
The Plateau Culture Area is the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana. From north to south it runs from the Fraser River in the north to the Blue Mountains in the south. Much of the area is classified as semi-arid. Part of it is mountainous with pine forests in the higher elevations.
The Caddo were an agricultural tribe living in what is now Louisiana and Texas when the first European explorers entered the region. The Caddo were a group of theocratic chiefdoms who were the cultural descendants of the earlier Mississippian mound-building cultures.
Traditionally, Apache religious ceremonies focused on curing, hunting and gathering rituals, puberty ceremonies, and obtaining personal power and protection. While spiritual power is available to most people, spiritual leaders–usually called medicine men and medicine women–are people who have greater access to spiritual power than other people.
Bands or tribes known collectively as the Apache ranged widely throughout the American Southwest at the time of the first Spanish exploration and invasion. The Apache are Athabascan-speaking and migrated into the Southwest from Canada perhaps as early as 850 CE, but most likely between the late 1200s and early 1400s. In her entry on the Western Apache in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Elizabeth Brandt writes:
“Evidence from archaeological sites suggests a date around A.D. 1450 for the entry of Athabaskan peoples into the Southwest, but some scholars call for earlier dates.”
Throughout the world, different religious and spiritual traditions have used hallucinogenic drugs to enhance the mystical experience. These drugs can trigger the experience of flying or floating. In Southern California, many tribes traditionally used jimsonweed (a part of the nightshade family Datura, also known as toloache and datura) to help produce visions. Most frequently this was used during the initiation of boys into full manhood. During this time the initiates would drink an infusion made from jimsonweed root. The visions received at this time would guide people for the rest of their lives. In recognizing the spiritual power of jimsonweed, the tribes also knew that the plant could be deadly if used incorrectly and thus it was used only in ceremonial context and administered by knowledgeable elders. Even with these cautions, there were occasional deaths from using the plant.
Briefly described below are some of ceremonial uses of jimsonweed by California tribes.
During the first part of the twentieth century, the United States continued in its efforts to assimilate American Indians into an English-speaking, Christian European culture. Traditional American Indian religious practices were oppressed and discouraged as barriers to this assimilation. Briefly described below are some of the events of 1917 related to Indian religions.
Among the Cherokee, spirituality (religion) was embedded into everyday life and was not seen as something apart. In her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, historian Theda Perdue writes:
“The Cherokees did not separate spiritual and physical realms but regarded them as one, and they practiced their religion in a host of private daily observances as well as in public ceremonies.”
Cosmology refers to the concept of the general order of the universe. The cosmos was seen as being composed of three levels: The Upper World which was the domain of past time and predictability and which was represented by fire; the Under World which controlled the future and change and which was associated with water; and This World which was the domain of human beings who mediate between the Upper World and the Lower World.
In This World, human beings do not have dominion over plants, animals, and the rest of creation. Instead, they live with creation, attempting to maintain balance within This World. Spiritual power can be found throughout creation. Thus plants and animals have spiritual power, as do rivers, caves, mountains, and other land forms. In their book The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast, Theda Perdue and Michael Green report:
“These features served as mnemonic devices to remind them of the beginning of the world, the spiritual forces that inhabited it, and their responsibilities to it.”
One of the common elements of the spirituality among the Indians of the Southeast is the sacred fire as a symbol of purity and the earthly representative of the sun. Among the Cherokees, the fire and the sun were viewed as old women. Out of respect, the fire was fed a portion of each meal, for if she were neglected she might take vengeance on them.
While the sacred fire represents the sun and the Upper World, water (especially water in springs and rivers) represents the Under World. Among the Cherokee, it is important to keep these two elements apart and therefore water is never poured on the sacred fire.
For the Cherokee, the sacred fire is seen as a grandmother and is human in thought, emotions, consciousness, and intent. Anthropologist Peter Nabokov, in his book Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, writes:
“Fire was the medium of transformation, turning offerings into gifts for spiritual intercessors for the four quarters of the earth.”
The sacred fires are fed with the wood from the seven sacred trees: beech, birch, hickory, locust, maple, oak, and sourwood.
Among the Southeastern tribes, such as the Cherokee, the idea of balance is important. There is a spiritual view that the world is a system of groups which oppose and balance one another. In her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, historian Theda Perdue says:
“In this belief system, women balanced men just as summer balanced winter, plants balanced animals, and farming balanced hunting.”
Illness and Healing
It was believed that illness was caused primarily by animals. Thus healing also had to come from animals. In his book A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation, John Reid reports:
“All human diseases were imposed by animals in revenge for killing and each species had invented a disease with which to plague man.”
The fish and reptiles, for example, would retaliate against humans by sending bad dreams that would cause them to lose their appetite, sicken, and die. To prevent disease, hunters would apologize to the animals which they killed and explain their great need.
An important concept in Southeastern Indian spirituality is that of purity. Maintaining purity involves the avoidance of pollution. Pollution occurs when things from two different categories – such as fire and water – are allowed to physically mix. Thus the maintenance of purity involves the separation of opposing forces or items.
One of the ways of overcoming pollution is to bathe early in the morning before eating any food. Among the Southeastern tribes, everyone went to the river in the morning to bathe. This ceremonial bathing was done year-round, even when the bathers had to break the ice on the river.
Green Corn Ceremony
One of the important ceremonies among the people of the Southeastern Woodlands was the Green Corn Ceremony or puskita (which became Busk in English) which was an expression of gratitude for a successful corn crop. The ceremony was held after the harvest and was a time for renewing life. Old fires were put out, the villages were cleaned, and worn pottery was broken. This was a time of forgiveness: debts, grudges, and adultery were forgiven. According to Theda Perdue and Michael Green:
“Held when the crop first became edible, the Green Corn Ceremony celebrated both the crop and the communitarian ethic that shaped their lives.”
The Green Corn Ceremony was also associated with the quest for spiritual purity. Fasting – one of the principle ways of attaining purity – was an important element in the ceremony.
Land often has special spiritual significance for Indian people. Among the Cherokee there are a group of spirits known as the Immortals who are invisible, except when they want to be seen. The Immortals have town houses within the mountains, and especially within the bald mountains (those mountains on whose peaks no timber grows). The Immortals like to drum and dance. The rumbling coming from the mountains is evidence of the drumming and dancing of the Immortals within the mountains.
The Cherokee view the Little Tennessee River as a benevolent spirit whose head rests in the Great Smokies and whose feet touch the Tennessee River. According to anthropologist Peter Nabokov:
“For Cherokee who bathed in his body, who drank from him and invoked his curative powers, the Long Man always helped them out.”
Nabokov also writes:
“At every critical turn in a man’s life, the river’s blessings were imparted through the ‘going to the water’ rite, which required prayers that were lent spiritual force with ‘new water’ from free-flowing streams.”
The Ute Indians were traditionally mountain-dwelling bands whose traditional territory extended from the southern Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado, west to the Sevier River in Utah. Their traditional territory extended as far south as the upper San Juan River in present-day New Mexico and as far north as southern Wyoming.
As with other Great Basin peoples, the Utes perceived all physical features and elements of the world as being spiritually alive. These spiritual beings have a power which controls the world and thus impacted the fate of human beings. Spirituality was based in large part on the acquisition of power through visions and dreams.
Rituals and ceremonies often focused on curing ceremonies to help the people maintain life, strength, and mobility. Among the Southern Ute, healing powers were received by shamans, usually men, through dreams. According to Robert McPherson and Mary Jane Yazzie, in their essay in A History of Utah’s American Indians:
“The dreams gave secret information concerning power within animals, plants, and natural elements that the shaman could invoke for good.”
There were also rites of passage—ceremonies to mark events such as birth, puberty, and death.
The Ute often used stone circles as a part of their ceremonies. In his essay on the Northern Utes in A History of Utah’s American Indians, Clifford Duncan reports:
“These stone circles are individual ritual sites and are still considered sacred today.”
There was not a standardized way of using these stone circles. Each of the spiritual leaders had their own ceremonies and their own way of using the circles.
Among the Southern Ute, there are supernatural powers associated with the land. Spiritual leaders for each band would go to specific “power points” to leave offerings and to ask for help on behalf of the band. Robert McPherson and Mary Jane Yazzie write:
“The location of specific power sites is not general knowledge and should be discussed only with those who have a need to know.”
Among the Ute, the sweat lodge ceremony is perhaps the oldest of all ceremonies. Traditionally it was a ceremony for the medicine men. However, during the twentieth century it evolved into a separate ceremony with more participants. The ceremony is conducted in a dome-shaped structure formed from curved boughs and covered with hides, blankets, canvas, or other material. Within the lodge, a number of fire-heated rocks provide heat, and water is sprinkled on these to create an intense steam. Traditional Ute songs are used to bring about spiritual enlightenment, purification, and rejuvenation.
One of the important aspects of Ute spirituality which is expressed ceremonially, is veneration of the bear. Anthropologist Bertha Dutton, in her book The Ranchería, Ute, and Southern Paiute Peoples: Indians of the American Southwest, reports:
“The bear is regarded as the wisest of animals and the bravest of all except the mountain lion; he is thought to possess wonderful magic power. Feeling that the bears are fully aware of the relationship existing between themselves and the Ute, their ceremony of the bear dance assists in strengthening this friendship.”
The Bear Dance is performed in the Spring. During the 10-day ceremony, a group of men play musical rasps (notched and unnotched sticks) to charm the dancers and propitiate bears. According to oral tradition, this dance was given to the Ute by a bear.
The circular dance area represents a bear cave with an opening to the south or southeast. Traditionally, the dance area was enclosed with timbers and pine boughs to a height of about seven feet.
In dancing, women choose male partners and the women lead in the dancing. Spiritual leader Eddie Box says:
“Bear Dance is a rebirth, an awakening of the spirit. It’s a time of awareness. You come to learn from the past in order to arrive at the present with an understanding of the harmony of things.”
Historian Richard Young, in his book The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century, describes the Bear Dance this way:
“Probably the oldest of the Ute Dances, the Bear Dance was a festive, social dance that had always been held in the spring before winter camps disbanded and family groups went their separate ways in search of food.”
The Sun Dance spread into the Great Basin from the Plains after 1800. Most of the groups who adopted the Sun Dance did so after they were moved to reservations. The focus of the Sun Dance was on healing and community well-being. Writing about the Ute on the Uintah Valley Reservation, attorney Parker Nielson, in his book The Dispossessed: Cultural Genocide of the Mixed Blood Utes, reports:
“Adapted from other Indian groups, the ‘thirsty dance’ went on for three to four days, without food or water, for the health, well-being, and solidarity of the collective group.”
With regard to the Southern Ute, historian Richard Young writes:
“the main focus of the dance is the acquisition of power, both spiritual power and physical good health, for the individual dancers as well as for the tribe as a whole.”
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.”
The Cayuga, known as ”the people at the landing” in reference to portaging a canoe, are a part of the Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the League of Five Nations and the League of Six Nations). The traditional homeland of the Cayuga was in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Among the Indian nations of the League of Five Nations, the Cayuga had the smallest territory, with the Seneca to their west and the Onondaga to their east. The Cayuga had thirteen main villages.
The most important feature of Iroquois life is the clan system. The clans are matrilineal, meaning that children belong to their mother’s clan. Among the Cayuga, the clans were associated with two moieties (a division of the tribe into two groups): Wolf and Turtle. The Heron, Wolf, Plover, and Snipe clans made up the Wolf Moiety. The Big Bear, Ball, Younger Bear, Suckling Bear, Deer, and Snapping Turtle clans made up the Turtle Moiety. Prior to the coming of the Europeans the moieties were exogamous; that is, a member of the Wolf Moiety could not marry another member of the Wolf Moiety. By the end of the nineteenth century, exogamy no longer applied to the moieties.
Cayuga moieties functioned to provide social and ceremonial equilibrium. Among the Cayuga, members of the same moiety refer to themselves as “brothers and sisters” ceremonially and they refer to the members of the other moiety as “cousins.”
Religious ceremonies are often carried out in a longhouse. Anthropologist Frank Speck, in his work on Cayuga ceremonialism (Midwinter Rites of the Cayuga Long House), writes:
“It should be understood that all the ceremonies discussed in this study are when occasion arises carried out in the Long House, which to the Cayuga ceremonialist is virtually a temple.”
There are two doors and two fires in the longhouse, which are associated with east and west.
In Cayuga ceremonies, members of the Wolf Moiety enter the longhouse through the west door (known as the Wolf Door) and the members of the Turtle Moiety enter through the east door (known as the Turtle Door). For most of the ceremonies there are formal seating arrangements which call for the men and women to sit opposite each other. Men sit to the east and women sit to the west.
The Cayuga ceremonial year was traditionally divided into periods of male control and female control. The winter ceremonies are sponsored by the men. On the last day of the Midwinter ceremonies, the chiefs formally transfer sponsorship to the women. The women then sponsor the ceremonies in the longhouse until the corn has matured in August. At this time, they formally turn their duties over to the men.
The Cayuga use a number of different musical instruments during their longhouse ceremonies. These include turtle rattles (made from snapping turtles, box turtles, and mud turtles), horn rattles, bark rattles, gourd rattles, wood beaters, rasps, water drums, deer-hoof rattles.
Briefly described below are some of the Cayuga ceremonies. While some of the ceremonies may not be currently performed, they are described as they were performed.
The Feather Dance is one of the four “Sacred Words” of the Cayuga and is performed soon after sunrise on the sixth day of the Midwinter Ceremony. While everyone is called on to participate, the men wear feather headdresses. The feathers of the Blue Heron are often preferred because of its prayerful attitude. The men also wear face paint: two horizontal stripes on each cheek.
Burning Tobacco Ceremony:
The Burning Tobacco Ceremony is performed on the seventh day of the Midwinter Ceremony. Tobacco is a helper which assists the people in communicating to the spirit world. During a prayer – which is repeated five times – to the spirit forces above the earth, the Creator, the Four Angels, the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, and the Thunders, tobacco is thrown on the fire.
Among the Cayuga, the Sun Ceremony is carried out in the long house to thank the sun for warmth and the stimulation of plant growth. Each man has his own personal chants which are used in this ceremony. Each man holds a sun-symbol which is a wooden disk that has been painted with red and yellow symbols: a face on one side and rays on the other. Feathers are attached to the disk. The movement in this ceremony is counter clockwise.
The Skin Dance is another of the four Sacred Words of the Cayuga and is performed on the seventh day of the Midwinter Ceremony. Anthropologist Frank Speck writes:
“Before the time of Handsome Lake the purpose of the Skin Dance was to afford an opportunity for the war chiefs and warriors to recount their war records and to discuss raids and cruelties inflicted upon other tribes.”
This was condemned by Handsome Lake, the early nineteenth century prophet, who taught that only the wonders of creation should be spoken at this ceremony.
The Bowl Game is another of the four Sacred Words of the Cayuga which is performed twice a year. It may also be conducted as a healing rite. The ceremony involves two players, one from each moiety. Six dice – peach pits which are burned black on one side – are placed in a large bowl. The dice are shaken in the bowl and then counted. The game continues until one side has accumulated 101 points.
For the past five centuries, American Indians have had their religions suppressed (sometimes brutally and violently) and denied. With the formation of the United States and the adoption of the Bill of Rights which speaks of freedom of religion, this freedom has been denied to American Indians based on the notion that they were not citizens and therefore this freedom did not apply to them. The period of time from 1870 to 1934 can be considered the Dark Ages for American Indian Religious Freedom. During this time, the active suppression of American Indian religions reached its peak.
Under the Peace Policy of President Grant, Indian reservations were to be administered by Christian denominations which were allowed to forcibly convert the Indians to Christianity. By 1872, 63 of the nation’s 75 Indian reservations were being administered by Christian religious denominations.
In 1877, the United States sent America’s Christian General, O.O. Howard to the Pacific Northwest to put down the Dreamer Religion. With regard to the Nez Perce, Howard feels that it is his duty as an American officer and a Christian to force the Dreamer bands, such as Chief Joseph’s, into becoming Christian. The result of this was the Nez Perce War.
In 1883, the Secretary of the Interior reported that the heathen practices of American Indians had to be eliminated. According to Secretary of the Interior Henry M. Teller, the heathen practices of the American Indians must be eliminated:
“they must be compelled to desist from the savage and barbarous practices that are calculated to continue them in savagery.”
He instructed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to compel the discontinuance of dances and feasts. He asked Congress for greater power to deal with the Indian spiritual leaders (often called “medicine men”). He asked that steps be taken to compel “these impostors to abandon this deception and discontinue their practices.”
Following the recommendations of the Secretary of the Interior, missionaries, and other influential “friends of the Indian,” the United States formally outlawed “pagan” ceremonies in 1884. Indians who were found guilty of participating in traditional religious ceremonies were to be imprisoned for 30 days. This was seen as an important step in the destruction of the Indian way of life.
In 1890, the United States government used military force to suppress the so-called “Ghost Dance” religion among the Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The War Department issued a list of Indians who were to be arrested on sight. Their “crime” was simple: they had embraced a new religion, one which had not been approved by the United States government. Using Hotchkiss machine guns, American soldiers managed to kill 40 Sioux men and 200 women and children at Wounded Knee.
In 1892, Congress strengthened the law against Indian religions. Under the new regulations, Indians who openly advocated Indian beliefs, those who performed religious dances, and those involved in religious ceremonies were to be imprisoned.
On a regular basis, the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reminded the Indian agents of the need to suppress Indian religions. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1902 told reservation agents: “You are therefore directed to induce your male Indians to cut their hair.” According to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:
“The wearing of short hair by the males will be a great step in advance, and will certainly hasten their progress toward civilization.”
Under the new guidelines, Indian men with long hair were to be denied rations. If they still refused to cut their hair, “short confinement in the guardhouse at hard labor with shorn locks, should furnish a cure.”
On the Hopi Reservation, the Indian agent forced a number of men to cut their hair. The agent disregarded the ceremonial purpose of long hair. Hopi men traditionally grew their hair long in the back as a symbol of the falling rain for which they prayed. For the Hopi, for a man to have his hair cut during the growing season was tantamount to asking that the corn stop growing.
Indian agents were also instructed to stop Indians from using face paint. According to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:
“The use of this paint leads to many disease of the eyes among those Indians who paint. Persons who have given considerable thought and investigation to the subject are satisfied that this custom causes the majority of cases of blindness among the Indians of the United States.”
In addition, Indian dances and feasts were to be prohibited. According to the BIA:
“Feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes.”
In 1934, policy regarding freedom of religion for American Indians began to change when John Collier, the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, issued Circular No. 2970 (“Indian Religious Freedom and Indian Culture”) to superintendents of Indian agencies. According to Collier:
“no interference with Indian religious life or ceremonial expression will hereafter be tolerated.”
Not all of the employees, however, followed the new rule. According to JoAllyn Archambault, in her chapter on the Sun Dance in the Handbook of North American Indians:
“However, many federal employees and Christian missionaries on reservations resisted the policy and discouraged sweatbaths, the Sun Dance, and other religious practices.”
Historian Angie Debo, in her book A History of the Indians of the United States, reports:
“Superpatriots even detected the hidden hand of Red Russia behind the policy, and Collier had to defend himself before the House Indian Affairs Committee against charges of atheism, Communism, and sedition.”
During the nineteenth century, the United States sought to bring Christianity to the American Indians and to suppress the expression of Native religions. Briefly described below are a few of the events of 1816 relating to religion and American Indians.
In Kentucky, the Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathens wrote a circular letter to Indian agents suggesting that the English language and the habits of civilization should be taught to the Indians before spreading the gospel to them. They asked that the agents have Indian children sent among non-Indians to be schooled.
In Ohio, John Stewart, a free Negro, began preaching to the Wyandot and many Indians converted to Protestantism.
In New York, Eleazar Williams, an Episcopal lay reader and catechist, moved to the Oneida reservation. He spoke the Oneida language and had a good oratory style. He quickly won the support of the Oneida Christians (also known as the First Christian Party or the Shenandoah Party).
In California, the Spanish Catholic missionaries at the San Francisco mission had the Indians stage a traditional dance for a visiting Russian expedition.
The Cherokee Nation allowed several Christian missionary groups – Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian – to establish schools. According to Marion Starkey in The Cherokee Nation:
“So the missionaries came and remained to play a vital part in the further development of the Cherokees.”
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions declared that it proposed for the Cherokee—
“To make the whole tribe English in their language, civilized in their habits, and Christian in their religion.”
On the southern plains, Pawnee leader Petalesharo rescued a Comanche girl from the Morning Star Ceremony, stating that the ritual should be abolished. He offered himself in her place and when the other Pawnee hesitated in killing him, he untied the girl, placed her on a horse, and led her to safety.
In the Morning Star Ceremony, a girl captured from another tribe would be sacrificed at the Summer Solstice. The captured girl would spend many months with the Pawnee and would be treated well. For the ceremony, her body was painted half red and half white and she was tied to a rectangular frame near the village. As the morning star rose, all of the men and boys of the village shot arrows into her body. The ceremony was not a part of the regular Pawnee ceremonial cycle, but was done only when a man was commanded by a vision to conduct the ceremony. The ritual gave the people success in war and in fertility.
Following the policies of the nineteenth century, during the first part of the twentieth century the United States was firmly convinced that American Indians could assimilate only if they became Christians. To aid in the “civilization” (i.e. Christianization) of the Indians, Congress had formally outlawed Indian religions in the nineteenth century. On the reservations, Indians could be jailed without a trial for practicing or promoting any traditional Indian religious practice. In addition to suppressing traditional ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, one of the concerns at this time focused on suppressing and criminalizing the so-called “Peyote Cult” (the Native American Church). Briefly described below are some of the events dealing with American Indian religions in 1916.
Opposition to the Native American Church has generally been based on: (1) it is an American Indian religion, and (2) the Church’s use of peyote as a sacrament. Peyote, often confused with mescaline, has been labeled addictive.
Representative Harry L. Gandy of South Dakota and Senator W. W. Thompson of Kansas introduced bills in Congress to prohibit traffic in peyote, including its sale to Indians. Support for the bill was provided by the National Indian Association, the Society of American Indians, the National Indian Student Conference, the Lake Mohonk Conference, the Indian Rights Association, and the YMCA. The presentation of anti-peyote materials was coordinated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Omaha Indians journeyed from Oklahoma to Washington to testify against the bills. The bills failed to pass. Anthropologist Omer C. Stewart, in his entry “Peyote and the Law” in the Handbook of American Indian Religious Freedom, writes:
“This was the beginning of a futile forty-seven-year effort to outlaw peyote federally. Twelve different bills were introduced into Congress to prohibit the use of peyote in the United States from the 1916 Gandy bill to the 1963 Fascell bill. No federal bill ever resulted.”
Harry Black Bear, an Oglala Sioux, was arrested in South Dakota for giving peyote buttons to other Indians. In a trial in Deadwood, South Dakota, a jury found him guilty, but the judge ruled that the prohibition under which he had been charged applied to alcoholic beverages and not to peyote. According to the judge:
“I am clearly of the opinion that this prosecution is not within the purview of this statute….[Peyote] is neither an intoxicating liquor nor a drug.”
In Oklahoma, the Indian agent for the Southern Ponca reported that half of the tribe’s 630 members were involved with the Peyote religion.
In Idaho, 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.
In Montana, writer Frank Bird Linderman wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells asking that the orders requiring that Indian men cut their hair and prohibiting the Sun Dance be rescinded for the Chippewa and Cree on the Rocky Boy Reservation. Sells replied that there was no order to forcibly cut the men’s hair, but simply a strong suggestion that they do so. With regard to the Sun Dance, Sells strongly supported the ban on this ceremony citing a long-standing policy to discourage harmful Indian practices. The Indians, however, simply conducted the Sun Dance without official permission. In Reimagining Indians: Native Americans Through Ango Eyes, 1880-1940, historian Sherry Smith reports:
“Official permission mattered little to them and apparently nobody on the reservation tried to stop it.”
In Oklahoma, the Indian agent banned the Kiowa Ghost Dance because of its opposition to Christianity and allotment. However, several Ghost Dances were held on scattered allotments. The agent obtained a list of the names of 79 participants so that he could withhold their per capita payments.
Human sacrifice is generally defined as the ritual killing of a human being as a part of a religious ritual. While human sacrifice was an important part of the ceremonial practices of the Indian nations of Mesoamerica (such as the Aztec and Maya), it was uncommon among the American Indian people of North America. One of the few groups who incorporated human sacrifice into their ceremonies was the Pawnee.
At the time of the European invasion of the Great Plains, the Pawnee were an agricultural people raising corn along the rivers of the Central Plains in what would later become Nebraska. They also engaged in seasonal buffalo hunts, particularly after they obtained the horse. They had a sophisticated understanding of the movement of the stars and celestial observation was important in determining the cultivation cycle of their corn. The Pawnee lifestyle was centered on the astronomical observation. The movements of the stars formed the basis for their seasonal rituals.
In each Pawnee village there was an elite group composed of a hereditary chief, sub-chiefs, religious leaders, and leading warriors which discussed tribal matters such as the timing of ceremonies, assignments of farming plots to families, warfare, and foreign relations.
The Pawnee lived in permanent earth lodges which were constructed so that the four central posts represented the four cardinal directions. The east-facing doorway would have an unobstructed view of the eastern sky and at the vernal equinox the first rays of the sun would strike the altar within the lodge.
One of the important Pawnee ceremonies, the Morning Star Ceremony, involved the sacrifice of a young woman. As a part of the ceremony, a captive woman would be tied spread-eagled to a wooden frame and every man and boy in the camp would shoot an arrow into her body. The young woman represented Evening Star and with her death, her soul went to her husband Morning Star who then clothed her with the colors of the dawn. The reunion of Morning Star and Evening Star meant the renewal of growing things on earth. The Morning Star Ceremony was a fertility rite, and from the Pawnee perspective, the young woman was not a victim, but a messenger.
The Morning Star Ceremony was not conducted on a regular schedule. Rather, it was conducted in response to a vision by a warrior. In this vision Morning Star would appear as a man anointed with red paint with leggings decorated with scalps and eagle feathers. In the dream, Morning Star would tell the warrior:
“I am the man who has power in the east. I am the Great Star (Upirikutsu). You people have forgotten about me. I am watching over your people. Go to the man who knows the ceremony and let him know. He will tell you what to do.”
Following the vision, the warrior would consult with the Morning Star shaman (priest, in some accounts). The warrior and the elder would then determine if Morning Star in the vision was asked for the regular symbolic ceremony or the full ceremony which included the human sacrifice. The elders would consult with the stars: the full ceremony was performed only in years when Mars was the morning star.
If it was decided that the full ceremony was needed, then the warrior would be instructed to obtain a suitable captive from another tribe. From the keeper of the Morning Star bundle, the warrior would receive a special warrior’s outfit. The warrior would then recruit some volunteers and set out to capture a girl. At the time of her capture, the girl would be dedicated to Morning Start and then turned over to the keeper of the Morning Star bundle upon their return to the village.
In the village, the captive would be treated with respect, but kept isolated from the rest of the camp. As the time for the five-day ritual approached, the captive would be ritually cleansed. The keeper of the Morning Star bundle would then sing a series of songs during which the captive would be symbolically transformed from a human form to a celestial form. With this, the girl now became the ritual representative of Morning Star: she was not viewed as impersonating Morning Start, but rather she was viewed as the earthly embodiment of Morning Star.
On the last day of the ceremony, the men and boys from the village would take the captive outside of the village to a place where they had erected a scaffold. This scaffold represented Evening Star’s garden in the west, the source of all animal and plant life.
The captive would be placed on the scaffold and her clothing removed. When the morning star appeared, two men would approach her from the east and touch her lightly with torches. Four other men would then touch her with war clubs. The warrior who had captured her with then come forward with a sacred bow and shoot her through the heart with a sacred arrow. At the same time, another warrior would strike on the head with the war club from the Morning Star bundle.
The elder supervising the ceremony would then cut open her breast with a stone knife. He would smear his face with her blood. The warrior who had captured her would catch some of her blood on dried meat.
All of the men and boys would then shoot arrows into her body, circle the scaffold four times, and return to the camp.
In 1816, Pawnee leader Petalesharo rescued a Comanche girl from the Morning Star Ceremony, stating that the ritual should be abolished. He offered himself in her place and when the other Pawnee hesitated in killing him, he untied the girl, placed her on a horse, and led her to safety.
Petalsharo, the son of Chief Lachelesharo (Old Knife), was a respected warrior of about 30 years of age at this time. Carl Waldman, in his book Who Was Who in Native American History, writes:
“He won the respect of his people for confronting the powerful class of priests, and, on succeeding his father, he proved influential among many of the Pawnee bands.”
In 1833, the Pawnee prepared to sacrifice a Cheyenne woman captive in their Morning Star Ceremony. Chief Big Ax called a council of chiefs and leading men and asked them to abandon the plan. While the people in the village were hostile to the idea of letting the captive go, they brought the woman to Big Ax’s lodge. The American Indian agent and five others attempted to take the captive from the village. They were blocked by Soldier Chief and the woman was shot with an arrow. The Pawnee warriors then took the dying woman out onto the prairie and carried out the sacrifice.
With increasing opposition to the Morning Star Ceremony from both the American government and some of the Pawnee leaders, the Pawnee held their last known Morning Star Ceremony in 1838. At this time, they ritually sacrificed Haxti, a young Oglala woman.
When the European invasion of North America began there were more than 600 autonomous Indian nations in the region, each with its own religion. While many of these aboriginal religions focused on the harmony of present-day life rather than obtaining a reward or punishment in an afterlife, many of them did have a concept of some kinds of existence after death. A few of these concepts are briefly described below.
Concerning beliefs regarding an afterlife among Plains Indians, Charles Eastman, in Light on the Indian World: The Essential Writings of Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), writes: “The idea of a ‘happy hunting-ground’ is modern and probably borrowed, or invented by the white man.”
One example of life after death is found among the Pueblo Indians of North America who see life after death as the same as before death: the deceased journey to a town where they join a group with which they were associated in life. In commenting about Pueblo Indian resistance to Christianity, anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, in her book Pueblo Indian Religion, writes: “The Pueblo idea of life after death as merely a continuation of this life is incompatible with dogmas of hell and heaven. In this life the Spirits do not reward or punish; why should they after death?”
In his book American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict, religion professor Henry Bowden reports that “the Pueblo cosmology did not recognize a place of eternal punishment.”
Going from the American Southwest to the Cheyenne Indians of the Northern Plains, we find that the souls of the dead Cheyenne travel along the Milky Way (“The Road of the Departed”) to the place of the dead. Father Peter J. Powell, in his book Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History, reports: “For the Cheyennes, there is no hell or punishment after life on earth.” In his book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, George Bird Grinnell writes: “The spirit of the dead man found the trail where the footprints all pointed the same way, followed that to the Milky Way, and finally arrived at the camp in the stars, where he met his friends and relatives and lived in the camp of the dead.”
In a similar vein, writing about the Omaha Indians of the Central Plains (The Omaha Tribe), ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report: “There does not seem to have been any conception among the Omaha of supernatural rewards or punishments after death.”
Most of the Indian tribes of New England envisioned afterlife as a life similar to the one they were currently living. There was no concept of reward for virtue or punishment for bad deeds. Religion professor Henry Bowden writes: “The Massachusetts [Indians] expected to triumph over death by finding new opportunities in another realm, beyond the grave, where individual accomplishments could flourish again with undiminished vigor.”
In his book Indian New England Before the Mayflower, Howard Russell writes: “The soul of the departed was believed to journey to the southwest, there to share the delights of the wigwam and fields of the great god Kanta (or Tanto or Kautautowit), where abundance reigns and ancestors offer welcome and feasting.”
For the Narragansett Indians in the Northeast, death was seen as a transition between two worlds. At the time of death, the soul would leave the body and join the souls of relatives and friends in the world of the dead. The world of the dead was felt to be in the southwest where the supernatural Cautantowwit and the ancestors lived. Here the souls of the deceased would spend an afterlife similar to life on earth. Passing through the gates guarded by a ferocious dog, the souls of the dead find a paradise without worry or pain. They find the storehouses filled with corn, beans, and squash; the strawberries are always in seasons; and the clams are succulent.
Not all cultures have a well-defined or well-described afterlife. With regard to life after death, this is an issue of little concern for most traditional Navajo Indians. They feel that they will find out when they die and in the meantime this is something they have no way of knowing anything about and therefore they should not waste time thinking about it. The Navajo cultural orientation is towards life, toward making this life happier, more harmonious, and more beautiful.
The Shawnee, whose name means “Southerners”, once occupied a vast region west of the Cumberland mountains of the Appalachian chain in what is now part of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. Like the other Algonquian-speaking tribes of the western part of the Northeast Woodlands Culture Area, the Shawnee had a traditional economy based on farming (corn, beans, and squash), hunting, and gathering wild plants.
As was common among hunting tribes, spirituality was an important part of hunting. In his book The Shawnees and the War for America, Colin Calloway writes: “In the Shawnee world, humans and animals communicated, hunters dreamed the whereabouts of their prey and offered prayers to the spirits of the animals that gave their bodies so that the people might live.”
In order to maintain the harmony between humans and the animal people, and between humans and the plant people, it was necessary to conduct certain rituals to keep the world in balance.
Among many of the woodlands tribes sacred medicine bundles were important. The Shawnee at one time had a sacred bundle – mishaami – for each of the five divisions of the tribe. The Shawnee were a confederacy of five political units: Chillicothe (Chalahgawtha), Hathawekela (also spelled as Thawekila or Thawegila), Kispoko (Kispokotha), Mequachake (Mekoche or Maykujay), and Piqua (Pekowi). The bundles contained not only items which were sacred, but also included ritual concepts and songs.
The Shawnee were originally given their bundles by Our Grandmother at the time of creation. Since that time, items have been added to the bundles. According to James Howard, in his book Shawnee! The Ceremonialism of a Native American Tribe and its Cultural Background: “Each of the sacred bundles is assigned to the care of a designated custodian, who is always a man, and a person of high moral character.”
The bundle was traditionally kept in a structure which was separate from the keeper’s home. James Howard also writes: “The bundles are treated much as human beings, and it is believed that they may become cramped from resting too much in one position.” Therefore, the position of the bundles is regularly shifted.
The Dakwanekawe or Bread Dance was an important Shawnee ceremony which was traditionally held in the spring and in the fall. The ceremony was given to the Shawnee by Our Grandmother who sometimes appeared on earth to observe the ceremony and to participate in the singing. In the spring, the role of women in the ceremony was predominant and this ceremony asked for fertility and good crops. In the fall, the men led the dancing and their role as hunters was emphasized. The spring dance asked for an abundant harvest while the fall dance expressed thanksgiving and asked for abundant game.
The Green Corn Dance was held in August and marked the first corn harvest. Charles Callender, in his chapter on the Shawnee in the Handbook of North American Indians reports: “On this occasion persons were absolved of misconduct, and all injuries except murder were forgiven.” The Green Corn Dance lasted from 4 to 12 days.
The Buffalo Dance was generally held in late August or early September. The dance was originally given to Tecumseh by the Buffalo, his guardian spirit. Two kettles of corn mush were prepared for the dance as this dish was favored by the buffalo. The ceremony included body painting and eight sets of dances which were performed by men and women. The final element of the dance was a mock battle for the corn mush, which was then eaten. Social dances often followed the ceremony.
The Buffalo Dance was conducted outside of the ceremonial grounds used for other ceremonies because it did not come from Our Grandmother.
Among the Shawnee, funeral rites usually lasted four days. The body was buried on its back in an extended position with the head toward the west. Prior to burial, friends and relatives would dress and paint the body. Before the grave was filled, friends and relatives would sprinkle small amounts of tobacco over the body and ask the soul not to look back or to think about those remaining behind.
Medicine bundles are important to many of the Northern Plains tribes. The concept of “medicine” refers to spiritual power, which is not limited to healing. For the Plains Indians, spirit power—medicine—was needed for success in hunting, gambling, war, love, and other activities. The medicine bundle contains sacred objects which are symbols of spiritual power: they are not the spiritual power itself. Thus, if a personal medicine bundle is lost or stolen, the power is not lost as the individual has the power to remake the bundle.
There are basically three kinds of medicine bundles: (1) personal bundles made in accordance with instructions received from spiritual helpers during the vision quest, (2) society bundles maintained by the warrior societies, and (3) tribal bundles which are important to the entire tribe.
Among the Cheyenne, there are two sacred tribal medicine bundles: the Sacred Arrows and the Sacred Buffalo Hat.
The Sacred Arrows (Maahotse) were originally given to the prophet Sweet Medicine by Maheo (the Creator) in a holy cave within the sacred mountain (Novavose or Bear Butte). In his book Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History, Father Peter J. Powell writes: “Sweet Medicine’s teaching is the spiritual milk by which the Cheyenne have grown in wisdom. His greatest gift to the People was Mahuts, the Sacred Arrows.”
The Sacred Arrows are living things and are the holiest of the Cheyenne tribal possessions. Father Peter J. Powell, in an article in American Indian Art, writes: “Ma’heo’o pours his life into Cheyenne lives through the Sacred Arrows. The Cheyenne people, in turn, are made one with him and with each other in him through those Sacred Arrows who bless their life and identity as a holy nation.” He goes on to say: “So perfect is that unity of the Cheyenne people with Ma’heo’o and each other through Maahotse that when a murder occurs within the Cheyenne nation, flecks of blood appears on the shafts of the Sacred Arrows.”
In his book, Father Powell summarizes the importance of the Sacred Arrows by saying: “Without the Arrows, there can be no Cheyenne tribe, no People in any supernatural sense.”
The Sacred Arrows are symbols of male power. Father Peter J. Powell reports: “No female dares look at them when they are exposed to veneration.”
Even today, women will excuse themselves from the presence of men who are speaking about the Sacred Arrows.
The Massaum Ceremony is an ancient Cheyenne ceremony which was given to the people by Sweet Medicine who first performed it at Bear Butte. The five-day ceremony re-enacts the creation of the world. During this ceremony, the Sacred Arrows are cleansed and all creation is renewed.
The second Cheyenne bundle is the Sacred Buffalo Hat (Esevone) which was a gift from Maheo to the Sutai prophet Erect Horns (Tomsivi). In historic times the Cheyenne were composed of two tribes: the Cheyenne (Tsistista) and the Sutai. The Sacred Buffalo Hat is generally associated with the Sutai who became incorporated into the Cheyenne in the late 18th century. The power of the Sacred Buffalo Hat is female. In an article in American Indian Art, Father Peter J. Powell writes: “Together, the Sacred Arrows and the Sacred Buffalo Hat form the two great covenants of the Cheyenne people.”
Through these two bundles Maheo assures continual life and blessings for the people. The people, however, must venerate and care for the bundles.
When the Sacred Buffalo Hat is renewed, those seeking a blessing stand at the edge of the old lodge cover facing the Sacred Mountain to the east. The keeper of the Hat then prays and offers the pipe to Maheo, the Earth, and the four directions. In single file, those wishing a blessing walk across the old cover to the east.
Regarding the two Cheyenne medicine bundles, George Bird Grinnell writes in his book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways: “So long as due reverence was paid to these relics, and the ceremonies were performed which the culture heroes had been taught and had told them must be practiced, the influence of these protective gifts was beneficial and helpful, but failure properly to respect them was certain to be followed by misfortune to the tribe.”
The Kootenai (also spelled Kutenai), whose aboriginal homelands straddled the Rocky Mountains and included parts of Western Montana, Idaho, British Columbia, and Alberta, have a unique language and culture. Kootenai is one of a handful of languages in the world which is considered a language isolate: it is not related to any other language. With regard to phonology, Kootenai, unlike most other North American Indian languages, uses pitch. Thus, a rising or falling pitch can change the meaning of a word.
The Kootenai appear to have once lived on the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains and then migrated into the Plateau Culture Area. In his Ethnography of the Kutenai, H.H. Turney-High writes: “There is a strong tradition even at Bonner’s Ferry that the whole body of the Kutenai originated on the Great Plains and at some, to them, very ancient time gradually moved westward.”
Within the Plateau Culture area, the Tobacco Plains area of Montana is the original Kootenai homeland. Once they had a great village in this area and their oral tradition speaks of the Tobacco Plains area as where they “woke up.” One group eventually split off from the Tobacco Plains village and established a village in Fernie, British Columbia. Another band later broke up and settled in the area of Libby, Montana. From the Libby band came the people who settled around Flathead Lake in the Somers, Elmo, Dayton area. According to H.H. Turney-High: “As soon as peace was made between the Kutenai, Flathead, and Kalispel, the bulk of the Jennings-Libby people moved to Flathead Lake and are the People-of-the-Bay today.”
According to oral tradition, there was a time when one of the Kootenai bands continued to live east of the Rocky Mountains, perhaps in the area of McLeod, Alberta, and were a Plains tribe. However, they suffered an epidemic which reduced their numbers. Knowing that they could not continue to survive on the Plains with their reduced numbers, they migrated across the mountains to join their western cousins. They settled in the southern portion of the Kootenai hunting range where they mingled with Salish-speaking people. According to H.H. Turney-High: “They are today entirely extinct save for those mixed bloods who claim tunáxa ancestry.”
Among the Kootenai, the healers were primarily women who knew the healing powers of the plants and who had had dreams or visions about healing. A long time ago, the spirits told the Kootenai women that they were to form the Crazy Owl Society in order to fight off epidemics. Ethnographer H.H. Turney-High points out: “Epidemics were considered the result of disobeying the spirits, and the Crazy Owls were supposed to prevent such consequences.”
The spirits would visit one of the powerful women and she would then begin to sing as directed by the spirit. The other women of the Crazy Owl Society would then join her and follow her as she encircled the lodges. When all of the lodges in the camp had been treated, the leader would lead the group to a tree and strike it. When the proper number of trees had been struck, they would run to the west. Ethnographer H.H. Turney-High reports: “Soon they would leave the ground and run in the air, with the exception of the file-closer, who ran after them on the ground. Eventually they all came to ground, held a council, and adjourned.”
The Kootenai Shamans’ Society was formed by all of the shamans or medicine people who banded together for mutual assistance and joint public service. The oldest and most respected shaman acted as the formal leader of the group.
This is a Kootenai dance which is similar to the Shaking Tent ceremonies found among the Plains Algonquians. According to anthropologist Bill Brunton, in his chapter on the Kootenai in the Handbook of North American Indians: “It was essentially a ceremonial meeting with various spirits in order to seek assistance from them.”
The spirits often speak in an archaic form of Kootenai and therefore someone must translate for them. The ceremony deals with finding lost articles, healing, and seeing the future. One of the important spirits in this ceremony is the Owl.
The Kootenai and the Coeur d’Alene were the only Plateau tribes to adopt this Plains Indian ceremony. Among the Kootenai, the Sun Dance was conducted in the spring. According to oral tradition, the Kootenai obtained the Sun Dance from across the eastern ocean where the Sun Dance spirit lives.
The Kootenai Sun Dance focused on success in hunting. On the last day of the dance, the Sun Dance Chief was given lavish gifts, including horses and food. These were then redistributed to those in need.
Among the Kootenai, the Sun Dance was held in response to a vision. The vision would indicate the location of the ceremony as well as its timing.
In the Kootenai Sun Dance, members of the Crazy Dog Society are instructed to cut 30 lodge poles, twice as long as regular lodge poles, for the ceremony. In cutting down the Sun Dance center pole, both men and women are involved. When this tree falls, it must not touch the ground, but has to fall upon the shoulders of those who have pledged to dance.
Archaeologist Roger Tro, in his University of Montana M.A. Thesis writes: “Another effect of the Sun Dance, and perhaps the most significant, was that it helped in maintaining a tribal bond between the Upper and Lower Kutenai. This was the only occasion during which these two divisions were consistently together and may easily have been a primary factor in maintaining tribal identity.”
Grizzly Bear Dance:
This was a Kootenai ceremony which was an early spring prayer to insure plenty for the coming year. The spirit of the grizzly bear was honored at the beginning of the berry season as berries are the food of the grizzly bear and through this dance the grizzly bear will show the people how to find other food.
Fir Tree Dance:
This was a Kootenai ceremony which was held only at times of great stress and crises. Musicologist Loran Olsen, in an article in Idaho’s Yesterdays, writes: “Whenever the people faced famine a Fir Tree Dance was held to bring game back to the region.”
When game was scarce and the people were facing famine, the shamans would set up a long house for this dance. A tree would be set up in the middle of the long house and decorated with gifts. The shamans would then dance and talk to the tree. The fir tree was chosen for this dance since Deer lives in the fir forest.
Among the Kootenai, the corpse was wrapped in a robe and quickly taken to be buried by two people. Burial was usually in a talus slope. There was no ceremony or feast associated with burial. As a sign of mourning, spouses would cut their hair. If the deceased were a man who had died at home, the lodge poles, fir bough flooring, and tent pegs would be destroyed. If the deceased were a woman who had died at home, then the lodge covering would be destroyed.
In 1542, the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez de Cabrillo sailed along the coast of California. While he really didn’t discover anything, he did encounter the Chumash Indians who occupied the three northern large islands of the Santa Barbara archipelago and the shoreline from Malibu Canyon to Estero Bay. The Chumash were a coastal people with a maritime lifestyle.
Cabrillo described the Chumash this way: “They were dressed in skins and wore their hair very long and tied up with long strings interwoven with the hair, there being attached to the strings many gewgaws of flint, bone, and wood.” Regarding Chumash on Santa Cruz Island he reported: “They are fisherman; they eat nothing but fish; they sleep on the ground; their sole business and employment is to fish.”
The Spanish noted that there were 10 rancherias (small Indian settlements) on Santa Cruz Island. In addition, the Spanish mention the names of more than 20 villages on the mainland coast. It is generally estimated that at the time of contact with the Spanish, there were 75-100 Chumash communities with a total population of 20-30,000.
The villages usually contained between 15 and 50 houses roughly aligned along a street. Chumash houses were bowl shaped structures made of poles and covered with thatched tules. Anthropologist A. L. Kroeber, in his 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California describes the structure this way: “The structure was hemispherical, made by planting willows or other poles in a circle and bending and tying them together at the top.”
The house diameters ranged from four to seven meters. Next to many of the houses were temascal, smaller dome-shaped structures covered with mud which were used as sweat houses.
One of the substances gathered and used by the Chumash was bitumen, a naturally occurring type of tar from the Channel Islands. The Chumash used this as a kind of all purpose glue. Paula Neely, writing in American Archaeology, reports: “The Chumash gathered naturally occurring bitumen from numerous seeps throughout the islands. They used the gooey substance to waterproof canoes, line baskets used as water bottles, and to plug holes in shells that they used as food containers. They even chewed it.”
On the negative side, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon toxins in the bitumen may have led to major health problems, such as cancer, damage to internal organs, and reproductive impairment. This may have also lead to an overall decrease in Chumash stature of about four inches.
According to the oral history of the Chumash, all of the people originally lived on Santa Cruz Island. One day Xoy split the people into two groups. One group, the ka’ikiku, went over a rainbow bridge to Mount Pinos. The other group, the molmolokiku stayed with Xoy and learned how to make plants and animals for the ka’ikiku to use. Thus the ka’ikiku ask the molmolokiku for guidance in using plants and animals. Many of the plants were used medicinally and spiritually.
For the Chumash, as for many of the Indian peoples of California, one of the most important spiritual plants was jimsonweed (Datura) which was used to help produce visions. In many of the tribes, it was felt that jimsonweed was so powerful that it should be used only once. However, among the Chumash, John Baker, writing in Sacred Realms: Essays in Religion, Beliefs, and Society, reports: “Individuals were allowed to use the plant as often as they saw fit, and they could take it right in their own village.”
Use of jimsonweed was seen as important to a person’s life, and higher status Chumash individuals tended to use it more than once in order to gain spiritual power.
Among the Chumash, both men and women used jimsonweed. The first infusion of Datura was usually administered by a paid specialist who was skilled at preparing the plant. In some villages, the initial experience was supervised by five elders. Boys were always initiated alone, but girls were sometimes initiated as a group. After ingesting an infusion of the root of the plant, the initiate would become dizzy and start to tremble. The specialist would then tell the initiate to sleep and to dream. The initiate would generally sleep for 18-24 hours. As the initiate began to revive, the specialist would sing and the elders would ask about the dream and then interpret it.
There were a number of reasons why the Chumash would use jimsonweed after initiation. This would include the strengthening of the bond with the spirit helper, acquiring additional spirit helpers, and acquiring spiritual power in general. Women would use the plant to become immune to danger and to attain courage.
John Baker notes that among the Chumash: “A person who ingested Datura for visionary purposes might do so in order to communicate with the spirit of a beloved person who had died, or to obtain a glimpse of his or her own future. Datura could also be used to locate lost objects.”
In addition to spiritual uses, jimsonweed was also used medically. Jimsonweed (Datura) was used as an anesthesia when setting bones. In addition, it might be ingested when treating bruises and wounds. John Baker reports: “Datura was taken internally to ‘freshen the blood’ and to treat alcohol-induced hangovers (a post-contact innovation) and applied externally to treat hemorrhoids.” Baker also reports: “It is clear that the Chumash use of Datura was based upon a thorough empirical knowledge of the effects of the plant.”
Specialists understood both the dosages needed to achieve different ends as well as the preparation and environmental factors which can influence outcomes.
Among the Chumash, a tea made from the root and rhizomes of Anemopsis californica (commonly called yerba mansa, swamp root or lizard tail) was used as a drink for colds, asthma, and urinary tract disorders. It was also used to wash cuts and sores and for bathing arthritic joints. According to pharmacology professor James Adams and the former director of the Chumash Interpretive Center Frank Lemos in an article in News from Native California: “This plant has been used for a long time in California and should be investigated by scientists interested in new drugs for the treatment of venereal diseases and asthma.”
For headaches, stomach problems, and arthritis, the Chumash ate the root of hog fennel (Lomatium californicum). In addition, hog fennel seeds were eaten to treat colds and sore throats. Hog fennel root was worn on a necklace or on a belt as a means of repelling rattlesnakes.
Red shank (Adenostoma sparsifolium, also called greasewood or ribbonwood) had a number of medicinal uses among the Chumash. Sore throats, stomach problems, respiratory problems, and colds were treated with a tea made from red shank bark. A tea made from small branches was used for treating toothaches and for washing wounds.
Ephedra californica (commonly called joint fir, Indian tea, and desert tea) was used by the Chumash for purifying the blood and for treating urinary tract infections and venereal diseases. Other California tribes used this plant for stomach problems and backaches. Since one of the active ingredients found in the plant is psuedoephedrine, it was also used as a nasal decongestant and as a stimulant.
The Chumash and the Kumeyaay used an elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) flower tea for treating colds, flu, and fevers. This tea was also used to relieve premenstrual syndrome and dysmenorrhea. The inner bark of the elderberry was used as an emetic and its berries were used as a laxative.