Nakaidoklini, Apache Spiritual Leader

President Ulysses Grant established the San Carlos Indian Reservation in Arizona by Presidential Executive Order in 1872. The newly created reservation was a division of the White Mountain Apache Reservation and was intended for the Chiricahua Apache as well as other tribes. Under Grant’s Peace Policy, the Dutch Reformed Church was given charge of the reservation.

Americans generally have difficulty in distinguishing one Indian tribe from another.  With regard to the Apaches, the U.S. government had difficulty understanding that there were many distinct Apache tribes. There are six major divisions of the Apache: the Western Apache, Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Kiowa-Apache. The Western Apache include five groups: Cibecue, San Carlos, White Mountain, Northern Tonto, and Southern Tonto. The traditional homelands of the Chiricahua Apache are south of the Western Apache in the mountains of southeastern Arizona.

In Arizona a new religious movement arose in 1881 when a White Mountain Apache medicine man called Nakaidoklini talked to the Apaches about a new religion in which dead warriors would return to help the people drive the Americans from their territory. He taught his followers a new dance in which the dancers were arranged like the spokes on a wheel, facing inward.

Nakaidoklini announced that he would bring back two chiefs from the dead if the people gave him enough horses and blankets. When the dead chiefs failed to materialize, Nakaidoklini announced that they had refused to return because of the Americans and that they would return when the Americans were gone.

The United States sent soldiers with orders to arrest Nakaidoklini or to kill him, or both, for his teachings. Nakaidoklini quietly submitted to arrest. On the return journey, the troops were followed by many Apache. As the Apache moved closer, their faces painted, the frightened officer in charge of the soldiers ordered the Apaches to move back and shooting broke out. The Apache scouts who had been with the army also began firing on the soldiers. The officer ordered Nakaidoklini killed and a soldier shot Nakaidoklini at point blank range.

Some of Nakaidoklini’s followers later attacked Fort Apache, but were driven back. Others sought refuge with the Chiricahua Apache on the San Carlos Reservation. Chiricahua leaders, including Geronimo, became alarmed with the arrival of additional troops. There were rumors that the soldiers intended to arrest the chiefs and place them in leg irons. Three Chiricahua bands left the San Carlos Reservation and headed to Mexico.

The “rebel” bands, with 74 men and 300 women, included the Nednhi led by Chief Juh and Geronimo; the Chokonen led by Naiche (the son of Cochise), Chato, and Chihuahua; and the Bedonkohe led by Bonito. The Apaches who remained on the reservation, including 250 Chiricahuas, generally opposed the breakout.

Three of the scouts who turned on the troops – Sergeant Dandy Jim, Sergeant Dead Shot, and Corporal Skippy – were court-martialed, found guilty of mutiny, and hanged. Several others were sent to Alcatraz.

The “rebel” Chiricahua bands then began a series of raids which resulted in a prolonged campaign by General George Crook to “pacify” the Apaches.

Eschiti, Comanche Medicineman

The Comanche held a Sun Dance in Oklahoma in 1874. This was not a traditional ceremony, but was one they had borrowed from the Cheyenne. The Sun Dance coincided with the emergence of a new medicine man, Eschiti (Coyote Droppings; also spelled Esa-tai). Bill Neeley, in his book The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker, describes him this way:  “He wore no buffalo skull cap or ceremonial mask, as did most of the older medicine men, but was attired only in breechclout and moccasins and a wide sash of red cloth around his waist. From his hair protruded a red-tipped hawk’s feather, and from each ear hung a snake rattle.”

Eschiti had been given strong powers in a vision quest. Eschiti had ascended to the home of the Great Spirit, a place which is far above the Christian Heaven. It was reported that he was capable of vomiting up all the cartridges which might be needed for any gun; that he could raise the dead; that he was bulletproof and could make others bulletproof; that he could control the weather. His messianic message to the people was that he was sent by the Great Spirit to deliver them from oppression.

Later that year, in the panhandle of Texas, buffalo hunters armed with high powered telescopic rifles capable of killing buffalo at 600 yards, set up camp at the abandoned trading post of Adobe Walls. The camp was attacked by a war party of about 300 warriors made up of Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho. War party leaders include Tabananaka, Wild Horse, Mowaway, Black Beard, and a rising new leader, Quanah. The Indians were confident that Eschiti’s power would render the hunters’ guns useless. Eschiti warned the warriors not to kill a skunk on their way to Adobe Walls. According to Eschiti’s vision, the hunters would be asleep and would not be able to use their big guns.

Just as the war party prepared to attack the sleeping buffalo hunters, there was a loud crack which woke them up. The hunters, fearing that the ridge pole had snapped, were suddenly awake and scrambling around. The hunters settled down for the siege, and with plenty of ammunition and good marksmanship, they repelled the war party.

Eschiti attributed the failure of his medicine to a member of the war party violating a taboo by killing a skunk. Apparently some of the Cheyenne warriors had killed a skunk, which was not unusual since skunk meat was often a favorite of the Southern Plains Indians.

This second battle of Adobe Walls began an Indian war known as the Red River War or the Buffalo War. Army troops were called in to capture the war party, but movement was hampered by drought and by temperatures well over 100 degrees. Eschiti took credit for arranging the weather. The troops, however, were relentless and managed to destroy lodges and capture horses.

In the battle of Palo Duro Canyon, the Cavalry scattered the warriors under the command of Iron Shirt (Cheyenne), Poor Buffalo (Comanche), and Lone Wolf (Kiowa). There were few casualties, but the Americans killed more than 1,000 horses and destroyed the Indians’ winter food supply.

The Red River War was the last major conflict between the Southern Plains Indians and the U.S. Army. Historian Herman Viola, in his book Warrior Artists: Historic Cheyenne and Kiowa Indian Ledger Art, writes:  “The Red River War marked a last desperate and hopeless resistance to the new order.”

With the end of the war and the failure of his medicine, Eschiti faded into obscurity.


Suppressing Indian Religions in 1915

In 1915, 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. 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 1915.

 In Washington, D.C., the Board of Indian Commissioners held a hearing on peyote. James Mooney, an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology, provided testimony based on first-hand knowledge of the religious movement.

A writer in the Missionary Review reported on the Christian missionaries who were “fighting to save the American Indians from the degrading cult of peyote worship.”

The Omaha tribe of Nebraska petitioned Cato Sells, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to protect their religious freedom to use peyote in their ceremonies. One of the petitioners, Thomas Walker, wrote:  “This religious use of peyote is on the same line as the white people’s use of the Bible. What we learn from the Bible is true in Peyote.”

In Idaho, 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.

 Dan Dick (Shoshone) brought peyote to the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada and Idaho to help cure an abscess. The cure didn’t work and the tribal council reprimanded him for bringing peyote to the reservation.

In Montana, the Northern Cheyenne explained their Willow Dance to the new Indian agent and stressed that it would be held for only two days after the crops have matured. The agent suggested that instead of the dance they have a fair where their crops could be exhibited. 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:  “The people responded to that suggestion by slipping off to the privacy of the hills. Maheo still heard their prayers, and the men still quietly offered their flesh as sacrifices.”

In Oregon, the Bureau of Indian Affairs advised the Superintendent of the Klamath reservation that, while Indian Shaker Church worship was acceptable, the Shakers were not to be allowed to conduct healings. After allowing Shaker meetings for a couple of weeks, the Superintendent stopped the meetings and ordered Shaker elder Alex Teio off the reservation.

In Washington, the Lummi received permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to celebrate their treaty with the United States by having a feast and traditional dances. In this way they were able to bring out the old dances without being punished.

In Oklahoma, the Baptist field matron for the Kiowa-Commanche Reservation condemned powwow dancing:  “These dances are one of the breeding places of illegitimate children, which is becoming the shame of the tribe.”

In Oklahoma, the Kiowa began to Ghost Dance. The Indian agent, in a campaign to wipe out the Ghost Dance, threatened to withhold per capita payments from all who participated. When the Indian agent found out the identity of the leaders, he had them imprisoned and beaten.

Mormons and Indians

When Europeans began arriving in the Americas they brought with them the firm belief that all knowledge, including the history of the world, was contained in a special holy book which had been compiled from the oral traditions of southwest Asia. They were a bit surprised, therefore, when they encountered the aboriginal people of the Americas, who eventually became known as American Indians, who were not mentioned in that holy book. Some of these Europeans felt—and a few continue to feel—that this meant that American Indians were not to be considered human and, like other wild animals, were to be exterminated so that European “civilization” could prosper. Others worked around this failing of the book by making up creation stories which tied the Indians into the mythical histories of southwest Asia.

From the American Indian viewpoint, the European-book religion seemed strange, irrelevant, and unreal. The Europeans quickly found that conversion worked better if economic and military force were used.

Everything changed in 1823 when an angel led Joseph Smith to a hillside near Manchester, New York, and showed him golden plates engraved with strange characters. After months of concentrated work using a special instrument, he was able to translate the plates and published hundreds of pages of history, prophecy, and poetry that provided the foundation for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). This new religion, and its book, were different in that it included the supposed history of Indian peoples. The Book of Mormon teaches that Indians had descended from Israelite peoples who had migrated to the American continent prior to the Babylonian captivity. Thus, the Mormons viewed Indians as Children of Israel who could be incorporated into God’s Latter-day Kingdom.

According to the Book of Mormon, American Indians were descendants from Laman and were therefore called Lamanites. Laman was the rebellious son of Lehi who had left the Old World and sailed to the Americas in the seventh century BCE. In the Americas, the Lamanite had grown distant from the teachings of God, become fierce and warlike, and had acquired a darker skin color. Robert McPherson, in a chapter in A History of Utah’s American Indians, writes:  “From a purely ideological point of view, the Mormons believed that the Indians were a remnant of a people who fell out of grace with God, were given a dark skin as a sign of their spiritual standing, and who now lived in an unfortunate condition awaiting restoration to an enlightened state.”

Since American Indians, according to the Book of Mormon, were descended from the Israelites–God’s chosen people–there was to be a special emphasis on the conversion of Indians. Floyd O’Neil and Stanford Layton, writing in the Utah Historical Quarterly, say:  “To the Mormons, then, redemption of the Indians (Lamanites) was a prophecy to be fulfilled and a scripture to be vindicated.”

This special emphasis on converting Indians was put to the test when the Mormons were forced to flee from the United States and establish themselves in Utah where they would be surrounded by Indians.

The first Mormon settlers arrived in Utah in 1847 and they were soon followed by a stream of Latter-day Saints seeking the promised land. Following the European settlement pattern, they sought to support themselves through agriculture. The Gosiute tribe living in the area showed them some of the wild edible plants, such as the sego lily root, as a way of surviving until the Mormon’s crops could be harvested.

The Mormons, like other Europeans, disregarded Indian title to the land. From the Mormon perspective the land belonged to the Lord, which meant that only the priesthood could apportion it. The apportionment of the land was to be based on the principles of stewardship. Gary Tom and Ronald Holt, in their article in A History of Utah’s American Indians, write:  “Justification for taking the land was given by the Mormon church and its members, including the idea that the Indians were not making efficient use of the land and therefore the Mormons had the right to take it over because they could support more people by their methods of agriculture than the Indians could.”

The Mormon expansion was fairly rapid, driven by the need to acquire land for converts. The new Mormon settlements took the best farmlands and the best water sources. Indians were often employed to help prepare the fields and for various household chores.

Mormon men who were called or appointed as missionaries learned the Indian languages, worked with the tribes, and then attempted to lead them into the fold of Christ’s church. In order to be saved, the Indians first had to be “civilized,” which meant that they had to assimilate into a Euro-American way of life. Indian people often resisted the attempts to change their lifestyles.

In summarizing Mormon interactions with Indians, Thomas Alexander, in his book Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History, writes:  “The attitude of the Latter-day Saints toward the Indians represented a convergence of theology, Euro-American imperialism, and racism.”

In an article in the Utah Historical Quarterly Catherine Fowler and Don Fowler write:  “Mormon ideology regarding the origin and identity of the Indians generally was responsible for some favorable attitudes and policies toward them, but it may also have been a contributing factor in maintaining a degree of social distance between groups.”

Today, Mormons continue their missionary efforts among American Indians. The missionary experience is probably more important to the young Mormons than it is to the Indians.

Traditional Native Concepts of Death

Many religious traditions, but not all, put forth an explanation about what happens after death. There are many religious traditions which claim there is an afterlife of some type, that death is not the end but is a transition. In some cultures the afterlife is seen as being similar to life, while in others there are several afterlife possibilities based on a person’s actions in this life.

It should be pointed out that in the several hundred distinct American Indian languages, there was no single world which could be translated as “religion.” This does not mean, as many Christian missionaries have assumed, that Indians did not have religion. Rather, it shows that religion was not a separate category of life but was closely integrated with the culture.

At the beginning of the European invasion, there was not a single Native American religion, but rather there were 500 religions. What this means is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to make broad generalizations about traditional American Indian beliefs about death.

One of the other problems or concerns in writing about Indian religions in general, and about traditional Indian concepts of death in particular, is that many of those who recorded these concepts did so through a Christian frame of reference. Many of the books written about Indian religions by non-Indians are really not about traditional religions, but are filtered through Christianity and Christian concepts. Concerning beliefs regarding an afterlife among Plains Indians, Sioux physician Charles Eastman writes:  “The idea of a ‘happy hunting-ground’ is modern and probably borrowed, or invented by the white man.”

For many American Indian cultures, the focus of religion, particularly the ceremonies, was on maintaining harmony with the world. The focus was on living in harmony today, not on death. For many Indians there was an awareness of death and a vague concept of something happening after death, but this was not dogmatic. They felt that they would 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.

While the Christian missionaries were fully convinced that all religions must have some concept of heaven and hell, some form of judgment after death, these were alien concepts to most American Indian cultures. The missionaries took this as additional evidence that Indians did not have religion. In their classic 1911 ethnography, The Omaha Tribe, Alice Fletcher and Francis LaFlesche report:  “There does not seem to have been any conception among the Omaha of supernatural rewards or punishments after death.”

Among many of the Indian nations in Massachusetts there was the idea that after death, the soul would go on a journey to the southwest. Eventually, the soul would arrive at a village where it would be welcomed by the ancestors. In a similar fashion, the Narragansett in Rhode Island viewed death 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 which lay somewhere to the southwest.

Among some of the tribes, such as the Beothuk and the Narragansett, it was felt that communication between the living and the dead was possible. Among the Narragansett, the souls of the dead were able to pass back and forth between the world of the dead and that of the living. The dead could carry messages and warnings to the living. Among the Caddo on the Southern Plains, the living could send messages to their deceased relatives by passing their hands over the body of someone recently deceased, from feet to head, and then over their own body. In this way messages could be sent via the deceased to other dead relatives.

One common theme found in many of the Indian cultures in North America is the idea of reincarnation. The idea that life and death are part of an ongoing cycle is found among many tribes. Sioux writer Charles Eastman reports:  “Many of the Indians believed that one may be born more than once, and there were some who claimed to have full knowledge of a former incarnation.”

In the Northwest Coast area, Gitxsan writer Shirley Muldon reports:  “We believe in reincarnation of people and animals. We believe that the dead can visit this world and that the living can enter the past. We believe that memory survives from generation to generation. Our elders remember the past because they have lived it.”

Among the Lenni Lenape, female elders would carefully examine babies, looking for signs of who the child had been in an earlier life. These signs included keeping the body relaxed and the hands unclenched and reacting favorably to places and things associated with the dead relative. Writing in 1817 about one Lenni Lenape man, Christian missionary John Heckewelder reported:  “He asserted very strange things, of his own supernatural knowledge, which he had obtained not only at the time of his initiation, but at other times, even before he was born. He said he knew that he had lived through two generations; that he had died twice and was born a third time, to live out the then present race, after which he was to die and never more to come to this country again.”

Reincarnation was often viewed as something that happened not just to humans, but to animals as well. Thus, a hunter would thank the animal that had just been harvested so that the soul of the animal would be reborn as an animal with good feelings toward the hunter and would therefore allow its physical form to be harvested again.

In many Indian cultures throughout North America, the names of the deceased were not, and in many cases are not, spoken. The deceased may be spoken about, but in an indirect way that does not use their name. Among the Navajo, the name of the deceased was traditionally not mentioned for one year following death. After this year, the name of the deceased was rarely mentioned.

The possibility of naming a place after a dead person was unthinkable and would have negative consequences for the soul of the deceased (see: Indians 101: Chief Sealth [Seattle]).

Kolaskin, A Sanpoil Prophet

The Columbia Plateau refers to the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana. Many of the Indian nations in this region, such as the Sanpoil, speak languages which belong to the Salish language family. For many of the Salish-speaking tribes, prophecy was an important part of their spirituality. Prophecy is a traditional way of knowing the future and is used to predict such events as salmon runs and war party success. In most cases, prophets were men and women who had died and then come back to life. The prophet would usually return to life with a special vision resulting from their journey to the land of the dead.  

Among the Salish-speaking tribes of the upper Columbia River it was necessary to have a guardian spirit to obtain any success in life. Consequently, both boys and girls at about the age of puberty were sent out to spend some time alone so that a guardian spirit would reveal itself to them.

Like other Sanpoil youth during the last half of the nineteenth century, Kolaskin (also spelled Skolaskin) obtained a guardian spirit. It was not a particularly powerful one, but he proved to be a likeable young man. When he was about 20 years old, Kolaskin became very ill. He developed sores and his legs became flexed. Soon he was unable to straighten them out. He tried herbal remedies, but they failed to work. Medicine people tried to cure him, but they also failed.

After two years of living in pain, Kolaskin went into a coma and people thought that he had died. As they were preparing his body for burial, Kolaskin came back to life. He began to sing a song which no one had ever heard. He announced that his pain was gone and that he had received a great revelation while dead.

While Kolaskin regained the ability to walk, his knees remained permanently flexed. This meant that he had to walk in a stooped position with a hand on each knee.

At this time, Kolaskin was living among the Spokan as his own parents were dead. He began preaching to the Spokan that people should not drink alcohol, steal, or commit adultery. People were to pray to the new god-called Sweat Lodge-each day when they arose and before eating. Every seventh day was to be devoted to praying and singing. On this day there was to be no work, no dancing, and no gambling. People were to be kind and friendly to everyone.

Kolaskin made only a few converts among the Spokan before returning to the Sanpoil. He took up residence at the village of Whitestone and he was hailed by the Sanpoil as a great prophet. Nearly all of the Sanpoil converted to the new religious movement.

At Whitestone, Kolaskin built a structure in which he could hold his meetings. On Sundays, there would be one or two meetings during which he would teach prayers and songs addressed to Sweat Lodge. He would tell of his revelation while dead and of his miraculous cure.

At Whitestone, Kolaskin received a second revelation. He saw the coming of a great flood which was to arrive in ten years. To avoid destruction by this flood, he had a sawmill built near the church to produce lumber for making a boat. Those who would board the boat-both humans and animals-would be saved. Although the lumber was cut for the boat, the boat itself was never actually built.

In 1873, Kolaskin predicted that another disaster was going to occur. Then, on November 22, 1873, a major earthquake shook the region with tremors and aftershocks lasting until spring. With this successful prediction, his reputation was enhanced. He gained many followers among the Spokan and Southern Okanogan. Even many of the Protestant Christian Spokan began to follow this new path.

For those who failed to live up to his expectations, Kolaskin had a jail built. The jail was essentially a pit which was covered with boards. Kolaskin then appointed policemen who acted as judges to determine who should be imprisoned. People were jailed for minor offenses and forced to live on a starvation diet while in jail. This created some ill-will toward Kolaskin.

Finally, two of Kolaskin’s prisoners escaped and his police went in search of them. One of the prisoners was found, and when the police attempted to tie him up to take him back, the prisoner’s uncle came to his aid. He shouted that Kolaskin was always making trouble. Kolaskin had the uncle tied up and taken to the jail. Another nephew entered the fray, and Kolaskin’s policeman shot him dead.

The dead man’s family took the body to Whitestone for burial. They then stormed the jail and released the uncle and the nephew. They attempted to burn the jail, but could not get the fire going.

The Indian agent had Kolaskin and his policeman arrested. While the policeman-the man who actually did the killing-was released, Kolaskin was sent to the McNeil Island prison for three years. Upon his return to the Sanpoil, Kolaskin tried to disband his religious organization. He told the people that his teachings were wrong, but many continued to follow the new path.

Following his release from prison, Kolaskin continued to function as the chief of Whitestone. In this position, he advised his people not to accept anything from the Americans as the Americans would try to steal the Sanpoil land. He continued to practice as a traditional medicine man.

Kolaskin died in 1920 and his religion continued to be practiced on the Colville reservation until 1930.  

Kiowa Religion

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While the Kiowa today have a reservation in Oklahoma, their own oral tradition as well as that of other tribes tells of their migrations from Montana to the Southern Plains. Kiowa religion is based on a sacred power (dwdw), a force that permeated the universe and could be found in spirits, objects, places, or natural phenomena. This spiritual power permeates the universe, including the sun, the moon, and the stars. On earth, this power permeates the mountains, rivers, streams, plants, and animals. This spiritual power is neither good nor bad, but it can help or harm depending on the user.  

There is a hierarchy of spiritual power: the spiritual power of predators is more powerful than that of their prey; the spiritual powers from above, such as the sun, are stronger than the earthly animals.

For humans, the spiritual power could be obtained through the vision quest. Through the successful completion of the vision quest, the seeker obtains a guardian or tutelary spirit. This special spirit gives instructions on how to paint the face, as well as imparting special songs, and guidance for making special amulets. Traditionally it was considered unlikely that a man could be successful in life without a guardian spirit.

The vision quest, usually done only by men, involved going to an isolated place and fasting wearing only a breechcloth and moccasins. A buffalo robe might be draped over the shoulders with the hair side out. The seeker would carry a black stone pipe with a long stem. For four days the seeker would fast, smoke, and pray, attempting to obtain a vision.

Among the Kiowa, successful vision seekers traditionally obtained spiritual power related to either curing or war. These two realms of spiritual power were generally mutually exclusive: one became either a great warrior or a great curer. For those who became curers, life was more difficult as there were both responsibilities and restrictions which came with the spiritual power. Typically, restrictions might include the need to avoid certain animal foods-bears, moles, or fish-or animal parts-brains or marrow.

Kiowa men who received war power often made war shields that symbolized the power they had received through their vision. These shields, along with the associated spiritual power, could be given to a son or sold to a friend.

Among the Kiowa, the ten sacred medicine bundles – the Ten Grandmothers – were very important. One of the functions of the medicine bundle priests was to adjudicate disputes. The bundles also had the power to cure the sick. Anyone in the tribe could make gifts to a bundle and to pray for it. Success in war was traditionally the most common supplication.

The eleventh tribal bundle among the Kiowa is the Taime or Sun Dance bundle which became the focal point of the Sun Dance. This medicine bundle is placed at the western side of the Sun Dance lodge where it symbolizes the spiritual powers of the sun and mediates between the people and these spiritual powers.

According to one story, the Kiowa obtained two Taime medicine bundles, one male and one female, about 1770 from an Arapaho man who had received them as a gift from the Crow. When the Arapaho man married a Kiowa woman the two bundles come into possession of the Kiowa people.

The Sun Dance was the only time in which the entire Kiowa tribe camped together. This ceremony unified the tribe socially and spiritually. Traditionally, the Kiowa Sun Dance was held between mid-June and mid-July and was not an annual dance: it was held only when someone pledged it. The keeper of the Sun Dance bundle selected the location for the dance and was the nominal head of the tribe during this ceremony.

The Kiowa Gourd Dance (Tdiepeigah) began as a spiritual gift from the red wolf to a Kiowa warrior who was separated from his war party. The dance honors the battles of the Kiowa warriors during their migration from the Northern Plains to the Southern Plains.  

The Moravian Missions to the Indians

During the eighteenth century, a small Protestant Christian sect known as the Moravians sent missionaries to North America in an attempt to convert American Indians to Christianity.  

The Moravians:

Moravia is now a part of the Czech Republic. In 1648 the Thirty Years’ War ended and as a result a number of Protestant refugees from Moravia found refuge in Saxony in Germany. In 1722 Count van Zinzendorf invited some of these refugees to form a community on his estate. This community became the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), also known as the Moravian Brethren.

One of the key elements of Moravian worship is the Love Feast: the sharing of a communal meal. While the Moravians look to the scriptures for guidance on faith and conduct, they do not overemphasize doctrine, but prefer a religion that comes from the heart.

The Misssions:

The Moravian missions to the American Indians began in 1740. In New York, Moravian missionaries, inspired by the success of the Presbyterian mission at Stockbridge, established missions among the Mohegan at the village of Shemomeko.

The Moravian mission was financially supported by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The Moravian focus on religion from the heart and their Love Feast were compatible with Native American spiritual traditions. Unlike other Protestant missionaries, the Moravians lived and dressed like the Indians and it was not uncommon for European visitors to mistake the Moravians for Indians.

While the Indians apparently had little animosity toward the Moravians, the same cannot be said of the English settlers in the area. Since the local English were hostile toward the Indians, they were also hostile toward the Moravians since the two groups were friendly and integrated. The English preferred a policy of strict segregation between Indians and Europeans. Soon the English were spreading rumors that the Moravians were somehow either secret Jesuits or they were somehow allied with the Jesuits. The Protestant English viewed the Jesuits, who were Catholics, as “atheistic papists”, a group more hated than the Indians.  In addition, the Moravians sought to prevent the sale of liquor to the Indians and the liquor trade was important to the English. Because of the death threats from the English colonists, the Moravians abandoned their mission at Shemomeko in 1745.

In 1741, the Moravians established a mission community in Pennsylvania which was intended to convert the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware). The community was established on Christmas Eve and was named Bethlehem after the biblical town in Judea. From here they also established a number of other missions among the Indians.

The Lenape people were not a single unified political entity, but a loose affiliation of peoples who spoke closely related Algonquian languages: Unami, Munsee, and Unalachtigo. In 1682, some Lenape leaders had signed a treaty with William Penn which allowed the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony.

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Shown above is a painting showing the treaty council with William Penn.

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Shown above is a portrait of Lenape Chief Lapowinsa.

In 1755, the Delaware raided the Christian Indian Mission at Gnadenhutten, Pennsylvania. They burned it to the ground and killed several Moravian missionaries. The Indian converts – Mohican and Delaware – escaped. The surviving Indians left the area and established a new settlement in southern Ontario, Canada. Eventually they became known as the Moravian of the Thames and currently have their own reserve.

In 1799, Little Turkey advocated to the Cherokee council in Georgia that it permit Moravian missionaries to establish a school within the nation.  In 1801, the Moravians established a mission among the Cherokee. In the 1830s, when the Cherokee were forced to move to Oklahoma, the Moravians moved with them. The Moravian mission to the Cherokee remained active until the end of the Civil War in 1865. The mission was then transferred to the Danish Lutheran Church and has continued as the Oaks Mission School.  

Indian Prophets, 1800-1850

Whenever cultures are under stress, from things such as illness, warfare, and rapid social change, there are often individuals who report having visions of the future. Individuals who have these visions are often known as prophets. In some instances the vision comes in the form of a spirit, god, or an angel such as Abraham or Moroni, who brings a special message to the prophet. In some cases the prophet dies, goes to another world, and then returns to life with a special message. There were a number of American Indian prophets who emerged during the nineteenth century, such as Handsome Lake, whose teachings grew into a long-lasting religious movement which attracted the attention of non-Indians. There were also many whose prophesies were not written down and were unseen by non-Indians. During the first half of the nineteenth century, there were a number of Indian prophets who had visions which had little long-lasting impact. In some instances, history has not even recorded the prophet’s name.  

In 1800, smallpox struck the Yakama in what is now Washington state.  One old man was left behind as the people attempted to flee from the disease. He died and traveled to a place where people were eating many good things. He was turned away when he asked for food and was told it wasn’t his time yet. He returned to life and rejoined his people who had thought that he was dead.

In 1801, following the epidemic of diphtheria which killed many Indians, a Chumash woman in California had a vision in which the Chumash deity Chupu warned her that all Indian converts to Christianity must recommit themselves to their native religion if they were to survive. According to the vision, those who informed the missionaries would be killed immediately. A revitalization of Chumash culture begins without any awareness by the Hispanics living in the area.

In the Plateau area of Washington, a goose with two heads appeared in 1801. An Okanagan prophet had foretold the coming of this messenger bird and so the people began dancing in a circle with the prophet in the center. As they danced, they were told that they are not to fight, to steal, to lie, or to commit rape. According to oral tradition:

“As a result of this preaching, some of the people became so righteous that they did not allow their children to run about after dark lest they do evil things.”

In 1811, a fundamentalist religious movement began among the Cherokee in the Southeast. The leading prophet, Charley, told the people that the mother of the nation had abandoned them because they had taken up American agricultural practices and grain mills. Charley told the Cherokee that if they returned to traditional agriculture, if they returned to hunting, if they excluded Americans from their territory, and if they abandoned American clothes and material goods, then the Great Spirit would send them sufficient game. Charley appeared with two black wolves, one on either side of him, which were said to be spirits. As he told the people that Selu (corn) had abandoned them because they were now farming in the European way, the clouds parted in the sky.

Charley predicted that non-believers would be destroyed in a hail storm and that those who gathered with him on a high peak would be safe. The storm failed to appear and Charley’s influence soon faded.

In Georgia, three Cherokee reported in 1811 that they had been visited by a band of Indians who appeared out of the heavens riding black horses. The visitors told the Cherokee to return to the old ways and to give up their featherbeds, tables, and European dress. Corn was to be ground by hand rather than in the new gristmills. The visitors reported that the Mother of the Nation was unhappy because the Cherokee had let the wild game be killed off. While the message was to return to the old ways, some of the new ways – reading and writing, for example – were acceptable. When the vision was reported at the Cherokee National Council, Cherokee tribal leader Major Ridge angrily declared that the vision was false.

In Arkansas, Cherokee chief Skaquaw (The Swan) had a vision while gazing at a comet. Lightning flashed from the four directions and formed a small light at his feet. He picked it up and found that it did not burn his hand because it was tame fire. A child then approached him from the east and another child approached him from the west. They perfumed the air and he fell asleep. While sleeping, the Great Spirit told him to warn the Cherokee that they must leave the St. Francis area in present-day Arkansas before great disaster would fall upon them. When Skaquaw awoke he told the people what he had learned and they left the area. In this way, they escaped from the 1811 New Madrid earthquakes.

In Alabama, the Creek knower (kithla) Captain Sam Isaacs related his vision of traveling for many days on the bottom of a river where he obtained knowledge from a powerful Tie-Snake who knew about future events. This was about 1811 and Captain Sam Isaacs would become one of the greatest Creek kithla. In Creek culture, a kithla is a person who “knows” things. In English this kind of person might be called a “seer” or a “diviner.”

In 1812, several Cherokee prophets reported a vision which showed that the Great Spirit was very angry with the Cherokee. The prophets told the people to turn their attention to reclaiming the sacred towns of Tugaloo and Chota, to restore traditional dances and ceremonies, and to use traditional medicines. During this time, several of the prophets made predictions of world destruction and catastrophes, and when these events failed to happen, the prophets would lose their credibility.

As a young man living in what is now Illinois, the Kickapoo warrior Kennekuk had a reputation for violence and for being a drunkard like his father. Once, in a drunken rage, he killed his uncle and was banished from the tribe. During his banishment, Kennekuk learned some of the fundamentals of Christianity and when he returned to the Kickapoo he married and became a leader.

In 1815, Kennekuk had a vision in which the Great Spirit spoke to him. He began to preach a message of pacificism and accommodation for the Americans. This was not a message which most Kickapoo wanted to hear. He was ostracized by the Kickapoo and went into exile, establishing a village on the Vermillion River. About 250 Kickapoo joined him at his new village.

Over the next two year, Kennekuk refined his message of peace and began using a sacred chart which showed the path through fire and water to heaven. He told his followers to remain where they were, to avoid quarrels among themselves, abstain from whiskey, and not break non-Indian laws. His followers carried a wooden prayer stick engraved with mystic symbols.

In 1827, Kennekuk met with William Clark in Saint Louis. He told Clark:

“My father, the Great Spirit has placed us all on this earth; he has given to our nation a piece of land. Why do you want to take it away and give us so much trouble?”

As he lay dying of smallpox in 1852, Kennekuk promised to come back to life in three days. He did not fulfill his promise.

The Cherokee peace chief Yonaguska died in 1819 and came back to life 24 hours later. He announced that he had gone to the spirit world where he talked with dead friends and relatives. In the spirit world, the Creator gave him a message to share with the people. As a result of this experience, Yonaguska organized a temperance society and banished whiskey from this people.

In 1820, Seneca leader Cornplanter had a vision in which the Great Spirit told him to have nothing further to do with the Americans or with war. He burned all of his old trophies of war.

In 1849, four Navajo medicine men in New Mexico made the sacred journey to Tohe-ha-glee (Meeting Place of Waters) to consult with the Page of Prophecy. After making the proper offerings, they read the marks in the sand which were the messages from the Holy People. The marks indicated a journey to a distant place. Other marks indicated many burials. This was not a happy message, but one which seems to have foretold the Navajo Long Walk.  

In New Mexico, the blind Navajo prophet Bineah-uhtin, a medicine man who saw with his mind, attended a War Chant ceremony in 1849. Here he came into contact with some young Navajo warriors. He told them:

“The day will come when your enemies will drive you out of your homeland, and you will go to a barren country where the corn will not grow and your sheep will eat poison weeds and die. Many of your people will starve, and others will be killed so that only a few will survive, and in all these wide cornfields there will be nothing alive excepting the coyotes and the crows.”

During the second half of the nineteenth century, new Indian prophets continued to appear and they inspired religious movements such as the Indian Shaker Church and the Ghost Dance.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act

Any careful examination of the religious freedom of American Indians, especially as it pertains to aboriginal religious practices, since the foundation of the United States in 1776 is uncomfortable for those who would like to believe that America has championed religious freedom. American Indian religious freedom has been at best ignored, and more often it has been actively suppressed. As a Christian nation-a concept which has been consistently upheld and supported by the Supreme Court-the United States has been compelled to give Indians the gift of Christianity as a part of its program of forced assimilation. By the 1970s, however, the winds of change began to blow across the political landscape.  

One of the first steps in acknowledging American Indian religious freedom came in 1970 when Congress passed HR 471 which gave Blue Lake back to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. The Blue Lake area, sacred to the people of Taos and used for ceremonies, had been a part of the Carson National Forest since 1906 and thus exclusive Indian use had been restricted. In signing the bill, President Richard Nixon noted the long history of Indian religious use of this site and said:

“We re¬store this place of worship to them for all the years to come.”  

During the 1970s, there were many issues involving American Indian religious freedom: sacred sites, including respect for these sites and allowing Indian access to them; the religious rights of Indian inmates; the use of peyote (the religious issues here were cleverly concealed through the so-called war on drugs). During the 1970s, American Indian civil rights became more visible through the actions of organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians and the American Indian Movement and through actions such as the occupations of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, Moss Lake in New York, and other locations.

Following two decades of complaints by Indian leaders about the abuse of Indian religious and cultural rights, Congress finally passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in 1978. AIRFA was designed to pro¬tect and preserve traditional religious practices, including access to sacred sites, the use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through traditional ceremonies. The Act directed federal agencies to survey their rules and regulations and to try to accommodate the practice of Indian religions. AIRFA directed federal agencies to adopt land management policies which would be sensitive to tribal religious needs.

Section 2 of the Act states:

The President shall direct that various Federal departments, agencies, and other instrumentalities responsible for administering relevant laws to evaluate their policies and procedures in consultation with Native traditional religious leaders in order to determine appropriate changes necessary to protect and preserve Native American religious cultural rights and practices. Twelve months after approval of this resolution, the President shall report back to Congress the results of his evaluation, including any changes which were made in administrative policies and procedures, and any recommendations he may have for legislative action.

Under AIRFA, federal agencies were to formally consult with American Indian tribes regarding how proposed federal developments might harm sacred places. However, the law doesn’t provide an administrative mechanism for Indian communities to contest agency decisions on how to treat such places. Thus, grievances must be adjudicated in a court of law, a place which is often hostile toward Indian tribes.  In other words, the Act was purely cosmetic. In the floor debate regarding the bill, Congressman Morris Udall had specifically stated that no major laws were being changed and no disruption of the existing state of affairs would take place.

A year later, the Task Force Report on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) documented 522 infringements on Indian religious freedom. The report clearly demonstrated the need for AIRFA and the need for administrative changes in federal policy. Some federal agencies appear to be unaware of AIRFA while others engage in only superficial consultation with the tribes, more concerned about notifying the tribes of their decisions than in getting actual input from tribal leaders. The courts continue to rule against Indian religions and religious practices.

While AIRFA called for federal agencies to provide special accommodations for Indian spiritual practices, in 1981 the Forest Service denied a special use permit for Russell Means and other Lakotas which would have allowed them to establish Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills National Forest. While several hundred camps had been established in the area, including many Christian church camps, none of the camps had been established by Indians. In the five years before the application, the Forest Service had received 61 special use applications and approved the 58 applications turned in by non-Indians and had denied the 3 applications by Indians. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals found in favor of the Forest Service.

The major legal challenge to AIRFA came with Lyng versus Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association.  In this California case, members of the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa tribes sought to halt the Forest Service from building a six-mile road near Chimney Rock and from authorizing logging in the surrounding area. These are areas which are important to the traditional religious practices of these tribes. Indian religious informants and the Forest Service’s own anthropologist concluded that the construction of a road through the area would destroy the very core of the religious beliefs. Forest Service anthropologist Dorothea Theodoratus recommended that no road be built in this area. Tribal religious leaders and elders testified that the proposed government road would slice through and devastate the pristine quality of lands and mountain peaks they regarded as sacred. Religious practitioners gathered plants and other natural resources to use in ceremonial activities while other tribal members regularly visited the sacred praying site. In their testimony, the tribal leaders outlined the burden imposed upon their religious freedom in accordance with the provisions of the AIRFA.

While the Forest Service initially argued that building the road would increase timber harvest in the area, stimulate employment, and provide recreational access to the area, the Forest Service during the trial admitted that timber could be harvested without the road, that there would not be any increased employment, and that the economic value of improved access is minimal.

The Supreme Court’s G-O Road Decision opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found that Indian Religious rights were outweighed by society’s broader interest in destroying sacred sites for economic reasons, even when such reasons were speculative. The Court found that unless there was specific governmental intent to infringe upon a religion or the government’s actions coerced individuals to act contrary to their spiritual beliefs, then the First Amendment provided no protection for Indian peoples to practice traditional religions even against federal action that potentially could destroy Indian sacred sites.

With regard to any potential protection from AIRFA, the Court determined that because the tribes had not stated a requisite legal burden on those rights that they could not receive protection under the AIRFA.

By the 1990s, the Supreme Court in both Lyng and in Smith v Oregon, had made it clear that AIRFA was meaningless. In 1994, Congress amended the Act. According to the Amended Act:

The Congress finds that – (1) unlike any other established religion, many traditional Native American Religions are site-specific in that the Native American religions hold certain lands or natural formations to be sacred; (2) such sacred sites are an integral and vital part of the Native American religions and the religious practices associated with such religions; (3) many of these sacred sites are found on lands which were formerly part of the aboriginal territory of the Indians but which now are held by the Federal Government; and (4) lack of sensitivity or understanding of traditional Native American religions on the part of Federal agencies vested with the management of Federal lands has resulted in the lack of a coherent policy for the management of sacred sites found on Federal lands and has also resulted in the infringement upon the rights of Native Americans to religious freedom.

According to the Amended Act, no federal lands are to be managed in a manner that undermines and frustrates a traditional Native American religion or religious practice.

In 1997, the Supreme Court overturned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act saying that Congress does not have the right to make laws protecting exercise of religion free from government interference.  

17th Century Jesuits in New France

French exploration into what would later become New France (and which would eventually become Canada) began in 1534 with Jacques Cartier. In 1540, King Francois I announced his intention to establish a colony in order to exploit the resources of the area, and justified this colony in religious language and with the idea of bringing new souls to their god. As with other European countries, the French did not acknowledge any validity to aboriginal religions, possible land ownership, and ability to govern themselves. Under the Discovery Doctrine-a legal doctrine stating that Christian monarchs had a right, and possibly an obligation, to rule all non-Christian nations-the French assumed that their religion and government was superior to the religions and governments of the Native Americans.

The Company of New France, a joint stock company modeled after the English and Dutch companies trading in the East Indies, was given a royal charter in 1602. This charter included exclusive trading rights from Florida to the Arctic Circle and westward along all rivers flowing into the “Fresh Sea” (the Great Lakes). In exchange for the trade monopoly, the Company promised to settle 4,000 colonists in New France over the next 15 years. The Company was also to see to the conversion of the natives.

One of the first missionary groups to begin working with the Native peoples in New France was the Jesuits. The Jesuits are members of a Catholic male religious order known as the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, who are sometimes called “God’s Marines,” have a reputation for accepting orders to live and proselytize anywhere in the world, even under extreme conditions.

The Jesuits arrived in New France in 1611 and began to learn the native languages as a way of carrying their message to the people. The Indians found the Jesuits to be different from the other Europeans they had encountered as they did not seem to want land, furs, or women. They only wanted to live in an Indian household so that they could learn the language. Initially the Jesuits, who were often called Blackrobes, were well-liked because of their quiet manners. However, the Indians considered them to be poorly educated and perhaps somewhat retarded as they had little understanding of the spiritual world.

As the Jesuits were learning the Indian languages so that they could begin their spiritual mission, France was making plans to send more colonists and to redeem more souls for the Church.

In 1625, three Jesuit priests and three lay brothers arrived in New France. They were financed by Henri de Lévis, duc de Ventadour. Father Charles Lalemant, former professor of grammar, literature, and mathematics at the Jesuit college in Paris, is placed in charge of the mission. Later historians would call this small group of determined, disciplined, highly trained, and militant members of the Society of Jesus the shock troops for conversion. The French merchant in the colony, however, did not welcome the Jesuits as they feared that converting the Indians would interfere with the fur trade.

Two years later, the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France (Company of the 100 Associates) was organized and sought a royal charter giving it a fifteen-year monopoly on all commerce except for fishing in New France. The charter excluded all religions except for the Catholic Church. The Jesuits were given the position of spiritual advisors to the colonies and the Récollets, who had also had missionaries in the area, were banned. The investors in the company acted more out of religious devotion and patriotism than out of a concern for profits. The investors, as well as the King and his ministers, envisioned the creation of a Catholic French society in which the Native people would be molded by French ideals.

All of the furs were to be sold to the company’s agents and the profits from this enterprise were to be used to sustain the Jesuit missionary efforts. Unlike the Récollets, the Jesuits saw no advantage in assimilating the Indians into French culture. They did not wish to alter Indian culture any more than was necessary for them to convert to Christianity.

In 1631, the Jesuits in New France began publishing an annual report on their missions. These reports can be considered to be “truthful” propaganda which fed French curiosity about the Indians and the New World.

In 1634, the Jesuits increased their missionary planning. According to their revised plan, missions were to be opened among the major native groups beginning with the populous and centrally located Hurons. In addition, Jesuit residences were to be established at Quebec and Trois-Rivières, and natives were to be encouraged to settle near them for instruction in everything from agriculture to Catholicism.

In 1634, the Jesuit missionary Father Julien Perrault described the unique culture of the Mi’kmaq. In his report he told how they live with the seasons, how they dressed and behaved, and what they looked like. Reflecting his Jesuit bias, he reported that

“what they do lack is the knowledge of God and of the services that they ought to render to him.”

In 1637, Pope Urban VIII threatened excommunication for Catholics who deprived native peoples of their property or freedom. All of the European powers, however, simply ignored this edict.

Unable to cure the Huron of smallpox, the shaman Tonneraouanont lost face among his people in 1637. When he broke his leg and died from the resulting infection, the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf assigned the calamity to evidence of the power of the Catholic God and attempted to assume the role of tribal shaman. While the Huron viewed the Jesuits as powerful shamans, many felt that the Blackrobes were responsible for the deaths. From the Huron viewpoint, the Jesuits engaged in incomprehensible rituals which seemed to be causing death among their people. Many Huron leaders called for the execution of the Jesuits as evil shamans. However, the desire to maintain good trading relations with the French was stronger than the desire to kill the Jesuits.

In 1639, the Jesuits built Sainte-Marie as a special compound and headquarters for their mission work. The Jesuits appeared to maintain a favorable attitude toward Indian religions. They recognized certain concepts that might be comparable between Indian religions and Christianity and used these in converting the Indians.

1638 Map of New France

A 1638 map of New France is shown above.

In 1640, the Jesuit mission at Sainte-Marie was staffed with 30 men, 15 of which were priests. From this headquarters new missionary expeditions were to be sent out.

In 1640, the Jesuits established a mission among the Nipissing. All of the sick children whom they baptized recovered, which seemed to show that the Jesuits had great power and their missionary efforts were relatively successful. Two chiefs-Mangouch and Wikassoumint-also converted.

In 1641, the Jesuit mission to the Mi’kmaq on Cape Breton Island was closed as the native population had dwindled. The Jesuits decided that Cape Breton was not a productive area for teaching and conversion and the missionaries were sent inland.

Montreal was founded in 1642 with great enthusiasm and hope by its devout and zealous backers, les Messiurs et Dames de la Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal pour la conversion de Sauvages de la Nouvelle France. They hoped to create a New Jerusalem, blessed by God, and composed of citizens destined for heaven. The Jesuits labored diligently among the Indians with the intent of incorporating them into this community.

By 1646 there were about 500 practicing Huron Christians. The Jesuits were using a number of different methods to get the Huron to convert. The Jesuits consciously attempted to impress the Hurons with their technological superiority and greater knowledge, including the ability to predict eclipses. There was also a practical side to conversion from the Huron perspective. They had discovered that Christians were treated better than were non-Christians when they traded with the French, and they were also paid higher prices for their furs.

By 1648, Christians had become a majority in the Huron village of Ossossane. While the Christians in this village had been free to behave as they wished when they had been a minority, the Jesuits now directed them to forbid non-Christians the right to practice their traditional religion if they wished to remain in the village.

By 1649, there were 18 Jesuit priests and 30 of their assistants working among the Huron. The Jesuits reported that thousands had been baptized.

In 1665, the Jesuits persuaded a group of Oneida to settle alongside several French families at La Prairie, thus establishing the Indian community of Caughnawaga. Among the Oneida was Catherine Gandeaktena, an Erie woman who had been captured by the Oneida. She had converted to Catholicism and was influential in persuading others to convert.

The Jesuits sent Fathers Jacques Fremin, Jean Pierron, and Jacques Bruyas out to evangelize among the Mohawk and Oneida in 1667. They reported:

“The whole country of the Iroquois was at that time so overcome with fear of a new French army that for several days fourteen warriors had been constantly on the watch…But, by the great good fortune for them and for us, instead of being enemies to them, we were Angels of peace”

In 1667, the Jesuits also traveled to other parts of New France. In Ontario, they established a mission to convert the Ojibwa. Jesuit Father Claude Allouez visited the Nipissing at Lake Nipigon. He found a number of Christian Indian families who had not seen a missionary for nearly 20 years.

In that same year, Father Allouez contacted the Plains Cree in what is now Saskatchewan. He characterized them as being kind, docile, and more nomadic than other tribes. They lived by hunting and gathering wild rice. Two years later, Jesuit Father Dablon tried to convert the Plains Cree. However, as they were nomadic, it made it difficult to convert them.

In 1697, the Jesuits established a Huron community near the fall of the Saint Charles River in Quebec. A chapel honoring Our Lady of Lorette was constructed. In the new community, the Huron continued to live in longhouses and agriculture remained in the hands of the women. The men contributed to the defense of New France by continuing to fight against the Iroquois Confederacy.

Some “Amazing” Ceremonies

During the nineteenth century, some European and American explorers witnessed American Indian ceremonies which they found amazing. When these outside observers attempted to describe what they had seen to others, they were often met with disbelief, skepticism, and even ridicule. Four of these “amazing” ceremonies are described below.  


In the nineteenth century, the Mandan were an agricultural people who lived in permanent villages along the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. Since they lived in permanent villages, they were often trade centers and attracted traders from both English and Canadian companies (Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company) and American companies.

Artist George Catlin, who had painted numerous portraits of Indians who had visited Washington, D.C., felt that the American public was ignorant about Native Americans. He made a journey up the Missouri River to paint the portraits of the Indians and to record their ways. He sought to show the public, through his paintings, a true picture of Indian life. He wrote that

“nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian.”

Four Bears

Catlin’s portrait of Mandan chief Four Bears is shown above.

In 1832, Catlin spent time in the Mandan villages, painting portraits and pictures of their ceremonies. Here he witnessed the Mandan Okipa ceremony. This was a four-day ceremony to ensure that the buffalo remain plentiful and that catastrophes be averted. It was a ceremony which reinforced the relationship between the supernatural and the people. The ceremony reenacted the creation of the earth and the history of the Mandan people.

During this ceremony, some of the men would fast. They would then have wooden skewers placed in their chests so that they could be suspended from the poles in the Okipa lodge by thongs which were fastened to the skewers. Afterwards Catlin wrote:

“Thank God, it is over, that I have seen it, and am able to tell the world”

The public, however, refused to believe Catlin’s account of this ceremony.


Catlin’s painting of the Okipa ceremony is shown above.


At the time when they were first encountered by the Europeans, the Chippewa (who called themselves Anishinabe and who are also known as Ojibwa) were living in the Great Lakes area. One of the Chippewa ceremonies was, and still is, the Spirit Lodge or Shaking Tent. A small lodge is constructed by the medicine man and his helpers. After the medicine man has entered the structure, usually by crawling through a small gap in the bottom, the tent will begin to shake violently. Voices of the spirits-voices which are easily distinguishable from that of the medicine man-will then be heard. The people on the outside of the lodge will ask questions-sometimes about health, the future, finding lost objects-which the spirits answer through the medicine man.

For outsiders, the Spirit Lodge ceremony is sometimes seen as some type of magic trick or illusion. In 1858, on the Chippewa White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, a skeptic wagered a large amount that a medicine man would not be able to perform satisfactorily. A small lodge was erected, the medicine man stripped to a breech cloth, was securely tied, and left in the lodge. A committee of reliable people monitored the lodge. After some loud thumping noises within the lodge, the medicine man told the skeptic to go to a house to get a certain rope. The skeptic went to the house, found the rope, and returned with it. He opened the lodge and found the medicine man, untied, smoking his pipe. There was no rope in the lodge-it was the one the skeptic had found in the house. The skeptic paid the wager.


By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Cheyenne, who had been an Eastern Woodlands tribes living in the Great Lakes area two centuries earlier, were living on the Northern Plains of Montana and the Dakotas. By the mid-point in the century, the Cheyenne had divided into two tribes: the Northern Cheyenne who stayed on the Northern Plains and the Southern Cheyenne who had migrated south.

In 1867 Northern Cheyenne medicine man, Ice, conducted a ceremony in which he disappeared. The ceremonial area was prepared by digging a hole large enough to hold him and then a tipi was erected over it. With members of one of the warrior societies guarding the outside of the tipi, Ice and some others conducted a ceremony inside the tipi. Ice, whose hands were tied behind his back, then got into the hole and had the others place large stones in the hole so that he was totally covered over. Everyone then left and Ice sang a song. When they came back into the tipi and removed the rocks, Ice was not present. They put the rocks back in the hole and after a while they heard him call to them. They returned inside the tipi, removed the rocks, and found Ice inside the hole.


The Hopi have lived in their agricultural villages in what is now Northern Arizona for many centuries. The Hopi villages have a complex ceremonial cycle to spiritually assist the growing of their crops. In November, they have a sixteen-day Wuwuchim Ceremony in which they ask for the germination of all forms of life.


While taking notes in a Hopi kiva during the 1897 Wuwuchim Ceremony, anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes was warned by the elders to go home and lock his door because Masauwuh, a god who carries a flaming torch, was coming. Later, in his locked house, Fewkes was visited by a tall man who simply appeared in the house. The stranger lit a cigarette with a flame from his mouth. The two-Fewkes and the stranger-played like children all night. Fewkes related this story to the Hopi elders in the morning and then quickly left the Hopi mesas.


The Hopi village of Walpi is shown above.

Wodziwob’s Ghost Dance

During the nineteenth century there were a number of religious movements that developed among diverse Indian tribes. One of these, called the Ghost Dance by non-Indians, arose among the Paiute in Nevada.  

In 1868, Paiute healer Fish Lake Joe, also known as Wodziwob, had a dream which empowered him to lead the souls of those who had died in previous months back to their mourning families. Wodziwob already had the power to lay next to a patient, send his soul out, and bring the patient’s soul back to the body, thus restoring life.

The following year, Wodziwob announced his expanded powers to bring back the souls of the dead. Since he already had a reputation for being able to bring back the souls of those who had recently died, his message was favorably received.

He exhorted the people to paint themselves and to dance the traditional round dance. In this dance men, women, and children joined in alternating circles of males and females dancing to the left with fingers interlocked with the dancers on each side. As the dancers stopped to rest, Wodziwob fell into a trance. When he returned he reported that he had journeyed to the land of the dead, he had seen the souls of the dead happy in their new land, and that he had extracted promises from them to return to their loved ones in perhaps three or four years.

The dance was to be performed for at least five nights in succession. The dancers decorated themselves with red, black, and white paint. During the dance, some of the dancers received visions which gave them new songs and which they felt would ultimately restore Indian resources. The new dance quickly spread to the northern California tribes.

Wodziwob’s Ghost Dance religion represented a radical departure from the religious traditions of the Great Basin. It represented a synthesis of the traditional Paiute belief in visions, and the traditional practice of circle dancing associated with antelope charming and other subsistence pursuits. It also seems to borrow from Sahaptian or Salishan Indians of the Plateau and Northwest Coast in the belief in prophets, prophecies, and return of the dead.

In 1870, Wodziwob (also known as Tavibo) was visited by Indians from Oregon and Idaho. The Shoshone and Bannock from Idaho’s Fort Hall Reservation and the Shoshone from Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation became active proselytizers for the new religion and sponsored a number of Ghost Dances. Among those attending these dances were people from the Ute, Gosiute, and Navajo tribes.

At this time, the Ghost Dance also began to move into California. The Modoc brought word of the Ghost Dance to the Shasta.

In 1871, Wodziwob’s Ghost Dance  spread from the Paiute in Nevada to a number of California tribes, including the Washo, Mono, Modoc, Klamath, Shasta, Karok, Achumawi, Northern Yana, Wintun, Hill Patwin, and Pomo. Mono chief Joijoi learned of the Ghost Dance from Moman, a Paiute Ghost Dance leader. Joijoi then sponsored the first Mono Ghost Dance at Saganiu and invited many other tribes to attend. Joijoi then spread the word of the dance throughout California.

The new religious movement revitalized the tribal traditions and molded itself to the local customs. The Ghost Dance was instrumental in reshaping native shamanism and it helped native Californians withstand pressures to adopt Christianity.

In 1871, the Ghost Dance was introduced to the Siletz and Grand Rhonde Reservations in Oregon by the California Shasta.

In 1872, the Ghost Dance diffused from the Paiute in Nevada to the Pomo in California. The new religious movement was brought to the Pomo by Lame Bull, a Patwin prophet and a Southwestern Pomo called Wokox. Among the Pomo, the Ghost Dance became a revivalistic movement that promised its followers that the American invaders would be killed by a natural disaster. Following this, the traditional Indian ways would return again.

In 1872, the Paiute had now been dancing under the direction of Wodziwob for four years. At this time, he had another dream in which he realized that the souls of the dead which he had seen were only shadows. With horror, Wodziwob realized that his prophecy was no more than a cruel trick of the evil witch owl. He confessed his sad disillusion to the Paiutes, and they ceased dancing to attract back their loved ones. Wodziwob died shortly after this.

While the Ghost Dance inspired by Wodziwob’s vision failed to bring back the dead, it did result in a new determination to maintain Indian culture and to establish new ways compatible with the contemporary world. The tribes that incorporated the Ghost Dance worked out new ceremonies, amalgamations of old, borrowed, and newly invented rituals, and made these the center of community life.  

The Soul

Many religious traditions include the concept of the soul. In some traditions, the human soul is central to the belief system, while in others it is not. In some religious traditions, particularly the Christian tradition which the European colonists and the American government attempted to force upon the indigenous cultures of North America, humans have only one soul. However, in many American Indian religious traditions, humans are seen as having multiple souls.  

Among the Sheepeater Shoshone, there are three kinds of souls. The first of these is the suap or “ego-soul” which is embodied in the breath. The second is the navushieip or “free-soul” that is able to leave the body during dreams, trances, and comas. It is the navushieip that encounters the guardian spirit that becomes one’s ally during life. Finally, there is mugua or “body-soul” which activates the body during the waking hours.

Shoshone Tipi

A Shoshone camp is shown above.

Religious healers used two different methods for curing the sick. For some kinds of sickness they would rely on their intimate knowledge of the curative powers of certain plants. In other kinds of healing, they would remove foreign objects from the patient’s body or go into a trance to restore the patient’s soul.

Among the Sheepeater Shoshone, if a person was sick because the soul had fled, then the medicine person went into a trance to search for the soul. If found during the trance, the soul could be restored to the body and in this way the sick person was restored to health.

Among the cultural traditions of the Atlantic Northeast, humans were seen as having more than one soul. Among the Narragansett, for example, there was one soul that worked when the body was asleep and another soul that would leave the body after death. When the body was asleep, the dream soul-Cowwéwonck-would roam, often appearing as a light, and seek out guardian spirits. The other soul-Míchachunck-was located near the heart and was the individual’s animating force.

Among the Huron, each person has two souls: one of these souls animates the body and one soul extends beyond physical activities. In sleep, one soul communicates with spirits and with other human souls. When this soul returns to the body, dreams are the way in which the soul’s experiences are communicated. From a Huron perspective, it was essential to reenact these dream adventures in order to unify the two souls and make each person whole again. The failure to do this would result in serious illness which could impact the entire village.

According to Anishinabe (Ojibwa, Chippewa) spiritual teachings, human beings have two souls, one of which travels at night and lives the dreams. With two souls, human beings can communicate with both the spirits and the souls of non-human persons. Chippewa elder John Thunderbird explains it this way:

“Your soul dreams those dreams; not your body, not your mind. Those dreams come true.”

He also points out:

“The soul travels all over the world when you dream.”


Around the world, many religious traditions teach that after death the soul is reincarnated. Among the Indians of North America, the concept of reincarnation is found in many tribes. Sioux physician Charles Eastman writes:

“Many of the Indians believed that one may be born more than once, and there were some who claimed to have full knowledge of a former incarnation.”

Writing in 1817 about one Lenni Lenape man, Christian missionary John Heckewelder reports:

“He asserted very strange things, of his own supernatural knowledge, which he had obtained not only at the time of his initiation, but at other times, even before he was born. He said he knew that he had lived through two generations; that he had died twice and was born a third time, to live out the then present race, after which he was to die and never more to come to this country again.”

Among the Lenni Lenape, some babies are the reincarnation of former relatives. After birth, old women will examine the baby to check for signs that the baby has lived before. These signs include keeping the body relaxed and the hands unclenched and reacting favorably to places and things associated with the dead relative.

Among the Mandan, reincarnation was accepted and it was felt that the child chose its mother. The Mandan also had four souls, the principal soul being seen as a shooting star. At death, this soul could be seen in the sky.  

Mandan Cemetery

A painting of a Mandan cemetery by George Catlin is shown above.

With regard to death among the Gitxsan, Shirley Muldon writes:

“We believe in reincarnation of people and animals. We believe that the dead can visit this world and that the living can enter the past. We believe that memory survives from generation to generation. Our elders remember the past because they have lived it.”

Among the Hopi, the spirits of children who die before they are initiated into a kiva return to their mother’s house to be reborn.

As mentioned above, the Huron feel that each person has two souls. After death one soul stays near the corpse until after the Feast of the Dead and then it is released so that it can be reborn. Some of these souls are resurrected in name-giving ceremonies. The other soul goes to the village of the dead after the Feast.

Neolin: the Delaware Prophet

In 1762 the Delaware (Lenni Lenape) prophet Neolin, who was living in Ohio, had a vision in which he undertook a journey to meet the Master of Life. He was told:

“The land on which you are, I have made for you, not for others. Wherefore do you suffer the whites to dwell upon your lands?”

“Drive them away; wage war against them; I love them not; they know me not; they are my enemies; they are your brothers’ enemies. Send them back to the land I have made for them.”

He received a prayer which was carved in symbolic language on a stick.  

After returning from the vision, the prophet drew a map on a deerskin which was used in explaining his vision. This “great book” was sold to followers so that they might refresh their memories from time to time. The book showed the path of the soul from life to the afterlife.

Neolin’s vision provided the foundation for a pan-Indian movement. The influence of his religious movement spread throughout the Indian tribes in the Mississippi valley. Hundreds of Indians from different tribes were soon following his teachings. The pan-Indian nature of the movement overcame traditional animosities and created a new sense of cultural identity among the tribes. One of Neolin’s followers was the Ottawa chief, Pontiac.

Neolin’s followers went back to the old, traditional ways of Indian life. This meant that they gave up the use of firearms and hunted only with the bow and arrow. They ate dried meat and they drank a bitter drink recommended by Neolin. The drink had a purgative quality which was supposed to get rid of the poisons which their bodies had consumed as a result of European influence. They also dressed in animal skin clothing instead of the imported European cloth.

Neolin’s teaching opposed alcohol, materialism, and polygyny. He emphasized that if the Indians gave up the evil ways brought to them by the Europeans that the Master of Life would bless them with plentiful game.

According to ethnologist James Mooney, writing in 1896:

“The religious ferment produced by the exhortations of the Delaware prophet spread rapidly from tribe to tribe, until, under the guidance of the master mind of the celebrated chief, Pontiac, it took shape in a grand confederacy of all the northwestern tribes to oppose the further progress of the English.”

While Neolin’s message was anti-European, under Pontiac it became anti-British.

Many of Neolin’s followers felt that he was the reincarnation of Winabojo, the great teacher of the mythic past.

In 1763, Neolin urged the Three Fires Confederacy in Michigan-Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawamani-to expel the British and to join in Pontiac’s uprising.

Following the collapse of Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1765, Neolin’s influence as a pan-Indian spiritual leader waned.

Written history has recorded neither when Neolin was born nor when he died. In the historic record-the one maintained by non-Indians-he appears only as a brief note relating to Pontiac.  

Heathens on the Nez Perce Reservation

When Ulysses S. Grant assumed the Presidency, he inherited a major problem with regard to the administration of the Indian reservations. The Indian Service was notoriously corrupt and his solution was to create faith-based reservations: that is, to turn the administration of the nation’s Indian reservations over to Christian, primarily Protestant, missionary groups. The missionaries, working on behalf of the United States government, were to help the Indians on the road to civilization which required them to become English-speaking Christian farmers.

In 1871, the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho was first given to the Catholics, but due to Presbyterian protests it was then given to the Presbyterians. Under this administration, the Presbyterian missionaries and teachers deliberately made the Indians ashamed of their own culture, language, history, and traditions. Old ways were not only frowned upon and ridiculed, they were also prohibited.

At this time, the Nez Perce were divided into two main factions: the reservation group which was primarily Christian (mostly Presbyterian), pro-American, and willing to accept European customs, and the off-reservation group which had adopted an anti-government, anti-treaty, anti-Christian, and anti-acculturational stance. The off-reservation group was involved in the 1877 Nez Perce War.

The new Indian agent, determined to continue and strengthen the Presbyterian influence on the reservations, ordered the Methodist missionary off the reservation and refused to allow the Catholics to build a mission.

The missionaries on the reservation opposed those things they viewed as associated with Nez Perce heathenism: polygyny, gambling, shamanism, guardian spirits, and any Indian ceremony that including drumming, singing or chanting, and dancing. They also condemned long hair on men, aboriginal clothing, and horses, as all of these had been a part of the traditional Nez Perce way of life. They also strongly opposed the Catholics, who had not been a part of the traditional lifestyle, but who were seen by the Presbyterians as heathens or pagans.

In 1873, the United States government built a church for the Presbyterian mission at Kamiah, Idaho on the Nez Perce reservation.

In 1884, the United States formally outlawed “pagan” Indian ceremonies and any form of promoting these ceremonies. 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.

As the United States government legislated against traditional Native American religions, the Presbyterian missionaries on the Nez Perce Reservation were scandalized at what they viewed as the pagan interpretations of patriotic holidays. During holidays, such as the Fourth of July, many of the Nez Perce would engage in such heathen practices as horse-racing, war dancing, and open sexuality. In order to counter these “pagan” activities, the missionaries decided to sponsor a picnic to provide a Christian alternative during the holidays.

In 1885, the missionaries among the Nez Perce organized the second annual Kamiah picnic as a way of uniting the Nez Perce and countering paganism. The peace of the picnic, however, was interrupted by gunfire as tribal police under the leadership of Tom Hill attempted to make an arrest. Two men were killed. Tom Hill was later charged with murder, but the jury rendered a verdict of justifiable homicide.

By 1888, all of the Nez Perce Presbyterian churches were under the control of native preachers. Non-Indian missionaries assisted in an advisory capacity.

In spite of picnics and Native preachers, the old ways refused to die. In 1891, as a result of the controversy over the blending of pagan and Christian elements in patriotic celebrations, such as the Fourth of July, the “heathen” Nez Perce were expelled from the agency grounds. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered that the race grounds be fenced and forbid all heathenism and immorality on the school grounds.  Later missionary writers would report that this simply removed the heathens from any ameliorating Christian influences. From a Christian missionary viewpoint this meant that the heathen celebrations became more “evil.” Presbyterian missionary Kate McBeth, who was on the reservation at the time, wrote:

“That Fourth of July the camp was made just outside the school ground, half a mile away, and heathenism still raged.”

She went on to say:

“Renegade Indians from almost every tribe on the coast came, delighting to introduce new immoral plays into the Nez Perce camp. Oh! The vileness of it all!”

In 1897, during the ten-day Fourth of July celebration, the Nez Perce broke into two factions: Christian and heathen. Two separate camps were established. Presbyterian missionary Kate McBeth wrote:

“Those who went into the heathen camp were to be considered suspended members until such time as they chose to show sorrow for their acts and confess their sins.”

Word spread among the Christian camp that the heathens were going to lead a parade through the camp. Seven Christian Nez Perce under the leadership of Edward Reboin blocked the road. When the heathen procession led by James Reuben got to them they were stopped. After an exchange of angry words, the procession turned back.

Another Presbyterian missionary wrote:

“In and out of that heathen camp we went and saw all the devilish glamour and savage gorgeousness that covered every kind of wickedness that human mind can invent.”

During the twentieth century, the division between the heathens and the Christians on the reservation remained, but the open conflicts between the two groups became more subtle, often reflected in the political arena.

The Green Corn Ceremony

For the Indian nations of the Southeastern United States-Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Timucua, and others-corn (maize) was their single most important food. Therefore, corn also played an important part in their religious and ceremonial life.

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. The Busk would be held when the first corn crop became edible.  This ceremony celebrated both the crop and the sense of community that shaped their lives.  

Among the Creek, the Green Corn Ceremony was held during the Big Ripening Moon (July-August) and was linked to the ripening of the second crop of corn. The ceremony lasted for 8 days in the important towns and for 4 days in the smaller towns. The intent of the ceremony was to rekindle a sense of the sacredness of life. The Busk was marked with a sense of renewal and forgiveness. It included singing, dancing, moral lectures, thanksgiving, and feasting. During the Busk, a new fire would be kindled in the town square. A pure fire would enable the people to communicate their wants to the Maker of Breath, the purifying power that rebalanced the cosmos.

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. Among the Chickasaw, the fast started on the first afternoon of the ceremony and lasted until the second sunrise. Following the fast an emetic was used to purge the body of all impurities.

Among the Cherokee, the Green Corn Ceremony was the time when people were to forgive debts, grudges, adultery, and all crimes (with the exception of murder).

Among some groups, such as the Tuckabahchee and the Seminole, the Green Corn Ceremony was the time when sacred objects, such as brass and copper plates and medicine bundles, were renewed and publicly displayed. Among the Seminole, this is the time when the medicine bundle is renewed.

With regard to the Seminole’s Green Corn Dance, Danny Billie says:

“It defines who we are and what we are as traditional Indian people. It is the heart and soul of the traditional Seminole way of life.”

Cheyenne Medicine Bundles

( – promoted by navajo)

Among the Cheyenne there are two sacred medicine bundles: The Sacred Arrows (Maahotse) and the Sacred Buffalo Hat (Esevone). The spiritual power of these bundles could be tapped ceremonially to help the tribe prosper. As long as the ceremonies were performed as taught by the culture heroes, the tribe would be protected and would prosper. Failure to respect the bundles would be followed by misfortune to the tribe.  

The Sacred Arrows:

The Sacred Arrows are living things and are the holiest of the Cheyenne tribal possessions. They were originally given to the prophet Sweet Medicine by Maheo (the Creator) in a holy cave within the sacred mountain (Novavose or Bear Butte). Sweet Medicine’s gift to the Cheyenne was the Sacred Arrows by which the Cheyenne were able to grow in wisdom. It is through the Sacred Arrows that Maheo pours his life into the lives of the Cheyenne people. Through the Sacred Arrows, the Cheyenne people maintain their unity with Maheo. It is only through the Sacred Arrows that the Cheyenne are a tribe in a spiritual sense.

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 Sacred Arrows are symbols of male power. Women do not 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.

In 1830, White Thunder led the Cheyenne in a raid against the Pawnee in Nebraska. Riding next to him was his wife who carried the Sacred Arrow bundle on her back. Four Cheyenne scouts encountered the Pawnee and were killed. The Cheyenne warriors were now impatient for revenge and pushed for a day and a night toward the Pawnee village. When some Pawnee rode near the Cheyenne, the Cheyenne warriors hastily charged. The charge occurred so swiftly that White Thunder had no opportunity to hold the blinding ceremonies with the Sacred Arrows. The Cheyenne thus rode into battle without the spiritual protection of the Sacred Arrows.

White Thunder quickly tied the Sacred Arrow bundle to the lance of Bull, a warrior-priest. This was done in haste, without separating the four arrows into two pairs.

A sick Pawnee warrior had decided that this was a good day to die and was carried by friends out in the field of battle to die a noble death. He was struck with numerous Cheyenne lances and coup sticks. As Bull rode by the wounded Pawnee warrior, the Pawnee managed to grab the lance with the Sacred Arrows and wrench it free. While the Cheyenne managed to kill the Pawnee warrior, the Sacred Arrows were captured. The Pawnee chief Big Eagle, holding the lance with the Sacred Arrows still attached, charged the Cheyenne and the Cheyenne warriors fled.

In 1835, Cheyenne spiritual leader White Thunder and his wife Old Bark travelled to the Pawnee village of Big Eagle. They begged Big Eagle to return the Sacred Arrows bundle to the Cheyenne. Big Eagle returned one of the four arrows-the Buffalo Arrow. Big Eagle and other Pawnee warriors returned with White Thunder to the Cheyenne camp near Bent’s Fort where the Cheyenne gave them more than 100 horses. Big Eagle, however, did not return any more arrows.

In 1843, Lakota warriors returned home to South Dakota with one of the Cheyenne Sacred Arrows which had been captured by the Pawnee. The Sacred Arrow was then returned to the Cheyenne in exchange for 100 horses.

Two new arrows were eventually made and the bundle continues to be an important part of Cheyenne spiritual life.

Sacred Buffalo Hat:

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 second Cheyenne bundle is the Sacred Buffalo Hat (Esevone) which was a gift from Maheo to the Sutai prophet Erect Horns (Tomsivi). The power of the Sacred Buffalo Hat is female. The Sacred Buffalo Hat and the Sacred Arrows together 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.    

Albert Fall & the Suppression of Indian Religions

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1921, Albert Fall, the former Senator from New Mexico, was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Warren Harding. Since the Indian Office (now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs) is a part of the Department of Interior, this meant that Fall was now in charge of Indian affairs. He was openly hostile to Indian rights, particularly religious rights. One of Fall’s first acts was to enforce the prohibition against the Plains Indian Sun Dance. Those who participated were to be jailed for 30 days in the agency prison.

Albert Fall

The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a lengthy list of Indian offenses for which corrective penalties were provided. One concern was the reckless giving away of property and another concern was Indian dances which were described by the Bureau as a “ribald system of debauchery”. The official attitude toward Indian dances can be seen in a report by the superintendent of the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana:

“The dance itself is extremely demoralizing because when they dance they insist upon giving away property. More than one-half of these Indians if allowed to would give away all of their property. The Indian dance has a direct influence against the Church influence.”

A year before Fall was appointed Secretary of the Interior, the peyote religion (Native American Church) had been carried to the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho by Shoshone spiritual leader Jack Edmo and by Sioux spiritual leader Cactus Pete. Jack Edmo 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 new religion rapidly spread across the reservation and alarmed agency officials. 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. With Fall guiding Indian policies, the Indian agent for the Fort Hall Reservation was informed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that the use of peyote and peyote meetings were in violation of Indian Office Regulations. He therefore posted a notice informing the Shoshone and Bannock that the introduction, use, or possession of peyote was illegal.

Circular 1665 from Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke, issued in 1922, recommended that people be educated against Indian dances and that government employees work closely with the missionaries in matters which affect the moral welfare of the Indians. Like many non-Indians during this era, Burke regarded Indian religions as superstitious and backward. While the Indian Service could not impose Christianity upon the Indians, Burke believed it should do everything in its power to assist the religious volunteers who worked among the Indians.

The Tohono O’Odham on Arizona’s Papago Reservation held traditional Náwai’t ceremonies in 1922 in order to break an extended drought. The Náwai’t includes the ritual consumption of tiswin, an alcoholic beverage made from the fruit of the giant Saguaro Cactus. The consumption of tiswin results in vomiting, a recognized ceremonial feature which is called “throwing up the clouds.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs had the agency police raid the villages of Big Fields and Santa Rosa where several hundred participants were dispersed. The police arrested several leaders and Keepers of the Smoke for making tiswin. While the Bureau of Indian Affairs continued to warn people about this ceremony, the Tohono O’Odham continued to hold the ceremony in secret.

Word of the efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to prohibit Pueblo religions in New Mexico reached the Hopi in 1922. Several Hopi leaders decided to meet in Winslow, a non-Indian town which was located off of the reservation. They feared that if they were to meet on the reservation that the BIA would arrest them. Meeting with the Hopi was the distinguished writer James Willard Schulz. Schulz heard the Hopi complain about threats from government if they continued their religion. One elder stated that he would rather be shot down by the government while doing his religion than try to live without it.

In 1923 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs updated the list of Indian offenses-activities for which Indians could punished. The Commissioner suggested that maypole dances be used as a substitute for traditional Indian dances at Indian schools. He was apparently unaware that the maypole dances were survivals of European pagan fertility dances around phallic icons.

In response to the suppression of Indian religions and cultures under the Albert Fall administration, the American Indian Defense Association was formed to lobby Congress for greater cultural and religious freedom for Indians. It was composed primarily of middle to upper class non-Indians.  John Collier was selected as the organization’s executive secretary.

In 1920, Mabel Dodge had taken social worker John Collier to watch the Red Deer Dance at Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Collier was astonished at what he saw. This was a life-changing experience for him. He would later write:

“I was rocked; it was like a hallucination or earthquake; a sudden dread-fear; the time-horizon pushed back in a moment and enormously… That solitary experience of ‘cosmic consciousness’ had been mine, that forever solitary translation.”

Collier would later become the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and under his administration there would be great religious freedom for American Indians.

In 1923 Albert Fall left office and would later be jailed for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. The active suppression of Native American religious ceremonies, however, would continue for another decade, ending with the election of Franklin Roosevelt as President.  

Franciscans in the American Southwest

( – promoted by navajo)

During the early sixteenth century there were many fantastic stories circulating among the Spanish which told of fabulously wealthy cities north of Mexico. These cities, according to the stories, had more gold than the Aztecs or the Inkas, and they were ripe for conquest by the superior Spanish warriors. In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan missionary adept in native languages, received permission from the Spanish Crown to explore what is now the American southwest and to determine if the fabled riches actually existed. Before embarking on his journey,   Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza told Fray Marcos de Niza that

“you must explain to the natives of the land that there is only one god in heaven, and the emperor on earth to rule and govern it, whose subjects they must all become and whom they must serve.”

The rumors about fabulous cities of gold came from several sources. Sometimes it was the Indians who spun these tall tales, perhaps to deflect Spanish interest in enslaving their own people. Sometimes the tales came from other explorers who returned with tall tales about what they had seen. One of these earlier explorers was Cabeza de Vaca who reported that he had heard many stories of wealthy American Indian cities. Among those who accompanied Fray Marcos de Niza was Esteván, the black slave who had been with the Cabeza de Vaca expedition a decade earlier.

Near the present-day city of Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, the expedition encountered some Pima Bajo who gave them a warm reception and much food. They told the Franciscan of a valley with many large settlements where the people wore cotton (probably the Pima and Opata). In reference to their mica pendants and their pottery made from mica-bearing clay, Fray Marcos thought that the Indians were telling him about people to the north who had pendants and vessels made of gold and silver. Many of the stories told to the Spanish probably contained grains of truth. However, by this time the Indians, especially those of northern Mexico, had learned to tell the Spanish invaders whatever they wanted to hear.

After hearing the stories about what he felt described the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola Fray Marcos sent Esteván with an advance party to investigate this possibility. They followed a well-established trading route that connected northern Mexico with the American Southwest. Esteván reached as far north as Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, where he was killed.

While at a Pima village on the Rio Magdalena in Sonora, Mexico, Fray Marcos was told about three other kingdoms: Marata, Acus, and Totonteac. The Pima went to these three kingdoms and to Cibola to trade for turquoise, buffalo hides, and other things. Fray Marcos continued his journey north, into Arizona, encountering many settlements. Along the Salt River, he noted that there were villages every half or quarter league. The irrigated fields reminded him of gardens. He continued to hear stories about Cibola and about Marata. He was told that Marata had been reduced because of warfare with Cibola, but still remained independent. The kingdom of Totoneac (probably the Hohokam) was described to him as the largest of the kingdoms and that its people wore clothing of wool which was obtained from wild sheep.

As Fray Marcos continued his journey toward Cibola, he noted that he was traveling on a wide and well-used road that was lined with many shacks used by the people who journeyed to Cibola. Outside of Zuni, he was told that Esteván had been killed. His Indian escorts refused to travel farther, and so Fray Marcos turned back. Before leaving, however, he took possession of Cibola for the Spanish king by erecting a pile of stones with a small cross on top. While Fray Marcos never reached Zuni, he still described it as being bigger than Mexico City. The stories that Fray Marcos brought back inspired more Spanish interest in the Southwest and resulted in other expeditions seeking the fabled gold cities.