Native American Traditions

Native American Traditions

Because of the isolation of the New World from the high civilizations of Europe, Asia, and Africa and from the communicative network between them, North America had preserved, until the end of the last century, cultures and religions of archaic types. Local historical traditions, intertribal diffusion, social structure and environmental pressure combined to form among the North American Indian tribes a series of religions that were only secondarily influenced by elements from outside the continent. North American religions have become known as varied, colorful, and spiritual. In the religio-scientific debate among anthropologists and historians of religion, such concepts as power and supreme being, guardian spirits and totems, fasting visions and shamanism, myth telling and ritualism, have drawn on North American ideas and religious experiences.

Soon after the arrival of the white man in the 1500s the first information concerning Indian religious worship reached the Europeans. Through Jesuit documents and other reports the religious development of the Iroquoian and eastern Algonquian groups can be followed continuously from 1613 onward. Spanish sources from the same time illuminate at least some aspects of Southwest Indian religious history. In the eighteenth century travel records and other documents throw light on the Indians of the Southeast Woodlands, of the mid-Atlantic region, and of the Prairies and on their religions. It was, however, only at the end of the eighteenth century and in the course of the nineteenth century that knowledge spread of the Plains, Basin, California, Plateau, Northwest Coast, western Canadian, and Alaskan Indian religions.

Main Religious Features

North America is a continent with many diverse cultures, and it is therefore meaningless to speak about North American religion as a unified aggregate of beliefs, myths, and rituals. Still, there are several religious traits that are basically common to all the Indians but variously formalized and interpreted among different peoples. These traits are also found in the religions of other continents and areas, particularly among the so-called primitive or primal peoples. Two characteristics are, however, typically Amerindian: the dependence on visions and dreams, which can modify old traditional rituals, and an intricate and time-consuming ceremonialism that sometimes almost conceals the cognitive message of rituals.

Spirit World

To these common elements belongs the idea of another dimension of existence that permeates life and yet is different from normal, everyday existence. Concepts such as the Lakota wakan and the Algonquian manitou refer to this consciousness of another world, the world of spirits, gods, and wonders. This supernatural or supranormal world is sometimes manifest in nature, which then receives a sacred import. Often the campsite or the village is arranged in a pattern that establishes a ritual identity with the supernatural world. In twentieth-century pan-Indian religion the connection between terrestrial phenomena and the other world is extremely important.

Supreme being

The supernatural world is primarily expressed through the spiritual powers residing in a host of gods, spirits, and ghosts. In many American tribes prayers are directed to a collectivity of divine or spiritual beings, as in the pipe ceremony. Foremost among these divinities is, in most tribes, a sky god who represents all other supernatural beings or stands as their superior and the ruler of the universe. The Pawnee Indians in Nebraska, for instance, know a hierarchy of star gods and spirits, all of them subservient to the high god in the sky, Tirawa. It could be argued that their idea of a high god is formed after Mexican conceptual patterns, since the Caddoan-speaking peoples to whom the Pawnee belong were much inspired by the Mexican-derived prehistoric Mississippian culture. However, there are clear examples of a supreme being among many North American peoples, and scholarly attempts to trace these figures to Christian influence have so far failed. In most cases the supreme being is vaguely conceived as the ulterior religious force in situations of need and frustration.

The supreme being is closely associated with the axis mundi, or world pillar. The Delaware Indians say that he grasps the pole that holds up the sky and is the center of the world. In ceremonial life the world pole, or world tree, is the central cultic symbol in the great annual rites of peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains, the Basin, and the Plateau. At this annual celebration the Indians thank the supreme being for the year that has been (the ceremony takes place in the spring in most cases) and dance in order to secure the support of the Great Spirit and all the powers for the year to come: the Plains Sun Dance is a good example.

In California, a region of frequent earthquakes, similar world renewal rituals have as their main aim the stabilizing of the universe. In the east, the Delaware Big House ceremony is an adaptation of the hunters' annual ceremony to the cultural world of more settled maize-growing peoples: the sacred pillar is here built into a ceremonial house. In many places throughout North America myths testify that the annual ceremony is a repetition or commemoration of the cosmic creation at the beginning of time. This connection is, however, not present everywhere, and many Sun Dance rituals have origin myths of quite a different character.

The culture hero

The connection of the supreme being with creation is often concealed by the fact that in mythology another supernatural being, the culture hero, is invested with creative powers. His true mission is to deliver cultural institutions, including religious ceremonies, to the first human beings, but he is sometimes an assistant creator as well. In this quality he competes with the Great Spirit and appears as a ludicrous figure, a trickster, or an antagonist of the Great Spirit, an emergent "devil." (It should be observed that all this takes place only on a mythological level, for the culture hero disappears after his work has been completed and in many quarters becomes a star.)

Trickster tales occupy a major part of American Indian mythologies and have attracted all kinds of comic folktale motifs. The tales usually portray the culture hero/trickster as a zoomorphic being: a white hare in the Northeast; a coyote on the western Plains, in the Basin, the Plateau, and California; and a raven in the Northwest.

Spirits and ghosts

The other beings of the supernatural world—and they are innumerable, varying from tribe to tribe—may be partly distinguished according to their physical location:

Sky beings, including star gods, Sun (usually a manifestation of the supreme being), and Moon (who sometimes represents the vegetation goddess). The Milky Way is thought of as the road of the dead in some places, and the northern lights as the dead at play.
Atmospheric spirits, which usually comprise the Four Winds (they emanate from caves situated in the four cardinal directions), Whirlwind (often thought of as a ghost), the rain spirits, and Thunderbird. This last spirit, of which a parallel conception is also found in Siberia, is a giant eaglelike bird; according to many informants his blinking eyes make the lightning, while his flapping wings cause the thunder.
Spirits of the biosphere, many of them rulers, or owners, of animal species or plant species (Buffalo Spirit, Caribou Spirit, Maize Spirit), others connected with natural places like mountains, stones, deserts, swamps, waters, and so on. Human beings (medicine-men, for example) may also manifest supernatural powers.
Powers of the underworld, such as Mother Earth, underwater monsters (snakes or panthers), and the ruler of the underground dead, who is usually identical with the first ancestor or is a brother of the culture hero.
However, there are powers that do not fit into this scheme. Such powers are the dead, who operate in different places in different types of cultures. Hunters believe the dead are in the sky or somewhere beyond the horizon—beyond the western mountains, beyond the sea where the sun sets. Horticulturists may believe that the dead are in the ground, returning to Our Mother's bosom, or at the place of emergence of mankind; and in stratified agricultural societies like those of the Mississippian culture there are different abodes for different social categories of dead. At the same time there is everywhere a belief in ghosts on earth, who are often heard whistling in the night. Independent of these beliefs is a ubiquitous idea of reincarnation or transmigration into animals.

Guardian spirits and vision quests

Other spirits are the guardian spirits acquired in fasting visions by youths of the Plateau and the Northeast Woodlands and by both boys and men of the Plains and the Basin. These spirits are mostly zoomorphic. They may be animal spirits or spirits that show themselves in animal disguise. Everywhere except among the pueblo-dwelling peoples of the Southwest it has been the individual hunter's ambition to acquire one or several of these guardian spirits. They usually appear to the person after a vision quest during which he has spent several days and nights in fasting and isolation at some lonely spot in the wilderness. The spirit endows his client with a particular "medicine," that is, supernatural power (to hunt, to run, to make love, to cure), gives him a sacred song, and instructs him to make a pouch or medicine bag in which he is to keep the sacred paraphernalia associated with his vision. The vision quest is basic to most American Indian hunting religions.

In some places special societies were established for young spirit seekers who expected to meet the same spirit. This was, for instance, the case among the Kwa-kiutl of Vancouver Island and vicinity. The vision itself was no longer central here, the neophyte being abducted by masked men to the woods and told there the secrets of his patron, Cannibal Spirit, whose frenzied behavior he imitates in a ceremony on his return.

There seems to be a direct relationship between the individual's guardian spirit and the complex of totemism. If totemism is defined as the mysterious relationship between a segment of a tribe, usually a clan or other unilineal kinship group, and a particular animal species that is its congener and patron, then totemism exists in many places where unilineal societies exist. Several American cases suggest that the totem is the original guardian spirit of an individual that has then been inherited by this person's descendants as their common supernatural partner.

In some more complex societies the medicine bags, or sacred bundles, have become inherited treasures within the vision seekers' families; in other societies they can even be purchased. Where a powerful object has been handed down in a family it is often made a symbol for a larger community, and its uncovering is surrounded by rituals and recitations of its origin myth. A typical example is the sacred bundle of the Arapaho, which contains a flatpipe.

Medicine men and medicine societies

The medicine man is a visionary who has succeeded in receiving power to cure people. However, visionaries with other extraordinary powers, such as the capacity to find lost things or divine the future, have also been labeled "medicine men." In very many cases a bear spirit is the medicine man's patron, so he dresses in a bearskin and mimics a bear's movements and sounds when doctoring people. Diseases may be ascribed to any of several causes, such as witchcraft or the breaking of a taboo. They manifest themselves mainly in two ways: a spirit or disease object is supposed to have intruded into the body (or even, on the Northwest Coast, to possess the person in a psychological sense); or the sick man's soul—in some cases, his power—has been stolen. In the former case it is the medicine man's task to frighten the spirit away or to remove it from the body by sucking, fanning, or drawing it out; in the latter case he has to catch the lost soul, which can be done in an imitative séance. Alternatively, the medicine man may sink into a trance, release his own soul, and send it out after the runaway or stolen soul. The medicine man who becomes entranced in this way may be characterized as a shaman.

In cultures with more complicated social organizations, medicine men may join together, exchanging experiences and working out a common, secret ideology, or they may form medicine societies into which persons are accepted after passing through a series of ritual events. An example of this is the Midewiwin, or Great Medicine society, of the Ojibwa, which is organized like a secret order society and has four or eight hierarchical grades.

In some cultures in the Southwest where collectivism is part of the cultural pattern—as, for instance, among the agricultural Pueblo—the medicine man is replaced by an organization of professional healers, and rituals are performed to aid individuals. Among the Navajo, the old medicine man lives on as a diagnostician ("hand trembler") whereas the curing itself is performed by a ritually skilled singer. The regaining of the patient's health means that harmony has been restored between man and the world of the gods and spirits.

Ritual Acts

Harmony or spiritual balance is what North American Indians want to achieve in their relations with the supernatural powers. A harmonious balance can be reached through prayers and offerings or through imitative representation of supernatural events.

Prayers and offerings

Prayers range from a few words at meal offerings to detailed ritual prayers, from casual petitions of blessing to deeply emotional cries for help and sustenance. Indeed, Navajo prayer has been characterized by one researcher as "compulsive words," by another as "creative words." There is often beauty in Indian prayers, the usual eloquence of the Indians giving moving expression to their religious experience.

There are many kinds of offerings. A simple form is throwing tobacco or food into the fire or onto the ground at mealtimes. Another example is the placing of tobacco pouches on the ground at the beginning of dangerous passages, such as crossing a lake or walking over a mountain ridge.

Tobacco has been intimately related to American Indian religious practice. Even today no Indian conventions or powwows are undertaken without a preliminary pipe ceremony, an invocation of the powers that grant harmony between men and between gods or spirits and men.

When hunters killed game they usually performed rites over the body. For instance, after the animal was eaten, the bones might be given a ritual burial; they were reassembled in anatomical order, and the skull of the animal was elevated on a pole or a tree. These rituals were especially important in the case of the bear. This so-called animal ceremonialism was often intended to appease a particular spirit, the master of the game, but the primary purpose of such burials was to ensure the return of the game by showing proper respect for the animals. True sacrifices were not common, but did occur in the Northeast Woodlands, where white dogs were sacrificed to the powers. In many places the skins of animals (and, later, pieces of cloth as well) served as offerings. There was religious cannibalism in the East, even endocannibalism (the eating of one's family dead) in ancient times. Mutilations of fingers and other cases of self-mutilation as offerings occurred in the Sun Dance of the Lakota and in the closely related Mandan Okipa ceremony.

Ritual representations

Harmonious relations with the supernatural world could be restored by the dramatic imitation of the creation, often in an annual rite, as, for instance, the Sun Dance. The performance of such rituals often had the character of dancing, and most observers have therefore described American Indian ceremonies as dances. In the enactment of mythical drama, performers assumed the roles of supernatural beings, as in the representation of the kachina, cloud and rain spirits, and spirits of the dead in the Pueblo Indian Kachina Dances. In the Pawnee sacrifice to Morning Star, a young captive girl was tied to a frame and shot with arrows; she was supposed to represent Evening Star, a personification of the vegetation whose death promotes the growth of plants. Even today a Navajo patient is cured through a process of ritual identification with the universe and its powers: the patient sits in the middle of a sand painting symbolizing the cosmos and its powers while the practitioner pours colored sand over him.

Historical Survey

Most North American religions express the worldview typical of hunters and gatherers. This is natural, since the first immigrants who arrived perhaps forty to sixty thousands years ago were Paleolithic hunters who came by way of the Bering Strait. At that time the sound between Asia and North America was dry, due to the absorption of oceanic waters into the glaciers of the Great Ice Age. A narrow corridor stretched between the ice fields, allowing the migration of North Asiatic proto-Mongoloid groups into Alaska. The migration probably involved small groups who traveled independently, perhaps at a rate of four miles a year. Since ecological conditions were similar on both sides of the Bering Sea, the migration did not entail any break in historical and cultural traditions.

The Arctic Substratum

This origin in northern Asia explains why so much of American Indian religion bears an Arctic or sub-Arctic stamp, and why so many features even in more temperate areas seem to be derived from northern cultures. Of course, particularly in the extreme north, we find native religions that are direct counterparts to the circumpolar religions of northern Eurasia. Both ecological and historical factors account for this uniformity. We may pinpoint such common religious elements as belief in a high god, Thunderbird, and Mother Earth; practices such as the bear ritual, hunting taboos, the sweat bath for ritual cleaning, and shamanic rituals; and a good many myths and tales. All these circumpolar traits represent Arctic or sub-Arctic forms of the ancient Paleolithic hunting culture in Eurasia.

There are some problems in establishing American connections with the Old World circumpolar culture, however. The weaker cultural links in eastern Siberia may be correlated with the influx into this area of Tunguz and Turkic tribes from the south during the last millennia. Perhaps under the influence of Lamaism and other forms of Buddhism, there evolved in Siberia an intense form of shamanism, with emphasis on deep ecstasy and possession by spirits. This specialized form of shamanism, so typical of parts of Siberia, finally spread to North America, where it influenced the Northwest Coast Indians and the Inuit (Eskimo). Other shamanic rituals in North America, such as the so-called Shaking Tent (the tent is shaking when spirits enter at the request of the shaman, who is fettered in the dark), found among Inuit groups, and Algonquian- and Salish-speaking tribes of the Plateau, also have their close counterparts in Siberia. But these other rituals derive from a more general form of shamanism that is also present in South America and Southeast Asia and is certainly a heritage from very ancient times.

The languages of the North American Indians are enormously diverse, and with the exception of the relatively lately arrived Athapascan groups none seem related to known Old World languages. The common factor joining them all is their polysynthetic structure, whereby many sentence elements are included in a single word by compounding and adding prefixes and suffixes. Paul Radin suggested many years ago that there may be a genetic relationship between most of these languages, except those of the Aleut and Inuit, who differ from the mainstream of American aborigines in race, culture, and religion.

Development Of Hunting Religions

The early hunters brought with them a legacy of ideas and rituals developed in the Old World. These were adapted to the changing habitats in the New World. We can follow the major trends in cultural differentiation after about 10,000 BCE, and we can draw some conclusions also about probable religious orientations.

Thus, the Paleo-Indians of eastern North America were big-game hunters, concentrating on animals like the mammoth, the giant bison, the three-toed horse, and the camel. In all likelihood the inherited concepts of animal ceremonialism and the master of the animals were applied to these animals. The big game died out, because of climatic changes or human overkilling, during the period from 8000 to 4000 BCE. Only one big animal—the bear—survived and continued to be the focus of special rites. The ritual around the slaying of the bear, distributed from the Saami (Lapps) of Scandinavia to the Ainu of northern Japan, and, in North America, from the Inuit and Athapascans in the north and west to the Delaware in the east and the Pueblo Indians in the south, seem to be a leftover from these Paleolithic and Mesolithic days.

It is difficult to say whether Asian ideas still streamed into North America at this time, but it seems probable. We know that many myths disseminated from Asia are mostly found south of the sub-Arctic area in North America. To this category belongs the myth of the earth diver, a primeval divine hero who fetches mud from the bottom of the sea, thereby creating the ground on which men live. It is important because it includes not only the flood myth, or the myth of the primeval sea, but also the idea of twin creators, one good and one less good or even bad, or one the main creator and the other his assistant (the culture hero). Another important myth that scholars have traced to Asia is the Orpheus myth, but proofs of its dissemination are inconclusive. Several mythic motifs have, however, definitely spread from the Old World, such as the magical flight and the Symplegades (clashing rocks), or the motif of the celestial vault that moves up and down.

The old hunting culture slowly disintegrated into a series of more specialized regional cultures about 7000–5000 BCE, and there are reasons to presume that the religious structures changed accordingly. In fact, it seems that the native hunting, fishing, and gathering cultures and religions that persisted into the historical period began to take form at this time, the changes stimulated to a major extent by ecological and climatic shifts.

An exceptional development took place in the south. In the increasingly arid regions of the Great Basin, the Southwest, and parts of California a so-called desert tradition was established, with heavy dependence on wild plants, seeds, and nuts. The corresponding religious system survived in late Great Basin religions, and part of it was also preserved in many Californian Indian religions. In the Southwest, the Basket Making culture, while an example of the desert tradition, also served as a link to horticultural development.

There is some evidence that psychotropic or hallucinogenic drugs were used primarily in plant-collecting areas. Within the region covered by the desert tradition jimsonweed, peyote (in northern Mexico), pulque, and, of course, tobacco were all employed.

Growth Of Agricultural Religions

It seems fairly certain that the cultivation of tobacco spread from Mexico into North America with maize, for maize and tobacco cultivation share the same general distribution within the eastern regions of North America. In the Southwest, however, while maize was cultivated, tobacco was gathered wild.

The introduction of maize, or Indian corn, had basic consequences for aboriginal religions, for it changed the whole outlook on life, the religious pattern, and the character of supernatural powers. There were many incentives for this change: the concentration of the population in more or less settled villages; the preoccupation with sowing, planting, and harvesting; the enhanced position of women (from that of seed collectors to that of seed producers); and the new forms of social organization (matrilineage, or, among the Iroquois, even some sort of matriarchy). Typical of these agricultural religions were concern for crops and fertility, the rise of priestly organizations, the creation of temples and shrines, and the appearance of deities, often of the female sex (or even androgynes), who impersonate the plants or lend fertility. Rituals, in turn, grew more complex, incorporating greater numbers of discrete actions, and sacrifices of a bloody kind (including human sacrifice) became more widespread. Nowhere, however, did agriculture entirely supplant hunting, particularly not in the east, where the rituals for encouraging the growth of maize, beans, and squash are basically the same as the rituals for slain animals. Of course, the death-and-revival pattern is fundamental to both animal and vegetational ceremonialism.

Appearance of maize religion in the Southwest

The introduction of maize into North America occurred in two places, the Southwest and the Southeast. From all appearances it was known earlier in the Southwest, where it is recorded from 3000 to 2000 BCE in the wooded highland valleys of New Mexico. Village agriculture was firmly established at the beginning of the Common Era and was effective after 500 CE.

Some of the religious innovations surrounding the maize complex and accompanying it on its diffusion from Mexico have been revealed through archaeology. The best illustrations are provided by the so-called Hohokam culture in southern Arizona. It was deeply influenced by Mesoamerica from about 500 to 1200 CE, when it suddenly declined, probably as a consequence of the fall of its model, the Toltec empire in Mexico. The most important evidence of the cultural influence from the south is the architectural planning of the towns: irrigation canals, oval ball courts for ritual games, and platform mounds of earth or adobe serving as substructures for temples with hearths and altars.

The Mexican influence on religion can also be seen in the neighboring Anasazi or Pueblo cultures down to our own time. Mesoamerican symbols appear in the bird designs that decorate Hopi pottery. Some of the religious fraternities that meet in the semisubterranean ceremonial chambers probably have Mexican prototypes, for instance, the kachina societies that are reminiscent of the cult organizations that surrounded the Mexican rain god Tlaloc.

Appearance of maize religion in the Southeast

The maize complex entered the Southeast slightly later than the Southwest, perhaps sometime after 1000 BCE; there is, however, no certain proof of agriculture there until the birth of Christ. It seems that influences from Mesoamerica were responsible for the so-called Burial Mound cultures, 1000 BCE to 700 CE, with their earthworks, including mortuary mounds, and for their ceramic figurines. At least the latest of these cultures, the Hopewell, was acquainted with maize ceremonialism.

A major change took place with the introduction of the so-called Mississippian tradition about 700 CE. Large rectangular and flat-topped mounds of unprecedented size were arranged around rectangular plazas. The mounds served as foundations of temples, whence the name Temple Mound, also used to designate these cultures. Intensive agriculture belonged to this new tradition, which flourished in the lower and middle Mississippi Valley but was particularly anchored in the Southeast. Its last representatives were the historical Natchez Indians of the lower Mississippi, known for their hierarchical class system with a sacred king, called the Great Sun, at its apex, for their sacred center, including temple and burial mounds, and for an elaborate ceremonial complex.

The agricultural religions rarely reached such an advanced stage of development in eastern North America, but they spread from the Southeastern hearth in different directions. Mississippian traits mingled with older Woodland traits in the Iroquois culture in the north and, after 1000 CE, with Plains hunting religions in the river valleys to the west.

A Regional Survey

The religions of the indigenous peoples in North America have developed on the foundations that have just been described. However, factors other than historical have contributed to the differentiation in religious profiles that occurs in every region, and especially in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Plains. Such factors include local geographic conditions and the ecological adaptations of individual cultures. Religious differentiation is closely related to cultural diversity, for geographical and ecological factors act first of all on a group's cultural and social structure, and then through these structures on religion.

Roughly speaking, North America can be divided geographically into two main parts, the mountainous regions in the west, or the Rocky Mountains system, and the large plain and woodland country to the east. We find a relatively greater number of tribes and tribelets, often in great isolation from each other, in the mountainous West. The cultural variation there is therefore considerable. The vast eastern country, on the other hand, is populated by widely dispersed, large tribes in close contact with each other. Culturally, it can be seen as one large, relatively uniform area, in which the regional variants are relatively undifferentiated.

As Clark Wissler and others have noted, the geographic regions and the cultural areas correspond closely to each other. Since geographical and ecological factors have influenced religious forms, each region reveals unique features.


The barren country around the Arctic coasts is sparsely inhabited by the Inuit and, on the Aleutian Islands, their kinsmen the Aleut. Inuit religion carries all marks of a hunting religion, concentrating on beliefs and rituals related to animals and on shamanism. The hunting rituals are rather intricate, in particular in Alaska where they focus on the whale (whale feasts are also found among the Nootka of the Northwest Coast and the Chukchi and Koriak of Siberia). A great role is played by the mistress of the sea animals, called Sedna among the Central Inuit. She figures in shamanic rites: when taboos have been transgressed her hair gets filthy, and in rage she holds back the animals; it is the shaman's task in a séance to descend to her home at the bottom of the sea and clean her hair so that she will free the animals again.


A vast region of the coniferous forests, lakes, and swamps in interior Alaska and Canada, the sub-Arctic is sparsely inhabited by Athapascan-speaking Indians in its western half and Algonquian-speaking Indians in its eastern half. The Athapascans are latecomers from Siberia, arriving perhaps around 9000 BCE; their linguistic affiliations are with the Sino-Tibetan tongues. The Algonquian tribes conserve religious traits that associate them closely with the circumpolar culture.

The region is inhabited by hunting cultures, with inland game, in particular the caribou and the moose, as food resources. People are organized in loose bands or, since the introduction by Europeans of the hunting of fur-bearing animals, in family groups who have hunting grounds reserved for their exclusive use.

Religion is dominated by hunting ceremonialism and, to a certain extent, by shamanism. Bear ceremonialism is widespread, and hunting taboos are very common. Sweat baths grant their practitioners ritual purity before hunting or important ceremonies. The vision and guardian-spirit quest is fairly common. Shamanism is characterized by shaking tent ceremonies, usually performed for divination, and by scapulimancy (foretelling the future by inspecting the shoulder blades of animals). Athapascan and Algonquian groups show separate development: the former hold girls' puberty rites and fear their dead; the latter are known for a strong high-god belief, a consistent system of masters of the animals (in which each species has its own master), and an intense dread of cannibal monsters, which are called windigo.

Northeast Woodlands

Formerly covered by mixed coniferous and deciduous trees, the Northeast woodlands held a large population of Algonquian-, Iroquoian-, and Siouan-speaking tribes. In historical and protohistorical times both agriculture and hunting were practiced, particularly by the Iroquoian groups; the Algonquian tribes were hunters with only limited horticulture. The social systems of these groups were often complicated, with unilineal kinship groups, clan organization, and chieftaincy.

The double economic heritage is to some extent mirrored in the religious pattern. The hunters concentrate on hunting rituals and vision quests, the planters on rituals and beliefs surrounding the crops. The Iroquois, for instance, have a series of calendar rites celebrating the planting, ripening, and harvesting of the "three sisters": maize, squash, and beans. The midwinter ceremony, formerly a new year ceremony with the kindling of new fire and the sacrifice of a white dog, is the main ritual event. As in many other rituals of agricultural peoples, great attention is paid to the dead, in whose honor feasts are arranged.

Southeast Woodlands

In the southern deciduous forests, with their savannas and swamps, the tribes of Muskogean stock, interspersed with Siouan groups and the Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee, kept up a peripheral high culture, the last vestiges of the prehistoric Mississippian culture. The Southeastern Indians were, at least at the beginning of the historical era, predominantly engaged in agriculture, and their sociopolitical organization was adjusted to this fact. Thus, the Creek had a maternal clan system, with clans subordinated to both phratries and moieties. The latter had ceremonial functions, often carried out in ball games.

Characteristic of Creek religion is the emphasis laid on ceremonialism and priestly functions. The priests, who were instructed in secrecy in the woods, along lines reminiscent of the vision quest, were divided into several classes: one was in charge of the sacred cult objects, another divined hidden things (such as the causes of diseases), and still another cured people from diseases. Even today, a major part of the curing ceremonies is the recitation of sacred formulas.

The main religious ceremony is the maize harvest ceremony, called the Busk. It is also a New Year ritual, in which old fires are extinguished and a new fire is kindled and people ritually cleanse themselves through washing and the drinking of an emetic.

Prairies And Plains

The tall-grass area (with some parkland and river-bottom woodland) between the woodlands in the east and the high Plains in the west is known as the Prairies. The Plains are the short-grass steppe country, too dry for agriculture, that stretches toward the mountains and semideserts in the far West. (In Canada, the Great Plains are sometimes referred to as the Prairies.)

The historical cultures were formed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the acquisition of horses made the wide-open spaces easily accessible to surrounding tribes and white expansion forced woodland Indians to leave their home country for the dry, treeless areas. Algonquian and Siouan tribes immigrated from the east and northeast, Caddoan tribes from the south. Several groups ceased practicing horticulture (the Crow and Cheyenne) and turned into buffalo hunters, but they kept parts of their old social and political organization. In the west, Shoshonean groups held the ground they had traditionally occupied, and groups of Athapascans—for example, the Apache—forced their way to the southern parts of the region.

Whereas the Prairies could be regarded as a periphery of the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains region offers a late cultural and religious complex of its own. The religion is a mixture of derived agricultural ceremonialism and hunters' belief systems. The major New Year ceremony is the Sun Dance, during which asceticism, dancing, praying, and curing take place. Other forms of ritualism center around tribal and clan bundles, and the sacred ritual known as the Calumet Dance, or Pipe Dance. There is much cosmological speculation and an advanced concept of the godhead. The vision and guardian spirit complex is well developed. The Plains religious pattern has become among modern Indians the model for a pan-Indian religion, transcending old tribal and cultural boundaries.

Northwest Coast

The broken coastline, high mountains, and deep fjords of the Northwest Coast were the home of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Wakashan tribes and some Coast Salish and Chinookan groups in the south. With their totem poles, their plank houses and canoes, and their headgear reminiscent of East Asian conic hats, these Indians make an un-American impression, an impression that is strengthened by their social organization with its give-away feasts (pot-latches) intended to "shame" invited guests and thus increase the host's prestige. There have apparently been contacts with both northern and eastern Asian cultures, although the nature of this exchange is little understood. The basic substratum seems to be a fishing culture that developed on both sides of the North Pacific and gave rise to both Inuit and Northwest Coast cultures. The abundant animal and fish life along the coast, together with the rich herbal and animal life of the dense woods, provided a living standard that sometimes excelled that of the agriculturists. It is perhaps not surprising that rank differentiation, based partly on wealth, and slavery appeared here.

The religion is characterized partly by its association with the activities of hunters and fishermen, partly by its secret societies adapted to the complicated social structure. The animal ceremonialism is focused on the sea fauna, and there are many sea spirits in animal forms. The dead have their realm, or one of their realms, at the bottom of the sea. The secret societies recruited individuals who had an inherited right to make contact with a certain kind of guardian spirit. Famous societies are the Wolf society of the Nootka and the Cannibal society of the Kwakiutl. Possession by spirits also occurred in shamanism, which here reached a high point of development in America.


The Intermountain area, which includes both the Columbia and the Fraser river drainages, is known as the Plateau; it was inhabited by Salish and Shahaptin tribes that lived on fish and, secondarily, on land animals and roots. The area is partly wooded, partly a bunchgrass steppe. The culture area is an offshoot of the sub-Arctic hunting culture, tempered by influences from the Northwest Coast and the Plains. The sociopolitical group consisted of the village, under the formal control of a hereditary chief.

In their religion the Plateau Indians stressed the visionary complex and food ceremonies. The vision quests were undertaken at puberty by both sexes. The relation between the guardian spirit and his client was displayed in the Winter Dance, or Spirit Dance, a ceremony, under the supervision of a medicine man, in which the spirit was impersonated. Important celebrations were firstling rites, first-fruits rites, and the First-Salmon rite. In this last rite, which was guided by a so-called salmon chief (who had the salmon as one of his guardian spirits), the first salmon was greeted and its "leader" hailed with special ceremonies.

Great Basin

A dry region of sands and semideserts, the Great Basin was inhabited by Shoshonean (Numic) groups, some of them, like the Gosiute, the most impoverished of North American groups. Seeds, nuts, and rodents provided the principal food. The social organization was often atomistic. The cultural profile represented a remnant of the old desert tradition.

The religious pattern was closely adapted to a lifestyle based on the bare necessities. Hunters had to be blessed by spirits in visions in order to be successful, but there was little elaboration of guardian-spirit beliefs. Medicine men had specialized powers; for instance, the antelope medicine man attracted the antelopes by singing. Harvest ceremonies were round dances at which thanks were given to the supreme being.


Whereas the northern, eastern, and southern parts of California were peripheral to the Northwest Coast, Great Basin, and Southwest cultural areas, respectively, the central valleys and coastland constituted a separate cultural area, known as the California region, densely populated by Penutian, Hokan, and Numic groups. These natives, living in a mild climate, dedicated themselves to collecting, hunting, and fishing. Their staple food consisted of wild plants and their fruits, in particular acorns, all of which were found in abundance. The political unit was usually the village (under the leadership of a headman), but was sometimes a lineage.

In this diversified culture area religious expressions were most varied. North-central California is known for its lofty concept of a supreme being and for its initiation of youths into religious societies, such as the Kuksu, Ghost, and Hesi societies. Guardian spirit quests were rare, and medicine men received unsought visions. In the southern part of the area, initiation ceremonies were accompanied by the drinking of drugs prepared from jimsonweed and by various symbolic acts referring to death and rebirth. In some places there were great commemorative ceremonies for the dead.

The Southwest

A magnificent desert country with some oases, particularly along the Rio Grande, the Southwest was populated by hunting and farming groups of Piman and Yuman descent, by former hunters like the Athapascan Apache and Navajo—who did not arrive here until about 1500 CE—and by the Pueblo peoples, intensive agriculturists mostly belonging to the Tanoan and Keresan linguistic families. I shall here concentrate on the Pueblo groups, the descendants of the prehistoric Anasazi culture. Their culture is famous for its big community houses on the mesas, its intensive horticulture (with irrigation in the Rio Grande region), and its complex and beautiful ceremonialism. Each Pueblo town is an independent unit governed by the heads of the religious societies.

Religion penetrates all aspects of Pueblo life. A rich set of ceremonies that mark the divisions of the year are conducted by different religious societies. Their overall aim is to create harmony with the powers of rain and fertility, symbolized by the ancestors, the rain and cloud spirits, and the Sun. Each society has its priesthood, its attendants, its sacred bundles, and its ceremonial cycle. There are also medicine societies for the curing of diseases—the inspired, visionary medicine man has no place in this collectivistic, priestly culture.

No other American Indian societies lay so much stress on ceremonialism as do the Pueblo. Their supernatural beings are almost unthinkable without the rituals through which they are manifested.


For discussion of sources and research the reader is referred to my work The Study of American Indian Religions (Chico, Calif., 1983) and Harold W. Turner's North America, vol. 2 of his Bibliography of New Religious Movements in Primal Societies (Boston, 1978).

On the topic of North American Indian religions, several surveys and introductions are available. In chronological order there is first Werner Müller's "Die Religionen der Indianervölker Nordamerikas," in Die Religionen des alten Amerika, edited by Walter Krickeberg (Stuttgart, 1961), a thoughtful presentation of native religious structures. Ruth M. Underhill's Red Man's Religion (Chicago, 1965) describes religious beliefs and practices in their cultural interaction. Two later syntheses are my The Religions of the American Indians (Berkeley, 1979), which concentrates on religious ideas in historical perspectives, and Sam D. Gill's Native American Religions (Belmont, Calif., 1982), which emphasizes some major features of Indian religious life. A detailed, provocative investigation of the religions east of the Rocky Mountains will be found in Werner Müller's Die Religionen der Waldlandindianer Nordamerikas (Berlin, 1956).

A number of scholars in the field have issued collections of their articles on North American native religions. Here could be mentioned Müller's Neue Sonne—Neues Licht, edited by Rolf Gehlen and Bernd Wolf (Berlin, 1981), a representative selection of this author's most engaging articles; my Belief and Worship in Native North America (Syracuse, N. Y., 1981), which among other things discusses belief patterns, ecology, and religious change; and Joseph Epes Brown's The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian (New York, 1982), a book that beautifully outlines the deeper meaning of Indian philosophy and ceremonialism. An older publication in the same genre is the philosopher Hartley Burr Alexander's posthumous work, The World's Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians (Lincoln, Nebr., 1953). Anthologies by several authors are Seeing with a Native Eye, edited by Walter Holden Capps (New York, 1976), and Teachings from the American Earth, edited by Dennis Tedlock and Barbara Tedlock (New York, 1975). The former contains articles by scholars of religion; the latter, articles by anthropologists.

Among general comparative works, a classic in the field is Ruth Fulton Benedict's The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America (Menasha, Wis., 1923). Shamanism in North America is the object of a study by Marcelle Bouteiller, Chamanisme et guérison magique (Paris, 1950). The patterns of soul and spirit beliefs are analyzed in my work Conceptions of the Soul among North American Indians (Stockholm, 1953). The corpus of American Indian myths and legends is carefully annotated in Tales of the North American Indians, edited by Stith Thompson (Cambridge, Mass., 1929). My study The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition (Stockholm, 1957) is an extensive treatment of the Orpheus myth and its religious prerequisites. One mythological character, the culture hero and trickster, is the subject of Arie van Deursen's detailed research work Der Heilbringer (Groningen, 1931). Secret societies and men's societies are penetratingly discussed in Wolfgang Lindig's Geheimbünde und Männerbünde der Prärie- und der Waldlandindianer Nordamerikas (Wiesbaden, 1970). Among comparative works on rituals and ritualism three interesting studies are Ruth Underhill's well-known Ceremonial Patterns in the Greater Southwest (New York, 1948), John Witthoft's illuminating Green Corn Ceremonialism in the Eastern Woodlands (Ann Arbor, 1949), and William N. Fenton's detailed ethnohistorical study The Iroquois Eagle Dance: An Offshoot of the Calumet Dance (Washington, D. C., 1953).

An Indian's own view of native American religions in their relations to Christianity and to whites is presented, somewhat polemically, in Vine Deloria Jr.'s God Is Red (New York, 1973).

Åke Hultkrantz (1987)

The very broad subject of mythology among traditional peoples is often juxtaposed with "history" in the modern, Western sense. However, this confluence presents problems for both traditional indigenous communities and Western modernity. There is a dichotomy between these subjects that generally rests on the issue of veracity, so that the broad class of narrative known as myth, along with such subgenera as legend, folktale, fable, and the like, is easily subsumed into one broad "false but relevant" classification with semiotic significance to the narrative's home culture.

However, it is also possible to view aspects of "historic" events and their retelling from one generation to the next through the same lens with which we view myth. In this approach, the mythic narratives of a culture have many levels of significance, both for their culture of origin and for those who analyze them. It is assumed here that both of these positions are valid. However, the Western terms myth, tale, and legend will be employed at times as this designates the esoteric nature of certain aspects of these sacred histories.

In the case of American Indian sacred narrative, those communities for whom the stories are culturally relevant view these tales in ways which cross, and often transcend, the Western category of history. These "sacred histories" serve to orient their communities in time and space in ways that operate within the logic of the universe they inhabit, and in turn provide outsiders with insight into the ethos and worldview of their home cultures.

Western historical narratives tend to rely upon a linear pattern in which one event transpires after, and sometimes due to, the one preceding it, which also makes specific dates and actors the key issues in these tales. American Indian sacred narratives operate in a different way, developing within the specifics of the producing culture based on the logic of their universe. This logic is often cyclical, or rhythmic, in nature, and the focus is not on linearity but on the maintenance of ongoing natural rhythms.

There usually exists, in each Native American community, various categories of story, each with a specific purpose and appropriate use. The Hopi, for example, distinguish between four types of narrative: navoiti, or knowledge to which the speaker has a direct link, even if that link is from a very distant past; tutavo, or stories about the Sacred; wuknavoti, which is usually translated as "prophesy" but includes all sorts of prognosticative stories; and tuuwutisi, the term most often translated as "myth" but also considered a historic accounting of events that occurred in sacred time. This is distinguished from navoiti in that the connections to the events and actors in the story are secondhand or happened in the esoteric realm of the before-time.

There is a Chumash term, timoloquinas, often translated as "stories generally thought to be true," that also describes this category of tale, where "truth" is a very slippery concept and relative to the overall meaning of the tale to its intended audience. It is via these orally transmitted tales that the entirety of a people's history is conveyed—spiritual, economic, and political. These tales represent a body of knowledge the continuity of which is only recently beginning to become apparent to non-Indian minds.

This knowledge is passed from generation to generation through oral narratives that encode both pertinent and proper behaviors for the edification of future generations. In the telling of these tales, both the narrator and the audience have active roles: the teller of the tale is expected to maintain the story's integrity from telling to telling, and the audience holds the storyteller to task with their own memories of the stories. These tales are told at events bound by communal dictates, which must be supported by the audience. The young people learn the importance of these events and come to give them the kind of attention and respect that facilitates those dictates. The telling of stories, then, provides opportunities for the truths contained in them to be practiced as well as learned.

Stories about the community's sacred history also allow the people to examine specific ideas that the community considers important. Some narratives relay information about the origins of a particular Native American people, as well as their indelible links to their sacred past. Others revolve around pertinent political, economic, and social issues or explore themes of community membership and identity.

Prior to the devastating effects of colonialism, these stories were the key link between members of particular tribal groups, as well as that group's link to their land. Elders serve as repositories of the knowledge and wisdom that makes the people a people, transferring moral precepts and appropriate community parameters to the next generation. When the U.S. government attempted to assimilate Indian children, they did so by taking them away from their families and placing them in boarding schools, in hopes that separating them from their elders and storytellers would destroy their cultural identity.

Fortunately, much of the imagery, humor, pathos, and personality of the tales was nevertheless passed along to the boarding-school generation, and the translation of the stories into English, especially due to the rising discipline of ethnography around the turn of the last century, guaranteed that most of these tales, and the cultures that they encode, would not be lost. Though these are properly oral traditions, many tales have been transcribed by non–Native Americans and, more recently, written down by American Indians themselves. The shift to written form should, however, be seen as archival in nature, as the pressures of modernity make the regular telling of these tales difficult for some Native American communities. This is not, therefore, a shift away from the oral tradition, but a response to the challenges presented by current conditions.

Given the cultural continuity and thematic integrity that these tales have displayed, it is somewhat counter-intuitive to say that they remain dynamic tales for which there is rarely a definitive version. However, the changes in the narrative flow or differences in details are often due to the shifting needs of the audience, rather than omissions or transformations designed by the narrator. For example, in the Ojibwe tales of Nanabush, the trickster/creator and cultural hero reacts to European invasion by moving west, and sleeps as a large promontory at Thunder Bay. Nanabush sleeps there still, waiting for the time when the Ojibwe can bring about a resurgence of Ojibwe culture and religion. Some contemporary Ojibwe speak of a recent stirring in Nanabush, as his people are working to realize this resurgence.

There are also smaller, subtler changes in the tales, such as when Nanabush gets tangled up in telephone wires, in contrast to the ropes found in older versions. This dynamic quality reinforces the ability of Native American myth to remain relevant and meaningful throughout the whole of the community's experience. And it illustrates the fact that American Indians, while they remember the sacred stories from many generations past, are not themselves mythic figures trapped in antiquity.

For the American Indian communities, the world is populated not only by humans, but by other beings as well. These beings include the natural world and all that is in it, as well as spiritual or other-worldly beings who have the ability to communicate with, to do harm and good to, and generally act within the human realm. The most important aspect of this arrangement is the other-than-human beings' ability to form relationships, with each other as well as with the people. It is important to stress that these beings are not simply natural forces or unknown events that have become personified, but fellow inhabitants of the world—neighbors and relatives—who require respectful attention of one kind or another. The other-than-human realm interacts with its human cousins and neighbors in Native American sacred histories in many different ways, sometimes benevolently, sometimes malevolently, all due to the fact that they are nearly always more powerful and erudite than humans.

This system of sacred narrative and the actors, events, and lessons contained therein can be divided into tales of creation, theories about the natural world, and stories that place the people within their tribal sacred history. The following sections will look at some examples of these myths.


Creation stories not only tell the people how the universe came to be, but also set in motion the logic within which it operates. Origin myths, those that draw upon the creation of all things (as opposed to the post-creation establishment of a feature of the landscape or a ritual complex), effectively frame the ways in which all that comes after is possible. Like the origin myth found in the first part of the book of Genesis, the world subsequently responds in ways that are in keeping with its initial creation, such as the dynamics of male–female or human–animal relationships or the hierarchical theme found in subsequent Hebrew and Christian mythologies.

The Navajo Origin Myth

The Dinée (Navajo) origin story is an example of a creation story from Native America. In this tale, the present world of the Dinée comes about only after three preceding worlds have emerged, one from another, on the surface of the earth. First Man ('Altsé Hastiin) and First Woman ('Altsé 'Asdzáá) were two of the beings from the First, or Black, World. First Man was made in the east from the meeting of the white and black clouds. First Woman was made in the west from the joining of the yellow and blue clouds. Spider Woman (Na ashje'ii 'Asdzáá), who taught Navajo women how to weave, was also from the First World, as was Begochiddy, a creator figure who made and ordered all that was in the First World. The Black World produced many creatures, and it became a crowded place of quarrelling and strife, necessitating the move into the Second, or Blue, World. In some variations of the tale, this movement was facilitated by a reed which allowed some of the First People to climb into the Blue World, bringing with them all that Begochiddy had made.

There were creatures already inhabiting the Second World, and as Begochiddy continued the task of creation, those beings hampered the process, and strife, fighting, and killing made the Second World an undesirable place. So some of the inhabitants climbed upward into the Third World. The Third, or Yellow, World was where sexual desire was created. The essences of maleness and femaleness had been part of the creative endeavor, and Begochiddy created a class of people, not yet the Dinée, who were male and female. Tensions arose between them that were ultimately resolved by bringing about an inexorable connection between them. Problems within the Yellow World, of different types and origins depending upon the telling, necessitated the move into this, the Fourth, or Glittering, World. This is when the Dinée were created, along with the original Hogan. The Hogan, the archetypal house and sacred space for the Dinée, held the first Beauty Way, the girls' puberty ceremony. This first Beauty Way was for Changing Woman, the ultimate creatrix of the Dinée and scion of feminine creativity. Young Dinée women undergo a ritual transformation into Changing Woman in the course of their initiation, and it is during this ceremony that the Dinée creation story is told in its entirety, culminating in the ritual reenactment of the first Beauty Way.

The Dinée origin narrative contains the deeply held existential truths of Dinée culture. Changing Woman creates the Dinée using elements found in the Glittering World along with flakes of her own skin; thus their very bodies are made up of the place the Dinée call home. Nothing in the logic of Dinée culture derives from outside the place of their emergence.

The balance that in all three subsequent worlds was upset by human foibles must be maintained in this world, lest the Dinée bring about their own destruction. The creation story, then, also serves as a cautionary tale, and with it is passed along the traditional wisdom that, when dutifully employed, helps the Dinée maintain that balance. This includes the elements of the story that speak of the importance of corn, which, in addition to being an important food staple, is also a symbol for what is truly important for the universe and how one is to behave in it.

Pueblo Cultures

The Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, Keres, Tiwa, and Jemes, have a similar creation epic in which the world known to the Pueblos is created after they have migrated upward through a succession of worlds, usually three, before arriving in the fourth world, which is the world of today. As in the Dinée tale, the people in each of the worlds were typically compelled to move on because various transgressions against the order of things led to imbalance and conflict. In the Pueblo tales, however, individuals often caused the conflict by directly violating the sacred order, and were subsequently left behind for their behavior. The rest of the people would be assisted in their journey to the next world by sacred beings, often in the form of animals.

The animals who lend their support not only play a logistical role in the people's migration, but also teach the people valuable lessons about how the world works and what their responsibilities are in it. These responsibilities include both an understanding of the world and gaining knowledge of important rituals and ceremonies. Among the Hopi and Zuni, for example, the people acquire the knowledge necessary for summoning the rain. Among the Hopi, the tale begins in Tokpela (Endless Space). Tokpela was shapeless until Taiowa, the Sun and Creator, made his nephew, Sótuknang, the god of the universe and creator of all ceremonies. On this world was placed a helper, Spider Woman, who also possessed creative power and used her abilities to make the world ready for human habitation. In addition to creating the necessary elements of the world such as plants and animals, Spider Woman made a pair of hero twins who would protect the people from harm. While they were in Tokpela, however, the people's numbers increased and they began to drift apart, and illness came to be.

The people then moved on to the next world, Tokpa (Dark Midnight), where they built villages, stored food, and traded among themselves. Consequently, the people became greedy for material possessions, and strife again ensued. Next the people emerged into the Third World, Kuskurza, a name whose meaning remains unknown. Again the people increased, expanding into larger and more complex villages. Again corruption, greed and infighting led to imbalance, and Kuskurza was flooded. Only a few emerged into the Fourth World, Túwaqachi (World Complete), via a hollow reed. Like the Dinée, it is up to them to maintain the balance of this world.

The Zuni creation is very similar, but the Sun brings about the movement from one world to the next after the people fail to adequately make prayer offerings. In the Third World, hero twins come to bring the Zuni into this, the Fourth World. In both Zuni and Hopi creation tales, the emergence into the Fourth World requires that each clan find its place, and the tales describe the Pueblo people's divisions and establishe the territories assigned to each.

What finally emerges out of this epic narrative is a worldview characterized by six directions, which are inhabited by a pantheon of sacred beings. For the Zuni, each of the four cardinal directions contains an ocean, and in these four oceans are four mountains, each symbolized by a different color. For the Dinée, both the orientation to the landscape and the ethos of the people derive from the creation story. Therefore, Pueblo mythology is locatable in the surrounding landscape, and pertinent to everyday life.


Elements of a culture's sense of itself and what it is supposed to be about in the world often have their roots in the creation narrative. For hunting and wild-horticulture groups, animals and plants play heavily in the creation story. The Ojibwe, for whom the Great Lakes region is home, are among the cultures with earth-diver elements to their tale. The earth-diver is a familiar animal—Muskrat, in the case of the Ojibwe—who dives to the bottom of a vast body of water to retrieve a small bit of earth that becomes the world.

Many Native American communities in the Eastern Woodlands and Great Lakes area share the Pueblo and Navajo idea that the present earth has been remade from a world salvaged after the destruction of a previous one. The earth-diver in these tales must dive to the bottom of the waters that have flooded the old world to retrieve earth with which a new world can be made. In the Ojibwe versions, characters sometimes shift, and regional variations may occur, but the core narrative line always includes a friendship or kinship between Nanabush, the Ojibwe trickster and creator, and a wolf. The wolf, usually because he is capricious or unwary, falls through thin ice into a lake and is killed by underwater spirits, the manitous, led by their chief, Mishebeshu. Mishebeshu is a very powerful manitou who owns the water world and appears as a horned serpent or dragon. Mishebeshu means "Great Lynx," and he is so powerful that his name is only to be mentioned in winter when he is safely under the ice. Mishebeshu is not evil, but neither is he a friend to humans.

It is always best in Ojibwe culture to treat the other-than-human realm with enormous amounts of respect, which the wolf fails to do when he ignores the melting spring ice. Devastated by the loss of Wolf, Nanabush exacts revenge by traveling to Mishebeshu's home and killing him. Since Mishebeshu is a powerful manitou, he either regenerates himself or his many other selves multiply to flood the world. Nanabush takes refuge on a turtle's back and calls the diving animals to him to ask them to retrieve a bit of earth from below the waters. It is usually the least among these, Muskrat, who succeeds, and the earth is regenerated. Nanabush, or in some variations Kitche, or Great Manitou, creates humans and readies the earth for them with the help of the plant and animal people.

This, like most creation tales, is replete with lessons about the fragility of the earth, the need to respect the boundaries set out by the manitous, and the ultimate cost of revenge.

The People

Another key feature of many creation tales is the role that the animal and plant kingdoms play in human life. They are seen as elder siblings, here before the people and wiser because of that. Often plants, animals, water beings, wind, and rocks play an important role in the creation of the people.

The Chumash of the central California coast tell of their creation by a committee of animals that includes Coyote, Lizard, Hawk, and others, who debate the various features that the humans will possess. Coyote and Lizard enter into a debate about what kind of hands the new creatures will have, and the other animal beings take sides. In the end Coyote wins out, and he prepares to press his hand into the surface of a fine-grained stone and create the model for human hands. But, at the last second, Lizard sneaks up and places his hand into the stone, deciding the form of the human hand.

In addition, the group debates human mortality. The Jerusalem Cricket argues that human beings should eventually die, while Coyote argues for immortality in the form of a lake where humans can immerse their dead and bring them back to life. Cricket wins the debate, sealing his fate as an omen of bad luck for the Chumash people. In both stories, the roles of animals, the vicissitudes of life, and the need for proper behavior are all established along with the creation of human beings, forging a strong link between the way the world works and how the people are to behave in it. In creation tales, the universe, created with a working logic in place that represents balance and attention to the rhythms of nature, is established for all creatures. And all creatures have some responsibility for and to that creation in order that it continue on in balance.


The operation of the universe can be seen as a sort of dependent variable, in that things must be done by those who have been created in order to keep creation balanced, but creation itself effects the possible choices of those creatures. Therefore, many American Indian narratives contain explanatory elements as well as evidence of what happens when the creatures do or do not complete the tasks for which they are responsible.

In these stories, the way in which creation looks and acts is explained, but in a multilayered way that allows these stories to remain relevant throughout the life of the listener. Children delight in the stories while gaining important information about the world, and adults perceive nuanced aspects appropriate to their lives as well. For example, the Seneca tell of Old Man Winter and his companion North Wind being defeated by Spring, which gives children imagery with which they can envision the changing seasons, but the story can also be told in a way that allows adults to ponder the need to allow old feelings to melt away like Old Man Winter does in the tale, to make room for a renewal in their hearts and minds that mirrors the coming of Spring.

The Cherokee explain the origin of the deer's curly tail in a story about Wild Boy and his brother, who make a game of allowing all of the animals to escape, thus causing the need for hunting. In this story, we discover not only why the deer's tail is curly and why people must hunt game to eat, but also that there is potential harm in not attending to one's duties, and that there can be no doubt as to what a good person must do when faced with opportunities for impetuous and facetious behavior.

Trickster Tales

Another type of story that falls into this category is the so-called trickster tale, an extensive and largely misunderstood genre of traditional storytelling. It is the trickster—usually in the form of an animal known to the people, such as Raven, Coyote, or Hare, and almost always a male—who tends to represent both the best and the worst that a person can be. At times, the trickster is a creator, bringing about aspects of the world, such as fire, that make life much more pleasant. At other times, the trickster behaves badly, usually in the realms of gluttony or lust, bringing about negative aspects of the world or merely providing an entertaining way to point out the consequences of bad behavior.

One fine example of the latter is the tale told by the Yokuts of California about Coyote tricking Cricket into believing that she is the most beautiful of all insects. He uses her to demand tribute from the rest of the animals as their chief. Eventually, the Animal People grow tired of Coyote and Cricket and their demands, and Coyote impersonates the Creator in order to exact tribute. For this he is punished and sent to live in the North Star, and Cricket, for her vanity, must forever visit her lover Coyote during the day only, returning to Earth at night to play her sad song.

Another California tale, from the Karuk, shows the trickster in his creator aspect, as Coyote obtains fire from the stingy yellow jackets. Through a sort of relay race that sends the burning ember from animal to animal until it eventually falls into a softwood tree, Coyote shows the animals, and thus the people, how to extract fire from the wood, bringing the warmth and utility of fire to the world. A similar tale from around the Indian communities of the Pacific Northwest has Raven, their trickster, retrieving the sun from a selfish chief and placing it in the sky for the benefit of all.

The key issue with regard to these trickster tales is that the term trickster cannot adequately convey all of the nuances in the tales to which it is assigned. This glossing over of an important theme in American Indian sacred narrative, therefore, must be used with caution. The negative connotations usually associated with the word trick creates a view of these tales that is somewhat skewed. In the sense that it denotes clown-like and regrettable behavior, the term trickster places this important Native American cultural theme into roughly the same category as Brer Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote, and the Three Stooges. When this term is applied to characters who may be heroes, creative deities, and powerful advocates of humans, these cultural icons are denigrated. American Indian thinkers such as Gerald Vizenor stress that trickster, as a term, should not be understood as an anthropological or folkloric category, but rather as a metaphorical idea or a consciousness within the stories that explains to the people who they are, where they are from, and how it is that they should live.

Sacred History

All of the above tales can be considered aspects of sacred history, and important mythic themes connect Native American people to their traditions through their direct relationships with the actors in the tales. While characters like Coyote or the animal and plant beings may not qualify as relatives in the sense that Western biological or historic realities dictate, the realities of Native American communities render a much different accounting of the family tree.

For the Lakota of the Great Plains, the story of White Buffalo Woman's visit to the people to bring them their seven central ceremonies and the sacred pipe affirms the already established, but perhaps neglected, familial relationship between the Lakota and the bison. The story tells of a time when the Lakota were experiencing famine, due in part to the reluctance of the Buffalo Nation to appear and be hunted. The people had forgotten the way to behave, and became more angry and confused as the consequences visited themselves upon them.

Then it happened that two young men were travelling in search of game when they spied a white mist, from which a beautiful young woman emerged. As she neared them, the men could see that she was naked. One young man averted his eyes and maintained decent thoughts, while the other approached her with evil intentions. The latter was swallowed up by a mist which left him nothing more than a skeleton. The other young man humbled himself, still covering his eyes, and the woman told him to go back to his people and have them make ready for her arrival, preparing a lodge where the women would attend her while the men averted their gazes until the appropriate time.

It came to pass as she instructed, and the woman made her way into the camp carrying a bundle. After she was bathed and dressed, she called all of the people together and taught them the ceremonies that would keep their minds and hearts attentive to their responsibilities to the world. She taught them to pray with the pipe, presenting a pipe to them and instructing them as to how subsequent pipes were to be made. As she left them, she rolled in the dust four times, each time turning into a buffalo of a different color. The last was a white buffalo, and then she was gone.

This tale is seen as a history of the religious use of the pipe among the Lakota, and the pipe that White Buffalo Woman gave to the people is still in existence, in the care of descendants of the first recipient. The tale, along with the ceremonies the people learn in the course of it, reoriented fallen ones to their sacred responsibilities to the world, especially to their relatives, the Buffalo Nation. In the Lakota creation narrative, the people and the buffalo emerge together from the Black Hills with common ancestors who can now be traced as easily as one traces their biological family tree. In addition to these important aspects of Lakota life, the story teaches humility and the proper treatment of women, as well as providing an inexorable link between the Lakota, their ritual cycle, and the land that produced them both.

In a similar way, the Chumash tell of their movement to the mainland of what is now California from the Channel Islands via a rainbow bridge placed by Hutash, the earth and fertility goddess. Hutash wanted to move some of her people from the islands to the mainland, so she provided a bridge. There was only one caveat: do not look down as you cross. Some of the people did look down, and fell into the ocean below. Several of the beings from Chumash mythology asked Hutash to do something for the people, as they would surely die as a result of the mishap. So Hutash turned them into dolphins as they fell, and they safely lived out their lives in that form. Thus the Chumash see themselves as related to the dolphins that inhabit the waters off the coast, and also remember to heed the lesson learned and remain mindful of the rules set out by Hutash.

In a Haida tale (one with many variations), a child discovers a bit of mold on the fish he is about to eat and complains about it, ultimately refusing the fish entirely. The people warn him that if he continues to speak disrespectfully, the Fish People will see to it that he learns a difficult lesson. Sure enough, as the child is playing by the shore he is taken into the sea by the Salmon, who change him into one of their own. The story contains many vignettes about the boy's travels as a salmon, and he eventually returns to the shore from which he was abducted. His mother catches him and starts to prepare him for drying when she notices that the salmon has a small charm around his neck. The village priest is called, and he sees that the fish is her long-lost son. The woman is to lay the salmon on the roof of her house, and when it rains, the fish will be transformed back into her son. This does indeed come to pass, and the boy grows to become a powerful priest and healer in his own right. This multilayered tale contains lessons about respect and propriety, and also establishes traceable links between the human world and the other-than-human world. The boy who becomes a priest is invariably referred to by people as a relative, and this relative was himself a salmon, if only for a while.

The Ojibwe have a series of tales about the Thunderers, sometimes called the Thunder Birds or Thunder Beings, who continue to interact with the people. There are tales in historic times of the Thunderers coming to people's aid in dire circumstances. The Thunderers provide a connection between the people and their sacred history, as these powerful beings appear in stories of long, long ago as well. The Thunderers are seen by the Ojibwe as grandparents, powerful manitous who assist those humans who know enough to respect them. They bring rain, they signal changes in the seasons, and they speak to humans and protect them from the threats of Mishebeshu and his kin.

In one story, Nanabush creates the Thunderers in order to keep the people, whom he has made, from disappearing. The Thunderers are instructed to watch over the humans and to strike against Mishebeshu. To continue to interact with these beings in contemporary circumstances brings the Ojibwe mythic cycle deeper relevance. The stories are taken as a nexus of events, and when one person evokes the sacred narrative through a personal experience of an other-than-human nature, it validates the entire corpus. Such hero figures, often the focus of ethnographic or folkloric analyses of American Indian mythic narratives, also fall into the category of sacred history in that they are often the originators of specific families or clans. Many Native American communities are organized along clan lines, with the clans originating in mythic times.

Another common theme in the hero tales is that of human heroes who provide edification or resolve via their behavior, as in the Coeur d'Alene accounts of a boy who, in the face of intimidation by a camp bully or certain defeat at the hands of an enemy, uses his courage and tenacity to overcome his adversary. Such a tale is that of Four Smokes, which tells of a group of men who are surrounded by enemies while hunting in Crow country. A young boy is asked to divert the warriors away from the camp while the rest of his family escapes. Out of concern for his family, the young boy reluctantly agrees. At each of four enemy charges the young boy gives a war cry and, with bullets flying about him, runs to a nearby bush. On each occasion he makes it to safety, and the Crow warriors, convinced that the boy has special powers, retreat. That evening the elders give the young boy the name Four Smokes in honor of the four times the Crow rifles discharged gun smoke but failed to hit the boy. The modern weaponry of the Crow party proves that Four Smokes is a historic character; one who can be seen as a close relative of the contemporary Coeur d'Alene and an exemplar of familial fidelity and courage in the face of adversity.

Themes that make up American Indian sacred narrative are governed by several key factors. First is the logical working of the universe as each specific tribal culture sees it. The creation stories set the parameters of the possible and the necessary, giving the people a guide by which decisions can be made, relationships understood, and success measured. Second, the narratives emphasize the way the actual day-to-day world works, which is similar to the first concept, but different in scope.

Whereas each tribal tradition can be seen as a philosophical system, the stories about the earth and how it operates can be seen as a science of sorts, a method for working within the rules set out in the creation narratives that will bring about expected results while avoiding the pitfalls that occur when one does things incorrectly. Often, tribal traditions make it clear that things must be done in a good way, which generally translates into a protocol within which propriety can be maintained, needs met, and problems assuaged. Finally, these are histories, stories of the people—where they came from and where they are going. Actors in these tales are often beings that one could encounter at any time, and one does encounter them, thus providing the impetus to maintain these traditions in perpetuity.

Modernity, in many ways, is anti-traditional, favoring the new, the innovative, and the topical. Sacred histories allow traditional cultures to exist in the modern world and yet maintain their link to the past, keeping their stories of the before-time, powerful other-than-human beings, and plant, animal, and elemental relatives because they are old. Wisdom comes with age, and American Indian stories have the power to bring ancient wisdom to bear on current topics. Contemporary indigenous communities the world over remain faithful to their own stories and legacy, rather than the sometimes more popular myths of modernity.


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Ferguson, T. J., Kurt Dongoske, Mike Yeatts, and Leigh Kuwanwisiwma. "Hopi Oral History and Archaeology." In Working Together: Native Americans and Archaeologists, edited by Kurt E. Dongoske, Mark Aldenderfer, and Karen Doehner, pp. 45–60. Washington, D.C., 2000.

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Dennis F. Kelley (2005)

From the time of their earliest contact with European settlers and explorers, Native Americans have defended their lands, cultures, religions, and political rights. Often, Native American efforts to preserve their communities and cultures take the form of religious, military, political, and cultural movements. The ways that Native nations have sought to preserve their cultures and territories have varied considerably throughout colonial history and in the contemporary world. There were wars, battles, and strategic political alliances during the colonial period before and after the establishment of the United States. Religious movements, or revitalization movements, characterize Native responses to colonialism as American Indian peoples sought cultural solutions to drastically changing economic, political, and cultural situations.

Many Native American traditions, religions, and revitalized cultures continue into the present day as living communities. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Native peoples openly practiced, reclaimed, and maintained their religious beliefs and understandings. If there is one generalization about Native American communities over the past five hundred years of colonial contact, it might be that Native nations have sought to preserve their cultures, communities, political rights, and territories. Social and religious movements have been among the ways in which Native people have sought to preserve core aspects of their cultures while accommodating changing political, economic, and cultural relations in an increasingly globalized world.

Military and Diplomatic Movements

Eastern North America was colonized by an assortment of colonial powers, including the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Swedes. As the competitive and warring nation states of Europe transferred their disputes to the colonies, diplomatic and economic rivalries were played out as part of the policies of the mother countries. The hunt for gold was an early motivating factor for the colonizers, but they soon turned their attention to the export of furs and skins. Native people were willing to trade furs for European manufactured goods such as ironware, rifles, traps, cloth, and pots and pans. Native trappers and hunters became sources of labor in complex intercontinental markets extending back to the European capitals.

Native communities soon became dependent on trade with Europeans for manufactured products they could not produce themselves. Economic dependence required a European trading partner, and the eastern Native nations soon found themselves forced to ally with one or another European colony for trade and military protection. Trade allies became military allies during times of war, and the Native nations were soon swept into a series of conflicts that were often initiated to serve European interests far away from North America. Warfare became more frequent, involved more combatants, marshaled greater firepower, and was far more deadly than traditional Native American conflicts.

Working according to the dictates of the European market, European traders demanded more and more furs from Native American hunters and trappers, coercing them to trap more by reducing the value of furs relative to trade items; thus more furs were required to trade for necessities. Traders used alcohol as an inducement to bring in more furs or a distraction leading to poor trades, requiring additional hunting. Market demands for furs led to Native hunters overhunting local animal resources, and often forced tribes like the Delaware and Munsee to fall back into the interior to follow the disappearing hunting grounds. Movement into the interior, however, often led to conflict with other nations who had already claimed the hunting grounds.

By the 1640s the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) saw their local beaver and deer supplies shrink to levels that could not sustain trade with the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Consequently, the Iroquois sought trade agreements with the Native nations of the interior, but were rebuffed because the interior nations had their trade and diplomatic alliances with the French. With Dutch support, the Iroquois initiated a series of battles and wars in the middle 1640s that lasted until about 1700, known as the Beaver Wars. From the 1640s until 1820 in eastern North America there was nearly continuos warfare and economic and diplomatic competition that ended only with the emergence of the United States and the extension of its control over the region.

The trade and diplomatic ties of the Native nations to European colonies not only involved them in the European wars but intensified military and economic interactions among the Native nations. The Iroquois, supported by Dutch and later English alliances and weapons, pushed out or dispersed many of the Native nations of the lower Great Lakes, and forced the Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Odawa, Sac and Fox, Wyandot, and others farther west. In turn, the migrating Native nations, often better supplied with weapons, pushed others like the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Gros Ventre, and Cheyenne farther to the west and onto the plains.

The intensification of diplomatic, military, and trade relations greatly affected the ability of many Native nations to maintain their territorial and economic integrity. Most nations in eastern North America were forced into a trade, military, or diplomatic alliance with one or another European colony. Many coastal nations were quickly subjugated by the English colonies. The Pamunkey Algonquins under Powhatan (c. 1550–1618) were early subject to English land encroachments, taxes, and pressures to convert to Christianity that resulted in several conflicts, ending with the social, political, and cultural marginalization of the Virginia nations by 1675.

At about the same time, the Native nations of New England were increasingly forced to cede land and political autonomy to the English. The Wampanoags did not believe they could live under English rule, and the economic and cultural changes were corrupting their way of life. The defeat of the Wampanoags and allied New England nations in King Philip's War (1675–1676) led to their relegation to small tracts of land and communities often called Indian Praying Towns. The New England nations adopted town-government democracy and Christian Protestant religions, although they have maintained a sense of Native identity to the present day.

While most Native nations in the thirteen original U.S. colonies were eventually brought under colonial control, the nations farther to the west continued to engage in trade, diplomatic, and military relations with the rival European colonial powers. By 1700 some of them began to realize that the expansionist goals of the English colonists were a threat to their sovereignty and traditional territories. The Iroquois and Creek confederacies began to form alliances of Native nations in order to manage relations with the Europeans more effectively. During the early 1700s the Iroquois often boasted that they had a military alliance with fifty Native nations, although most likely this claim was a bargaining ploy for negotiating with the Europeans.

The Iroquois Confederacy held together an alliance of Native nations based on economic treaties that allowed the Iroquois access to western hunting grounds, and in exchange they gave the western nations access to British trade goods at Albany in the New York colony. The Iroquois managed this alliance for their own and English trade and diplomatic interests, but it unraveled after the 1750s as trade moved farther west and Pennsylvania traders moved into the Ohio region. The alliance was increasingly taken over by Shawnee and Delaware leadership.

During the early 1760s, Pontiac (c. 1720–1769) assembled many groups from the northern confederacy to attack British forts in the Great Lakes region. This same confederacy was united to oppose U.S. expansion during Little Turtle's War in the 1790s, and in 1812 Tecumseh (1768–1813) was appointed warrior head of the confederacy that fought with the British against the United States in the War of 1812. After the War of 1812 the northern alliance was left depleted and in disarray.

The Creek nation also tried to strengthen its trade and diplomatic position by inviting coastal groups and other nations or villages to join the Creek Confederacy. The Creek leadership tried to manage relations among the English, French, and Spanish colonies of the south in order to gain diplomatic and trade advantages. The Creek were relatively successful with these methods during the second half of the 1700s. During the early 1760s the southern tribes, including the Creek, rejected overtures by the Shawnee and Delaware to join with the northern confederacy against the British. And in 1811 the southern Native nations generally declined to ally with the northern confederacy by refusing to join Tecumseh to oppose the expansion of the United States into Native lands.

Many Native nations during the late 1700s and 1800s engaged the U. S. government in warfare. Most were defending territory and their way of life, or moving to preserve an economic resource like the buffalo. Native military alliances were usually loose coalitions of friendship, and often seasonally deployed. In general, they were hard to sustain in the field, could not manufacture their own rifles and ammunition, and depended on the backing of a strong European colonial ally who was willing to provide military supplies and, hopefully, armed forces. After the War of 1812 and the sale of Florida and West Florida (present-day Alabama and Mississippi) by Spain to the United States, the eastern Native nations were left without effective allies and were forced to recognize U.S. authority in the region.

Movements of Religious Fundamentalism and Reform

As eastern North America became increasingly engaged in trade, diplomacy, and the economic markets, the encroachments of colonial power led to the dispersion and social and economic degradation of Native life and culture. Native communities were forced to migrate farther west, game disappeared, colonists took over land and made farms, disease greatly reduced the numbers and life expectancy of Native peoples, and economic and political dependencies required interaction and compliance with colonial authorities and traders. European trade goods, access to alcohol, overspecialization in the fur-trade economy, and new Christian religious ideas and concepts were changing and modifying everyday life. Native social and living conditions deteriorated noticeably, and the colonial expansion westward was increasing.

Under these conditions many Native American leaders and spiritual guides began to lament the declining conditions of the Native nations and sought answers. While military action was one option, many leaders hoped to understand the spiritual and religious significance of the changes that were occurring and sought remedies through spiritual means. There are reports of spiritual preaching among the Iroquois as early as the 1720s, but not to the extent of becoming a full-fledged movement. There may have been many spiritual leaders who discussed the issues of the day in spiritual terms but did not lead recognizable movements, or who have been lost in history.

Among the Delaware in the 1740s, there appears to have been much distress because of migrations and declining conditions, and there are hints of spiritual unrest. Several prophets appeared among the Delaware in the late 1750s and early 1760s. The British had just won the French and Indian War, and many tribes in the northern alliance, including the Delaware and Odawa, who were both allied with the French, were highly suspicious of British motivations. The British now controlled trade and gained control of the military forts in the Great Lakes region. The Native nations in the region expected British retaliation and were unhappy under British administration. Under these conditions two religious movements emerged among the Delaware. One led to the unified national Delaware Big House religion, and the other to the militant teachings that the Odawa Pontiac endorsed and used to collect a military coalition to try to force the British out the Great Lakes region.

The militant prophet's teachings combined elements of Christianity with selected Native teachings. The prophet Neolin (the Delaware Prophet) had a near death experience and dreamed he went to heaven and received instruction directly from god. In general, his teachings suggested that the Native people had abandoned the religious teachings and lifeways of their forebears and had adopted too many European ways, including their clothing, trade, alcohol, and Christianity. These changes had corrupted Native life, and the solution was to return to the beliefs and life of their ancestors, which would help restore the Native American nations to their former health and prosperity. The Europeans would have to be pushed off the continent through warfare, and no warrior could reach the next world if he did not believe in the prophet's teachings and do his bidding. Pontiac and the militant Delaware prophet used these teachings to organize the northern confederacy against the British, but after losing a brief war, called Pontiac's War, the teachings were lost or went underground. This movement, which emphasizes spiritual solutions to colonial situations and a return to the culture and religion of the ancestors, we can call fundamentalist.

The second Delaware religious movement during the early 1760s led to the political, social, and religious reform of Delaware society. This prophet synthesized elements of traditional Delaware religious views, brought them together into a common ceremonial structure, the Big House, unified three phratries of a dozen clans each into a common religious-kinship structure, and established unified chief and leadership positions for all three phratries. The phratries are known to us as the Wolf, Turkey, and Turtle divisions, or perhaps more generally as four-leggeds, two-leggeds, and those that walk on land and water.

The newly established chief of the Turtle division was the first leader of the newly reformed Delaware nation. The reformed Delaware religion-society helped centralize and unify Delaware political and religious relations, and helped the Delaware more effectively manage relations with other tribes and Europeans. The Delaware Big House religion was practiced until at least the 1920s. This movement can be called a reform movement because it led to long term and durable institutional change in Delaware society. Its purpose was religious, moral, social, and political reform.

The Fundamentalist Movements

The Native religious landscape had numerous fundamentalist and reform movements. The fundamentalist movements have generally been more historically colorful and often gained considerable attention. They include the Pueblo Revolt (1680s), the Shawnee Prophet movement (1805–1811), the Cherokee Prophet movement (1811–1813), the Red Stick War (1813–1814), White Path's Rebellion (1826), the Winnebago Prophet movement (1830–1832), the first Ghost Dance (1869–1870) and the second Ghost Dance (1889–1890), and the Snake movements among the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek during the 1890s. These generally fundamentalist movements favored a return to traditional ways and rejected the social, cultural, and economic changes brought by the colonies or the United States.

Many of these movements adopted elements of Christianity, such as the idea of a second coming or the concepts of heaven and a single anthropomorphic God, but their solution to the economic, demographic, and political decline of the Native communities was to seek a solution through spiritual intervention and a restoration of the way of life that existed before the Europeans arrived. The second Ghost Dance asked the faithful to dance at regular intervals in a circle to induce dreams and communication with the ancestors in order to learn about the ancestors' immanent return and restoration of the Native way of life. The Cherokee Prophet, in 1811–1813, taught that the changes in Cherokee society were corrosive and that the community would be destroyed in a hailstorm of fiery rocks. Only those who went to Lookout Mountain would be saved. The first Ghost Dance taught that the people would be saved by trainloads of manufactured goods that would arrive only for the Native people. This movement is reminiscent of the cargo cults in the Pacific.

The Winnebago Prophet taught that by resisting the Americans militarily, the Winnebago and Sac and Fox would regain their traditional lands when a group of spiritual warriors appeared to defeat the U.S. Army. The Creek Red Sticks opposed economic and political change introduced by U.S. Indian agents, and they started a civil war for cultural reasons, which later developed into the Creek War (1812–1813). The Pueblo Revolt was strongly influenced by a rejection of Christianity and Spanish political domination, and it earned the Pueblo the right to practice their own religion, although most Pueblo people were returned to Spanish control in the 1690s. The Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek Snake movements were ways to mobilize a political organization to oppose the abolishment of the tribal governments and force their inclusion in the state of Oklahoma. The members of the Snake movements were the most culturally conservative members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek nations.

The fundamentalist movements, generally, have been strongly resistant to cultural and political change, favoring military or spiritual solutions to the degradation of life under colonial domination. Some of the movements have relied on a cataclysmic spiritual event to intervene and restore the old order and tradition. If the significant spiritual event does not occur, however, then most people lose faith in the movement and the movement disintegrates, though sometimes small groups of adherents remain and carry on the beliefs, often in secret.

The Reform Movements

Reform religious movements are aimed at changing or supporting community social and cultural values to accommodate fluctuating political, cultural, and political conditions. Native American reform movements include the Yaqui religion (1500–present), the Handsome Lake movement (1797–present), the Munsee Prophetess movement (1804–1805), the Kickapoo Prophet movement (1815–present), the Cherokee Keetoowah Society (1858–present), the Washat Dreamers religion (1850–present), the Indian Shakers (1881–present), the Native American Church (1800s–present), the Shoshoni Sun Dance (1890–present), and perhaps the New Tidings religion of the Canadian Sioux (1900–present) and Ojibwe Drummer movement (contemporary). Most of these religions adopt some concepts from Christianity but have a predominantly Native cultural and philosophical focus that would not be generally recognized as Christian.

The most characteristic of the religious reform movements is the Handsome Lake movement among the Seneca and Iroquois. Handsome Lake, after having a near-death experience, brought back a message of reform to the Seneca from god. Elements of Catholicism and Quakerism are integrated with selected features of traditional religion and ceremony to create a reform message. Handsome Lake's movement emerged as the Iroquois were relegated to small reservations. He advocated no gambling or drinking and legitimized the role of men in farming, which previously was women's work, by suggesting that males take up the horse and plow while women focused on horticulture using hand implements. The prophet advocated social and culture reform as a means of helping the community adapt to life on small reservations. Strong emphasis is given to moral issues and individual responsibility, and Christian concepts of heaven and hell and punishment in the afterlife are emphasized for those who would break the new moral code. Handsome Lake is given credit for introducing significant social reform into Iroquois society. His followers established a church about fifteen years after his death.

The Kickapoo Prophet, Native American Church, and Indian Shaker movements follow analogous patterns of moral and community reform and continue as contemporary religious movements. The Yaqui religion is an example of the formation of a reformed religion, borrowing significantly from Christian Catholic teachings but recreated and relocated within Yaqui tradition and history. Some movements are less influenced by social or cultural change and instead emphasize and support the continuity of community and tradition. Such movements are the Munsee Prophetess movement, the New Tidings religion, and the Ojibwa Drummer movement.

The religious reform movements are generally responses to radically changing social, cultural, political, and economic conditions experienced by many Native communities over the past two centuries. Traditional religions seemed ill equipped to interpret and give guidance under radically changing colonial conditions, and some people have looked for new ways to understand the world and make accommodations to it. Some Native Americans have adopted Christianity, but often continue to engage with the Native community and beliefs. Native American Christian churches, such as the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Creek, are based on Native languages and social and cultural organizations. Native religious reform movements often provide syncretic religious solutions to a community undergoing rapid change, as well as provide a new set of moral values, beliefs, ceremonies, and sometimes community organization to help people endure and live under the new conditions. The reform movements usually retain many central Native concepts and philosophies.

Contemporary Social Movements

Current Native American social movements take many forms. Native peoples are actively engaged in many activities in the area of land claims, education, Native rights, international rights, and many others. The focus here will be on the movements that are related to religious issues.

During the 1970s the Red Power movement's activities ranged from the occupation of Alcatraz Island to the second Long Walk in 1978. Contemporary Red Power activities have been less visible, but have taken the form of occasional protests, especially over nuclear waste sites on or near reservation land, as well as sacred walks or sacred runs. American Indian Movement (AIM) chapters are still active, meet in national meetings, and are engaged in community issues and cultural events. Native American students at colleges and universities are engaged in Native American issues, recruitment, cultural events, and community activities.

One major outgrowth of the Red Power movement was the open revival of Native traditions in many Native American communities. Activism in the 1970s started in urban areas but soon moved to the reservation communities, where young Native Americans sought greater knowledge and understanding of traditional culture. These events encouraged many spiritual leaders and traditionalists to bring Native ceremonies, dances, and stories out into public view, when they had been hidden away for many years. Elders and traditionalists gained more respect, and they became more active and visible in Native American communities. Tribal community colleges and universities started teaching Native languages and culture.

Native religious freedom issues were defended in the courts to preserve the right to smoke sacred peyote in ceremonies. Twice Congressional bills were written to preserve Native American religious rights through the American Indian Religious Freedom Acts. Native Americans moved to protect sacred sites and places of worship, both on and off the reservations. Native religion and traditional knowledge became more highly regarded within Native American communities. Contemporary Native peoples are actively engaged in the world through a variety of social, religious, political, educational, and cultural movements aimed at preserving their communities, identities, religions, and political autonomy.


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Duane Champagne (2005)

The religions of North American Indians manifest considerable complexity and diversity. In 1492 several hundred cultural groups practiced distinctive forms of religion. While we customarily begin the documentary record at the time of initial European contact, discoveries in archaeology have extended religious perspectives far back into prehistory. Burial mounds in the Midwest, Southeastern ceremonial sites, abandoned kivas in the Southwest, stone medicine wheels on the Plains, California petroglyphs, and other remains all evoke the antiquity of North American religions.

Despite its intrinsic value for comparative religion, the field of indigenous North American religions has been undercultivated by religious scholars. Too often dismissed as "primitive," these religions have been generally relegated to an undifferentiated residual category shared with other religions of primal peoples around the world. Interest in these religions has been limited to their supposed evolutionary position as stages logically antecedent to what are commonly called the "great religions," which command the allegiance of the majority of the world's population. Rarely, until recently, have North American Indian religions been studied as valid subjects in their own right. Nevertheless, research has revealed intricately structured rituals and ceremonies, myths densely packed with symbolic meanings, cosmologies that embrace subtle relations with nature, and highly elaborated varieties of individual religious experience.

One difficulty in studying native North American religions is that their institutions tend to be much less obviously compartmentalized than those of the so-called great religions. Their religious beliefs and practices pervade many spheres of practical activity; for example, among the Nootka constructing a canoe is considered a religious act, as is Hopi horticulture, the rabbit drive of the Rappahanock, the Paiute piñon gathering, and so on.

A second problem confronting students of North American Indian religions is the absence of literacy in traditional native societies. Lacking bodies of orthodox written doctrine, they have depended on oral and visual transmission of religious tradition. Such modes place a premium on mnemonic devices, rhetorical skills, and tacit understandings gained through participation. The absence of written texts has in the past allowed considerable flexibility in adapting to change and permitted considerable latitude for idiosyncratic interpretation.

A third difficulty is that the religions of North American Indians are typically dynamic. Efforts to depict or reconstruct these religions as timeless, fully integrated systems of belief and action are usually doomed to failure. Religious movements are recurrent features in North American history and prehistory. These movements, usually inspired by prophecy, originated within particular tribes but often spread beyond tribal boundaries. Deeply embedded in many of these religions are many reintegrated traits that ultimately derive from early contacts with Christianity.

Early Observers

The study of North American religions begins with the early European explorers. Many explorers carried with them strong Christian theocentric biases that denied the existence of religion in aboriginal societies. People who went naked and lived communally, who practiced polygamy, anthropophagy, and human sacrifice were sometimes judged as less than human. What served as religion to the Indian was disdainfully dismissed by the European newcomer as devil worship, idolatry, or irrational superstition. However, since part of the European mission to explore and settle the New World was religiously motivated, earnest efforts were made to convert the heathens to the "true faith" through both coercion and persuasion.

Later explorers of the interior regions were scarcely more perspicacious than their predecessors concerning native religions. Older stereotypes persisted: Indians were said to be haunted by demons, their religious practitioners were derided as conjurors, jugglers, and imposters, and their rites were regarded as ridiculous and absurd. On matters of religion, the accounts of the explorers replay their presuppositions with monotonous regularity.

Nevertheless, in the performance of their evangelical tasks, missionaries sometimes mastered native languages and were able to penetrate the belief structures of their potential converts. The Recollet and Jesuit fathers bequeathed an unprecedented record of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious customs among Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking groups in the Northeast. Not only does the seventy-three-volume The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (compiled 1610–1791; first published in 1896–1901; reprint in 39 vols., New York, 1959) contain accurate firsthand observations, but the scholarly training of these priests enabled them to engage in speculative comparative ethnology. The high point of Jesuit anthropology was reached by the priest Joseph François Lafitau in his two-volume Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains comparées aux moeurs des premiers (1724; translated by William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore as Customs of the American Savages, compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, Toronto, 1977). Lafitau offered a detailed overview of religious customs based on the works of his Jesuit predecessors and supplemented by his own inquiries. He systematically compared Indian religious practices with those of classical antiquity. Convinced that the Indians had emigrated from Asia, Lafitau argued for the unity of the human race, all of whom had in the remote past, he believed, shared a common God-given religion. Lafitau maintained that through migrations, local adaptations, and forgetfulness, primal beliefs and practices degenerated; yet vestiges of this original condition could still be discerned in the customs of contemporary savages, which presented clues for unraveling unwritten history. Lafitau's ideas were not unique, but the reliability of his documentation and his attempts at systematic comparison place him in advance of his times.

Spanish and English missionaries, with rare exceptions, fell far short of the high standards set by the French. The rigid religious orthodoxy of the Spanish and the notorious ethnocentrism of the English seemed to conspire in precluding sympathetic tolerance for native beliefs. Only in the late eighteenth century do missionary accounts of native religions begin to possess substantive worth.

Along with the records of enlightened missionaries, the reports of early travelers and traders offer valuable material on North American Indians. Travelers, by virtue of their experiences with a series of different groups, frequently were sensitive to religious variations. Lack of sustained observation tended to diminish the reliability of these reports, but this deficiency was overcome by exceptional traders and administrators who resided for long periods in Indian communities, learned Indian languages, and often married Indian women. For example, the trader John Long in his account of the Ojibwa (Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, 1791) is the first to refer to the concept of totem, which he describes as an association established with a guardian spirit during a vision quest. Later scholars misappropriated and universalized the term to denote names for descent groups and elementary forms of religion.

Much knowledge about traditional religion among Indians of the Southeast Woodlands derives from James Adair's The History of the American Indian (1775). Adair, who lived for forty years among the Cherokee and Chickasaw, believed that the Indians were descended from the lost tribes of Israel. To sustain his argument, he established twenty-three points of specific convergence between Indian and Israelite customs. Despite his erroneous thesis, Adair's mode of analysis forced him to ask questions and record important religious information that might otherwise have been ignored.

Emergence of a Field of Study

Early theories about the indigenous people of North America revolved around questions of origin. Who were they? Whence did they come? Few theorists subscribed to an autochthonous origin; some, influenced by the foreshortened biblical chronology, attempted to link them with historically known Old World peoples. Such speculations encouraged the collection and analysis of ethnological materials, among which religious information was considered critical. Simple connections proved untenable, and the origins of North American Indians were pushed farther into the past. Many European and colonial philosophers and universal historians equated indigenous peoples with early stages of human development, as epitomized in Locke's famous phrase, "in the beginning all the World was America." Themes of native degeneracy and inherent inferiority were countered by the philosophical and literary image of the "Noble Savage," a convention that attained popularity in the mid-eighteenth century more as a critique of Western morality than as a serious effort accurately to portray Native Americans.

The post-Revolutionary consolidation of a national identity on the part of Americans provided another stimulus to the study of North American Indians. Intellectuals of the new republic sought to advance evidence proving that their continent was not inferior to the Old World and could support civilization. Under the influence of such leaders as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Barton, Peter DuPonceau, Lewis Cass, and Albert Gallatin, coordinated efforts were undertaken not only to "civilize" the Indians but also to preserve for posterity a record of their traditional cultures.

The career of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793–1864) exemplifies the transition from amateur observer to professional ethnologist. Schoolcraft's younger years were spent on the frontier as a geological explorer and Indian trader. After taking up residence among the Chippewa of Sault Sainte Marie, he married an Indian woman, learned Chippewa, and became a governmental agent. In 1839 he published his influential Algic Researches, (New York, 1839) in which he sought to reveal the deeper levels of Indian mentality through the collection of myths and folklore and the analysis of subtleties in Algonquian linguistics. His scholarly reputation thus established, Schoolcraft deserted the frontier to promote the fledgling science of ethnology. He secured federal support and was responsible for compiling the mammoth, six-volume Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (Philadelphia, 1851–1860). This work is laced with important data from missionaries and Indian agents, but its cumbersome and disorganized format limits its utility.

Advances Under The Bureau of Ethnology

The founding of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 auspiciously launched formal government anthropology in the United States. The bureau's mission was primarily salvage ethnology and scientific systematization of knowledge about America's original inhabitants. Under the inspired directorship of John Wesley Powell, a dedicated group of scholars was assembled who left enduring contributions to the understanding of Indian religions.

The Southwest became an important area of investigation, since Apachean-speaking and Pueblo groups retained viable neoaboriginal religious systems. Such bureau-sponsored researchers as James Stevenson and Matilda Stevenson, J. W. Fewkes, Washington Matthews, J. G. Bourke, and Frank Hamilton Cushing produced papers and monographs on Southwestern ceremonialism that attracted international attention.

Other areas as well were attended to by the bureau. Clay MacCauley, James Mooney, and, later, John R. Swanton studied Southeast Woodlands religions. Research on Iroquois religion persisted through the works of Lewis Henry Morgan and Horatio Hale, whose The Iroquois Book of Rites (Philadelphia, 1883) represents the first modern monographic treatment of North American Indian ceremonialism. Such bureau scholars as Erminnie Smith and J. N. B. Hewitt contributed significant studies on Iroquoian myths and cosmology. Other aspects of Eastern Woodlands religion were documented by W. J. Hoffman's works on the Ojibwa and Menomini and later by Truman Michaelson's impressive corpus on the Fox.

The heyday of Plains culture still survived within living memory when bureau ethnologists entered the field. J. Owen Dorsey collected valuable information on Siouan religions; James Mooney reported on the Kiowa and Cheyenne; Alice Fletcher, in collaboration with native intellectuals Francis La Flesche and James Murie, produced classic monographs on Omaha and Pawnee religion. Mooney's brilliant description and analysis of the contemporary Ghost Dance remains a recognized masterpiece of religious ethnology. Very little bureau work was undertaken among tribes west of the Rocky Mountains until the twentieth century.

Rise of University Specializations

By 1900 the center of American anthropology began to shift from museums and government agencies to universities. As gifted and resourceful as the early researchers of the Bureau of Ethnology were, none had received formal academic training in anthropology. The central figure in the movement toward professionalization was Franz Boas, a European-trained scholar, who exerted a dominant influence on American anthropology for the next half century. Boas developed the modern concept of culture, set new standards for fieldwork, and trained several generations of students destined to make decisive contributions to the study of Indian religions. Boas's own works on the Northwest Coast demonstrated a meticulous concern for ethnographic particularism aimed toward problems of cultural-historical reconstruction. Later he moved from an emphasis on trait analysis and diffusion toward interpretation of the dynamics of cultural integration. Reluctant to generalize and distrustful of grand theory, Boas assiduously collected native-language texts, many of which involve religious topics. Some have argued that Boas's strong positivistic empiricism inhibited theoretical development in North American anthropology; however, his insistence on obtaining the native viewpoint through texts provides a tangible legacy for modern anthropology.

Regardless of how one evaluates Boas's direct contributions to religious ethnology, his students and collaborators succeeded in filling out in fine descriptive detail the major lineaments of indigenous North American religions. Substantive works by such field-workers as Ruth Benedict, Ruth L. Bunzel, Roland B. Dixon, Alexander A. Goldenweiser, Esther Goldfrank, Erna Gunther, Herman Haeberlin, George L. Hunt, Melville Jacobs, A. L. Kroeber, Robert H. Lowie, Elsie Clews Parsons, Paul Radin, Gladys A. Reichard, Edward Sapir, Frank G. Speck, Leslie Spier, John R. Swanton, James A. Teit, Ruth M. Underhill, and Clark Wissler cannot be reviewed here. However, some brief comments on emergent trends can be mentioned. Increasingly, one finds concern with the nature of religious experience and religious meaning for the individual. Stylistic and literary features of myths and tales are given serious attention. Interest in culturally constituted worldviews becomes more apparent. Finally, there emerges an implicitly functional approach that relates religion to other aspects of culture, society, and the individual. Many of these scholars reached beyond ethnographic particularities to address problems of general theory and to impart the facts of native North American religions to a wider audience.

From the beginning, religious materials from North American Indian sources served as ammunition for the heavy artillery of European "armchair" theorists. These materials were employed in hit-or-miss fashion to support the global theories of such commanding figures as E. B. Tylor, James G. Frazer, Andrew Lang, R. R. Marett, W. J. Perry, Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Wilhelm Schmidt, and Adolf E. Jensen. American reaction to these theories has typically been defensive and critical. It must be admitted that, with few exceptions, these theorists and subsequent European ethnologists, comparativists, and religious historians lacked direct American field experience. Yet they have contributed significantly by viewing the American data from the broader perspective of world religions, by constructing typologies with which the American evidence can be analyzed and compared, and by probing deeply into the philosophical implications of these materials. Recent European scholars whose work deserves greater recognition by their American colleagues include Kaj Birket-Smith, Josef Haekel, Rolf Krusche, Werner Müller, Raffaele Pettazzoni, and Anna Burgitta Rooth. The prolific and more accessible works of Åke Hultkrantz, a Swedish scholar, deserve special comment. Hultkrantz conducted field research among the Shoshoni and Arapaho, but his principal eminence derives from his unparalleled grasp of the published literature on native North American religions, displayed in several comprehensive comparative monographs and in numerous topical essays.

Recent topics of Study

The post-Boasian period from World War II to the present has witnessed an accelerating interest in the indigenous religions of North America, and many profitable approaches have been taken. Psychological anthropology, for example, has brought new insights into the nature of religious experience through the study of alternate states of consciousness induced through ritual use of hallucinogens and other means. Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance (Garden City, N. Y., 1970) is particularly notable for its profound psychological interpretation of Native American religions.

Another approach is through environmental issues, which have stimulated considerations of the effects of religious ideology on ecological adaptation. Calvin Martin's Keepers of the Game (Berkeley, 1978), a historical account of Indian participation in the fur trade, has evoked a wide variety of responses on the role of religious motivation in hunting activities. Probably the most solidly crafted study to address this problem is Adrian Tanner's monograph on the Cree, Bringing Home Animals (New York, 1979).

The study of religious movements, too, commands much attention. Anthony F. C. Wallace's The Death and Rebirth of Seneca (New York, 1969), an eloquent account of the Handsome Lake religion, is a modern classic. Considerable study has been devoted to variations of the peyote religion. La Barre's enlarged edition of The Peyote Cult (New York, 1969) offers the best general overview of the subject, while David F. Aberle's The Peyote Religion among the Navaho (Chicago, 1982) and J. S. Slotkin's several publications on Menomini peyotism provide excellent accounts of specific manifestations. Homer Barnett's monograph Indian Shakers (Carbondale, Ill., 1957) stands as a definitive treatment of its subject.

The structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss has opened new vistas for the reinterpretation of North American totemism, art, myths, rituals, and the witchcraft-sorcery complex. Lévi-Strauss himself has utilized North American materials extensively in his provocative publications. Structuralism has inspired a whole generation of primarily younger scholars to think about previously collected data in interesting new ways.

Several noteworthy reworkings of important manuscript collections have recently appeared. Irving Goldman, synthesizing Boas's notes and scattered publications, has accomplished what Boas was never able to do—produce a coherent, theoretically informed account of Kwakiutl religion. Goldman's The Mouth of Heaven (New York, 1975) is complemented by Stanley Walens's symbolic analysis of Kwakiutl art and ritual, Feasting with Cannibals (Princeton, 1981). Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner have made available the rich previously unpublished Lakota materials that were collected early in the century by James R. Walker (Lakota Belief and Ritual, Lincoln, Nebr., 1980; Lakota Society, Lincoln, Nebr., 1982; and Lakota Myths, Lincoln, Nebr., 1983). DeMallie has also assembled primary materials relating to the renowned Lakota medicine man Black Elk (The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, Lincoln, Nebr., 1984). William Power's Oglala Religion (Lincoln, Nebr., 1977) and his excellent descriptions of an Oglala curing ritual in Yuwipi (Lincoln, Nebr., 1982) amplify our understanding of Lakota religion. James R. Murie's account of Pawnee ceremonialism has been edited by Douglas Parks and published as Ceremonies of the Pawnee (Washington, D.C., 1981). Another important contribution to Plains research is Peter J. Powell's masterful, two-volume opus on Cheyenne religion, Sweet Medicine (Norman, Okla., 1969). Elisabeth Tooker has combed The Jesuit Relations to reconstruct Huron religion in her An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615–1649 (Washington, D.C., 1964), and she has also published a useful study entitled The Iroquois Ceremonial of Midwinter (Syracuse, N.Y., 1970). William N. Fenton has contributed mightily to Iroquois studies with his superb monograph on the Eagle Dance (The Iroquois Eagle Dance, Washington, D.C., 1953) and a continuing stream of research on Longhouse rituals. Information on several extinct Californian religions have been resurrected from the field notes of the remarkable J. P. Harrington and published in various books and articles.

The Ojibwa and the Winnebago remain two of the best-documented American religious traditions. The works of Alanson Skinner, John Cooper, A. Irving Hallowell, and Paul Radin have provided sturdy scaffolding for subsequent research. Ruth Landes's Ojibwa Religion and the Midewiwin (Madison, Wis., 1968) and recent historically oriented works on the Ojibwa by Christopher Vecsey (Traditional Ojibwa Religion and its Historical Changes, Philadelphia, 1983) and John A. Grim (The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibwa Healing, Norman, Okla., 1983) illustrate this continuity. Landes's monograph on The Prairie Potawatomi (Madison, Wis., 1970) and James H. Howard's summary of Shawnee ceremonialism (Shawnee: The Ceremonialism of a Native Indian Tribe and Its Cultural Background, Athens, Ohio, 1981) enlarge our picture of Algonquian religions.

The Southwest continues as a focus of important research on religion. The complexities of Navajo religion, in particular, have been elucidated in the ethnographic and textual works of David F. Aberle, Leland C. Wyman, Berard Haile, David P. McAllester, Charlotte J. Frisbie, Louise Lamphere, and Gary Witherspoon, as well as in useful work by Sam D. Gill and Karl W. Luckert, both skilled historians of religion. Elsewhere in the Southwest, Alfonso Ortiz, a leading Tewa anthropologist, has written a sensitively informed account of Pueblo religion (The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society, Chicago, 1969), and Carobeth Laird, an affinal Chemehuevi, has recorded religious materials based on a lifetime of observation in her richly textured The Chemehuevis (Banning, Calif., 1976).

Knowledge of Southeast Woodlands Indian religion has been enriched by studies of religious continuities in modern Oklahoma (to which many Southeast Woodlands tribes were forcibly removed in the mid-nineteenth century); William L. Ballard's elegant analysis, entitled The Yuchi Green Corn Ceremonial (Los Angeles, 1978), and James G. Howard's Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicine, Magic, and Religion (Norman, Okla., 1984) are notable in this regard. Howard also provocatively analyzed the ceremonial complex of the prehistoric Southeast Woodlands Indians in The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (Columbia, Mo., 1968), in which he gains insights from surviving beliefs and practices. A collection of papers edited by Charles M. Hudson, The Black Drink (Athens, Ga., 1979), represents another effort to link prehistoric and ethnographic horizons.

The present surge in attention to native religions of North America derives from many sources. Most important is the growing recognition by Indians and non-Indians alike that religion constitutes a viable aspect of past, present, and future North American Indian societies, a point made in Vine Deloria's vigorous manifesto God is Red (New York, 1973). Not only have areas such as the Southwest enjoyed unbroken religious continuity, but elsewhere, once-moribund ceremonies—such as the potlatch in the Northwest, the Spirit Dance among the Salish, and the Sun Dance in the Plains—have been revivified. Syncretic and ecumenical native religions are achieving legitimacy, and in many areas Christianity has assumed a distinctively native flavor. These trends reflect changes in the political atmosphere toward native self-determination. Among other developments, passage of the Religious Freedom Act in 1978 has had far-reaching consequences in preserving sacred sites.

Academic concern with indigenous North American religions has grown dramatically in recent years. The establishment of special programs of study in many universities, the increased number of religion scholars of Native American descent, and the seriousness with which indigenous religions are now treated in many theological centers all testify to a new enlightenment. Yet despite the enhanced academic and popular visibility of Native American religions and the proliferation of publications in the field, much groundbreaking work remains. Only the surface has been scratched.


Åke Hultkrantz's The Study of American Indian Religions (New York, 1983) has proved indispensable in preparing this entry. The same author's The Religions of the American Indian (Berkeley, 1979) and Belief and Worship in Native North America (Syracuse, N. Y., 1981) are valuable sources on native North American religions. A slightly older synthesis, Ruth M. Underhill's Red Man's Religion (Chicago, 1965), remains a useful introductory survey. A pair of works by Sam D. Gill, Native American Religions: An Introduction (Belmont, Calif., 1981) and Native American Traditions: Sources and Interpretations (Belmont, Calif., 1983), offer a lively introduction to the subject. Three anthologies with diverse contents are Teachings from the American Earth, edited by Dennis Tedlock and Barbara Tedlock (New York, 1975); Seeing with a Native Eye, edited by Walter H. Capps (New York, 1976); and Native Religious Traditions, edited by Earle H. Waugh and K. Dad Prithipaul (Waterloo, Ont., 1979). A carefully annotated areal selection of native texts is presented in Elisabeth Tooker's Native North American Spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands (New York, 1979). Other areal guides can be found in the available volumes of the new Smithsonian Handbook of North American Indians (Washington, D.C., 1978–). Systems of North American Witchcraft and Sorcery, edited by Deward E. Walker (Moscow, Idaho, 1970), and Virgil Vogel's American Indian Medicine (Norman, Okla., 1970) are useful sources. Harold W. Turner's Bibliography of New Religious Movements in Primal Societies, vol. 2, North America (Boston, 1978), is a major resource.

Raymond D. Fogelson (1987)

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