Chapter 5: Religion and Spiritual Beliefs

 The White Buffalo Woman (Brule Sioux)

One summer so long ago that nobody remembers how long, the Oceti-Shakowin, the seven sacred councils fires of the Lakota Oyate, the nation, came together and camped. The sun shone all the time, but there was no game and the people were starving. Every day they sent scouts to look for game, but the scouts found nothing.

Among the bands assembled were the Itazipcho, the Without-Bows, who had their own camp circle under their chief, Standing Hollow Horn. Early one morning the chief sent two of his young men to hunt for game. They went on foot, because at that time the Sioux didn’t yet have horses. They searched everywhere but could find nothing. Seeing a high hill, they decided to climb it in order to look over the whole country. Halfway up, they saw something coming toward them from far off, but the figure was floating instead of walking. From this they knew that the person was wakan, holy.

At first they could make out only a small moving speck and had to squint to see that it was a human form. But as it came nearer, they realized it was a beautiful young woman, more beautiful than any they had ever seen, with two round, red dots of face paint on her cheeks. She wore a wonderful white buckskin outfit, tanned until it shone a long way in the sun. It was embroidered with sacred and marvelous designs of porcupine quill, in radiant colors no ordinary woman could have made. This wakan stranger was Ptesan-Wi, White Buffalo Woman. In her hands she carried a large bundle and a fan of sage leaves. She wore her blue-black hair loose except for a strand at the left side, which was tied up with buffalo fur. Her eyes shone dark and sparkling with great power in them.

The young men looked at her open-mouthed. One was overawed, but the other desired her body and stretched his hand out to touch her. This woman was lila wakan, very sacred, and could not be treated with disrespect. Lightning instantly struck the brash young man and burned him up, so that only a small heap of blackened bones was left. Or some say that he was suddenly covered by a cloud, and within it he was eaten up by snakes that left only his skeleton, just as a man can be eaten up by lust.

To the other scout who behaved rightly, the White Buffalo Woman said: “Good things I am bringing, something holy to your nation. A message I carry for your people from the buffalo nation. Go back to the camp and tell your people to prepare for my arrival. Tell your chief to put up a medicine lodge with twenty-four poles. Let it be made holy for my coming.”

This young hunter returned to the camp. He told the chief, he told the people, what the sacred woman had commanded. The chief told the eyapaha, the crier, and the crier went through the camp circle calling: “Someone sacred is coming. A holy woman approaches. Make all things ready for her.” So the people put up the big medicine tipi and waited. After four days they saw the White Buffalo Woman approaching, carrying her bundle before her. Her wonderful white buckskin dress shone from afar. The chief, Standing Hollow Horn, invited her to enter the medicine lodge. She went in and circled the interior sunwise. The chief addressed her respectfully, saying: “Sister, we are glad you have come to instruct us.”

She told them what she wanted done. In the center of tipi they were to put up an owanka wakan, a sacred alter, made of red earth, with a buffalo skull and a three-stick rack for a holy thing she was bringing. They did what she directed, and she traced with her finger on the smoothed earth of the altar. She showed them how to do all this, then circled the lodge again sunwise. Halting before the chief, she now opened the bundle. The holy thing it contained was the chanunpa, the sacred pipe. She held it out to the people and let them look at it. She was grasping the stem with her right hand and the bowl with her left, and thus the pipe has been held ever since.

Again the chief spoke, saying: “Sister, we are glad. We have had no meat for some time. All we can give you is water.” They dipped some wacanga, sweet grass, into a skin bag of water and gave it to her, and to this day the people dip sweet grass or an eagle feather in water and sprinkle it on a person to be purified.

The White Buffalo Woman showed the people how to use the pipe. She filled it with chan-shasha, red willow bark tobacco. She walked around the lodge four times after the manner of Anpetu-Wi, the great sun. This represented the circle without end, the flame to be passed on from generation to generation. She told them that the smoke rising from the bowl was Tunkashila’s breath, the living breath of the great Grandfather Mystery.

The White Buffalo Woman showed the people the right way to pray, the right words and right gestures. She taught them how to sing the pipe-filling song and how to lift the pipe up to the sky, toward Grandfather, and down toward Grandmother Earth, to Unci, and then to the four directions of the universe.

“With this holy pipe,” she said, “You will walk like a living prayer. With your feet resting upon the earth and pipestem reaching into the sky, your body forms a living bridge between the Sacred Beneath and the Sacred Above. Wakan Takan smiles upon us, because now we are as one: earth, sky, all living things, the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged ones, the trees and grasses. Together with the people, they are all related, one family. The pipe holds them all together.

“Look at this bowl,” said the White Buffalo Woman. “Its stone represents the buffalo, but also the flesh and blood of the red man. The buffalo represents the universe and the four directions, because he stands on four legs, for the four ages of creation. The buffalo was put in the west by Wakan Tanka at the making of the world, to hold back the waters. Every year he loses one hair, and in every one of the four ages he loses a leg. The sacred hoop will end when all the hair and legs of the great buffalo are gone, and the water comes back to cover the earth.

The wooden stem of this chanunpa stands for all that grows on the earth. Twelve feathers hanging from where the stem—the backbone—joins the bowl—the skull—are from Wanblee Galeshka, the spotted eagle, the very sacred bird who is the Great Spirit’s messenger and the wisest of all flying ones. You are joined to all things of the universe, for they all cry out to Tunkashila. Look at the bowl: engraved in it are seven circles of various sizes. They stand for the seven sacred ceremonies you will practice with this pipe, and for the Ocheit Shakowin, the seven sacred campfires of our Lakota nation.”

The White Buffalo Woman then spoke to the women, telling them that it was the work of their hands and the fruit of their bodies which kept the people alive. “You are from mother earth,” she told them. “What you are doing is as great as what the warriors do.”

And therefore the sacred pipe is also something that binds men and women together in a circle of love. It is the one holy object in the making of which both men and women have a hand. The men carved the bowl and make the stem; the women decorate it with bands of colored porcupine quills. When a man takes a wife, they both hold the pipe at the same time and red trade cloth is wound around their hands, thus tying them together for life.

The White Buffalo Woman had many things for her Lakota sister in her sacred womb bag—corn, wasna (pemmican), wild turnip. She taught them how to make the hearth fire. She filled a buffalo paunch with cold water and dropped a red-hot stone into it. “This way you shall cook the corn and meat,” she told them.

The White Buffalo Woman also talked to the children, because they have an understanding beyond their years. She told them that what their fathers and mothers did was for them, that their parents could remember being little once, and that they, the children, would grow up to have little ones of their own. She told them: “You are the coming generation, that’s why you are the most important and precious ones. Some day you will hold this pipe and smoke it. Some day you will pray with it.”

She spoke once more to all the people: “The pipe is alive; it is a red being showing you a red life and a red road. And this is the first ceremony for which you will use the pipe. You will use it to keep the soul of a dead person, because through it you can talk to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery Spirit. The day a human dies is always a sacred day. The day when the soul is released to the Great Spirit is another. Four women will become sacred on such a day. They will be the ones to cut the sacred tree—the can-wakan—for the sun dance.

She told the Lakota that they were the purest among the tribes, and for that reason Tunkashila had bestowed upon them the holy chanunpa. They had been chosen to take care of it for all the Indian people on this turtle island.

She spoke one last time to Standing Hollow Horn, the chief, saying, “Remember: this pipe is very sacred. Respect it and it will take you to the end of the road. The four ages of creation are in me; I am the four ages. I will come to see you in every generation cycle. I shall come back to you.”

The sacred woman then took leave of the people, saying: “Toksha ake wacinyanktin ktelo—I shall see you again.”

The people saw her walking off in the same direction from which she had come, outlined against the red ball of the setting sun. As she went, she stopped and rolled over four times. The first time she turned into a black buffalo; the second time into a brown one; the third time into a red one; and finally, the fourth time she rolled over, she turned into a white female buffalo calf. A white buffalo is the most sacred living thing you could ever encounter.

The White Buffalo Woman disappeared over the horizon. Sometime she might come back. As soon as she had vanished, buffalo in great herds appeared, allowing themselves to be killed so that the people might survive. And from that day on, our relations, the buffalo, furnished the people with everything they needed-meat for food, skins for their clothes and tipis, bones for their many tools.

Told by Lame Deer at Winner, Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota, 1967 (Erdoes and Ortiz)

This story is a genesis or origin story. Such a story tells people of the societies from which they come where they come from, their origins. They tell people of the society to whom they belong, how they are expected to interact with each other, with other elements of creation or nature, and with spiritual beings. Origin stories are an important part of the religious or spiritual beliefs of any society. This story is quite different than the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden that you may be familiar with. The origin stories of Native peoples throughout North America are also quite different from each other. Each Native American society has its own origin story; there is no one story as there is in Christianity and Judaism.

Origin stories are just one aspect of religious or spiritual beliefs for any society. Spiritual beliefs tell us where we come from, where we are going after death, and what is expected from us while we are in this world. Spiritual beliefs function on an individual and community level. They tell individuals what they must do to be considered a good person by their family, society, and by the spiritual beings. Spiritual beliefs also tell societies what is expected from them as a community: how individuals within the community should be treated, what qualities are needed for leadership, and how outsiders should be treated. Spiritual beliefs also tell kin groups and communities the consequences of inappropriate behavior. In this way, spiritual beliefs function as a form of social control. They tell individuals within a community what behavior is desired and appropriate, and the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

In Native American origin stories, animals, plants, and even forces of nature like the snakes that ate the disrespectful young man, are active participants in the story. Unlike the Judeo-Christian story in which the serpent is the only animal to have a part mentioned, in Native American stories the animals are very important to the action of the story; often they help humans to survive. Animals may sometimes be tricksters, like Coyote of southwestern stories or the Great Hare of the Southeast, but even they sometimes help humans. You may notice from many of the stories included in this book, humans and animals cooperate and work together. Many Native American societies believe that all things in the world have souls or spirits: therefore all things in the world must be treated respectfully. Anthropologists and others who study religious beliefs call this animism, the belief that key parts of nature have spirits. In foraging societies there are thanksgiving rituals for the animals that give their lives for us to eat. Failing to enact the rituals may result in the animals withdrawing themselves. For all living things there are expectations of behavior, and when humans or animals do not meet these expectations, there are consequences. For example, in the Apache story told at the beginning of Chapter 1, the gray crow eats carrion and is turned black for this inappropriate behavior.

The stories from Native American societies included in this book are parts of much longer cycles of stories that tell what all religious texts tell its followers: where people came from; what will happen to you in the afterlife; and what is expected from you while you are in this world. In telling people what is expected from them while they are in this world, religious or spiritual beliefs function as part of the larger social order. People behave properly because their families and their spiritual beliefs tell them what is appropriate behavior and what will happen to them if they don’t behave appropriately. In any society the stories that relate religious beliefs also tell what is considered appropriate behavior in a society. Origin stories are told and retold within family and community groups. In Native American societies, if a child misbehaves, they are told a story about the consequences of similar behavior for a human or animal.

Ceremonies and rituals are another important part of any religious tradition. Ceremonies are formal religious or public occasions that are performed according to a traditional or prescribed form. There are secular ceremonies like the inauguration of a new president or prime minister, as well as sacred ceremonies that mark religious occasions such as Easter and Passover. Among many Native American societies there are rituals or ceremonies that re-enact aspects of origin stories. Among the Hidatsa this ceremony is called the Naxpike or hide beating, and has many of the elements common to the Sun Dance practiced by societies throughout the plains. The ceremonial grounds where the ritual will take place are prepared and blessed by the elder women, then a post made from a cottonwood tree is placed in the middle of the grounds by the elder men Young men volunteer to re-enact the suffering and torture of Spring Boy, the first to person to do the Naxpike. By doing so they achieve individual visions and help renew the earth for their community (Bonvillain 2001). As with origin stories, rituals and ceremonies vary from society to society.

In many predominately Christian countries, new governmental leaders often take an oath of office with their hand on the Bible. Among many Native American societies, such as the Haundenosaune or the southwestern societies, the raising up of a new leader also has heavy religious overtones; the chiefs are fulfilling religious obligations laid out in their origin stories.

A ritual is much like a ceremony, except there is an emphasis on the actions that are done according to a prescribed order. Think about the order of rituals you might be familiar with, like a wedding or services at your church, temple, or mosque. Everyone knows what is coming next in the ritual and there is significance to the order. Among foraging societies, there are rituals to thank the animals, birds, and fish that gave up their lives to be killed for food, and rituals to ensure there will continue to be animals, fish, and birds for the coming years. These rituals are called renewal ceremonies. Foraging societies may also have rituals for the growth of plants, particularly plants that are important for medicines. If the rituals are not done, or done incorrectly, the animals or plants may withdraw themselves and no longer be available.

Rituals and ceremonies can meet the needs of individuals and the community. For instance, horticultural or agricultural societies have ceremonies or rituals to ensure the growth of their crops. Among the Haundenosaune, there are ceremonies for the coming of maple sap and strawberries. There are several for corn: the planting of the seeds, the “greening of the corn,” when the plant “tassels,” and the harvesting of the crop. Many societies also have rituals that renew the earth itself, such as the Hidatsa’s Naxpike or the Sun Dance practiced by many Plains societies. The Naxpike or Sun Dance may be done to fulfill an individual’s vow or to invoke a vision. These rituals also fulfill community needs, bringing the community together and renewing the earth for the upcoming year.

Some rituals are done as called for, a thanksgiving ritual when an animal is killed, for example. Additionally, foraging, horticultural, and agricultural Native American societies typically have a cycle of ceremonies that are done on a yearly or calendric basis. The cycle of ceremonies includes those having to do with important foods and crops, such as the Mid-Winter Ceremony, typically held in January. Many Native American societies have yearly rituals to renew the earth. The Plains’ Sun Dance is an example of such a ritual. Foraging societies have yearly rituals done to ensure the renewal of needed animals. Horticultural and agricultural societies have ceremonies, of which feasts were an important part, to celebrate and thank the earth for a successful growing season and to ask for a successful succeeding year. These feast-ceremonies often included speeches by leaders about community responsibilities, speeches by ordinary people about the responsibility of the leaders, and games. An important game among many Native societies was a ball game, from which the modern game of lacrosse is probably derived.

In addition to offering thanks, these ceremonies were and are also an opportunity for the community to come together, iron out grievances, have a good time, and look for potential marriage partners. Modern-day pow-wows function in a similar way for contemporary Native American communities. While the traditional ceremonies are still practiced by many societies, pow-wows are an opportunity for those who no longer live on the reservation or reserve to come home to celebrate their culture and family connections. Pow-wows are used to honor respected members of the community, and currently are often held to welcome returning war veterans and incorporate them back into the community. These gatherings are an example of how rituals function on a societal level, bringing the community together for mutual purposes and benefits.

Among Native American societies, rituals and ceremonies may be carried out by ordinary people, or they may be officiated by religious specialists. For example: everyone is expected to do a thanksgiving ritual when hunting or fishing. Any man may pledge himself to do the Sun Dance; but respected women bless and prepare the dance grounds. Respected older men who have already participated in the Sun Dance chop down the cottonwood tree that will be used for the dance pole, and they erect of the pole. Among the Dine’ important rituals are performed by a singer, a man (women have recently started assuming this role as well) who has spent his life learning a cycle of over 250 chants or songs that are used in curing and other ceremonies, along with the technique and designs of sand paintings that are a part of the rituals. Many of the songs or chants are curing ceremonies, used to help cure an individual or even the community. People in Native American societies generally know what available plants are useful in treating illnesses or diseases. As Jack Weatherford has pointed out in Indian Givers and Native Gifts, a number of these plants are now essential to many modern-day medicines. In addition to these medicinal plants, religious practitioners could call upon spiritual powers for help in curing someone. Many medicinal plants themselves were thought to have spiritual powers.

Among the most specialized of spiritual roles is that of a shaman. The word “shaman” is Siberian in origin and refers to a man or woman who is able to travel to the spirit world through a trance state. In Native American societies, all people have some access to spiritual power and knowledge. Shamans typically work for the entire community to find out why the crops have failed or why hunting has been unsuccessful. In many Arctic societies, it is believed that the animals they depend on were made from the fingers of a woman named Sedna, the guardian of the animals. Sedna will withdraw or remove the animals if hunters have not treated them respectfully and done the thanksgiving rituals after killing them. If hunting becomes unsuccessful, the community’s shaman will enter a trance state and travel underwater to where Sedna lives to find out why the animals have been withdrawn and what must be done to bring them back. To appease Sedna, the shaman will comb her hair, which she can no longer do because of the loss of her fingers.

Shamans and trances are part of the spiritual traditions of many societies around the world. In some societies, anyone may attain a trance through dancing, drumming, chanting, or the use of hallucinate drugs, but they are not recognized as shamans because their trances are typically for individual purposes, while a shaman typically goes into a trance state to benefit his/her community. Shamans are usually called to what can be very difficult roles in their society. An individual may be called through dreams. In many Native American societies, people who have nearly died, particularly through an illness, are thought to have the power to become a shaman because they have already traveled to the spirit world and returned. Among the societies of the Northwest coast, individuals might spend their lifetimes training to become a shaman, often apprenticing themselves to a shaman and inheriting their teacher’s powers upon their death.

As with the specialized, religious practitioners of any society, shamans undergo much training and must live according to many taboos (also spelled tabu). Taboos are things shamans are not suppose to do, though other members of their society may do them. For example, Catholic nuns and priests take vows of celibacy, something the rest of us are not expected to do. Some taboos apply to everybody, such as the taboos prohibiting incest or cannibalism. Taboos may also be temporary. For example, Catholics used to not eat meat on Fridays. In some foraging societies, pregnant women will not eat rabbit meat because they believe it will cause their children to be timid and fearful. In the United States and Canada, athletes may abstain from certain foods or behaviors, believing they will be weakened. For shamans, taboos are usually life long.

In addition to abiding by the taboos, shamans typically live very solitary lives. They must spend much time learning their skills. In turn, their skills make them very powerful, and potentially vary dangerous. Those who have the power to heal, also have the power to injure or kill. As a result, shamans are often feared and somewhat distrusted by their societies. Among the Northwest coast societies, who typically live in large, extended families, shamans live alone in the woods. When they die, their homes are abandoned and allowed to decay. Because of their power, special funeral rites and burial methods are often accorded to shamans. Despite the power a shaman may have, it is not a life to which many people aspire.

While shamans have special spiritual powers, Native American societies believe all people—indeed, all living things—have access to spiritual power. One of the ways spiritual power is attained is through dreams. Revitalization movements were often started in response to dreams. Dreams are seen as a conduit between people and the spirit realm. Through dreams the spirits tell people how to live their lives, what they’re doing wrong, even warning them of danger. Many Native American societies have rituals in which people seek advice about their dreams. A person with a troubling dream may go to a shaman; or, as among the Haundenosaune, they may tell it to the entire community for advice about its meaning. The Iroquois, and many other Native American societies, believe the messages of dreams must be acted upon or there will be negative consequences for the individual and the entire community.

Another way individuals have access to spiritual power is through visions. Men and women will undertake a vision quest as a way to attain spiritual power. In a vision quest individuals will go to a solitary place and go without food, water, and sleep in order to obtain a vision. It is believed the spirits will tell individuals what is expected from them through visions.

The vision quest can be part of life cycle rituals—rituals that mark important transitions in a person’s life. Not all Native American societies have the same life cycle rituals, but there are typically rituals to mark birth, the attainment of personhood, adulthood, marriage, and death. A mother (and sometimes the father) may begin rituals before a child is born. A mother may abstain from some foods, such as rabbit, to ensure the child will be brave and not run away from danger. Rituals are done to ensure an easy delivery and a healthy child. Among the Dine’, a blessingway song is sung over the mother to ensure an easy birth and protect the child and mother from evil spirits. The mother may also be given medicinals, and the women in her family may manipulate her abdomen to aid in the birth. After birth and bathing, the baby is sprinkled with white and yellow corn pollen, and the women of the mother’s family will gently press the baby’s body to ensure good health.

It is a sad fact that not all children who are born survive. Factors like malnutrition, diseases, and poor water supplies can all affect the survival rates of infants. In non-industrial societies, infants who die are generally not given their society’s typical burial rituals. Many societies believed the infant’s soul enters the body of another newborn, went into an animal or bird, or returned to the spirit world until it could be born again. So while ceremonies may be done at birth, a child is often not considered a person or given a name until she or he has lived for a time. Such rituals are personhood rituals, as they incorporate the child into his or her society. Among the Tewa Pueblo, for example, children are incorporated into their moiety and given a moiety-specific name during the water-giving ritual when they are eight days old. The Zunis believe a newborn child is soft or not yet ripened, so it is kept in the house away from the sun for eight days after birth. Before dawn on the eighth day the child’s umbilical cord is buried, connecting the child to Mother Earth and the underworld from which its ancestors emerged. The baby is washed, put in its cradleboard, and cornmeal is put in its hands. Its paternal grandmother will carry the baby outside, facing the rising sun. The baby usually does not receive a name then. Its family will wait until the baby has hardened and are confident the child will survive (Bonvillain 2001).

Among the most important rituals for any individual are coming of age rituals. Adolescence (teen years), when one is not a child but not yet an adult, is the invention of industrial societies in which young people are not suppose to engage in adult behaviors and are not supposed to be engaged in wage-labor, but instead go to school. In non-industrial societies, individuals are considered either children or adults. Even children may engage in labor that provides resources for their families and communities. Coming of age rituals mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. The vision quest is an example of a coming of age ritual for young men. Often, for the first time, they must go into the woods, mountains, or desert by themselves, fast, and try to stay awake until they receive a vision. Killing an animal for food or fighting an enemy may also be part of a young man’s coming of age ritual. The young man’s family will hold a feast and often give-aways, in which goods and resources are given away, to mark his transition to adulthood.

Young women also go through coming of age rituals, usually when they start menstruating. Among the most elaborate is the kinaalda, girl’s puberty rite, of the Dine’. The kinaalda is a four-day ceremony. At dawn and noon on each day, the young woman, accompanied by friends and family members, races to the east to build up her strength and endurance. A respected older woman will knead her body (as newborn babies are kneaded) to mold her to also become a respected woman. The young woman and her family prepare large amounts of food, particularly corn, to be part of a community feast held on the fourth day. On this day the young woman washes, and then her face is painted with white lines. She then distributes food to all the guests (Schwarz 1997).

Coming of age rituals have several purposes. They show that young men and women have acquired the skills and knowledge needed for adulthood. They mark the transition from childhood to adulthood in front of the entire community. Historically, after a coming of age ritual, newly anointed men and women are able to marry. Thus, like many religious beliefs and rituals, it functions on the individual and societal level.

In historical Native American societies, marriage ceremonies were not as elaborate as those of contemporary U.S. and Canadian societies. The ceremony would often consist of the exchange of gifts between the bride and groom and their families and a feast. Of more importance were death or funeral rituals. Like birth and adulthood, death is a transition, so anthropologists often call rituals that mark them rites of passage. For many Native American societies, birth is the transition from the spirit world; death is a transition back to the spirit world. Death rituals may be started before the individual dies to help in this transition. Among the Dine’, for example, a night way ceremony may be held to help prepare the individual and his/her family for the death. The Dine’ have a great fear of ghosts; so much of the behavior at the funeral ritual is to ensure the ghost of the dead does not stay around kin members. The body is carefully washed and dressed by kin members, but the left moccasin is put on the right foot and the right moccasin is put on the left foot, to make it difficult for the ghost to walk. If the person dies at home, the body is carried out through a hole cut into the wall so as to not contaminate the usual paths of the living. If the deceased dies in a hogan, the traditional house-structure of the Dine’, the hogan is abandoned or burnt down. The body is transported in silence to a remote spot. Burial typically takes place in the ground, or a rock niche that is then sealed. The mourners return by a different path, go through a purification ceremony, and never speak the name of the deceased. These observances help to ensure that the ghost of the deceased does not follow or return to haunt family members (Bonvillain 2001). The Dine’ believe the deceased must become part of nature or the cosmos, “as a drop of water is part of a rain cloud.”

Unlike the Dine’, the Lakota have a ritual to keep the spirit of the beloved family member close, at least a period of time. Called the Ghost Bundle ritual, the belongings, cloths, hair, tools, or ornaments of the deceased are kept in a bundle. The keeping of a Ghost Bundle requires a great commitment on the part of the family. A woman of the family is required to always be with the Ghost Bundle. When the Lakota were on the plains and living in teepees, the Ghost Bundle was the first item to be removed, and held by the woman in charge of it when the community moved. She then carried it to the new living site. The first thing to go into the teepee when it was re-erected was the Ghost Bundle. After the end of a year the bundle is opened, the spirit or ghost released to the spirit world, and the items distributed to family members (Deloria 1988). A give-away usually occurs during the opening of the bundle, so the family must also have economic resources to conduct this ritual. The time and resources required for keeping a Ghost Bundle all serve to prohibit families from holding such a ceremony for all deceased family members, only their most honored members, such as grandparents.

Missionaries and government agents all strove to convert Native American societies to Christianity, or to at least to stop them from practicing their own religious traditions. In the United States, from the 1880s until John Collier’s administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1930s, Native American religious practices were openly prohibited. It was not until 1978 that The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which guaranteed the rights of American Indians to practice their religions, was passed by the U. S. government. The act was amended in 1993 and 1994, largely to protect the right of Native Americans, particularly those who are members of the American Indian Church to use peyote as part of their rituals. Peyote is a hallucinogenic cactus found in the Southwest. The Huichol people of northern Mexico have used peyote for thousands of years to attain a trance state to commune with Brother Deer, the creator-spirit of the Huichol. Members of the American Indian Church also use peyote to attain a trance state. In 1999 the Religious Freedom Act was further amended to allow Native American prisoners the right to have their own religious rituals while in jail.

The American Indian Church is a part of the Pan-Indian Movement in the United States. Because of population loss, the loss or removal from traditional lands, and the boarding school experience, many Native peoples have lost parts of their culture, such as language and religious rituals. When Native peoples from across Canada and the United States would meet through boarding schools, the military, and college, they would practice what they remembered of their rituals and combine them with those from other Native peoples they encountered who might have very different practices. For instance, not all Native peoples partook in sweat baths, the practice of enduring a very hot steam bath for an extended period of time for both physical and spiritual cleansing. Sweat baths, like pow-wows, are practices that have been adopted by many Native American groups throughout North America and are part of the American Indian Church. Through a process called syncretism, the amalgamation or combining of religions or cultures, practices of the American Indian Church may also include Christian beliefs. Some people who have taken peyote as part of rituals in the American Indian Church say they see Jesus Christ while in a trance.

Christian missionaries of all denominations liked to think they were successfully converting Native Americans to their churches. But in many instances the traditional religions went “underground,” and were practiced secretly in isolated spots. In other instances, Native American religious traditions were combined with Christian traditions, as in the American Indian Church. The Christian celebration of Christmas is an example of syncretism. We have no idea when Jesus Christ was born; but Christians celebrate it on December 25 because that date coincides with the Roman holiday of Saturnia, a winter solstice ceremony in which gifts are exchanged. Many attributes of Christmas, such as lights, trees, and mistletoe are northern European traditions also associated with the winter solstice. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, its leaders found it was often better to incorporate these pagan (which simply means “of or from the country”) traditions into their own, rather than try to eliminate them. The same process of syncretism happened in Native American societies.

In the Southwest, pueblos where churches were built with Native slave labor are found the Stations of Cross, statues or paintings that depict events from the crucifixion of Christ. In the Pueblo churches, in front of each station is a small pot or bowl that contains the corn pollen that is essential to all Pueblo rituals. In front of grave markers and crosses there are small bowls containing corn pollen. So while the Puebloan peoples may attend the Catholic churches, it contains elements of the pre-Christian Pueblo traditions. In the Northeast, at the St. Regis Catholic Church at the Akwesase, Mohawk church hymns are often sung in Mohawk, and sweet grass is burnt during Mass instead of incense.

These are just a few examples of the syncretism found in many Native American communities. People might attend Christian church on Sunday, but they will also attend the cycle of rituals to thank the earth for its plants and animals, and people will still have potlatches or kinaaldas to mark the coming of age of their sons and daughters. People do not randomly adopt new traditions alongside old beliefs. The people of a society will adopt or accept new traditions and beliefs that best fit with their existing beliefs and traditions. The Pueblo peoples of the Southwest used corn pollen as part of religious rituals for thousands of years before the arrival of Christian missionaries, and they still use corn pollen within the Catholic churches. Just as Christians around the world may celebrate Christmas, they celebrate it differently because the Christmas celebrations are combined with the celebrations of previous societies. In the United States and Canada people from all over the world have settled here and brought their traditions with them, which through syncretism have become part of the Christmas traditions practiced here.

Religion and spiritual beliefs were/are important ways the indigenous peoples of the Americas adapted to and survived the consequences of European contact. After the American Revolution, the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake was gravely injured, and while in a coma he had visions. When he regained consciousness, he told those gathered around him that in his visions he had seen The Peacekeeper and Jesus Christ. Handsome Lake went on to preach a new religious doctrine called the Good News. This doctrine included the centuries-old beliefs of the Seneca and Haundenosaune, along with elements of Christianity, particularly as presented by Quaker missionaries that fit with existing Iroquois beliefs. Handsome Lake didn’t think he was undoing any aspect of The Great Law, but some aspects of the new beliefs taken from the Christian missionaries showed to be of benefit to his people. The anthropologist Anthony Wallace, in Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, suggests it was the new beliefs and practices of the Good News that helped enable the Seneca to survive their devastating losses after the American Revolution and adapt to the changes occurring around them.

Whether Wallace is correct in his assessment, Handsome Lake’s visions and preaching about the Good News is an example of a revitalization movement. Revitalization movements have occurred in societies around the world and throughout history. They continue to occur. These movements are ways for people to cope with and adjust to societal and cultural changes. Sometimes revitalization movements work with other societal elements, such as the political system. Such was the case with the Shawnee Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, better known as the Shawnee Prophet.

Unlike many other Native American leaders who would try to hold on to at least some land and sovereignty by accommodating to European, American, and Canadian demands, Tecumseh maintained that all land in North America was Indian land and that no Native American individual or tribe could sell what belonged to all Native Americans. Tecumseh’s ideas of Native American unity was aided by his brother Tenskwatawa, whose visions told him that Native peoples had been corrupted by adopting white ways. Tenskwatawa told the Shawnee to get rid of these corrupting influences, which included drinking, domesticated animals, and the goods from European trade, such as guns, and return to their traditional ways. According to Tenskwatawa, if enough Native peoples would do this, the Europeans, Americans, and their effects on Native societies would be supernaturally swept away.

In 1808, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa established a village called Prophet’s Town on Tippecanoe Creek in what is now Indiana. Using Prophet’s Town as his base, Tecumseh traveled down the Mississippi, across the southeast to Florida, west to the Osages in what is now Missouri, and east to the Iroquois. In his journeys, Tecumseh did his best to arouse these various Native American societies to join forces against the Europeans and Americans. Some, particularly in the Old Northwest, joined him, while others like the Iroquois, still recovering from the ravages of the American Revolution, welcomed him politely, but did not join him.

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain. Almost immediately, the United States launched invasion forces against the British in Canada. Once again, Native American communities were torn apart by the enticements of Great Britain and the United States to join them in war against the other. Like most Iroquois, Tecumseh saw alignment with the British as the best opportunity to maintain the sovereignty and land base of Native peoples. Tecumseh and his warriors joined England’s General Isaac Brock and his soldiers and helped capture Fort Detroit and later Fort Dearborn.

Tecumseh’s diplomacy in the Southeast paid off as the Creeks initiated attacks in Georgia and Tennessee. In the fall, Tecumseh visited the Creek territory with a promise of British support. He left a bundle of red sticks, one of which was supposed to be broken every day, with the day of the last stick signaling the day of a concerted attack. Thus, the battles in the Southeast have become known as the Red Stick War. In 1813, some of Tecumseh’s followers were overeager and started attacks before the prescribed day. As a result, the American Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins demanded the guilty parties be punished. Afraid to start a full-blown conflict and fighting among their own people, the chiefs sent out enforcement parties against the hostile forces, killing eight of Techumseh’s warriors.

Unfortunately for Tecumseh and his followers, the able leader Brock, a man Tecumseh respected, was killed in battle. The incompetent Colonel Henry Procter replaced Brock and allowed the massacre of survivors who had advanced to retake Detroit. When he heard this news, Tecumseh was equally enraged at Procter and his own troops. Procter was again allowing the killing of prisoners taken when William Henry Harrison advanced to build Fort Meigs. When Tecumseh heard this from one of his soldiers, he galloped to the scene, throwing himself upon the killers and stopping another massacre. Tecumseh is said to have told Procter he was unfit to command and “to go on put on petticoats.” Two days later, Procter lifted the siege and returned to Fort Malden, over the protest of Tecumseh.

On September 10 1813, American Admiral Matthew Perry achieved his famous naval victory on Lake Erie, cutting off the British supply route to the West. Procter retreated from Detroit, abandoning the Native troops. Harrison eventually caught up with Tecumseh’s army at the Battle of the Thames on October 5. Tecumseh, the man who had tried to unify eastern Native Americans against further British or American invasion, was killed in fierce fighting among his troops; a monument topped by a Canadian flag marks the spot.

The peoples of the Northwest also turned to religion and revitalization movements to adapt to changes brought by Euro-American power. In 1881, a Salish man in Washington state named John Slocum grew very ill. His wife Mary and the rest of his family thought he had died and were preparing him for the funeral when he revived. Slocum said God told him the Native peoples would be saved if they gave up drinking, smoking, and gambling and returned to their traditional ways of sharing resources and cooperation. However, Slocum warned against some of the traditional rituals, including healing rituals practiced by shamans.

Slocum’s family and friends organized a church for him to preach from in Shake Point, Washington. The following year he again became very ill. Contrary to his instructions, his family brought in a shaman to cure him. His wife Mary became so distraught about the presence of the shaman, she left their house, crying and praying. She started to shake and tremble. Returning to their home in this condition, she began to pray over her husband. He soon returned to health. News of her curative powers—supposedly brought on by the shaking—soon spread throughout the Northwest and California, which attracted new members to the church. Many members of Slocum’s Church started to shake at services.

Missionaries and federal and local authorities were critical of what soon became known as the Shaker Church. To protect their form of religious practice, the Shakers formerly constituted themselves as a church in 1892. The Church’s governing body is based on the structure of Protestant churches, with an elected bishop and board of elders.

The Shaker Church is an excellent example of the syncretism of Christian and Native American beliefs. Members of the Shaker Church make the sign of the cross and believe in God, Jesus and the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is manifested in them when they start to shake. Church members believe the shaking gives them the power to heal, foretell the future, and battle evil, all skills of traditional shamans. The Shakers’ belief in the Spirit of God and “Shaker Spirits,” who guide them to heaven after death, is also consistent with traditional beliefs about the power to contact the spirit world through trances or visions, the ability to prophesize, and the existence of helping spirits. The Shakers’ healing trance is similar to shamanistic healing through a shaman’s trance. The ethical principles of the Shaker Church are similar to those of other Native American revitalization movements that stress sharing, cooperation, and refraining from alcohol and disruptive behavior, usually associated with Euro-American influence. The beliefs of the Shaker Church also fit into the traditional qualities valued by Northwest societies, especially traditional patterns of status and rank. Although members of the Shaker Church are often a minority in Northwest Native communities, they are often the communities’ most influential members.

What is now known as the first Ghost Dance began in 1869 with the spiritual visions of a prophet named Wodziwob, a Northern Paiute from the Walker River Indian Reservation in Nevada. In his vision, Wodziwob was told that the Indian dead would return and with them the old, happy life, provided that Native people tirelessly devoted themselves to round dances. Native adherents assembled for dances that lasted four or five days. Dancers collapsed from exhaustion and received visions in which they saw their deceased relatives. This Ghost Dance spread throughout native California and up into Oregon in the 1870s. As the 1870 Ghost Dance grew, three separate cults developed among certain tribes in Native California: the Earth Lodge Cult, the Bole-Maru, and the Big Head Cult, an offshoot of the Bole-Maru.

The Earth Lodge Cult came from the practice of the Ghost Dance among the severely depopulated Northern Yana. It spread from them to various groups including the Pomo of the southwest. It was similar to the Ghost Dance proper in its excitement over immediate supernatural phenomenon. But, whereas the Ghost Dance stressed the return of the dead, the Earth Lodge cult stressed the end of the world. The faithful would be protected from this catastrophe by semi-subterranean structures built for this specific purpose. The cult’s basic tenets were that world destruction was imminent and only performing religious rituals in large, specially constructed ceremonial earth lodges, which usually spanned 40 to 60 feet in diameter, could ensure survival. Followers of the cult also prophesied that the Native American dead would rise.

Local prophets appeared in each tribe—each bringing his own special message and form of enlightenment. For example, in 1871 through 1872, a Long Valley Cache Creek Pomo medicine man named Richard Taylor preached that to bring on the end of the world, Pomo people needed to come together in round houses and follow specific standards of behavior associated with those of white society. They must refuse alcohol and limit their contact with Euro-Americans. In addition, they must practice the songs and prayers obtained by Taylor in a vision. This was a powerful and seductive message for people ravaged by years of conquest. A thousand Pomo people constructed 7 roundhouses in which participants could congregate. They danced faithfully for days, but the world did not end. The Native American dead did not return. Some might consider this religious movement to have, therefore, been a failure. Further reflection is warranted, however.

This religious movement arose during a time of tremendous social upheaval. We need to consider what it provided for the people involved. It gave Pomo people a new spiritual life upon which to focus, that helped to meld divergent people—remnant groups from populations devastated by European-introduced diseases and conquest—into a new community. This gave them hope and out of it another new form of spiritual life arose, the Bole-Maru.

The Bole-Maru name comes from the combination of Patwin and Pomo words for the Ghost Dance cult, which developed among the California Hill Patwin. Followers of the Bole-Maru cult emphasized individual salvation through a Supreme Being and a ceremonial dreamer—a person who could see into the future. The Big Head Cult, which used special masks, was a ceremonial variation of the early Bole-Maru. Both the Bole-Maru and the Big Head cults prophesied the resurrection of the American Indian dead, though both downplayed this idea in favor of other religious prophecies. The Big Head cult continued among some native Californians throughout the 1880s.

The Bole-Maru gradually abandoned the doctrines of imminent world catastrophe and instead stressed concepts of afterlife and of the Supreme Being. Because members of the Bole-Maru cult held to this particular belief, many scholars have understood this religious movement to be the transition to adoption of Christianity. More recently, others have taken into consideration the time at which the Bole Maru developed and do not believe it was a transition to Christianity. This was a time when governmental officials had tremendous power over the lives of American Indian people. Native American religions were frowned on as primitive and counterproductive. In fact, Indian religions were formally outlawed with the Religious Crimes Codes of 1883. The Bole-Maru evolved, therefore, during a time of extreme repression of Native life. As a result, many traditional practices went underground. Pomo people could not afford to show how the blending of different religious and cultural ideals laid the foundation for a fierce form of Indian resistance.

Perhaps the best-known rituals of Native peoples to Euro-Americans are the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance. Many people of the Plains have a ritual called the Sun Dance. While the way the Sun Dance was and is done varies from one society to another, there are many similarities. Traditionally, the Sun Dance is held during the summer when groups of communities come together to trade, dance, and feast. Marriage partners were often found during the dancing and feasting. The Sun Dance was an important part of these activities. A temporary encampment of tipis was set up in a circle, with a cleared area in the middle. The trunk of a cottonwood tree was set up in the middle of this cleared area. Many rituals accompanied the clearing of the area, the selection, cutting down and setting up of the pole, often directed by women. Men would purify themselves in sweat baths and refrain from eating or drinking before starting to dance around the pole. They would not eat or drink during the day as they were dancing, sometimes for up to four days. In some societies, men pierced the muscles on their chests and backs with hooks connected to leather thongs attached to the pole. The men would dance until the hooks broke through the muscles.

For the community, the Sun Dance was performed in thanksgiving for a bountiful year and a request for another year of food, health, and success. Individual men would pledge to do the Sun Dance to honor a lost family member and in thanks that a family member (particularly a child) had recovered from injuries or illness. Today men and women will pledge to do the Sun Dance to maintain their sobriety from alcohol or drugs, as well as to honor lost family members or in thanksgiving that a family member has recovered from illness. I know one young man who was told by an elder he should pledge the Sun Dance in thanksgiving for the birth of his daughter and to understand the pain her mother went through in giving her birth. Many veterans pledge the Sun Dance in thanksgiving for returning home safely and to help recover from the horrors of war.

Missionaries and government officials tried to stop the Sun Dance among the Plains peoples. While its practice was reduced, for many reservations the ritual went underground and was practiced in secret at remote spots. In the United States the Freedom of Religion Act of 1928 guaranteed the rights of Native Americans to practice their religious ceremonies and rituals, including the Sun Dance, although missionaries and government representatives still tried to stop many practices. During his tenure as director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, John Collier tried to eliminate restrictions on Native American religious rituals and other cultural traditions. Some of the varieties of the Sun Dance may have been lost, but in general, the memories of communities kept the ritual alive. Following times of war, many veterans returning to both reservation and urban homes sought out elders to show them how the Sun Dance was done. As a result, the Sun Dance has experienced a resurgence. Native men and women from around the country, along with some Euro-Americans, often travel to the plains to participate in the Sun Dance.

Many societies of the plains also adopted an outgrowth of the 1869 Ghost Dance as part of their religious rituals. Among the Plains peoples, the Ghost Dance largely consisted of people dancing in a circle for hours or even days at a time. It was their belief that if they danced long enough, the Creator would wipe the Euro-Americans away by rolling the surface of the earth up like a giant carpet. Under that surface would be a new and pristine earth where lost family members and the important bison would be found again. After the victory at Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne and Lakota tried to evade the U.S. Army that was pursuing them. For a time, Sitting Bull and his people resided in western Canada. Ultimately, the Cheyenne and Lakota returned to their homelands. Many were rounded up by the Army and placed on reservations. Remember the Ghost Dance is an example of a revitalization movement. In this time of distress, many Plains peoples started doing the Ghost Dance in an attempt to bring back their traditional lifestyles. Government officials were convinced that the Ghost Dance was dangerous and the Lakota were planning another uprising. Indian agents decided to withhold rations until the Ghost Dance stopped. Ethnologist James Moody submitted a report to government officials, assuring them that the Ghost Dance was a peaceful religious ritual to help the Native peoples adjust to the trauma they were experiencing and that rations and blankets should be immediately given to the people, but government officials remained unconvinced. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was shot and killed while being arrested, apparently by a Lakota policeman. The Ghost Dance continued and tensions continued to escalate among the U.S. government officials and the Lakota. At dawn on December 29, the Army attacked the encampment of Big Foot and his followers at Wounded Knee Creek. More than 300 men, women, and children were massacred and buried in a mass grave. Ironically, Big Foot was traveling to the Pine Ridge Reservation to negotiate a resolution to the tensions.

Reports of the massacre in newspapers and by military officials resulted in an official investigation. The investigation found the government had:

  • Failed to provide the seeds and agricultural implements promised for farming,
  • Failed to provide the cows and oxen promised,
  • Failed to issue the annuity supplies to which the Lakota were entitled through treaties,
  • Failed to pay for the horses taken from the Indians

(Mooney 1965:79-80)

In the past, as today, the dominant culture can be very uncomfortable with religious practices that are different then their own. In any society, religious and spiritual beliefs and practices are important to most individuals in that society, and to the society itself, as it adjusts and adapts to new cultural circumstances. Sometimes these changes are part of the natural evolution or change in a society: such as in the United States or Canada in which people have to adjust to changes brought about by science and technology or in the cases of indigenous peoples who have to adjust to changes brought on by dominant political entities. Human societies have had to adapt to another since one group of extended kin met another group of extended kin—in other words for thousands of years. As humans, we have adapted in various ways. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been and continue to be one of those ways.

Suggested Questions

What does the story about White Buffalo Woman tell you about Sioux society?

Write a description of a ritual you have witnessed or participated in. Would this ritual tell a visitor something about your society?

Can you give an example of a ritual you are familiar with in which playing games is an important part?

Does the society or community in which you live have any rituals, such as the Sun Dance, to help soldiers who have participated in warfare re-integrate himself or herself back into broader society? Do you think this would be a good idea? Why?

What is an example of a taboo in your society?

Does your society have a coming of age ritual? Can you write a description of it?

If you don’t think your society has a coming of age ritual, do you think it should? Can you give some suggestions as to what the ritual would be like?

Suggested Resources

For more about Dine’ ceremonies, I recommend the previously mentioned Molded In the Image of Changing Woman, by Maureen Trudell Schwarz.

There is a lot of false information about shamans available. For information that is based on research, I recommend looking up the topic in any of a number of books about the anthropological study of religion.

For more information about rituals and religious beliefs of the Puebloan peoples, I recommend The Tewa World: Space, Time Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society, by Alfonso Ortiz.

Ella Deloria’s Waterlily contains much information about religious rituals, including the Sun Dance and Ghost Bundle.

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