Native American Religions -- Part two

Richard Brooks – USA

[The following article is from the Theosophical Encyclopedia, edited by Philip S. Harris, Vicente R. Hao Chin, Jr., and Richard W. Brooks (Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 2006), pp. 25-32.]

American Religions, Native [Part 2, pp. 29-32]

Native North American Religions

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Native Americans

When the first Europeans contacted the native Americans in the early 16th century there were as many as 600 different tribes in North America with a total population of several millions. Most of these natives of North America believed that things in their environment — animals, rivers, mountains, seas, the sun, the moon — had spirits. Their shamans, often called “medicine men” (or in some cases “medicine women”), were thought to have some control over this spirit world. In many tribes, they were thought to be able to contact spirits, both benign and evil, in their soul journeys and utilize them in their healing practice. The description of their visions sounds very much like some of the siddhis mentioned in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras (e.g., IV.26, 39, 43). Some of the descriptions sound like clairvoyance.

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Colonists and Native Americans meet

Ceremonies, such as dances, were also performed by the whole tribe to influence weather, agriculture, and success in hunting. When hunters killed animals for food, they, like the Mayans of Mesoamerica, thanked the spirits of those animals. In many tribes, boys (and in some tribes girls also) went on a “vision quest” in which they attempted to contact the nature spirit they were associated with and named after, which would be that boy’s guardian throughout his life. Sacred bundles symbolizing the boy’s special relation to that spirit were worn and thought to give him a special power. Initiation ceremonies, usually involving some test of bravery or endurance, were conducted for boys in their early teens, passing which admitted them to adulthood. There were also rites performed for girls to prepare them for womanhood (cf. Joseph Epes Brown, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s account of the seven rites of the Ogala Sioux, 1953 &1985, chapt. vii).

Most native North American tribes, especially those of the Plains, believed that there was one ultimate spirit power or “Great Spirit,” called by the Iroquois Orenda, by the Sioux Wakonda or Wakan-tanka (literally “Great Sacred Power”), by the Anishnabe Gichi-Manido, by the Pawnee Tirawa, and by the Hopi Taiowa. Blavatsky states that “the ‘Great Spirit’ of the poor, untutored Indian, is the manifested Brahma of the Hindu philosopher” (IU I:560). This Supreme Being was also known as Napi or “Old Man” by the Montana Blackfeet and as “Father” or “Grandfather” by other tribes. According to Black Elk (or Hehaka Sapa in Lakota), the Great Spirit “is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples [i.e., birds]; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as He intends” (Brown, p. xx). In other words, as it is put in Mother Earth, Father Sky: Native American Myth (Time-Life Books, 1997, p. 21), “human beings were created as the companions, not the masters, of all other creatures.” And again, “To live on the Earth, to breathe and drink and feed from its resources, and to be among the plants and animals, is to be part of a sacred cosmic unity” (ibid., p. 47). This theosophical attitude toward nature is at variance with the usual Western belief that Nature is there merely for human beings to exploit.

The interconnectedness of all things was often indicated in pictographs as a series of concentric circles, a symbol common to a number of other cultures. In the words of Black Elk, “Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. … The life of man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves” (quoted in The Way of the Spirit: Nature, Myth, and Magic in Native American Life, Time-Life Books, 1997, p. 98). It was also expressed in ceremonies. As Mother Earth, Father Sky puts it, “Native Americans have traditionally believed that a spirit world influences the world of waking consciousness. Sickness or health, starvation or abundance, depend on the proper functioning of the spirits and on their right relationships with humans” (p. 109). This has at least a partial analogy in the Bhagavad-Gītā (3.11-14), especially in terms of rainfall producing food crops, where Śrī Krishna tells Arjuna about the reciprocal influence between the devas and man by means of sacrificial offerings.

Because native Americans depended heavily on animals for food, fur clothing, and bone tools, they considered the relation between humans and animals to be very close. Many tribes believed the souls of the animals they killed, if the animal body was thanked and its body butchered “cleanly,” would return as a spiritual power to the hunter. In fact, the “bridge” between the physical world and the “hereafter” was considered by the Senel of California to be guarded by a buffalo bull who allowed people who led a good life to pass by him, but who would attack those whose life had been wicked. And the Ojibway of the Great Lakes area conceived that bridge to be in the form of a huge snake spanning the river between this life and the next. If one thinks of the “astral” or psychic world as “watery” or fluid, perhaps this conception hints at the connection of the “serpent power” (i.e., kundalini) between the physical and psychic realms.

John Matthews has pointed out in The Summer Solstice: Celebrating the Journey of the Sun from May Day to Harvest (Quest Books, 2002, pp. 46-7) that many tribes had special ceremonies, often performed daily, to honor the sun. Some, such as the Iroquois, had a practice called “smoking the sun” in which a circle of warriors took turns drawing on the sacred pipe and blowing puffs of smoke which were thought to carry their prayers up to the sun god. (In fact, smoking a pipe was widely used by many tribes for various purposes; the pipe was filled with a mixture of tobacco and other plant substances — such as cedar bark, sweet grass, or Sweet Ann root — called in Algonquin kinnikinnick, “that which is mixed,” or in Sioux chanshasha.) The Apalachees of Florida released birds during their worship of the sun for the same purpose. Others, such as the ancient Anasazi of the Southwest used rock carvings, which were illumined by the sun at certain times, to mark the passage of time and determine favorable times for planting and harvest. The Tipai of Baja California had a petroglyph which was illumined only at noon on the summer solstice. Corn festivals, related especially to solar cycles, were common among many tribes (including some in Mesoamerica and South America), since corn (or maize) was a staple of the diet of many tribes (cf. Matthews, pp. 117-8 and 140). And the Hopi depicted the movement of the sun in their rock carvings by means of a swastika.

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North American native “medicine man”

The North American native “medicine man” (or “medicine woman”) had some knowledge of medicine and could set broken bones or cure certain diseases with herbal remedies. He was called pejuta wacasa by the Lakota Sioux, as contrasted with the tribal priest, who was called wichash wakan (“holy man”). Some, such as the Navaho, would make a circular design (“healing circle” or “medicine wheel,” sometimes called “sand painting” or “dry painting”) out of colored sand, powdered minerals, colored seeds, sacred objects, etc. and perform a healing ritual for the patient sitting within it. Modern medical practitioners tend to ridicule such practices, but there is evidence that they were often effective. Whether that was due to some occult influence unrecognized by modern medicine or merely to mental suggestion has not yet been sufficiently explored. In some other tribes, the medicine man would use herbs or suck out through the skin a foreign object that he perceived in trance was the cause of the illness. Such practitioners often underwent lengthy training, though some shamans seem to have assumed their role without any training because of a special gift they were perceived to have.

The tribal ceremonies, especially of the tribes living south of the Arctic, commonly consisted of a ritual dance accompanied by chanting or songs. Participants often dressed in special costumes or wore masks. For example, the kachina masked dancers of the Pueblo would visit the dwellings of children early in the new year to ask whether they had been good or bad; if good, they would give the children gifts and if bad they would scold them. The kachina (sometimes spelled katchina) are considered to be invisible life spirits which influence weather (e.g., bring rain for spring crops). Some researchers have counted as many as 335 different kachinas among the Hopis, although it is impossible to fix the number precisely since some (like the kami of Shintō) go out of existence while others come into being — some are now even associated with Europeans — and they differ from village to village even in an understanding of their nature. Their message also changes over time; recently, kachina dancers address modern social problems, such as alcoholism and drugs. A dancer portraying a kachina wears an elaborate mask, often covering his whole head, which represents a particular kachina. The sun dance, lasting several days, was a principal ceremony of the Plains Indians. All such ceremonies were accompanied by various musical instruments, such as drums, clappers, rattles, or flutes.

Legends of the spirits and ancestors were passed on as an oral tradition, since most of the natives of North America lacked written languages. The myths often concerned creation and stories about how humans first came to be on earth. But such myths are, as Henry Kammler puts it in his contribution to the encyclopedic Cultures of Native North Americans (pub. by Köneman, 2000), “as varied as the peoples of North America who tell them” (p. 14). For discussion of the myths of the natives of the various areas of North America, one should consult that reference or relevant portions of Donna Rosenberg, World Mythology: an anthology of great myths and epics (National Textbook Co., 1996 ed) since, other than Matthews’ recent book, there is almost nothing concerning them in theosophical literature. A generous sampling of them may also be found in the Time-Life Book Mother Earth, Father Sky.

Several religious ideas deserve mention, however. A belief in reincarnation was widespread among the older members of tribes such as the Eskimo, Aleut, Haida, Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Tsimshian in the Arctic and Northwest Coastal areas. Some cases involving a memory of a past life are discussed in Ian Stevenson’s Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1966, rev. ed. 1974). Also, Arctic tribes believed that animals, like people, had souls (inue; sing. inua), except that animals had a communal or group soul rather than, like humans, an individual soul, a common theosophical idea. They, therefore, asked permission of the group soul before killing an animal. The same belief was held by tribes in other areas as well. Among the Algonquins in the east part of the Arctic area, shamans used a cylindrical shaped tent which would shake when spirit guides were invoked. As Sonja Lührmann observes in her contribution to The Cultures of Native North Americans, “The onlookers would listen to the spirit helper’s conversations in a language only understood by the tent shaker. Sometimes the outline of one of their body parts would even become visible on the wall of the tent” (p. 86). This is very similar to reports of some phenomena in Spiritualist circles, which gave rise to religious sects like the Shakers and Quakers.

It was a widely-held belief by Northwest tribes that humans are tri-partite, having a physical body, a vital energy (usually termed “breath”), and a soul or “shadow body.” The vital body was involved in health and disease; a shaman (or the person’s guardian spirit) was thought to be able to cure disease by restoring or recapturing the “breath.” And it was the “shadow body” which was said to reincarnate. These beliefs are very similar to theosophical teachings.

For many of the tribes in the Northeast area, as well as the Pawnee in the Plains, the world consists of three levels — sky, earth, and underworld — each ruled by gods. In the upper realm dwelt a creator god who was considered so far removed from everyday life that he played only a minor role in religious practices. Of more immediate religious concern were the spirit beings known collectively in Algonquin as manito. They were thought to manifest in various natural phenomena (e.g., thunderbirds in storms) as well as inhabit plants and animals. This is very similar to the theosophical idea of devas and nature spirits. An object thus inhabited was called manitowok. The hero of the Micmac (who called themselves Lnu’k or “people”), Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy of Maine and New Brunswick was Gluskap who, among other things, created humans and then taught them the use of certain tools and formed them into families. He, like the Hindu god Vishnu, was said to intervene when the world is endangered and will return again.

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A Cheyenne Chief

The Cheyenne in the Plains area called their creator god Maheo and conceived of him as residing in the highest of five realms. It is interesting that Hindus also conceived of the manifested world as consisting of five realms (cf. Taittīriya Upanishad 1.7.1) and theosophy considers the realm of personality to consist of five “planes” as well. The tribes in the area of eastern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and western Ontario (Ojibwa, Menominee, Potawatomi, Winnebago) believed that humans had two souls, a “vital soul” residing in the heart which was responsible for various bodily functions and a “free soul” residing in the head which gave one individual consciousness. This is very similar to the Chinese notion of a yin-soul (p’o) and a yang-soul (hun) as well as to the theosophical idea of the etheric double and the “astral” body or kāma-manas. The “free soul” was considered able to leave the body during sleep and might appear as a ghost after death, again very much like theosophical teachings. One finds similar ideas among tribes of the Great Basin area as well.

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A Sioux Brave

Another remarkable similarity with Hindu ideas occurs in the mythology of the Sioux who conceive the world as going through four phases depicted as a buffalo standing first on four legs, then three, then two, then only one. The buffalo also undergoes color changes, the last of which is black (cf. Brown, p. 9). This may be compared with the Hindu yuga theory of four ages depicted as a bull standing on four, three, two, and finally one leg (a parallel which Brown points out in a footnote). The final age in Hindu mythology is called Kāli Yūga or the dark (i.e., black) age.

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A Seminole Chief

In the Southeast area, the Seminoles had an interesting myth, obviously of relatively late origin, in which the Creator attempts three times to create humans out of baked clay: the first was too pale and was given a box containing feathers, ink, and paper; the second was too dark and was given a box filled with axes and hoes; the third was the perfect red man and was given a box with tomahawks, knives, and bows. This myth, used to justify the superior status of the Native American and inferior status of the Negro, is reminiscent of a Vedic hymn (eg Veda 10.90.12) used to justify the class (vara) system, except that in the Seminole version the white — obviously a European — is not placed foremost, as is the brahmin in India, although the black — obviously an imported African slave — is placed at the bottom, as is the śūdra of India. The Seminole also conceived the world as triune, much as did tribes in the Northeast Area.

It was common among many tribes for men and teen-aged boys to undertake a vision quest by withdrawing to an isolated spot, fasting, and praying until a spiritual being would reveal itself to them, give them a song by means of which they could summon the spirit in the future, and teach them how to make a “medicine” which would confer upon them special powers (of protection, success in war or a hunt, winning a woman, etc.). Since the vision was often symbolic, they would go afterwards to a specialist to have it interpreted. Sometimes substances which had a mind-altering nature, were imbibed to aid in that vision quest, but more often a purificatory practice involved a “sweat lodge,” reminiscent of the Finnish sauna. (A detailed description of this ritual may be found in Brown, ch. iii.) One also finds this method of purification mentioned in ancient Hindu literature. In some tribes, only religious specialists would undertake drug-induced trances. In those states, it was believed that the person was possessed by spirits, usually thought of as guardians (perhaps similar to the “controls” of 19th century Western Spiritualists).

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According to Navajo myth, there have been five worlds, but unlike Cheyenne mythology these worlds were created sequentially, as in the theosophical concept of Rounds and Races. In our current fifth world, the people saved themselves from a great flood by ascending inside a reed that was growing high into the sky. In the third world, called yellow, perhaps metaphorical for a developing intellect, the sexes were divided (as mentioned in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and other theosophical literature) in order, they believed, that they would always have to reunite according to the eternal principle of life.

With the arrival of the Europeans, there appeared a new type of religious leader, called by Europeans a prophet because of his prediction of (or warning about) the future. Sometimes these prophets would urge tribes to kill the white settlers, sometimes call upon the tribes to separate themselves from the Europeans (and their destructive habits like drinking liquor) in order to retain their traditional ways, and sometimes encourage peace with the white man. Among the more famous prophets are Hiawatha, who helped form the Iroquois League (consisting of the Mohawk, Onandaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Cayuga) to end intertribal warfare; Handsome Lake, an Iroquois who founded the Long House or Good Word (Gaiwiio) religion in 1799, combining elements of traditional Iroquois religion with Christianity; Popé, a Pueblo who led a successful revolt against the Spanish in 1680; and Wovoka, a Paiute who revived the Ghost Dance religion in 1889, claiming that reunion with their ancestors could be achieved through dancing and peaceful co-existence with the white man. Unfortunately, this latter movement was misinterpreted to mean that the Great Spirit would restore the Indian world to its pre-European state through a resurrection of the dead, which, of course, did not happen. The movement ended in December, 1890 in the tragic massacre of the Lakota Sioux by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the Native American Church was started among the Kiowa and Comanche tribes of the southwest United States and then spread to the Navaho of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah as well as across the Plains to other tribes. It formally incorporated in 1918 and may include as many as 80% of the Navaho. It blends fundamentalist Christianity, general Native American moral ideas, and the use of peyote as a hallucinogen. Its success can partly be explained by the hallucinogenic effects of eating peyote being considered the same as a vision quest. Although it was declared illegal by the Navaho Tribal Council in 1940, it continued to exist — and even flourish — as an underground movement until 1967 when the Council reversed its decision. It was made famous — or infamous, depending on one’s point of view — in a series of books by the anthropologist Carlos Casteñeda. However, the Sun Dance, a celebration of the renewal of the earth held at the beginning of summer is currently attracting many Amerinds away from the Native American Church according to Mother Earth, Father Sky (p. 129).

End of part two

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