Native American Religion in Early America

Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware
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Teaching about Native American religion is a challenging task to tackle with students at any level, if only because the Indian systems of belief and ritual were as legion as the tribes inhabiting North America. So let's begin by trimming down that bewildering variety to manageable proportions with three glittering generalizations (which might, with luck, prove more useful than misleading).

First, at the time of European contact, all but the simplest indigenous cultures in North America had developed coherent religious systems that included cosmologies--creation myths, transmitted orally from one generation to the next, which purported to explain how those societies had come into being.
Second, most native peoples worshiped an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator or "Master Spirit" (a being that assumed a variety of forms and both genders). They also venerated or placated a host of lesser supernatural entities, including an evil god who dealt out disaster, suffering, and death.
Third and finally, the members of most tribes believed in the immortality of the human soul and an afterlife, the main feature of which was the abundance of every good thing that made earthly life secure and pleasant.

Like all other cultures, the Indian societies of North America hoped to enlist the aid of the supernatural in controlling the natural and social world, and each tribe had its own set of religious observances devoted to that aim. Individuals tried to woo or appease powerful spiritual entities with private prayers or sacrifices of valuable items (e.g., furs, tobacco, food), but when entire communities sought divine assistance to ensure a successful hunt, a good harvest, or victory in warfare, they called upon shamans, priests, and, in fewer tribes, priestesses, whom they believed to have acquired supernatural powers through visions. These uncommon abilities included predicting the future and influencing the weather-- matters of vital interest to whole tribes--but shamans might also assist individuals by interpreting dreams and curing or causing outbreaks of witchcraft.

As even this brief account indicates, many key Indian religious beliefs and practices bore broad but striking resemblances to those current among early modern Europeans, both Catholic and Protestant. These cultures, too, credited a creation myth (as set forth in Genesis), venerated a Creator God, dreaded a malicious subordinate deity (Lucifer), and looked forward to the individual soul's immortality in an afterlife superior in every respect to the here and now. They, too, propitiated their deity with prayers and offerings and relied upon a specially trained clergy to sustain their societies during periods of crisis. Finally, the great majority of early modern Europeans feared witches and pondered the meaning of their dreams.

Important as it is to appreciate the affinities between the religious cultures of Indians and early modern Europeans (and Euro-Americans), there were real differences that must be kept in mind. The most important is that Indians did not distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. On the contrary, Native Americans perceived the "material" and "spiritual" as a unified realm of being--a kind of extended kinship network. In their view, plants, animals and humans partook of divinity through their close connection with "guardian spirits," a myriad of "supernatural" entities who imbued their "natural" kin with life and power. By contrast, Protestant and Catholic traditions were more inclined to emphasize the gulf that separated the pure, spiritual beings in heaven--God, the angels, and saints--from sinful men and women mired in a profane world filled with temptation and evil.

Guiding Student Discussion

When you take up Native American religion in class, you could spend hours describing the specific beliefs and rituals of the major tribes spanning the North American continent, but this barrage of information might leave your students feeling overwhelmed and confused. It might be more profitable to begin by promising yourself to avoid any approach to Native American spirituality that is too exhaustively detailed. Thus you might start by describing the most salient and definitive characteristics of Indian spirituality and its most basic similarities to and differences from Euro-American Christianity, about which many students may also have only the vaguest notions, so your remarks will do double duty.

If you're working with students who might find this approach too abstract, try devoting a class period to the beliefs and practices of a single major tribal grouping--the League of the Iroquois in upstate New York, for example, or the Hopi in the Southwest or the Oglala Sioux in the upper Midwest (the closer to where you're located, the better). Draw upon this specific information to build toward more sweeping statements about the general character of Native American religiosity. Consult these works for wonderful descriptions of Native American religious cultures and read from the following examples.

Joel W. Martin, Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees' Struggle for a New World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

James H. Merrell, The Indians' New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

Peter Farb, Man's Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State (New York: Dutton, 1968).

If you can find time to do more in class, your best students may be fascinated by examples of how native peoples adapted Christianity to their particular historical circumstances and needs. Most students tend to approach the phenomenon of Indian "conversion" to Christianity with one of two starkly opposite and inaccurate assumptions. While some students, typically those with strong Christian convictions, will jump to the conclusion that Indian converts completely abandoned native religious traditions in favor of the "superior truth" of Christianity, others, who pride themselves on their skepticism, will voice the suspicion that all Indian conversions were merely expedient--matters of sheer survival--and, hence, "insincere." A brief discussion will bring to light both of those assumptions, whereupon you will have an opportunity to nod sagely and then say, "There's some merit in your reasoning, but I think that this matter might be more complex." Since most bright adolescents secretly yearn to become "complex," or at least to figure out what that might involve, you've got them. And having got them, what you do next is to offer some examples, as many as you can work into the time available, of how and why native peoples selectively borrowed from Christianity, picking and choosing certain elements of Catholic or Protestant belief and ritual which they then combined with traditional Indian practices. Many of the books cited in this essay describe the varying ways in which individual Native Americans and whole tribes participated in this process.

This is how the process of "conversion" typically unfolded among Native American peoples. Indians did not simply replace one faith with another, nor did most converts cynically pretend to embrace Christian convictions. Instead, native beliefs and rituals gradually became intermixed with Christian elements, exemplifying a process known as religious syncretism--a creative combination of the elements of different religious traditions yielding an entirely new religious system capable of commanding broad popular loyalties. It yielded a broad spectrum of results, ranging from native peoples' accepting almost entirely the Christianity of the dominant white society to tribal attempts at revitalizing traditional Indian religions and, in some instances, renewing their resistance to Euro-American efforts at military and cultural conquest.(For the former, see any of William McLoughlin's books on the southern Cherokee, including The Cherokees and Christianity, 1794-1870: Essays on Acculturation and Cultural Persistence [Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994]).

Historians Debate

The key development in the field of Native American historiography (also referred to as "ethnohistory") within the last twenty years is the growing awareness of the "new world" created for both whites and Indians as a result of their contact. Earlier histories either celebrated the rapid triumph of Euro-American "civilization" over Indian "savagery" or deplored the decimation of native peoples through military defeat and disease. In both versions, native peoples figured primarily as passive victims. More recent histories tell another story entirely, drawing attention to the enduring Indian resistance to white domination and, even more important, to the multiple forms of cultural adaptation and accommodation that took place on both sides of the moving frontier. The landmark study of this new scholarship is Richard White's eloquent and densely detailed The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), which focuses on the Ohio valley and shows how a common cultural terrain gradually emerged as its indigenous peoples interacted with missionaries, soldiers, traders, and other settlers, first the French and later the English. To get the most from this book requires several hours of close reading, but every learned, lucidly written page repays the effort.

If you're looking for something that is less daunting in its heft but just as provocative, it's James Axtell's The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York : Oxford University Press, 1985). Few historians understand better than Axtell the importance of religion in shaping early American history, and here he argues that the superiority of French Jesuits as missionaries and the "limber paganism" of the Indians sustained the efforts of both to keep the British from winning the three-way struggle for the North American continent, a contest that culminated in the Seven Years' War (1755-1762). The book sparkles with learning and wit, and its pages are filled with anecdotes that will delight your students. In addition, Axtell has edited a book of primary sources, The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), which offers a rich array of selections exploring every facet of life, including religion, among the eastern Woodland tribes, as well as much helpful commentary in the introduction and prefaces to each selection.

Christine Leigh Heyrman was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1986-87. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and is currently Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial New England, 1690-1740 [1984], Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt [1997], which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998, and Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the Republic, with James West Davidson, William Gienapp, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff [3rd ed., 1997].