Magazine article USA TODAY

When the Spirit Moves Them

Magazine article USA TODAY

When the Spirit Moves Them

Article excerpt

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MUCH HAS BEEN written about American Indian religion, a very popular subject judging by the numerous volumes on this topic found in major bookstores, but a lot of what has been published is highly idealized and oversimplified. Admittedly, it is difficult to sort out the romantic and stereotypical from the factual and the present religious beliefs and practices of Indians. Just what is American Indian religion?

Traditionally, religion varied greatly from tribe to tribe, especially when they were located in different parts of the continent. Even within tribes, since religious beliefs were unwritten and not codified, individuals were free to hold variable and contrasting views of the supernatural world. Today, there are traditionalists who claim to hold to the beliefs of their ancestors but, within their own tribes, there are some members who dismiss such ideas as inauthentic and even dangerous. Native Americans started the Longhouse Religion, Ghost Dance Religion, and Native American Church, and their adherents were Indians but, theologically, they have very little in common--and then there are those New Age Wannabes who claim to be practicing Native American rituals. What do we do with them?

Most would agree that vision quests and sweat lodge purification rituals are examples of American Indian religion, but these activities never were part of the culture of many tribes. Although seemingly forgotten for a generation, they are regaining some popularity on numerous reservations. However, most religious American Indians do not engage in either activity, even though numerous European visitors pay handsomely to do so. Is it Indian religion when it is commercially staged for wealthy Germans? On reservations in the Southwest, most residents are Catholic. In the rest of the country, they are Protestant. Are Catholic and Protestant Indians practicing a religion that is not their own? Aren't their beliefs just as clearly Indian religion as the beliefs of their ancestors? So many questions.

Many Indians and Indian admirers, when discussing religious matters, prefer the term "spirituality." Spirituality, as a category of beliefs and practices, like the term "religion," lacks specificity and objectivity. Indian spirituality, as it is used, seems to emphasize the "good" things, such as sacred eagle feathers, Mother Earth, guardian spirits, heating rituals, and mystical insights--all those ideas that are fashionable and admired by Indians and whites alike. What is left out, of course, are the less attractive religious matters like missionaries, the Bible, Satan, churches, and denominational disputes, all of which tend to be important concerns on reservations. Understandably, Hollywood and popular literature prefer to focus on such spirituality rather than religion in general when featuring Indians.

There is a great deal of factual ethnographic information about traditional Indian religion as it existed before the missionaries arrived. We know that Indians believed in a variety of supernatural beings and powers, such as witchcraft, divination, and taboos. Each tribe had its own mythology to account for the origins of the people and their culture. There were sacred rituals to control illness, enemies, and hunger. Some had sacred objects (Zuni fetishes, Mandan medicine bundles, Iroquois masks, Cheyenne sacred arrows), and most had shamans who were considered capable of manipulating supernatural powers. These cultural traits were general throughout North America, and so are suitably considered typical of traditional American Indian religion. However, these same waits also were typical of precontact tribes in Africa and Asia.

Reverence for Mother Earth often is cited as a distinguishing cultural trait of North American Indians, the assumption being that their world view led them to live in harmony with nature, but the low environmental impact of these populations had far more to do with their low-impact technologies than with a philosophical commitment to environmentalism. …

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