Toward a Native American Theology of Animals: Creek and Cherokee Perspectives

By Aftandilian, Dave | Cross Currents, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Toward a Native American Theology of Animals: Creek and Cherokee Perspectives


Aftandilian, Dave, Cross Currents


Introduction

In this article, I will explore what a Native American theology of animals might look like, and how it might inform work on animal theology in other faith traditions. After a brief review of previous work on this topic, I discuss the roles of animals in Native American creation stories and cosmologies; the recognition of animals as people; the spiritual powers of animals; and the proper practical and spiritual roles of humans in relation to other animals. (1)

Such an exploration, of course, assumes that one can speak of "theology" among people who do not necessarily believe in a supreme deity in the Christian sense. Following the practice of Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George Tinker, who are themselves all Native American, and who published a book on Native American theology recently (Kidwell et al. 2001), I argue that one can indeed speak of Native American theology, so long as two important caveats are kept in mind.

First, Native American spiritual beliefs vary by tribe and by individual, so that one cannot develop a single overarching "Native American theology," of animals or anything else. For that reason, I have chosen to focus this essay on the spiritual beliefs and practices regarding animals of two Southeastern tribes, the Muskogee Creek and the Cherokee (although I will also mention more generally held Native American beliefs from time to time). Both the Creek and the Cherokee once shared traditional lands in northern Georgia, and after they were forcibly removed from those lands and their other traditional territories throughout the Southeast by the U.S. government in the 1830s and 1840s, they were allotted neighboring reservations in northeastern Oklahoma (Swanton 1952/1969, 104-116, 299-300). Both tribes historically practiced a similar mix of farming, hunting, gathering, and fishing in terms of their subsistence (Hudson 1976, 258ff), and also have long shared many stories and spiritual beliefs regarding animals. To highlight the fact that Creek and Cherokee peoples and their cultures are alive and well today, I have drawn on contemporary sources for this article whenever possible.

Second, Native American spiritual beliefs have traditionally been shared orally, through sacred stories which non-natives have often called "myths." Therefore, rather than focusing on biblical texts, as many theological studies do, I will instead focus on sacred stories. (Because Native American people regard their stories of the sacred time before time as true, rather than fictional as is implied by the term "myth," I prefer to refer to these as "sacred stories"; see also Gill 1989, 157-158.)

Before we begin, I want to highlight some of the most important foundations upon which Creek, Cherokee, and other Native American theologies of animals are built. First and foremost, native theologies of animals are based on observation and experience with real animals (for Creek, see Chaudhuri and Chaudhuri 2001, 6, 12; for Cherokee, see Duncan 1998, 203-205; see also Kawagley 2006, 16-17). On the one hand, this focus on close observation of real animals stems from a deep curiosity about and concern for the animal peoples with whom we share the world. But on the other hand, traditionally, native peoples have also watched animals closely and tried to understand them because they were deeply dependent upon the animals for both physical sustenance and spiritual knowledge and power.

Overview of previous work related to Native American animal theology

Because theology has traditionally been done in Christian and sometimes Jewish contexts, there has been relatively little work on theology among Native Americans. A key exception is the book A Native American Theology, which was written by three Native American scholars (Kidwell et al. 2001). However, despite the crucial importance of animals in the spiritual beliefs of Native American peoples throughout the Americas (whether they have practiced primarily hunting and fishing or farming), past and present, Kidwell et al. …

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