Sunday, May 20, 2012

Native American Religion

As chapter 2 of the Hopfe/Woodward "Religions of the World" text points out, Native American religion is diverse and difficult to identify as either polytheistic, animistic, or pantheistic.  Indeed, it may be a feature of these religions to set aside clarification and speculation about such differences and instead focus on practical concerns related to overcoming suffering and natural evil.

This is a theme that runs through the kinds of categories discussed in the chapter, such as animism, ritual dances, sacrifice, taboos, vision quests, the spirit world, and life after death.  The underlying idea appears to be that there is a harmony to nature, and that when this harmony is disrupted bad things happen.  Humans contribute to this disruption by harming nature or ignoring the natural cycles, but can also repair the harmony through observing the correct rituals and understanding that they are but part of the natural order.  This identification of humans as part of nature, even a lesser part that is ruled by the spirits forces and guided by animal totems, is a distinct feature of these religions.

Nevertheless, interactions between European missionaries and Native Americans show that the latter grasped the challenge posed by European religious beliefs.  Since there was some sense of a supreme creator in many Native American religions (although he was distant and unapproachable and sometimes impersonal), missionaries often made an appeal to this as the same God believed in by Europeans.  I'd like to give some quotes from notable chiefs who raised questions about this idea of God, and about why they should accept the religious beliefs being offered by Europeans:

From Chief Red Jacket:

There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island. [The Seneca, like many other tribes, refer to this continent as a “great island.”] . . . The Great Spirit had made it for the use of Indians. . . All this He had done for His red children because He loved them.  If we had any disputes about hunting grounds, they were generally settled without the shedding of much blood.  But an evil day came upon us.  Your forefathers crossed the great waters and landed upon this land.  Their numbers were small.  They found friends not enemies.   They told us they had fled from their own country for fear of wicked men, and had come here to enjoy their religion . . . You say that you are right, and we are lost.  How do we know this to be true?  We understand that your religion is written in a book.  If it was intended for us as well, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us; and not only to us, but why did He not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly?  We know only what you tell us about it.  How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?  Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit.  If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it.  Why not all agree, as you can all read the book? . . . We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers and has been handed down, father to son.  We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children.  We worship in that way.  It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united.  We never quarrel about religion.  Brother, the Great Spirit has made us all.  But He has made a great difference between His white and red children.  . . . Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion, or to take it from you.  We only want to enjoy our own.

From Tecumseh:

Sell a country?! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?  How can we have confidence in the white people? We have good and just reasons to believe we have ample grounds to accuse the Americans of injustice, especially when such great acts of injustice have been committed by them upon our race, of which they seem to have no manner of regard, or even to reflect. When Jesus Christ came upon the earth you killed him and nailed him to the cross. You thought he was dead, and you were mistaken. You have the Shakers among you, and you laugh and make light of their worship. Everything I have told you is the truth. The Great Spirit has inspired me.

From Chief Seattle:

Your God is not our God.  Your God loves your people and hates mine.  He folds His strong protecting arms lovingly about the white man and leads him by the hand as a father leads his infant son.  But He has forsaken His red children—if they are really His.  Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us.  Your God makes your people wax strong every day.  Soon they will fill all the land.  Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return.  The white man’s God cannot love our people or He would protect them. . . Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors—the dreams of our old men, given them in the solemn hours of night by the Great Spirit, and in the visions of our sachems—and is written in the hearts of our people . . . Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars.  They are soon forgotten and never return.  Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. . . . Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people.

These quotes show sophisticated responses to the European message.  They raise questions about how we know God and God's will, how we understand the problem of evil and suffering, and how we explain the relationship between different groups of people.  They ask questions about salvation and redemptive revelation.  I believe these are the kinds of questions that must be asked and discussed if there is to be progress made between discordant groups.