The Religion of the North American Indians - Part 1

Author: Christopher Dawson


Part I

By Christopher Dawson

I. The Religious Conceptions of The Hunting Peoples

It is in the Northerns Steppe region of Asia and America--the domain of what has been called the Arctic culture--that we find the closest analogies to the Europe of the later glacial age. It may seem paradoxical to suggest that peoples like the North American Indians, who possess some knowledge alike of agriculture and of the use of metals, can be better representatives of primitive conditions that the Australian natives who were completely ignorant of both. But it is in the tundra and steppes of Siberia and Canada that the natural conditions of later palaeolithic Europe are most closely paralleled, alike in climate, in fauna, and in flora, and it would seem to follow that the reproduction of the psychological conditions of the primitive hunter are to be looked for in the Indian of the North, who, like his Magdalenian forerunner, was a parasite of the bison and the reindeer, than in the food-gatherers of the Australian bush or of the tropical jungle.

The remarkable resemblances between the different hunting cultures of the Arctic region, of North Siberia, and North America, and those of later palaeolithic Europe, are too great to be fortuitous. Underlying them all there is not only a common way of life, but a common psychology--a common religious foundation which is the key to the interpretation of the culture, and which, if not primitive in the strict sense of the word, is at least the earliest human religion of which we have knowledge.

For the primitive peoples belonging to the hunting culture are in no sense pre-religious or a-religious. They are on the contrary more religious than the peoples of the higher cultures, since the essential religious attitude--the sense of dependence on mysterious external powers--is stronger with them than it is in the case of civilized societies. The culture-peoples even at their lowest have conquered a certain autonomy and security against the external world. Nature is to them partly external and foreign-- the forest and the jungle as against the village and the field-- partly conquered and harnessed as in the case of the domesticated animal and the artificially raised crop. But the hunter lives always in a state of utter dependence on Nature, such as we cannot conceive. Nature is always and everywhere his mistress and mother, and he is a parasite living on her bounty through her elder and wiser and stronger children, the beasts. Hence the religion of the primitive hunter is characterized by universality and vagueness. He does not single out particular powers of Nature to be divinized and worshipped as do the men of the archaic civilizations, nor is he, strictly speaking, an animist, who looks on every manifestation of Nature as the work of individual personal spirits. He is rather a kind of primitive pantheist or "hekastotheist," as Powell calls him, who sees everywhere behind the outward appearance of things a vague undifferentiated supernatural power which shows itself alike in beast and plant, in storm and thunder, in rock and tree, in the magic of the shaman, and in the spirits of the dead. This is the type of religion which Professor Marett first described as Pre- Animism.

It's among the relatively advanced hunting tribes of North America that this conception has been most fully developed and can be most clearly recognized.

Thus, Swanton writes of the Tlingit Indians in Alaska:

"The Tlingit do not divide the universe arbitrarily into so many different quarters ruled by so many supernatural beings. On the contrary, supernatural power impresses them as a vast immensity, one in kind and impersonal, inscrutable as to its nature, but whenever manifesting itself to men taking a personal, and it might be said a human personal form in whatever aspect it displays itself. Thus the sky spirit is the ocean of supernatural energy as it manifests itself in the sky, the sea spirit as it manifests itself in the sea, the bear spirit as it manifests itself in the bear, the rock spirit as it manifests itself in the rock, etc. It is not meant that the Tlingit consciously reasons this out, or formulates a unity in the supernatural, but such appears to be his unexpressed feeling. For this reason there appears to be but one name for this spiritual power, , a name which is affixed to any specific manifestation of it, and it is to this perception or feeling reduced to personality that the `Great Spirit' idea seems usually to have affixed itself. This supernatural energy must be carefully differentiated from natural energy and never confused with it. It is true that the former is supposed to bring about results similar to the latter, but in the mind of the Tlingit the conceived difference between the two is as great as with us. A rock rolling down hill or an animal running is by no means a manifestation of supernatural energy, although if something peculiar be associated with these actions, something outside the Indian's usual experience of such phenomena, they may be thought of as such."[1] This cosmic supernatural power was everywhere recognized by the peoples of North America under many different names, Orenda, Wakan, Manito, etc., and it is obvious that while it is neither theism nor animism it has considerable affinities to both.

This idea of a diffused supernatural cosmic power is found almost everywhere amongst primitive peoples....

II. The Worship of Animals Among The Hunters

For the peoples of the hunting culture always see this vague cosmic power above all manifested and incarnated in the animals. It might seem at first sight that the conditions of primitive life, in which the hunter lives at war with Nature, are irreconcilable with any feeling of religious reverence towards his prey. Yet we have only to turn to modern savages to see that this is not so. The beasts are looked on as stronger and wiser than man. They are the first-born of Nature, the real lords of the land; while man is a new-comer--an intruder. And since he must kill the beasts in order to live, it is necessary for him in some way to secure the favour of the lords of the beasts themselves, that he may do so by their permission.

There still exists among the hunting peoples widely spread customs and ceremonies designed to secure the favour of the animal spirits before hunting, or to placate the beasts that have been killed.

Especially among the northern people from Finland and Lapland throughout Siberia and North-eastern Asia to North America, we find these peculiar customs in connection with the hunting and the killing of the bear, the most formidable of northern animals, and the one most apt to inspire reverence and awe. Some tribes of Americans Indians prepared for the hunt by fasting and religious rites, and by the offering of expiatory sacrifice to the souls of the bears already killed. Among the Tlingit of Alaska, when a dead bear was brought into camp, "its head was carried indoors and eagle down and red paint put upon it. Then one talked to it as if to a human being, saying, `I am your friend, I am poor and come to you.' Before the entrails were burned he talked to them saying, `I am poor, that is why I am hunting you.' When one came to a bear trail, he said, `My father's brother-in-law, have pity upon me, let me be in luck.'"[2]

And if this attitude to animals obtained even in the nineteenth century among American Indians and Siberians with their incomparably greater resources against Nature, how much more must it not have been so for palaeolithic man, armed with his poor implements of flint and bone, in the presence of the mighty pre-historic fauna of the steppes--the bison and the elk, the cave bear and the lion, the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros! And this is proved not merely by reasoning, but by the evidence of palaeolithic art, which consists almost entirely of animal paintings and sculptures.

We can be certain that the primitive hunter did not create these works of art in the depth of dark and inaccessible caverns for the sake of amusement. Their origin is undoubtedly magical or religious, and is to be explained by beliefs and practices regarding the animal spirits of the type of those we have just described. Indeed, the very use of cave sanctuaries, such as Magdalenian man used, seems to survive among the modern hunting peoples, for we read that Apache medicine men before a hunt "used to resort to certain caves where they propitiated the animal gods whose progeny they intended to destroy."[3] The palaeolithic animal paintings were in fact the magical means by which man acquired power over the beasts. It was only by the spirit of the animal that man could overcome the animal. He must magically conquer and make his own the force of the bison, the swiftness of the horse, the cunning of the lynx and the wild cat. And this mysterious transference of power could only be accomplished, in the eyes of primitive man, through the image-- either the dream image or the dramatically represented image or finally the painted or carved image.

Many of the cave paintings of Magdalenian times show clear signs of having been used for magical purposes. The animals, especially the buffalo, are often marked with signs, intended in all probability to represent spears, or with "cupulas" which seem to represent wounds. But there can be little doubt that all these marks were magical signs by which the operator "put his power" on the animal, and secured its capture by the hunter.[4]

III. The Cult of The Animal Guardian Spirit in Modern And Prehistoric Times

But this is not the only explanation of the palaeolithic animal paintings and sculptures. Many of the caves seem to have been true sanctuaries, and the figures in them the object not merely of utilitarian magical practices, but of a real cult. For example, the Tuc d'Audoubert cave, with its famous clay-modelled bison, has impressed every observer as an "inner sanctuary" which has been the scene of prehistoric religious rites.

In the case of the modern hunting peoples of North America the use of animal paintings, though not without its utilitarian magical side, is primarily connected with a circle of ideas which even Sir James Frazer recognizes as religious in the full sense of the word.

This is the belief in the Animal Guardian Spirits, a belief which was almost universal among the hunting tribes of North America, and was specially powerful in the regions where agriculture was unknown, such as Northern and Western Canada.[5]

Every individual, but particularly the shaman and the chief, was supposed to possess such a guardian, whom he received through a dream or revelation in times of fasting and religious exaltation. Among the Blackfeet, a man who wished to acquire supernatural power would go away by himself into the wilderness, to some place of terror and mystery--a mountain peak, an island in a lake, a burial ground, or some place abounding in bears and wild beasts. Here he would remain for days without food or covering, lying for two nights on his right side and for two nights on his left, fasting and praying to the helpers. At last, often at the end of the fourth day, a secret helper would appear to him in a vision--usually, but not always, in the form of an animal--and would impart to him its power and give him counsel, marking for him his course in life.[6]

Among the Omaha, according to Fletcher, a boy on attaining the age of puberty went through a similar ordeal. When he had reached a secluded spot among the hills, "he must chant the prescribed prayer, uplifting his hands, wet with his tears, to the heavens, and then he must place his hands on the earth and fast, until he falls asleep or into a trance. Whatever he sees or hears while in this state is the being through whom he can receive superhuman aid and comfort." Later on it is his duty to seek until he finds the animal or bird seen in his revelation, which he must kill, retaining a small part of it as a concrete link with the power that he had seen in his vision. The writer adds:

"This ceremony of initiation rests on the assumption that man's powers and activities can be supplemented by the elements and the animals, only through the grace of , obtained by the rite of vision, consisting of ritualistic acts and a fervent prayer of humility explaining a longing for something not possessed, a consciousness of insufficiency of self, and an abiding desire for something capable of bringing welfare and prosperity to the suppliant."[7]

The mode of preparation varied in character and severity among the different peoples. The Mandans even went so far as to cut off the joints of their fingers, so that, according to the Prince of Wied in 1833, some finger was mutilated amongst all of them, a practice which suggests comparison with the famous mutilated hand prints in the palaeolithic cavern of Gargas in the Pyrenees.

In Western Canada and Alaska, as well as among the Omaha, it was more often a regular initiation ordeal, which every youth had to undergo, and in some cases, as among the Shuswap, the making of rock paintings of the animal guardians was a normal part of the ceremony. But in every case, the dream image or vision was essential. Writing of the Western Dene of the Yukon, Fr. A.G. Morice refers to the importance that they attach to dreams. He says:

"It is while dreaming that they pretended to communicate with the supernatural world, that their shamans were invested with heir wonderful power over nature, and that every individual was assigned his particular nagual or tutelary animal genius. Oftentimes they painted this genius with vermillion on prominent rocks in the most frequented places, and these rough inscriptions are about the only monuments that the immediate ancestors of the Dene have left us."

Elsewhere he says the tutelary spirits

"are the link which connects man with the invisible world, and the only means of communing with the unseen: these are the personal totems of the Denes, and I cannot help thinking of most of the American aborigines as well.

"The personal totem revealed itself usually in dreams, when it appeared to its future protege under the shape of an animal, etc., which was to be thenceforth his tutelary genius... Thenceforth the most intimate connection existed between the two....In times of need he would secretly invoke its assistance, saying, `May you do this or that to me.'

"Before an assault on his enemies or previous to his chase of large game, he would daub its symbol on his bow and arrows, and if success attended his efforts he would sometimes thank it by destroying any piece of property on hand, food or clothing, or in later times tobacco, which he would throw into the water or cast into the fire as a sacrifice."[8]

These descriptions suggest parallels in several respects with the hunting cultures of prehistoric Europe,[9] and there is no doubt that the existence of a similar circle of ideas in palaeolithic times would afford a more satisfactory explanation than is otherwise forthcoming of the art of the European cave paintings. The wealth of animal paintings, their variety, and their reduplication one upon another, are such as might be expected, if the religious ideas and ceremonies centred round the conception of animal guardians and the importance of the visible image. A great artistic movement such as that of the palaeolithic cave paintings presupposes a powerful emotional foundation in the psychic life of the people, such as we have seen to exist where the belief in the Animal Guardian Spirit is still prevalent. A purely utilitarian magic is incapable of producing a great art--in fact, among primitive people, even more than elsewhere, a great art requires a strong religious impulse to bring it into being. Hence the great age of palaeolithic art may well represent the formative period of a new type of religion-culture, which has survived among the hunting peoples of the North ever since.


1 J.R. Swanton, "Social Conditions, Beliefs and Linguistic Relations of the Tlingit Indian," in Twenty-Sixth Annual Report of Bureau of American Ethnology, pp. 451-2, note.

2 Swanton, , p. 455.

3 N.W. Thomas, s.v., "Animals in Hastings," E.E.E., i., 511 b.

4 Similar practices are found among the Indians of North America. They also made drawings of animals with arrow marks on the side or in the heart, or carved figures upon which they bound a flint arrow head. And in their case we have the actual charms that were recited by the magician, such as--

"I shoot your heart; I hit your heart,

O Animal--your heart--I hit your heart."

See illustrations and references for the Zuni and Ojibwa Indians in Sollas' , pp. 424-7.

5 This belief was observed by the Spaniards centuries before Totemism had been discovered, and was named by them , from the word for the guardian spirit--Nagual-- which was generally used in Central America. Cf. D.G. Brinton, "Nagualism, a Study in American Folk Lore and History," in Pr. , vol. xxxiii.

6 Frazer, , iii, p. 389.

7 Handbook of the American Indians North of Mexico>, vol. ii, p. 790, art. "Totem."

8 Rev. A. G. Morice in Frazer, , iii, 440-2.

9 Cf. also the Indian custom of a shaman or an initiate wearing the skin or mask of his tutelary animal in religious dances or ceremonies with the palaeolithic paintings of men disguised as animals, such as the famous figure of the "sorcerer" from the grotto of the Trois Freres (Ariege).

(1928) pp. 25-37

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.