THE RELIGION OF THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS
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
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-
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." 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
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.'"
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." 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.
III. The Cult of The Animal Guardian Spirit in Modern And
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.
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.
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."
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."
These descriptions suggest parallels in several respects with
the hunting cultures of prehistoric Europe, 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.