The Religion of the North American Indians - Part 2. Dawson discusses the

Author: Christopher Dawson

The Religion of the North American Indians

Part II

By Christopher Dawson

1. The Pueblo Priesthoods and the Warrior Peoples

In the case of the Pueblo culture of New Mexico we have a most remarkable example of a society based on the sacred ritual order, which has endured almost intact, while the surrounding native peoples and cultures that were far more fluid and apparently capable of adaptation to new conditions have withered and practically disappeared. This is an almost perfect example of a society or group of societies governed by an elaborate ceremonial order administered by a number of priesthoods or religious corporations whose ceremonial observances occupy the major part of the time and the attention of the community.

It is impossible to find a more completely socialized type of culture, in which every activity and every emotion have their appointed place which does not change from year to year or from generation to generation. Even economic interests are subordinated to religious considerations, and a man's prestige and social importance depend not on his wealth but on knowledge of ritual and his inherited prerogatives in the ceremonial order.

The culture of the Pueblos, was not only more advanced, it was also more enduring than that of the Indians of the Plains. It shows that it is possible for a society to maintain itself through the ages without internal decadence on a strictly theocratic basis without appealing to the dynamism of aggression and competition. On the other hand, it remained static, without any considerable tendency to expand -- indeed rather the reverse; while the Indians of the Plains expanded very rapidly over an immense extent of territory, and for a time pressed hard on the higher civilization of the Pueblo peoples. And further south in Mexico the highest native civilization of the Continent was attained when a warrior people from the north overran a higher civilization of the theocratic type which had been developed by the Maya, and thus pro- duced the complex blend of theocratic and warrior elements which characterized the Aztec culture. But the result of this blending of two opposite types of culture was an extreme development of ritual human sacrifice which made the Aztec cult perhaps the most sanguinary and inhuman form of worship that has ever existed.

Thus in the New World we see the characteristic types of religious culture more sharply defined, and developed in more exaggerated forms than in the Old.

, pp. 158-160

2. Religious Ritual Among The Zuni Indians

The Prophet is the organ of divine inspirations, the King is the organ of sacred power, but the Priest is the organ of knowledge -- the master of sacred science. And this is to be seen not only in advanced and highly intellectualized cultures, like that of India; it is already manifest in the higher forms of barbarian society, in Polynesia, in parts of Africa and in America. Perhaps the most complete and certainly the most fully-studied example is to be found in the Pueblo culture of New Mexico which has survived intact through all the changes of surrounding cultures, thanks to the stabilizing power of a sacred ritual maintained by the tradition of the priesthood.

In her striking studies of Zuni culture Miss Ruth Benedict has shown how the whole social life of the people is absorbed and dominated by their rich and complex ritual order.

"Their cults of the masked gods, of healing, of the sun, of the sacred fetishes, of war, of the dead," she writes, "are formal and established bodies of ritual with priestly officials and calendric observances. No field of activity competes with ritual for foremost place in their attention. Probably most grown men among the Western Pueblos give to it the greater part of their working life. It requires the memorizing of an amount of word-perfect ritual which our less trained minds find staggering, and the performance of neatly dovetailed ceremonies that are charted by the calendar and complexly interlock all the different cults and the governing body in endless formal procedure." [, pp. 59-60]

In such a society the priest is inevitably the leading figure, and he owes his power and prestige not to his individual inspiration or character but to his knowledge and his initiation into an inherited tradition of ritual science. "The Zuni phrase for a person with power is `one who knows how'", and the priest is the man "who knows how" in the sacred techniques which govern the relations of the community with the transcendent powers.

It is true that these techniques are not essentially different from those to be found amongst the most primitive peoples -- masked dances, rain-making ceremonies, fertility rites and the rest. The difference lies in the higher degree of integration that they have attained, with the result that Zuni society achieves the ideal of a liturgical culture in which the whole corporate way of life is ordered to the service of the gods in a continual cycle of prayer and sacramental action.

And it is the same with the institution of priesthood itself. Looked at from one side, the Zuni priest is indistinguishable form the savage magician or medicine-man. But looked at from the other, he is obviously closely akin to the temple priesthoods of Central America, which in turn are identical in social function and intellectual position with the great temple priesthoods of the archaic culture in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

, pp.102-103.

3. Prophecy and The Discernment of Spirits

As a rule the higher the type of culture the rarer and the more highly prized is this gift, so that by the time the cultural mould of a higher religion is firmly set the succession of the prophets has come to an end and the sacred canon is closed.

On the other hand, in more primitive cultures the prophetic gift is more widely diffused. Among the American Indian peoples above all, there have been tribes in which almost every normal man aspires to visionary experience and to the acquisition of supernatural powers, and as a rule it is only after prayer and fasting or other acts of mortification that he can attain his end. The religious and social implications of the ascetic experience are well shown in A. B. Skinner's account of the words in which the Iowa Shaman addresses a youth before he goes into retreat to prepare for his visionary experience. "The time has come to use the charcoal (with which the youth smears his face). Let thy tears fall on our mother, the Earth, that she may have pity on thee and help thee in thy need. Seek thy way; the Creator will help thee. He sends thee perchance a voice and prophesies to thee whether thou wilt gain renown in thy tribe or no. Perchance thou wilt dream of the thunder or of some other being above, his helper or servant. May they vouchsafe thee long life! Entreat help of the Sun. The Sun is a great power. But if there comes some power out of the water or from the earth, take it not; let it be; turn not thy attention to it. Hear nought of it; otherwise thou wilt quickly die. For so must thou hold thyself. Be cautious. There are heavenly powers and powers of evil, and these seek to deceive thee. Thou must be ready to fast, for if Wakonda helps thee, thou wilt become a great man, a protector of thy people and thou wilt obtain honour." p. 739.

Here we see that association of social prestige and advancement with supernatural experience which is so characteristic of Shamanism in every part of the world, and most of all in America. But there is also a strong emphasis on spiritual values which are not of social origin, a consciousness of the supernatural dangers that beset the spiritual journey and of the need for the discernment of spirits. And when we come to the greater figures which this culture has produced - to the prophet of the Delawares who inspired Pontiac, to the brother of Tecumseh, the Shawnee prophet, who took for himself the name Tenkswatawa, "The Open Door", to Kanakuk, the Kickapoo prophet of the early seventeenth century, or to Wovoka, the Piviotso prophet, we see how under the stress of national disaster this barbaric type of prophetic religion was capable of producing a series of Messianic leaders who attempted to save their people by moral and religious reformation of their culture.

This kind of development is not confined to North America, it is in fact the normal reaction of the prophetic type of religion whenever the culture is threatened by alien influences; as we see in South Africa, in the Sudan and in New Zealand, during the nineteenth century.

, pp. 69-70.

4. The Ghost Dance and The Plains Indians

It is difficult for a civilized man to understand either the religious significance or the cultural importance of such ceremonies. But to the primitive the dance or mime is at once the highest form of social activity and the most powerful kind of religious action. Through it the community participates in a mystery which confers supernatural efficacy upon its action. How this may affect social life and change the course of historical events may be seen in the rise of the Ghost Dance religion among the Indians of the Plains at the end of the nineteenth century. Here we have a well attested case of how a dance may become the medium by which the religious experience of an individual may be socialized and transmitted from one people to another with revolutionary political effects. Wovoka, an Indian of a little known and unimportant tribe in Nevada, received in a vision a dance the performance of which would bring back the spirits of their dead ancestors and the vanished herds of buffalo and the good times that were past. The dance cult spread like wildfire eastward across the mountains to the Indians of the great plains and finally stimulated the Sioux to their last desperate rising against the United States government.

The most remarkable thing about this movement was the extreme rapidity with which it communicated itself from people to people across halt the continent, so that if it had not been defeated by a hopeless inequality of material power, the Ghost Dance might have changed not only the religion but also the social existence of the Indians of the Middle West in the course of a few years. Such revolutionary changes are in fact by no means rare in history. We have an example of it on the higher religious level and on a vast historical scale int he case of the rise of Islam. Here we see in full clearness and detail how a new religion may create a new culture. A single individual living in a cultural backwater originates a movement which in a comparatively short time sweeps across the world, destroying historic empires and civilizations and creating a new way of life which still molds the thought and behavior of millions from Senegal to Borneo.

(1948). pp. 52-53.