Monday, 17 December 2007

Know Your Indians - Religions, Beliefs, Ceremonials


By A. Hyatt Verrill


From Double Action Western magazine, March 1954, digital capture by Doug Frizzle 2007.

THERE HAS been a vast amount of misinformation as well as many erroneous ideas in regard to the religious beliefs, the ceremonials and dances, the "medicines" and medicine-men, and the so-called superstitions of the Indians. One writer has even stated that the Indians had no conception of a single supreme deity, but lived in constant dread of evil spirits. Nothing could be much further from the truth. I do not know of a single tribe who did not believe in and worship a supreme deity or Creator. He might be called Manitu, Mani, Waitkam, He-Who-Sits-In-The-Sky, or by any one of scores of names; but in every case this supreme, deity was regarded as the Creator, and as a most beneficent spirit whose abode was usually in the heavens—in the sun, in some lofty mountain, or even in some sacred lake.

Legends of the creation are common to nearly all—if not all—tribes and in all, or nearly all, of these the "Great Spirit" is credited with having created the earth and all living things. A great many of the Indians were so-called Sun Worshippers, but when they "worshipped" the sun they were, in reality, worshipping the Creator, for they believed that the sun was his visual manifestation. When they prayed to or made offerings to some sacred lake, or mountain, or other object, they were not worshipping the natural formation itself but the deity who supposedly resided there. In other words, it was similar to the Christians praying to images of the Virgin, or the Saviour, or kneeling before an altar.

In much the same way, the so-called Indian "Idols" were not true idols but merely representations of certain deities, as the Indians believed they should appear if visible. Among many tribes the Supreme God was believed to have a wife, whose visual manifestation was the moon. They believed that the movements of the two planets were to enable the heavenly pair to watch over all people on earth; and some believed that when no moon was visible, the goddess came to earth, and —assuming human form—wandered about among the people—and that during the night the sun-spirit came to the earth. As they saw the sun rise— apparently from the earth—at dawn, they had some basis for this belief and they accounted for the fact that both the sun and moon were sometimes together in the sky by the belief that the moon had to be with her consort at times. Other tribes believed that both the sun and moon were always in the sky, but became visible only when tenanted by the Great Spirit and his wife.

We cannot afford to ridicule such beliefs, for man conceives his gods as beings to whom he owes the most and greatest blessings and hence pictures their abodes as the spots whence come the most important benefits—such as light, warmth, rains, etc. Even the Christian and Hebraic conception of God in a celestial Paradise is derived from similar reasoning, for from the sky comes the life-giving rain and the sunshine sent to earth by a beneficent deity who, therefore, must abide in the heavens; and just as the Indians believed that their greatest deity lived or manifested himself in the sun or elsewhere above the earth, so Christians—or at least many of them—believe that an invisible Creator or God exists somewhere above the earth. Among all tribes, the Great Spirit, or Creator, or Supreme Deity was believed to be a most kindly and beneficent god who watched over them, helped them, guided them, and left punishments for transgressions to the evil spirits or "devils". When, as was often the case, they had a Serpent God, an Eagle God, or a Jaguar or Bear God, and depicted the Great Deity in the guise of a jaguar or cougar, an eagle or a serpent, these were merely symbolic. The serpent was the symbol of wisdom, the eagle the symbol of power over the air, and the bear—or other beast—the symbol of power and strength on earth. Among tribes who depended greatly upon the sea for a living, the so-called "Fish God" was the symbol of power over the waters. And when Indians worshipped—or made offerings—to some certain mountain, lake, river, or other natural object or to some "sacred" creature, it was because they believed that the objects or creatures were tenanted by deities or good spirits.

In addition to the one supreme deity, and numerous lesser deities such as their Rain Gods, War Gods, Crop Gods, and others, the Indians believed in a multiplicity of evil spirits or "devils". As they reasoned that good spirits would not harm them, they devoted a great deal of their time to propitiating these evil spirits—which led many persons, especially the missionaries, to assume that the Indians were Devil Worshippers. Most of the Indians considered their "devils" rather stupid and easily-hoodwinked spirits, and often employed the simplest means to keep them at a safe distance.

AMONG A great number of tribes the children were given secret names, known only to the Shaman or Medicine Man and to the child's godmother; that name never was used or spoken, the Indians believing that in this way they could prevent the devils from learning the child's name and hence could not take possession of him or her. Another wide-spread custom was to fashion a charm or fetish —such as a crudely-carved or modelled figure—which served as a proxy to attract evil spirits, who would enter the figure instead of the maker. It was also an almost universal custom to "break" or interrupt the pattern, or design, of a textile, basket or decoration. This might be merely an interruption in the design that was scarcely noticeable, or it might be nothing more than a change of color; but the Indians believed that when this was done the "devil" could not find his way into the object. It was such a widely-used method of befuddling the evil spirits that the "break" is one of the most reliable means of distinguishing a genuine Indian-made object from an imitation.

With their beliefs in an after-life, the Indians varied as greatly as in their conceptions of spirits and deities. Indians who relied mainly upon the chase would naturally imagine an ideal heaven as a place abounding in game or a "Happy hunting ground"; an agricultural tribe would feel that a heaven of rich soil, abundant crops, and no weeds or insect foes would be the perfect paradise: and Indians who relied upon sea-food would, in the same way, desire any after-life where there were unlimited numbers of fish. Also, just as some Christians believe in a literal heaven and hell, and some believe in a bodily resurrection, or in a spiritual reincarnation, and still others believe in other conditions of afterlife, so the Indians had (and still have) innumerable conceptions of the destiny of the soul, or spirit, after death. But in the majority of cases— no matter what their belief in the future might be—the Indians are spiritualists, and are convinced that the spirits of the dead visit the earth, and their former friends and fellow-tribesmen, under certain conditions, are able to communicate with the living.

When an Indian wished to communicate with the spirits of the departed, in order to obtain advice or help in some important matter, or desired to make some very potent charm or "medicine", he would go to a remote spot. There he would pray and fast until he had a vision and the spirit gave him explicit directions as to what he must do. In all probability, they did have such visions. Many a white man who has suffered hardships and privations has had "visions", even though he was not delirious, and the Indian is far more susceptible to such hallucinations than the white man. Moreover, in his exalted state, and believing implicitly in the efficacy of his prayers and his fasting, his visions would be far more realistic and vivid than those of a white man.

Nor should we ridicule such visions as purely hallucination. Much of our Christian Faith is founded upon visions, and the whole story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection would be shattered were we to cast aside the visions that were the results of sublime faith coupled with overwrought nerves and brains. Moreover, many highly intelligent white persons are firm believers in spiritualism; when an Indian isolates himself and fasts and prays he is merely holding a private seance. At any rate, he invariably follows the dictates of his vision to the most minute details and, not infrequently, with amazing results. It is a trite old saying that "Faith will move mountains" and the faith of the Indian is truly sublime. In fact faith was, and still is, one of the most outstanding features of Indian psychology. It was largely owing to their faith in the white men's promises and treaties that led to their downfall.

I have never known an Indian— who has not been ruined by civilization and contact with the whites—who intentionally broke a promise, or who was dishonest. As a result, until they learned better, they judged others by white men's words and treaties. But when they discovered their mistake, and their faith was destroyed, they lost confidence in all white men and withdrew into a shell of suspicion and aloofness.

But they never have lost faith in their deities and their religions. They reason that their gods are infallible, and when anything goes wrong they blame themselves or the evil spirits. Their faith in prayers is sublime, more especially when their prayers have been augmented by fasting, dancing, making offerings, elaborate ceremonials, and some form of self-sacrifice.

On one occasion, after a prolonged drought during which the Zunis had prayed and made offerings to their rain god, there had been a torrential downpour over a small area, and it had completely destroyed the crops of one old Indian.

“I guess you'll stop praying for rain now," a white friend remarked as be saw the ruined fields.

"Me pray," replied the Indian. "Rain God make mistake. Send too much rain one place. Must send water other place now."

IN ADDITION to their innumerable charms, fetishes, proxies, etc., the Indians had absolute faith in their good and bad "medicine". In the broadest sense of the term, "medicine" was anything that had either a beneficial or a detrimental influence or power. However, it was not the "medicine" object itself that was supposed to do this, but the prayers and rituals or "magic" put into it that won the favor of the gods. A "medicine" might be anything—either animate or inanimate, natural or man-made. It might be a true medicine or cure, but the term we translate as "medicine" includes dreams, witchcraft, prophecies, spiritualism, visions, unusual or peculiar objects, special weapons—or, in fact, anything which the Indian considers what we might call lucky or unlucky, or that he considers mysterious, or connected with the occult. Thus they had their medicine-dances, medicine-moccasins, medicine headdresses, medicine-houses, or lodges, medicine-bundles, medicine-weapons, etc., as well as their medicine-societies and medicine-clans—the latter often being founded or based upon some strange or mysterious occurrence of the past.

One form of medicine used by many tribes are the "medicine-sticks". These are of many designs, and are used for many purposes. They may be offerings to spirits and designed to bring about some particular result; they may serve to keep undesirable spirits or persons at a distance; or they may even serve as invitations.

Among the Sioux, and other plains tribes, these medicine-sticks are very common. As a rule, they consist of the sprout or young shoot of some tree that is stripped of bark and either left bare or painted. In the latter case, the colors and designs are symbolic; a red stick, for example, indicating an offering to some supernatural being. In this case, a tiny bundle is attached to the stick, and within this there will be something that the Indian believes will please the spirits. It may be cloth, beads, tobacco, trinkets, hair, fur, a bit of skin or feathers, or some medicinal seed, tuber or leaves—for the offering is merely a proxy or a sample, as we might say, representing the gifts the Indian is willing to bestow if his prayers are answered, and an expression in concrete form of his desire to please the deity to whom it is dedicated. No matter how small the offering may be, it contains the spirit or the immaterial idea of the true offering. If the sticks are properly prepared with the correct ceremonies anyone may make and use them—for almost any purpose—although, as a rule, they are mainly used to cure some illness.

Frequently a dozen or more of the sticks may be seen outside of a home where someone is ill. In this respect they are not so different from the blessed candles that many devout Christians place about a sick person, with the belief that they will aid in his or her recovery, and that are visual representations of prayers offered.

The offering-sticks should not be confused with the true prayer-sticks, which are very similar in purpose to the Orientals' paper-prayers. In the case of the Indians' prayer-sticks, a true prayer or invocation is made, the stick itself being merely a representation or proof of the prayer, and perpetuating it, whereas the offering-sticks employed as curatives are representations of actual offerings promised, or expressive of certain sacrifices to be made—and may or may not be accompanied by prayers. Somewhat similar sticks are also used by Indians when they isolate themselves and, by fasting and meditation, see "visions" or communicate with the spirits.

ONE VERY popular medicine that was used by many of the plains tribes were the "buffalo stones"—in reality fossil mollusks—which the Indians believed would attract or "call" the buffalos and that almost always had a place in the Indians "medicine-bundles". The latter had innumerable forms and no two were exactly alike, for each contained the private individual medicines of the owner of the bundle. This might be a true bundle containing all manner of odds and ends— such as scalp-locks, herbs, roots, teeth, fur, sweet flag roots, bones, a human jawbone or even a skull, dried fingers and "buffalo stones", brightly-colored or oddly-shaped pebbles, etc. But each and every item was regarded by the owner of the bundle as possessing some special "medicine" power. As a rule, many of the objects were adorned with bead work, or were painted in symbolic colors and designs, while the "buffalo stones" were neatly covered with beaded buckskin—but always with a hole or small opening to enable the stones to "look out".

Other bundles consisted mainly of wearing-apparel such as beaded vests or shirts, headdresses, medicine-moccasins, etc., often in miniature size but frequently full-sized, and each article carefully made and prepared in accordance with some spiritual vision. As an example of this there is the medicine-bundle of Sees-the-Living-Bull, a Crow chief and famous medicine-man, who died in 1896 when ninety-eight years of age. The bundle, now in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York City, was obtained from Gray Bull in 1921 and contains a pair of "medicine-moccasins" which, according to the family traditions, were made in the following manner.

He fasted for a period of four days, for four times, while isolated on a high mountain in Montana; on the morning of the fifth day of the fifth fast, he had a vision in which the morning star changed slowly into a man who stood on the verge of the horizon. As the visitant walked toward the Indian a fire appeared to spring from each of his footprints. Finally, when he was close to Sees-the-Living-Bull, the being spoke, saying, "I am here bringing a message from Bird-Going-Up who is coming to visit you." The Indian then noticed that the visitant wore strange moccasins. The one on his left foot was made from the skin of the head of a silver fox, while that on the right foot was made from the skin of a Coyote head—both heads with the ears left on, while about the edges of the soles were scalp-locks with quill wrappings. The heel of the right moccasin was painted black, and that of the left moccasin was red.

Presently Sees-the-Living-Bull heard the howling of a coyote and the barking of a fox, the sounds seeming to come from the moccasins of the spirit, while flames appeared coming from the mouth of the fox head. The spiritual visitor wore a shirt of scalp locks and buckskin leggings fringed with colored horse-hair, while his face was painted with a wide red circle and two smaller red circles. Presently the visitant commenced to sing and taught Sees-the-Living-Bull the song that was as follows:

The bird is saying this, and wherever we are, nothing may be in our way,

The bird is gone; I will let him come and watch over you.

I am letting him stay, I am telling him to stay.

I am going toward human beings, and they are weak.

The bird from above has sympathy toward you.

Wherever 1 am going I say this: I am the bird in the world.

My child, I am living among the clouds and there is nothing impossible to me.

After he had learned these lines, Sees-the-Living-Bull was warned that he should never go to war in a westerly direction as it would bring bad luck; and never afterward would he attack the Arapahoes, the Shoshones or the Flatheads, who lived to the west of the Crow country.

Having received these instructions, the Indian felt a sudden gust of wind that blew away his blanket; and as he sought for the blanket the vision ended, and the mysterious being disappeared. Then, as the sun rose, he returned to his village and made his medicine-bundle with the magic-moccasins. This was always kept outside his teepee, except during ceremonials when it was carried inside—first around the left side of the teepee, then out on the right side of the entrance. According to the Crows, this medicine was very efficacious in locating enemies and in protecting Sees-the-Living-Bull when on the warpath. Until his death he always wore the magic-moccasins at ceremonials, after first smudging them in pine-needle smoke.

VERY OFTEN an Indian's medicine-bundle would become so large, or he would have so many bundles, that it became necessary to build a special place in which to keep them. Such altars or shrines were quite common with some of the plains tribes and were very elaborate affairs. One of these, from the Hidatsas, now in the Museum of the American Indian, consists of a platform covered with medicine-robes highly decorated with beadwork and feathers; it has many medicine-bundles, medicine-weapons, odds and ends of symbolical and medicine-objects, as well as a buffalo-head, scattered about on the raised platform and upon the ground beneath.

Such shrines are quite distinct from the sacred shrines of some tribes such as the Blackfeet, who dedicated them and their contents to the sun god; these were regarded as sacred by all Indians, whether friends or foes—but were not in any true sense "medicine" affairs.

Another type of "medicine" bundle was mainly symbolic and intended to bring good luck to the owner and his people. Usually the exact meaning or significance of the objects in the bundle would be known only to the owner, who would "read" or interpret them when need arose. Thus, in a bundle of a Southern Sioux, there are amulets that in time of war were attached to the owner's body as fetishes or charms; these consisted of portions of swift, fierce, strong or brave creatures that were supposed to impart their characteristics to the wearer. Thus the tail of a bison gave strength; a hawk's skin transmitted fierceness; a swallow gave speed, etc. In addition, a miniature war-club was symbolic of lightning and the power of the Thunder God, while a stone ball symbolized the lightning's destruction. A highly decorated thong was supposed to bring success in capturing prisoners, while a small doll made of buckskin represented an enemy in the power of the owner of the bundle. In addition to these there were true "medicines" to be chewed or rubbed on the body for the purpose of turning aside enemies' weapons, together with medicinal herbs for healing wounds, and still other charms to prevent the owner from being harmed by any evil effects resulting from his own magic.

Finally there were medicine-bundles of the shamen or medicine-men, tribal bundles, bundles for tattooing (a sacred rite among some tribes), bundles to bring success in breeding horses, in trading—and, in fact, for nearly every conceivable purpose. In addition to their medicine bundles the Indians had many medicine-weapons, shields and implements that were supposed to guard the owner, or to possess magical powers to destroy the enemy or to kill buffafos. So absolute was the Indian's faith in such things that he would go to war protected only by a tiny, inadequate medicine-shield, or wearing a medicine-shirt, fully convinced that they would turn aside arrows, lances, war-clubs or even bullets. As a matter of fact, this faith was often justified; an enemy, recognizing the magical shield or garment —and having as much faith in the medicine as the owner—would fear to attack him. But when it came to fighting the white men, who were no respecters of Indian "medicine", and a bullet penetrated shield or garment, or the medicine-weapons failed to kill the whites, the Indian did not lose faith in his magic. Invariably he would blame himself, and would be convinced that the failure was the result of some fault or omission in the preparation of the "medicine". When at last they found that there was no medicine that was bullet-proof, the medicine-shields and medicine-weapons were abandoned.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.