The American Indian: General Information Prior to 1900 Part IV

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Religion and Mythology

To the Indian every animal, plant, and object of nature was animated by a spirit, beneficent or otherwise, according as it was propitiated or offended. Certain of these were regarded as especially powerful or active, as the sun, fire, and water among the elemental gods, the buffalo, eagle, and rattle-snake among the animals, and the cedar, cotton-wood, corn, tobacco, and peyote among plants.

The number four was peculiarly sacred, as having reference to the cardinal points. Colors had symbolic meanings, and sometimes also sex and local abiding-places. Thus with the Cherokee the red gods of victory lived in the Sunland or east, while the blue spirits of disaster dwelt in the north.

Spirits were propitiated and implored with prayer, sacrifice, vigil, and fasting, and the purificatory sweat bath usually preceded every important ceremony. There was no overruling "Great Spirit," excepting as certain gods were of more frequent importance than others. Among the plains Indians the spirit buffalo was all-important, while with the agricultural tribes the rain-gods took precedence. The sun and its earthly representative, fire, were everywhere venerated. Certain tribes had tribal "medicine" or palladiums, with which the nation's prosperity was supposed to be bound up and around which centered their most elaborate ceremonial. Thus the Kiowa had their Taime image of stone, the Cheyenne their sacred arrows the Omaha their great shell. Each man had also his own secret personal medicine.

The priest was also a doctor, medicine and religion being so inseparably connected in Indian idea that there was usually but one word to designate both. The priests were frequently organized into cult societies, and there were also brotherhoods bound together by certain secret rites. Great stress was laid upon dreams and sacrifice. Among the Pawnee, in former times, a captive girl was annually sacrificed to the goddess of fertility. The cannibalistic practices of the Eastern tribes after a victory, and the cannibal feasts of the Northwest coast, in which a slave was the usual victim, were also more or less sacrificial in motive.

With these exceptions human sacrifice was rare, such bloody rites as those of the Aztecs being unknown in the North. There were special ceremonies for girls at puberty, and for young men on first taking rank with the warriors. Among the great religious ceremonials may be noted the green-corn dance of thanksgiving for the new crops, among the Eastern tribes; the sun dance and the more recent ghost dance of the plains tribes; the salmon dance of the Columbia region, and the celebrated snake dance of the Hopi of Arizona. To these may be added the peyote cult of the Southern plains. Tribal religions were sometimes subject to revival or revolution as new prophets arose from time to time. Thus the religion of the ghost dance, which has practically superseded the old beliefs and ceremonial forms of the plains tribes, had its origin in Nevada about fifteen years ago.

Each tribe had its genesis tradition and its culture hero, usually a great trickster and frequently an anthropomorphic animal, together with giants, dwarfs, fairies, witches, and various monsters, as well as animal tribes and chiefs, concerning all of whom there was a great of myth and folk-lore. Certain stories must be told only in winter, and others only at night, in order not to offend the chief personages concerned.


The method of disposing of the dead varied with the tribe and environment, inhumation being most common. Some tribes, as the Choctaw and Nanticoke, dup up the corpse after the flesh had had time to decay, and carefully cleaned the bones, to be kept thenceforth in a box in the cabin or deposited in a tribal ossuary. Some of the South Atlantic tribes preserved the mummified bodies in dead-houses. The Hurons exposed the bodies on scaffolds until the annual "Feast of the Dead" when all the bones were interred in a common sepulcher. Many of the smaller eastern mounds were evidently built for sepulchral purposes. The Northern plains tribes usually deposited the bodies in trees or upon scaffolds. The Kiowa buried in the rocks. The Aleut of Alaska doubled the body into a compact bundle and laid it away in a sitting posture in a cave. Southward along the coast canoe burial was common. The Piute, Mohave, and others of the lower Colorado region practiced cremation.

Everywhere it was customary to bury or otherwise destroy the property of the deceased at the time of the funeral, and in many Eastern tribes food was placed beside the grave and a fire kept burning for four successive nights, the period supposed to be occupied by the soul in its journey to the land of shades. Laceration of the body and cutting off of the hair on such occasions was very common, especially on the plains, with wailing of the relatives for several weeks thereafter.


Website: The History
Article Name: The American Indian: General Information Prior to 1900 Part IV
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my Collection of Books: The New International Encyclopedia; 1902-1905 Dodd, Mead and Company-New York Total of 21 Volumes
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