Thursday, January 19, 2017

Observations on American Indian Beliefs

Lakota hide count
Although American Indian cultures are often presented as homogeneous, they are not. For example, Coyote is usually presented as The Trickster who teaches harsh lessons to people. However, different cultures have other Tricksters who serve various purposes.

 For the Lakota, the Heyoka is their Sacred Trickster. If a person dreamed of the Thunder Beings, then it was thought that they were chosen by the Wakan Tanka (Great Mystery) to be the sacred clowns of the people. The Heyoka possesses such sacred energy that they can turn things upside down and backwards. The duty of the Heyoka is to speak the truth and shake up people’s perceptions through laughter. 

Meanwhile for the Chinook of the Northwest, Blue Jay is the Trickster. He is helpful but foolish at the same time. For the Mi’kmaq of New England, Rabbit and Otter are light-hearted beings who entertain people. 

Beside Tricksters, Culture Heroes are also included in several belief systems of various tribes. Glooscap of the Wabenaki (New England) is their Transformer. One thing He did was to change the landscape to be kind to the people. When the White People came, Glooscap left but promised to return when the Wabenaki needed Him. In contrast, Shikla of Northwest Coast is more focused on bringing balance to the world. He is less involved with the affairs of humans.

 Some Nations had prophets similar to the Abrahamic religions. One was Handsome Lake of the Seneca, who received visions in 1799.  His teachings became the Longhouse Religion of the Iroquois, which is also known as Gaihwi:io – God’s Message, or the Code of Handsome Lake. This Code was in response to the on-going wars and pressures by the British and Americans on his people in the 1700s. Some of the tenets of the Longhouse Religion have elements of the Abrahamic faiths such as the focus on sins. For example, whiskey, witchcraft, love magic, and abortion are considered evil. During the Midwinter Thanksgiving Ceremony, a white dog (or a non-living stand-in) is sacrificed to convey the sins of the people to the sky. Afterwards, tobacco is offered to the Creator to sustain the order of the world.

Discovering these differences in the beliefs of the various Nations demonstrates to me that there is no monolithic faith of American Indians. Many people have the tendency to distill various elements of the differing faiths into a “universal religion” consisting of the Great Spirit, Medicine Wheels, Totems, etc. As a Roman Polytheist, I have experienced this impulse of outsiders to the religion. Roman Gods are not Greek Gods with Latin names. Understanding how outsiders can lump things together helps me tolerate mistakes people make about Roman Gods. It helps me to teach people in a kind manner what the differences are and why they matter. Faith is rooted in the people who practice it, and in their perceptions.

 Works Used:

Favell, Ian, “The Code of Handsome Lake,” Overview of World’s Religions. Web.
 Native American Spirituality, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Web.
 Native Languages of the Americas: Native Cultures. Web. 2015.
 North American Religions, Overview of World’s Religions. Web.
 Wambli Sina Win, “The Thunderbird’s Echo,” Native American Times. Web. 21, June 2011.

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