Native American Religion

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An estimated 2,000,000 Native Americans live in the United States. Most indigenous people in the US use "American Indian," and most indigenous people in Canada use "First Nations."

The terms - "Native Americans" or "indigenous Americans" - are frequently used to refer to people in both countries. Some native people have a preference for one term or the other. Native Americans identify themselves primarily by their tribe (such as Cherokee).

The Inuit are polar people who live in the far north of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland - they generally find the word Eskimo a rude description.

Hawaiians are Polynesian people, considered indigenous Americans for political reasons because their islands were annexed by the United States.

The Metis are mixed-race people whose ancestors were primarily Cree Indians and French Canadians. They have developed a unique culture from these two influences. There are hundreds of indigenous American cultures, from California to Maine, from the Yukon to Argentina. These cultures can be as different from each other as Chinese culture is from French. There are about 150 Native American languages in Canada and the United States, and another 600 to 700 languages in Central and South America.

North American Indians

Native Americans, also known as American Indians, do not have a religion with a deity, Dr. Gayle Morse of the Akwesasne Mohawk Group told a secular humanist group in Upstate New York in 1993. The individual is dominated by the feeling of being part of a greater whole: the family, the tribe, the reservation. Concern for the group’s welfare is good, she said, but individual strivings for advancement or betterment relative to or at the expense of others is not.

At the same meeting, Dr. Ron Hoskins of the Cherokee Nation identified the cardinal values associated with the traditional medicine wheel (“the symbol of how two-leggeds view the world”) as wisdom, vision, passion, trust, compassion, and thoughtful reflection. The universe and right behavior within it, he says, are governed by the original knowledge that lies deep in each individual at birth.

Although the various Native American tribes differ in their views, pantheism their pantheism empathizes that they are a part of nature, not a special being above nature, or one whose purpose is to exploit nature.

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1527 went to Florida and for a two-year stretch lived “alone among the Indians and naked like them,” sometimes as their slave, sometimes as their “medicine man.” He finally reported that “in the 2,000 leagues we sojourned by land and sea . . . we found no sacrifices and no idolatry.” Nor any native cannibalism. As an outsider, he was respected by the various Indian groups he met, and in his “preaching” he tells them that the god they pray to is the same as the one he calls Dios. What disturbed the Spaniards back home when they learned of it was that on Galveston Island Cabeza de Vaca had found some Spaniards ate each other, the very act they had accused the Indians of doing:

  • The Indians were so shocked at this cannibalism that, if they had seen it sometime earlier, they surely would have killed every one of us.

Cabeza de Vaca by this time knew six Indian languages and had become a shaman - he reported trying the native practice of sucking and cauterizing wounds “with good results.”

The Native Americans fared no better further north. William Bradford (1590–1657), governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote History of Plymouth Plantation, which vividly describes the burning of the Pequot Indians at Mystic, in Connecticut:

  • All was quickly on a flame, and thereby more were burnt to death than was otherwise slain; It burnt their bowstrings and made them unserviceable; those that scaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.

The Native Americans, it transpired, “deserved” to be killed for the sake of Christianity. However, any Indians who somehow escaped death were fair bait to be converted to their conquerors’ religion . . . of love.

Central American and West Indian Indians

Native Americans, in fact, were considered less than human when Europeans arrived on the continent from Christian Spain. In 1516 Pietro Martire d’Anghiera’s De Orbo Nova was published and described Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s killing the leader of the Indians of Quarequa, Panama, and six hundred of his warriors. Balboa fed to his dogs forty more Indians whom he accused of sodomy.'Peter Martyr’s Decades (1555), the anglicized version of Martire’s work, depicts the following:

  • [Balboa] founde the house of this kynge infected with most abhominable and unnaturall lechery. For he founde the kynges brother and many other younge men in womens apparell, smoth & effeminately decked, which by the report of such as dwelte abowte hym, he abused with preposterous venus. Of these abowte the number of fortie, he commaunded to bee gyven for a pray to his dogges.

“Preposterous” refers to a confusion of before and behind, “venus” to sexual acts. In the battle that precedes the slaughter of the forty Panamanian sodomites, according to Jonathan Goldberg’s Sodometries (1994), there are no “good” Indians, all are sodomitical animals, and it was a religious duty that they be

  • “hewed . . . in pieses as the butchers doo flesshe . . . , from one an arme, from an other a legge, from hym a buttocke, from an other a shulder, and from sume the necke from the bodye at one stroke.”

Goldberg observes, “After the sodomites are fed to the dogs, there are two kinds of Indians in the text, sodomitical ones, and noble savages. As the latter lift their hands to heaven, it’s as if they’re proto-Christians, at the very least testifying to the universality of the Judeo-Christian condemnation of ‘unnatural’ sexuality.

Serving as a mirror of European belief, this split representation of Indians permits the covering over of divisions within the invading troops. . . . . Balboa is not only the righter of sexual wrongs, the restorer of proper gender, he’s also the universal liberator of the underclasses.”

Kalinago, by Lennox Honychurch

The Carib Indians were the native people who formerly inhabited the Lesser Antilles, West Indies. Fewer than five hundred still survive on a reservation in Dominica, and many are half-breeds. A century before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the Caribs overran the Lesser Antilles and drove out the Arawak Indians. The original name by which the Caribs were known, Galibi or Calibi, was corrupted by the Spanish to Caníbal. It is said that Columbus, upon hearing of Caníba mistakenly associated the word with Grand K’han, for whom he was searching. When on a Sunday Columbus discovered an island with these people, he called the island Dominica, an “islande of the Canibales.” Cubans also told him they were Canibáles, and when he landed on “Hayti,” Columbus heard the name of the people as Caribes, their country Carib. They were described as being brave and daring, and rightfully or wrongfully they have been compared to the warlike Spartans whereas the Arawaks were Athenian-like and artistic. Because of their fierceness the Caribs gained the reputation of being anthropophagi, or eaters of human flesh, thus the English word cannibal.

Raymond Breton, who visited Dominica in 1642, wrote that males called themselves Callinago, that women called themselves Calliponam, and that a "good peaceful man" was a Callinemeti.

According to one expert, anthropologist Lennox Honychurch,

  • [t]his has now led to the adoption of the word Kalinago and Karifuna by cultural groups, anthropologists and historians to describe the Caribs. The "Black Caribs" of Belize, who are descended from ancestors in St. Vincent, call themselves the "Garifuna."

In 1525 Tomás Ortiz claimed that the Caribs were not merely cannibals (as Columbus first has declared) but “were sodomites more than any other race.” In 1526 Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo repeated the formula, “The Indians eat human flesh and are sodomites.”

However, In 1542, Las Casas wrote in Brevisima relacion de la destruccion de las Indias that although a “few” sodomites might be found among the Indians, “for whose sakes nevertheless all that world is not to be condemned. We may say as much of the eating of man’s flesh.” In short, he found diabolical the Spanish accusation that the Indians

  • all were polluted with the abhominable sinne against nature: which is a wretched and false slaunder.

Such a sentiment ran counter to the view that in New Spain the conquerors had every right to extirpate the pagans who, according to Cortez’s translator Aguilar, pierce their ears and put very large and ugly objects in them; others pierce their nostrils down to the lip and put in them large round stones which look like mirrors; and others will split their lower lips as far as the gums and hang there some large stones or gold ornaments so heavy that they drag the lips down, giving a most deformed appearance.

Although Caribs have acquired a reputation for having been cannibals, modern research does not support that they practiced cannibalism. They excelled as boatbuilders and sailors and became dominant in the Caribbean basin because they were skilled fighters. Words of Carib origin that have become part of Engish are hurricane, hammock, and iguana.

Present-Day Indian Churches

The Native American Church, which claims to have at least 200,000 loosely organized members, call their religious orientation “the Peyote Road” and over fifty tribes in the United States and Canada utilized peyote by 1890. Although the use of the drug has been challenged in the courts, the rights of peyotists to religious freedom have generally been upheld.

(See Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (1994.)