Religion Among the American Indians

Louis C. Kleber describes how, for the American Indians, ‘medicine’ was a spiritual belief as well as a curative.

For the American Indian, religion was a unique and unifying feature of his life; one that pervaded his very existence. It was, in a sense, a conscious awareness of grandeur and power of nature tied to a mystical belief in his oneness with creation. As the Navahos sang in the Songs of Talking God:

‘Now I walk with Talking God...

With goodness and beauty in all things around me

I go;

With goodness and beauty I follow immortality.

Thus being I, I go.’

The European settlers were never able to understand fully or overcome the faith of the Indian who was tolerant of other beliefs and had no missionary zeal. He might adopt some of the white man’s ways, but the Indian way remained. This duality was manifested during the American Revolution when George Washington ordered General John Sullivan to ‘not merely overrun but destroy’ the territory of those Iroquois tribes that sided with the British.

Sullivan fulfilled his mission with a vengeance, razing village after village and burning 160,000 bushels of corn in the process. From this devastating blow, there sprang a Seneca visionary named ‘Handsome Lake’ who saw a new way of worshipping the Great Spirit. It was a ‘good message’ that encompassed both Iroquois and Quaker beliefs. It urged compassion as well as good will. Sadly, there was little of this in the savage hundred years of warfare yet to come between Indians and whites.

When the Spanish conquered the Rio Grande Pueblo Indians, they forbade the continuation of Indian rituals and worship as ‘idolatrous’. Chapels were built and the friars set about the task of converting the Pueblos. Anyone who attempted to maintain the old ways risked severe punishment and even death; but the Indian kept his faith in centuries-old traditions and, even today, there is a mixture of the two beliefs.

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