Traditions of violence relative to Native American religious values and customs have been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted throughout history. Early stereotypes of the indigenous habitants of the North and South American continents depicted Native Americans as violent, unintelligent, and primitive in their use of technology and resources.
Few records exist regarding the nature of the day to day existence of Native American tribes prior to the arrival of European colonists in the 15th century, so much of the historical knowledge that exists today comes from a time after the establishment of European colonies in the Americas. “When Europeans first came into” America, “there were approximately ten to twelve million indigenous people living on land that became the United States[.]
These indigenous people were divided into numerous autonomous nations, each with its own highly developed culture and history. Politically, the indigenous people were not weak, dependence groups of people but rather powerful equals whom the early colonists had to deal with as independent nations.” 1 For this reason, it is difficult to make a broad, sweeping statement about violence as it pertains to Native American religious identity as a whole.
Native American groups were divided into tribes that were largely separate, and what similarities may have existed between them were not large enough to constitute total sameness. Any time a statement is made about Native American religious identity and subsequently about a culture of violence (or lack thereof) in Native American culture, the statement comes from observations made with regards to a specific group, tribe, or identity.
If there is one thing that can be said to broadly encompass the relationship between Native American religious traditions and violence throughout the American continents, it is this: colonialism is largely, if not entirely, at fault. If violence existed within Native American tribes and groups, it paled in comparison to the scale of violence that followed the arrival of European colonists in the 15th century.
Native American religious traditions are greatly nuanced for each specific tribe that could once be observed in the region that is known as America today. In many Native American religious traditions, everything “can mean something. Little is separate from religious influence.” “Everything” can and often does include such matters as dreams, physical topography of a region, and “practical activities” such as agriculture and hunting.
“Their spirituality can affect how they cook, eat, dance, paint, tell stories, mold pottery, dye clothes, decorate their bodies, design their homes, organize their villages, court lovers, marry, bury, dress, speak, make love, cut their hair, and so on.” 2 In a majority of cases, this rings true. In others, it is true only partially, or only in the most basic sense. The diversity of Native American groups makes their religious traditions difficult to study.
The Hopi tribe, located today in northeastern Arizona, believes (along with several other Native American tribal groups) that the first people to exist on Earth emerged from her interior, like babies emerging from a mother’s womb. The “Hopis’ emergence story” goes on to assert that the tribe’s ancestors “elected a hard and humble life raising blue corn” before they emerged into the world, and “the god Masaw taught the Hopis the right way to plant and care for this crop.”
However, “[not] all Hopis nurture relationships with Masaw and other Hopi gods, nor do all plant blue corn. Like any other people, Hopis disagree among themselves regarding religious life. They struggle with the challenges of making sense of reality.” Despite divides among Hopi people, however, “an impressive truth remains: for fifteen hundred years Hopi people have planted blue corn in the same place.” 2
Similar to divisions among worshipping branches of Christianity, Native American traditions such as that of the Hopi tribe are subject to division and disagreement, but the most basic traditions and practices will remain intact from one generation to the next. Agriculture and ancestral connections are both very important to many Native American communities. This repetition of common practices, passed down through ancestral lines, is a common staple of Native American religions as well as Native American culture.
After the arrival of European explorers, missionaries, and settlers in the 15th century, Native American tribal religious traditions and beliefs shifted to reflect the changing world they lived in at the time. The biggest result of interaction between white settlers and the Native American population was, by and large, widespread decimation. “Many implicitly recognize some connection between Indian suffering and the missionary presence, even as they struggle to make sense not only of past wrongs, but also of the pain of contemporary Indian existence.”
The majority of early missionary efforts were unsuccessful and caused much more harm to Native American communities than good. “One must at least suspect that the process of Christianization has involved some internalization of the larger illusion of Indian inferiority and the idealization of white culture and religion.” 3
The oppression of Native American spirituality beginning with forced conversion to Christianity has created a lasting negative impact on Native American tribal communities even today. As illustrated by the in-class presentation on Native American religious traditions as well as further historical evidence, colonization began with the oppression of Native American religion and spirituality through mass conversions to Christianity.
Next, Native groups were massacred, families were separated, and sacred land was taken over by settlers. Finally, those who survived were sent to reservations, where they remain in many cases to this day. Native Americans were not given the same freedom of religion that American citizens enjoyed until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. 4
The relationship between violence and Native American religious traditions is often complicated. As previously stated, religious beliefs and traditions vary widely between different regions and even within or among tribal groups. For this reason, it is easier to generalize based on cultural statistics than specific religious beliefs.
It is safe to say that generally speaking, Native American groups focus their religious beliefs on the Earth. “Native Americans conceptualize time as a cycle rather than as linear, as do European Americans. This notion applies to human beings as well as to time. Every person cycles from birth to death. Death, therefore, is conceived of not as an end but as a beginning of new life.
A new life results from either reincarnation as a human, transmigration into an animal, or a transcendent life in another world.” 5 Nature is often seen as sacred, or as part of divine creation, therefore not to be disrupted or destroyed. Nonetheless, rates of suicide in Native American populations are often far higher than the national average. “Native Americans as a group experience the most extreme poverty of any sector in the present North American population.
Correlated to this impoverishment are other facts: Contemporary Indians experience, among many other blights, far and away the greatest rates of malnutrition, plague disease, death by exposure, infant mortality, and teen suicide of any group on the continent.” 6 The violence inflicted on many Native American tribal groups is largely to blame, as research suggests that disconnect from traditional spirituality and tribal identity is a main factor in suicide attempts among Native American youth; particularly among young men.
“It is recommended that when assessing for suicide risk in Native American individuals, special attention should be paid during the assessment to the evaluation of the presence of comorbid alcohol and/or substance abuse. Additionally, it is important to assess the person’s support network, particularly the quality of relationships with family members and tribal leaders, as well as their connection to their cultural group and/or tribe.” 5
Connection to tribal identity and spirituality has been proven to reduce suicidality in young men within Native American communities. This research only betters the case and increases the evidence suggestive of the emotional and cultural pain endured by Native American tribal communities under the violent oppression brought on by colonialism.
One commonly misunderstood but relatively well-known aspect of traditional Native American spirituality is the Sioux Ghost Dance. Study of the Ghost Dance and its role in Native American spirituality generally revolves around the massacre at Wounded Knee and other revolutionary instances in which Native American tribal communities attempted to resist colonization after refusing to assimilate to European culture.
While this resistance by Native American communities is laudable and worthy of intelligent research, the main focus should instead be on Government response to the Ghost Dance movement and the importance of the dancing to Native spirituality. As well as aspects of Native American spirituality that have entered common vernacular (for example, “powwow,” “totem pole,” “spirit animal”) the Ghost Dance has become synonymous with stereotypes of Native American cultural identity stemming from spirituality and religious custom.
Wovoka, a Northern Paiute who was also known by the English name “Jack Wilson,” is often associated with the Ghost Dance ritual as well as the massacre at Wounded Knee. These instances are where the clearest parallel can be drawn in well-documented history between Native American religious identity and violence. Wovoka was said to have performed miracles similar to those of a Christian Jesus. He is said to have predicted the coming of rain to enliven Northern Paiute crops.
Wovoka was said by some to be the “new messiah,” while others (Native American and otherwise) had their doubts. He identified himself as “a prophet who has received a divine revelation.” This revelation included words from a Supreme Being which stated that the earth would die and be reborn, and the Northern Paiutes, as well as the animals, would be reborn with it.
The culmination of Wovoka’s preaching, which was influenced by Shaker religious values and other Christian principles, came through his reinstatement of the Ghost Dance practice, which caused nationwide panic leading to the Battle of Wounded Knee, which is infamous due to the loss of life suffered by the Native American people involved.7
This slaughter, whether directly or indirectly brought on by the practices encouraged by the Jesus-like figure of Wovoka, is one of only a few clear, well-documented marks of a direct relationship between Native American religion and violence, and still, it was brought on largely by forces outside of the control or influence of the Native people. In other, simpler words: The Native Americans were not to blame for this senseless massacre.
In conclusion, the violence that exists in Native American tribal religious cultures and traditions is, for the most part, due to external forces. Even internal violence, as documented by high statistics related to suicide in Native Cultures, comes in many cases as a result of widespread alcohol and substance abuse issues, which result from the aftermath of European colonization, not the American continents.
These aspects of violence point to John Dear’s Levels of Violence, as discussed in class. The internal violence of depression, loss of cultural identity, and loss of spirituality comes around in a cyclical fashion from the other points on the same scale: interpersonal violence, repression, and global violence. Native American spiritual traditions also reflect this circularity. According to many Native American belief systems, the cyclical nature of time, birth, death, and rebirth, can be seen all around us, all the time.
Perhaps this is true for violence, as well. If the cyclical nature of all things can truly be observed through Native American culture, perhaps a time is approaching where a deity such as the Hopi Masaw will bring the lost tribes back to their place as the sole inhabitants of the land we call America today, just as Wovoka prophesized. The impact of Christianity on Native American cultural identity and spirituality is clear to see as well. The mass conversion of tribal groups to Catholicism marked the beginning stages of early colonialism in North America.
The misinterpretation of the reality of the mission system has led to still more erasure of Native American history and identity and has also caused the loss of records and other information regarding Native American spirituality and religious beliefs prior to the arrival of early missionaries.
The intricate relationships between violence, Biblical tradition (as exemplified by the missionary systems), and Native American tribal identity and spirituality covers a wide expanse of history, and continues to change and grow moving forward, constantly writing and rewriting new pages for future papers in future religion classes across America and throughout the world.
1 Luana Ross, Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality (Texas: University of Texas Press, 1998), 12-13.
2 Joel W. Martin, The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5-7.
3 George E. Tinker, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Minnesota: Augsburn Fortress, 1993), 3.
4 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1996.
5 D. Lizardi and R.E. Gearing, Religion and Suicide: Buddhism, Native American and African Religions, Atheism, and Agnosticism (Springer US, 2009), 377-364.
6 DeLinda Wunder and Evelyn Hu-DeHart, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (Massachusetts: South End Press, 1992), 8.
7 Michael Hittman, Wovoka and the Ghost Dance (Nevada: Grace Dangberg Foundation, Inc., 1990)
American Indian Religious Freedom Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1996.
Hittman, Michael. Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. Nevada: Grace Dangberg Foundation, Inc.,
Lizardi, D., and Gearing, R.E. “Religion and Suicide: Buddhism, Native American and African
Religions, Atheism, and Agnosticism.” Journal of Religion and Health 49 no. 3 (2010): 377-384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-009-9248-8
Martin, Joel W. The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ross, Luana. Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality.
Texas: University of Texas Press, 1998
Tinker, George E. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide.
Minnesota: Augsburn Fortress, 1993.
Wunder, DeLinda and Hu-DeHart, Evelyn. The State of Native America: Genocide,
Colonization, and Resistance. Massachusetts: South End Press, 1992.