The Importance of Storytelling for the Survival of Native American Religion

Master's Thesis, 2008

64 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Native American Religion A Historical Research

3 Native American Storytelling An Ancient Native American Art

4 Ideas For Teaching Native American Religion in the EFL-Classroom

5 Conclusion

illustration not visible in this excerpt

One day the Creator was resting, sitting watching some children at play in a village. The children laughed and sang, yet as he watched them, the Creator’s heart was sad. He was thinking: “These children will grow old. Their skin will become wrinkled. Their hair will turn grey. Their teeth will fall out. The young hunter’s arm will fail. These lovely young girls will grow ugly and fat. The playful puppies will become blind, mangy dogs. And those wonderful flowers - yellow and blue, red and purple - will fade. The leaves from the trees will fall and dry up. Already they are turning yellow.” Thus the Creator grew sadder and sadder. It was in the fall, and the thought of the coming winter, with its cold and lack of game and green things, made his heart heavy. Yet it was still warm, and the sun was shining. The Creator watched the play of sunlight and shadow on the ground, the yellow leaves being carried here and there by the wind. He saw the blueness of the sky, the whiteness of some cornmeal ground by the women. Suddenly he smiled. “All those colors, they ought to be preserved. I’ll make something to gladden my heart, something for these children to look at and enjoy.”

The Creator took out his bag and started gathering things: a spot of sunlight, a handful of blue from the sky, the whiteness of the cornmeal, the shadow of playing children, the blackness of a beautiful girl’s hair, the yellow of the falling leaves, the green of the pine needles, the red, purple, and orange of the flowers around him. All these he put into his bag. Then he walked over the grassy spot where the children were playing. “Children, little children, this is for you,” and he gave them his bag. “Open it; there’s something nice inside,” he told them.

The children opened the bag, and at once hundreds and hundreds of colored butterflies flew out, dancing around the children’s heads, settling on their hair, fluttering up again to sip from this or that flower. And the children, enchanted, said they had never seen anything so beautiful. The butterflies began to sing, and the children listened smiling

Papago story - Retold from various sources


~ 1 ~


“Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.”

~ Tecumseh, Shawnee saying ~

In my Master’s Thesis I will refer to my Bachelor’s Thesis, which was about ‘Native American Women’. I analyzed how Native American women lived in their communities and especially how their role was and is in contrast to what Europeans and European Americans think it was. I found that the role of women in Native America was in many ways different from the role of European women at the same time. After I became engrossed in the topic of Native American culture and Native American women in particular I became curious about what Native Americans believed, what their philosophy was and how they organized their spiritual life. This is why I decided to research this and focus on Native American beliefs, ideology and philosophy of life in my Master’s Thesis. In my thesis I will not concentrate on one or several special tribes. Instead I will try to give a comprehensive survey of Native American religion in general. While doing so, I will always look for and give adequate examples that illustrate what I want to convey.

I will divide this thesis into three parts. The first part will be devoted to the history of Native American religion. In my opinion it is not possible to look at another culture’s religion without finding out the story of its religion first. I want to do research on what Native Americans believed through the course of time and believe today, if their belief system has changed and what consequences white contact brought. I want to find out how Native American religion as it used to be before white contact developed and survived. Furthermore, I want to discover if Natives today still have the same beliefs as their ancestors or if most of them converted to the Christian religion and the Western way of looking at the world. I want to find out if any aspects changed over time, which aspects endured and why. Also I want to find out if all Native tribes have the same religious background or if their beliefs and practices differ. To do this I will provide an overview over Native American practices and talk about their significance for Native American religion.

The second part will be concerned with storytelling and Native American religion. This will be the main part, which will revolve around the overall key topic of this thesis:

“The Importance of Storytelling for the Survival of Native American Religion”

The hypothesis of my Master’s Thesis is that storytelling did play an important role in the survival of Native American religion to this day. To prove this I will introduce the art of storytelling and write about its place and meaning in Native American culture and religion. First, I will write about the different sources of knowledge about Native American storytelling. Then, I will give facts about the art of storytelling and describe different types of stories I found in the literature about Native American culture and religion. After this, I will write about the relevance of storytelling for rituals and provide one example. The last section of this part will be concerned with the survival of Native American religion with the help of storytelling, oral tradition, and literature.

The third part of my thesis will be dedicated to Native American religion and storytelling in a German - or any other foreign language - classroom. I will develop and recommend a way to scale down the topic and the knowledge I gained to construct a teaching unit for the EFLclassroom. In my opinion when preparing a unit about the United States in an EFL-classroom it is very important to also talk about the native inhabitants of the country. I want to show how Native American culture and storytelling can be part of cultural learning along with language learning. Rather than constructing particular lesson plans, I will provide examples and give insight into possible teaching methods.

While doing research and during the reading process one of my aims will be to remain careful not to stumble into the territory of pseudoscience or esotericism. A number of books by various authors and publishers focus on the notion Europeans have of Native American religion involving fascinating ceremonies and being in tune with nature. Many of these authors are not even of Native American origin. Native scholars sometimes call these people ‘whiteshamans’1 and their literary publications reside far from science and even truth. They are matched to fit a certain audience and not to live up to actual facts.

There are several expressions for the people who lived in the territory of today’s United States, Canada and beyond. Some refer to them as ‘Indians’, a term Christopher Columbus coined when mistaking the Americas for the country of India. Other expressions differ from ‘Red Men’ to ‘Original Americans’, or “American Indians”. For me the most appropriate choice is to refer to them as ‘Native Americans’. In my research this is the most common expression. Additionally, this term serves best in distinguishing them from Americans with a European ancestry without discriminating against them. Therefore during my thesis I will refer and distinguish between ‘Native American’ and ‘European American’ people.

~ 2 ~

Native American Religion A Historical Research

“If you put six Indians in a room, you will have seven opinions represented.” ~ Old Native American Saying ~

To look at the religion of a nation or a people and to discover something of their philosophy always means to look at history. Native American religion is no exception. The religion of Native American peoples is inseparably connected with their history. Not only have historical events threatened and challenged Native American religion; difficulties have also altered and changed it.

But before historical research can be done, the researcher has to understand what Native American religion is. The fact is, that it is not possible to look at a single tribe or Native nation and to talk about the Native American religion. There is not a single Native American theology to look at and one cannot regard all tribes and nations to share the same belief. Joel W. Martin (1999) points out that there are hundreds of different religions across North America, originating from different backgrounds with different ways of life. He distinguishes three types of Native American life which each determines distinctive ancient religious beliefs and practices on which all Native American religions are based. The first way of life, which predates all others, is the hunter-gatherer society. Hunter-gatherers lived on animals, wild berries, roots and nuts and were guided by the course of nature. The second way, which is much younger, relies on horticulture and early agriculture. It is a much more settled way of life which allows greater control over food and religious practices. People began to construct buildings and even religious places of great magnitude. The third way is the way of urban settlement particularly lived out by tribes like the Pueblo in New Mexico and Arizona and the well-known Aztecs of Mexico who built impressive cities, which contemporary witnesses compared with Constantinople and Rome (20-35).

First I want to look at continuity and change in Native American religion. The Muskogee people are an example: I want to describe what parts of their way of life and their religion changed and what elements remained the same. After this I want to describe some of the similarities of the many different tribes and religions. I will give examples of what connects them and what they have in common. Then I want to provide insight into the European influence on Native American culture and religion and how the impact of Christianity changed Native American beliefs and practices.

Continuity and Change

Because the brief outline above can only give a hint of what certain changes meant for a tribe, what might have caused them and how they proceeded I want to give one example on how religion can change over time. The Muskogee, better known as the Creek, originally lived in the southeast of today’s United States. It is a tribe that managed to endure because it had the ability to be dynamic and change. Muskogee religion has changed over time and assumed new meanings and values. But over all this time its people were always aware of their roots. It seems as if the Muskogee were constantly moving towards something new, reinventing themselves on the way. With every major transformation, the Creeks altered their religious formation. Changes in life and politics influenced religion and vice versa. Over the decades they went through four major religious transformations with the typical tendency to settlement that I already mentioned above. Their first transformation was the journey from a people of hunter-gatherers to agriculture. The ancient Muskogee glorified the drama of hunt. They exclusively relied on interpreters like shamans who had visions concerning the hunt of a special animal or the hunting of game in general. Muskogee mythology offered the people a wide range of stories and rites concerning their natural environment. Why the Muskogee steadily moved towards garden horticulture and later agriculture is not certain, but about 1000 B.C. they started growing crops, cultivating plants and producing seeds. New religious aspects and practices accompanied this shift. The Muskogee started to settle down and felt the urge to build large religious buildings made of piled soil called ‘burial mounds’. This era is called the ‘Woodland Period’. Between 700 and 1000 A.D. the Muskogee’s society became much more complex. They began to focus their agricultural efforts on corn. They did not build mounds any more but valued them as sacred sites. All changes mentioned above were part of a constant and slow change the Muskogee went through. However, a different page was turned with the invasion of the Spanish military from 1539 to 1543, which marked the third major change in the tribe’s history. The Muskogee became participants in a new colonial order. Suddenly they were caught in the European crusade for gold, were attacked, taken as slaves and killed in great numbers. Finally, the fourth transition was the phase of displacement. The Muskogee were chased away from their ancestral homelands and thereby lost connection with their sacred sites. The wholeness and survival of the nation was now more important than the cults and practices of their ancestors. Because of being scattered and separated, the Muskogee now started to get involved in new relationships. They did not feel any ethnic exclusivity towards others and soon there was great diversity of people among

them (Martin in Sullivan 2003:85-94).

Similarities in Native American Religion

When looking at the previously described development it becomes clear that Native American religion did not remain the same over the millennia, as many Europeans and even European Americans today think (cp. Harrod 1995:106). However, although the hundreds of different tribes practiced just as many religions and although religious rituals have changed over time, there are undeniable similarities between what these tribes and nations believe. Certain key elements of Native American religion can be found in many, some in all, Native American nations. In the following I want to describe those elements that in my opinion are the most common and fundamental.

A very important aspect of Native American religion is the duality of male and female. Unlike Christianity where God or the creator is clearly male many Native American tribes consider their creator as a bi-gender entity. Male and female always appear as an equal pair like ‘Earth and Sky’, ‘Day and Night’ or ‘Grandmother and Grandfather’. Because women had the ability to give life many tribes - in particular those of the Southwest - believed that the creator of the earth had to be female. They refer to her as ‘First Mother’ or ‘Old Woman Spider’. Only after white contact, did Natives begin to give their creator a male gender and start adopting the European idea of male superiority (Kidwell et al. 2001:16-17 / Gunn Allen 1992:13-15).

Native American people of all tribes have a strong spiritual connection with their land and have a concept of Earth as mother and nurturer. Native Americans believe that the earth was given to them by the creator and that it is their responsibility to take care of this gift. For Natives everything in nature is connected, so the earth, animals and plants are all relatives who are equal. Everything from the mountains to the flowers is alive and full of spirits. This is why Natives do not share the European idea of ‘wilderness’. For them there is no such thing as emptiness because spirit power is in every part of nature. They also did not share the idea of ‘owning land’ with the Europeans. For them it was not possible to posses or sell a piece of land, just as it is not possible to own or sell a river or the air. The result was that they did not understand the procedure of getting money for a certain site or area (Kidwell et al. 2001:126- 36).

Vision quests were another core element of the religious life of many Native American tribes.

Both men and women were able to gain spiritual knowledge with the help of those quests. Vision quests could be practiced in dreams, initiation rites and for women also during their menstrual cycles (Kidwell et al. 2001:16). Visions were either sought when a community needed spiritual guidance in a special situation or more generally when individuals felt they had to search for one. Another reason for vision quests can be particular occurrences in nature. Martin (1999) gives one example where this happened: When in January 1889 a total eclipse of the sun darkened the sky many Natives were alarmed. A group of Paiutes turned to one of their healers named Wovoka for guidance. He then made himself fall into a state of unconsciousness known as ‘trance’. In this state he had been able to foresee the future or to heal a sick person. On this special quest he received a vision that was targeted at his whole nation. God told Wovoka that he had to tell his people to be good to each other and to live in peace with the white people. After he had returned form his trance the sun incidentally appeared again and Wovoka was celebrated as a prophet. He assembled many followers and started a new religious movement among his nation (91-93).

A very important way of gaining a vision quest was the ritual of ‘self-sacrifice’. The idea behind this practice was that everything someone owned did not in fact belong to him. The only thing a person could possess and offer was his own body. Self-sacrifice or the ‘Rite of Vigil’ goes back to an ancient story that tells of how Corn Mother sacrificed herself for the sake of their children and human kind. She allowed herself to be cut into pieces and be buried. With this deed she brought corn into the world, which was the most important food for many Native tribes. Vision quest and the rite of vigil were mostly restricted to single members of a tribe. The benefits of visions and self-sacrifice however were not limited to the individual but were believed to help the whole community as well (Kidwell et al. 2001:42,64,79-82).

However, not only are certain ideas and philosophies shared by many or all Native American tribes, there are very specific elements that I found in many tribes and that take up a central position in their religion.

One element was the building of ‘burial mounds’ already mentioned above. Burial mounds were closely connected to the shift to horticulture by a tribe and the following changes of religious practices and are mainly known in Adena and Mississippian tribes. Not only did those cultures built houses and planned villages; they also started constructing ceremonial buildings such as burial places for their dead. The purpose of these mounds was to establish a connection with the sacred and to prepare dead members of the tribe for their afterlife. One example is the Hopewell ceremonial center in Newark, Ohio. The center of this impressive burial mound is a circle that measures 1,200 feet in diameter. The circle was considered to be a perfect shape and was believed to protect the dead from evil spirits. It contained a funeral home and a stone altar, which were protected by a circular wall. Since they only had woven baskets to move the dirt, several generations were necessary to complete the mound (cp. Martin 2001:15-17).

Another common element are the so-called ‘medicine bundles’ (xapaalia). The term ‘medicine’ in the Native American way of thinking is very different from what it means to Europeans. Medicine not only stood for remedies and treatment but further than this, it also expressed a whole set of ideas and concepts. For Native Americans medicine is something mysterious, something that goes beyond their understanding of the transcendent world (Vogel 1990:24-25). For that reason medicine bundles combined the ritual, experiential, social and ethical dimensions of religion as well. They have a central role in the lives of many Native Americans. Various types of these medicine bundles contain different symbols and objects, tied together in bundles, which individuals collected or which were given to a person by somebody else. The Absaroke people for example had eight different types of medicine bundles. They had ‘Sun Dance bundles’ when they sought revenge on somebody; ‘war medicine bundles’, which contained material representations of visions and dreams; ‘rock medicine bundles’, which centered on an ammonite fossil as a sacred medicine; ‘medicine pipe bundles’, which were associated with a connected ceremony; ‘love medicine bundles’ to influence the sexual behavior of others; ‘witchcraft bundles’ to harm, control or influence others; ‘healing bundles’ and ‘hunting bundles’, which were believed to bring success while hunting (Grim in Sullivan 2003:73).

Of similar importance to medicine bundles is the practice of ‘awushua’ - labeled ‘sweat lodges’ by Europeans. Unlike the Scandinavian sauna, sweating and cleansing one’s body is not the main aspect of the ritual. The purpose of awushua is to “enable intimate contact with the spiritual world.”1 Holding it created a sense of rebirth and purification for the attending people. It was conducted in a special lodge in the form of a dome. Building the lodge and pouring water was a sacred act in itself and had to be performed with great care and sincerity. When the lodge was prepared the participants entered one by one, always with great respect for the ‘stone-tender’ who was in charge of sprinkling water over the heated stones. Sometimes the lodges seated five or six; sometimes they were built to seat ten to twelve people. Inside the lodge the attendees told each other important dreams and prayed together.

Frequently the door was opened to cool the inside of the lodge. After the fourth time everyone jumped up, ran towards the river and took a cold bath. After such a ceremony individuals might have been considered spiritually advanced and were given a special medicine bundle for their experience. Awushua could be held in preparation for special ceremonial activities or even on a daily basis when a community felt that they needed spiritual guidance (Kidwell et al. 2001:74-76).

Shamans also belong to the religious elements that are shared by most if not all Native American communities. They can be seen as ‘doctors’ in a way because they were paid for curing diseases with their healing powers by being in contact with the spirit world. They cured people and fought evil brought by witches. The more people they could cure the higher prices they could charge for their healing rituals and the more respected they became (Klein 1995:36-37). On the other hand, many shamans were very unlike the occupational image of a modern doctor. Even though shamans were a central figure in Native American healing and curing, one has to distinguish between different kinds of shamanic practices. The Ojibwa of Canada for example still have four different classes of healers. The priests of the ‘Midewiwin’, a medicine society, occupy the first and highest rank of Ojibwa shamans. They are a special association and membership in it could only be gained by initiation and the payment of gifts. The second rank is held by the ‘Wabenos’, the ‘dawn men’. They mainly practice medical magic and produce hunting medicine and love powders. The third rank is occupied by the ‘Jessakid’, who are prophets and seers. They are able to reveal hidden truth, which is a gift they received from the thunder god. The ‘Mashki-kike-winini’ are the fourth and last rank of shamans. They are herbalists who know a great variety of healing plants, valuable herbs, berries and roots. Even though a lot of Mashki-kike-winini are denominated medicine men, they are probably the most useful when it comes to real healing abilities. Because of their great knowledge of the healing plants, in most cases they were a greater help than the medical magic practiced by higher shamans (Vogel 1990:22-24). In general a shaman can be seen as a man or a woman who can linger in a special state of consciousness. This state usually is created by rhythmical beatings on a drum or sometimes through special drugs. The shaman does this inner journey to help others by gaining knowledge about their illness, getting a prophecy or to acquire power through the meeting with spiritual beings (cp. Harner in Doore 1988:7).

Another very important part of ancient Native American religion are the ritual dances. When Europeans came into contact with Native American practices, they pictured Native American dancers as a group of strange looking men, dancing in circles, chanting and making silly noises by tapping their hands on their mouths. But ritual dancing is much more complex and means much more than just conducting a show (Laubin 1977:72). Very important elements are the music and the instruments, which supplemented every dance. Music and dances cannot be separated from each other and what came first is impossible to answer. In general the songs were very short and therefore were repeated during the ceremony as often as necessary to complete it. Several instruments, primarily different drums or other percussion instruments like rattles, always accompanied the singing. The instruments themselves were believed to have great power because they represented the rhythm of the universe itself (89- 101). Masks and paint also are vital parts of Native American ritual dances. Masks were hidden until it was time for the ceremony. They were carved on a living tree and when they were finished, long horsehair was fastened to them to resemble human hair. The masks often displayed important deities of the tribe’s religion, but - contrary to the opinion of early settlers and missionaries - they were never worshiped. In areas where masks did not exist face painting took their place. Face paint could demonstrate membership in certain societies or groups. It was also able to provide healing or protective power or the power to help during a hunt or war. In some tribes Natives even painted their whole body with red ocher, a practice that explains the term ‘redskins’ (112-117). Dances, like all other rituals, are handed down from one generation to the next. But over time there were several occasions for the formation of new dances. One very famous dance that is an example of a ceremony that emerged in the later part of Native American history is the ‘Ghost Dance’. It has its origins in the late nineteenth century and is characterized by blending elements of older ceremonies with a new philosophy of a peaceful resistance to colonization (Kidwell et al. 2001:97). It marked the ending of an old era, the ‘Old Buffalo Days’. Because the buffalo was almost extinct and times were dramatically changing, many Native Americans were suffering and lost their sense of identity and their ancient way of life. The Ghost Dance - initiated by the already mentioned Wovoka - was similar to the ancient ‘social round’ or ‘circle dance’. The left foot was always leading and was lifted higher than he right. The dancer would plunge forward and drag the right foot into position while it always remained on the line of the circle. On some occasions the circle of dancers would have as many as three or four hundred participants, who were dancing fast, going around and around in a huge circle, holding hands. The most important feature of the dancing and the singing of Ghost Dance songs was helping to revive the old Native American ways especially for the younger people (Laubin 1977:52-63).

One element I consider extremely important in Native American religion is the art of storytelling. This aspect of Native American culture is certainly shared by all tribes without exception. Because of its significance I mentioned it at the end of this list and will deal with it again in particular in chapter 3.

European Influence

The main reason Native American culture and consequently Native American religion was forced to change was the contact with European settlers and missionaries. Because this topic shows the most dramatic change in the history of Native American religion I decided to deal with the impact Europeans had on the Natives separately from the changes mentioned above.

Although the first European contact with native America goes back to 1000 A.D. when Scandinavian sailors reached the Western Hemisphere, the European world became aware of this new country through Christopher Columbus in 1492 (cp. Thornton 1990:11-12). With the arrival of Columbus and his men a series of misunderstandings, deceptions, abuse and murder began. It is a dark chapter in the history of the Americas as well as in the history of mankind and its effects continue to the present.

When talking about Europeans who came to Native American country I want to distinguish between conquerors on the one hand and settlers and missionaries on the other. The first Europeans who arrived in Native territory were the conquerors, soldiers and adventurers who for the most part were sent by European kings to discover the ‘New World’. They had two main goals I want to phrase: The first goal was to exploit the country to get rich. The second goal was to ‘civilize’ the Natives to gain power over their country. The total population of Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere in 1492 is estimated at over 72 million. In the late nineteenth century the population had declined to about 250,000 Natives. This shocking decline of Native Americans was due to several factors, which were all connected with the European’s arrival.

Europeans brought over a vast number of diseases such as smallpox, measles, cholera and many more. The immune system of Native Americans was not used to those pathogens so the illnesses spread rapidly and caused many deaths. Even though diseases like tuberculosis and malaria were most likely present in pre-Columbian times, the new diseases hit the Natives like nothing before. The loss of so many family and tribal members weakened them as well because many familiar structures fell apart. One result of this additional weakness was that they became even more dependent on contact and especially on trade with whites who again could bring a new illness or disease (Thornton 1990:42-43 / Josephy, Jr. 1982:43).

Even though Native American tribes waged wars before white contact, nothing could compare to what happened when Europeans started interfering with local affairs. With European influence wars became much more serious and fierce, mainly because of the new weapons the spears and arrows of the Natives could not compete with. This is why many battles could not be called war but have to be considered as genocide because Natives often did not have any chance to resist European forces. One famous example is the Wounded Knee massacre in December 1890 when 500 troops of the U.S. cavalry killed over 350 Lakota men, women and children (Thornton 1990:47-51 / Martin 1999:103-05).

Another reason for the decline of the Native population was the removal and the relocation of most Native tribes. Many Native American communities had to leave their homelands and were crowded into much smaller reservations. They either died on the hard journey, from the bad conditions on the reservations where diseases spread even faster, or committed suicide because they could not cope with having to leave the land of their birth. One of these journeys is the well-known ‘Trail of Tears’ of 1,600 Cherokee people. During this trail the Cherokee were forced to move west and a great number of people died on their way or later from the stresses and strains. Removals in New England started almost with the beginning of European colonization through the establishment of ‘praying towns’ for converted Christians. The largest number of relocations however, occurred after 1830 with the ‘Indian Removal Act’ (Thornton 1990:50-51 / Martin 2001:73-75).

Furthermore, the destruction of the way of life they had known contributed to the decline of the Native population as well. When Europeans took over most of their territory they also took a great number of sacred sites such as burial mounds, ancient meeting places and special mountains. Losing their land always meant losing a piece of their own identity. Being disconnected and feeling hopeless many Natives started drinking and got caught in a viscous circle of alcoholism, unemployment, illness and homelessness, which in many cases ended in total devastation and suicide. To this day a shocking number of Native Americans live in poverty and simple resignation (cp. Martin 1999:121-31).

Christianity and Native American Religion

The second group mentioned before were settlers and missionaries which each have to be dealt with separately. European settlers came to the ‘New World’ in order to start a new life and to enjoy religious freedom they could not experience in Europe. Missionaries on the other hand were often sent by the church to help ‘civilizing’ the Natives by bringing them ‘the word of God’ or the ‘Gospel’.

First I want to have a brief look at the settlers. Obviously there were settlers who knowingly took Native territory to build their own houses and to lead a better life style than they were able to do in Europe. But a lot of white settlers were not mean or greedy at all.

Because they were told so, they honestly thought the land they were offered was free for them to take and was not inhabited. Also many of them seriously thought that Natives had died out in the nineteenth century. Only when it was to late they often found out that this was not true and that they were living on Native country (cp. Kidwell et al. 2001:168).

Christian missionaries on the other hand came to Native American country claiming they had the ‘only truth’. Their aim was to show the Natives how wrong and evil their ways were and to convert them and their ‘lost souls’ to Christianity. The Natives however did not understand the concept of converting to another religion and no single tribe believed that their own religion held the only truth. This is why conversion rarely happened between Native American tribes. For Native Americans religion was deeply connected with their own personal and social identity and could not simply be changed. Another reason even benevolent and peaceful missionaries found it hard to communicate Christianity to Native Americans was the approach of wanting to save the ‘savages’ from sin. Native American religion does not share the same idea of sin with Christianity. As Kidwell et al. (2001) point out: “Dreams, vision quests, and initiation rites give Indians access to spiritual power. The concepts of sin and of a singular, omnipotent God are quite foreign to traditional Indian beliefs (100).” This means that the Natives did not see the need to be saved from anything. Furthermore Native American religion does not distinguish between the natural and the supernatural as Christianity does. Because everything created is considered equal they only make a difference between things they can see and the ‘transcendent’. Transcendent for them means “going beyond the experience of people in their everyday worlds (Harrod 1995:105).”2 It cannot be mistaken for the Christian concept of the supernatural, which Europeans often mistakenly apply this term to Native American religion. Besides the different concepts of sin and the supernatural there are a number of philosophies that made it difficult for the Europeans to understand Native American religion and also for Native Americans to understand Christianity. One main point is the hierarchical structure of European thinking which contrasts the Native American idea of egalitarianism. Christianity places human beings over nature while Native American philosophy does not regard humans as ‘higher beings’ in comparison to animals and plants. For Native Americans this is the reason why Europeans always tend to exploit nature and everything within.


1 e.g. Grim in Irwin 2000:37

1 Kidwell et al. 2001:74

2 cp. Harrod 1995:103-05 / Kidwell et al. 2001:100-13

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The Importance of Storytelling for the Survival of Native American Religion
University of Hildesheim  (Institut für englische Sprache und Literatur)
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Die Verfasserin bearbeitet das Thema der Religionen bei nordamerikanischen Ureinwohnern, den ’Native Americans’. Ihr besonderes Augenmerk gilt dabei, wie im Titel angekündigt, der wichtigen Rolle der mündlichen Überlieferung der Religionen durch das Erzählen von Geschichten. Die Verfasserin betont richtigerweise, dass bei einer großen Landmasse und einer Vielzahl an Stämmen nicht von einer einzigen oder einheitlichen Religion oder Philosophie gesprochen werden kann, hat jedoch festgestellt, dass die verschiedenen Religionsmuster gewisse Gemeinsamkeiten aufweisen.
Native American Religion, Storytelling, Native American Philosophy
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M.Ed. Nadine Thäder (Author), 2008, The Importance of Storytelling for the Survival of Native American Religion, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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