Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The serious systematic study of Native American religions may be said to have had its beginning in 1851 with the publication of Lewis Henry Morgan's League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois , generally regarded as the first scientific account of an American Indian tribe. Morgan devoted a major portion of his monograph to Iroquois religious conceptions, festivals, and modes of worship, focusing special attention on the so-called New Religion of the celebrated prophet, Handsome Lake.

The founding in 1879 of the Bureau of American Ethnology greatly stimulated interest in this area of investigation and led to the production by a variety of researchers of a series of descriptively rich papers on topics ranging from ceremonies of the Zui to sacred formulas of the Cherokee. The great classic among these reports is James Mooney's The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Government Printing Office 1896), the first full-scale field study of a Native American revivalistic movement and the work that opened up messianism as a general cultural phenomenon to social scientific inquiry.

Like Morgan, a lawyer by profession, Mooney and his bureau cohorts were self-educated scholars. By the turn of the century, a new breed of investigators were making the domain of Native American studies its own. These were academically trained ethnologists, students of Franz Boas (1858-1942), the man largely responsible for the professionalization of anthropology in the United States. Distrustful of theorizing and generalizing, Boas insisted that the fundamental task of anthropology was "historical reconstruction" based on meticulous gathering of empirical data on specific cultures and cultural patterns. He sought to endow the discipline with the same rigor of method that characterized the physical sciences.

An outstanding example of a work produced in accordance with Boas's canons of ethnographic research is Leslie Spier's The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians: Its Development and Diffusion (American Museum of Natural History 1921). Using all available accounts of this most important of Plains tribal ceremonies, Spier reduced the dance to its component elements and plotted their geographic distribution. His trait-analysis technique enabled him to identify the Arapaho and Cheyenne as originators of the dance and to trace the rite's subsequent dissemination and assimilation. Spier's study was the model for another classic work, Weston La Barre's The Peyote Cult (Yale 1938). Other noteworthy monographs in the Boasian tradition include Robert Lowie's The Religion of the Crow Indians (American Museum of Natural History 1922), Ruth Benedict's The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America (American Anthropological Association 1923), and Cora DuBois's The 1870 Ghost Dance (University of California Anthropological Records 1939).

Specialists in the study of Native American religions have developed a wide range of fresh theoretical and methodological orientations toward their topic since the days when Boas first outlined his program for a modern anthropology. Some of these approaches were foreshadowed in the work of Boas himself or were introduced by those who trained under him.

Dynamic/Behavioral Analyses

The functionalist approach examines religion in terms of what it does for individuals and/or their society. In his The Peyote Religion Among the Navaho (Aldine 1966), David Aberle analyzed peyotism as a "redemptive movement" that established a "new inner state" in persons suffering from relative deprivation occasioned by forced government livestock reductions. Joseph Jorgensen's The Sun Dance Religion: Power for the Powerless (University of Chicago Press 1972) offered similar conclusions regarding the place of the Sun Dance in the lives of Utes and Shoshone. Alexander Lesser in The Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand Game (Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology 1933) showed how the Ghost Dance provided the stimulus for a general cultural renaissance among the Pawnee, while Anthony Wallace discussed the Iroquois cultural regeneration provoked by the religion of Handsome Lake in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (Knopf 1970).

The psychological approach is based on application to ethnographic materials of theories and concepts derived, for the most part, from dynamic psychiatry. Easily the most significant contribution of this type is Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (Doubleday 1970). La Barre used the classical Freudian framework, with its emphasis on the Oedipus complex, in an attempt to reach a deeper understanding of Native American ideas about power as well as of the genesis of the successive "crisis cults" that have arisen among these people. Other works in this vein include George Devereux's "Dream Learning and the Individual Ritual Differences in Mohave Shamanism" (American Anthropologist , 1957) and Morris Opler's "An Interpretation of Ambivalence of Two American Indian Tribes" (Journal of Social Psychology , 1936). George Spindler, as reported in his "Personality and Peyotism in Menomini Indian Acculturation" (Psychiatry , 1952), used the Rorschach projective test to discover the psychological characteristics of peyotists, concluding that peyote ritual, symbolism, and ideology work together to produce a "distinctive personality type." More recently, Wolfgang Jilek argued that the guardian spirit ceremony of the Coast Salish of British Columbia embodies several types of well-defined psychohygienic and therapeutic procedures of demonstrable effectiveness in Salish Indian Mental Health and Culture Change (Holt 1974).

Historiographic Analyses

The life-history approach uses first-person accounts that are the products of intensive collaboration between native informants and ethnographers. While most such narratives do not consider religion in any systematic way or even present sustained analysis of the biographical materials, some are extremely valuable for the data they contain on rituals and ceremonials as they are experienced subjectively by particular individuals. Peter Nabokov's Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior (Crowell 1967) is important for the information it contains on the Sun Dance and the vision quest. Peyotism among the Winnebago receives attention in Paul Radin's Crashing Thunder (Appleton 1926) and in Nancy Lurie's Mountain Wolf Woman (University of Michigan Press 1961). Leo Simmons's Sun Chief (Yale University Press 1942) vividly conveys the spiritual life of the Hopi. Navajo ceremonialism is a principal focus of Charlotte Frisbie and David McAllester's Navajo Blessingway Singer: The Autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881-1967 (University of Arizona Press 1978).

The historical approach concentrates on the construction of chronological narratives, emphasizing the ordering of facts and events rather than their interpretation. Omer Stewart's Peyote Religion: A History (University of Oklahoma Press 1987) is perhaps the finest report of this kind, a large-scale account that may be regarded as definitive. Still useful, however, is James Slotkin's The Peyote Religion: A Study in Indian-White Relations (Free Press 1956).

Descriptive/Conceptual Analyses

The textual/linguistic approach takes native texts, as recorded and translated by ethnographers, as its units of analysis. In her Prayer: The Compulsive Word (University of Washington Press 1944), Gladys Reichard examined the form and content of Navajo prayers, suggesting that this highly specialized "ceremonial" language contains the key to the ultimate understanding of Navajo belief and practice. A more exhaustive and sophisticated treatment of the subject is Sam Gill's Sacred Words: A Study of Navajo Religion and Prayer (Greenwood 1981). Gill explored the "structuring principles" of Navajo prayers to uncover the premises and categories that are at the core of Navajo religion. (Gill is also the author of Native American Religions: An Introduction , Wadsworth 1982, which is a good general overview.)

The phenomenological approach seeks to achieve an "inside" view of religion, to understand religious behavior in terms of native conceptions and categories of experience. The pioneer of this mode of inquiry was A. Irving Hallowell, a leader in the area of culture-and-personality studies. In a groundbreaking series of papers written over a period of some three decades, he elucidated basic aspects of Ojibwa religion by assuming the perspective of the "culturally constituted Ojibwa self in its culturally constituted behavioral environment." Articles in the series include "Some Empirical Aspects of Northern Saulteaux Religion" (American Anthropologist , 1934), "Spirits of the Dead in Saulteaux Life and Thought" (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute , 1940), and "Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View" (in Stanley Diamond, ed., Culture and History 1960).

The history-of-religions (or comparative) approach treats religion substantively, in terms of its believed contents. This approach is associated mainly with ke Hultkrantz, a Swedish scholar of notable prolificacy. Decrying the tendency of most social scientists to "do away" with religion by reducing it to something else (i.e., social processes, psychological conditions, and so on), Hultkrantz deals with religion "as an entity sui generis," identifying patterns, constructing typologies, and probing meanings. His principal works include Conceptions of the Soul Among North American Indians (Ethnological Museum of Sweden 1953), The Religions of the American Indians (University of California 1979), Belief and Worship in Native North America (Syracuse University Press 1981), and The Study of American Indian Religions (Crossroad 1983), an exhaustive bibliographic essay covering both American and European sources.

The study of Native American religions holds a secure place within the social sciences. Interest is currently running very high, as evidenced by the steady production of books and articles on the subject and by the creation, in 1994, of a specialized periodical, American Indian Religions: An Interdisciplinary Journal .

Steven M. Kane


W. La Barre, The Peyote Cult , 5th ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989)

L. H. Morgan, League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (New York: Citadel Press, 1962 [1851]).

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