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"Primitive" Indian Religion

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science.

Albert Einstein

The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.

Niels Bohr


General differences between Western and Indian beliefs

The Soul of the Red Man:  His Spirituality

The culture and civilization of the Whiteman are essentially material; his measure of success is "How much property have I acquired for myself?" The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, "How much service have I rendered to my people?" (2) His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance, approached and coloured with complete realization of the spirit world.

Garrick Mallery, the leading Smithsonian authority of his day, says: "The most surprising fact relating to the North American Indians, which until lately had not been realized, is that they habitually lived in and by religion to a degree comparable with that of the old Israelites under the theocracy. This was sometimes ignored, and sometimes denied in terms, by many of the early missionaries and explorers. The aboriginal religion was not their [the missionaries'] religion, and therefore was not recognized to have an existence or was pronounced to be satanic." (3)

"Religion was the real life of the tribes, permeating all their activities and institutions." (4)

John James, after living sixty years among the Choctaw Indians of Texas, writes:

"I claim for the North American Indian the purest religion, and the loftiest conceptions of the Great Creator, of any non-Christian religion that has ever been known to this old world.

. . .

"The North American Indian has no priests, no idols, no sacrifices, but went direct to the Great Spirit and worshipped Him who was invisible, and seeing Him by faith, adored Him who seeketh such to worship Him in spirit and in truth, who is a Spirit and planted a similar spirit in His creatures, that there might be communion between the two." (5)

In 1834 Captain Bonneville visited the Nez Percés and Flatheads before they had been in contact with Whites, either traders or missionaries, and sums up these wholly primitive Indians:

"Simply to call these people religious would convey but a faint idea of the deep hue of piety and devotion which pervades their whole conduct. Their honesty is immaculate, and their purity of purpose and their observance of the rites of their religion are most uniform and remarkable. They are certainly more like a nation of saints than a horde of savages." (6)

Tom Newcomb, my mountain guide in 1912 and 1914, was an old scout of the Miles campaign, who lived with the Sioux under Crazy Horse for some years in the early '70's. He said to me once (and not only said, but dictated for record):

"I tell you I never saw more kindness or real Christianity anywhere. The poor, the sick, the aged, the widows and the orphans were always looked after first. Whenever we moved camp, someone took care that the widows' lodges were moved first and set up first. After every hunt, a good-sized chunk of meat was dropped at each door where it was most needed. I was treated like a brother; and I tell you I have never seen any community of church people that was as really truly Christians as that band of Indians."

(2) Pablo Abeita of Isleta reiterates this in all his public talks on the subject.
(3) "Picture Writing of the American Indians," 10th Ann. Rep. Bur. Eth., 1893, p. 461.
(4) "Picture Writing of the American Indians," 10th Ann. Rep. Bur. Eth., 1893. p. 231.
(5) My Experience with Indians, 1925, p. 67.
(6) Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1837, p. 171. Father de Smet came many years later — i.e. 1849 — and began his mission in 1841. He was the first of the missionaries; but obviously could claim no credit for this condition.

Related links
Differences between Western and Native religions
Western moral values derived from their religion (Christianity)
Native moral values derived from their religions
The sacredness of nature to Indians

All religions the same?
In Joseph Campbell Saves the World, Mark Morford explains why Campbell thought all religions are similar:

[Campbell] illuminates, gently, calmly, effortlessly, without prejudice or bias, without spin or piousness or even heavy resigned sighing, and without actually saying so, the dangerous absurdity of a people taking these tales—and gods—way, way too literally. Of separating the stories and gods from their own lives and insisting on seeing the culture's deities as something other than the mere reflection, the personification, of their own internal lives and spiritual journeys and the need to get off their collective ass and quit being so hollow and mean and piously self-righteous and eager for war. There is no superior bearded father-figure God. There is no Heaven as physical place. There is no literal reading of holy adventures and Heaven/Hell battles and fluttery cute cherub angels with wings. It is all story, all literary torque, all metaphor and analogy and personification of emotion and spirit, a way for the human animal to elevate toward greater and greater levels of compassion and love and mutual understanding and enough with the pipe bombs and the indignation and the hatred already.

For some thoughts on why monotheism is no improvement over "primitive" religion, see the book review of One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism.

Another take on "primitive" religions
The responses to an article on Native Hawaiians show that people still think indigenous religions are "primitive." From the LA Times, 3/23/01:

"Science, Culture Clash Over Sacred Mountain" (March 18) presents the dispute over telescopes on Mauna Kea as between astronomers and Hawaiians. I think it would be more accurate to say it is between rationality and a few activists who try to invest themselves with the mantle of ancient Hawaiian religions in order to inflate their political power. Whether some place is "sacred" is completely arbitrary. Unlike being a habitat of an endangered species or a place of scenic beauty, "sacred" means nothing more than somebody saying so. This is a ridiculous basis for any land-use policy.

The opponents of more telescopes on Mauna Kea base their claims on ancient Hawaiian religions. Do they believe these religions? Do they practice the human sacrifice and other rituals of this religion? No! They pick and choose and make a dishonest appeal to Hawaiian pride—a pride that should rest in their seamanship, sports, art and in hosting the world's greatest observatories, not in superstitions that no one really believes.


My response to Meeker:

Reader Brent Meeker denounces Native Hawaiian religion as "superstitions that no one really believes" and says "'sacred' means nothing more than somebody saying so." I assume that also applies to such superstitious religions as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I mean, does anyone really believe Jesus performed miracles or rose from the dead? Yeah, right.

People also claim the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock are holy sites. Huh? We're basically talking about a bunch of dirty old rocks here. There's nothing magical or special about them. They're "sacred" only because someone says so, too.

I suggest Jerusalem's caretakers tear down these structures and put the sites to more productive use—same as Mauna Kea's peak. If an astronomical observatory isn't feasible, perhaps a Wal-Mart or McDonald's would work. But by all means, let's stop indulging people and their ignorant superstitions.

Another response to the original article makes the point less sarcastically:

Your otherwise good article on the Mauna Kea controversy did not discuss the self-righteous disdain that modern science has toward animism: It's clear to any thinking person (not caught up in defensive self-denial) that this disdain necessarily underlies astronomy institutions' lack of respect for Kanaka Maoli (as indigenous Hawaiians are properly called) concerns.

Keaau, Hawaii

Rationality isn't enough
From "The Biology of Belief" by Vince Rause in the LA Times, 7/15/01:

In my heart, the words of the mystics ring true, but I am still a rational person. I can't quite swallow the notion that mystical insights should help shape our practical view of existence. It seems so . . . unscientific. Then I found this passage written by Albert Einstein, in which he reveals that his work had led him, in the end, to a "cosmic religious feeling," in which one "looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole."

There was no personified God in Einstein's "religion." No heaven or hell. No doctrine or scripture. Just the intuition of an incomparably brilliant mind that there is room in a rational universe for inexplicable wonder. "The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience," Einstein said, "is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He (or she) to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead."

I soon discovered that Einstein's mystical leanings were shared by other great scientists—giants of physics such as Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrdinger, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg, to name just a few. These men had peered more deeply, and more reverently, into the fabric of reality than any other humans in history, and they concluded, one by one, that science alone could never solve the bottomless mystery.

"Science," wrote Max Planck, "means unresting endeavor and continually progressing development toward an aim which the poetic intuition may apprehend, but which the intellect can never fully grasp."

Science has its limits. Poetry has its place. Perhaps mysteries aren't meant to be solved, after all. Maybe, in the end, all we have to guide us is the intuitive wisdom of the heart.

In fact, scientists have begun to realize what indigenous people have always believed: that man and nature are indivisible, that all things are interconnected and interrelated, that consciousness is an essential part of the so-called physical universe. This subject is well beyond the scope of this site, but some quotes hint at the point:

I have yet to meet a single person from our culture, no matter what his or her educational background, IQ, and specific training, who had powerful transpersonal experiences and continues to subscribe to the materialistic monism of Western science.

Albert Einstein

Mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our understanding.

Freeman Dyson

There is no reality in the absence of observation.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

The universe on a very basic level could be a vast web of particles which remain in contact with one another over distance, and in no time.

R. Nadeau and M. Kafatos

No theory of reality compatible with quantum theory can require spatially separate events to be independent.

J.S. Bell

More on Native religious beliefs
Wickham:  Resistance to Makah whale hunt exposes modern madness
Fact Sheet:  Protection of Native American Sacred Places
Sacred Landscapes: To developers they're just piles of rocks. To Native Americans, they're places of worship.

More on Western superstitions
13 grandmas accused of idolatry
Native truth vs. Christian lies
Comparing burial practices
Magical thinking, or, Westerners are a superstitious lot

Related links
Uncivilized Indians
Were the Aztecs murdering "animals"?
The "inexcusable" Hopi smothering of eaglets
Native vs. non-Native Americans:  a summary

Readers respond
"The real question is whether their religion has helped them to prosper or even just survive."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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