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Tribal Responses to Colonial Subjugation: Religious Salvation and Ideological Syncretism. The Indian Wars: Resistance was futile. The Reservation Period. Churches attacked both family structure and belief systems. Pre-contact belief systems.

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Tribal Responses to Colonial Subjugation: Religious Salvation and Ideological Syncretism


Pre-contact belief systems

  • Animatism: belief in a supernatural power not part of supernatural beings
  • Animism: belief that natural objects are animated by spirits
    • the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender
    • Everything in nature has a unique spirit or all are animated by the same spirit or force
  • Both present in some societies
  • For Native Americans, animism dominates
  • We see some evidence in material remains, but most information comes from post-Contact ethnography


  • Ancestral spirits
    • After death, spiritsretain an active interest and even membership in their family and society.  Like living people, they can have emotions, feelings, and appetites.  They must be treated well to assure their continued good will and help to the living.
  • Gods/goddesses
    • Powerful supernatural beings with individual identities and recognizable attributes
    • Rare in Native America—Creator, Mother Earth, but these are often ill-defined
  • Hero/trickster figures
    • Beings with some supernatural abilities such as transformation—coyote, raven, spider are examples

Time and Cosmology

The power of the circle

Cyclical nature of time

The sacred directions

Sacred colors

Ojibwe lodge

Medicine Wheels abound on the Plains

Pawnee lodge

Quillwork medicine wheel


Belief system change did occur

  • Beliefs form a stable core, but do adapt to natural and social environments
    • Example: Old vs new Lakota beliefs

White Buffalo Calf Woman and the spread of the calumet (pipe)

Inyan Kara—rock maker

Bison herd near Wind Cave, where Iktomi tricked the people into coming from the underground


Post-Contact ideology

  • Contact and syncretism
  • Nativistic movements
    • The Good Message of Handsome Lake
    • A syncretic combination of traditional Seneca and Quaker beliefs and practices
    • Purpose: to draw the Seneca back toward “the old ways” and to “protect” them from whites

Revitalization movements

    • The Ghost Dance (see Edison 1894 film)

Wovoka with Plains delegation

Pawnee ghost dance drum

Bole-maru, California


The Christian struggle for control

Grant’s reservation policy and churches

Boarding schools and breakdown of families

Bans on many religious practices

Woodrow Crumbow--Sundance


The Native American Church

Peyote song: Primeaux and Mike

Peyote cactus

For a good history, see the Religious Movements page on NAC


American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

Title 42 - The Public Health and Welfare    Chapter 21 - Civil Rights        SubChapter I - Generally American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978§ 1996. Protection and preservation of traditional religions of Native Americans

On and after August 11, 1978, it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.


Pan-Indian Trends


Gathering of Nations, Albuquerque

Eklutna (Alaska) Annual Powwow

Crow Fair, Montana