Saturday, September 08, 2007
Native American Religions
When Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, he thought he would eventually land on the east coast of Asia.
To Europeans of the 1400s, anyone living east of the Indus River was Indian. According to their worldview--and here I used that term quite literally--except for small islands nearby, terra firma was unified. The continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa had their distinctions. But they were connected. Together they were called the Orbis Terrarum, "the Island of the Earth."
So when he saw people in that place where he finally landed, Columbus called them los Indios, "the Indians." Who else could they have been? By calling the people he saw "the Indians," Columbus both reflected and reinforced the assumptions with which he had begun.
Aren't we a lot like him? No, we don't have a global concept that requires us to think of the western hemisphere as a new world. But, whenever we say "Indian" or the politically-correct "Native American," don't we see in our minds certain images, and begin with a set of pre-understandings, all of which get reinforced by how we see what we see?
No, I don't imagine that what I'm describing is restricted to the subject at hand. It's just that non-Native Americans have a hard time breaking out of the cycle of reinforced assumptions when it comes to Native Americans.
That's the case partly because of something that happened in the summer of 1550. It was then that Charles V of Spain called a conference of sorts. He summonsed a group that was to hear opposing arguments on the question, What kind of being is the Indian?
The first presenter, a scholar named Sepulveda, picked up Aristotle's idea that some people are slaves by nature. And the Indians, he said, were such people. Therefore, it was only right for Europeans to enslave Indians and to conduct war and use violence in order to conquer them.
The second presenter, a Dominican priest named Las Casas, had spent many years among the Indians. Referring to long treatises he had written, he argued for days on end that the Indians were sophisticated in the arts and languages and government; that they were gentle, eager to learn and, above all, quick to accept Christianity.
Even before that time, and reaching right up to the present, the prevailing images of the Indian are complete opposites: the sub-human being and the noble non-Christian. For some, Indians have been and are pagan, uncivilized, incapable of learning, unable to govern themselves, beastly and inhumane. To others, though not Christian, the Indian is artistic, civil, able to learn, filled with wisdom.
Common to both views has been the notion that Indians are essentially irreligious. Columbus wrote, "they do not hold any creed, nor are they idolaters." A decade later, Vespucci wrote, "They have no church, no religion, and are not idolaters."
Because of such long-held impressions, only within the last few decades have historians of American religion even considered the religions of Native Americans. (!) Until recently, Indians mentioned in the context of American religion were almost always connected to the missionary efforts of Christians.
More recently, though, some scholars have begun drawing up maps of the territory we call "Native American Religions." And that's what we'll be looking at in the "Introduction to World Religions" at Amarillo College this coming Monday night.
Main Source: Gill, Sam D. Native American Religions: An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1982), 1-13.