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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Indians, American

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Under this title may be included all the semi-civilized and wild tribes of North and South America, since the most thorough investigation shows that they were substantially the same people. In collating information concerning the Indian thought, it is important to distinguish between the forms it assumed before and after contact with Europeans. 1. Sources of Knowledge. Notwithstanding the proverbial taciturnity of the North-American Indians, some information has been elicited by oral communication. Many of the tribes, also, have a species of records for their traditions. In some instances these seem to be little more than mnemonic signs, made on their skins, tents, clothing, mats, and rocks; but in others, as in Mexico, we find a series of symbols which are a species of idiographic writing, wherein signs stand for ideas, as the Arabic numerals do with us. Besides these there must have existed in some localities a phonetic alphabet prior to the coming of the white man. The only one known, however, is found with the Mayas, resident in the peninsula of Yucatan. It had "a well- understood alphabet of twenty-seven elementary sounds, the letters of which are totally different from those of any other nation, and evidently original with themselves."

2. Origins. Much has been written on the origin of the Indian tribes, and their probable connection with the people of the Old World. Hardwick says, "If no ray of light whatever could be thrown upon the questions which concern the primitive populations of America; if no analogy to the case had existed in the spread:of the Malayo-Polynesian tribes across the islands of the Eastern Archipelago and the Pacific Ocean; if the speech of the Americans had absolutely no affinities with other human dialects; if their traditions, meager as these are, hinted nothing of a distant home and of a perilous migration; if insoluble enigmas were presented by the physical structure of the Americans, or if their moral powers and mental capacities were such as to exclude them from a place in the great brotherhood of:men; if, lastly, no resemblance were found, I will not say in primary articles of belief, but in the memory of specific incidents, and in those minor forms of human thought and culture which will hardly bear to be explained on the hypothesis of natural evolution' we might then, perhaps, have cause to hesitate in our decision (Christ and other Masters, 2, 120 sq.). There is literally nothing, according to our ablest writers, either in the bodily structure or psychology of the American tribes to prove an independent origin, or even to beget suspicions touching a plurality of races; while, according to Mr. Squier, of the words known to have been in use in America one hundred and four coincide with words found in the languages of Asia and Australia, forty-three with those of Europe, and forty with those of Africa. In addition, however, to the migration suggested by the above quotations, two circumstances seem to point most clearly to a collection of our aboriginal Indians with the Malay, Mongol, or Tartar race:

1. The monosyllabic character of their languages; and,

2. The obvious similarity in complexion and general physical constitution. The case of the Aztecs, moreover, to say nothing of the Mexicans and Peruvians, indicates a degeneracy from an earlier civilization, like that of the Chinese and Japanese.

3. Legends. The Indian myths of the creation, the deluge, the epochs of nature, and the last day, are numerous and clear, although it seems more difficult to ascertain here what does and what does not antedate European influence. Before the creation," said the Muscogees, "a great body of water was alone visible. Two pigeons flew to and fro over its waves, and at last spied a blade of grass rising above the surface. Dry land gradually followed, and the islands and continents took their present shapes." Many of the tribes trace their descent from a raven, "a mighty bird, whose eyes were fire, whose glances were lightning, and the clapping of whose wings was thunder. On his descent to the ocean the earth instantly rose, and remained on the surface of the water. This omnipotent bird then called forth all the variety of animals." The early Algonquin legends do not speak of any family who escaped the deluge, nor did the Dakotas, who firmly believed the world had been destroyed by water. Generally, however, the legends made some to have escaped by ascending some mountain, on a raft or canoe, in a cave, or by climbing a tree. The pyramids of Cholula, the mounds of the Mississippi Valley, the vast and elaborate edifices in the artificial hills of Yucatan, would seem to have direct reference to the hill on which the ancestors of these people escaped in past deluges, or from the realm of rains, called the Hill of Heaven. They mostly make the last destruction of the world to have been by water, though some few represent it to have been by fire.

4. Religious beliefs. It is generally believed that all approximations to monotheism observed among the tribes of the New World are little more than verbal. Their "Great Spirit," as the phrase stands among Europeans, is at best the highest member of a group of spirits. He may be a personification of the mightiest of all natural energies, but not a personality distinct from nature, and controlling all things by his sovereign will. He is devoid of almost everything which constitutes the glory of the God of revelation. In spite of whatever grandeur, goodness, or ubiquity he may be endowed with, he exercises no control over the lives of individuals or the government of the world. "There is no attempt," says Mr. Schoolcraft, by the hunter-priesthood, jugglers, or powwows, which can be gathered from their oral tradition, to impute to the great, merciful Spirit the attribute of justice, or to make man accountable to him here or hereafter for aberrations from virtue, good-will, truth, or any moral right" (Red Races).

Their ideas of God have been almost exclusively found to be connected with some natural phenomena, and the almost poetic way in which they look at it suggests that much of their religious thought received complexion from their hunter-life. For the most part, their conceptions of deity seem to have been connected with the phenomena of the meteorological or atmospheric world, and with their observations concerning light and fire. The highest good is generally symbolized as the storm-god or the sun god, these being sometimes blended and sometimes distinct. We may see an illustration of them as united in their adoration of the four cardinal points of the compass, and in their notions of the sacred four birds, four mothers, or four primitive brothers, the progenitors of the human family. Their highest deity is always their highest ideal of civilization and of the arts of peace, and to him they always accord the better attributes of mankind. The god of light is often spoken of as the founder of the nation, sometimes as its progenitor or introducing arts, sciences, and laws, and as having led them in their earliest wanderings. The sun-god is the dispenser of all radiance and fertility, the being by whose light and heat all creatures were generated and sustained, the highest pitch of excellence; and even when transformed into a god of battle, and worshipped with horrid and incongruous rites, or fed by human hecatombs, he never ceased to occupy the foremost rank among the good divinities. He was ever the "father," "sustainer," "revivifier." Muller maintains that there were numerous subordinate hostile deities, who created discord, sickness, death, and every possible form of evil, and that in many cases these were reputed to be under the leadership of the moon, which was the parent of misfortune with some, and yet was the chief divinity of other of the-warlike races, such as the Caribs.

The Manito or Manedo is alleged to have no personal meaning, but to be equivalent to "spirit," or "a spirit," perhaps somewhat akin to our thought of a guardian spirit. Schoolcraft thinks that, so far as a meaning distinct from an invisible existence attaches to it at all, the tendency is to a bad meaning, and that a bad meaning is distinctly conveyed in the inflection osh or ish (Red Races, p. 214). In considering this belief in manitos it is necessary to remember that the Indian conceives every department of the universe to be filled with invisible spirits, holding the same relation to matter that the soul does to the body, and in accordance with which, not only every man, but every animal, has a soul, and is endowed with a reasoning faculty. Dreams are a means of direct communication with the spiritual world, and are generally regarded as the friendly warnings of their personal manitos. No labor or enterprise is undertaken against their indications, whole armies being sometimes turned back by dreams of the officiating priest. Under the guidance of a particular spirit, names are commonly supposed to be bestowed. These personal spirits are invoked to give success in hunting. These manitos are, however, of varied ability, and there is a constant fear lest the manito of a neighbor may prove more powerful than one's own.

The mythological personages who are the heroes of Indian tales, and who are in some way associated with the highest good, as set forth above, may be represented by Michabo or Manibozho of the Algonquins, and Quetzalcoatl, the god of the air, the highest deity of the Toltecs. The same deity appears with more or less of modification among all the tribes, though under various names. It is Isokeha among the Iroquois, Wasi among the Cherokees, Tamoi with the Caribs, Zama with the Mayas, Nemqueteba with the Muyscas, Miracocha among the Aymaras, etc. Among them all he appears as the one who taught them agriculture, the art of picture writing, the properties of plants, and the secrets of magie; who founded their institutions, established their religions, and taught them government.

There were presentiments of a better time to come connected with the return of these heroes of their tales, which it is thought had much to do with the sudden collapse of the great empires of Mexico and Peru, of the Natchez and the Mayas before the Spaniards. Associated in their legends with the return of their gods and the better time was, in most cases, the notion of the coming of a white man of superior strength from the father of the sun.

5. The Soul and a future Life. The immortality of the human soul is universally believed by the North American Indians.

Among all the tribes soul is equivalent to breath, or the wind. The same person may have more than one soul; some say four, and others even more than this number. Generally, however, there is some distinction made in these souls. One may remain with the body, being attached to its earthly functions, and is absorbed in the elements, while another soul may pass away to the "Happy Hunting-grounds;" or, in other cases, one may watch the body, one wander about the world, one hover about the village, and another go to the spirit land. According to an author quoted by Mr. Brinton, certain Oregon tribes located a spirit " whenever they could detect a pulsation," the supreme one being in the heart and which alone would go to the skies at death.

Among all the tribes, from the Arctic region to the tropics, the abode of the departed soul is declared to be where the highest good, i.e. where light comes from, or, in other words, in the sun-realm. Hence the soul is variously said to go at death towards the east, or towards the west, the place of the coming or departure of the light, or among some northern tribes, to whom the sun lay in a southern direction, the soul is said to go towards the south. It is in this realm of light or sphere of the sun god that this permanent soul finds its ultimate home. "Spirituality is clogged with earthly accidents even in the future world. The soul hungers, and food must be deposited at the grave to supply its need. It suffers from cold, and the body must be wrapped about with clothes. It is in darkness, and a light must be kindled at the head of the grave. It wanders through plains and across streams, subject to the vicissitudes of this life, in quest of a place of enjoyment. Among some northern tribes a dog was slain on the grave, and there are indications of a like practice having obtained in Mexico and Peru." In other localities, and where the government was despotic, not only animals, but men, women, and children were often sacrificed at the tomb of the "cacique." There are traces of this on the Lower Mississippi. Among the Natchez Indians, when a chief died, "one or several of his wives and his highest officers were knocked on the head, and buried with him." There is the belief among many of them that the soul needs light, particularly for four nights or days after death, as it is either confined in the body, or "wandering over a gloomy marsh," or in some other perplexity which prevents its ascending to the skies. The natives of the extreme south, of the Pampas and the Patagonians, suppose the stars to be the souls of the departed.

According to some, there is but little trace, if any, of a clear conception of a system of rewards and punishments, as there certainly do not seem to have been very clear distinctions between vice and virtue, as in anywise related to a future world. The difference between the soul's comfort and discomfort in a future life, in so far as it is made a matter of degree at all, was made to depend, as in the Mexican mythology, on the mode of death. Women dying in childbirth were associated in the category of worth and merited happiness with warriors dying in battle. In Guatemala a violent death in any shape was sufficient to banish, in after-life, from the felicitous regions. The Brazilian natives divided the dead into classes, making those drowned, or killed by violence, or yielding to disease, to go into separate regions; but there seems to be no reason founded in morals connected with this. It is but just to say that others take a different view of this part of the subject from that here set forth. The abbé Em. Domenech, who spent seven years among these tribes, gives traditions which favor the doctrine of future rewards and punishments for the good or bad deeds of this life (p. 283). Other tribes, however, seem to know nothing of punishments. The Master of Life, or Merciful Spirit, will be alike merciful to all, irrespective of the acts of this life, or of any degree of moral turpitude. They see nowhere clear conceptions of virtue and vice even in this world. Sin, they say, is only represented at worst as a metaphorical going astray, as of one who loses his path in the woods, though this may suggest much more than this class of persons admit. That-there is a moral sentiment is admitted in connection with their civil and social life, but not as connected with their future state. Their prayers are almost wholly for temporal, and not for moral blessings; but there may be found an assumption of moral qualities or ethical character in connection with their gods, as in the case of Quetzalcoatl above alluded to, who is the founder of their civil code, and who instituted the household, instilled patriotism, etc. The Mexicans had another place for the souls of those dying by lightning-stroke, dropsies, leprosies, etc., who could not go to the home of the sun, but who must go to the realm of the god of the rains and waters, called Tlalocan.

There are indications of the doctrine of metempsychosis, and also of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. The vast tumuli, though they were not all connected with funeral rites, are summoned in testimony of this doctrine. The custom of collecting and cleansing the bones-usually once in eight or ten years-of those who had died in the tribe, and then burying them in a common Sepulcher "lined with choice furs, and marked with a mound of wood, stone, or earth," was common east of the Mississippi. This has been supposed to be connected with the theory that a part of the soul, or one of the souls, dwelt in the bones, and that these seed-souls, so to speak, would one day germinate into living human beings. Parts of their mythology afford support to such a supposition. An Aztec legend is to the effect that when the human species had been destroyed from off the face of the world, it was restored by one of the gods descending to the realm of the dead, and bringing thence a bone of the perished race, which they sprinkled with blood, and on the fourth day it became a youth, the father of the present race.

6. Funeral Rites. The mounds used for funeral services are found, for the most part, within walls of entrenched camps and fortified towns. On the top of these tumuli are altars of baked clay or stone, varying in length from a few inches to many yards. The mounds are found in very large numbers, and have an. average height of eight or ten yards, being usually in the form of a simple cone, or of a pear or egg. The dead were frequently burned before they were buried, funeral urns having often been discovered, as also beds of charcoal. With the dead were generally interred the ornaments, arms, and other objects belonging to them during life. The mounds sometimes contain silver, brass, stone, or bone, beads, shells, pieces of silex, quartz, garnet, points of arrows, fossil teeth of sharks, sculptures of human heads, pottery, etc. The customs observed in the burial of their dead differ in the different tribes. They all, however, paint the corpse black. The feet of the corpses are turned to the rising sun. The Omahas swathe the bodies with bandages made of skins, and place them on the branches of a tree, with a wooden vase filled with dried meat by their side, which is renewed from time to time. The Sioux bury their dead on the summit of a hill or mountain, and plant on the tomb a cedar-tree, which may be seen from a distance. The Chinooks wrap the bodies of their dead in skins, bind their eyes, put little shells in their nostrils, and dress them in most beautiful clothes, and then place them in a canoe, which is allowed to drift on a lake, or river, or the Pacific Ocean. The Shoshones burn their dead, with everything belonging to them. Among other tribes of the West the warriors are buried on horseback, with bow, and buckler, and quiver, and pipe, and medicine-bag, tobacco, and dried meats. The Assiniboins suspend their dead by thongs of leather between the branches of great trees, or place them on high scaffoldings, to keep them from wild animals. The Ottawas sacrifice a horse on the tomb of the dead, strangling the animal by a noose. When a tribe emigrate, they carry with them, if possible, the bones of their dead which have been preserved, or bury them in a cave, or hill, or wood.

7. Religious Usages. The Indians are alleged by Domenech to have had a few customs not wholly unlike some which obtained among the Jews. They have some feasts at which they are obliged to eat all that has been prepared for the banquet. They observe a feast of first fruits, and have some forbidden meats, regarding some animals as impure. They observe the custom of sacrificing the first animal killed on the opening of great hunts, the animal being entirely eaten. They carry amulets under the name of medicine-bags, and accord a subordinate species of worship to idols of stone, wood, or baked clay. The amulets, lucky stones, and charms existed everywhere, and were a chief object of barter. In Yucatan and Peru pilgrimages to sacred shrines were so common as that, in some instances, "roads paved with cut stones" were constructed to facilitate the attendance on certain temples, and houses of entertainment constructed along the way.

The priesthood of the country has been considered by those long familiar with the subject to have done more than any other agency to keep these tribes from becoming civilized. They are often spoken of as medicine men, and are variously styled by the Algonquins and Dakotas "those knowing divine things," "dreamers of the gods;" in Mexico, "masters or guardians of the divine things;" in Cherokee their title means "possessed of the divine fire;" in Iroquois, "keepers of the faith;" in Quichua, "the learned;" in Maya, "the listeners." As medicine-men, they tried to frighten the daemon that possessed the patient; sucked and blew upon the diseased organ, sprinkled it with water, rubbed the parts with their hands, and made an image representative of the spirit of sickness, and knocked it to pieces They were much skilled in tricks of legerdemain, setting fire to articles of clothing and instantly extinguishing the flames by magic. They summoned spirits to answer questions about the future, and possessed clairvoyant powers; and they were reputed to be even able to raise the dead. They consecrated amulets, interpreted dreams, cast horoscopes, rehearsed legends, performed sacrifices, and, in short, constituted the chief center of the intellectual force of the people. They are thus a kind of priests, doctors, and charlatans, who perform penance, and submit to mutilation, fasting, and self mortification. They observe with minute attention the shape and color of the clouds, their volume and direction, and their position relatively to the sun and horizon. Carnivorous birds are considered precursors of war; their flight indicates the time and place at which future battles will be fought; they go to and fro carrying messages for the spirit of battle. The priest is particularly important in the ceremony which is necessary to secure rain. The medicine lodge is used for nearly all ceremonies. (See NORTH AMERICA, RELIGIONS OF).

8. Present Location and Numbers. The large proportion of the Indians of the United States are now gathered within the Indian Territory, on "Reservations" assigned them by the United-States government. There are others, however, in Oregon, Alaska, New Mexico, etc. Within the Indian Territory they do not "live by fishing, hunting, and trapping, but cultivate the soil, are settled, and have attained a considerable degree and shown a susceptibility of genuine civilization."

According to the census of 1880 there were within the Indian territory, Cherokees, 19,720; Muscogees or Creeks, 15,000; Seminoles, 2667; Choctaws, 15,800; Chicasaws, 6000; Cheyennes, 4197; Arapahoes, 2258; Pawnee, 1241; Osage. 1896; Comanche, 1396; and 16,000 Navajo and 9060 Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. There were 4059. Chippewas and 1506 Oneidas in Wisconsin, and 9500 Chippewas in Michigan. Much of the land formerly assigned to the Indians has lately been purchased by the government and opened to settlers, and some of it has been occupied, so that there is a demand for the removal or condensation of the natives. (See MISSIONS).

9. Literature. Brinton, Myths of News World (N. Y. 1868); Waitz, Anthropologie der Natutr- Volker (Leipzig, 1862-66); Catlin, V. Am. Indians (Lond. 1841); Muller, Gesch. der Amerikanischen Ur-religionen (Basel, 1855); Squier, The Serpent Symbol of America (N. York, 1851); Hawking, Sketch of the Creek Country (Georgia Hist. Soc. 1848); Schoolcraft, Red Races of America (N. Y. 1847); Notes on the Iroquois (Albany, 1848); Hist. and Statist. Information prepared for the Indian Bureau of the U. S. Government (Philad. 1851); Domenech, Seven Years' Residence in the great Deserts of North America (London, 1860,2 vols. 8vo); Brainard, A Journal among the Indians (Philadel.); Prescott's Conquest of Mexico; Copway. Traditional. Hist. of the Ojibway Nation (Lond. 1850); M'Coy, Hist. of the Bapt. Indian Missions; Mrs. Eastman, Legends of the Sioux; History of the Catholic Missions among the Indians Tribes from 1529 to 1824 (N. Y. 1855); Trans. Am. Ethn. Soc. (1848); Relations de la louvelle France (Quebec, 1858); Mr. Duponceaux's Report to Amer. Philos. Soc. (1819, 8vo). (J T. G.)

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Indians, American'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/i/indians-american.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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