Native Americans use of Religion to Overcome Colonialism
As far as history is concerned, the practices of Native Americans have considered the value of religion and spirituality in their struggle against colonialism. In fact, it spirituality and religion has become one thing that aided their survival during the 500 years of colonialism. Keller (2006), from her book entitled – Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, mentioned that the colonizers have even saw the strength of spiritual bonds present among the Indian or Native American society and thought of making these bonds illegal in order to weaken the group the strength of Indian attachments (p.106). Woodhead (2001) added through her book entitled – Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations, from the times of Indian’s society’s experienced pressure due to their religion, Protestants and Catholic Churches are the primary promulgators that attempted the assimilation of Native American society in their form of Christianity (p.243).
Such scenario created the notion of religious colonialism among Indian civilization; hence, creating a religiously inclined turmoil that brought prejudice and injustice among the Indian society. However, the Native American society has to stand on its ground to further defend not only their spiritual heritage but to counter the colonialism being placed against their society. From the point of contact, European colonizers theologically rationalized the conquest of Indian lands by the fact that Indian people at that point are not Christian. Since then, American Indian religions have never benefited from the First Amendment’s protections of free exercise of religion. The colonizers even have considered and marveled on Indian’s attachment to their religion; however, this scenario threatens them for it is religion that provides Indian the sense of community and spirit of resistance (Keller, 2006 p.106). According to Sabin (2002) in her book entitled, Dissenters and Mavericks Writings about India in English, 1765-2000, during the colonial period, Indian spirituality has been thought to provide protection to colonial rule by facilitating passive indifference to the identity of secular authority, as long as interference in religious practice was avoided (p.148). In an effort of colonization by dominant religious sectors, the Native American society has managed to keep their religious and ritualistic grounds established despite of the assimilations and cultural genocide initiated during the colonization.
Within this study, the primary issues to be tackled involve the strategies and means on how Native American society defended their civilization through the use of their religion and cultural beliefs. Moreover, the study considers the reasons behind the colonialists’ efforts to conquer their religion. The study mentions the groups and trends that have been established during their time in order to counter the efforts of colonial religious acculturation and efforts for religious assimilation.
Discrimination and Religious Deprivation among Native Americans
Even from the early times, American Indians or the Native American society have always desired to practice their own religion in even within the limits of their own lands, but such privilege has long been pursued still by the natives themselves. Native American religion has been commended for the Indian’s extreme attachment to their belief and being with the earth; hence, the Indian religion has been closely associated to the ecological side of spirituality. During the years of 1880 – 1930, the United States government has passed a legislative order that supports the illegalization of Native American’s spiritual practices. In the 1800s, the government has placed the entire reservations and Indian nations under the administrative control of church denominations in an effort to Christianize and civilize them. From then on, the Native American society has faced tremendous discrimination because of their religion; hence, even promulgating the brutal motto of “Kill the Indian to save the child” (Keller, 2006 p.106). The efforts of Protestants and Catholic churches to engage the spiritual assimilation among the Native American people have tragically resulted to unplanned tensions and conflicts, which initiated the creation of rifts within the extended families on some reservations (Woodhead, 2001 p.243).
In the view of Native American religion, the concepts of holy Earth and the Indian’s relationship with these sacred deities have been known as essential points of their religion. The religion of Native Americans are usually practiced in many ways including sacred rituals, prayers, and their symbolical dances. From generation to generation, much of the concepts in Indian religion have been transferred by oral traditions and through the form of story telling.
Conflicts within the Indian society emerged due to two reasons: first, the impending threat until the actual progression of colonialism efforts towards their society in an effort of Christianizing and civilizing the natives; secondly, the extreme degradation and implication of injustice, religious discrimination and prejudice among their society for believing the Native American religion. Added from the book of Waters (2004) entitled, American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays, an additional concern to native people is the appropriation of many spiritual tradition by New Age followers (p.116). With the strong attachments to natural balance, the Indian society has been able to foster the strong sense of patriotism for their religion, which consequently enabled each believers of their faith to withstand the colonialists’ persecutions. The Native Americans have used their strong religious background to defend and assert their rights, sovereignty, and patriotism towards their civilization within legal limits and considerations.
On the other hand, despite of the continuous injustice and extreme cultural discrimination placed in the Indian society, Native American still possessed their cultural vitality with their religious innovations to counter the colonial efforts of destroying their religion (Woodhead, 2001 p.243). Hence the society institute cultural modifications in their form of rituals in an effort of continuing their traditions, and termed this the New Age form of Indian religion. However, the movement of New Age has been rejected by the Native Indian’s society. According to their belief, this New Age adaptation of Native American beliefs and rituals can be considered as a form of cultural intrusion and expropriation. This claim has been supported by Jenkin (2004) in his book, Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality, wherein he argues that the New Age modification of Indian religion is a disguised effort of religious colonizers to intrude the authenticity of Native American religion (p.7).
From the time of extreme efforts of the churches, European and British sectors, to further colonize their lands, vast conflicts and violence have occurred to the imaginative appropriation of native peoples by non-Indians. From the statement of Woodhead (2001), she mentioned that the native American religion and culture have been viewed by many in North America as source of ecological wisdom; hence, even with such importance and significance, the New Age and popular religion in the United States, specifically Christianity, seek the appropriation from the Native American religion (p.243). Such scenario has been considered not only as territorial colonialism but more like spiritual wars to engage in cultural colonialism. Even with the immense spread of colonial America and Anglican churches, the Native American civilization has been pushed back from their lands, but still refuses to the conversion of religious colonization.
Around 1800s until 1930s, this is the period wherein the climax of federal policy as influenced by major religious sects, Protestantism and Catholicism, has sought to extinguish the Indian religious rituals and ceremonies in an effort to progress to the plan of religious assimilation. Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller has ordered the restriction of heathenish dances in 1882. After two more years, the government shifted the illegalization of Indian beliefs in another level. The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) has initiated a mandate of thirty days imprisonment for Indians that participated in traditional rituals or those beliefs promulgated within their society. In addition, the mandate has included Indian males to cut their braids, and refrain from even administering them (Keller, 2006 p.106).
Vast discriminatory laws and mandates have been passed in order to cut the Indian’s beliefs and customs. In 1890, Sioux Ghost Dance worshipers have been killed during their performance of their religious ritual. In 1892, it is the BIA that ordered the banning of Sun Dance religion and banned other ceremonies. On the other hand, during 1920s, the issues for religious liberation for Native American people have been heard and reconsidered by the federal union. According to Jenkin (2004), around 1922 and 1924, there has been an official attempt to further cancel out the Native dances, braid practices, etc., which greatly caused severe damage to Indian religious liberty; hence, a congressional debate has been initiated that marked the critical pivotal point in the nation’s religious a cultural history (p.8). Indians have been forced to become the citizen’s of the Christian faith in 1927, and the direct banning of Indian religion has been applied around 1934 after John Collier’s reforms in BIA policies during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration (Keller, 2006 p.106). However, according to the statements of Jenkin (2004), even after the official declaration of Indian’s liberty rights to practice their religion (p.8), such ideal has still been violated by mostly the believers of the dominant religion, which is Christianity. Religion has evidently been used as a considerable weapon by the European colonizers against the Indians. They have sent missionaries from European countries, such as France, England and Spain to travel towards the Indian territories and from then on spread the religion of Christianity. These missionaries have had aims of changing the societal structure and belief patterns of Indians by converting them; hence, facilitating the concept of “Divide and Conquer”. However, the missionaries’ perseverance has ended in futile results due to the unconditional attachments of Indians with their Native religion. As supported by the statements of Amott and Matthaei (1996) in their book entitled, Race, gender, and work: a multi-cultural economic history of women in the United States, the colonist’s struggle to obtain the American Indian lands heightened to its climax even before seventeen century after the Revolutionary War against Great Britain, as settlers from the original colonies have sought lands west of the Appalachian Mountains(p.40). From this point onward, guided by the religious inclinations of Indians, revolts and resistance became widespread between colonizers and religious Indians.
Using Religion against Colonialism: Campaigns of Tecumseh
The Indian society states that the extension of their religious practice connotes the spreading of Indian spirituality to the wider community, which is deemed as the religious obligations of Native American believers. Native American society with their long discriminated religion has used such strategy in order to seek greater legitimacy in expressing their beliefs in the larger society; however, others view such integration as a method for Native American society’s survival. From the religious dilemma experienced by these natives, many Indians view the strategic banning of their spirituality and religious rituals as forms to steal their religion and further facilitate the colonial attempts towards the Old religion of Native Americans. As for them, such banning and religious discrimination are clear attempts to colonize their society. According to the statements from Barkan’s (2001) book entitled The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, they regard denying non-Indians access to Indian spirituality as a farm of resistance: “They stole our land, they stole everything from us, why do we have to give them our religion?”(p.214). With the added statement of Waters (2004) in supporting such claims, she mentioned that many efforts have been placed by the federal government under colonial American in order to further hinder the practice of these Native American religion, since this actions have become the primary source of their intact community (p.122). During the progression of colonial America, the efforts to colonize Indian civilization has become the hardest part for missionary as they would even remark their mission as failure or lacking of progress. The physical strategies of revolution and war have proven futile for the Indians that even with vast assignation of their people, slavery and discrimination, still their religion stands out as their linkage within their own tribes.
European colonizers with their racial theoretical perspectives consider American Indian people as biological inferiors or known as the red race, which required the influence of whites for their civilization. Hence, with such theory, the Indian genocidal and discriminatory treatment has been promulgated. To further dilute the religious beliefs of Indian society, the colonial strategy has focused in merging the old beliefs with the New Are Indian practices. However, the definite characteristics between Indian and New Age religious forms are further blurred by the Native American society’ objections. The authenticity of Indian ceremonies has always manifested the power in every form these rituals are conducted; hence, even with the breed of New Age beliefs, the beliefs of Old Age Native American ways always stand out. As added by Barkan (2001), the predicament for defenders of Indian spirituality is that to decry New Age practices by warning of the danger embedded in tempting the spirits through ignorance or misuse only validates these rituals (p.214).
As far as history is concerned, one of the most significantly considered Indian leaders that fought the colonization during American wars was Tecumseh. His campaign resisted the religious invasion of missionaries and colonizers sent to divide their civilization. Tecumseh, together with his brother and the prophet of their tribe or also known as the spiritual leader, Tenskwatawa, united other Indian civilization in order to counter the white invaders during the nineteenth century. As supported by Amott and Matthaei (1996), the efforts of Tecumseh and other Indian tribes consists the American Indian Movement of the 1970s wherein Tecumseh convinced Native Americans to reject and resist the influence of European and white influences for this can place their customs and faith at risk (p.40). Tecumseh worked hand in hand with his brother Elskwatawa as well as the Greek named Shawllee. The campaign of the three Indian patriots had influenced the civilization and perspective of Native Americans, and finally encouraged resistance in against the colonialism. The brothers, Elskwatawa and Tecumseh utilized their Native Religion in order to influence and instill the value of their land among the Native American people:
“Sell a country Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children” (excerpts from the words of Tecumseh; cited in Amott and Matthaei, 1996 p.41).
In 1805, the religious campaign headed by Tecumseh began their preaching of the religious renaissance that opted to restore the dignity and value of their old civilization and rights to practice their Native American religion. Supported by Sherrill (1990) in his book entitled, Religion and the Life of the Nation: American Recoveries, the campaign of Tecumseh preached the subjects of nativism, which relied mainly on encouraging the fostering of Indian religion; restoration, which provided realization among Indians on what had been lost in their religious rights for their race and civilization; and pan-Indianism, which emphasizes and further encouraged Indians in their capacity to expel the influences of Anglo-American colonization (p.235).
In 1808, the land of Kithtippecanoe in the areas of Indiana Territories became the primary settlement of Tecumseh and his campaign members. This place was renamed as Prophetstown for their consideration of Tecumseh and his brother’s religious influence in different tribes living in the Northwest Territory. With their religious campaign, Tecumseh and his brother was able to come up with initial followers of 140; hence, was capable already of starting their crusade towards the Native American community. Tecumseh’s crusade started off with the Indian families in Kithtippecanoe and soon moved at the edge and nearby areas of the territory. The brother of Tecumseh played the significant role as the channel from the Great Holy Force Above, which was considered as the greatest being of all during their time. Hence, through religion and the Indian’s zealous attachment over their native beliefs, they were easily captivated and influenced to resist the influence of American colonialism. It was Elskwatawa’s influence as the channel of the Great Holy Force Above that made the Indians fight in against the colonizers. The campaigns of Tecumseh ended up with the establishment of Fort Wayne theory; however, the Anglo-Americans found out that the grounds of Tecumseh’s religious teachings had all been against the American perspectives, a war broke out in 1812 headed by William Weatherford. Added by Amott and Matthaei (1996), this period included four southern Indian tribes, specifically the Creek, the Cherokee, the Choctaw, and the Seminole, which obtained their homeland security in exchange to their loyalty in American colonizers (p.41). On the other hand, the territories, such as the Prophetsland or those tribal Indian areas with strong influence of Anti-American teaching had been forced to extermination or at the very least, pushed out from their lands. The increasing recognition to legitimize Indian religion as part of the American heritage and national patrimony considers sentiments that justify the Native American’s plead to provide justice from past prejudices and injustices especially against their religion. However, the Indian renaissance is does not only consider the restitution of spiritual injustices alone. Yet the challenge that restitution to Native Americans presents, especially regarding the relationship between religion and the state and between Indian tradition and commitments to science and even more generally to American pluralism, should not be underestimated (Barkan, 2001 p.214).
Given the violent and discriminative experience that colonialist provided to Native American Civilization, their religion has aided their society to stand firm despite of forced acculturation and mission to eliminate the cultural marks and religious heritage to Native American society. The dominant religion, which is Christianity, being forcefully introduced within the realms of Indian community has not attained its success despite their efforts of extinguishing Indian’s oral traditions and ritual processes (Woodhead, 2001 p.243).
The story of Native American civilization in their efforts to combat the European and Anglo-American colonizers has significantly incorporated the wide usage of their religion. Indians have long been recognized for their zeal and patriotism intertwined with their religion; hence, these characteristics have been the major problem considered by the colonizers since these provide the sense of community among Native American society. The colonizers strategize their invasion by dividing their religion with the introduction of Christian faith through education and religious conversion; however, most of their efforts ended in futile claims. During the early 1800s, their campaign obtained the loyalty of four Native American nations that caused the division of Indian society. This event even caused the loss of Tecumseh’s religious campaign to emancipate the religious rights and Indian land from the territorial invasion of American colonizers. The struggle for Indian’s religious liberalization and freedom still continues.
Amott, T. L., & Matthaei, J. A. (1996). Race, gender, and work: a multi-cultural economic history of women in the United States. South End Press.
Barkan, E. (2001). The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. JHU Press.
Jenkins, P. (2004). Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. Oxford University Press.
Keller et.al., R. (2006). Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America. Indiana University Press.
Sabin, M. (2002). Dissenters and Mavericks Writings about India in English, 1765-2000. Oxford University Press.
Sherrill, R. A. (1990). Religion and the Life of the Nation: American Recoveries. University of Illinois Press.
Waters, A. (2004). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Blackwell Publishing.
Woodhead, L. (2001). Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations. Routledge.