Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | September 6, 2009

A Summary of Native American Religions

A Summary of Native American Religions

by David Ruvolo

The history of American religions is dominated by the presence of Christianity brought to the New World by European settlers. Columbus’s discovery in 1492 marked the beginning of a massive “white” invasion that would consume the entire continent of North America over the next four centuries. Although Christianity manifested itself in countless denominations, it was, nevertheless, the umbrella under which most Europeans in America gathered. It served as common ground on which white settlers could stand together in the struggle for survival in the wilderness of the New World. Whatever differences there were between denominations were insignificant when compared to the differences between the white European Christianity and their counterparts on the continent, the resident Native Americans. This fact, along with the desire and need for land, turned Native Americans into a convenient enemy for most groups of European settlers.

In essence, time had run out for the indigenous race that populated the continent of North America. Like the Israelites of the sixth century B.C.E., Native Americans were faced with an enemy that was more advanced. Ironically, the invading whites are the religious descendants of those same Israelites who were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.. Armed with technologically advanced weapons, diseases which were foreign to the continent, and a concept known as Manifest Destiny, European settlers began an assault on the North American Continent the result of which was nothing short of genocide. Within four hundred years of their first contact, the white man had succeeded in stripping Native American civilizations of virtually all of their land and had nearly wiped their cultures from the face of the earth.

Popular American history has traditionally viewed the past through white eyes. Much of the history and culture of many Native American civilizations were lost during the European invasion of the continent. The absence of a written language among most tribes force them to depend on aril traditions that were difficult to maintain as their civilizations were being killed off and separated by the dominant white culture. For this reason, it is often difficult to locate information concerning the religious beliefs and rituals of the large variety of Native American civilizations that flourished in North America before the time of the European invasion. This project will provide some of this information by taking a cross-section of certain Native American tribes from separate and distinct geographic regions and comparing certain aspects of each of their religious beliefs and rituals. I plan to show how each tribe’s religion was impacted by the environmental conditions that surrounded it, and in what ways these religions were affected by the invasion of Christianity.

The Iroquois Nation of the eastern woodlands, the Dakota tribes of the central plains, and the Apache tribes of the southwestern desert shall serve as the subjects of this project.

The Iroquois Nation of the eastern woodlands was one of the most highly organized civilizations that developed among Native American tribes in North America. This particular “league”, as it is sometimes referred , is surpassed in greatness only by the advanced civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas in the pre-discovered Western world. “They achieved for themselves a more remarkable civil organization, and acquired a higher degree of influence, than any other race of Indian lineage,…{in North America}.” (Morgan 1954,3). The league occupied most of the area that makes up the present day state of New York, however, it’s influence and territory extended into parts of Canada. Their society was centered around the wilderness that surrounded them. The Iroquois relied on agriculture, as well as hunting and gathering. Their environment provided them with fertile soil, plentiful game, and streams that were full of fish. The rich natural resources that surrounded the Iroquois were undoubtedly their greatest strength and directly responsible for the success of the nation.

The relative ease at which the Iroquois Nation was able to provide for the needs of it’s people allowed for the development of a systematic belief system that was more developed than most other systems found among Native American civilizations. According to Lewis H. Morgan, their religion is characterized by a monotheistic belief in an all-powerful creator known as the “Great Spirit”, or “Ha-wen-ne-yu.” “The Iroquois believed in the constant superintending care of the Great Spirit. He ruled and administered the world, and the affairs of the red race.” (1954,146). The Iroquois failed to see the need in developing a detailed conception of their creator. This knowledge was thought to be above and beyond their capabilities to understand. His power was administered to the material world through “a class of inferior spiritual existences, by whom he was surrounded.” (1954,147). While divine attributes concerning the Great Spirit remained undeveloped, the Iroquois gave detailed descriptions of this lower class of spirits that interacted with the material world. The were known as “Invisible Agents” or “Ho-no-che-no-keh.” (Morgan 1954). The power possessed by these spirits was given to them by the Great Spirit and were the manifestations of his unlimited power. Some of these spirits were given names, however, they were often identified with the object or force that they presided over. For example, He-no, one of the more important spirits, was given the thunderbolt and controlled the weather. According to Morgan, he had the form of man and wore the costume of a warrior (1954,147).

While the Iroquois belief system centered around the idea of a benevolent Great Spirit, it did not ignore the existence of evil in the world. Evil is represented by the brother of the Great Spirit, “Ha-ne-go-ate-geh”, or “the Evil-minded” (1954,147). This evil spirit exists independently and controls it’s own inferior spiritual beings. These agents of evil also exist in the material world and are place there in an attempt to bring about evil. According to Morgan, the Great Spirit does not have any type of positive authority over the Evil-minded, except for the power to overcome him when necessary (1954,148). The red race is left to choose either obedience to the Great Spirit or submission to the Evil-minded. It is important to note that the Iroquois developed the idea of an immortal soul. This soul was judged by the Great Spirit upon the death of the body. The threat of punishment in the afterlife increased morality concerns, which aided in the success of the Iroquois Nation.

The ritual ceremonies practiced by the Iroquois tribes were systematic worship services that occurred in accordance to certain seasonal periods throughout the year. The rituals were handed down through the generation and remained unchanged for centuries. Festival most commonly occurred during important agricultural periods. Worship and thanks were given to the Great Spirit for protection and survival. One of the “Invisible Agents” were usually honored depending on what time of year the ceremony was taking place. The ceremonies were led by “Keepers of the Faith”, or “Ho-nun-den-ont” (Morgan 1953,177). They were not an organized priesthood like one would imagine, but rather a loosely organized council of qualified individuals who were assigned the task of maintaining the ritual practices of the Iroquois people.

The Iroquois were first encountered by the white man around 1609 during the height of Dutch exploration. The league spent the majority of the seventeenth century at war with neighboring tribes as well as French invaders. Their influence spread through the northeast and reached a culminating point around the turn of the century. Within fifty years of this time, the power and population of the once proud Iroquois Nation was cut in half. White settlers had moved into their territory and forced the Iroquois to give up their homeland.

The belief system of the Iroquois was the closest a Native American civilization had come to the complex theology of Christianity. One major difference between the two religions is evident when looking at how each faith explains mankind’s participation in the workings of the universe. While most Christian denominations sought to participate actively in the evolution of their world, the Iroquois say mankind as too insignificant to take part in the grand scheme of the Great Spirit. For example, many Christian denomination, like the Puritans of New England, believed that they were the chosen people of God and were working toward the creation of a true “Kingdom of God” located in America. The Iroquois, on the other hand, believed that the world was as it should be, and there was nothing that could be done by mankind to change this fact. This idea would eventually change somewhat as the Iroquois were influenced more and more by European Christianity. Furthermore, their ideas concerning punishment in the afterlife were also influenced by Christian concepts. According to Morgan, the Christian concept of purgatory seems to have seeped into the Iroquois belief system sometime during the white man’s invasion (1954,163).
While the Iroquois Nation was the strongest Native American civilization east of the Mississippi river, their integration into the dominant white culture went relatively smooth compared to most other instances of integration among the native tribes of North America. I think this was due to the similarities between their belief systems which made it easier for the two races to find common ground. The religion practiced by Iroquois descendants is remarkably similar to the one practiced by their ancestors. The similarities between the two distinct religions seem to have saved the weaker Native American system from extinction.

The Dakota, or Sioux as the are commonly called, inhabited the great plains and prairies surrounding the modern states of North and South Dakota, as well as Minnesota. This was their home until white mining interests forced them out of their homeland during the mid-1800’s. The Dakotas were less organized and more spread out than their cousins in the east, the Iroquois. Their society was based almost entirely on the hunting of buffalo, which provided them with virtually all of their survival needs. Their territory consisted of seasonal hunting grounds that forced the tribal units to live a nomadic lifestyle on the plains. There was no need for permanent settlements due to the fact buffalo herds would rarely stay in one place for a long period of time. The Dakota’s existence centered around the movements of the herds. According to Raymond J. DeMallie, the Dakota world was “characterized by its oneness, its unity.” (1987,27). There was no separation of the natural world from the world of the supernatural. This unity in nature was thought to be beyond the comprehension of mankind and could only be shared in through the practice of rituals. The “animating force” that acted as the common denominator of the universe was known as “Wakan Tanka.” (1987). “Wakan Tanka was an amorphous category most precisely defined by incomprehensibility.” (Densmore 1918,85). The physical world was composed of the manifestations of this animating force. In essence, they believed that every object was spirit, or “wakan.” For this reason, the Dakota held a docetic view of the universe in which nothing was real. Everything in the material world had only the appearance of being real. Like the inferior spirits in the Iroquois belief system, Wakan Tanka employed the use of “Wakan people” (DeMallie 1987) to interact with the material world and control the lives of men. These characters were often the objects of worship and praise.

According to DeMallie, Wakan Tanka was explained in relation to the Dakota by “wicasa wakan”, or holy men. (DeMallie 1987). These men attempted to create some type of order and understanding of this “Great Incomprehensibility.” (DeMallie 1987). The did not concentrate of strict religious doctrine or structure due to the ambiguous nature of Wakan Tanka. Instead, they served as guides to assist Dakota people in coming to their own personal understanding of their place in the universe. It was believed that mankind is required to serve the Waken people who administered and controlled the forces that surrounded them. White Buffalo Woman was one of the most important Wakan people to the Dakota. Their myth states that she gave the Dakota people the “Calf Pipe” (DeMallie 1987) through which they could communicate with the invisible spirit world.

It is impossible to separate the Dakota people from the buffalo. A bond existed between the two that was steeped in religious tradition and survival. For this reason, the buffalo played an equally significant role in the Dakota’s religious belief system. A co-existence was achieved between these two life forms within an interconnected universe governed by the collective forces of Wakan Tanka. Most of the Dakota’s rituals were centered around this relationship. According to DeMallie, Dakota rituals were based on mystical experiences instead of systematic worship. The most important aspect of ritual was the individual personal experience. The experience was usually related in the form of an interpretive dance inspired by a personal vision (DeMallie 1987). The Dakota were encouraged to contribute to the understanding of Wakan Tanka through their own individual relationship with the spirit world.

The religious beliefs and rituals of the Dakota people were not as compatible with Christianity as the Iroquois’ were. Their religious ties to their land place them at great odds with the invading white settlers. The unity and balance demonstrated in the Dakota’s world contrasted sharply with the one-sided , monotheistic characteristics of Christianity. The Dakota people attempted to retain their own religion in the face of cultural extinction, however, few aspects of their culture were left unaffected by their interactions with whites. One significant influence that Christianity had on the Dakota belief system involved the personification of Wakan Tanka. (DeMallie 1987,28). Before contact with European settlers, Wakan Tanka was without distinction. The Dakota seem to have give anthropomorphic attributes to their creator fashioned after the God of Christianity.

The Apache tribes of the southwestern desert region of the United States remain as one of the more elusive civilizations in American history. Little is known about this nomadic group of Native Americans that lived a somewhat isolated existence in the harsh environment of the arid southwest. Their territory encompassed the modern states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and extended into parts of Mexico. they were generally nomadic gatherers who relied on scarce resources found in their desert environment for survival. Survival under these conditions was difficult and there was little time for speculating in detail on matters of religion. For this reason, the belief system of the Apache tribes is less developed than the other two tribes mentioned earlier. Apache religion did not recognize a “large pantheon of gods and goddesses.” (Opler 1969,21). Instead, their belief system concentrated on supernatural cultural figures that are responsible for the Apache way of life. These “supernaturals” (Opler 1969) interfered little in the daily activities of the people unless called upon to help an individual.

The Apache lifestyle left little room for religious ritual. This non-agricultural society had no reason to celebrate seasonal periods and rarely celebrated any type of annual gathering. All time and energy was spent on survival. Two illustrations of this point lie in the fact that the Apache lacked formal ceremonies for both marriage and death; two events that traditionally involve elaborate ceremonies in most civilizations. According to Opler, marriage among the Apache “was less the founding of a new social unit that it was the absorption of the couple into an on-going extended family.” (1965,25). Death was considered to be “the ultimate foe and its triumph was not to be celebrated.” (1969,25). Sickness and death were formidable problems for a society that needed every individuals efforts for survival. More importantly, however, was the fact that the Apache lacked an organized belief in an afterlife. This focused all attention towards survival in this world. For this reason, curing rites were the most common form of ceremony demonstrated by the Apache people.

The individual power quest was the foundation of Apache religion. The group, as a whole, was too involved with issues of survival to spend time with religious issues. Therefore, the Apache were encouraged to establish their own relationship with the supernatural forces that surrounded them. According to Opler, the Apache believed that the world was “suffused with supernatural powers, eager to be associated with human affairs.” (1969,24). Mankind could manipulate these powers to serve him for both good and evil reasons. Life for the Apache was a struggle for survival governed by one’s interactions with these supernatural forces.

The Apache religion was loosely organized and headed by leaders known as “shaman.” Their power rested in their ability to heal. This power, if used well, could make the shaman an influential figure among Apache tribes. Opler describes the Apache religion as a form of “devotional shamanism.” “It conceives of a universe permeated with supernatural power which must realize itself through man or not at all.” (1969,29). The shaman was the link that connected the Apache people to the healing powers of the supernatural world.

The Apache tribes were invaded by white culture around 1850. The people and their culture were quickly removed from the land to make way for the expanding American population. There was little time for the Apache to be influenced by Christianity due to the fact that the United States sent military forces to the region before the Christian churches sent missionaries. In any case, I have a difficult time thinking that the Apache would have had any need for the religion of the white man.

The connection between environmental factors and the development of religious systems among Native America cultures should be clear. In general terms, a tribes ability to develop extensive religious belief systems was directly proportional to it’s ability to provide for the survival of it’s people. A large supply of natural resources, as in the case of the Iroquois, provided more time to develop religious ideas. The Apache, on the other hand, had little time to spend on religious thought. They were unable to develop an extensive religious theology due to the amount of time and energy they were forced to put towards survival. Furthermore, the connection between the Dakota’s belief system and their environment is glaring. Their dependency on the buffalo gave rise to a religious system of co-dependant survival within a world characterized by oneness and unity.

While each tribes unique environment impacted their belief systems in a different way, all three demonstrate similarities in the way in which they view their interaction with the natural world. There is little evidence of a separation between the natural and the supernatural in any of the religions discussed. It can be said that Native American cultures were characterized by an intimate relationship with nature. This relationship was explained in terms of the supernatural and was experienced at the subjective level. Deep religious sentiment permeated most aspects of Native American life in the pre-discovered North American continent even when systematic rituals were absent. Kahlil Gibran once asked, “Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupation?” (1994,77). It seems that Native Americans could not make this distinction either.

Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | July 20, 2008



Atlantic whelks, the type of shell from which chains of white wampum tubular beads (which were strung in coimplex chains) were made — from the long central spiral inside the shell. A quahog, the Atlantic clam from which the more rectangular purple wampum beads were made. Its name comes from the Narraganset word po-qua-hock. Belt-wampum beads were rectangular cutouts, with drilled holes, rolled smooth on sandstone, then woven into a shell-beaded fabric. They recorded agreements, with the purple color predominant if the agreement was considered more important, serious, or sad.

The Hiawatha Belt
This belt may be the oldest. It represents the first United Nations agreement, the first time in history anywhere on the globe where independent nations were able to join together under a unified government that allowed individual customs and governments of member nations. Prior to this idea, throughout the world’s history in all places and times, national growth was by conquest and forced subjection — empire growth. This belt memorialized Haudaunosee, League of the Pine Tree (center) or Great Peace, of the 5 original Iroquois Nations, who became the 6 Nations after they received fleeing southern Tuscarora into the League.

The League was formed to create a lasting peace and a just method of settling disputes and for international diplomacy with non-member tribes some time before European contact, perhaps 1,000 years ago. At the time of the invaders’ arrival, it had begun to grow very slowly. Despite the disruptions and death caused by the invasion, it still exists. The idea of peaceful federation influenced the formation of the federation that was the United States. The idea of a peaceful, cooperative over-govenment, uniting disparate but still sovereign (for local issues, customs, and government) nations and populations is the most important contribution of indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere to others of the world today, though today this idea is not well understood and is only poorly and weakly practiced in the current United Nations Organization. In the orally memorized documentation establishing the League, war weapons — clubs, tomahawks — were cast into a pit under the Great Tree’s roots (giving rise to our contemporary expression “bury the hatchet”). The vigilant eagle at the top will watch for dangers to the League and the peace.

The original League was the 5 first Iroquoian Nations. Onandaga were (are) Firekeepers and wampum-keepers and are represented as in the center, “Under the Pine Tree” where meetings were held, at their town. Mohawks (Kanienkehake, People of the Flint) are represented as the Eastern Door; Seneca as the Western Door. Oneida and Cayuga are the two central squares. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations — archived in World History archives — is a detailed recording which was memorized, recited regularly, and recorded on wampum belts. There are several different translations or interpretations of this constitution. A small book of one which was worked out with elders of the 6 Nations (Tusacarora refugees joined the League at the end of the 18th century) was published in English by Akwesasne Notes in 1972.

Wampum Belts of Treaties, Agreements with Invaders
This wampum belt from the Vatican may be the oldest one preserved — 1610 — of Indian-white agreements. It represents a “Concordat between the Holy See and the Mik’maq Nation,” of Nova Scotia, Canada. Grand sachem Henri Membertou was the first Catholic convert in Canada; they were caring for the buildings at Port Royal during the period 1608-1611 when the French abandoned them. He continued to act as a leader in a medicine society and to have several wives, as needed to maintain the hospitality and duties of a sachem’s household. Pressured, he finally agreed to give up all but one. Upon his deathbed, he refused to go to the Christian heaven, because he wanted to be with the rest of his relatives. The right side of the belt represents agreement by the Clan Mothers. Even today there are special diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the modern Mik’maq Nations.

In 1710, British colonial authorities sent 4 sachems of the League — 3 Mohawks and a Mahican — to London for diplomatic palavers, to enlist them against the French. Queen Anne had their portraits painted. Wolf Clan Mohawk Tiyeeneenhogarow, known to the Brits as King Hendrik, is holding a dark purple wampum belt with 13 crosses (whose symbolism is not known) on it. King Hendrick fought for the English in the divisive “French and Indian Wars”. He was killed in 1755, at the battle of Lake George, in upstate New York.

The Covenant Chain Belt makes a record of one of the first post-Revolutionary war U.S. – Indian treaties: the Pickering (also known as Canadaiuga, after the lake where it was signed) Treaty. This was a peace treaty between the new U.S. and the League of the 6 Nations, whose members had been divided, some fighting along with Britain, some with the revolutionaries during the U.S. revolutionary war. The belt was commissioned to be made and presented by the U.S. government to the Haudenosee League. At each end, there are 13 men with cross-shaped heads, representing the 13 colonies, and a central Longhouse, flanked by two smaller figures inside houses, for the League. This belt is also known as the Great Chain, as each figure holds a ends of a wampum chain or belt representing the promise of an unbreakable alliance.

The covenant represented is actually older. At left is a poster made by Akwesasne Notes in 1988, from memorized teachings recited annually to the Longhouse people at Onondaga. The text says:

“The Onkwehonweh [Original People] in earlier days were visited by a white race of people. The white man decided to make a home on this new land with the Onkwehonweh. In time the two became aware of their differences in their ways of life and decided to forge an agreement.

“The Onkwehonweh put his agreement in wampum; the whiteman put his in writing. The Onkwehonweh said: ‘We must thank th Creator for all his creations and greet one another by holding hands to share the covenant that binds our friendship so we may walk upon this earth in peace, trust and friendship.’

“The whiteman’s symbol for this agreement was a covenant chain made of three silver links. The first link represented peace between them. The second link represented having a good mind, while the third was a symbol of eternal friendship. It was said that should the chain become tarnished, they would sit together again to polish the links and to renew their agreement. At this time they would smoke the sacred tobacco in a pipe to signify peace and friendship between them.”

“The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property rights and liberty they never shall be invaded or disturbed . . . ” — The Northwest Ordinance, one of the first laws to be enacted by the new U.S. Congress in 1787.

And of course we know how that one went. Wampum, a beautiful and sacred medium for solemnizing agreements, a mnemonic aid to remembering the content, was considered by the invaders — since Indian people always seemed to be giving it to each other, and to white people — to be local money. They entered into trade with it. They “valued” purples at 5 times the valuation of whites. And their words, the treaties, agreements and sacred obligations, those they valued not at all.

More pictures and Information
Oneida Indian Nation — Exhibit and explanation of some wampum belts in their National Cultural Center. Good, clear close-up, detail photos.

More wampum belts from Oneida

Kahswenhtha – Two Row Wampum — Historical explanation from Oneida

Native Tech — wampum, history and background — many pages include techniques on how wampum belts were woven.

Webmistress –Paula Giese. Text and graphics copyright 1995, 1996.

CREDITS: The photo of the whelks is from an unrecorded site — I think it was “state shell of Georgia” or something. The drawing of the quahog — the only thing (other than a lot of seafood restaurants) I could find via websearch — is reduced and colorized from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute page, where you can find out the scientific scoop about this bivalve, if interested. The Hiawatha Belt is in the New York State Musum, at SUNY-Albany; photo from 500 Nations, Knopf, 1994. The Great Pine Tree — weapons buried beneath the 4 White Roots of Peace — was drawn by John Kahon:es Fadden, 1971, to illustrate the Haudenosee Constitution book. The Huron-Jesuit belt is in the McCord Museum of Canadian History, photographed in The Native Americans, Turner, 1993. The Vatican Mik’maq belt, black and white photo from The Native North American Almanac, Gale, 1995 (colorized by me). The painting of King Hendrick is from a photo in the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, from 500 Nations. The Covenant Chain Belt is in the New York State Museum, photographed in Turner, 1993.

Last Updated: 12/17/96

Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | July 20, 2008

The Haudenosaunee Flag and the Hiawatha Wampum Belt

The Haudenosaunee Flag and the Hiawatha Wampum Belt Many small beads are sewn together to form a belt. Wampum belts are used to commemorate great events, treaties, and laws. It is the beads, purple and white in color, made from the Cohag shell that gives us the color of our flag.The Hiawatha wampum belt is comprised of thirty-eight rows, with a heart represented by a great tree in the center. On either side there are two squares, all are connected with the heart by white rows of wampum. The belt is the symbol of unity among the five original Nations.The first square on the right represents the Mohawk Nation, Keeper of the Eastern Door. The inner square on the right represents the Oneida Nation. The white tree of peace in the middle represents the Onondaga Nation. The Great Peace is lodged in the heart, meaning that the Haudenosaunee council fire is to burn at Onondaga, serving as the capitol of the Haudenosaunee. The inner square to the left of the heart represents the Cayuga Nation. The last square, the one furthest to the left represents the Seneca Nation, known as the Keepers of the Western Door.

The two lines extending from each side of the squares of the belt, from the Mohawk and Seneca Nations, represent a path of peace that other Nations are welcome to travel in order to take shelter beneath the Great Tree of Peace.


The Iroquois People

The Iroquois, also known as the Six Nations, represent the indigenous people that originally occupied extensive lands in what is now New York State, southern Quebec and Ontario, Canada. Stretching from the Hudson River and Mohawk Valley to the northern and central Great Lakes region, a confederacy was formed bringing together the Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Seneca Nations forming the first ” League of Nations” in North America. The Tuscarora joined the Confederacy in the mid-1700s to become the sixth member nation.

The Iroquois are the originators of the modern day game of Lacrosse. Shrouded in time, Lacrosse was played among the Confederacy long before the coming of the Europeans to the shores of North America. It can be said that when the Europeans first came to America, Lacrosse was one of the most popular and widespread games played across the continent and with many variations. The long stick game played internationally today belongs to the Iroquois.

The Iroquois name for ourselves is ‘Haudenosaunee’ which means “People of the Longhouse”. The longhouse symbolizes a way of life where the Six Nations Confederacy live under one common law, think with one mind and speak with one voice. That law is called “Gien na sah nah gonah”, the Great Law of Peace. The alliance of the Haudenosaunee created the first United Nations in this land. Thus, we maintain the oldest, continuously operating form of government in North America. We have lived in northeastern North America for thousands of years. The people of the Six Nations currently residing in New York and Canada remain sovereign and independent. We, the Iroquois people identify ourselves as citizens of our respective nations and travel internationally under our own passports.

Historical evidence indicates that we, the Iroquois, played a significant role in the development of democratic principles in North America that the ideas and concepts of the Haudenosaunee form of government influenced the thinking of Benjamin Franklin (who was instrumental in the development of the American Constitution). All the nations of the confederacy speak dialects of the Iroquois language. The people of the Confederacy belong to any one of the nine family clans (Turtle, Bear, Wolf, Deer, Beaver, Hawk, Heron, Snipe or Eel) of the Haudenosaunee and share many common beliefs and traditions under the Great Law of Peace. In 1987, the Congress of the United States unanimously passed Concurrent Resolution S.76, recognizing the contribution of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to the democratic principles of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Today, approximately 70,000 plus Iroquois people reside in eighteen communities in the states of New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The Great Seal

The Great Seal of the Haudenosaunee represents the unbroken circle of fifty Chiefs who gather around the Great Tree of Peace. The Chiefs represent the strength and unity of the Confederacy. The Great Tree symbolizes the protective power that results when people gather in friendship to promote peace. The animals encircling the Great Tree of Peace – Turtle, Bear, Wolf, Deer, Beaver, Hawk, Heron, Snipe and Eel – represent the family clans and all of the people who believe in the Way of Life of the Haudenosaunee. Atop the Tree of Peace perches the Guardian Eagle as the protector of our people.

Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | July 19, 2008

Medicine Wheel

Medicine Wheel

 The Medicine Wheel is representative of American Indian Spirituality. The Medicine Wheel symbolizes the individual journey we each must take to find our own path. Within the Medicine Wheel are The Four Cardinal Directions and the Four Sacred Colors. The Circle represents the Circle of Life and the Center of the Circle, the Eternal Fire. The Eagle, flying toward the East, is a symbol of strength, endurance and vision. East signifies the renewal of life and the rebirth of Cherokee unity.

East = Red = success; triumph
North = Blue = defeat; trouble
West = Black = death
South = White = peace; happiness

There are three additional sacred directions:
Up Above = Yellow
Down Below = Brown
Here in the Center = Green

The color for North is Blue which represents sadness, defeat.
It is a season of survival and waiting.
The Cherokee word for North means “cold” u-yv-tlv.

The color for East is Red which represents victory, power.
Spring is the re-awakening after a long sleep,
victory over winter; the power of new life.
The Cherokee word for East is ka-lv-gv

The color for South is White for peace, happiness & serenity.
Summer is a time of plenty.
The Cherokee word for South means “warm” u-ga-no-wa.

The color for West is Black which represents death.
Autumn is the final harvest; the end of Life’s Cycle.
The Cherokee word for West is wu-de-li-gv.

RED was symbolic of success. It was the color of the war club used to strike an enemy in battle as well as the other club used by the warrior to shield himself. Red beads were used to conjure the red spirit to insure long life, recovery from sickness, success in love and ball play or any other undertaking where the benefit of the magic spell was wrought.

BLACK was always typical of death. The soul of the enemy was continually beaten about by black war clubs and enveloped in a black fog. In conjuring to destroy an enemy, the priest used black beads and invoked the black spirits-which always lived in the West,-bidding them to tear out the man’s soul and carry it to the West, and put it into the black coffin deep in the black mud, with a black serpent coiled above it.

BLUE symbolized failure, disappointment, or unsatisfied desire. To say “they shall never become blue” expressed the belief that they would never fail in anything they undertook. In love charms, the lover figuratively covered himself with red and prayed that his rival would become entirely blue and walk in a blue path. “He is entirely blue, ” approximates meaning of the common English phrase, “He feels blue. “The blue spirits lived in the North.

WHITE denoted peace and happiness. In ceremonial addresses, as the Green Corn Dance and ball play, the people symbolically partook of white food and, after the dance or game, returned along the white trail to their white houses. In love charms, the man, to induce the woman to cast her lost with his, boasted, “I am a white man,” implying that all was happiness where he was. White beads had the same meaning in bead conjuring, and white was the color of the stone pipe anciently used in ratifying peace treaties. The White spirits lived in the South.

Two numbers are sacred to the Cherokee. Four is one number, it represented the four primary directions. At the center of their paths lays the sacred fire. Seven is the other and most sacred number. Seven is represented in the seven directions: north, south, east, west, above, bellow, and “here in the center” the place of the sacred fire. Seven also represented the seven ancient ceremonies that formed the yearly Cherokee religious cycle.

Medicine Wheel


The medicine wheel is a symbol for the wheel of life which is forever evolving and bringing new lessons and truths to the walking of the path. The Earthwalk is based on the understanding that each one of us must stand on every spoke, on the great wheel of life many times, and that every direction is to be honored. Until you have walked in others’ moccasins, or stood on their spokes of the wheel, you will never truly know their hearts.

The medicine wheel teaches us that all lessons are equal, as are all talents and abilities. Every living creature will one day see and experience each spoke of the wheel, and know those truths. It is a pathway to truth, peace and harmony. The circle is never ending, life without end.

In experiencing the Good Red Road, one learns the lessons of physical life, or of being human. This road runs South to North in the circle of the medicine wheel. After the graduation experience of death, one enters the Blue or Black Road, that is the world of the grandfathers and grandmothers. In spirit, one will continue to learn by counseling those remaining on the Good Red Road. The Blue Road of the spirit runs East to West. The medicine wheel is life, afterlife, rebirth and the honoring of each step along the way.

End of the Trail
An end to the old ways of life,
Freedom to hunt and fish,
Nomad, migrating with the season.
Eagle feathers represent:
Four directions on Mother Earth,
Four seasons of the year,
Four age groups.

Ernest Hunt – Navaho


Medicine Shield


The medicine shield is an expression of the unique gifts that it’s maker wishes to impart about his or her current life journey. This can be a new level of personal growth, or illustrate the next mountain a person wishes to climb.

Every shield carries medicine through it’s art and self-expression. Each shield is the essence of a time and space that carries certain aspects of knowledge. All persons carry shields of the lessons they learned from the four directions on the medicine wheel.

They are the healing tools we give ourselves to sooth the spirit and empower the will. The truth needs no explanation,, just reflection. This allows intuition to guide the heart so that humankind may celebrate more than it mourns.

Sun who looks to four winds on
Mother Earth: North, South, East,West.
Enriching one’s health,
Bring good luck, fortune,
Healing the sick.
Buffalo horns for strength, protection
Eagle feathers for wisdom, honesty, happiness.

Ernest Hunt – Navaho


Medicine Wheel – Circle of Life


The medicine wheel is sacred, the native people believe, because the Great Spirit caused everything in nature to be round. The Sun, Sky, Earth and Moon are round. Thus, man should look upon the Medicine Wheel (circle of life) as sacred. It is the symbol of the circle that marks the edge of the world and therefore, the Four Winds that travel there. It is also the symbol of the year. The Sky, the Night, and the Moon go in a circle above the Sky, therefore, the Circle is a symbol of these divisions of time. It is the symbol of all times throughout creation.

Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | July 19, 2008

Indigenous Australia Spirituality

Indigenous Australia



Bush Chapel. In chapels like this, Christian services are held in harmony with underlying Aboriginal spiritual beliefs.

Spirituality for Indigenous Australians takes many forms. Its forms and practices have been profoundly influenced by the impact of colonialism, both past and present.

Some Indigenous Australians share the religious beliefs and values of religions introduced into Australia from other cultures around the world, particularly Europe. But for most people religious beliefs are derived from a sense of belonging-to the land, to the sea, to other people, to one’s culture.

The form and expression of spirituality differs between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal spirituality mainly derives from the stories of the Dreaming, while Torres Strait Islander spirituality draws upon the stories of the Tagai.

The Missions

So the sad thing about it all was the missionaries didn’t realise that we already had something that tied in with what they’d brought to us. They saw different as inferior, and they didn’t ask us what it was that we had. And it’s very sad because if they had asked… things may have been different today.

Our people, before the white man came were very spiritual people. They were connected to land and creation through the great spirit, there was a good great and a great evil spirit… And Satan was the great evil one. So there wasn’t much difference in what the missionaries brought and what we already had… .

Wadjularbinna Doomadgee,
Gungalidda Leader,
Gulf of Carpentaria, 1996.

Since the European colonisation of Australia, Indigenous Australians have had contact with missionaries and their missions. This relationship has been a difficult one. In some instances missions became instruments of government policy, engaging in practices such as forcibly separating Aboriginal children from their families in order to maximise control over the child’s education into Christian ways and beliefs. In this way, missions contributed to the suppression of Aboriginal cultural practices and languages.

However, not all missions were agents of government policies. Some respected Aboriginal ways of life and the importance of ceremonies and cultural practices.

The Dreaming

What is the Dreaming?

The Dreaming means our identity as people. The cultural teaching and everything, that’s part of our lives here, you know?… it’s the understanding of what we have around us.

Merv Penrith
Wallaga Lake, 1996

The Dreaming has different meanings for different Aboriginal people. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith and practices that derive from stories of creation, and which dominates all spiritual and physical aspects of Aboriginal life. The Dreaming sets out the structures of society, the rules for social behaviour and the ceremonies performed in order to maintain the life of the land.

It governed the way people lived and how they should behave.

Those who did not follow the rules were punished.

The Dreamtime or Dreaming is often used to describe the time when the earth and humans and animals were created. The Dreaming is also used by individuals to refer to their own dreaming or their community’s dreaming.

During the Dreaming, ancestral spirits came to earth and created the landforms, the animals and plants. The stories tell how the ancestral spirits moved through the land creating rivers, lakes and mountains. Today we know the places where the ancestral spirits have been and where they came to rest. There are explanations of how people came to Australia and the links between the groups throughout Australia. There are explanations about how people learnt languages and dance and how they came to know about fire.

In essence, the Dreaming comes from the land. In Aboriginal society people did not own the land it was part of them and it was part of their duty to respect and look after mother earth.

The Dreaming did not end with the arrival of Europeans but simply entered a new phase. It is a powerful living force that must be maintained and cared for.

Dreaming Stories

What are Dreaming Stories about?

Dreaming stories vary throughout Australia and there are different versions on the same theme. For example the story of how the birds got their colours is different in New South Wales and in Western Australia.

Stories cover many themes and topics. There are stories about creation of sacred places, landforms, people, animals and plants. There are also stories of language or the first use of fire. In more recent times there are stories telling of the arrival of the first Europeans on ships or stories about trading with Macassan fisherman in Northern Australia.

The Tracks of Life

The journey of the Spirit Ancestors across the land are recorded in Dreaming Tracks. A Dreaming track joins a number of sites which trace the path of an Ancestral Being as it moved through the landscape, forming its features, creating its flora and fauna and laying down the Laws. One of these Spirit Ancestors is the Rainbow Serpent, whose Dreaming track is shared by many Aboriginal communities across Australia.

Rainbow Serpent

And that… is the resting place of the Rainbow Serpent, and all of the gullies and all of the lagoon itself was about the Rainbow Serpent created after he had created the universe and all the dry gullies is the tracks that he’s made looking for a resting place.

Carl McGrady,
Aboriginal Education Assistant,
Boggabilla, describing the path of the
Rainbow Serpent at Boobera Lagoon,
northern New South Wales, 1996.

The Rainbow Serpent is represented as a large, snake-like creature, whose Dreaming track is always associated with watercourses, such as billabongs, rivers, creeks and lagoons. It is the protector of the land, its people, and the source of all life. However, the Rainbow Serpent can also be a destructive force if it is not properly respected.

The Rainbow Serpent is a consistent theme in Aboriginal painting and has been found in rock art up to 6000 years old. The Rainbow Serpent is a powerful symbol of the creative and destructive power of nature. Most paintings of Rainbow Serpents tell the story of the creation of the landscape particular to an artist’s birthplace. Some aspects of Rainbow Serpent stories are restricted to initiated persons but generally, the image had been very public. Today, most artists add personal clan designs to the bodies of Rainbow Serpents, symbolising links between the artist and the land.

The Mimi Spirits

The Mimi are tall, thin beings that live in the rocky escarpment of northern Australia as spirits. Before the coming of Aboriginal people they had human forms. The Mimi are generally harmless but on occasions can be mischievous.

When Aboriginal people first came to northern Australia, the Mimi taught them how to hunt and cook kangaroos and other animals. They also did the first rock paintings and taught Aboriginal people how to paint.

The Tagai

I’m as much a Torres Strait Islander irrespective of where I live because my feelings of being a Torres Strait Islander live inside me. It is not predicated by what is outside me, it is determined with my feelings and my spirituality.

Bilyana Blomely
Academic Co-ordinator,
Lismore 1996

The people throughout the Torres Strait are united by their connection to the Tagai. The Tagai consists of stories which are the cornerstone of Torres Strait Islanders’ spiritual beliefs. These stories focus on the stars and identify Torres Strait Islanders as sea people who share a common way of life. The instructions of the Tagai provide order in the world, ensuring that everything has a place.

One Tagai story depicts the Tagai as a man standing in a canoe. In his left hand, he holds a fishing spear, representing the Southern Cross. In his right hand, he holds a sorbi (a red fruit). In this story, the Tagai and his crew of 12 are preparing for a journey. But before the journey begins, the crew consume all the food and drink they planned to take. So the Tagai strung the crew together in two groups of six and cast them into the sea, where their images became star patterns in the sky. These patterns can be seen in the star constellations of Pleiades and Orion.

Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | July 14, 2008

Meaning of Wolf

Meaning Wolf

John Williams

All cultures have myths that embody a basic belief system about nature. Often myths originate from things encountered in nature and how they relate to man’s existence. Myths can take many forms though and are not limited to the exploits of gods tossing lightening bolts, pieces of stone having special powers, or the stories of creation, but embrace any cultural experience that communicates something important about the world to the people of that culture. Unfortunately though, some myths relate things that are not rooted in truth or have little relevance to the human experience within a culture.

Many myths relate stories and wisdom drawn from animals in the world. Other myths relate fears and prejudices symbolized by animals, but one animal in particular has obtained an ubiquitous status in myth; the wolf. No animal has so thoroughly captured the imagination of so many cultures around the world. In European civilization, myths surrounding wolves evolved to eventually represent evil or malice and have become quaint stories as a result. The wolf in other parts of the world is frequently portrayed in a positive manner still holding much meaning in the lives of the people of those cultures. This positive portrayal of the wolf is perhaps best represented by myths of Native American tribes of North America. What the wolf represents through myth in European culture is sharply different from Native American culture. These differences are illustrated clearly by how the myths of these two cultures treat the wolf. Nearly all European myth surrounding the wolf is irrelevant having little to do with actual day to day living of European peoples, or even the purpose of the wolf in nature. The wolf myths of Native American people, however, have great relevance and have many things to say about the day to day meaning of living of Native American people.

The first example of European irrelevance, and the most universal wolf myth not only in Europe and Native American culture, but throughout the world, is that of the werewolf (Religion 432). The werewolf myths have many variations through the ages, but by far the most prevalent are myths that originated in medieval Europe. The popular notion of the werewolf in today’s world has its roots from this time. The fear of this imaginary man-wolf beast reached near hysteria in France reaching its peak in the 1600’s and resulted in the killing of hundreds of innocents for their alleged powers by burning them at the stake or other cruel acts of punishment. Werewolf myths persisted in France until the mid nineteenth century (Busch 86). One theory why the belief in werewolves became so prevalent is attributed to a “mythical-religious complex of wolf gods or in rituals of the return of the dead”(religion 432) where the wolf figured prominently in the ceremonies and the catalogue of gods kept by ancient man. European fears surrounding the werewolf, such as the hysteria in France mentioned above, can be traced to religious beliefs about the wolf during the middle ages and medieval period.

As in the examples concerning werewolves, myths that induce the strongest beliefs are tied inherently to a prevailing religion or popular religious thinking and practice. This is true both in Native American and European culture. European religions tend to become disconnected through time losing their context to a culture or people, but certain themes seem to persist beyond the context where they originally had meaning (Deloria 66). Myth about wolves is just one such example of beliefs which had no real value to a people after the context of their origination had disappeared. However, the ideas persisted and were re-interpreted to fit a changing world. An example of realistic context falling away is the European Catholic church using the fear of werewolves to further its suppression of heresy during inquisitions (432). It was thought during the middle ages that werewolves are people who made a pact with Satan ( Bucsh 91) and the church capitalized upon these fears to further their own means. Belief in werewolves and the inquisition seem to have little relation to one and another, or for that matter people living in a more meaningful way as result of such beliefs.

European religious beliefs are plentiful outside of Christian tradition concerning wolves. They exemplify the wolf transformed from an animal involved in many important and meaningful processes of life to one primarily associated with evil as society evolved. For example, the classical Greek goddess of death, Hectate, had three heads, all wolves (Busch 86). Another is the ferryman Charon in Greek myth that traversed the river Styx delivering souls to Hades wore the ears of a wolf (86). Both examples show the wolf, or wolf qualities to be important in the spiritual transition of death. In older European traditions the wolf often symbolized transition, an emergence from one state to another (Religion 431). The Celts of the British Isles worshipped the wolf and deemed them the companions of gods (Busch 86). Even outside of Europe the wolf was worshipped as a great god. In Japan, Iran, and Scaythia the wolf is a god in these culture’s archaic pantheons, too (Religion 431). In many of these cultures hunting was a primary means of existence. The wolf easily became the symbol of great hunting skill and was incorporated into religious tradition, but as European society shifted away from hunting to agrarian and animal husbandry as a means of living: “The wolf’s reputation…became that of a voracious killer” (Busch 87) and the prevailing religious traditions supported and advanced this new belief. The religious tradition to have the most impact on European beliefs about the wolf is Christianity.

Early Christianity on the European continent employed the wolf, too, but instead of a symbol of nurturing or supernatural transition, the wolf became associated with evil and damnation as the agrarian way of life grew. The Bible describes Jesus as the shepherd protecting his herd of sheep from the wolf (The Bible, John 10:12). This would imply an intrinsic belief of the wolf as a symbol of sin and prurient influence. In Isaiah verse 11:16 of the old testament states “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.” This phrase is thought of as a metaphor of coming together of both the upper and lower under the Christian god (Religion 431), a stark contrast in comparison to the previous example and a throw back to an earlier time when the wolf represented more positive ideas. Another very prevalent notion in both the old and new testaments of the Christian Bible is the wolf as a tool of Satan and his henchmen. Wolves in this context are thought of as ravening or stealing away the souls of men (Religion 432). The wolf naturally preying upon domesticated animals easily transforms into the metaphor of Satan seducing the innocents of the Christian flock, drawing them away from their true nature as Christians into a state where they are compelled to unnatural acts. This is perhaps the most frequent religious wolf related thought to inseminate Christianity and popular European culture. The sad fact though is the image of the wolf in this context has little relation to anything based on reality and only serves not to enlighten thinking regarding this animal and its role in our world.

The fear and hatred of wolves European myths and religious thinking spawned over the centuries have resulted in the near extinction of the wolf upon the European continent and where ever European man has ventured. Bounties on wolves appeared early in both Greek and Roman civilizations and then in the rest of Europe by the fifteen hundreds (Busch 100). Europeans followed this pattern in North America, too. The first North American bounty for wolves originated with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid seventeenth century (100). This process of eradication reached its apogee with the settlers movement west across the North American continent. Between 1883 and 1917 nearly eighty thousand wolf carcasses were brought in for collection of bounty moneys in Montana alone (102). Many men made glorious careers out of wolf bounty hunting in the west of the North American continent.

This movement and subsequent eradication along the way of the wolf as Europeans crossed the American continent is the clearest example of European attitudes concerning the relationship of man and wolf. Throughout the majority of European myths and fables, whether religious or popular in origin, man has to fear and conquer nature. The only good nature is that nature which is controlled for the benefit of the European, or for that matter what could now be called Western Civilization. The wolf, wile and untamable, and also a fierce predator, easily becomes the symbol of uncontrollable nature. The European traditions of wolf myth show a belief of man eternally pitted against nature and the tragic results of such belief.

As Europeans crossed the North American continent they also came into contact with the cultures native to that land. These Native American cultures held a widely different view of the wolf in their traditions and way of living. It is obviously diametrically opposed to what Europeans thought to be the truth about man’s place within the European tradition. Native American traditions perhaps reflect what early European traditions held before the Christian tradition and complex social and technological advances took root.

The native peoples of the North America have many myths and traditions associated with the wolf and most, if not all, have something intrinsic to tell the people how to live in the world. The Pawnee of the great plains identified so strongly with the wolf and what wolf stories and myth represented that their hand signal for the wolf and the Pawnee people were nearly indistinguishable (Busch, p96). The Pawnee and many of the other Native American cultures revered the wolf for its great hunting prowess and would emulate this animal in ceremonies hoping to embodying these desirable characteristics, but the wolf participated in many other important stories aside from hunting.

The Eskimos have a story of an aged women abandoned and forced to survive in the cold. She turned into a wolf to do so(Busch 96). The Eskimos admired the great survival skills of the wolf.. Native American shaman held the wolf to be the source of great spiritual power (Religion 433). In the pacific northwest, “the doctoring societies of the Quilete and Makah Indians”(433)did wolf dances to heal sick members of their tribe. For many other Native American tribes wolves were thought to represent the corn god (433). With these example it is quite clear that the wolf took on many rolls in the myth of Native Americans. It is also clear that the image of the wolf was often of a creature who could teach, or give man wisdom about the world.

Certainly the wolf is seen as an intrinsic part of the world around these peoples. Like European cultures that crossed the continent, the beliefs associated with the wolf are deeply rooted to the religions practiced by these peoples. Unlike the Christian tradition though, Native American religions are closely associated to how these peoples live. Vine Deloria Jr. makes this observation in the book God is Red concerning the differences between Christian traditions and Native American traditions, “American Indians and other tribal peoples did not take this path in interpreting revelation and religious experience” (Deloria 66) meaning Christian tradition is thought to be valid by how well it explains the cosmos and man’s place in it. He goes on to say in regards to Native American tradition, “The structure of their traditions is taken directly from the world around them, from their relationships with other forms of life”(66). Man has a vastly different role contextually in the world around him in Native American tradition.

This contextual relationship of man to nature is illustrated very well in a wolf myth titled Who Speaks for Wolf? This myth is presented as a learning story passed from generation to generation about the journey of a people in such for a new home land. It is meant to teach many things about the world in which these people live, but most importantly though it uses the wolf and the relationship the people have with this animal to teach these lessons, something grossly missing in European culture. The story is related through a grandfather telling it to his grandson as they sit by a campfire. He tells the grandson how his people needed to find a new land to support their growing numbers. The elders sent out many young men to look for a new land where the people could be themselves. All had returned, each with a place selected, accept one, the one they called Wolf’s Brother. Wolf’s Brother knew all there was to know about brother wolf. The elders of the tribe listened to each young man: “They listened to each among them, he who understood the flow of the water, she who understood long house construction, he who understood the storms of winter” (Underwood 25) then after listening to each they reached agreement. Then someone amongst them cried out, “But Wait, where is Wolf’s Brother? Who, then, speaks for wolf?, but the people were decided”(26). The people began to move to the new place, then Wolf’s Brother returned. He asked about the new place and said at once after hearing where the people had chose, “You have chosen the center place for a great community of wolf…but the people closed their ears”(27). The people settled into the new land and thought it was good.

The people began to see after a time that food disappeared “and wolf beyond”(29) in the shadows. At first this seemed a fair exchange to the people, some food for a place to live. Soon though it became much more for wolf became bolder and ventured into the village looking for food. The boldness of wolf caused the women to fear for the little ones. The men devised a system where they would drive off wolf should he come too near. The people discovered this required much energy and none was left to prepare for the long winter ahead. The elders of people gathered and “saw that neither providing wolf with food, nor driving him off gave the people a life that was pleasing. They saw that the wolf and the people could not live comfortably together in such a small space” (32). They considered then to “hunt down this wolf people until they were no more….They saw, too, that such a task would change the people: they would become wolf killers. A people who took life only to sustain their own would become a people who took life rather then move a little. It did not seem to them that they wanted to become such a people”(34).

The boy asks his grandfather whether the people always remembered to ask Wolf’s question and in reply the grandfather says, “They remembered for a long time…long time. And when the wooden ships came…what we accomplish by much thought and considering the needs of all, they accomplish by building tools and changing the earth, with much thought of winter, and little of tomorrow. We could not teach them to ask Wolf’s question….Tell me now my brothers, tell me now my sisters, who speaks for wolf?” (40).

It should be clear now regarding the differences of these two cultures, European and Native American, and how their myths relate the world to them. The differences perhaps are best outlined as the, “Tribal religions find a great affinity among living things….Behind the apparent kinship between animals…and human beings in the Indian way stands a great conception….Other living things are not regard as insensitive species. Rather they are people in the same manner as…human beings are people”(Deloria 89).

European myth and beliefs fail to recognize this, and in fact maintains its subjective stance in regards to the world around us. Some progress has been made though, but only in the last generation. The peoples of European cultures are finally beginning to consider the all in questions they ask and the things they consider. As time progress hopefully the myths about the world we hold to be true, but irrelevant, will fade away and be replaced with ideas that have value not only to our selves, but to all creatures.
(c) Copyright 1996 by John Williams, all rights reserved.
For more stories and wolf mythology visit < >.

Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | July 14, 2008

Addiction and Recovery in Native America


Addiction and Recovery in Native America:
Lost History, Enduring Lessons

By Don Coyhis and William L. White, MA


The persistence and revival of indigenous Amerindian healing is due, not to a lack of modern treatment services, but to a need for culture-congenial and holistic therapeutic approaches. … – Dr. W. Jilek

Hear me, not for myself, but for my people. … Hear me that they may once more go back into the sacred hoop and find the good red road, the shielding tree! – Black Elk

The dawn of the 21st century marks a time of great cultural renewal and individual and collective healing among the Native peoples of North America. The growing sobriety movement in Indian Country represents just one dimension of this larger process of personal and tribal revitalization.

The authors have collaborated for some time on researching the history of addiction and recovery among the indigenous peoples of North America. This history is being assembled from archival records and from the oral testimony of tribal elders. In our first report of this research, we:
1) explored the historical roots of Native alcohol problems, 2) challenged the “firewater myths” that have long permeated conceptions of the etiology of Native alcohol problems, 3) detailed the role Native leaders played in organizing America’s first sobriety-based, mutual aid societies, and 4) described the recent “Indianization” of Alcoholics Anonymous, the revival of Native cultural revitalization and therapeutic movements, and the development of culturally meaningful alcoholism treatment philosophies and techniques (Coyhis and White, In Press).

In this article, movements are identified that, for more than 250 years, have provided frameworks of alcoholism recovery for Native peoples, and explore what can be learned from these historical movements to enhance the quality of contemporary addiction counseling.

Five movements

Five overlapping movements have provided a framework for alcoholism recovery within and across Native American tribal cultures. The first to emerge were the 18th and 19th century recovery “circles” and abstinence-based cultural revitalization movements of the Delaware Prophets (Papounhan, Wangomend, Neolin, Scattameck), the Shawnee Prophet (Tenskwatawa) and the Kickapoo Prophet (Kennekuk). These prophetic leaders used their own recoveries from alcoholism to launch abstinence-based, pan-Indian movements that called for the rejection of alcohol and a return to ancestral traditions. Native preachers like Samson Occom, William Apess, and George Copway used their own lives as living proof of the power of Christian conversion and worship to cure alcoholism.

The development of new abstinence-based Native religions continued in the 19th century, including the Longhouse Religion (Code of Handsome Lake), the Indian Shaker Church and the Native American Church (White, 2000, 2001). These Native religions constitute the most historically enduring frameworks for alcoholism recovery within Native communities. The fourth movement, the “Indianization of Alcoholics Anonymous” (A.A.) (Womak, 1996), began in the 1960s, and represents the growing adaptation of A.A. steps (Coyhis, 1990) and meeting rituals (Jilek-Aall, 1981) to enhance A.A. effectiveness within Native communities. The threads of these earlier movements are being woven into the contemporary Wellbriety movement (Coyhis, 2000). White Bison, Inc., an American Indian nonprofit organization and one of the leaders of this new movement, is working to expand recovery support structures within Native communities across North America. This goal is being achieved through recovery education (Well Nations Magazine), national recovery awareness walks (“Hoop Journeys”), training indigenous leaders to organize recovery circles (“Firestarters”), hosting recovery celebration events in local Native communities, and advocating for culturally informed social policies and treatment approaches.

One of White Bison’s most recent projects is publication of The Red Road To Wellbriety, a Native adaptation of the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous (see These five movements share many characteristics. They were created by Native men and women who entered recovery after each had been wounded by alcoholism. The religious and revitalization movements they created provided an opportunity, in healing themselves, to heal their families and communities as well. The tradition of “wounded healers” in the arena of alcoholism recovery begins in 18th century Native America (White, 2000). This practice drew deeply from the belief in many Native cultures that a dramatic recovery from an illness was a potential sign of one’s calling as a healer. The Native leaders of America’s first mutual aid societies assumed this role more through ecstatic (experiential) initiation than didactic (formal education) initiation (Jilek, 1971; Jilek, 1978) – a practice that was later emulated in the rise of alcoholism counseling.

Native American recovery movements rose from the prophetic visions of their leaders. These visions portrayed alcohol as a weapon of cultural conquest and sobriety as a strategy of cultural resistance. The movements identified above were multidimensional movements, with each containing a unique combination of spiritual/religious rebirth, cultural revitalization, personal healing, and, in some cases, political advocacy. All provided a pathway and framework for recovery from alcoholism that inextricably linked the sobriety and health of the individual to the survival and health of the tribe.

Therapeutic functions
Viewed as a whole, these indigenous movements provide a striking list of therapeutic benefits. In fact, one might assess current treatment designs by their ability to achieve these very utilities. Here’s some of what they provided:

* Commitment: culturally framed rationales for radical abstinence and a call for sobriety and sacrifice to a higher purpose than self (the People).
* Purification: rituals of physical and emotional detoxification (fasting, purging, sweating, herbal medicines) and spiritual connection (vision quests).
* Substitution: replacement of alcohol with other sacred substances, e.g., the “Black Drink,” peyote, tobacco, sage, and cedar.
* Identity: affirmation of personal and cultural identity ¾ connection with ancestral traditions and innate knowledge (the ancestors within).
* Reconciliation: mending of family and social relationships.
* Prescriptions for living: a reconstruction of values and daily lifestyle (e.g., the Code of Handsome Lake, Peyote Way, the Red Road).
* Re-connection to community: sustained affiliation with a stable network of recovering people supported by a larger cultural community.
* Ceremony: participation in rituals that solidify pro-recovery values and relationships.
* Story: the transmission of life-changing ideas through the ancient oral tradition of storytelling.
* Meaning: a worldview of oneself and one’s sobriety within the context of Native history, culture, and religion.

Legacies and lessons

What can today’s addiction counselor draw from these movements? We would suggest at least five interrelated lessons.

1. Alcohol and other drug problems in Native America are rooted within complex historical, cultural, political, and economic processes, and the resolution of these problems must reflect a deep understanding of such processes. Native alcohol problems emerged and continue to emerge through a collision of context and person. While the understanding of the unique vulnerability of each client is essential, so is an understanding of the ecology within which Native alcohol problems arose and have continued. More specifically, this ecology must be understood in terms of the interconnectedness between the wounding and intergenerational healing of the individual, the family and a people: the honor of one is the honor of all … the hurt of one is the hurt of all. The resolution of Native alcohol problems must be linked to hope for a people as well as hope for the individual being counseled.

2. The most viable frameworks of addiction recovery for Native Americans tap the deepest roots of tribal cultures. The job of the conscientious addiction counselor is to become a student of these cultures – their histories, their organization, their values, their ceremonies and folkways, and their systems of healing. The addiction counselor can help forge a bridge between the treatment agency and tribal cultures by encouraging the involvement of family elders, tribal elders and traditional medicine people (herbalists, shamanic healers, spiritual advisors) in the design and delivery of treatment services for Native clients. The goal here is to create a menu of words, ideas, rituals and experiences within the counseling milieu that can be selectively used by Native people who bring enormous diversity in terms of their personal histories, personalities, religious and spiritual beliefs, and degree of acculturation (Weibel-Orlando, 1987). Such an approach recognizes the multiple sources and patterns of Native alcohol problems as well as the multiple pathways and styles of long-term recovery among Native peoples.

3. Traditional treatment and mutual support require significant adaptation to enhance their effectiveness with Native Americans. Native purification and healing practices (sacred dances, the sweat lodge, and talking circles) may have special applicability to Native people suffering from alcoholism who are also estranged from tribal identity, language, and ceremonies (Hall, 1985). Dr. Wolfgang Jilek (1978, 1981) has described the potential therapeutic effects of ceremonies (the Spirit Dance, the Sun Dance and the Gourd Dance) and the potential value in the cross-cultural collaboration between Western and Native healers in the treatment of alcoholism. Bridging the gap between Native and Western healing practices begins with the mastery of cultural etiquette – the etiquette of respect inherent within verbal and non-verbal (e.g., eye contact, touch, boundaries of personal space) communication rituals, and the recognition that such etiquette varies across and within tribes. Bridging that gap requires delivering such assistance within the elements of particular Native cultures. Such elements include: values (e.g., patience, generosity, cooperation, humility), teaching metaphors (e.g., the medicine wheel), symbols (e.g., the sacred pipe, eagle feathers), rituals (e.g., sweat lodge, smudging ceremonies), traditional skills (e.g., carving, silversmithing), stories, and cultural events (e.g., powwows). It calls for the presence of Indian men and women within the treatment milieu who offer living proof of the redemptive power of recovery and cultural re-connection. The addiction counselor is best viewed as a midwife who helps combine and elicit these healing experiences rather than as the expert who “treats” the client.

4. Personal recovery for Native Americans is best framed within a broader umbrella of Wellbriety – physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual health. The concept of Wellbriety is an affirmation of the interconnectedness of all aspects of one’s life. At its most practical level, the focus on Wellbriety calls for global rather than categorical assessment, treatment plans that reflect the total vulnerabilities and assets of the person/family/tribe, and advocacy for sustained recovery support systems in the client’s physical and cultural environment.

5. Addiction treatment and recovery support services are best framed within a broader concern for the global health of Native communities, rather than through a singular focus on alcohol or other drug-related problems. The danger in the sometimes exaggerated and narrow focus on Native alcohol problems is that one comes to see alcoholism treatment and alcoholism recovery as a panacea for individuals and tribes instead of viewing Native alcoholism as nested within a much more complex network of political, economic and social problems that are linked to the history of Native tribes within the United States (Westermeyer, 1974). It is this nexus between the individual, the community and history that has long given religious and cultural revitalization movements an important role in the resolution of Native alcohol problems. This fifth principle, by affirming the inextricable link between personal health and community health, calls upon the addiction treatment agency and the addiction counselor to become actively involved in the communities within which their clients reside or to which they identify.

This person-community link is being conveyed to Native communities across the country within the cultural model of the Healing Forest. When a sick tree is removed from diseased soil, treated, and returned and replanted in the same diseased soil, it gets sick again. What is called for instead is a healing of the tree AND the replacement of diseased elements in the soil with nurturing elements (Red Road to Wellbriety, in press). Personal recovery flourishes best in a climate of family health, cultural vitality, political sovereignty, and economic security. What White Bison and other Native recovery advocacy organizations are trying to do is mobilize all segments of Native communities – the tribal councils, schools, churches, service programs, and political and cultural organizations – to forge and then actualize a healing vision for the community. The goal is to create a Healing Forest that creates a synergy between personal and community wellness. Such a synergy is reflected in the words of Andy Chelsea, who as the Shuswap tribal chief at Alkali Lake, declared, “The community is the treatment center” (Abbott, 1998).

A closing thought
There is a long history of harm done in the name of good in the relationship between Native tribes and federal and state governments and other organizations. One of the most egregious of such injuries was the enforced removal of Native children to Indian boarding schools that were designed to destroy the “Indianness” of these children. The motto of William Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, was “Kill the Indian and save the man” (Coyhis, 2000). It is instructive that this systematic dismantling of Native family structure and deculturation of Native children was implemented with promises of its potential benefit to Native peoples. A history of such misguided and harmful interventions calls upon professional helpers today to enter into our relationship with each Native client and each Native community with an attitude of quiet humility, observing the ultimate ethical mandate to “First do no harm!” The capacity of addiction counselors to be part of this era of healing and renewal will be enhanced if we enter into partnership with Native communities, or serve these communities from within, as observers, as listeners, and as students.

Don Coyhis ( is the President and co-founder of White Bison, Inc., Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a member of the Mohican Nation from the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin. William L. White, MA, ( is a Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health Systems, Bloomington, IL, and author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.

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Coyhis, D. and White, W. (in press). Alcohol problems in Native America: Changing paradigms and clinical practices. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly.
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Posted by: CL Ellis Wacholtz | July 12, 2008

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The Serenity Prayer

God, grant me


The serenity to accept the things I cannot change,


Courage to change the things I can,




Wisdom to know the difference.

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