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Religion of American Aborigines
(or North American Indians)

September 22, 1893 – World’s Parliament of Religions, Hall of Columbus, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


The aboriginal American’s feeling concerning God seems to indicate a power, mysterious, unknowable, unnamable, that animates all nature. From this power, in some unexplained way, proceeded in the past ages certain generic types, prototypes of everything in the world, and these still exist, but they are invisible to man in his natural state, being spirit types, although he can behold them and hear them speak in his supernatural visions. Through these generic types, as through so many conduits, flows the life coming from the great mysterious source of all life into the concrete forms which make up this world, as the sun. moon, and the wind, the water, the earth, and the thun der, the birds, the animals, and the fruits of the earth.

Among these prototypes there seems to have been none of man himself, but in some vaguely imagined way he has been generated by them, and his phvsical as well as his spiritual nature is nourished and augmented through them. His physical dependence upon these sources of power is illustrated in his ceremonies. Thus he hunted, fished and planted, having first appealed to the prototype for physical strength through a ceremony which always included the partaking of food.

When his spirit demanded strengthening he went apart and remained in solitude upon the mountain or in the recesses of the forest  he fasted and mortified his body, sought to ignore it, denied its cravings, that some spirit prototype might approach him and reenforce his spirit with life drawn from the great unnameable power. Whatever was the prototype which appeared to him, whether of bird or beast, or of one of the elements, it breathed upon him and left a song with him which should become the viewless messenger speeding from the heart and lips of the man, to the prototype of his vision, to bring him help in the hour of his need.

When the man had received his vision, before it could avail him, he had to procure something from the creature whose type he had seen, a tuft of hair, or a feather, or he had to fashion its semblance or emblem. This he carried ever after near him as a token of remembrance, but he did not wor ship it.

The belief that everything was alive and active, to help or hinder man prevented development of individual responsibility. Success or failure was not caused solely by a man’s own actions or shortcomings, but because he was helped or hindered by some one of these occult powers.

Personal immortality was universally recognized. The next world resembled this with the element of suffering eliminated. There was no place of future punishment; all alike started at death upon the journey to the other world, but the quarrelsome and unjust never reached it ; they endlessly wandered. 

Religious ceremonials had both open and esoteric forms and teachings. They were comprised in the observances of secret societies and the elaborate dramatization of myths, with its masks, costumes, rituals of song, rhyth mic movements of the body and the preparation and use of symbols. The ethics of the race were simple. With the Indian truth was literal rather than comprehensive. Justice was also literal and inexorable. To be valor ous, to meet hardships and suffering uncomplainingly, to flinch from no pain or danger when action was demanded, was the ideal set before every Indian. Hospitality was a marked virtue in the race. The lodge was never closed, or the last morsel of food ever refused to the needy. The richest man was not he who possessed the most, but he who bad given awav the most. This deeply rooted principle of giving is a great obstacle in the way of civilizing the Indians, as civilization depends so largely upon the accumulation of property. In every home the importance of peace was taught, and it was the special theme and sole object of a peculiar ceremony which once widely obtained over the Valley of the Mississippi — the Calumet or Sacred Pipe ceremony.

In the beautiful symbolism and ritual of these Fellowship Pipes the initiated were told in the presence of a little child who typified teachableness that happiness came to him who lived in peace and walked in the straight path which was symbolized on the Pipes as glowing with sunlight. In these teachings, which transcended all others, we discern the dawn of the nobler and gentler virtues, of mercy and its kindred graces.


Source: The World’s Parliament of Religions, An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Co.), 1893, pp. 1078-1079.