There is a well-known principle in social psychology that involves in-groups and out-groups. Those who share a particular set of qualities are categorized together as the “ingroup”, while those excluded are labeled the “outgroup.” The groupings can be somewhat arbitrary, such as when UNLV students naturally despise UNR students on the simple premise of which school in Nevada the student attends. But is there a fundamental difference between a UNR student and a UNLV student? Is one born with higher intelligence than the other? The answer is, “No,” but rivalries like this occur all the time, and it is not exclusive to school attendance; in-group out-group rivalry can also occur between religions.
School rivalry is generally a lighthearted competition, but things start to shift when the grouping changes from attending different schools to practicing different religions. This is a recurrent behavior seen throughout history, especially during Western migration. Western settlers were not used to seeing the sun dances, piercings, and sacred rituals that were so common to Native American practice. An in-group out-group complex developed between Native Americans and American settlers of the West, resulting in violent confrontations and stiff relationships. This paper will discuss the nature of Native American religion as well as how it was affected by the interactions between Native Americans and Western settlers.
Firstly, in discussing Native American religion, it is important to note the vast variation between tribes, clans, and bands. One group may be monotheistic while another may be polytheistic. But, a common theme that is seen in their spiritual practices is the way in which traditions are passed down. By use of oral histories, stories, allegories, etc., their traditional beliefs are inherited by the next generation, in which that generation will subsequently pass down said traditions. This allows for the study of individual community-based theology. Nevertheless, the practices that are discussed in this paper should not be used as a precise definition of Native Americans as a collective whole, but rather as a general idea of some of their spiritual practices.
Beginning with the spiritual beliefs of the Iroquois, they generally believed in numerous deities that include the Great Spirit, the Thunderer, and the Three Sisters. The Great Spirit particularly was viewed as the Supreme Being similar to the Christian concept of God. Known as a conceptualized spirit of creation, the Great Spirit was associated with the creation of plants, animals, and humans to control “the forces of good in nature” (Reid 167). Several individuals held the position as “speaker” and would serve as a mediator in the communication between humans and the Great Spirit. These speakers additionally had an obligation to preserve the spiritual traditions of their respective lineage (Cave). Due to some of these perceived similarities with that of the Great Spirit and the Christian concept of God, Europeans frequently referenced the Great Spirit during their efforts to convert indigenous Americans to Christianity (Schoolcraft).
Upon the arrival of Europeans, many Christians made attempts to convert some Iroquois to Christianity. Among those Iroquois interested in Christianity was a Seneca religious leader known as Handsome Lake, also known as Ganeodiyo, who introduced to the Iroquois a new religious system that was a mix between Quaker beliefs and traditional Iroquoian culture (Schoolcraft). In the religious system, a key aspect was the principle of equilibrium, where the unique talents of each person are incorporated into a functional community. His teachings also centralized on parenting and peace. By the 1960s, at least 50% of Iroquois followed this religious system (Reid 167), showing how the Christian influences of Handsome Lake eventually became a huge part of the Iroquois. In spite of the spiritual differences between Christianity and Iroquois culture, Christians found a commonality that allowed them to spread Christian beliefs, even if it was not a full conversion.
However, consequences occurred because of the implementation of Christian beliefs in the Iroquoian culture. Handsome Lake established a religious movement known as Longhouse Religion, which was rejected by modern traditionalists as being too influenced by the First and Second Great Awakenings. The Great Awakening refers to the period of widespread religious revivals of American Christianity. These modern traditionalists were followers of Deganawidah, The Great Peacemaker, who laid down the Great Law of Peace. The Great Law of Peace was the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy that presented a narrative of laws and ceremonies to be performed at prescribed times. What bothered modern traditionalists was that Handsome Lake’s teachings contradicted the articles that existed in the Great Law of Peace, such as the specific duties of positive role models in the community. In essence, the American Christian influence of Iroquoian theology led to inner conflict between groups of Native Americans. The inner conflict on the Great Laws of Peace may not have occurred without Native American interaction with Christian missionaries.
The Native American belief system was not only affected by missionaries, but they were also influenced by the United States government, albeit in a more violent way. In 1890, there was a new religious movement being incorporated in numerous Native American belief systems called the Ghost Dance. The foundation of the Ghost Dance was the circle dance, where people would sing and dance in a circle or semicircle at the accompaniment of music. Dancers moved to their left in a side-shuffle step as a way to reflect the pattern of the drumbeat, while simultaneously bending their knees to emphasize the pattern. The purpose of circle dances may be ceremonial or purely social. The Ghost Dance was a type of circle dance, but it had a specific meaning behind it.
The Ghost Dance was associated with the teachings of spiritual leader Wovoka, which had goals of living a clean and honest life, but most importantly, it wanted an end to white expansion. In February 1890, the United States government broke a Lakota treaty by adjusting the Great Sioux Reservation of South Dakota (Kehoe 15). The region was large enough to encompass the majority of South Dakota and it ended up breaking up the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller reservations. The motive of the government was to accommodate white homesteaders from the eastern United States. But, there was another motive in that they intended to “break up tribal relationships” and “conform Indians to the white man’s ways, peaceably if they will, or forcibly if they must” (Wallace). Aiming for assimilation, the government forced the Lakota to farm and raise livestock and send their children to boarding schools where they would be taught English and Christianity. Essentially, the government tried to prevent as much expression of Indian culture and language.
As a way to help facilitate the transition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) supplemented the Lakota with food and hired farmers to instruct on how to cultivate crops. But, the year of 1890 had a growing season that was met with intense heat and low rainfall, making it even more difficult to produce substantial agricultural yields. On top of that, the government’s support for the Indians was dwindling, leading to the rations for the Lakota being cut in half. At this point, the Lakota were facing starvation.
The Lakota turned to the rituals of the Ghost Dance, which frightened the supervising agents of the BIA. The agents were familiar with what was taking place and recognized it as a ritual that was held shortly before a battle was to occur. By response, they forced Kicking Bear to leave Standing Rock, as an attempt to circumvent the situation. The dances continued regardless of Kicking Bear’s presence and more troops were ordered to the scene. Sitting Bull was now accused as the leader of the movement and now there were thousands of additional U.S. Army troops at the reservation. Charged with failing to stop his people from practicing the Ghost Dance, he was charged arrested on December 15, 1890 (Kehoe 20). During this incident, one of Sitting Bull’s men shot at an Indian policeman called Lieutenant “Bull Head”. Shots were returned and it resulted in the death in both Lieutenant “Bull Head” and Sitting Bull.
Tensions were still high after that incident because a could days later was the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890. The event occurred near Wounded Knee Creek and followed a botched attempt to disarm the Lakota camp. On that morning, as U.S. Cavalry troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle because he claimed to have paid for it (Phillips). Simultaneously, an old man of the Lakota was reported to have been performing the Ghost Dance. The situation erupted when Black Coyote’s rifle went off and both sides began shooting at each other. The Lakota warriors, having most of their guns already stripped away, suffered many casualties. In the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 1890, the United States Army killed approximately 153 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa from the Lakota people (Utley).
Several reasons led to the conflict at Wounded Knee, such as land purposes. But, one of the biggest reasons why this event occurred was because of differences in religious practices. The U.S. government wanted to silence Native American culture, and it was evident with the Boarding Schools that Indian students were forced to attend as well as the banning of certain rituals. It seems as if there was a certain resentment toward their religious practices because it was so different in their traditional beliefs of Christianity. It is saddening to hear that the root cause of the Massacre was due to differences in the way of life.
In a documentary called The West, there is an episode called “Ghost Dance (1996)” where Native Americans are interviewed as they reflect on the events of Wounded Knee. One Native pondered the question: “Why did they have to ban something that was so sacred to us?” (“Ghost Dance”). It shows that the government didn’t want Natives to be together, to dance, or to carry on their traditions. Assimilation wasn’t a defensive procedure, it was an attack of Native American culture.