January 19th, 2008

Constructing a Local Cosmology: Gods, Spirits, and Ancestors

I have been reading my stack of books on the aboriginal people of my area, and am finding out the following regarding Gods, Spirits an Ancestors. I do think it is wrong to do any cultural appropriation. I am not talking about being a wannabe or Pretendian here. Of course I am Indian anyways...so in my case, I am talking about not trying to be a Blackfeet, or Salish (Flathead), or Shoshoni!

Native Americans were not polytheistic in the Greco-Roman sense. There was no God of Thunder, God of War, Goddess of Harvest, etc. Tribes tended to believe in one Supreme Creator God, with a host of lesser deities or spirits that served as helpers to maintain, transform, challenge creation. The Supreme God was considered in many systems to be the same as, or at least symbolized best by, the Sun. Following is a brief summary of the way the three historic tribes most connected to the Helena valley thought of the worlds of Gods, Spirits, and Ancestors. Other tribes lived or passed through the area, especially the Landless Chippewa-Cree of the Little Shell band, and there is a connection with Louis Riel, the leader of the Canadian Red River Metis Rebellion, but for now I will focus on the Salish, Blackfeet, and Shoshoni.


SALISH / FLATHEAD Time in the Helena Valley: at least ca. AD 1000-1855 (and some Flathead/Salish individuals and their families continue that connection)

GODS: In traditional times, the Salish believed in a good sky God they called Amotkin, with a evil God that dwelt in the darkness under the ground they called Amtep. On the earth itself, traveled the Trickster-Transformer Coyote, whom they considered to be their tribal progenitor. The world had been created by the Sun and/or Amotkin but Coyote was the one who straightened out the chaos, killed and transformed monsters into landscape features, and made the world safe for human beings, teaching them about fire and tool-making. Coyote was not spoken of as a God, but he served as a Major Spirit for the Salish. The Salish were the first tribe in Montana to be Christianized as a tribe, being introduced to the religion of "the Black Robes" (Jesuits) by the Iroquois furtrappers who entered Montana. Father DeSmet missionized the Flathead/Salish, and their traditional system of Sky and Underground Gods became syncretized with Roman Catholicism, as God and the Devil.

SPIRITS: Along with Coyote, most Animals were considered to be connected with Spiritual power, and that each species had a type of collective Spirit, so that though one might hunt and kill grizzly bear, one prayed to Grizzly Bear as a collective deity or an archetype of the Grizzly Bear (though Bear was a real and distinct Being, not just a psychological aspect of ourselves). Some of the most mentioned and important Animal-Spirits would be Coyote, Grizzly Bear, Mountain Sheep, Elk, Fox, Eagle, Blue Jay. There were also in ancient times, giants and dwarves. One generally tried to get spiritual power by doing vision seeking as an adolescent (both boys and girls). A sumesh (one's guardian spirit) appeared as a human being, and at the close of the vision revealed its animal form. If one had a dream of a dwarf as a helper, that was particularly lucky. Blue Jay was a patron of shamans. This system of special reverence for Coyote and of the search for one's sumesh survived Christianization, even to today. Isolated trees, trees of odd form such as being struck by lightning or wind, also had spiritual significance. The power of these trees was learned over time and experience. The most famous of these medicine trees was the Ram's Horn Medicine Tree up north, several hundred years old, which was toppled by high winds a few years ago.

ANCESTORS: The Salish had avoidance of the dead; the dead, including ones ancestors, were respected but not prayed to. The places where people died such as battlefields and graves were avoided. If one had to occupy or be in such a place, as when the Salish became converted to Catholicism and restricted to the reservations, then the place had to be purified first, an effort led by the women.

BLACKFEET (PIEGAN) Time in the Helena Valley area: 1790s-1890s; Blackfeet individuals and families still reside here in Helena; the reservation is up by Browning.

GODS: The Sun (natos') also represented the Supreme Creator God of the Blackfeet, and is Chief of the World. In ancient times the Blackfeet considered Napi, the Old Man, a Trickster, to be the Creator God, but maintained Napi to be a flesh and blood man like them. Other stories indicate Napi to be the Transformer/Trickster and creator of the Blackfeet as a people rather than creator of the world, much as the Salish regard Coyote. Napi and/or Sun were Gods, different or one and the same, in that sense, though the Blackfeet did not refer to them as such, but rather as Persons or Spirits. Daily prayers were made to the Sun and Old Man Napi.

SPIRITS: Moon (Kokomikis) and Morning Star also had near deity status, as did Thunder. "Besides the Sun and Old Man, the Blackfoot religious system includes a number of minor deities or rather natural qualities and forces, which are personified and given shape. These are included in the general terms Above Persons, Ground Persons, and Under Water Persons." Thunder is an Above Person in the shape of a fearsome man or bird, Ground Man is a Ground Person, and Wind-Maker is an UnderWater Person who creates the winds. Animals are not Gods but are given various powers to share with human beings, who seek them in vision quests. The most significant animals for transferring these spiritual powers to people are Buffalo, Bear, Raven, Wolf, Beaver, Kit Fox, Eagle, and Goose. There are also Underwater Persons that live in the Missouri River; my little sister once saw them when she was little girl in the late 70s, while our family was rafting.

ANCESTORS: The Blackfeet do not pray to the dead, rather, preferring to avoid the situations and places where they might be encountered. Following is a section about their thoughts of death and the dead, including the ancestors:

When Old Man made the first people, he gave them very strong bodies, and for a long time no one was sick. At last, a little child fell ill. Each day it grew weaker and weaker, and at last it fainted. Then the mother went to Old Man, and prayed him to do something for it.
"This," said Old Man, "will be the first time it has happened to the people. You have seen the buffalo fall to the ground when struck with an arrow. Their hearts stop beating, they do not breathe, and soon their bodies become cold. They are then dead. Now, woman, it shall be for you to decide whether death shall come to the people as well as to the other animals, or whether they shall live forever. Come now with me to the river."
When they reached the water's edge, Old Man picked up from the ground a dry buffalo chip and a stone. "Now, woman," he said, "you will tell me which one of these to throw into the water. If what I throw floats, your child shall live; the people shall live forever. If it sinks, then your child shall die, and all the people shall die, each one when his time comes."
The woman stood still a long time, looking from the stone to the buffalo chip, and from the chip to the stone. At last she said, "Throw the stone." Then Old Man tossed it into the river, and it sank to the bottom. "Woman," he cried, "go home; your child is dead." Thus, on account of a foolish woman, we all must die.
The shadow of a person, the Blackfeet say, is his soul. Northeast of the Sweet Grass Hills, near the international boundary line, is a bleak, sandy country called the Sand Hills, and there all the shadows of the deceased good Blackfeet are congregated. The shadows of those who in this world led wicked lives are not allowed to go there. After death, these wicked persons take the shape of ghosts (Sta-au'2 ), and are compelled ever after to remain near the place where they died. Unhappy themselves, they envy those who are happy, and continually prowl about the lodges of the living, seeking to do them some injury. Sometimes they tap on the lodge skins and whistle down the smoke hole, but if the fire is burning within they will not enter.
Outside in the dark they do much harm, especially the ghosts of enemies who have been killed in battle. These sometimes shoot invisible arrows into persons, causing sickness and death. They have hit people on the head, causing them to become crazy. They have paralyzed people's limbs, and drawn their faces out of shape, and done much other harm. Ghosts walk above the ground, not on it. An example of this peculiarity is seen in the case of the young man who visited the lodge of the starving family, in the story entitled Origin of the I-kun-uh'-kah-tsi.
Ghosts sometimes speak to people. An instance of this is the following, which occurred to my friend Young Bear Chief, and which he related to me. He said: "I once went to war, and took my wife with me. I went to Buffalo Lip Butte, east of the Cypress Mountains; a little creek runs by it. I took eighteen horses from an Assinaboine camp one night, when it was very foggy. I found sixteen horses feeding on the hills, and went into the camp and cut loose two more. Then we went off with the horses. When we started, it was so foggy that I could not see the stars, and I did not know which way to run. I kept travelling in what I supposed was the direction toward home, but I did not know where I was going. After we had gone a long way, I stopped and got off my horse to fix my belt. My wife did not dismount, but sat there waiting for me to mount and ride on.
"I spoke to my wife, and said to her, 'We don't know which way to go.' A voice spoke up right behind me and said: 'It is well; you go ahead. You are going right.' When I heard the voice, the top of my head seemed to lift up and felt as if a lot of needles were sticking into it. My wife, who was right in front of me, was so frightened that she fainted and fell off her horse, and it was a long time before she came to. When she got so she could ride, we went on, and when morning came I found that we were going straight, and were on the west side of the West Butte of the Sweet Grass Hills. We got home all right. This must have been a ghost."
Now and then among the Blackfeet, we find evidences of a belief that the soul of a dead person may take up its abode in the body of an animal. An example of this is seen in the story of E-kus'-kini. Owls are thought to be the ghosts of medicine men.
The Blackfeet do not consider the Sand Hills a happy hunting ground. There the dead, who are themselves shadows, live in shadow lodges, hunt shadow buffalo, go to war against shadow enemies, and in every way lead an existence which is but a mimicry of this life. In this respect the Blackfeet are almost alone. I know of scarcely any other American tribe, certainly none east of the Rocky Mountains, who are wholly without a belief in a happy future state. The Blackfeet do not especially say that this future life is an unhappy one, but, from the way in which they speak of it, it is clear that for them it promises nothing desirable. It is a monotonous, never ending, and altogether unsatisfying existence, a life as barren and desolate as the country which the ghosts inhabit. These people are as much attached to life as we are. Notwithstanding the unhappy days which have befallen them of late years, days of privation and hunger, they cling to life. Yet they seem to have no fear of death. When their time comes, they accept their fate without a murmur, and tranquilly, quietly pass away (From the 1906 Handbook of American Indians, cited at http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/blackfeet/religion.htm)


SHOSHONI (and Bannock) Time in Helena Valley ca. 1500s-1870s.

There were variations among the various Shoshoni, as they covered from the Great Basin up to Idaho and even into Canada, until they were pushed back by their wars with the Blackfeet/Piegan. The big differences are between those who had horses and those who did not. The Shoshoni who visited this area are generally believed to have been the mounted Shoshoni who visited the plains hunting buffalo and went north to fight the Blackfeet. Sacajawea who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition was a Shoshoni who was familiar with the Helena Valley area. The Helena area seems to have been known to the Lemhi Shoshoni and the Sheep-eater Shoshoni. It was known to the famous Shoshoni chief Washakie.

GODS: The most important Spirits to the Shoshoni were Sun (Apo), who was called the Father or the Great Spirit, and Wolf and Coyote. Coyote had created the Shoshoni from clay.

SPIRITS: Like the other tribes, the Shoshoni believed in the spiritual power of animals. The Animals of particular spiritual importance were Coyote, Rabbit, Wolf, Bear, and Chickadee, all of whom had a part in the creation of the world. There were also Little People (Nunumbi) who shot invisible arrows of misfortune and sickness into those who displeased them.

ANCESTORS: The Shoshoni, though afraid of ill-intentioned ghosts like the other tribes, had at least some interest in retaining connections with ancestors. The famous Ghost Dance of the Paiute Wovoka found ready acceptance among the Shoshoni. The spirit or soul was called the mugua, and a ghost was the tsoap. When they died, the mugua would emerge from the body and go up into the sky headed for the land of Coyote; halfway up it would be met by Coyote's brother, Wolf, and escorted to its proper place, washed and made clean there. Some Shoshoni believed in the possibility of the transmigration of the soul.

GODS: All of the tribes connected to the Helena Valley believed in a Supreme Creator, generally identified with the Sun. There was generally a co-creator figure, the Trickster, in the form of an Old Man or a Coyote, who created certain tribes and generally transformed the earth into a place fit for human habitation.

SPIRITS: Animal Spirits were the most important type of spirit, as they could be spirit helpers and co-creators. The Animals especially mentioned for their spiritual/mythological importance are Coyote, Wolf, Fox, Kit Fox, Grizzly Bear, Buffalo, Wolf, Elk, Eagle, Raven, Blue Jay, Goose, and Chickadee. Oddly enough, though Deer (both Mule Deer and Whitetail Deer) and Pronghorn Antelope are very prevalent in the area, they are not on the list. Other significant spirits included Thunder, Wind/Coldmaker, Moon, Morning Star, Underwater and Underground People, and Little People/Dwarves.

ANCESTORS: The tribes of the Helena Valley area practiced the avoidance of the dead and areas associated with death (battlefields, burial areas, epidemic areas). They did not pray to or worship the ancestors, even their own, but believed in a hereafter where the spirits of the dead generally travelled to. Ghosts of people were thought in some cases to remain to haunt and bother the living, and were feared and avoided.

IMPLICATIONS FOR A LOCAL COSMOLOGY: The intention here is not to "play Indian" or attempt cultural misappropriation, but instead to respect the processes and culture long connected with the area.

GODS: Generally, this was not a polytheistic area. There was one Supreme Being who made the world and embodied in the Sun, with a Trickster as a "deputy creator" in charge of transformation of the land and creation of the various tribes. A system recognizing a Supreme Being and a Trickster-Creator is implied for a local cosmology.

SPIRITS: Respect for the Animal Spirits of the area is omnipresent. The list given above (Bear, Coyote, etc.) is a minimum; other animals important to the local ecosystem should be added in constructing a local cosmology; this will be explored in future posts. Not gone into detail here, but the Plant spirits also have importance, especially certain trees of noticeable character, and food and medicinal plants, like bitterroot, camas, sage, etc. There were also spirits such as Thunder, the Little People/Dwarves and Underwater People which are essential to a local cosmology.

ANCESTORS: Ancestors are not essential to the local cosmology, except as decided by individual practitioners. Generally, the dead should be left alone, as spirits and their burial areas. Ritual purification is needed for places of death and for places experiencing hauntings. Sage, juniper, and sweetgrass, all species found in the region, should be part of the process.