Central States Archaeological Societies
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What Did the Native Americans Believe? A Model that Integrates Lifeways, Migrations and Values of the People Before Columbus

by Scott Chandler

Central States Archaeological Societies 2020 July Journal

Sarasota, Florida

This is an excerpt from "What Did the Native Americans Believe? A Model that Integrates Lifeways, Migrations and Values of the People Before Columbus".

Read the complete column in the Central States Archaeological Societies 2020 July Journal which can be purchased on-line after March 2020

What Did the Native Americans Believe? A Model that Integrates Lifeways, Migrations and Values of the People Before Columbus

We understand how Native Americans lived. But what did they believe? Is it possible to detect ethereal elements such as values and beliefs of the earliest Americans that dictated these behaviors? What metaphysical conclusions can be drawn from ethnographic study and do they match up with physical markers? Understanding the routes, timing of entry, apparatuses, the ecological diversity of the Clovis point, diets etc. of North American Indians are fascinating. But beliefs drove behavior, the seed of every action a thought that integrated into a philosophy of life and where the people went.

The goal of archaeology is to uncover who people were. Thus, the archaeologist is an anthropologist, albeit a spartan one.1 As Rogers State University archaeologist Brian Andrews says, “The stuff that we find, it's just stuff. Stuff's cool, but we're not interested in stuff for the sake of itself. We're interested in the human behaviors that went into making it.” Immaterial in nature, native views about reality are difficult to uncover with the trowel but less so in disciplines that house information such as ethnology and philology. These fields supply the needed material metaphysical interface for archaeology, the bridge of information found in language. Harboring more than the lithic signature about a culture, this information is vital in identifying core religious beliefs of ancient cultures. As Corduan explains, “In a traditional society, information is never neutral; it is always charged with religious content.”2


The Evolutionary Model of Religion
The evolutionary model of culture and religion is the competing and rather tenuous paradigm of origins.3 The premise is that man progressed out of primitive religious forms into more complex ones. Religion was just another facet in the general technological process towards sophistication. Therefore, the earlier the culture the more primitive religion was - industrially, sociologically, and conceptually. According to the contributors of this model, once “human beings evolved past their bestial nature, they started fumbling about unsuccessfully with attempts at magic in order to control their environment.”4 It is assumed in the evolutionary model that human cultures progressed biologically and ideologically, where society was shaped according to fundamental laws or determinism, a carryover from the mechanistic assumptions of evolution generated in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The details in the progression are as follows. As early man developed cognitively and tried to make sense of his world, he began to conceive of unseen metaphysical realities to insure the survivability and cohesion of a people group. Thus, the most primitive cultures identified a simple impersonal spiritual force called mana which can cause well-being, fertility, or evil with different objects containing varying amounts of it. Special objects called fetishes may localize greater quanties of mana and the responsibility rests on humans to manage and channel it. Magic manipulates mana using the correct techniques to bring about the desired results. A late example of this concept comes from the Cabeza de Vaca account when an Indian near Galveston Bay told him in 1528 that “the stones and other things that the fields produce have powers.”5

The next step in the evolutionary progress of religion gives mana a more intimate touch in the form of personal spirits, or animism. Typically, there are two kinds of spirits, nature spirits and ancestor spirits. Nature spirits have human form and personality, and reside in anything from rocks to animals. Ancestor spirits are thought to be the spirits of departed relatives and have some power (more than humans) but are not infinite. The spirits are imperceptible and can cause good, calamity, or just nagging frustrations. As they are a source of insight and like to be informed and respected, humans consult with the spirits through divination. As Corduan explains:

The spirits of animism need attention. They want to beinformed, honored, and in most cases fed. Spirit veneration…almost always includes various food offerings, as well as possibly far more demanding sacrifices…if the sprits are satisfied, one can pray…However, if they are not happy, the spirits may cause harm..6

The model holds that somewhere in history polytheism phased in the third stage where humans went from venerating spirits to worshipping more superior gods. As cultures grew more sophisticated and people began to comprehend abstract ideas like courage or justice, people affixed gods to these attributes which became spirits personified. Gods are innately more powerful than spirits and require worship, not just respect. Thus, they are less capable of being manipulated and magic-like techniques are refined as the god dictates. One example of the idolatry characterized by the natives at the contact period comes from the Calusa, with practices that fall somewhere between animism and god worship. A Catholic priest noted in 1569 that “they engaged in their idolatries in a hut apart, where there were many wooden masks, painted in white, red, and black…[the principle idols had] noses two yards in length.”7

Closely related to this third phase is the fourth phase in the evolution of religion called henotheism, where one god is elevated and worshipped over others. This is not monotheism or one god per se, but one god as superior over others. The final and most advanced stage in the evolutionary model is monotheism. The assumption is that as cultures became more developed, they also became monotheistic as the notion of one God required a higher sense of thought. Monotheism requires sophistication, which is at least half-true as monotheism is correctly associated with initial intelligence in an original design. 8 .....

Read the complete column in the Central States Archaeological Societies 2020 July Journal which can be purchased on-line after March 2021