July 10, 2001

Native American Values and Spirituality 

Values and spirituality were some of few things shared by all Indians. There were some minor variations.

Names often came from family names given at birth. Adult names were determined by individual characteristics. Names had a peculiar meaning. One’s adult name was given at about 14-15 years of age.

Example: Sitting Bull: had reputation for being stubborn, set in ways. Another Indian, Red Cloud: fierce in battle; was only Indian chief to win a WAR with the U.S. Government.

The roles of men were delineated by tradition; primarily hunting and warfare. Women did all other work. This led to conclusion by Europeans that Indian men were lazy, indolent, as they were not seen working often.

The tribe was community oriented. The good of the group was more important than the individual. All were products of nature; all were equal, so all should help one another. The Europeans were quite the opposite. Individual was more important than the group.

Woodlands Indians also practiced respect for aged. They were highly respected due to their knowledge and life experiences. Often deferred to wishes of elders. Even adults listened to elders. This was an important part of their culture. (Present day America is youth oriented.)

Individuality was emphasized more than conformity; Americans claim individuality, but are really quite conformist. In 1950’s, there was glaring conformity. Anyone who did not conform was un-American.

Essay Topic: Was it inevitable that the Indian Culture would be destroyed by Europeans?

American values were quite different from European values, so much so that they could not be reconciled – the Europeans saw to that; so it was pretty much inevitable that the Indian culture would be destroyed.

· Europeans often enslaved Indian men; forced them to work in fields, which, in Indian culture, was the work of women. This was quite demeaning. Also, they had no experience in farming; gardening, etc.

· Time was unimportant to the Indians. They had no concept of hours, dates, etc. This was also contrary to European values where time was important.

The differences in culture were irreconcilable; to that extent, destruction was inevitable.

Family Relations: Eastern Woodland Indians were different: Women dictated events in the tribal community. They were the final authority. The society was completely Matrilineal. When a man married, he moved in with his wife’s family.

Woman had incredible power within the tribe; even selected the Chiefs. Chiefs were chosen by women meeting in council, could countermand any decision that he made. They pretty much ruled the roost.

There was no one Chief, but Chiefs. There was a war chief, selected to lead battles, a peace chief, a Hunting chief, even a chief of women and children.

The E. Woodland Indians were by and large monogamous. They preferred this to polygamy as it kept the community stable and calm, avoided disharmony. Again, the welfare of the community as a whole was more important; discord hurt the community.

Monogamous relationships also kept bloodlines pure; often married outside clan; even they understood the dangers of inbreeding.

Prostitution was common, but there was no moral stigma and no STD’s; a prostitute was considered to be rendering a service.

Historical tidbit: There was no evidence of STD’s in either Indians or Europeans until the two groups met and did their thing. Then they showed up, but only in the Europeans. It is widely thought that the Indians carried the bug in their system but were immune to it.

Since Prostitution was a service to the community; a man’s wife did not normally get upset if he employed her services. Typically, she did not have a man in her life; so this was a means of livelihood. She was paid with furs, hides, protection; things a husband would normally provide.

Among the Creek Indians, Prostitutes were paint on their faces, arms, etc. which designated their role in the community. Hence the phrase which Europeans used to describe them: "Painted ladies."

Children were highly valued and desired. They kept the tribe in existence, and were thus considered necessary. Warfare was often brutal, took many lives; also many Indians died from disease; so it was important to keep children coming. Also, children could care for one when one became elderly.

Some birth control was practiced; depending on how well one could provide for a family. During a bad year, a drought, etc., one would not want to bring in more mouths to feed. Most common method was the Nancy Reagan method: "Just say no." There was a liquid contraceptive made from native plants that would abort the fetus; sort of a "morning after" drink.

After childbirth, one abstained from sex for six months. For many tribes, particularly the Hurons, this was enforced.

Illegitimate children were not desired; often were destroyed; particularly among the Creek Indians. Only the father of the child could kill it; It was a stigma for a wife to have a child by another man; plus there were economic reasons; the father may not be able to provide for the child.

Fathers were responsible for providing for the child; if it were a boy, he must each him moral values, hunting, fighting skills, etc. If the child were illegitimate and allowed to live for six months, it could not be killed legally.

Infidelity was uncommon, but did occur on occasion. The victim had the right to divorce the offending spouse.

Death was a serious matter. If a Husband died, the children were required to take care of their mother as long as she lived. Some tribes did not require children to support the father; but the Hurons did.

A period of grief and mourning was required if there were a death; normally a few months to a year. A woman could not remarry during her time of mourning.

The exception to this rule were the Iroquois. If a dead man had a brother, the brother could marry his sister-in-law right away. A woman could be released from her mourning period if she had sex with her brother in law. She could then do as she pleased, and marry whomever she pleased, but she had to have sex with him first.

Men were not so limited. A man needed a good woman, so he could marry quickly.

Body Design: The Choctaw Indians flattened the heads of infants, as a flat head was considered a sign of beauty. Another group in Montana did this, were known as the "Flathead Indians."

The Natchez Indians blackened their teeth with tobacco and ash; also considered a beauty mark. They also liked body tattoos, carvings, etc. Often would put sand in holes made by tattoo instrument; created a bead effect.

Among some Indians, a man with a shaved head was considered handsome.

The WAMPUM BELT was a belt tracing family history. It reflected all the great events in the family’s history or the tribe’s existence. It was mostly shells on a leather strap, had significance as it told something of the individual. It really wasn’t a "belt," just recorded history which was quite important to the individual. It was used as a trade item with Europeans, thus the idea that it was "money."

Group orientation was very important; the Europeans marveled at this. There were no paupers as long as anyone in the community had the means to feed them; Village as a whole would do without before an individual would do without. They were extremely communal; group first; even child discipline was a common concern. They worked together, shared everything; the welfare of the group came first.

Strangers were normally welcomed; fed, cared for as long as they were in the community; something of a "golden rule," "brother’s keeper" approach.

Tribal Organization:

Organization was quite rigid. A tribe consisted of between 500 – 2500 people. Each tribe was divided into a Clan which was a large family unit; parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, anyone remotely related was a member of the same clan. Within the clan was the Ohwachira; a subunit of immediate family, parents, uncles, aunts, maybe grandparents. The last subdivision was the Fireside, which was the family at its lowest level, parents, children, maybe grandchildren or grandparents.

First allegiance was to the tribe, then to the clan. If the clan was not affected, then to the ohwachira. The Fireside was the smallest and least important unit of concern.

Government: The supreme law of the tribe was decisions made by the tribal councils. This was primarily women.

Dreams and Myths: Legends and myths served several purposes; they not only entertained children but also was an attempt to explain natural phenomena and teach a lesson at the same time. Indians were not scientifically inclined, so myths and legends were used to explain things they did not understand.

Two legends: How the bear lost his tail, and the legend of Natabozo, which explains why geese fly in a V, shaped pattern. (See legends in handouts). This is very similar to our legend of Santa Claus, etc. These legends also served to impart knowledge and value to children. The legend of the bear teaches that the fox is cunning and sneaky; and warns them not to be naïve, like the bear. The story of Natabozo would teach them how to make a rope out of birch bark.

Dreams to the Eastern Woodlands Indians were expressions of one’s inner desires, although one may outwardly mask his feelings or intentions. To the Iroquois, unconscious desires had physical manifestations; would appear at some point.

One would normally find a third party, hopefully an objective party, to interpret one’s dream; and one might be encouraged to perform "free association."

Iroquois believed dreams were the product of sexual desires or suppressed desires about relationships. (Sounds like Freud to me.) They believed that dreams and visions dictated future courses of action; and further that problems could be solved in a dream.

Eastern Woodlands Indians normally were completely naked in warm weather months; wore buckskin in cold weather. Because of this and other habits, etc. that did not square with European ideas; Europeans immediately thought of Indians as primitives, savages, etc; when truthfully beneath the surface they were a a highly complex civilization. 

Plains Indians

Plains Indians lived in middle America. Originally, the tribes were quite diverse, and lived secluded from each other. They lived on the edge of the plains, and seldom ventured onto them, until introduced to the horse by the Spanish in 1500’s.

Prior to the horse, they were not nomadic; but led a sedentary lifestyle; they lived near water, near woods, farmed, fished, and hunted near the edges of the plains.

The Eastern Indians did not ever have horses; didn’t need them; and the Plains Indians did not have them until the Spanish introduced them.

The horse made it possible for the Plains Indians to pursue buffalo onto the plains, and readily adapted this scheme. Buffalo was very useful to them, similar to the Deer for the Plains Indians. (see diagram). It was the lure of the buffalo, and its many uses that made the Indians attracted to the horse.

Prior to the horse, access to buffalo was sporadic; as they had to be hunted and killed on foot. They often used the "buffalo jump," stampeding them over cliffs. The Horse gave them mobility; and they could pursue the buffalo. As a result, they became nomadic, had no need to stay in one place.

This also caused contact with other Indian groups, and led to animosity; conflict. Crow and Sioux Indians became bitter enemies; but Cheyenne and Arapaho became allies.

Contact with other tribes required development of sign language. Also developed pictograms. There had been no sign language before this time, as there was no need.

Plains Indians had a population was 200,000 by 1800. Among them, the most warlike were the Blackfoot; they were incredibly warlike. No one messed with them.

Living arrangements were dictated by the horse and by their nomadic lifestyle. They lived in a Tepee, typically 15 – 17 feet tall. It was egg-shaped, not round; could be easily dismantled and transported. It was made of Buffalo hides stitched together. The backside of the Tepee was straight, almost perpendicular, with the front sloped towards it. This created a draft so that smoke would be drawn out the top. It could be dismantled in about 15 minutes, and put up in about 30 minutes. It was pulled on a device known as a travois. (see diagram)

Certain etiquette prevailed. One would announce himself before entering another’s tepee. If invited, he would go in; but only if invited in. Upon entering, one always moved from right to left inside, never the other way.

Plains Indians carried nothing they did not absolutely need. Dogs had to work as guards or to pull the travois, they were NOT kept merely as pets. When the dog couldn’t pull his weight any more, he was killed and eaten. Dogs were a regular part of the plains Indian diet.

The same was true of horses, although horses also constituted wealth. Once they became too old to work or be of value, they were eaten.

If the tribe settled near a tree line, a fence was build around the teepee as a wind-break.

Tepees always had an opening facing the East. That way the backside normally was hit by wind first, and could absorb the force of the wind. Also, there was a spiritual reason. Indians were NOT sun worshipers, but thought that the sun was the most powerful representation of the Great Spirit. This was similar to a cross in a church. So, in morning, the first thing they saw was the sun, which reminded them of the Great Spirit.

The Buffalo was extremely vital to plains Indians. It was their ultimate source of life (see diagram). Skin from the neck was used to make war shields. Lewis and Clark counted over 200 uses the Indians made of the Buffalo.

Tribal Management: Tribes were very small; members were closely related biologically. Outside members were normally related by marriage. There were normally approximately 150 members, with a maximum of 300. Because they were nomadic, they needed to keep their numbers small. Larger groups were harder to defend; were also noisier and smellier; easier for the buffalo to detect, which made hunting difficult. Buffalo could easily be spooked.

Tribal Government was very simplistic There was a tribal council, but family groups were not divided as in the Woodlands Indians. There were multiple chiefs (6 – 8) in charge of War, Peace, Spiritual matters, hunting, even women and children.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians was chief of Women and Children; but a fierce fighter.

Decisions of the tribal council were not enforced; individuals were not obligated to follow them; but one could not do anything that would hurt the tribe as a whole. IF one wanted peace and the tribe wanted war, one was not obligated to fight; so there was some individuality; but the welfare of the tribe came first.

The Chiefdoms were granted on the basis of wisdom and intelligence. It was not won in battle, nor was it inherited. One did not become chief simply because his father had been.

Marriage was expected an practiced, but multiple marriages were practiced and approved. There wee normally many more single women than men, because of wars, and women needed a man, so more than one wife was quite common.

If another woman hit on a woman’s husband, she was not offended; in fact it was normally considered a complement: she had a good catch.

Marriage ceremony was quite simple. One didn’t "buy" his wife; but he did have to earn the respect of his future father in law; normally by bringing gifts to him, indicating one’s bravery and competence.

Usually horses were a good indication that one was a competent warrior. Horses were a symbol of wealth, the only symbol of wealth practiced by the plains Indians; so if one brought, say, four horses to his prospective father in law, it meant that he was a good warrior, as he had to capture the horses from an enemy. The gift proved one’s mettle.

The marriage ceremony was short and sweet. In it the girl raised her arms to the North, East, West, and South.

A woman had some say so in whom she married. Could turn down a prospective husband in some particular situations. If she were a virgin, among the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow, she could refuse to marry a man……but the father in law got to keep the goodies!

If she was not a virgin, if she "had a hole in her moccasin" (Indian phrase), by reason of a relationship with someone other than the prospective husband, she had no choice if the father agreed to the marriage.

If she were not a virgin, and married another man, the first man could come back and claim her, and she had no choice but to go with him. Husband had no recourse. One did not fight, as this was considered dishonorable; and any emotional response was considered demeaning.

There were two weird groups in these tribes:

Berdache: This was a man who lived his life as a woman. Not necessarily gay, but may well have been. There were gay Indians. He behaved like a woman, dressed like a woman, and performed womanly chores. He did not fight, and was a woman in almost every aspect of life. There was no negative connotation to this; there was no attitude of scorn, or slanderous remarks. The Indians believed that Nature (or the Great Spirit) had made this person that way, so he was accepted as such……it was considered to be not of the persons choice. ("Born, not made.")

Contrary: This was one who brought shame on himself. He may have stolen, avoided the hunt, shown cowardice in battle, not do something he should have done in battle, etc. He was required to do everything backwards. He walked backwards, rode his horse backwards, hello meant goodbye and vice versa, he washed in the sand and dried in the river; if a "charge" order was given in battle, he retreated, and if a retreat order given, he charged. EVERYTHING HE DID WAS COMPLETELY BACKWARDS.

One was required to keep up this backward conduct until such time as his honor was restored, by whatever means.

Movie: Little Big Man shows berdache and contrary.