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EXPLORERS, AND SETTLERS
God created this Indian country and it was like He spread out a big blanket. He put the Indians on it. They were created here in this country, and that was the time this river started to run. Then God created fish in this river and put deer in these mountains and made laws through which has come the increase of game and fish . . . Whenever the seasons open I raise my heart in thanks to the Creator for his bounty that this food has come.
Meninock, Yakima chief, 1915
The history of prayer in America began unfolding long before the golden age of exploration, a fact often missed by modern Americans. Nonetheless, when European settlers arrived in the New World, they did not at first recognize the unique spiritual heritage of Native Americans. Religious, cultural, and language barriers too often obfuscated the fact that these various tribes and nations had developed their own prayers and devotional rituals over generations. While Native Americans' conception of a higher power had been formed in isolation of revelations experienced by other civilizations, their desire to express themselves spiritually was every bit as intense and as devout. In time both groups would come to recognize their common spirituality.
On the eve of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, more than 250 languages, largely unintelligible to one another, were spoken throughout the territory that now makes up the United States.1 From the Inuits of the Arctic, whom the English voyager Martin Frobisher first encountered, to the Seminoles of Florida, who greeted the Spanish explorer Ponce de Le—n in his quest for the fountain of youth, entire Indian nations had developed independent cultures. For Native Americans, prayer stood as a channel to some guiding force that they did not clearly understand but that, they believed, contributed in some important way to their existence. Central to all of them was a profound sense of a higher power, who had a critical impact on their welfare.
American Indians thrived in a daily rhythm in which the word "religion" did not exist, simply because no distinct creed of faith could be separated from existence itself. No churches were built; no weekdays were set aside for worship. Life and prayer were practically seamless. In effect, God cast no shadow because Native Americans integrated the divine into all things. An etched panel at the Jemez State Monument in New Mexico, written by an anonymous member of the Jemez tribe, captures the basic Indian approach to spirituality: "We have no word that translates what is meant by 'religion.' We have a spiritual life that is part of us twenty-four hours a day. It determines our relationship with the natural world of our fellow man. Our religious practices are the same as in the time of our ancestors."2
Through the power, wisdom, and genuine love of the Great Creator, all living things by extension were sacred. Indeed the word "sacred" was interwoven into the languages and pervaded the thoughts of all Native Americans. Its very notion sustained a reverence that reminded them always of their obligations as inheritors of the earth and vanguards of their peoplepast, present, and future. In many ways Native Americans were more attuned to prayer than most newly arrived Europeans and Africans. They often built doors to their tepees and huts to the East, allowing them to wake up in the morning, face the sun, and pray as their first act of the day. "Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone," was how Ohiyesa put it.3 One Indian chief, in what today is Oklahoma, put it another way more than a century ago: "When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light. Give thanks for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and give thanks for the joy of living. And if per chance you see no reason for giving thanks, rest assured the fault is in yourself."4
Few early Native Americans took their lives for granted. In prayer they thanked all living things. Only in practice did prayer differ from nation to nation, defined by geography, climate, harvests, hunting, and other circumstances. The Hupas of northwestern California held an annual acorn feast, normally celebrated in November, to express their gratitude for the latest acorn harvest. After the elaborate sacred invocations were finished, the tribe would eat the first acorns that had fallen from the tan oak trees nearby, jubilant that for another season the Creator had blessed them. "All plants are our brothers and sisters," they believed. "They talk to us and if we listen, we can hear them." A Choctaw hunter in modern Louisiana would always whisper before killing his prey, "Deer, I am sorry to hurt you. But the people are hungry."5 America's flora and fauna were sacred, integral members of the Indian life cycle.
The environment played an important part in the life of Native Americans, contributing to a peaceful spiritual existence for the Navajos of the southwest deserts or the more ambitious Algonquins in the woodlands of the Northeast. The Inuits of the Arctic, better known as Eskimos, were a case in point. Never numbering more than 100,000 and spread over a territory that extended from Alaska to Greenland, they were greatly influenced by climate and their immediate surroundings. The water and the sky were the focus of their needs for survival and, in turn, of their prayers. The aurora borealis, those great northern lights, constantly reminded them of the wonders of the universe.
In the midst of the long, dark winter and the seemingly endless daylight of summer, the Inuits conjured up fascinating tales that gave rise to their prayers. Some stories told of the old woman who lived under the sea and interacted with the waters and the great spirits of the earth where the Inuits gathered most of their food. Prayer was such a potent force for the Inuit people that it was used as an independent, powerful commodity to be traded. These prayers, known as serrats, originated from the visions of blessed people and were thought to have the power to either heal or impart good fortune. Seen as independent forces in their own right, serrats would be bartered, allowing the owner to receive something of great value in return.6
While each person would commune with the spirit world throughout the day, their prayers as second nature to them as breathing, they would also join one another in offering special invocations. Within a group, prayer could be spoken, chanted, whispered, or sung, almost always through one individual on behalf of everyone else. The words, rhythms, and melodies were carefully chosen to convey the images and the proper setting of a particular petition. Special ceremonial dances were performed to provide meaning to a prayer, each step and bodily movement holding special significance. Together penitents worked toward achieving "one thought," a collective mindfulness in reaching out to a higher power.
At critical moments in their lives, Native Americans relied on the skills of the shaman. The shaman, either a man or a woman, could possess various levels of spiritual potency and perform certain rituals that varied widely from tribe to tribe. Despite the differences, however, shamans shared one vital purpose: they served as a medium to the spiritual world.
A tribe would determine whether a person was destined to become a shaman during his or her childhood and adolescence. At a tender age, a future shaman would undergo some spiritual experience, not always comprehensible to others but confirmed and blessed by the elders. From that transforming moment, the tribe would formally recognize the chosen one's calling and ability to help effect change in the future life of the tribe.
The novice shaman would then face an initiation rite in which he or she would attest to out-of-body experiences. Whether soaring to the heavens or plunging to the depths of the underworld, a shaman would meet the spirits with whom a lifetime relationship would be formed. These gods and other supernatural forces would provide the shaman with the wherewithal to perform everything from curing sickness to ensuring that the fall harvest or the upcoming buffalo hunt would yield enough food for the tribe.
In their vision quests and supplications to the supernatural, Native Americans used objects and natural substances to enhance their rituals. Prayer sticks, prayer bowls, and prayer feathers were integral to their ceremonies, as were animal skulls and bones. Colorful attire was worn to project a particular mood and carry special petitions to the Creator. Special drums, bells, and wind instruments were played only in sacred settings. Tobacco, corn husks, and even hallucinatory peyote from western cactus were used to heighten the human senses in spiritual encounters.
One of the more endearing prayer ceremonies involved the use of the sacred pipe, a tradition among tribes in the West and Midwest. Finding a special, holy spot, a shaman or elder would pack a long ornamental pipe with some natural substance and turn the bowl of the pipe in the direction of the heavens, as if to offer the Almighty a smoke from his pipe.
Like the practitioners of many world religions, Native Americans showed their reverence by both fasting and praying, cleansing their bodies and souls in the process. Not unlike Muslims who wash their feet and hands before entering a mosque, many Indians built sweat lodges, the equivalent of saunas, to cleanse themselves before praying on important occasions. The Iroquois nation in today's upstate New York even conducted "thanksgiving addresses" every time a tribal ceremony was held to show gratitude to their Creator. More regularly, they would chant a series of spiritual "gratitudes" similar to the litanies of Catholics or the mantras of Asian religions. To lend their prayer of thanks the greatest piety possible, they would add some eighteen different expressions of gratitude.
Indians also took pilgrimages to sacred sites that reinforced their ties to ancient traditions. These holy places could be the edge of a village boundary or some destination several days away. Each year, for example, the men of the Papago tribe in modern-day Arizona would travel by foot for several days to the Gulf of California, where they would gather salt for their village. Taking a carefully charted route, the pilgrims, the youngest being no more than sixteen years old, would pray at designated stops along the way. During one leg of the journey and for a twenty-four-hour period, the men would neither eat nor drink, each receiving a personal vision from the spiritual world. Once they reached the salt deposits along the shore, they would pray far more intensely, offering cornmeal and prayer sticks, which they had prayed over before leaving their village, to show their devotion. When they returned home with their sacks of salt, intended to be used for everything from food preparation to ceremonial rituals, they would pray again in gratitude for the gifts they had been given and for having been able to endure the journey.
Most Native Americans lacked a written language, so their prayers were passed down verbally from one generation to the next. Fascinated by the lore and richness of Indian culture, Europeans and their early American descendants recorded many of the prayers and spiritual practices of the tribes and nations on the continent.
One prayer, documented by John Heckewelder, a prominent Moravian missionary from eastern Pennsylvania, was titled "The Song of the Lenape Warriors Going against the Enemy." As the Lenape invocation shows, a warrior preparing for battle experienced much of the same anxieties and emotions that any modern American GI would face. In the end prayer provided a spiritual shield to what might lie ahead:
O poor me!
Who am going out to fight the enemy
And know not whether I shall return again,
To enjoy the embraces of my children
And my wife.
O poor creature!
Whose life is not in his own hands,
Who has no power over his own body,
But tries to do his duty
For the welfare of his nation.
O! thou Great Spirit above!
Take pity on my children
And on my wife!
Prevent their mourning on my account!
Grant that I may be successful in this attempt
That I may slay my enemy,
And bring home the trophies of war
To my dear family and friends,
That we may rejoice together.
O! Take pity on me!
Give me strength and courage to meet my enemy,
Suffer me to return again to my children,
To my wife
And to my relations!
Take pity on me and preserve my life
And I will make to thee a sacrifice.7
There were less stressful prayer rites, invocations joyously offered at seminal moments in a person's life. The Zunis of the Southwest developed some of the most elaborate prayer rituals of any of the ancient American civilizations, the sun being the focus of their attention.
In one of the most important Zuni rites, each infant, eight days after birth, was made ready for presentation to the sun, the equivalent of a Christian baptism. His "aunts," the women of his father's clan, would wash his head and begin a strict, time-honored rite. Cornmeal was then fixed to the baby's hand as he was taken outside at sunrise and gently cradled. In facing the sun to the east, the paternal grandmother would sprinkle cornmeal around the baby's body while invoking the prayer:
Now this is the day,
Into the daylight
You will go out standing . . .
It is your day.
The flesh of white corn,
To our sun father
This prayer meal we offer.
May your road be fulfilled
Reaching to the road of your sun father,
When your road is fulfilled
In your thoughts (may we live).
May we be the ones whom your thoughts will embrace,
For this, on this day
To our sun father.
We offer prayer meal.
To this end:
May you help us all to finish our roads.8
Later events in the child's life, from the first laugh to the advent of adolescence, would be commemorated with special prayer rituals as well. Every Indian mother, Zuni or otherwise, considered her first duty to teach her child about the sacredness of life and death, and the importance of prayer.
Modern americans may have difficulty differentiating between the great Native American nations and identifying their leaders, but the distinctions are enormous. There was the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, from modern-day Ohio, who underwent an extraordinary mystical experience through his prayers. In his visions, he spoke of how he saw the heaven and the hell that awaited his kinsmen after earthly life. He also summoned in his mind the distant past and the future, mesmerizing the Shawnees with his riveting tales. There were the prophets Wodziwob and Wovoka of the northern Paiutes in the area of today's Nevada, who initiated two different movements to promote the Ghost Dance, a prayer ritual that rapidly spread across American tribes in the late nineteenth century, to implore the Creator to help them confront the realities of living alongside the white man.