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A Dynamic Account of Religion's Central Role in American History
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- Revised Edition
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- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.16(d)
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The "New World" was of course not new to those peoples who had inhabited it for tens of thousands of years before any Europeans arrived. Having crossed a no longer visible land or ice bridge from Asia to the Aleutian Islands, migrants settled in Alaska or, over a period of centuries, slowly spread to the east and south all across North America, then even farther south into Central and South America. Completing this slow but steady dispersal of population may have taken as long as twenty-five thousand years. Evidence for such an expansive migration comes through archaeological discoveries and surviving, widely scattered microcultures, these revealing that lands unknown to medieval Europeans already enjoyed much human habitation and high civilization.
Long before pharaohs sat on ancient Egyptian thrones, long before Moses led his people out of that Egypt, and long before Homer wrote The Iliad or Rome rose to mighty power, inhabitants of the Americas had hunted and fished, planted and reaped, loved and married, given birth and buried their dead. These inhabitants also ordered their lives in accordance with certain patterns of behavior and explained their existence and their universe in accordance with certain principles of understanding. They had, in other words, become religious.
The religion of these earliest Americans was as diverse as the times of their settlement, as varied as the tribal organizations themselves. If one is inclined to think of pluralism as a phenomenon of the twentieth century, it is important to recognize that the American continents were never so pluralisticas in the centuries before European discovery and exploration. Pluralism was reduced, not enhanced, by the "invasion of America." No single religious institution, no single sacred book, no unified priesthood or common creed can be found in the multicolored patterns of the lives of these ancient peoples. Yet, the effort should be made to understand something of their religious aspirations and activities.
Understanding does not come easily, since we do not have the kind of rich literary documentation upon which historians traditionally depend. We must draw upon oral traditions and the archaeologist's trowel, upon the geologist's data for the Ice Age and the chemist's methods of dating, upon reading from the present back into the past, upon informed guesses and presumed universalities, and in later centuries upon the reports of missionaries and other observers. We cannot draw upon a common history, for no recorded history is shared between European Americans or Afro-Americans and these wanderers of old. We can, however, draw upon a common nature shared with these as with all peoples: common needs, common anxieties, common questions if not-quite-common answers. What is most required in our search of the past is the desire to understand.
Misunderstanding came early in the application of the name Indian, since Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the outermost islands of India. Yet, in giving to these people an Asian origin, Columbus's misnomer was not hopelessly wrong. And some shorthand term is useful, just so long as it is not offensive and so long as it does not lull us into assuming a false unity. For never will we find that convenient construct called "the Indian," much less that abstraction designated as "Indian religion." When we use the shorthand, we are really referring to the Abnaki, Blackfeet, Crow, Delaware, Eskimo, Flathead, Ghost Dancers, Hopi, Iroquois--and so on through the rest of the alphabet. Each tribe had to come to terms with its own environment, whether of woodlands or plains, seashores or deserts. And each tribe had to find some terms to explain to themselves who and why they were.
Religious practices and religious stories played major roles in these accommodations and understandings. If rains were scarce and crucial to survival, then much religious ritual centered on urging or sacrificing or praying that rains might come. If the success of the hunt or the fertility of the soil were central to tribal life, then religion (along with sharp arrows and good seeds) was called upon to do its part. Just as environment dictated some of the differences, so the search for one's place in the universe could take many paths. The questions tended to be the same: Where did I (we) come from? Why must I (we) die? What is permitted (or forbidden) for me (us) to do? What separates us from, or unites us with, other peoples of other tribes or totems or lineages? What rules the sun, or the seasons, or even the affairs of the heart? And while the questions are widely shared, it is in the answers that one finds a rich diversity, a lively pluralism.
Cherokees of the Southeast regarded the earth as "a great island floating in a sea of water" and suspended at its four extremities "by a cord hanging down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock." Pimas in the Southwest saw the "Earth Magician" as the creative agent who shaped the world, "Round and smooth he molds it."
Earth Magician makes the mountains.
Heed what he has to say!
He it is that makes the mesas.
Heed what he has to say.
Tsimshians in the Northwest explained the light of the sun with a story of The One Who Walks All Over the Sky. This One wears a mask of burning pitch which warms and illumines as he makes his way from east to west. Sparks flying out of his mouth at night account for the stars, while the moon receives its light from the face of the sleeping sun. When the sun paints his face with red ocher, that redness visible in the evening tells the people that the weather will be good the next day. And in the Northeast the Iroquois elaborated their account of Sky World, Earth, and Underworld with stories that explained not only where people came from but where, after death, they would go.
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Meet the Author
Edwin S. Gaustad is a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. He is a noted church historian and the author of over a dozen books, including The Great Awakening in New England, Dissent in American Religion, and A Religious History of America.
Leigh Eric Schmidt is professor of religion at Princeton University and the co-author with Edwin S. Gaustad of The Religious History of America. Widely published as a cultural historian, essayist, and reviewer, he has won book prizes from the American Studies Association, the American Society of Church History, and the American Academy of Religion.
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