Prophets of the Great Spirit

Prophets of the Great Spirit

by Alfred Cave

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Prophets of the Great Spirit offers an in-depth look at the work of a diverse group of Native American visionaries who forged new, syncretic religious movements that provided their peoples with the ideological means to resist white domination. By blending ideas borrowed from Christianity with traditional beliefs, they transformed “high” gods or a distant and aloof creator into a powerful, activist deity that came to be called the Great Spirit. These revitalization leaders sought to regain the favor of the Great Spirit through reforms within their societies and the inauguration of new ritual practices.

Among the prophets included in this study are the Delaware Neolin, the Shawnee Tenkswatawa, the Creek “Red Stick” prophets, the Seneca Handsome Lake, and the Kickapoo Kenekuk. Covering more than a century, from the early 1700s through the Kickapoo Indian removal of the Jacksonian Era, the prophets of the Great Spirit sometimes preached armed resistance but more often used nonviolent strategies to resist white cultural domination. Some prophets rejected virtually all aspects of Euro-American culture. Others sought to assure the survival of their culture through selective adaptation.

Alfred A. Cave explains the conditions giving rise to the millenarian movements in detail and skillfully illuminates the key histories, personalities, and legacies of the movement. Weaving an array of sources into a compelling narrative, he captures the diversity of these prophets and their commitment to the common goal of Native American survival.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803256330
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Publication date: 06/01/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 421 KB

About the Author

Alfred A. Cave is a professor of history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of The Pequot War.

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Prophets of the Great Spirit

Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America

By Albert A. Cave

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-1555-X

Chapter One

The Delaware Prophets

David Brainerd, Presbyterian missionary to the Delawares, had
little respect for his prospective converts. Indians, he declared,
were "unspeakably indolent and slothful" and "have little or
no resolution or ambition. Not one in a thousand of them has
the spirit of a man." High strung, frail, and humorless, Brainerd
might well have been a model for the typical British missionary
described some years later by Sir William Johnson: "well meaning
but Gloomy," determined "to abolish at once their most innocent
Customs, Dances, Rejoycings." Sir William, the Crown's
superintendent of Indian affairs for the Northern District, complained
that, in comparison to their French Jesuit rivals, British
missionaries were both ignorant and tactless in their dealings
with Indians. Since he spoke none of the local languages, young
Brainerd relied on an interpreter. He avoided close contact with
Indians and boarded with nearby white settlers when in Indian
country. When he called at their villages he sometimes employed
a dramatic and confrontational strategy, interrupting religious
rituals and challenging the local spiritual leaders to use their
witchcraft against him.

In one instance, however, the village shaman did not follow
the usual practice of ignoring the missionary's presence. In his
diary, Brainerd recorded that in the summer of 1744, while visiting
a Delaware village on the Juniata River, he was accosted by a
bearskin-clad figure wearing "a great wooden face, painted one
half black, the other tawny." Its mouth was "extravagant, cut very
much awry." The apparition shook his tortoise rattle and danced
toward Brainerd "with all his might." The missionary cowered,
for "although it was then noonday, and I knew who it was, his
appearance and gestures were so prodigiously frightful" that they
invoked fear of "infernal powers." Never before, he confessed in
his diary, had any sight "inspired such images of terror in my

Brainerd's confrontation with the shaman then took an unexpected
turn. To his surprise, his antagonist, who spoke English,
treated him with "uncommon courtesy" and suggested that they
talk of matters of the spirit. Sitting together in "a house consecrated
to religious uses ... the ground beat almost hard as
a rock with their constant dancing," Brainerd learned that his
companion believed that God had called on him to revive "the
ancient religion of the Indians." The shaman tried to explain his
experience, to tell the missionary how, after leading a pointless
and dissolute life, he withdrew into the woods and, after months
of solitude, received his calling. Brainerd interjected that his
companion's vision came from the Devil, not God, as all Indian
religious beliefs and modes of worship were diabolical in origin.
He warned that their adherents would suffer the eternal fires of
hell. The shaman protested. There was no devil, not in Indian
belief, nor was there a hell. Christianity, he told the missionary,
might be fine for whites, but God wanted Indians to follow their
old ways.

The shaman puzzled Brainerd. Impressed by his sincerity and
honesty, the missionary reflected that "there was something in
his temper and disposition that looked more like true religion
than anything I ever observed among the heathen." But the
shaman stubbornly refused to consider accepting the Christian
faith. Brainerd was disappointed but not worried. He did not
regard his companion as a serious competitor. The shaman's own
people, Brainerd concluded, scorned their holy man as "a precise
zealot that made a needless noise about religious matters." The
Delawares, he insisted, were essentially a profane, degenerate,
and irreligious people.

David Brainerd did not understand the Delaware Indians, and
he was not inclined to inquire too deeply into their beliefs. His
account of his conversation with the shaman is striking for its lack
of insight into the nature of the shaman's experience. There is
reason to suspect that the shaman may have been telling the
missionary about his vision quest. Had he undertaken a "sky
journey" to the Creator similar to that later experienced by the
prophet Neolin? We cannot be sure, as Brainerd dismisses the
matter, declaring that the Delaware holy man was mistaken in
believing that God had inspired him. One wonders exactly what
the shaman was trying to tell Brainerd. One thing is clear: had the
missionary been more willing to take the shaman's experience
seriously, he would have gained some valuable information. His
assumption that the shaman's message would fall on deaf ears
within his own community was wide of the mark.

After Brainerd's untimely death in 1747, at the age of twenty-nine,
his younger brother John, a Yale graduate ordained to
the Presbyterian ministry in 1748, took up his work among the
Delawares. John shared his brother's disdain for Indian habits as
well as his hope that their faults could be remedied by conversion
to Christianity. John was more vigorous than David, however,
and established closer associations with the Delawares. Listening
carefully to the talk in the villages he visited, he soon sensed that
he had Native American competitors who were not, as his brother
had imagined, scorned as "zealots" by their people. They were
instead winning support for a new story of human origins that
redefined the relationship of Native Americans to the spirit world
and to the white man. In place of the old origin myths, with their
diverse agents of creation and their implicit assumption that all
humans have a common ancestor, Brainerd's Indian informants
now claimed that an omnipotent Creator-God had made Indians,
Negroes, and whites separately and that, far from being a distant
or absent deity, he actively favored people of color. Not only were
whites not superior to Indians, but they were morally suspect,
as they had enslaved the Negroes and now plotted to take the
Indians' land "and make slaves of them and their children." Some
of his informants confronted Brainerd with the charge that he
himself intended to subjugate the Delawares and become their
"king." In response to his protest that his concern was only with
their spiritual salvation, Brainerd's nativist critics replied that his
efforts were misplaced. While it might be true that the Great
Spirit had "given the white man a book and told him that he must
worship by that," Indians had not been so instructed. Christianity
was therefore a religion for whites only, containing nothing of
value for God's more favored peoples.

Given this atmosphere of distrust, Brainerd could not obtain
much specific information about the activities of the nativist
prophets who were so effectively undermining his efforts. He did
hear rumors about "a revelation lately made by a young squaw in a
trance." The prophetess had claimed that "the Great Power" had
instructed her to denounce the use of "poison" by tribal leaders.
Brainerd conjectured that the practice she challenged was a form
of witchcraft. We have reason to suspect that the prophetess's
message was far broader than he realized. She may have been a
leader in a movement to oust local leaders who collaborated with
the British, a movement that foreshadowed Delaware belligerency
in the French and Indian War.

Frontier Prophecies

Other reports from missionaries and traders provide tantalizing
but sketchy evidence of religious ferment in frontier Indian communities.
In 1737, Pennsylvania's Indian agent Conrad Weiser
wrote of a "seer" at Otseningo on the Susquehanna River who
had declared that the Great Spirit was angry with the Indians
because of their trade with Europeans and their growing addiction
to European rum. He had already driven away the game
upon which Indians depended. If Indians did not now forsake
their collusion with aliens, the Great Spirit would "wipe them
from the earth." Moravian missionaries, fluent in various Algonquian
languages, learned of prophetic stirrings elsewhere on
the Susquehanna. They reported that a Munsee holy man named
Papoonan, while mourning the death of his father, had a vision
in which he learned that a great deity which he identified as
the Creator had been deeply offended by Indian abandonment
of their "ancient customs and manners." Like later prophets,
Papoonan, in the name of the Creator, denounced the use of
alcohol. Unlike some contemporary and later prophets, he also
preached peaceful coexistence with whites. Late in life, Papoonan
joined the Moravian community on the Muskingum River in Ohio
and apparently accepted some, if not all, Christian teachings,
but the heart of his message remained a call for the restoration
of a traditional economy grounded in communal sharing and
modest utilization of native resources. The prophet warned of
the Creator's anger that many Indians were now as greedy and
selfish as the invaders. Desire for white trade goods had made
them "proud & covetous, which causes God to be Angry & to
send dry & hot summers & hard winters, & also Sickness among
the people, which he would not do if they loved one another and
would do as he would have them." This warning that emulation of
Europeans and acceptance of their economic values had brought
down upon Indians the wrath of the Great Spirit would soon be
the dominant motif in the teachings of the prophets, echoing over
and over again in the future pronouncements of Native American
holy men. Later prophets would be less accepting of even the
most altruistic of Christian missionaries.

An example of growing anti-Christian fervor is found in the
work of another Susquehanna visionary described in the Moravian
reports. Wangomend, often referred to as the Assinisink prophet,
regularly called his followers together in emotionally charged
mass meetings. Combining traditional religious practices and
new innovations, the faithful sought catharsis through all-night
dancing, "at the conclusion of which Indians wept," and then
offered "prayers to the sun at dawn." They observed "a special
thanksgiving festival" celebrated "by spectacularly painted and
flower-bedecked men and women." The faithful, adhering to a
long-standing Delaware custom, gave public testimony concerning
the "Dreams and Revelations" that had given them renewed
spirit power. Wangomend's message, which would be echoed by
other prophets in the years to come, was that Indians corrupted
by the whites were doomed to burn in hell. In his preaching,
Wangomend made use of a chart illustrating the specific torments
that would be inflicted upon rum drinkers in the world to come.
He told the Moravian missionary David Zeisberger that, during
a hunting trip, he had been visited by a great buck which had
warned him that continued emulation of whites would bring
disaster to Indians. Survival would be possible only if "they
cherished their own customs" in accordance with the will of "the
great and good spirit" who called on them to renounce everything
that was of European origin. Wangomend told another Moravian
missionary, John Heckewelder, that the Great Spirit had allowed
him "to take a peep into the heavens, of which there were three,
one for Indians, one for the Negroes, and another for the white
people." Whites were not well treated in the afterlife, however,
"for they were under chastisement for their ill treatment of the
Indians, and for possessing themselves of the land which God
had given to them. They were also punished for making beasts of
the Negroes, by selling them as the Indians do their horses and
dogs." The Assinisink prophet denounced those who listened to
Christian missionaries.

News of the prophets' teachings soon spread throughout
Native American frontier villages in Pennsylvania and the Ohio
country. The reports of the Brainerds, Weiser, Heckewelder, and
Zeisberger not only bear witness to growing nativist anger against
whites but also reveal that by the mid-eighteenth century, Native
American religious innovators were using, for their own purposes,
new concepts of heaven and hell and of a supreme, omnipotent,
and judgmental creator deity that were derived in part from
missionary accounts of the Christian God, concepts they blended
with traditionalist beliefs about the efficacy of both ritual ("frantic
dances and singing") and individual vision quests ("Dreams and

The prophetic movement culminated in the teachings of the
Delaware prophet Neolin in the early 1760s. Neolin, as we have
seen, was not the first of the nativist revitalization preachers, but
the reports we have of the teachings of his predecessors are terse
and vague. Prior to Neolin, white observers paid little attention
to Indian "prophets," but Neolin's claim that he had spoken to
the Creator and had received instruction on the means to be
employed "to drive the white people out of their country" came
to the attention of the British at a time of extreme tension on
the western frontier. Neolin's teachings were quoted extensively
by the war leader Pontiac and provided spiritual support to the
nativist uprisings of 1763-64. The account of Pontiac's description
of Neolin's trip to heaven, recorded by a French trader during
the siege of Detroit in 1763, is one of the most remarkable
and underappreciated documents of the period. Neolin and his
disciples had extensive contact with whites and were far less
secretive about their beliefs than were their predecessors. Hence,
reports of his teachings provide us with the only reasonably
comprehensive view we have of an eighteenth-century Native
American prophetic movement.

The Delawares

Before considering Neolin's message, we must digress to place
his teachings in historical context. The Delaware prophets were
the product of a century of upheaval and dislocation. Although
recognized as a distinct group by both the Dutch and the British,
the Delawares, more properly called the Lenapes, spoke several
dialects of two distinctive eastern Algonquian languages, Munsee
and Unami. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, the Delawares
had no identity as a tribe or nation. The center of Lenape life
was the village, generally inhabited by a few hundred members.
Some villages were loosely linked together in transitory alliances
generally formed to counter an external threat, but for the most
part local autonomy prevailed.

In the early seventeenth century, the Lenape homelands were
located in the Delaware valley of New Jersey, in eastern Pennsylvania,
and in southeastern New York. The Lenapes fared poorly
in their early interactions with European colonizers. Dependent
upon the fur trade for access to those European goods that
were now necessities, the they had exterminated most of the fur-bearing
animals in their locale by the 1640s. When Dutch traders
at New Amsterdam turned to the interior tribes, particularly the
Iroquois nations, for peltry, the Delawares were marginalized.
As Duane Champagne notes, "because the Delaware were not
unified or strong enough to force open trade territories from the
interior nations, they became increasingly impoverished near the
European settlements. They began to sell handicrafts, corn, meat
and land in order to obtain the European goods on which they
had grown dependent."

Poverty and pressure from both Europeans and Indian rivals
forced the Delawares westward. They suffered severe attrition
from both infectious European diseases, to which they had no
immunity, and from the intensified intergroup warfare that soon
followed after involvement in trade with Europeans. Alcohol also
took its toll. Within a century, the Lenape population declined
from an estimated ten to twelve thousand at the time of contact
to no more than three thousand. Contemporary accounts spoke
of both depopulation and demoralization as basic realities of
Lenape life in the European colonial era. The western migrations
of the Delawares were marked by severe disruptions in
established social patterns. As William Newcomb notes, "geographical
displacement" of the various Lenape communities
occurred unevenly "as small groups sold their land or were
forced from it at various times. The scattered, decimated, and
unorganized bands ... soon gathered, or were gathered, as they
had never been in pre-European times. The 'towns' that grew up
in the river valleys of Pennsylvania in the early decades of the
eighteenth century were not formed from homogeneous cultural


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by Albert A. Cave
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
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