When the European invasion of North America began, Europeans, feeling that their religion was the only religion. They tended to be oblivious to American Indian religions, often dismissing them as simply superstitions. The formation of the United States in the late eighteenth century did little to change this viewpoint. Describing the founding fathers of the United States with regard to Indians and Indian policy, historian Frederick Hoxie, in his chapter on religion in Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era, writes:
“They did not believe the young nation’s revolutionary commitment to the separation of church and state should be extended to relations with Native Americans. As a consequence, conversion to Christianity became an important component of federal policy, and federal dollars flowed to religious groups without any public protests.”
Briefly described below are some of the events of 200 years ago, in 1823, relating to American Indians and religion.
Traditional American Indian religious practice and beliefs continued 200 years ago in spite of Christian missionary activity.
In California, a twin-tailed comet became visible to the Chumash at the time of the winter solstice. In an article in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Edward Castillo reports:
“According to Chumash cosmology, such as astronomical anomaly foretold a sudden change and new beginning.”
In western Montana, fur trader Alexander Ross was astonished to find a tree in which the skull and horns of a wild sheep had been embedded. This ponderosa pine is known as the Medicine Tree and is sacred to the Flathead and Nez Perce.
In Montana, a band of Blackfoot hunters accused Flathead chief Cut Thumb of casting spells against them. The Blackfoot claimed that:
“…with your spells and incantations…cast sickness into our camp: our children grasp for breath, our very horses are less fleet than was their wont, solely owing to your strong medicines.”
Christianity was seen as the primary force for “civilizing” Indians and the policy of the United States was to force Indians to become Christian. This included the banning of native religions, punishing those who participated in Indian ceremonies, and requiring attendance at Christian church services. Christianity required Indians to cut their hair, to live in houses, to speak English, to wear European style clothes, and to have only one spouse at a time.
There were both similarities and significant differences in the approaches of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Both groups strongly opposed and attempted to suppress, polygyny and open sexuality, instead promoting monogamy. Both religious groups felt that women should be subordinate to men and had difficulty with the gender equality which they encountered in some tribes.
The Catholic missionaries were less concerned about shamanism and Native American beliefs concerning guardian spirits. They were unconcerned with men having long hair and with traditional dress. On the other hand, The Protestant missionaries saw little of value in Indian cultures and felt that conversion to Christianity had to be accompanied by a total acceptance of Euro-American behavioral values.
Protestant missionaries tended to view Indians as an endangered race which had to be assimilated into American society. They saw little of value in Indian cultures and felt that conversion to Christianity had to be accompanied by a total acceptance of Euro-American behavioral values. In her book Noble, Wretched, and Redeemable: Protestant Missionaries to the Indians in Canada and the United States, 1820-1900, historian C.L. Higham writes of the Protestant missionaries:
“Finally, they exhibited a desire to fit the Indians into their own preconceptions of the world. By trying to place the Indians into the Eurocentric history of mankind, they could justify the Biblical accounts of a common origin for all men.”
In 1823, Ethan Smith published View of the Hebrews; of the Lost Tribes of Israel in America in which he put forth the idea that Indians were the descendants of some lost Jewish tribes.
In California, the Franciscans, a Catholic order, established the San Francisco Solano mission. The Franciscans transferred 600 Indian converts from San José, San Francisco, and San Rafael to the new community.
In Missouri, the Jesuits, a Catholic order, established the St. Regis Indian Seminary. The Jesuits were to teach Sauk, Iowa, and Osage boys.
In North Dakota, representatives from the U.S. War Department stopped at the Catholic Mission at Pembina. The officer in charge of the group reported that Ojibwa women had undermined the priests’ efforts.
In Michigan, the Presbyterians established a mission among the Ottawa at Mackinac.
More American Indian histories from the 1820s
Indians 101: American Indians and the United States 200 years ago, 1823
Indians 101: American Indian battles and skirmishes 200 years ago, 1823
Indians 101: Indians nations and American governments 200 years ago, 1822
Indians 101: Indian nations 200 years ago, 1822
Indians 101: American Indians 200 years ago, 1821
Indians 101: The Cherokee Indians 200 years ago, 1821
Indians 101: Indians and Mexico 200 years ago, 1822
Indians 101: Mexico and American Indians 200 years ago, 1821