The beliefs of the Native Americans were misunderstood by most of the white settlers. To the white settlers, the Native Americans were heathens who did not believe in God and Christianity. This, by itself, was enough to justify the persecution of these people. Many white settlers would have supported Horace Greeley's viewpoint that :
"The average Indian of the prairies is a being who does little credit to human nature."
However, though they were not Christian, the Native People in their own way were extremely religious and placed great importance in what they referred to as "spirits". The Plains people lived lives that were extremely close to Nature. They believed that the sun was the most important power in the universe but that the moon, earth, wind and water all played their part in influencing the lives of people. As they lived their lives with Nature, they saw that their future depended on not abusing what nature provided. In this sense, they were the first environmentalists. They took what they needed from Nature but no more.
By our standards, their beliefs are naive. Reynal, a Sioux Indian, believed that thunder was created when a big stone rolled over the sky. Other tribes believed that thunder came from a big black bird which flew low over the Black Hills of Dakota with its wings creating thunder. When the wings struck water, lightening was created.
How do we know such things?
While many white settlers tried to avoid the Native People, a few not only interviewed them (such as Francis Packman who spoke to Reynal) but some such as George Catlin lived with them for a number of years. Their writings are a rich source of information.
The Native People were very spiritual people. They believed that the spirits had to be pleased which the tribes people did as individuals in their daily lives and the tribe as a complete unit did with great ceremonies. These involved the use of music and dance. It was felt that drums and the shrill notes of a flute-type instrument would please the spirits.
Ohiyesa, a Sioux, describes the duty of prayer:
|"In the life of the Indian there was only one duty - the duty of prayer. Whenever the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful; the rainbow's glowing arch above a mountain, a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset - he pauses for an instant in worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to him all days are God's."|
The Native People saw religion as a way of continuing a supply of food. George Catlin described the Mandan Buffalo Dance in his book "Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indian".
When the chief of the Mandan tribe saw that food in the form of the buffalo was scarce, he would order his tribe to start a dance. Each warrior who danced had a buffalo skin over his head and his favourite bow and arrow in his hand - one which had been used to kill buffalo. About ten to fifteen warriors danced at one time and the dance continued throughout the night and day until buffalo were sighted and the dance had proved a success. Sometimes the dance continued for three weeks - but it always proved a success. In fact, when Catlin wrote this, the buffalo herds were so vast that it was only a matter of time until they were spotted by those Mandans placed outside the tribal village - but to the Mandan tribe the dance was proof that their 'medicine' pleased the spirits.
Becoming a warrior required bravery tests to be carried out. For the Blackfoot tribe, the start of this process was when a young boy who wanted to be a warrior would go into the hills surrounding his tribal village. For five to six days he would go without food or water and go into a trance. In this trance he would see an animal or bird that would be his 'good medicine' or guardian throughout his life. In this trance, he would also be told what herbs and roots to gather. Once out of this trance, he would collect these roots and herbs and put them in a small bag which was kept with great care in his home. This was his protective charm. Nobody knew what was in this bag as it was a secret and no-one other than the owner dared touch it. He would also kill the animal or bird in his dream and keep its skin as a charm.
Though to us this might smack of mere superstition, to the Native People it was all part of their religion. George Catlin was so impressed with what he saw of the Native People that he wrote :
|"I assert that the North American Indian is everywhere, in his native state, a highly moral and religious being. I never saw any other people who spend so much of their lives in humbling themselves before, and, worshipping the Great Spirit."|
The Native People greatly cared about their environment. They saw that they were part of it and not an addition to it so that they did not abuse what was there. Any form of abuse of the environment would have angered the Great Spirit. This is why there were so many clashes with the white settlers as they moved west.
The destruction of the vast herds of buffalo, the building of rail lines, the excavation of gold etc. all clashed with what the Native People stood for. As the Native People lived near to nature as part of their lives, they grew to appreciate its value. They did not believe that humans were the most important thing on Earth as they believed that all living things had as much value as anything else. Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux explained his beliefs as these :
|".......(my life is that) of two leggeds sharing it (the Earth) with four leggeds and the wings of the air - all green things; for these are children of one mother - the Earth - and their father is one spirit. You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle and that is because the Power of the World always works in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nest in circles. Even the seasons form a great circle and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood. Our tepees were round like the nests of the birds and these were always set in a circle."|
At Medicine Mountain, Wyoming, there is a medicine wheel in the shape of a circle. "Good medicine" was practiced in such a sacred circle and medicine men would dance in a circular shape. The legendary sun dance was done in a circular 'tent' while the youth moving from boyhood to adult and undergoing this test, danced in a circular fashion.
This love of nature was confirmed by Chief Luther Standing Bear who said :
|"The Sioux was a true lover of nature. He loved the Earth and all things of the Earth. Their tepees were built on the earth. The birds that flew in the air came to rest upon the earth and it was the final abiding place of all things that lived and grew. Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active belief. The Old Sioux was wise. He knew that a man's heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to a lack of respect for humans too."|
For the Native People, land could not be owned, bought or sold. Land belonged to every living being and this attitude lead to many clashes with the white settlers. The view of one Blackfoot chief compared the differences between both attitudes:
|"Our land is more valuable than your money............as long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore, we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us."|
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces explained his love of the land as the place where his father was buried:
|"My father sent for me. I saw he was dying. "My son, my body is returning to my Mother Earth. Always remember that your father never sold his country.............(the whites) have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget your father's dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your mother and father." My father smiled and passed away. I buried him in a beautiful valley of winding waters. I love that land more than the world. A man who would not love his father's grave is worse than a wild animal."|
This view was not supported by many white settlers. Many would have agreed with the views of Horace Greeley. In 1859, Greeley traveled across America and and wrote "New York to San Francisco". In one section titled "Lo ! The Poor Indian", Greeley wrote about the Native Peoples attitude to land :
|"The average Indian...........does little credit to human nature. These people must die out - there is no hope for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue it and cultivate it."|