Chapter XXIII. Of the Native Religion of the Pueblos


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IF there is one thing more than another which forces itself upon the convictions of the sympathetic student of American-Indian character, it is that the Indian in his native estate is intensely religious. To this the Pueblo is no exception. His religion is so ingrained in his being that he gives it up only with life itself. It is not a matter of one day in seven with him, but of every day. By this, I do not mean his devotion to Roman Catholicism, to which seventeen out of the twenty-six Pueblo communities are nominal adherents, each with a padre to confess and pay tithes to. Every one who knows the Pueblo Indian, knows that, as a rule, so far as his profession of Christianity goes, it is his pastime; his real religion is that remarkable system of rites which his fathers have delivered him as a trust from the foundation of the world, in which he


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finds an explanation satisfactory to his poetic mind of the origin of his people and the destiny of the individual in the world to come.

Of course, the Pueblo's pagan conception of Deity differs widely in many particulars from that of the Christian, yet in certain fundamentals of vital religion—that relationship which binds the spirit of a man to his Creator—the Pueblo stands where all the rest of us stand. There is, for instance, an abiding sense of humanity's dependence upon Higher Powers, that rule and uphold the world and the affairs thereof; and there is faith in the continuance of their ancient care, if appealed to. So there is need of prayer continually to those Powers, and of thanksgiving to them for the favours of life; and whether the people starve or feast, mourn or frolic, labour or idle in the sun, the red gods of their fathers' fathers get their due. It is the childlike attitude towards the Lord of the Harvests and the Shaper of Men's Destinies, innate in all primitive races but run out of civilised ones, save as the latter are individually converted and born anew into the kingdom of the little child and of God. There is a spot outside certain of the pueblos—and, it


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may be, of all—where every morning at sunrise, some representative of the people stands and offers, one for all, an invocation to the Sun Father, and scatters sacred meal to the six mystical regions of the world, west, south, east, north, zenith, and nadir. Continually through the year prayers are being breathed upon feathers selected from various sorts of birds, according to a fixed ritual, and bound to especially prepared sticks a few inches long, and then deposited at immemorial shrines on mountain and plain and by certain sacred springs. So by a feather is the prayer borne to the ears of the gods.1 The public dances, which white people find delight in attending as spectacles, besides countless others to which outsiders are not admitted, are with the Pueblos religious ceremonies, in many of which the participants, masked and fantastically attired, represent divine personages of the people's elaborate


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mythology. Some are in the nature of sacred dramas, akin, one may say, to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, and when rendered in pueblos where the white inroads are least, are very impressive, their effect heightened by the chanting of ancient songs and the accompaniment of gourd rattles and native-made drums. Personal purification, fasts, and abstinence attend these ceremonials, as well as being precedent to them.

In the matter of spiritual belief, the Pueblo is an animist—that is, he holds to a spiritual essence in all creation, even those things which we Christian folk call inanimate, such as trees, and rocks, and water, the corn plant of his own raising, and the jar which his potter-wife has moulded. He believes in the persistence of the spirits of all these companions of his earthly sojourn, as well as of his own spirit, in an unseen world to which physical death is the portal. It is not apparent, however, that he regards that future estate as one of reward and punishment for deeds done here in the flesh, but rather as another stage of life.

Pagan as we may call such a faith, it has fostered in the Pueblo virtues which all the civilised world applauds and very largely falls short of.


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It inculcates kindliness to one another and gentleness of speech, hospitality to the stranger, though an enemy, reverence for old age, truthfulness, obedience to parents, tenderness to childhood, and the bringing up of children, as we would say, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, as He is dimly perceived in that polytheistic twilight. It would seem that that universal grace of God, which Paul preached as appearing to all men, teaching the denying of ungodliness, has appeared to Pueblos, too. All this was very surprising to the Pueblos' Spanish discoverers, and Castañeda, noting down his observations in Zuñi in 1540, records his belief that the elders must "give certain commandments for the people to keep, for there is no drunkenness among them nor sodomy nor sacrifices,2 neither do they eat human flesh, nor steal, but are usually at work." It is to the credit of the Spanish guardianship of the Pueblos through three centuries and the innate virility of the native faith that their moral code is still much as Coronado found it.


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A mythology as complex and fanciful as Greece's, involving a pantheon as numerous, goes with the native religion of the Pueblos; but the subject is too technical to be discussed here. Indeed, in spite of the efforts of our scientific dwellers among the Indians, comparatively few of their myths are understood. The aborigine is very loath to lay bare his inner heart to one of alien blood, and his religious beliefs come out only a little at a time to sympathetic friends who have been tried and found worthy of all confidence. A suspicion of contempt or ridicule, or even condescension, is enough to close his mouth. Each Pueblo community appears to have its own body of myths, accounting for its origin in the world and narrating its primitive wanderings and adventures under the care of the gods. The stories of origin differ markedly, though certain features are common to many of them, as the Sun Father and Moon Mother of the race, the creation of the first people in a subterranean world up from which they were led by the Divine Ones through the opening Shipapu into this world of light, and the part played by the Twin Heroes, or Gods of War, in the early affairs of men. The curious


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are referred to those delightful volumes Zuñi Folk Tales, by F. H. Cushing, and Pueblo Indian Folk Stories, by Chas. F. Lummis; as well as to the reports of the American Bureau of Ethnology for more technical presentations.


Notes

1. The sharp eyes of the early Spanish explorers detected these plumed prayer sticks here and there about the pueblos in their day, and wondered at them. Certain of them, cross-shaped, are minutely described by Castañeda, the chronicler of Coronado's expedition. ‘‘It certainly seems to me,’’ he piously observes ‘‘that in some way [the Indians] must have received some light from the cross of our Redeemer Christ, and it may have come by way of India, from whence they proceeded.’’

2. Referring doubtless to the practice of human sacrifices among the contemporary Aztecs of Old Mexico. There is no evidence that the Pueblos made such sacrifices.

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