Art and Architecture of the World’s Religions. Leslie Ross. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.
The focus of this chapter is on the indigenous religions of North America—including the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada. Information regarding the indigenous religions of South and Central America can be found in chapter 5, “Mesoamerica and Andean Religions,” and discussion of native Hawaiian religious practices can be found in chapter 7, “Indigenous Religions of Oceania.”
Origins and Development
When Europeans first reached North America in significant numbers in the 16th and 17th centuries, they encountered numerous groups of people already resident in the land. The Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) is often credited with the discovery of America in the late 15 th century, as well as the use of the term “Indians” to describe the inhabitants he encountered when he landed on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas in 1492. Columbus was searching for a sea route from Europe to the East Indies in order to advance trade in goods and spices from that region of the world, and believed that he had achieved this goal. The term “Indian” reflects this, as “it was entirely logical for him to call the lands he claimed for Spain ‘the Indies,’ and its people Indios.” However, within a few years after this, because of the additional explorations of figures such as Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) who traveled across Central America to reach the Pacific Ocean in the early 16th century, it became clear that the land was not actually India at all, but rather a whole new region of the world. Nevertheless, the term “Indian” has often continued to be applied to the native peoples of North America up to the present day. The acceptance of this term has varied, however, as it ultimately reflects European usage and misconceptions. Many scholars now prefer to use the term “Native American” as a general descriptor for the great variety of cultural groups represented by the original inhabitants of these world regions, although acceptance of this term has varied widely as well. It is wise to note that any terms (such as “Native American,” “Indian,” “Native American Indian,” or “indigenous peoples”) represent attempts to characterize a great diversity of cultures under a single overarching designation—and as such will always be problematic.
Equally, if not even more, problematic are the various theories that have been advanced regarding the dates and origins of human habitation in North America. A majority of scholars, however, believe that many of the original inhabitants of North America arrived from Asia sometime between 20,000 and 10,000 BCE via crossing the now submerged land bridge of Beringia (between Siberia and North America) as well as by boat. These early Paleolithic peoples were hunter-gatherers and eventually spread widely through the regions of North and South America, developing a variety of modes of existence via adaptation to diverse geographic areas and changing climate conditions. Through subsequent millennia, and additional migrations, the patterns of life developed by these ancient ancestral people ultimately resulted in the enormous variety of lifestyles represented among native groups at the time of first contact with Europeans. “By the time Europeans came, millions of Native Americans occupied every conceivable form of landscape, from tropical rainforest to high desert, from grassland plain to boreal forest.” Some peoples maintained nomadic lifestyles based on hunting; others developed agricultural farming and aquacultural cultivation methods; in some regions people lived in small family or related groups; in other regions substantial groups of people lived in permanently settled communities characterized by large-scale architectural construction.
The extreme variations in geography and climate within the vast areas occupied by the original inhabitants of North America cannot be overemphasized. Ranging from the Arctic coasts of Alaska and Canada to the hot, dry climate of the Southwest, from the Woodlands areas of the east, to the Great Plains of central Canada and the United States, the native inhabitants of these regions all developed distinctive cultures and traditions. Most studies of Native American peoples thus tend to approach this diversity by adopting a regional method—in other words, identifying large cultural areas into which many different peoples may be grouped and situated: the east, west, north, southeast, and northwest, for example. Or, regions may be defined as: the Arctic (northern coasts of Alaska and Canada plus sections of Siberia and Greenland); the Subarctic (northern Canada); the Northwest Coast (southern coast of Alaska plus western regions of Canada to Washington and Oregon); the Plateau (sections of the northwest United States and southwest Canada); the Great Basin (largely parts of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and California); California; the Southwest (sections of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Texas, and Nevada); the Plains (central United States and Canada); and the Woodlands (eastern Canada and the United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River). Although this traditional regional approach is useful, the creation of any large, generalized categories runs the risk of treating a wide range of cultures as if they were homogenous. It is estimated that when Europeans arrived in North America, there were close to a thousand different groups of native peoples, speaking several hundred different languages. Although it is wise to be attentive to the regional similarities, it is critical to acknowledge their unique identities and traditions as well.
The disastrous consequences of European colonization and contact with Native American peoples are well known. European settlers brought previously unknown epidemic diseases, resulting in dramatic population declines among Native Americans. The territorial expansion policies of many settlers ultimately led to the removal of many indigenous peoples from their homelands and their resettlement on reservations. Although many Native American groups profited initially from contact with Europeans, by engaging in trade and via their introduction to European commodities such as iron tools, firearms, and horses, and many Native American groups adopted aspects of European life and religion, by and large the coming of the Europeans was a violent and calamitous event in the history of native peoples, with far-reaching consequences to the present day.
Principal Beliefs and Key Practices
It is clear that a great many different—as well as related—cultural groups need to be included in any discussion of Native American religion. The religious beliefs and practices of these diverse groups are all unique in many important ways and also reflect the vastly divergent climatic and geographical characteristics of their regions—from the dry and arid climates of the Southwest, the forested areas of the Atlantic Woodlands and Pacific Northwest, the Great Plains regions of central North America, to the cold, rainy, and frozen climates of the Subarctic and Arctic regions.
Nevertheless, it is the response to climate and geography that is one of the overall shared features of Native American religion. Regardless of the vastly varied geography and climates in which native peoples developed their religious beliefs, a sense of closeness to the land and a connection with nature and natural forces may be seen as a shared characteristic of Native American beliefs. Indeed, it might be said that this shared impulse—a sense of reverence for the natural environment—provides the unifying feature among the diverse traditions developed by indigenous peoples in North America. Terms such as “polytheism,” “animism,” or “nature worship” are really rather awkward designations (or scholarly constructs) that attempt to describe religious belief systems that do not seem to follow or adhere to the Western monotheistic traditions largely represented by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Monotheistic belief systems tend to be those that attribute the creation of the universe to a sole divine being, an original generating force, whose guidance was, or is continually, revealed to humans through direct communication or via intermediaries such as prophets or seers. The term “polytheism” is generally used for belief systems in which a variety of different deities are acknowledged and worshiped. Many Native American religious traditions attribute the creation of the universe to an initiating vital force (such as the Great Mother or the Great Father—or their union—or to other spirit beings, such as the Raven) while at the same time paying respect to the various manifestations of this divine force in diverse spirit deities, entities, or powers that may have special influence on certain aspects of human, animal, and vegetable life forms.5 Efforts to propitiate, celebrate, thank, and acknowledge these forces are a shared motif among the many belief systems of the Native Americans, which also have a greatly popular appeal in today’s environmentally sensitive world.
The importance of land in traditional Amerindian beliefs is rooted in its inherent potential to inscribe an earth-centered hierophany that is itself part of a unitary cosmos. Although there are many themes in traditional Amerindian myth, one attitude appears pervasive: any part of the world may unfold the whole—upperworld, lowerworld, and the ground we stand upon. Any part of the world may unfold the whole more or less according to the strength of individual vision and the cogency of the tribal metaphorical tradition for interpreting that vision.
Works of art produced by Native American peoples demonstrate this sense of connection to the sacred landscape in a diversity of ways—from the materials used to the symbolism involved. Ancient effigy earthworks, such as the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, represent living creatures of profound symbolic significance in Native American belief systems. The complex designs of the ephemeral Navajo sand paintings are designed to call on the powers of spirit beings to assist in healing ceremonies, serving as temporary sites to connect to powerful and all-pervasive forces. The annual appearance of the masked kachinas among the Hopi and other peoples of the Southwest represents the acknowledgment of humankind’s fundamental reliance on the favor of natural forces in order to survive. The spirit beings and clan symbols carved on wooden objects created by many Northwest Coast native groups represent related concerns—of propitiating natural forces and seeking alignment with these forces. In all Native American traditions, the importance of creating and ensuring a harmonious balance between humans and the natural world—a world in which humans and their endeavors are simply one facet—is paramount. It often said that
to Native Americans, religion, art, and daily life are all the same thing. In fact, art is not a strictly accurate term. Many Indian languages lack a distinct word for art, since there is no distinction between art and life. Art is life. The two are inseparable. A life lived in balance is a work of art, and any object made by a balanced person is an object of art. Or to put it another way, an artfully crafted object reflects the true path of life being walked by its maker.
Communication with the spirit world via intermediaries known as shamans is also a shared aspect of many Native American belief systems and practices. Shamans are special individuals who, via dreams, trance states, visions, or inherent sensitivity, may contact the dead, communicate with the spirits, and receive supernatural instructions by interpreting dreams, omens, and via various forms of divination. Shamans may perform healing, foretell the future, and influence events. Their roles and powers are conceived somewhat differently among various peoples; in some societies both men and women may be called or train extensively to be shamans; in other groups, shamans may be exclusively men or women. The English word shaman is generally not used by native peoples, who all have their own language terms for these gifted, revered, and often feared individuals. Many works of art are associated with shamanic practices—ranging from masks, drums, rattles, amulets, and special garments. Shamanism is not unique to North American native peoples, by any means, but has many manifestations in wide-ranging world cultures from prehistory to the present day.
Traditional Art and Architectural Forms
The traditional art and architectural forms developed by Native Americans and those forms specifically associated with their religious beliefs and practices are as diverse as the landscapes inhabited by these different cultural groups. The forms and materials used in art production vary greatly depending on the natural or imported resources available. The use of adobe or mud bricks for architectural construction is characteristic of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest for example, whereas the use of wood for creating architectural enclosures and sculptural monuments is, logically, most characteristic of peoples for whom these resources were more available. The nomadic lifestyle of many of the cultural groups in the central or Plains region of North America resulted in the creation of portable religious objects as well as practices emphasizing the creation and veneration of sacred space in appropriately changing locales.
Architectural structures designed for sacred purposes take on a variety of forms. For example, the spectacular cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, Colorado (notably the Cliff Palace), constructed by the Anasazi people in the mid-13th century, include numerous kivas—sacred enclosures typical of many ancient as well as contemporary Pueblo people. Kivas may be round or rectangular, built of stone or adobe, often have wooden roofs, and are traditionally entered via ladder through the roof. They customarily include a central cavity or floor shrine known as a sipapu, which is understood to symbolize the place from which humans originally emerged from Mother Earth. Of varying sizes, some kivas include benches, wall paintings, and hearths. They represent “the oldest type of religious building in continuous use in the Western hemisphere,” and are used for social-ceremonial meetings, dances, and for a variety of sacred and secret rituals.
Other Native American people created structures specifically for religious ceremonies, such as the wooden big houses used by the Delaware peoples for annual harvest and New Year rituals, the rain houses used for agricultural rites in the Southwest, and the Plains Indians sun dance lodges. Other structures, such as sweat lodges, were used for ritual purification.
Many structures, such as the impressive wooden longhouses characteristic of the Northwest Coast, served both domestic and religious purposes, being “ritually transformed from secular to sacred structures for … ceremonies.” Indeed, Native American domestic dwellings often symbolize key religious beliefs. The Haida longhouse, for example, was understood to stand at the center of the universe, representing the intersection of the three zones: sky, earth, and underworld. A central pole extending through the house was used during religious ceremonies to connect to the spirits and powers of the sky world. The design of Navajo hogans was believed to have been based on instructions originally given by the supernatural being known as Talking God. These wooden structures with earthen floors are carefully oriented with their entrances facing east to the rising sun, and are symbolically divided on the interior into zones symbolizing the other cardinal directions and spheres of sacred influence. While some hogans may be constructed and used only for ritual purposes, it is more often the case that rituals (such as those associated with healing and the creation of sand paintings) are carried out in domestic hogans.
The idea that houses served as models of the universe is suggested by the folklore and architectural terms of native groups as distant from one another as the Eskimo, the Mohave, the Navajo, the Hopi, the Delaware, and the Blackfeet. To the Navajo, mountains were models for the first house, its four principal posts symbolically equated with the four cardinal directions, and its floor space divided into day and night domains. The Hidatsa of North Dakota believed the universe was a massive earthlodge, its sky dome held up by four enormous pillars just like those of their own four-post lodges.
Many different types of objects may be used in religious ceremonies. The creation and offering of prayer sticks is an important tradition among many Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. Prayer sticks or praying sticks (known as telikinanne among the Zuni, and paho among the Hopi) are carved, peeled, and painted wooden sticks to which bird feathers, shells, and other objects may be attached. The creation of prayer sticks involves important preparations, cleansing, and purification practices. They may be made as offerings to the dead, and used especially in winter and summer solstice ceremonies. After the creation and ritual consecration of prayer sticks, they are planted in fields, springs, river beds, under trees or shrubs, or put in caves, under floors, or on special communal or private altars. The different colors of the prayer sticks and objects attached to them vary greatly according to their purposes and the spirits to whom they are dedicated. Among the Zuni, “men plant their turquoise prayer sticks for the Sun Father … and women plant their yellow prayer sticks for the Sun Father’s younger sister, the Moonlight-Giving Mother.” The feathers (of eagles, ducks, and other birds) are believed to send breath prayers to the spirits. Prayer sticks are extremely significant components in rituals that also involve drumming, dancing, singing, feasting, and masked performances.
Ceremonial costumes, masks, and special garments are traditionally employed in many Native American religious rituals. Dances in which animal masks or costumes may be donned could serve to honor and propitiate animal spirits or ensure their continued availability as a food source for humans. For example, the Okipa or Buffalo Dance of the Plains Mandan people was held annually to pray for plentiful buffalo and other blessings. The bull dancers dressed in identical costumes and masks.
Masks and ritual costumes feature prominently among many native peoples of the Southwest. The ceremonies associated with the return and propitiation of the spirit beings known as kachinas involve use of elaborate headdresses, special costumes, and masks such as the painted, feathered, buffalo hide example illustrated in Figure 6.5. This mask represents the sun, and was probably worn like a shield on the back of a dancer.
The materials used and symbolism involved varies widely from region to region. The masks produced by native peoples of the Northwest are generally carved of wood (especially cedar) and are often boldly painted with curvilinear designs. Many represent mythological creatures, such as the monster bird known as the Crooked-Beak-of-Heaven, who plays a prominent role in Kwakiutl lore and ceremonies. This monster is one of several fearsome man-eating creatures believed to live in the far north who return in the winter to prey on humans and cause them to become cannibals. This mask features especially during the Kwakiutl winter ceremonies of Tseyka (or Tsetseka). These complex rituals often span several days with the dance of the Hamatsa being the most dramatic.
The Hamatsa, protegé and personification of the Man-eater, returns from the monster’s house and is captured and tamed by the tribesmen. His gradual return to human sense in a series of dances is disrupted when he loses his self-control and runs wildly around the firelit floor and out behind a painted curtain … From behind that screen the snapping of a great beak sounds, the singers begin the song of the masks, and a figure … appears. First stepping high from side to side, then circling in crouching jumps, and finally sitting on the floor, the dancer moves the great mask, sweeping and cocking the beak from side to side and finally snapping the voracious jaws. At each new verse another dancer appears … Then they leave one by one and the Hamatsa returns for his final series of dances by which his wildness is removed and he is brought back to a tame, human state.
As the preceding quote well indicates, it is always critical to remember that any ceremonial objects were originally designed and intended to function as aspects of multifaceted, vibrant, and often dramatic performances. When displayed in galleries and museum collections, they have been removed from their context. In addition, many pieces of Native American art housed in museums today were acquired via extremely unethical means and in that way also have been deprived of their original sanctity and power.
Powerful life-prolonging and health-promoting ceremonies connected with the Midewiwin Society (associated with several Plains Indian groups) involved use of special objects, spirit figures, and headdresses, in initiation rituals signaling a member’s acceptance into the society after lengthy instructions in healing rites and moral codes of conduct. Various levels of achievement within the society brought different responsibilities, knowledge, and the privilege to handle and use sacred objects. The objects used in these ceremonies were carefully stored and guarded as containers of sacred powers.
Special garments, such as men’s shirts and women’s dresses, were created during the mid- to late 19th century especially among several Plains Indians groups for use in Ghost Dance rituals. The Ghost Dance was a movement that arose from the visions and teachings of several prophetic figures who foresaw renewal of life, power, and prosperity for Native Americans. During this period, when many native groups were enduring severe hardships and deprivations, the hope of reunion with deceased ancestors on a reborn and harmonious earth was extremely appealing, as well as serving, among some groups, as a vehicle for resistance against the European oppressors.
Many variations of chants and ritual associated with Ghost Dance practices developed. The cloth or buckskin garments created for use in the dances often include painted designs of traditional religious and cosmological symbols: sun, moon, and solar eclipse—during which visions had been received by the prophet Wovaka (ca. 1856-1932)—images of birds (such as crows and white-tailed magpies: messengers from the ancestors and guardian spirits), cedar trees, turtles, and buffalo. The garments are often fringed and include attached feathers. Several groups of practitioners among the Ghost Dancers believed that these sacred garments had protective powers and were able to stop bullets. This belief was dramatically disproved, especially at Wounded Knee in 1890, when scores of Lakota men, women, and children were massacred by military troops.
Great Serpent Mound
The Great Serpent Mound, located in Adams County, southern Ohio, is one of the most impressive and well preserved of ancient earthworks in North America. It has long fascinated and puzzled researchers since its discovery in the mid-19th century. Although a series of archaeological excavations have been undertaken at the site in the 19th and 20th centuries, and much scholarship continues to be devoted to the Great Serpent Mound, its exact purpose and date remain uncertain.
It is classified as an effigy mound, meaning that it represents the giant shape of a creature—in this case, a long snake undulating for a total length of over 1,300 feet atop a bluff overlooking a creek. It terminates in a tightly coiled tail, and its head is represented by a hollow, oval-shaped mound (variously interpreted as depicting the eye of the serpent or as the serpent’s open mouth clasping an egg, the sun, or a body of a frog). The average width of the mounded body varies from 20 to 25 feet, and the height varies between 4 to 5 feet. “The ancient builders of Serpent Mound carefully planned this oversized effigy by first outlining a monstrous snake nearly one-quarter of a mile long with small stones and lumps of clay. They then piled up countless basket loads of yellow clay over the outline, burying their markers. The result is a flawlessly modeled serpent, forever slithering northward.”
Similar, smaller effigy mounds exist elsewhere (notably in parts of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) that represent the shapes of various birds, lizards, turtles, and other animals such as deer, bears, bison, and panthers. Effigy mounds are distinguished by their shapes from the hundreds of other conical or platform temple mounds also widely distributed in the eastern and Midwestern United States. Excavations have revealed that the temple mounds generally served as burial places, and were also often topped with (no longer extant) wooden structures. Effigy mounds, in contrast, generally contain no evidence of having been used as burial sites or as locales for temples or other architectural structures.
For many years, scholars attributed the construction of the Great Serpent Mound to the Adena or Hopewell cultures, which flourished in the region during the first millennium BCE up to about 500 CE. The Adena and Hopewell peoples were ambitious mound builders and constructed many impressive burial mounds, which were often filled with lavish and ornamental objects as well as more utilitarian grave goods.
More recent study of the Great Serpent Mound, however, has placed its date much later into the early second millennium CE, ca. 1000-1100 CE. Archaeologists working at the site in the 1990s discovered several charcoal fragments that (via radiocarbon dating analysis) revealed a date of ca. 1070 CE, thus perhaps associating the mound with the Fort Ancient peoples, one of numerous Mississippian cultures that flourished between about 750 and 1500 CE. Nevertheless, the date of the Great Serpent Mound, as well as the purpose and function of the monument, remains a topic of much scholarly debate.
Typical of many other effigy mounds, the Great Serpent Mound was not used for burial purposes. “This suggests to some that the effigies defined sacred, ceremonial ground rather than mortuary areas.” Some scholars believe that the effigy mounds served as markers of territory, as representations of totemic creatures associated with specific clans or groups, as gathering places for religious ceremonies, as ritual devices to connect with animal spirits, or as evidence of ancient astronomical study. Indeed, the late 11th-century date proposed for the Great Serpent Mound
corresponds almost exactly to two amazing astronomical events. In AD 1054, light from the supernova that produced the Crab nebula first reached the earth, remaining visible during daytime for at least two weeks. Then, in AD 1066, Halley’s Comet appeared in its brightest manifestation ever, visible around the world. Could it be that some Native American observers in the Ohio River valley set out to create a permanent memorial to these remarkable celestial events? Maybe the wriggling earthwork is not a serpent at all; could the oval (the “egg”) actually represent the head of Halley’s Comet, with the “serpent’s body” actually representing its fiery tail?
Many other theories have been proposed about the meaning and symbolism of the Great Serpent Mound. Snakes play a prominent and powerful role in the religious beliefs of many Native American groups, sometimes as embodiments of evil and danger, other times as protective and benevolent spirits, or as symbols of eternity, renewal, growth, and transformation (via shedding skin). Perhaps the Great Serpent Mound was used for ceremonies celebrating renewal and the cycles of the year. It has been suggested that groups of people might have walked the outlines of the mound, moving “in solemn procession from the serpent’s tail until arriving at the head. There the celebrants ‘reversed’ direction—perhaps during a solstice or equinox, when the seasons likewise turned around—and headed downward again, to be symbolically reborn and renewed for another annual cycle.”
“Have we heard the final word about the Great Serpent Mound? Probably not. But one thing is certain. Serpent Mound … still bewilders. It still has magnetism. And if we continue to protect its fragile profiles, it always will.”
Navajo Sand Painting Textile
The Navajo, who today represent the largest group of Native American people, are the descendants of nomadic hunters who originally migrated from Alaska and Canada to arrive in the Southwest sometime between 1200 and 1500 CE. “These newcomers to the Southwest were adaptable and innovative, transforming aspects of Pueblo religion and art into a distinctly Navajo … configuration.” Among the most distinctive forms of art associated with the Navajo, the creation and use of temporary images in the form of sand paintings (or dry paintings) is perhaps the most well known and, in some ways, also the most puzzling to Western-trained scholars whose idea of art involves values of longevity and endurance (see Plate 12). Sand paintings are ephemeral forms of religious expression, created for specific purposes, charged with powerful symbolism, created by trained specialists, and always destroyed after use. Although some of the designs and symbols of sand paintings have been captured in more permanent forms (such as the woven rug example illustrated in Plate 12), and the production of permanent sand paintings for commercial/secular purposes became a major aspect of Navajo economy in the 20th century, these permanent examples are to be firmly distinguished from the traditional use of sand paintings in religious rituals.
The Navajo word for sandpainting (‘iikááh) means “place where the gods come and go.” Sandpaintings serve as impermanent altars where ritual actions can take place. But they are much more than that. In their proper setting, if ritual rules are followed, they are the exact pictorial representation of supernaturals. These stylized designs are full of sacred symbols and through consecration are impregnated with supernatural power, thereby becoming the temporary resting place of holiness. They are essential parts of curing ceremonies whose purpose is to attract the Holy People so that they will help with the complex curing process. The supernatural power sandpaintings contain is considered dangerous, and they can be safely used only in the proper controlled context, at the right time, under the direction of highly trained specialists.
The specialists who create sand paintings and who conduct the ceremonies associated with their use are known as hataalí (singers, chanters, or medicine men.) The ceremonies are elaborate, multistaged events that can involve the creation of numerous sand paintings of particular designs in specifically ordered sequences, over a period of several days. Sand paintings are created to promote healing or a restoration of harmony and balance (either physical or psychological) in the individuals for whom they are created. Careful preparations are involved on the part of the trained singer who creates and chants the sacred blessings, traditional myths, and songs associated with the specific needs of individuals in need of healing. Sand paintings serve as an integral part of this process, as the individuals for whom the ceremonies are performed are asked to sit on or within the paintings during important moments of the ceremonies while the singer performs sacred chants to evoke the healing powers of the spirits.
Sand paintings are created from crushed, colored minerals carefully sprinkled either onto a bed of sand laid out on the earthen floor of hogan, or onto a buckskin base. Crushed flowers, pollen, corn meal, powdered bark, and roots may also be employed in sand paintings or as coloring agents. Paintings can vary greatly in size; some may be created in an area of a foot or less while the diameters of larger paintings can be up to 20 feet or more. These larger examples may require that several men work for many hours on their creation, while the smaller examples may be completed in a few hours by one or more artists. There are two basic compositional patterns traditionally employed: rows of figures enclosed with boundary lines on three sides or centralized designs radiating from a focal point, also enclosed by boundary lines on three sides. In all cases, the symbolic elements and colors are carefully chosen to accord with the traditional sacred designs appropriate for each ceremony or chant.
There are hundreds of different chants and related images created in sand paintings. Although scholars and researchers of Navajo culture and religion have been extremely active in defining and categorizing these different chants and their related pictorial imagery, the symbols and images are really not meant to be accessible to outsiders but, rather, form a critical aspect of the highly sacred and guarded lore of the Navajo people. The power of the images and the efficacy of the rituals depend on their sacred status. That is why commercial works of art produced for collectors and tourists may replicate some aspects of these sacred designs in decorative form but are not used, or intended to be used, for actual ritual purposes.
The woven rug example illustrated here includes designs associated with the Shooting Way Chant, one of many ceremonial healing rituals of the Navajo. The Shooting Way Chant and related sand paintings are primarily intended to recreate balance in an individual who is suffering from various illnesses including colds and fevers, or to prevent infection caused by lightning strikes, snakes, and arrows. The composition is typically clear, symmetric, and carefully organized to show the four directions (north, south, east, and west) with east at the top. Unlike many Western style maps (especially of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods), the east as the direction of the rising sun is often indicated at the top of Navajo sand paintings. Unlike the other three cardinal directions, the east is often represented as unbounded and unenclosed by boundary lines. This is the direction that the patient faces when sitting in the painting, and the direction from which the properly evoked healing powers will arrive.
This design is bounded by zigzagging arrow/lightning forms. Images of the Four Thunders (of the four cardinal directions) and Four Sacred Plants (corn, tobacco, squash, and beans) radiate from the central element. The central circle represents the home of the Thunder People; it is shown as a lake with four rectangular rainbow forms. The east (top of the painting) is protected by two guardian figures. The Thunders are represented as birdlike forms with outstretched wings from which hang waterspouts and lightning rays. Triangular arrows project from the tops and tips of their wings. Their lozenge-shaped tails contain symbols representing rain. Curving forms indicating thunder sounds also project from their tails. Their bodies are enriched with short rectangular forms symbolizing rainbows.
There are hundreds of different designs and compositions associated with the Shooting Way Chant, and singers select those patterns that will best suit the healing needs of the individual patient.
According to Navajo belief, a sandpainting heals because the ritual image attracts and exalts the Holy People; serves as a pathway for the mutual exchange of illness and the healing power of the Holy People; identifies the patient with the Holy People it depicts; and creates a ritual reality in which the patient and the supernatural dramatically interact, reestablishing the patient’s correct relationship with the world of the Holy People.
Kachinas (or katsinam) are spirit beings who feature prominently in the religious beliefs and social customs of several Native American groups of the Southwest, notably the Hopi, Zuni, and Tewa peoples. Kachina dolls (or tithu) are small, carved, painted, and decorated wooden images representing the spirit beings who otherwise appears as masked performers in elaborate and extensive yearly ceremonies. Tithu are not dolls in the conventional sense but, rather, function as powerful symbols and reminders of the important role of the kachinas. Although these objects are often given to small infants of both sexes, and thereafter only to young girls, they are not designed as toys or playthings but are displayed (often hung on walls or rafters in homes) and are “treated respectfully, as blessings.”
The kachinas have distinct but interdependent manifestations—first, as spirit beings; second, as the physical counterparts of the spirit when they are given substance and personality through masks, costumes, paint, symbols, and actions by human impersonators, who thereby cease being ordinary people and are transformed into spirits; and third, by the small wooden effigies called kachin-tihusby the Hopi and kachina dolls by outsiders.
The ultimate origins of the kachinas and the practices associated with them are matters of some speculation. Spanish explorers and settlers of the Southwest in the 16th century noted the customs and rituals of the Pueblo peoples, including the dances and ceremonies associated with the kachinas. Many scholars believe that these practices have very ancient roots in the region and see evidence in rock art and pottery depictions of masked figures and spirit beings from perhaps as early as the 11th through 14th centuries CE. Some scholars have speculated that the carved wooden tithu were partially inspired by the painted, sculptural depictions of saints and holy figures brought to the region by European settlers and Christian missionaries. Very few surviving kachina images predate the 19th century, however, and from that time to the present day, the production of carved tithu(especially among the Hopi) has also increased in response to the interests of collectors and tourists with many examples—in an evolving variety of styles—being produced purely for commercial rather than religious purposes.
The ultimate origins of the kachinas and the practices associated with them are matters of some speculation. Spanish explorers and settlers of the Southwest in the 16th century noted the customs and rituals of the Pueblo peoples, including the dances and ceremonies associated with the kachinas. Many scholars believe that these practices have very ancient roots in the region and see evidence in rock art and pottery depictions of masked figures and spirit beings from perhaps as early as the 11th through 14th centuries CE. Some scholars have speculated that the carved wooden tithu were partially inspired by the painted, sculptural depictions of saints and holy figures brought to the region by European settlers and Christian missionaries. Very few surviving kachina images predate the 19th century, however, and from that time to the present day, the production of carved tithu (especially among the Hopi) has also increased in response to the interests of collectors and tourists with many examples—in an evolving variety of styles—being produced purely for commercial rather than religious purposes.
In religious contexts, “Katsina rituals are directly linked to the seasonal demands of agriculture.” Among the Hopi, the kachina season lasts from the winter solstice to the summer solstice, whereas among other groups (for example, Zuni) the kachina rituals take place throughout the year. The kachina are regarded as bringers of life, spirit beings whose benevolence ensures growth, fertility, and success in agriculture—especially in their ability to bring rain to these hot and arid regions. In some versions of Hopi mythology regarding the kachina, it is told that ancestral peoples, suffering through a great drought, heard singing and dancing in the nearby mountains. They traveled to the mountains and met the spirit beings (kachina), who returned with them to their villages and assisted them with a successful farming season. This annual return of the kachina spirits is celebrated by their appearance in the form of costumed figures who, for six months “live with the Hopi people, performing ceremonies for them in the kivas during the cold winter months and dancing in the plazas in spring and early summer for the enjoyment of all.” They are “welcomed and treasured as powerful friends and guardians who bring gifts of rain, crops, bird songs, flowers, summer greenery, happiness, health, and long life.”
The number and appearance of the kachinas varies widely between regions, villages, and clans. Kachinas represent a living tradition, with the knowledge of the meaning and power of specific kachinas closely guarded by elders and revealed via initiation rites held at important stages in the lives of community members. “A veil of secrecy surrounds each kachina society and clan, privileged information and responsibilities are passed down through generations to each exclusive group.” The forms of the kachinas have evolved and transformed over the centuries. It is estimated that between two to three hundred spirit beings are (or have been) recognized, many of which appear only during specific ceremonies such as Soyal (the winter solstice ceremony, which marks the return of the kachinas), Powamu (the Bean Dance), the Water Serpent ceremony, and Niman (the Home Dance, or summer solstice ceremony, which thanks and celebrates the kachinas before their seasonal departure). The attributes of the kachinas are varied, bespeaking their different natures and spirit essences, with the costumes, masks, and tithu often showing characteristics of flowers and plants (cactus, corn), birds (eagles and owls), snakes, animals (such as deer, bears, and mountain lions), or symbols of clouds, rain, the sun, morning, and symbols representing powerful warrior and leader figures. Kachinas are both male and female, although only men perform in the rituals and dances. Some kachinas are playful, others are frightening and severe. Specific color symbolism is also used, relating to “the six different sacred directions. North is represented by blue or green, west by yellow, south by red, east by white, zenith by multicolors, and nadir by black.”
The 20th-century Hopi tihu illustrated represents a katsinmana, a maiden or female spirit, wearing an elaborate stepped headdress (or tablita) representing the impressive headgear worn by costumed dancers in ceremonies. Tithu are traditionally carved from the dense, dry roots of dead cottonwood trees; many are painted in vibrant colors and often have attachments of feathers and plant materials. Zuni tithu are often clothed in costumes of animal skin or woven cloth. Tithu are carved by artists versed in the craft and ancient traditions, who are familiar with the traditional forms and symbolism. Before the modern period, tithu (such as the example illustrated) largely appear as static standing figures, without bases. Modern tithu often show more active stances, may have moveable limbs, and are placed on carved bases.
Northwest Coast Totem Poles
The creation of carved wooden totem poles is characteristic of several native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Totem poles represent the largest freestanding sculptures created by native peoples of North America, as well as some of the largest wooden sculptures ever created worldwide. They have “become the very symbol of Northwest Coast native people and their art.”
Due to the wet climate and perishable nature of the material, few totem poles presently exist that predate the mid- to late 19th century; however, the art form continues to be vibrantly practiced today. The first Europeans to reach the Pacific Northwest Coast in the late 18th century described seeing impressive and intriguing carved posts on the interiors and exteriors of native dwellings; even so, it remains unclear when the art form originated and for how long it had developed before European contact. The evolution of the large, freestanding totem pole can be traced primarily in the late 19th and 20th century.
While it has been argued that these carved monuments are nonreligious in nature, and served primarily secular purposes in displaying symbols, objects, and animals associated with specific families or clans (as “the equivalent of a European crest or coat of arms”), many of the images carved on totem poles are not simply decorative designs but many have their origins in ancient myths of supernatural beings, animals, and their encounters with ancestral figures. Although totem poles are not themselves objects of worship, they often include important religious symbolism.
The people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things and their dependence on certain animal and plant species fostered belief in the supernatural and spirit world … To show these spirits respect ensured their continued return or regrowth in the years ahead…. The people’s spirituality ran deep, and their sense of identity was strong. Through costumed spiritual transformation and re-enactments, they brought past histories and adventures into the present. Thus, the carved beings of crests and legend portrayed on the totem poles, often recreated in masks worn by dancers, sprang to life. When the dances and ceremonies ended, the sculptured poles in front of the houses continued to confirm the identity and rank of those who dwelt there.
Totem poles are traditionally carved of red cedar trees from which the bark has been stripped. Carving is done by a team—often a master carver with several assistants. Appendages such as beaks, wings, and fins are added by pegging or mortise and tenon joints. Once painted, poles are raised in stages by teams of people using ropes and wooden supports or scaffolds. Although heights of totem poles vary widely, many are as much as 80 feet or more tall.
The completion of the undertaking could be integrated into the ceremonial event known as a “potlatch” (“to give away”). Potlatches were elaborate events regularly orchestrated by many Northwest Coast peoples. These were times of gift-giving, feasting, dancing, religious rituals, and affirmation of the wealth and prestige of the hosting family or clan. Often held in conjunction with a major event, such as a marriage or a death, potlatches involved the host’s distribution of gifts to all attendees.
The designs of totem poles often include images or crests associated with specific clans.
The central feature of the ceremonial art of the Northwest Coast is the concept of the “crest”—family, clan, or lineage-owned badges—representing natural phenomena, mythical creatures and ancestors. Many of these are likely to have originated as spirit helpers of individuals, handed down from one generation to another, so that symbols of religious origins may have in time become transformed into symbols of family or political significance.
Traditional designs include the powerful thunderbird spirit (always shown with great wings outstretched—as in the examples illustrated), raven (revered by many Pacific Northwest groups as the creator of the world), wolf (symbol of strength and prowess in hunting), eagle (symbol of prestige and strength), bear (symbol of power), symbols of the sun and moon, and numerous other animals, zoomorphs, and human figures. Northwest Coast art represents a series of distinctive styles based on “a general system of design principles. Depending on how these are used, the crest or motif being portrayed can vary from realistic and easily recognizable to involved and somewhat difficult to figure out—or the identity of the figure can become totally abstracted through the rearrangement of its anatomical parts.”
Many totem poles created today still follow the traditional imagery and design structure, though they may be created for nontraditional purposes (commissioned by corporations, government agencies, museums, and educational centers) and they may also be created of more durable modern materials (such as fiberglass). Even so, they preserve the traditional forms, “proclaiming the people’s pride in their past and the strength of their culture, now and in the future.”