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The Life Of The World

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



It has recently been much the custom of writers dealing with Indian beliefs to assert that the conception of a Great Spirit or Great Mystery is imported by white teachers, that the untutored Indian knows no such being; the universality of the earlier tradition as to the native existence of this idea is regarded as of little consequence, almost as a studied misinterpretation. Nevertheless, when we find such definite conceptions as that of Kitshi Manito among the Algonquians or Tirawa-atius in Pawnee religion, or even such indefinite ones as that of the Carrier Indian's Yuttoere ("that which is on high"),' we begin to question the truth of the modern assertion. As a matter of fact, there is hardly a tribe that does not possess its belief in what may very properly be called a Great Spirit, or Great Mystery, or Master of Life. Such a being is, no doubt, seldom or never conceived anthropomorphically, seldom if ever as a formal personality; but if these preconceptions of the white man be avoided, and the Great Spirit be judged by what he does and the manner in which he is approached, his difference from the Supreme Deity of the white man is not so apparent.

Probably the Siouan conception of Wakanda, the Mystery that is in all life and all creation, has been as carefully studied as any Indian religious idea. In general, Wakanda is the Siouan equivalent of the Algonquian Manito, not a being but an animating power, or one of a series of animating powers which are the invisible but potent causes of the whole world's life. "All the Indians," says De Smet, of the Assiniboin, "admit the existence of the Great Spirit, viz., of a Supreme Being who governs all the important affairs of life, and who manifests his action in the most ordinary events. Every spring, at the first peal of thunder, which they call the voice of the Great Spirit speaking from the clouds, the Assiniboins offer it sacrifices. Thunder, next to the sun, is their great Wah-kon. At the least misfortune, the father of a family presents the calumet to the Great Spirit, and, in prayer, implores him to take pity on him, his wives and children." "Prayer to Wakanda," another observer was told, "was not made for small matters, such as going fishing, but only for great and important undertakings, such as going to war or starting on a journey."

Doubtless the most illuminating analysis of this great Siouan divinity which is in all things is that made by Miss Fletcher in her study of the Omaha tribe. Wakanda, she says, "stands for the mysterious life power permeating all natural forms and forces and all phases of man's conscious life. Visible nature seems to have mirrored to the Omaha mind the ever-present activities of the invisible and mysterious Wakonda and to have been an instructor in both religion and ethics. . .. Natural phenomena served to enforce ethics. Old men have said: `Wakonda causes day to follow night without variation and summer to follow winter; we can depend on these regular changes and can order our lives by them. In this way Wakonda teaches us that our words and our acts must be truthful, so that we may live in peace and happiness with one an-other. Our fathers thought about these things and observed the acts of Wakonda and their words have come down to us.'All experiences in life were believed to be directed by Wakonda, a belief that gave rise to a kind of fatalism. In the face of calamity, the thought, `This is ordered by Wakonda,' put a stop to any form of rebellion against the trouble and often to any effort to overcome it. An old man said: `Tears were made by Wakonda as a relief to our human nature; Wakonda made joy and he also made tears!' An aged man, standing in the presence of death, said: `From my earliest years I remember the sound of weeping; I have heard it all my life and shall hear it until I die. There will be parting as long as man lives on the earth. Wakonda has willed it to be so!' Personal prayers were addressed directly to Wakonda.

A man would take his pipe and go alone to the hills; there he would silently offer smoke and utter the call, Wakonda ho! while the moving cause, the purport of his prayer, would remain unexpressed in words. If his stress of feeling was great, he would leave his pipe on the ground where his appeal had been made. Women did not use the pipe when praying; their appeals were made directly, without any intermediary. Few, if any, words were used; generally the sorrowful or burdened woman simply called on the mysterious power she believed to have control of all things, to know all desires, all needs, and to be able to send the required help.

The mere quotation of Indian utterances, the mere description of their simple rites, out-tell all commentary. Yet the testimony of one whose first and native education was in this belief may well be appended. "The worship of the `great Mystery,' says Dr. Eastman, "was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration. It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker. None might exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another. Among us all men were created sons of God and stood erect, as conscious of their divinity. Our faith might not be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any who were unwilling to receive it; hence there was no preaching, proselyting, nor persecution, neither were there any scoffers or atheists. There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky! He who enrobes Himself in filmy veils of cloud, there on the rim of the visible world where our Great-Grandfather Sun kindles his evening camp-fire, He who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose war-canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas He needs no lesser cathedral!



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