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Relgion And Ceremonies

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The religious life and conceptions of the Californian tribes reflect the simplicity of their social organization. In northern California and Oregon the religious life gains in complexity as the influence of the North-West becomes stronger, and a similar increase in the importance of ceremonial is observed in the south; but in the characteristic area of the region, central California, the development of rites is meagre. The shaman is a more important personage than the priest and ritual is of far less consequence than magical therapy; in fact, the Californian Indians belong to that primitive stratum of mankind for which shamanism is the engrossing form of religious interest, the western shamans, like the majority of Indian "medicine-men," acquiring their powers through fast and vision in which the possessing tutelary is revealed.

Of ceremonies proper, the most distinctive on this portion of the Coast is the annual rite in commemoration of the dead, known as the "burning" or the "cry" or the "dance of the dead." This is an autumnal and chiefly nocturnal ceremony in which, to the dancing and wailing of the participants, various kinds of property are burned to supply the ghosts; the period of mourning is then succeeded by a feast of jollity. In few parts of America are the tabus connected with the dead so stringent: typical customs include the burning of the house in which death occurs; the ban against speaking the name of the deceased, or using, for the space of a year, a word of which this name is a component; and the marking of a widow by smearing her with pitch, shearing her hair, or the like, until the annual mourning releases her from the tabu. Such usages, along with cremation, disappear as the North-West is approached.

A second group of rites have to do with puberty. Her first menstruation is marked by severe tabus for the girl concerned; and a dance is given when the period is passed. Boys undergo an initiation into the tribal mysteries, the ceremony including the recounting of myths. Rites of this character are not always compulsory, nor are they limited to boys, since men who have passed the age period without the ceremony sometimes participate later. The body of initiates forms a kind of Medicine Society, having in charge the religious supervision of the village. Still a third ceremonial group includes magic dances intended to foster the creative life of nature, the number of such rites varying from tribe to tribe.

Ceremonial symbolism, so elaborate in many portions of America, is little developed in the West-Coast region. Pictographs are unknown and fetishes little employed; nor is there anything approaching in character the complicated use of mask personations which reaches its highest forms in the neighbouring South-West and NorthWest. Mythic tales and ritual songs have a similar inferiority of development, the extremes of the region, north and south, showing the greatest advancement in this as in other respects. In one particular the Californians stand well in advance: throughout the central region, their idea of the creation is clearly conceptualized; and it is their cosmogonic myths, with the idea of a definite and single creator, which form their most unique contribution to American Indian lore. The creator is sometimes animal, sometimes manlike, in form, but he is usually represented as dignified and beneficent, and there is an obvious tendency to humanize his character.

Northern California and Oregon, however, know less of such a single creator. In this section stories of the beginnings start with the Age of Animals or rather, of anthropic beings who on the coming of man were transformed into animals whose doings set the primeval model after which human deeds and institutions are copied. Here is a cycle assimilated to the myth of the North-West, just as the lore of the south Californian tribes approaches the type of the plateau and desert region.



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