Last Modified: 2014-07-02
The concept that at birth an individual would belong to the clan of which their mother belonged. It is believed that the Iroquois clans were families that were traced through female lineages known as matrilines.
A societal group that is based around a totem (also known as “gens” or “gentes”). Due to the sensitive nature of clan/totemic association, many Native Americans may have hidden the existence of specific clans from historians. Clans were often considered another “family” and were given the same strength of bond as a biological relationship. This explains the example of “Bear Ceremonialism”, apologizing to the bear that it must be killed. The Iroquoian clan system helped strengthen the Iroquois confederacy.
A social system or arrangement whereby marriage is not allowed between to members of the same group (or clan). In the Iroquois system, marriage was not allowed between two members of the same clan or the same moiety, this is know a “double exogamy”.
The ability of a person or spirit to change form or “shape shift”
Charms and fetishes are objects that attract or hold a specific spirit or entity. Charms are generally objects that are found and used as is, fetishes are generally man made. Fetishes are also considered to enslave the spirit they contain such that a person who possesses the fetish may harness the powers of the enslaved spirit.
In some Native American cultures (specifically the Ojibwa), when a young child is seeking a dream or vision quest, they will abstain from eating for a period of time to help initiate the vision. Often children are prepared for a vision fast in the years leading up to their vision quest. Parents may awaken the child on a given morning and offer them a choice of charcoal or bread to eat. Children who choose bread may be punished thus encouraging voluntary fasting.
Native American who experienced a powerful dream in which he was given a detailed look into the future of his people. Black Elk’s dream showed examples of time travel, transformation, and prophecy.
A term that refers to the societal system in which a married couple reside with the wife’s family.
The “Red Road”
One of the two paths revealed in Black Elk’s dream. The “Red Road” runs North to South and resembles the “good road”.
The “Black Road”
One of the two paths revealed in Black Elk’s dream. The “Black Road” runs West to East and resembles the “bad road”. The Lakota will be forced down this road (into war).
Also known as the “Friendship Pipe” or “Peace Pipe”, is a sacred object through which tobacco is smoked. The pipe and it’s adornments symbolize the universe and all the people and things living in it. The smoke itself is thought to be alive and literally be “spirits”.
A common form of symbolism among Native Americans in which their place in the universe is displayed through a “cosmic pillar” or “world tree”. The pillar may be symbolized by a sacred pole. The cosmic pillar holds up the sky or the heavens and prevents the sun from falling down to the earth.
An object, either living or nor that a specific group or individual is associated with. A totem may be considered to contain a spirit or spirits. A group that organizes around a totem is considered a “clan”. Examples of totem’s include “Devils Tower” and “ UmoN HoN Ti”. Totemic associations are often highly private. Totems represent animals, objects, or even places that are important to the clan. The Iroquois clan system is an example of a totemic system.
Animism is a term used by Europeans that poorly describes Native American belief systems. Animism can be described as: Belief in supernatural beings such as spirits or demons. Belief that all life is produced by a spiritual force separate from matter (i.e. spirit and matter are two separate things), Belief that spirits can and do inhabit people, places, and objects. (i.e. places and objects can have souls, be “alive”.)
Circle and Cross
Circle and Cross symbolism appear in Black Elk’s dream. The cross resembles two roads, the “Red Road” and “Black Road”, each resembling the “good” and “bad” paths respectively. The circle is the symbolization of Black Elk’s nation as a hoop.
An experience by which a Native American (usually a young boy) receives a vision that is to become a “life guide” of sorts, revealing his path in life. The vision is then consulted throughout his life and additional visions may be sought periodically to supplement the initial experience. Often the vision is brought about by a fasting ritual (dream fasting) in which the boy avoids nourishment of any kind for a period of time. If the boy does not receive a vision or receives a negative vision, he will return home and wait one year before making another attempt.
A tradition among Native American tribes in which a child is named according to the dreams of elders. The elders are chosen by the parents of the child and the elders are given presents, clothing, and food. The tradition generally takes place when the child is about 1 year old.
A term describing something that is “other-worldly” or “ghost-like”. Often used to describe the smoke from the calumet.
A message typically delivered through some divine or spiritual influence that describe a course of events that are going to happen in the future.
The “Red Stick”
The most powerful entity in Black Elk’s dream, the “Red Stick” is representative of the “tree of life” and is considered to be “alive” itself. In the dream it is sprouting and bringing forth life. Black Elk receives the power of the red stick and it told that he has the ability to make it blossom. From the red stick, Black Elk receives the “peoples heart”, meaning the spiritual authority to lead his people. Black Elk is told to plant the Red Stick in the center of the circle and cross in his vision and it will form a shielding tree.
An animistic belief that the earth itself is “alive”.
The Sixth Grandfather
The six grandfathers represent the six powers of the earth. In Black Elk’s dream, Black Elk IS the “Sixth Grandfather”.
Devil’s Tower (Wyoming)
A historic natural landmark that is the center of a heated battle between Native Americans and local citizens/US Gov/climbers.
A type of clay like stone that is used in the making of bowls for pipes.
In totemic societies moieties were a further division amongst clans. Two clans would typically be considered “brother clans”.
A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
A central figure in Native American creation stories that stem from the introduction of maize/agriculture into the subsistence strategy of Native Americans.
The ability of a person to separate his or her soul/spirit from their physical body. Some believed that when a dream/vision took place in a far away place that the soul literally issued forth from the body and proceeded to that place.
A spirit who appeared before the chief and presented the first calumet pipe.
The “Blue Man”
During a negative portion of Black Elk’s dream, the “blue man” resembles drought. Black Elk thus transforms himself into rain to help his people.
The belief in multiple gods.
Supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, witchcraft, sorcery, practices, or phenomena.
Umon Hon Ti
The sacred pole belonging to the Omaha people. Held by the Peabody Museum for many years and recently returned to the Omaha after a great deal of controversy.
- Iroquois/Huron clans were said to be matrilineal, exogamous and totemic. Explain each of these terms relative to Iroquois/Huron clans. Discuss the relationship between the Iroquois/Huron longhouse and their clans.
The term Matrilineal refers to the societal construct in which a child belongs to the the clan of his or her mother. This was the case in Iroquoian clans and thus the Iroquois lineage were traced back through “matrilines” and the oldest female in a given clan was the “matriarch”.
Exogamy is a societal construct in which marriage is not allowed between two individuals who are a part of the same group. In the case of the Iroquois/Huron this rule was applied to “clans” as well as “moieties” or “brother clans”, which is a situation that is described as “double exogamy”.
A totemic system is a religious/beliefs system that is based on a mystical or spiritual relationship with naturally occurring objects such as animals or plants. A group that is organized in such a way is generally considered a “clan”. Iroquoian clan systems were based around a maximum of eight different totems. The eight clan system was further divided into moieties meaning clans that were tied to each other as “brother clans”. These clans included: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Turtle, Deer, Snipe, Heron, and Hawk.
Iroquoians were also matrilocal, meaning that when two individuals married they would then reside with the wife's clan. Thus given all of these characteristics, the Iroquoian household system was comprised of a clan of matrilines. This system placed much of the control of the Iroquoian society in the hands of mothers. Iroquoian women controlled the flow of food and elected chiefs within the confederacy.
- Tobacco smoke and smoking are central to the Native American religious experience. Explain why many Natives associate smoke with spirits and the spirit world.
Tobacco smoke was often used to induce dreams or visions and was thus associated with the spirits believed to be in control of such dreams/visions. Native Americans believed that the physical smoke itself was in fact a spirit or spirits (animism). Tobacco was considered a means of communication with the spiritual world. The observation that the smoke could be seen ascending towards the heavens but could not be touched further supported the idea that it was ethereal or “other worldly”.
- Umon Hon ti is not considered a fetish, but rather a totem. Briefly discuss both the totem and the fetish and clarify why the pole is normally placed into the totem category.
Generally a fetish is an item in which a specific spirit or deity is trapped and can be utilized possibly against it’s will. A totem, however, is generally considered to be “alive”, have a name and a story associated with it. Totems are also generally associated with a clan. The Omaha societal system (at least at one time) was organized around clans and their central buffalo renewal ritual was centered around the pole which they believed to be “alive” and patronly. Thus although a totem and fetish may seem very similar, the Omaha’s UmonHonTi is best described as a totem.
- When he was a boy, Black Elk had a powerful dream in which he left his body. Discuss Black Elk’s dream relative to the basic religious concepts discussed in class (e.g. spirits, vision quests, transformation, time travel, astral projection, prophecy, ritual, allegory, charms) .
Black Elk did not obtain his dream by seeking it through dream-fasting but rather it was a vision that came to him spontaneously. In his vision/dream, Black Elk is shown many prophetic images that describe the past, present and future of his people. For instance, he sees the “Black” and “Red” roads ( signifying good and bad things that would come to pass ), as well as the “Hoop” (signifying his nation). Black Elk sees that the “Black Road” awaits his people and that trouble is coming. In this he is foreseeing the oncoming oppression of his people by the European settlers/United States Government. He sees the “Hoop” being broken and sees that his people will be converted to Christianity. Thus we see that Black Elk experiences a journey into the future (time travel). Black elk is also shown “The Blue Man” which resembles drought and he transforms himself into rain to aid his people (transformation). Thus we see several examples from the religious concepts we have discussed.
- Briefly discuss the roll of spells and “witchcraft” in general using the article “The Stretching Tree”.
In “The Stretching Tree” the old man who is jealous of the younger man uses magic/witchcraft to trap the young man in a tree while he escapes with the young man’s two wives.
- The belief in “Transformation” (or shape-shifting) is central to many Native American religions. Discuss “transformation” using the article “The Youth who Joined the Deer”.
The tale of “The Youth Who Joined The Deer”, is an example of transformation as a key component to Native American beliefs, specifically regarding the hunting of deer. In this tale we see multiple examples of “transformation” . The hunting process (in terms of the story) proceed as follows: A brother/tribesman is transformed into a deer which is to be hunted. Upon killing the dee, the bones are carefully collected and placed in the river to undergo transformation back into a man and it then becomes another tribesman turn to be transformed and hunted. Through this transformation cycle we see beliefs, rituals, and hunting practices are shaped around transformation.
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