11: Indigenous Traditions


The Anthropology of Ritual Identity

I. In Search of Local Meaning

The Book of Kells
The Arrest of Christ

Key Terms

  • totem
  • taboo
  • shaman
  • colonization
  • Humans have been participating as small groups in social rituals since thousands of years before written history
  • Hundreds of indigenous tribes continue to exist
    • Huge variety of folkways
    • Anthropology covers this in more depth

II. The Raw & the Cooked

  • A. Totem
    • Objects imbued with social meaning
    • A group is recognized by objects, events, and narratives that have meaning to
      the group
    • Symbols of unity

  • B. Taboo
    • Taboo to harm or misuse a totem within a group
    • Other taboos are ritually-forbidden actions

  • C. Shaman
    • Mediator between the sacred and the mundane
    • Primitive cultures identify the shaman as a medicine man, spiritual medium
      or folk healer
    • Anthropological equivalent of rabbi, priest, preacher, imam
    • Selection could be hereditary or based on some other feature

  • D. Oral Traditions
    • Beliefs and practices passed down through spoken narratives
    • Group was usually illiterate or too nomadic to carry written documents
    • Oral traditions related sayings of the shaman regarding observable phenomena
    • Native American folktale - how animals created the Earth
    • African folktale - importance of sharing

  • E. The Afterlife & Circular Time
    • Ritualized burials symbolizing the womb and rebirth
    • Belief in supernatural beings or ancestral spirits
    • Time is circular, everything that is happening has happened before
    • Based on observable patterns in nature

III. The Logic of Colonialism

  • A. Linear Progress
    • Abrahamic traditions envision the world in linear time, not circular
    • They viewed the pagan world as backward thinking
    • This leads to the Western concept of colonial progress
    • Converting and colonizing came to be understood as beneficial to pagan populations
    • The results were not always so

  • B. Colonialism’s Three Choices
    • Tolerance
    • Assimilation
    • Eradication
    • These choices are dependent upon the threat of the smaller group, possibility of gaining a bad reputation, distance from a major city, and other factors

Ancient Indigenous Encounters

IV. First Century: the Greeks

  • A. Pre-Christian Greek Culture
    • No category “religion” that defined beliefs and rituals of their culture
    • They were simply embedded in society (Yale article)
    • Greeks honored different deities in city-states
    • Most popular form of civic ritual was the theater
    • Unorganized folkways populated the rural areas
    • Mystics held secret knowledge of the Logos, the transcendent power of reason and knowledge in the universe

  • B. Cultural Exchanges with the Greeks
    • Logos was a favorite topic of philosophers
    • Incorporated into the Gospel of John
    • Greek theater appropriated for worship

  • C. Post-Contact Greek Christianity
    • Assimilation was the most practical course of action to spread the Christian message
    • New Testament written in Greek
    • Constantine uses unifying concept of Greek Christianity to unite the crumbling Roman Empire

V. 400s: the Celts

  • A. Pre-Christian Celtic Culture
    • No written documentation of this time because Ireland was illiterate before the 400s
    • According to Roman documents, the Celts had a priestly caste of druids who had rituals for consecrating items
    • Trees were particularly significant

  • B. Cultural Exchanges with the Celts
    • Devotion to trees surprised Christian missionaries
    • St. Patrick illustrated the Christian trinity with the shamrock
    • Celtic Cross is a syncretism of the Celtic circle of life with the Christian cross
    • Celtic Knot uses an interlacing tree patern to symbolize the mystery of God

  • C. Post-Contact Irish Christianity
    • Tolerance was the most practical course of action to spread the Christian message
    • Ireland was too remote for any other alternative
    • Ireland was a haven for Western civilization as Rome fell
    • Celtic monks in their leisure created the Book of Kells

Medieval Indigenous Encounters

VI. 700s-800s: the Saxons

  • A. Pre-Christian Saxon Culture
    • Much is known due to frequent warfare between Saxons and Romans
    • Stories and rituals varied greatly but in general
      • Wodan, the All-Father, gave an eye for wisdom
      • Donar, the son of Wodan, had a hammer with power over thunder
      • Male and female warriors
      • Dwarves, elves, trolls
    • Narratives promoted a fatalistic warrior culture of self-reliance and courage

  • B. Cultural Exchanges with the Saxons
    • Some Saxons migrated to Britain in the 400s and, along with the Angles tribe, became Christians in 600s
    • These Anglo-Saxons of Britain spread Christianity
    • The Saxons who had remained in Northeast Germany raided Christian territory frequently
    • Charlemagne defeated the Saxons in the 700s and forced conversions to Christianity

  • C. Post-Contact Anglo-Saxon & German Christianity
    • Saxons also venerated trees giving Christianity the evergreen Christmas tree
    • The word Easter has a Anglo-Saxon source in Eostre, the goddess of fertility
    • Ongoing antagonism to Roman authority contributed to the Protestant Reformation

VII. 700s-1100s: the Norse

  • A. Pre-Christian Norse Culture
    • Extreme isolation keeping Christian missions partially ineffective
    • Deities highly prized: Odin, Thor, Valkyries
    • Vikings raided local churches

  • B. Cultural Exchanges with the Norse
    • Fascination with the story of Jesus returning from Hell
    • Jesus is included in the Norse poem, Dream of the Rood, where Jesus is a Germanic warrior
    • Battle of Ragnarok, Norse story of the Last Days, blends pagan Norse and Christian beliefs
    • Christmas traditions from the Norse: Yule log, mistletoe
    • Days of the week are from Norse deities

  • C. Post-Contact Northern European Christianity
    • Folkways stayed present even after Christianization
    • Thor’s hammer appears next to Jesus’ cross in art and on tombstones
    • Scandinavia grew to be irreligious faster than the rest of Europe

Modern Indigenous Encounters

VIII. 1700s: the Xhosa

  • A. Pre-Christian Xhosa Culture
    • Settled in South Africa, farmed and herded cattle
    • Practiced divination and herbal healing
    • Ancestor spirits and Supreme Being

  • B. Cultural Exchanges with the Xhosa
    • 1700s, Dutch and English traders encounter the Xhosa people of South Africa
    • 1800s, Christian missionaries are sent and the Bible is translated into Xhosa
    • A prophetess initiated a Millenialist Movement
      • She claims the sickness of the cattle (brought on by European settlers) is caused by angry spirits
      • A sacrifice of the herd would appease the spirits
      • The cattle-killing crisis of 1856-1857 was the result
      • The famine that followed cut the population from 100,000 to less than 30,000 people

  • C. Post-Contact South Africa
    • African Initiated Church promoting African independence
    • Children of Indigenous peoples are practicing Christians

IX. 1800s: the Lakota

  • A. Pre-Christian Lakota Culture
    • Horse culture as of the 1700s, hunting buffalo on the Great Plains
    • Hostile to Europeans, raiding early settlers and interfering with exploration

  • B. Cultural Exchanges with the Lakota
    • Indian Removal Act signed into law in 1830
    • The Great Sioux Nation resisted resettlement
    • 1866-1868 and 1876-1877 the Lakota faught in Red Cloud’s War against the United States and the Great Sioux War
    • Overpowered, the Lakota were relocated
    • In 1889, Wokova had a vision of Jesus returned as an American Indian
      • This sparked the Messianic Ghost Dance religion
      • Troops were called in to quell the disturbance
      • The Wounded Knee Massacre took place in 1890

  • C. Post-Contact South Dakota
    • Christianity is the most popular religion among Native Americans
    • The Native American Church is the most widespread U.S. Indigenous Religion
    • Half the remaining Sioux live on Indian Reservations