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American Indian Shamanism

American Indian Shamanism

This article comes from Chapter 4, taken in its entirety, from the book
Light on the Ancient Worlds: New Translation with Selected Letters
(World Wisdom, 2006) by Frithjof Schuon.

By “Shamanism” we mean traditions of “prehistoric” origin that are characteristic of Mongoloid peoples, including the American Indians;[1] in Asia we encounter this Shamanism properly so called not only in Siberia, but also in Tibet—in the form of Bön—and in Mongolia, Manchuria, and Korea; pre-Buddhist Chinese tradition, with its Confucian and Taoist branches, is also connected to this traditional family, and the same applies to Japan, where Shamanism has given rise to the particular tradition of Shinto. All these doc­trines are characterized by a complementary opposition between Earth and Heaven as well as by a worship of Nature, which is envis­aged in relation to its essential causality and not its existential acci­dentality; they are also distinguished by a certain parsimony in their eschatology—quite apparent even in Confucianism—and above all by the central function of the shaman, assumed in China by the Tao­-tse[2] and in Tibet by the lamas concerned with divination and exor­cism.[3] If we mention China and Japan here, it is not to incorporate their indigenous traditions summarily into Siberian Shamanism, but to indicate the place they occupy in relation to the primitive tradition of the yellow race, a tradition of which Shamanism is the most direct—though also, it must be admitted, the most uneven and ambiguous—continuation.

This last remark raises the question of knowing the spiritual value of the Siberian and American forms of Shamanism; the gen­eral impression is that one finds the very widest differences of level, but what is certain is that among the American Indians—for it is of them that we shall be speaking here—something primordial and pure has been preserved despite all the obscurations that may have been superimposed in certain tribes, perhaps mostly in relatively recent times.

Documents bearing testimony to the spiritual quality of the American Indians are numerous. A white man who was captured by them in his early infancy—at the beginning of the nineteenth century—and who lived until his twentieth year among tribes (Kick­apoo, Kansas, Omaha, Osage) that had never had the slightest con­tact with a missionary, says: “It is certain that they acknowledge—at least as far as my acquaintance extends—one supreme, all powerful, and intelligent Being, or Giver of Life, who created and governs all things. They believe in general that, after the hunting grounds had been formed and supplied with game, He created the first red man and woman, who were very large in their stature and lived to an exceeding old age; that He often held councils and smoked with them, gave them laws to be obeyed, and taught them how to take game and cultivate corn: but that in consequence of their disobedi­ence, He with drew from and abandoned them to the vexations of the Evil Spirit, who has since been the cause of all their degeneracy and sufferings. They believe the Great Spirit of too exalted a char­acter to be directly the author of evil, and that He continues to shower down on His red children—despite their offences—all the blessings they enjoy; in response to this parental solicitude, they are truly filial and sincere in their devotions, praying to Him for such things as they need and returning thanks for what they have received. In all the tribes I have visited, I have found a belief in a future life with rewards and punishments. . . . This conviction con­cerning their accountability to the Great Spirit makes the Indians generally scrupulous and fervent in their traditional beliefs and observances, and it is a fact worthy of remark that one finds among them neither frigidity, indifference, nor hypocrisy in regard to sacred things.”[4]

Another testimony, coming this time from a Christian source, is as follows: “Belief in a supreme Being is firmly rooted in the culture of the Chippewas. This Being, called Kîchê Manitô, or Great Spirit, was far removed from them. Prayers were rarely addressed directly to Him alone and sacrifices were only offered to Him at the feast of the Midewiwin initiates. My informants spoke of Him in a tone of submission and extreme reverence. ‘He has placed all things on earth and takes care of everything,’ added an old man, the most powerful medicine-man of the Short Ear Lake Reservation. One elderly woman of the same reservation stated that when praying the Indians of old first of all addressed Kîchê Manitô and afterwards ‘the other great spirits, the kitchî manitô, who live in the winds, the snow, the thunder, the tempest, the trees, and in all things’. One aged shaman called Vermilion was convinced that ‘all the Indians in this country knew God long before the arrival of the Whites; but they did not ask Him for particular things as they do now that they have become Christians. They expected favors from their own spe­cial protectors’. Less powerful than Kîchê Manitô were the divinities inhabiting Nature and also the guardian spirits.…The belief of the Chippewas in a life after death is made plain by their burial and mourning customs, but they have a tradition that souls after death go toward the West, ‘toward the place the sun sets’ or ‘toward the prairies which contain the camping-grounds of blessing and eternal happiness’”.[5]

Since our point of view is not that of evolutionism, to say the least, we cannot believe in a crude and pluralistic origin of religions, and we have no reason to cast doubt on the “monotheistic” aspect of the tradition of the Indians,[6] especially since “polytheism” pure and simple is never any thing but a degeneration, hence a relatively late phenomenon, and in any case much less widespread than is ordinarily supposed. Primordial monotheism, which has nothing specifically Semitic about it and is best described as a “pan-mono­theism”—otherwise polytheism could not have been derived from it—subsists or has left its trace among peoples of the most diverse kind, including the Pygmies of Africa; theologians call this “primi­tive religion”. In the Americas, the Fuegians for in stance know only a single God dwelling beyond the stars, who has no body and does not sleep and for whom the stars serve as eyes; He has always been and will never die; He created the world and gave rules of action to men. Among the Indians of North America—those of the Plains and of the Forests—the divine Unity is no doubt less exclusively affirmed and in some cases even seems to be veiled, and yet among these peoples nothing is to be found strictly comparable to the anthropomorphic polytheism of the ancient Europeans; it is true that there are several “Great Powers”,[7] but these Powers are either subordinated to a supreme Power resembling Brahma much more than Jupiter, or they are regarded as a totality or as a supernatural Substance of which we our selves are parts, as was explained to us by a Sioux. In order to understand this last point, which would represent pantheism if the entire concept were reduced to this formulation, one must know that ideas concerning the Great Spirit are connected either to the “discontinuous” reality of the Essence, which implies a transcendentalism,[8] or to the “continuous” reality of the Substance, which implies a panentheism; in the conscious­ness of the American Indians, however, the relation of Substance has more importance than that of Essence. One sometimes hears of a magical Power animating all things, including men, called Manito (Algonquin) or Orenda (Iroquois), which is coagulated—or personified, according to the case—in things and beings, including those that belong to the invisible and animistic world, and which also becomes crystal lized in connection with some human subject as a totem or “guardian angel” (the orayon of the Iroquois);[9] all this is correct, with the reservation however that the qualification “magical” is quite insufficient and even erroneous in the sense that it defines a cause in terms of a partial effect. Be that as it may, the important thing to remember is that Indian theism, while it is not a pluralism of the Mediterranean and “pagan” type, does not coin­cide exactly either with Abrahamic monotheism, but represents rather a somewhat “fluid” theosophy—in the absence of a sacred Scripture—akin to Vedic and Far-Eastern conceptions; it is also important to note the emphasis in this perspective on the aspects of “life” and “power”, which is entirely characteristic of a warlike and more or less nomadic mentality.

Certain tribes—the Algonquins especially and the Iroquois—distinguish between the demiurge and the supreme Spirit; the demiurge often assumes a role that borders on the burlesque, even the luciferian. Such a conception of the creative Power, and of the primordial dispenser of arts, is far from being confined to the American Indians, as is proven by the mythologies of the Ancient World where the misdeeds of the Titans stand side by side with those of the gods; in Biblical terms, we would say that there is no terrestrial Paradise without its serpent and that without the serpent there could be no fall and no human drama, nor any reconcilia­tion with Heaven. Since the creation is in any case something that distances itself from God, a deifugal tendency must necessarily be inherent in it, so much so that it can be considered under two aspects, one divine and the other demiurgic or luciferian; now the Indians mingle these two aspects, and they are not alone in doing so; one need only recall the case of the god Susano-o in Japanese mythology, the turbulent genius of sea and storm. In short, the demiurge—the Nanabozho, Mishabo, and Napi of the Algonquins, and the Tharonhiawagon of the Iroquois—is none other than Mâyâ, the protean principle which encompasses at once the creative Power and the world and which is natura naturans as well as natura naturata; Mâyâ is beyond good and evil, expressing both plenitude and privation, the divine and the all too human, even the titanic and the demonic: an ambiguity that sentimental moralism finds it difficult to understand.

As far as cosmogony is concerned, there is hardly anything of a creatio ex nihilo for the Indian; there is instead a sort of trans­formation. In a celestial world situated above the visible sky, there lived in the beginning semi-divine beings, the prototypical and nor­mative personages whom earthly man must imitate in all things; and there was only peace in this celestial world. But a time came when some of these beings sowed the seeds of discord, and then occurred the great change; they were exiled upon the earth and became the ancestors of all earthly creatures; some were able to remain in Heaven, however, and these are the geniuses of every essential activity, such as hunting, war, love, cultivation. According to the Indian, what we call “creation” is above all a change of state or a descent; this implies an “emanationist” perspective—in the positive and legitimate sense of the word—which is here explained by the predominance among the Indians of the idea of Substance, hence a “non-discontinuous” Reality. This is the perspective of the spiral or star, not that of concentric circles, although this latter perspective of discontinuity must never be lost from view; the two perspectives are complementary, but the accent is sometimes on one and sometimes on the other.

What is the correct and concrete meaning of the Indian idea that everything is “animated”? In principle and metaphysically it means that there springs forth from each thing—from its existen­tial center—an ontological ray that is made of “being”, “conscious­ness”, “life”, a ray which connects the object through its subtle or animistic root to its luminous and celestial prototype; from this it follows that it is possible for us to attain to the heavenly Essences by taking anything whatever as starting point. Things are coagulations of the divine Substance; the Substance is not things, but things are it, and they are so by virtue of their existence and their qualities; this is the profound meaning of the polysynthetic animism of the Indians, and it is this acute consciousness of the homogeneity of the phenomenal world that explains their spiritual naturalism and also their refusal to detach them selves from nature and to become involved in a civilization made up of artifices and servitudes and carrying within itself the seeds of petrifaction as well as corruption; for the Indian as for the Far-Easterner, the human is within nature and not outside it.

*          *          *

The most eminent manifestations of the Great Spirit are the cardinal points together with the Zenith and Nadir, or Heaven and Earth, and then such forms as the Sun, the Morning Star, the Rock, the Eagle, the Bison; all these manifestations are within ourselves while their roots subsist in Divinity: although the Great Spirit is One, It comprises within Itself all those qualities whose traces we see—and whose effects we experience—in the world of appearances.[10]

The East is Light and Knowledge as well as Peace; the South is Warmth and Life, hence Growth and Happiness; the West is fertil­izing Water as well as Revelation speaking in lightning and thunder; the North is Cold and Purity, or Strength. Thus it is that the Universe, at whatever level considered—Earth, Man, or Heaven—depends on four primordial determinations: Light, Heat, Water, and Cold. What is remarkable about this way of describing the cardinal points is that they do not expressly symbolize either the four elements—air, fire, water, earth—or their corresponding physical states—dryness, heat, moisture, cold—but rather mix or combine the two quater­naries unequally: North and South are characterized respectively by cold and heat without representing the elements earth and fire, whereas the West corresponds at the same time both to moisture and to water; the East represents dryness and above all light, but not air. This asymmetry can be explained as follows: the elements air and earth are respectively identified, in the spatial symbolism of the Universe, with Heaven and Earth, hence with the extremities of the vertical axis, whereas fire—to the extent it is sacrificial and transmuting—is the Center of all things; if one takes account of the fact that Heaven synthesizes all the active aspects of both quaterna­ries—that of the elements[11] and that of the states[12]—and that Earth synthesizes their passive aspects, it will be seen that the symbolical definitions of the four quarters are intended as a synthesis of the two poles, the one heavenly and the other earthly:[13] the Axis North-South is earthly, and the Axis East-West is heavenly.

What is common to all the American Indians is the fourfold polarity of cosmic qualities, but the descriptive symbolism can vary from one group to another, especially between groups differing as much as the Sioux and the Iroquois. Among the Cherokees, for instance, who belong to the Iroquois family, East, South, West, North mean respectively success, happiness, death, adversity and are represented by the colors, red, white, black, blue; for the Sioux all the cardinal points have a positive meaning, their colors being—in the same order of succession—red, yellow, black, white; but there is evidently a relationship between North-adversity and North-purifi­cation since trials purify and strengthen, or between West-death and West-revelation, since both ideas are related to the hereafter. Among the Ojibway, who belong to the Algonquin group, East is white like light, South green like vegetation, West red or yellow like the set­ting sun, and North black like the night; the attributions differ with the different points of view, but the fundamental symbolism with its fourfold structure and polarities is not affected.

*          *          *

The crucial part played by the directions of space in the rite of the Calumet or Sacred Pipe is well known. This rite is the Indian’s prayer, in which he speaks not only on his own behalf but also on behalf of all other creatures; the entire Universe prays together with the man who offers the Pipe to the Powers or Power.

Let us also mention here the other great rites of American Indian Shamanism, at least the principal ones, namely, the Sweat Lodge, solitary Invocation, and the Sun Dance;[14] we choose the number four not because it marks any absolute limit, but because it is sacred to the Indians and because it allows of establishing a synthesis that has nothing arbitrary about it.

The Sweat Lodge is a purificatory rite without peer; man is cleansed by it and becomes a new being. This rite and that of the Pipe are absolutely fundamental; the one that follows is so as well, but in a somewhat different sense.

Solitary Invocation—“lamenting” or “sending forth a voice”—is the most exalted form of prayer; it can be silent,[15] as circumstances dictate. It is a true spiritual retreat, through which every Indian has to pass once in his youth—the intention then is a special one—and which he may repeat periodically according to inspiration or cir­cumstances.

The Sun Dance is in a sense the prayer of the whole community; for those who participate, it means—esoterically at least—a virtual union with the solar Spirit, hence with the Great Spirit. This Dance symbolizes the connection of the soul to the Divinity: just as the dancer is connected to the central tree—by thongs that symbolize the rays of the sun—so man is connected to Heaven by a mysterious bond, which at one time the Indian sealed with his own blood, whereas now he is satisfied to keep uninterrupted fast for three or four days.* The dancer in this rite is like an eagle flying toward the sun: with a whistle made from the bone of an eagle, he produces a shrill and plaintive sound while imitating in a certain fashion the eagle’s flight by using feathers he carries in his hands. This as it were sacramental relationship with the sun leaves an ineffaceable mark on the soul.[16] 

*          *          *

Regarding the magical practices of shamans, it is necessary to dis­tinguish ordinary magic from what might be called cosmic magic; the cosmic type operates by virtue of the analogies between symbols and their prototypes. Everywhere in nature, which includes man himself, we discover in fact similar possibilities: substances, forms, and movements that correspond to one another qualitatively or typologically; now the shaman aims at mastering phenomena that lie outside his control, whether by their nature or by accident, through the use of other phenomena of an analogous—and there­fore metaphysically “identical”—kind, which he himself creates and which are thereby brought with in his own sphere of activity; he may wish to bring rain, stop a snow-storm, cause the arrival of a herd of bison, or cure an illness, and for this purpose he makes use of forms, colors, rhythms, incantations, and word less melodies. All this would be insufficient, however, were it not for the shaman’s extraordinary power of concentration, which is acquired through a long training carried out in solitude and silence and in contact with virgin nature; [17]concentration can also be the result of an excep­tional gift or may come through the intervention of a celestial influ­ence.[18] Behind every sensible phenomenon there lies a reality of an animistic order, which is independent of the limitations of space and time; it is by placing himself in contact with these realities or these subtle and supra-sensorial roots of things that a shaman is able to influence natural phenomena or fore tell the future. All this may seem strange—to say the least—to a modern reader, whose imagination now bears different imprints and obeys different reflexes than did that of mediaeval or archaic man and whose subconscious, it must be said, is therefore warped by a mass of prejudices having intellectual or scientific pretensions; without going into details, let us simply recall with Shakespeare that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

But shamans are also, and even a fortiori, expert magicians in the ordinary sense; their science works with forces of a psychic or animistic order, whether individualized or otherwise; unlike cosmic magic, it does not introduce analogies between the microcosm and the macrocosm or between the various natural reverberations of the same “idea”. In “white magic”, which is norm ally the kind used by shamans, the forces set into motion as well as the purpose of the operation are either beneficent or simply neutral; when on the contrary the spirits are malefic and the purpose equally so, “black magic” or sorcery is involved; in this case nothing is done “in the name of God”, and the link with the higher powers is broken. It goes without saying that practices so socially dangerous or so perni­cious in themselves were strictly prohibited among the American Indians as among all peoples,[19] though this does not mean these practices did not undergo in the case of certain forest tribes a spread of almost epidemic proportions—just as in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages—in conformity with their sinister and con­tagious nature.

One problem that has preoccupied all who take an interest in the spirituality of the American Indians is that of the “Dance of the Spirits” (the Ghost Dance), which played so tragic a part in their final defeat. Contrary to current opinion, this dance was not an entirely unprecedented occurrence; several similar movements had arisen long before Wovoka, the originator of the Ghost Dance. In fact the following phenomenon occurred fairly often among the tribes of the West: a visionary, who was not necessarily a shaman, underwent an experience of death and, upon returning to life, brought a message from the hereafter that took the form of proph­ecies concerning the end of the world, the return of the dead, and the creation of a new earth—some even spoke of a “rain of stars”—then a call to peace and finally a dance designed to hasten these events and protect the faithful, in this case the Indians; in a word, these messages from beyond the grave contained eschato­logical and “millenarian” conceptions, which we meet in one form or another in all mythologies and religions.[20]

What made the story of the Ghost Dance so distinctive and tragic were the physical and psychological conditions prevailing at that moment: the despair of the Indians transposed these prophe­cies into the immediate future and conferred on them in addition a combative tone quite out of keeping with the peaceful character of the original message; nonetheless it was not the Indians who provoked the conflict. As for the prodigies experienced by certain believers—especially among the Sioux—they seem to have been not so much phenomena of suggestion as hallucinations resulting from a collective psychosis as well as being determined in part by Christian influences; Wovoka always denied having claimed to be Christ, whereas he never denied having en countered the divine Being—which can be understood in many different ways—nor having received a message; and yet he had no motive for denying the first rather than the second.[21] It seems to us there is no reason to accuse Wovoka of imposture, especially since he has been described as a man of sincerity by Whites who at least had no prejudice in his favor; doubtless the truth is that he too was a victim of circum­stances. To see this whole movement in its proper pro portions one must consider it within its traditional context—taking into account Indian “polyprophetism” as well as the “apocalypticism” common to all religions—and at the same time within its contingent and temporal context, namely, the collapse of the vital foundations of the Plains civilization.

*          *          *

A fascinating combination of combative and stoical heroism with a priestly bearing conferred on the Indian of the Plains and Forests a sort of majesty at once aquiline and solar, hence the powerfully original and irreplaceable beauty which is associated with him and which contributes to his prestige as a warrior and martyr.[22] Like the Japanese at the time of the Samurai, the Indian was in the deepest sense an artist when it came to the manifestation of his person­ality: apart from the fact that his life was a ceaseless sporting with suffering and death,[23] and thus a kind of chivalrous karma yoga,[24] he knew how to impart to this spiritual style an aesthetic adornment unsurpassable in its expressiveness.

One factor which may have given the impression that the Indian is an individualist—in principle and not merely de facto—is the crucial importance he attaches to the moral worth of a man, to character one might say, and hence to the cult of action.[25] The heroic and silent act is contrasted with the empty and prolix speech of the coward; love of secrecy, a reluctance to express what is sacred by means of glib speeches that weaken and disperse it, can be explained in this way. The whole Indian character can be summed up in two words, if such an ellipsis may be permitted: act and secret—the act, shattering if need be, and the secret impla­cable. Rock-like, the Indian of former times reposed in himself, in his personality, ready to translate it into action with the impetuosity of lightning; but at the same time he remained humble before the Great Mystery, whose permanent message, he knew, lay in the nature all around him.

Nature is linked with holy poverty as with spiritual childlikeness; it is an open book containing an in exhaustible teaching of truth and beauty. It is in the midst of his own artifices that man most easily becomes corrupted, for it is they that make him greedy and impious; close to virgin nature, which knows neither agitation nor falsehood, man has the chance of remaining contemplative like nature herself. And it is nature—total and quasi-divine, and beyond all human waywardness—which will have the final word.

In order to understand fully the sudden fate of the Indian race, it is necessary to take account of the fact that this race had lived for thousands of years in a kind of paradise that was practically without limits; the Indians of the West were still living under such conditions at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Theirs was a rugged paradise, to be sure, but one that nevertheless provided an environ­ment full of grandeur and at the same time sacred, comparable in many respects with the northern parts of Europe before the coming of the Romans.[26] Since the Indians identified themselves spiritually and humanly with this inviolate—and in their view inviolable— nature, they accepted all her laws and therefore also the struggle for life inasmuch as it was a manifestation of “the principle of the best”; but with the passage of time and the growing effects of the “Iron Age”, in which passions predominate and wisdom disappears, abuses began to spread more and more; a heroic, but vindictive and cruel, individualism obscured the disinterested virtues, as indeed happened to all other warrior peoples. The privileged situation of the Indians—outside the pale of “History” and its crushing urban civilizations—inevitably had to come to an end; there is nothing sur­prising in the fact that this disintegration of a paradise, which had in a certain sense grown old, coincided with modern times.[27]

Nevertheless it is abundantly clear that to speak of fatality alone is one-sided and cannot extenuate or excuse the villainies of which the Indian has been a victim for several centuries, unless notions of justice and injustice are meaningless and there have never been such things as infamy or tragedy. Apologists for the white invasion and its consequences are only too ready to argue that all peoples in all ages have committed acts of violence; violence, yes, but not nec­essarily acts of baseness, perpetrated moreover in the name of lib­erty, equality, fraternity, civilization, progress, and the rights of man. The conscious, calculated, methodical, official, and by no means anonymous destruction of the red race, its traditions and culture, in North America and partially also in South America, far from having been an unavoidable process—and as such possibly excusable in the name of natural laws, provided one does not claim to have out­grown those laws thanks to “civilization”—certainly re mains one of the greatest crimes and most notorious vandalisms of all time.

This said, there remains the ineluctable aspect of things, the aspect of fatality, by virtue of which what is possible cannot but be manifested in some manner or other, and according to which everything that happens has its causes, whether proximate or dis­tant; this aspect of the world and destiny does not prevent things, however, from being what they are; evil remains evil at its own level. Evil is to be condemned for its nature, not for its inevitability; this inevitability must be accepted, for tragedy necessarily enters into the divine play, if only because the world is not God; one must not accept error, but one must be resigned to its existence. But beyond earthly destructions there is the Indestructible: “Every form you see,” sings Rumi, “has its archetype in the divine world, beyond space; if the form perishes, what matter is that, since its heavenly model is indestructible? Every beautiful form you have seen, every meaningful word you have heard—be not sorrowful that all this must be lost; for it is not really so. The divine Source is immortal, and its spring gives water unceasingly; since neither the one nor the other can be stopped, wherefore do you lament? From the first moment when you entered this world of existence, a ladder has been set up before you.”


[1] But not the Mexicans and Peruvians, who represent later traditional filiations— “Atlanteans”, according to a certain terminology—and who therefore no longer spring from the aerie of the “Thunderbird”.

[2] Not to be confused with the Tao-shi, who are contemplative monks.

[3] The demarcation between Bön and Lamaism is not always clear, each tradition having influenced the other.

[4] John D. Hunter, Manners and Customs of Indian Tribes (Minneapolis, 1957).

[5] Sister M. Inez Hilger, Chippewa Child Life and Its Cultural Background (Washington, 1951). “Religion was the veritable life of the tribes, penetrating all their activities and all their institutions. . . . Concerning the Indians of North America the most surprising fact, which has been taken into account too late, is that they lived cus­tomarily in and by religion, to a degree comparable to the piety of the ancient Israelites under their theocracy” (Garrick Mallery, Picture Writing of the American Indians, 10: Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnography [1893]). An author who lived for 60 years among the Choctaw wrote: “I claim for the Indian of North America the purest religion and the loftiest conceptions of the Great Creator” (John James, My Experience with the Indians [1925]). “To call all these people simply religious gives but a faint idea of the profound attitude of piety and devotion that penetrates all their conduct. Their honesty is immaculate, and their purity of intention such that their observances of the rites of their religion suffer no exception and are extremely remarkable. They are certainly closer to a nation of saints than a horde of savages” (Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville [1837]). “Tirawa is an intangible, all-powerful, and beneficent Spirit. He penetrates the Universe, and He is the supreme sovereign. Upon His will depends everything that happens. He may lead to good or evil; He may give success or failure. Everything is done with Him. . . . Nothing is undertaken without a prayer to the Father for help” (George Bird Grinnel, “Pawnee Mythology”, Journal of American Folklore, Vol. VI). “The Blackfeet believe firmly in the Supernatural and in the control of human affairs by the good or evil Powers of the invisible world. The Great Spirit, or Great Mystery, or Good Power, is everywhere and in all things” (Walter McClintock, The Old North Trail, [London, 1910]).

[6] In 1770 a woman visionary announced to the Oglala Sioux that the Great Spirit was angry with them; in the pictographic narratives (“winter counts”) of the Oglala, this year was given the name Wakan Tanka knashkiyan (“Great Spirit in anger”); now this happened at a time when the Sioux could not have come under the influence of white monotheism.

[7] The name Wakan Tanka—literally “Great Sacred” (wakan = sacred) and com­monly translated “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery”—has also been rendered “Great Powers”, the plural being justi fied in view of the polysynthetic meaning of the concept. In any case it is not without reason that the Sioux have been called “the Unitarians of the American Indians”.

[8] It goes without saying that we are using this word in its proper sense and with no thought of the Emersonian philosophy known by this name. One might wonder—it may be said in passing—whether Emerson’s works do not reveal, besides his German idealism, a certain influence coming from the Indians.

[9] On the whole this is equivalent to the kami of Shintoism.

[10] Sages among the Indians are by no means ignorant of the contingent and illu­sory character of the cosmos: “I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. . . . Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world. . . . I knew the real was yonder and the darkened dream of it was here” (Black Elk [Hehaka Sapa], in Black Elk Speaks [Lincoln, 1961]). [Translator’s note: the most recent edition is Black Elk Speaks (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 2000).] According to Hartley Burr Alexander, “The fundamental idea (of the Mexican myth of Quetzalcoatl) is the same (as in the Red Indian mythology): that of an almost pantheistic force or power which incarnates itself in the phenomena of the actual world and of which this world is but an image or illusion” (L’art et la philosophie des Indiens de l’Amérique du Nord [Paris, 1926]).

[11] Air, fire, water, earth.

[12] Dryness, warmth, moisture, cold.

[13] This means—if one considers all this symbolism in the light of alchemy—that in the polarization in question the complementary forces of the “sulfur”, which “dilates”, and the “mercury”, which “contracts” and “dissolves”, are in equilibrium; the central fire is then equivalent to the Hermetic fire at the bottom of the athanor.

[14] Other rites are more social in their scope.

[15] Cf. René Guénon, “Silence et Solitude”, Études Traditionnelles (March, 1949).

* Translator’s note: Over a period of many years, government policies had resulted in the practice of “piercing” at the Sun Dance being largely suppressed, but this is now no longer the case. Nonetheless, not all the tribes that practiced piercing during the pre-reservation era include it in the Sun Dance today.

[16] All these rites have been described by Hehaka Sapa in The Sacred Pipe by Joseph E. Brown (University of Oklahoma Press, 1953). His Holiness the Jagadguru of Kanchipuram, having read this book, remarked to one of our friends that the Red Indian rites share striking analogies with certain Vedic rites. [Translator’s note: the most recent edition is The Sacred Pipe (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1989).]

[17] Ever since medicine-men have lived in houses—a Shoshone told us—they have become impure and lost much of their power.

[18] As in the case of Hehaka Sapa.

[19] Except perhaps among some very degenerate Melanesian tribes.

[20] Certain completely analogous movements occurred successively in Peru and Bolivia from the time of the Spanish Conquest to the beginning of the twentieth century.

[21] Cf. James Mooney, “The Ghost-Dance Religion”, in the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, 1896); also Leslie Spier, “The Prophet Dance of the North-West”, in General Series in Anthropology (Menasha, Wisconsin, 1935).

[22] Whatever anti-romantic pseudo-realists, who believe in nothing but the trivial, may think. If no so-called primitive people has aroused an interest as lively and lasting as have the Indians, and if they embody some of our nostalgias often wrongly described as puerile, it really must be that they are something in themselves, for “there is no smoke without fire”.

[23] An “ordeal”, as Hartley Burr Alexander described it.

[24]  Black Elk’s son told us that among the Indian warriors there were some who vowed to die on the battlefield; they were called “those who do not return”, and they carried special insignia, notably a staff adorned with feathers and a curved point. We have also heard this from the Crow Indians.

[25] “What can never be taken away from a man,” one Sioux told us, “is his education; one cannot remove it or buy it. Each man must form his own character and personality; one who is content to let himself go will fall, and he will bear the responsibility.” No less typical is the following thought as expressed by the same man: “When an Indian smokes the Pipe, he directs it toward the four quarters and toward Heaven and earth, and after that he must watch his tongue, his actions, and his character.”

[26] The Germans lived in hamlets and the Gauls in towns, but all their buildings were of wood, and this fact marks a fundamental difference between them and the Mediterranean people, who lived in stone-built cities.

[27] Last Bull—formerly custodian of the sacred arrows of the Cheyenne—told us about an ancient prophecy of his tribe: a man would come from the East holding a leaf or skin covered with graphic signs; he would show this leaf and declare that it had come from the Creator of the world; and he would destroy men, trees, and grasses in order to replace them with other men, other trees, other grasses.