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Kinship and Religion Previous
Digital History ID 3566


Despite differences in language and culture, Native American societies did share certain characteristics in common. Many Indian societies were organized around principles of kinship. Kinship ties--based on bloodlines or marriage--formed the basis of the political, economic, and religious system. Succession to political office and religious positions, ownership and inheritance of property, and even whom one could or could not marry were determined on the basis of membership in a kin group.

Indian kinship systems included an intricate number of forms, with regulations governing marriages, relations with in-laws, and residence after marriage. In patrilineal societies, like the Cheyenne of the Great Plains, land use rights and membership in the political system flowed through the father. In matrilineal societies, like the Pueblo of the Southwest, membership in the group was determined by the mother's family identity. In the Algonquian-speaking tribes of eastern North America, group membership was based on ties among siblings and cousins.

Many Indian peoples placed less emphasis on the nuclear family--the unit consisting of husband, wife, and their children--than upon the extended family or the lineage. On the Northwest Pacific Coast, the household consisted of a man, his wife or wives, and their children or the man's sister's sons. Among the western Pueblo, the nucleus of social and economic organization was the extended household consisting of a group of female relations and their husbands, sons-in-law, and maternal grandchildren. Among the Iroquoian speakers of the Eastern Woodlands, the basic social unit was the longhouse, a large rectangular structure that contained about ten families. One sign of the relative unimportance of the nuclear family as opposed to larger kinship ties is that many Indian societies provided for relatively easy access to divorce.

Apart from a common emphasis on kinship, Native American societies also shared certain religious beliefs and practices. Many European colonists regarded Indian religions as a form of superstition. One Catholic priest, Father Francois du Perron, described Iroquoian beliefs in very negative, but not unusual, terms: "All their actions are dictated to them directly by the devil...They consider the dream as the master of their lives; it is the God of the country."

Far from being "primitive" forms of religion, Indian religions possessed great subtlety and sophistication, manifest in a rich ceremonial life, an intricate mythology, and profound speculations about the creation of the world, the origins of life, and the nature of the afterlife. Unlike Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, Native American religions were not "written" religions with specific founders; also, they might be termed mystical religions, since they allowed people to have direct contact with the supernatural through "visions" and "dreams.”

Despite rich variations in ritual practices and customs, Native American religions shared certain common characteristics, notably an outlook that might be described as "animistic." This is a belief that there is a close bonds between people, animals, and the natural environment, and that all must live together in harmony.

Scholars have identified two dominant forms of Native American religious expression: hunting and horticultural religions. The hunting tradition was distinguished by its emphasis on the human relationship with animals, establishing special rituals and taboos surrounding the treatment of wild animals so as not to offend their spiritual masters. Hunting societies often had a shaman (or medicine man or woman), able to contact supernatural beings on behalf of the community.

The agrarian tradition emphasized fertility, celebrated in a yearly round of special ceremonies designed to encourage rainfall and crop productivity. In contrast to the hunting tradition, which tended to emphasize a single male deity, the agrarian tradition had a larger number of gods and goddesses. Also, unlike the less complexly organized hunting societies, agriculture societies tended to have an organized priesthood and permanent temples or shrines.



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