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American Metaphysical Religion, Ronnie Pontiac

When First They Met: Red Plus White Equals Blue

Did you ever hear the story of how your parents met?  We pretend America began with the Pilgrims but our unclaimed spiritual heritage starts much earlier.  According to the current consensus, twelve thousand years before European colonists landed, Paleolithic tribes arrived having hunted mammoths, mastodons, and caribou from generation to generation across a continent. They followed their prey in seasonal migrations through lichen rich spruce forests.  As the ice age declined and the mastodon died the hunters applied their skills to smaller game: moose, deer and elk.  By around 8000 BC they established regular camping spots in what we now call New England, then a great pine forest.  At first families gathered at these sites, then small communities of several families.

“If you want to be friends don’t ask me if that hat makes you look taller.”

By 6000 BC villages were forming near bays, lakes and rivers teeming with fish.  Instead of following the migration of their prey, the people could survive until the herds returned.   A thousand years later millstones were used for grinding grain, tools became more specialized.  A thousand years after that as pine trees disappeared the forest of oaks and hemlocks included plants, birds, animals and other residents we would recognize in all the rich variety the abundant new environment could provide at the close of the ice age.  Populations grew around the coast where great migrations of fish flourished in the warming waters.  Seal hunting and shellfish gathering provided not only food, but also new skills.  By 2500 BC sophisticated assemblies for catching fish were built.  One survives to this day: 65,000 wooden stakes driven into the riverbed.  Inserting brush between the stakes made a net to catch even the strongest fish.  Villages of circular lodges, replete with a ceremonial lodge, left burial mounds that showed great respect for the dead.  It took fifteen hundred more years for agriculture, and especially squash, beans, and corn cultivation, to arrive from the south.  But by 300 AD the natives were smoking tobacco out of neatly carved soapstone pipes that would not have looked out of place in a head shop in the 1960s.

To talk about native culture as if it were similar from coast to coast is impossible.  Over 550 languages were spoken and many had a variety of dialects as different from each other as the southern Californian dialect is from that in Scotland.  Religious beliefs, political organization, family traditions and every other aspect of life widely differed.  For example, not all natives lived in sustainable harmony with nature; the Mississippian culture for example developed urban centers that were doomed by the amount of resources they consumed.  However it can be said that in contrast to the colonists, native culture considered the world a sacred space.  Nature was not a fallen, cursed place.  The natural world was holy and living a good life depended on living in harmony with it.  Hunter and harvester both said prayers of apology and gratitude when taking the life of an animal or a plant.  The four directions were sacred, and since every ritual was intended to restore lost harmony, they began with prayers to the east, west, south and north.  Power could be found in the correspondences and resemblances of everything in their world, and every thing deserved respect, not only for having meaning, but also for having consciousness.  As Black Elk would say, around the time Elvis was getting started, a message from the Great Spirit could come from a messenger as small as an ant.  Nothing in nature was without spiritual essence; even a stone could have a soul.

What’s left of the first big city in America

The first great North American urban society we now call Mississippian.  Archeologists have found Mississippian sites, circa 150-750 AD, along the Florida Gulf Coast and in the valleys of Alabama and Georgia.  The Mississippian culture split into at least seventeen of the indigenous nations still with us, from the Rockies to the eastern seaboard.  Around 800 AD they built a native metropolis across the river from what is now St. Louis.  The area may have been settled as early as 1200 BC but in the early 1100s AD the inhabitants built a two-mile stockade around their city, with guard towers every seventy feet.  Within a hundred years the city was larger than London or Paris at the time, and probably quite a bit cleaner.  At the peak of its population it housed an estimated 40,000 natives in a complex of plazas and 120 earthen mounds covering six square miles.  The great mound covers fourteen acres, rises 100 feet, and was topped by a massive 5,000 square-foot building another fifty feet high.

Woodhenge, a circle of posts used to mark the solstices and equinoxes, stood to the west of the great mound.  Archeologists also discovered the remains of a copper workshop, and evidence of what may have been ritual human sacrifice, apparently the executed were meant to follow some celebrated leader into the afterlife.  Rulers lived in wooden houses on platforms atop the mounds.  Their favorite ornaments were made of seashells traded for with tribes a thousand miles away.  Farms surrounding the city supplied it with corn, beans, squash, pumpkin and the other necessities of daily life.  The complex was abandoned a hundred years before Columbus arrived.  Resources in the area may have been depleted, or an urban disease may have broken out.  The natives scattered to live as hunters and gatherers.  Later they began to breed the horses brought by the Europeans and to hunt buffalo on the plains.

Just as the European colonists were travelers to the furthest edge of their known world, so too were these tribes the descendants of several waves of immigrants who traveled not only across the Bering Straight but also all the way across the North American continent to its furthest edge.  But their culture would be lost in just a few generations.  By the late fifteenth century English, French and Portuguese explorers were arriving in America hoping to find the kind of incredible wealth the Spanish had exploited further south.  Fishing crews, especially English and French, used the beaches of North America to dry their summer catches.  By the time the first English settlements were attempted there was already almost a century of interaction between natives and Europeans.


No wheel tracks

How did the Algonquins live before the Europeans arrived?  Spring began when green shoots sprouted and the wild geese returned.  This was the time to repair fishing gear and prepare canoes.  By late March smelt arrived, so many you could grab them out of the water with your hands.  By April spawning sturgeon and salmon provided most of the food, while fields were sewn.  In early May ocean cod and freshwater trout, striped bass, and flounder were added to the feast along with scallops, clams, crabs, oysters and mussels gathered by the women and children who also snared ducks and collected their eggs which were twice as large as those of European hens.  They tapped the sugar maples for syrup.  Every year the natives would burn away the thick bramble of the woods.  This not only made travel easier, but animals more visible for hunters; one Pilgrim said a deer could be seen from four miles away.  Burning the underbrush also encouraged the growth of grass, berries and other delicacies loved by prey.

Spring was for freshwater fishing in streams.  The men fished by day, using weirs and nets, funneling the fish to the place where they would be most vulnerable.  Beans spiraled up the corn stalks, fertilizing with nitrogen, while melons growing on the ground below helped preserve moisture.  Native tradition told of a crow that came from the west bearing a corn kernel and a bean.  In appreciation the natives never killed crows.  Some tribes built small covered platforms where a native would sit scaring the birds away from the crops.  Others had tame hawks to scare crows.  While most fields were gardens, some colonists reported several hundred cultivated acres of white, red, yellow and blue corn.  But it did not grow easily, and the natives would often remind the colonists that not only did they have to be taught how to grow it, but their results were always inferior.  One reason for this was that the English simply couldn’t resist the urge to neatly divide their crops, thus missing out on the synergy enjoyed by promiscuous native fields.  The English attitude can best be understood by considering the changes in the definitions of two words.  Today natural has mostly positive connotations, while artificial is often viewed with suspicion.  For the English colonists and their relatives back home natural meant rude and undeveloped, while artificial was a compliment, indicating that human artifice had improved on nature.

In the summer women carefully weeded gardens of corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkins, sunflowers and gourds.  When the soil was exhausted every decade or so the natives would move to another location where they would fell trees to make new gardens.  Men had their own gardens, too, where they tended tobacco. Tobacco was used as a gift to be thrown into the air, on the ground, or in the water, in thanks for a successful hunt, good fishing, an escape from danger, or victory in battle.  A pinch was dropped into the water before bathing every morning.  To quell a storm they would throw it into the elements.  For good luck they’d toss some on a hunting trap.  If they escaped from danger the tobacco was not enough, they would stamp, dance, clap their hands, or turn them palms up looking at the sky.  The Europeans thought it all some strange ritual but animals in nature do similar things after escaping danger, except the tobacco.  I imagine most of us have danced, and emitted strange words with our eyes and our hands heavenward after one close call or another.

In July and August, children gathered cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and grapes.  Men hunted deer, moose, ducks, geese, swans, and turkey.   When passenger pigeons in huge flocks that blocked out the sun arrived women and children would knock them off their perches with a long stick like abundant fruit on a mature peach tree.  The women along with all their other duties would find time to locate clay banks for their baked pottery.  The men tended their snares, and their traps, including dead falls of precariously balanced tree trunks piled with rocks so heavy they could kill a bear.  Summer was for fishing in the sea.  During the day they hunted seals, porpoises, walruses and whales.  Night fishing by torchlight, they speared the fish attracted by the glow.

Torch fishing on a warm summer night under the full moon…good times.

Summer was also a time of gathering for celebration.  Stick ball, lacrosse, running races, stone throwing, archery contests, dance competitions, were all performed before appreciative audiences, including a native game comparable to soccer but the field, a sandy beach, was a mile long, and the game took two days to play.  Tripping an opponent was allowed in England at the time, but not among the natives.  Some of our most iconic American foods came from these tribes.  Popcorn, Johnnycakes, snow cones (the cone was bark, the snow was sweetened with maple sugar and syrup), baked beans, hominy, succotash and clambakes were all inventions of the New England natives.  They had infant formula if a mother had no milk, and “no cakes” as they called a simple pounded parched corn cake.  Four days worth could be kept easily in a small pouch tied to a hunter’s belt to be mixed with water whenever needed.

In the fall as the leaves turned red and gold firewood was stacked.  Bird flocks were hunted as they resumed migration.  Wild nuts, acorns and wild herbs were gathered.  Corn ripened and some was stored for the harsh winter months.  The big harvest came in September and the abundance was boiled, dried, and sacked.  Inside the village stockade five foot deep and five foot in diameter pits lined with clay and bark were filled with containers of reeds, silk grass, dried tree bark, and wild hemp full of sun dried berries, smoked meat, walnuts, and acorns.

In winter the tribe gathered for two main deer drives.  Large groups of several hundred natives cooperated to chase a herd of deer into a funnel of fences where hunters stood ready.  Fishing through holes chipped in the ice provided extra food.  This was a quiet time spent with family.   Women cured furs, making them into clothes and blankets.   Men carved holes into lucky stones to wear as reminders of spiritual experiences.  Winter was a time of feast or famine.  When meat was served the band might eat ten times in a day and then fast for days until the next successful hunt.  Winter ended with a healthful one-hour steam for the entire tribe, followed by a cold plunge into a lake or stream, a health regimen popular throughout America’s history of alternative healing.

The earliest Thanksgiving on the continent was not the turkey dinner of the Pilgrims we celebrate yearly.  Many tribes had Thanksgiving ceremonies.  The Seneca tribe of the Iroquois League performed their Thanksgiving ritual for all-important events except death.  Before the assembled tribe the story was told of how the Creator invented all the good things of this world with forethought for the well being of his human creations.  Herbs to be used as medicine, and the moon to give light in the night, all these promises were fulfilled.  As the story is told the orderliness and harmony of the world is revealed.  Gratitude is given.  The Creator inspires love and thankfulness in the people; appreciation as worship.  Natives quietly prayed before every meal whether alone or together.  A Roman Catholic observer in Maryland noted that the first corn, or first fruits of hunting or fishing were prayed over by an old shaman, who would take a portion, burn half, then eat the other half; only then would the tribe partake. While some English writers reported native feasts where they ravenously ate everything and saved nothing for the future, when natives were invited to eat with the colonists they showed good manners, not only eating reasonable portions but waiting for their hosts to sit down before beginning their meals.

Festivals of dancing, singing and feasting were held in early spring, late summer and midwinter, and for turning points in the human life cycle, with ceremonies of naming, puberty, marriage and death.  Special festivals of ritual were held during times of sickness, famine, drought or war.  But individual natives were known to create personal ceremonies.  One colonist tells of a native woman who having suffered many hardships and the deaths of close relatives chose a day and place where she spoke of her troubles, declared her intent to have a prosperous future, danced, gave away gifts to the poor, and received a new name. We’re not far here from American Metaphysical Religion’s belief in self-reinvention and rebirth.


Home sweet home Iroquois style

Incest taboos were strictly observed.  English writers reported that sexual freedom was allowed before marriage, including homosexual relationships.  But most writers admitted the native women were more modest than the gals back home. Unmarried Algonquin women could sleep with any unmarried Algonquin men, but to become pregnant outside marriage was a disgrace.  Fortunately the Algonquin women knew what herbs to take, a stark contrast with the Puritans who could only condemn what they considered promiscuity and infanticide.  The opposing opinions on the abortion issue that so deeply divide America existed at the very root of the country, at first contact between the natives and the colonists.  We cannot doubt that this argument only added to the Puritan sense of moral authority; but one wonders if they ever pondered the fact that rape did not exist among the natives, even captive females from enemy tribes were safe.  While Europeans sold captive women and children into slavery, the Iroquois adopted them into families who had lost loved ones to war.  Enemy warriors however were usually not so fortunate, as we’ll see later.

The Iroquois League has often been called an inspiration to the democracy of the United States of America, mostly on the basis of Benjamin Franklin’s caustic remark: “It would be a very strange thing, if six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union … and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies.”  But we have no proof that the founding fathers considered the government of the Iroquois when designing their own, and if they did they certainly left out a key aspect of that native culture.  Iroquois women were property owners; hereditary leadership passed not through fathers but through mothers. Women owned dwellings, horses and farmed land, and her property prior to marriage was never mixed with her husband’s.  Newlywed couples lived with the wife’s family.  Divorce was as easy as asking a bad husband to leave home and take his possessions with him, but one English writer reported that he knew many native couples who had been married two, three, even four decades.

A few English writers alleged that prostitution, the trade of goods for sexual favors, was practiced.  Reports conflicted regarding the fidelity of spouses.  All writers agree loyalty was cherished, but some say philandering was acceptable, while others insist adultery was severely punished.  Perhaps it depended on the tribe.  Polygamy was available to chiefs but even they usually had one wife, though some had several.  However as tribes broke down due to disease and warfare it became more common for powerful chiefs to take many wives, solidifying alliances between tribes.  The natives were very puzzled indeed when told that the King of England had no wife.  They wondered how anything got done in his household.

English observations on gender relations among the natives emphasized that the men seemed lazy while the women did all the work.  On the other hand, the natives thought English women were lazy and were scandalized that male colonists worked the fields without their women.  Native women were portrayed as living lives little better than beasts of burden or slaves, while their men hunted and cultivated tobacco, lounging and smoking like British gentlemen.  The truth was more complex.  Women planted, cared for the crops and harvested.  They preserved and prepared food.  They built houses, and when the tribe moved they carried the poles and woven mats from which their dwellings were built.  These woven mats provided such excellent insulation from rain and sleet the colonists would steal them when they couldn’t barter for them. When men fished they tossed their catch on the bank and the women fetched and prepared the fish.  When men hunted, women dragged the kill to the place where they would make it into food, skins, rope and tools.  With great care the women kept the hearth fires; if it went out that was a bad omen.  But men were known to help with the crops.  Men cleared the fields, or the fields were cleared and later harvested by the gathered tribe.  Tribal chiefs made their own bows and arrows, shoes and clothes, as well as planting and hunting for themselves.  Many writers commented on how hardy native women were.  One testified he had seen a new mother with her four-day old baby strapped to her back digging clams out of the ice for her husband.  The English also failed to notice that the women owned the corn they grew and the houses they carried.  Menstrual huts provided segregated sanctuary for women monthly.  Women preferred to give birth in solitude.

An Iroquois woman, a warrior, and a false face dancer pose self-consciously.

Many English writers commented on the affection shown by native families.  They noticed how quiet the tenderly cared for native children were.  They criticized the way the aged back home in England were treated in comparison to the respect and consideration shown to native elders.  Native fathers doted on their children and hated to be separated from them.  Their adopted fathers regarded colonist children captured by the natives and raised within their families with just as much affection. This made all the more heinous the colonist strategy, advocated by John Smith, of kidnapping native children to make the tribes compliant to colonist demands.

Children were bathed in concoctions that were said to make them nearly impervious to any kind of weather.  Buried up to their necks in snow they learned how to ignore the cold.  By age two boys began training with bows and arrows.  English writers praised the superior health and physical powers of the natives.  Until the devastation wrought by European diseases the natives had lived without the scourges that made life miserable back home in Europe.  Natives suffered neither from gout nor colds.  Their senses astonished the colonists.  Thomas Morton himself witnessed a native with eyesight so sharp he sited a ship at sea two hours before any Englishman could.  Tom also reports on a native who could tell fresh deer tracks from old just by the sight and smell of them.

In oral traditions written down by historians and folklorists at the beginning of the 19th century we find records of advice given from fathers to sons that provide a unique glimpse of the native worldview.  Fasting is the means to gain favor from the spirits the creator put in charge of giving blessings.  These spirits of the waters, of the sky, of animals and of plants give wisdom and power to those who earn their respect. Tobacco being loved by all spirits offering some to be poured on the ground or thrown into water or the air would inspire blessings.  Apparently one thing all creatures of Earth would agree on was the pleasure of a good smoke. To have no spirit helping you was to live a bad life.  Even one spirit could guide a man through life’s “narrow passages,” multiplying the goods things of life and preventing suffering.  To live in harmony with life was to live a trouble free life, a life blessed by good timing and good sense, one of the foundational beliefs of American Metaphysical Religion.  Why fasting?  Of course, food could not always be counted on.  By fasting a man could learn to go without, allowing his family to have more.  Fasting also produced trance states including a heightened sense of awareness; it naturally inspires meditation, and a contemplative state of mind.

Stay the fuck away from white men, son.

Fathers also told their sons to learn all the medicines.  Medicines were mostly herbal, but they could also be methods of gaining shamanic power.  Medicine could heal the sick, reduce hunger or cause it, induce a man to run after women, or a woman to fall in love.  Medicine included the knowledge of how to prepare a field with signs that would keep out intruders, and to prepare war paint, which contained power of the spirits of water, so that every arrow or bullet would miss, and victory was assured.  But to die at war was best.  Men were told not to listen to their women who would try to keep them home safe from battle.  To die in battle meant to die conscious.  To then have the power to consciously choose whether to be reborn as a man, a mighty stag, or a walker on the light, as birds were known.  Spirits, birds and animals were to be spoken to like any other person except by singing, chanting and prayers. They were not inferior; they were other.  “To be alive now on the Earth” was a bond between all beings, and a gift of responsibility from your ancestors and the Creator.

The morality taught was not so different from Christian ethics.  Feed the hungry, always share your food or your food becomes poisonous.  Show gratitude for all you receive from the Earth.  Treat your wife with kindness for the Earth is your grandmother and sees all and if you are cruel she will cause you to live a life of suffering and early death.  Be good to your children.  Get along with everyone.  Take care of old people and learn from them.  When you share your war stories don’t exaggerate, be humble.  Don’t be jealous or your sisters will join in and your wife will become annoyed and leave you.  Keep your word and guard your honor.  Don’t ask a second question until the first has been fully answered.  Give to the poor.  Learn which plants heal the sick, so you can heal yourself and your own family, and be asked to heal others.

While natives could be said to own the tools they made, their snares and weirs, and the prey caught in them, they were also obligated to share their possessions and their food for the good of the tribe.  The native reputation for stealing began early when European visitors misunderstood the ritual of reciprocal gift giving.  The natives gave gifts and when the Europeans didn’t give them gifts in return the natives took a gift they considered to be of equal value.  Europeans, on the other hand, frequently used force to take whatever they needed.

Among the natives, orphans and widows were cared for, no one was reduced to begging for their survival.  Meanwhile the City of London would soon be shipping starving street children to the colonies.  Strangers were welcomed by chiefs, given shelter, food, and entertained according to their station.  Natives were known to go far out of their way, and to face danger, to rescue and return home hapless colonists dying in the wilderness.

Some English writers exaggerated war among the natives, based on evidence as trivial as after dinner shows commemorating battles.  Roger Williams testified that their warfare was much less bloody than war in Europe, with very few casualties, perhaps twenty in pitched battle.  Another observer wrote that in seven years they might lose only seven men.  Rattles of various sizes and primitive flutes along with shouting and singing were used to frighten off the enemy.  When John Smith tried to get corn from the natives they refused him.  When his party tried to take the corn by force they were met by several dozen natives painted red, black and white who charged them with an idol made of skins stuffed with moss, hung with chains and copper.  They expected to chase the English away with a loud display of spiritual force, but the colonists fired their guns, frightening the natives into dropping the fetish.  To get it back they offered a canoe stuffed with corn, venison, and turkey.

Most battles ended with a few wounds or one of the opponents running out of arrows.  Even the most concentrated native attacks on the colonists would not be followed by more attacks until annihilation.  The natives were accustomed to their enemies withdrawing.  They expected that after being soundly defeated the English would leave and never return.  Wars were not fought for land.  They were fought to get more women and children to be incorporated into the tribe, because their work was the most important sort of wealth.  War could be avoided by giving objects of value to the aggrieved in cases of revenge, and even by gambling and games.  No fights erupted.  A player might lose everything he owned but he would not argue.  Thunder stones, pieces of crystal or perhaps meteorite dug from the ground under lightning struck trees were considered the ultimate good luck charms for gamblers. Hubhub, for example, was played with peach pits painted white on one side and black on the other.  Tossed into a shallow basket the player would have to guess how many of each color would show.

As the colonists sought to learn native languages the natives tried to teach them, but they taught simplified versions of their dialects.  Many Europeans developed the mistaken opinion that native languages were simple, lacking fine distinctions, but the truth was that the natives were deliberately teaching a dumbed down dialect so they could preserve the privacy and accuracy of their own communications.  Observant colonists noticed that even those among them who were said to be fluent in native language had no idea what was being said when natives were speaking amongst themselves.  Roger Williams was an exception to that rule.  He understood the subtlety and detail of the native languages.  He pointed out that they had five words for soul, and that they believed the principle seat of the soul in the body was the brain. One word for soul was related to their word for sleep, because the soul was most active in dreams.  Another word for soul was related to their word for the image of a clear reflection.  The great American linguist Edward Sapir described Algonquin words as “tiny imagist poems.”


He respected your right to your religion, even though Satan made it up.

Natives watching Christians pray with eyes turned to the heavens asked politely whether this was moon worship, or sun worship, then laughed quietly wondering which star was held in such special esteem by the newcomers.  Meanwhile the English wondered what it could mean when hundreds of native men stamped on the ground, then beat sticks on stones, then beat the stones on the ground, looking around as if expecting some imminent arrivals.

Ironically, to begin to talk about the spiritual beliefs of the natives of New England we must first understand a certain Puritan writer.  But Roger Williams was an English Puritan a bit different from the sort that colonized Plymouth.  He arrived with his wife Mary in America in 1631 where he was immediately invited to become assistant minister, presiding over Boston church while its minister returned to England to fetch the wife.  Roger created quite a stir when he turned down the position, explaining that the civil authorities should have no right to punish religious infractions, and that every colonist should have freedom of conscience to pursue religion as he or she saw fit.  His invitation to preach in Salem was blocked by Boston.  He was allowed to enlighten Plymouth, but became disenchanted.  He wanted to see a stricter separation between church and state.

Roger faced trial in Boston, and his writings were burned.  His attempts to set up a colony reflecting his beliefs, and those of his followers, were fought until at last he sojourned far from the beaten path and bargained with the natives themselves for the land that would become known as Rhode Island.  With twelve friends he established the town of Providence.  This colony of heresy was considered a threat, but when the Pequot War broke out the powers that be had to rely on the intelligence provided by Roger and his followers, and many lives were saved because he convinced his friends the Narragansett tribe not to join in the attack.  For thirty years the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Plymouth had worked to undermine and destroy Providence and the Narragansett tribe, and gratitude was not a good enough reason to stop.  Finally in 1643 they formed the United Colonies military alliance to purify America by wiping out the heretics.  That same year Williams published his book A Key Into the Language of America, printed by the great Protestant poet John Milton’s own printer. The book was a great success in England.  When Williams returned there to seek legal protection for Providence to the dismay of the other colonies he got it.

Williams was disgusted by the religious wars ravaging Europe and his homeland.  He blamed them on the use of government to impose religion.  He declared that civic authority should have no right to prosecute over religious dogma.  The towns that had sprung up around Providence eventually joined in the formation of Rhode Island, which became  a sanctuary for Jews, Quakers, Baptists and all square pegs who could not fit the round holes of American Puritan society.  His contemporaries thought him something like an anarchist and believed his ideas could lead only to disaster.  They were equally chagrined that he not only declared the natives as good as any Europeans, but more, once he had learned their language, and their customs, he refused to try to convert them to Christianity.

Williams was the most trusted Englishman among the natives.  Sadly, when King Philip’s War was waged by the tribes to eliminate all the colonists in 1676, (one hundred years before the birth of the United States of America), Providence and Roger’s own home, were burned.  The story is told that Roger marched right up to the natives and demanded to know why they had burned to ashes a home so many had been sheltered by.  He was told that the times were strange and that God was angry at the English for their many injustices.  Williams guided the rebuilding of Providence over the next dozen years before this defender of what he called “soul liberty” died peacefully in his bed.

Roger Williams had this understated stamp version of the famous Obama hope poster.

According to Williams, the natives had words for themselves as a collective people, as tribes and as individuals but they had no word for stranger until the Europeans arrived.  The Europeans came from a culture where the stranger was a fearful and long held concept, back beyond the Romans with their contempt and eventual terror of barbarians, to ancient Egypt and their dreaded god red Set, a god of liars and strangers, perhaps the first prototype for the Christian Satan.  The natives had viewed all people as part of one great family of human beings, but the Europeans had a long tradition of fearing people across borders.

The natives differed from the Europeans in another crucial way.  To the native culture, for example, the sun itself was a living being, a non-human person, a conscious God pouring blessings of light and warmth upon the world.  To the Natives consciousness created form, not the other way around.  Everything in the world, animals, plants, stones, were respected as conscious beings.  For the Europeans with their monotheistic God and their hierarchical Bible promising them all living things as their bounty, the world was not a cosmic dance of living forces.  At best it was a clock that had been created by divine consciousness.  Plants and animals lacked souls.  The sun was merely there to serve humans, as was everything else in the world.  Since incarnation was caused by sin the world itself was a sinful place where beauty was a snare and eternal suffering must lurk behind every temporary joy.  Even today this perspective persists as certain schools of modern Christians advocate using up all natural resources, which will run out just before the divinely appointed end of the world.

Though he had many deep discussions with natives about their spirituality, Roger Williams refused to attend their rituals, because he considered any religion either than his own the work of the devil.  For the same reason he would not attend Anglican or Catholic rituals.  But he did write of the great feasts of the Narrangansetts, that might involve a thousand people, who would be given not only food but gifts of every kind, accompanied by rituals so strenuous the shamans glistening with perspiration would sometimes faint.  Some natives burned their worldly goods in bonfires during these feasts of thanksgiving, and believed this sacrifice kept them free of diseases and other curses that troubled the Europeans.  Since trading with the newcomers had made some tribes unusually wealthy this return to the more modest ways of the past may have been understood as a way of restoring balance and harmony to the native world.

Here is perhaps the most famous paragraph by Roger Williams on native beliefs: “There is a general Custom amongst them, at the apprehension of any Excellency in Men, Women, Birds, Beasts, Fish, etc to cry out Manittou, that is, it is a God, as thus if they see one man exile others in wisdom, valor, strength, activity, etc they cry out Manittou A God: and therefore when they talk amongst themselves of the English ships, and great buildings, of the plowing their fields, and especially of books and letters they will end thus: Manitowock.  They are gods.  Cummanitoo, you are a god, etc.”

The natives so loved to receive news of current events that a colonist who could update them in their own language was declared manitou.  Among the Dutch colonists this was spelled menetoo, and they explained it as applying to anything that was beyond human skill and power.  Wonderful has been offered as a translation, but is perhaps too meek a word.  Manitou might be compared to classic southern California surfer slang: a wave or a song or any special moment might be described as “godly” but manitou was no mere adjective for emotional appreciation. Like the Iroquois word orenda, manitou referred to a supernatural voltage of holy or magical power, power that is local not omnipresent, specific not omnipotent, like a spirit shining through matter.  The sensitive orenda of a hunted animal who escaped a skilled hunter was said to have foiled the hunter’s orenda.  But the term was also applied to something unexpected, surprising or uncanny because unknown.  To the natives the world was filled with spirits that could be known by seeing them, hearing them, feeling them emotionally, dreaming of them, and by the signs and results they provided.


Tough room

While Williams remains an essential source for understanding native spirituality in dialogue with European spirituality, modern scholarship has given us a much more comprehensive view.  Shamans could be roughly divided into two classes, those whose responsibility was healing and worship, and others who provided military and spiritual leadership.  Thomas Harriot noted that their ability to predict the future, or report the location of enemies or prey, was so accurate he ascribed their skills to the devil.  They could bring rain during droughts.  They were called to find lost or stolen people or objects.  Many of their skills were the same as those of the cunning men and women back home in England, witches in all but name, tolerated by the common folk and nobility for their useful skills.  The shamans knew how to communicate with the gods, usually in swamps.  They could visit the spirit world, usually in dreams, and return with crucial information, unusually accurate.  They knew how to summon and banish spirits.  They shared a language known only to other shamans.  Their hairstyles and other adornments of office such as a cloak of quilted rabbit fur made them readily recognizable.  The colonists reported that Cheepi and other gods and spirits were said to directly materialize in their rituals.  But then Cotton Mather reported the materialization of an angel into his own study.

Sometimes instead of seeing apparitions shamans heard voices that guided them.  In fact, the shamanic tradition has some close parallels with what became trance channeling, a popular practice of American Metaphysical Religion.  Shamans who exhausted themselves dancing around the flame, hitting themselves to inspire greater effort, consuming intoxicating brews, would at last fall into a trance.  As they lay on the ground senseless the chiefs would ask them questions and receive answers.

The brightest, strongest boys were chosen for shamanic training.  Fasting, and lack of sleep, were augmented by hallucinogenic brews, some of which included white hellebore.  They beat their shins with sticks, according to one European author, forcing them to run through brambles into the cold, making them tough; the exhaustion and stress contributed to the power of their visions.

Shamans could treat individuals or convene a family or entire tribe for ritual healing.  For the ritual of a great chief a thousand might attend.  Williams reports that the shamans conjured and threatened illness out of the victim’s body.  The natives believed that divine powers live in the human body, in the pulse, heart, and breath and the shamans would communicate with these powers, sucking out bad spirits, imitating the sounds of various animals, hitting their own arms, chests, thighs, even frothing at the mouth in the delirium of the ritual.  Stroking the skin with their hands or a rattle, sprinkling the body with water, they would chant.  Fresh or powdered herbal applications were applied to wounds sucked free of poison. Williams admitted the cures were often dramatic but of course believed they were provided by the devil.  Shamans received generous gifts for their cures, and Williams criticized them for it because natives were forced to save up so they could afford the services of their greedy doctors.  He pointed out that the poor received less lavish treatments and seemed to succumb to their illnesses much more often.  He did not however mention the same state of affairs more or less among the Europeans back home.  Williams believed Christian ministers should not accept salaries, and that healing performed by the power of Christ should always be free, one of his points of agreement with the Rosicrucian manifestos that had been circulating around the time he was a child back in England.  Williams may never have encountered these revolutionary tracts, he certainly never mentions them, but as we shall see in the next and last installment of this three part series the culture he emerged from was deeply informed by their ideas and ambitions.

Drawing of Algonquin female shaman’s dream vision circa 1852.  What’s up with that guy with rays around his head wearing a referee shirt?

Natives reported that the most powerful shamans could produce a green leaf in dead of winter, turn a dried snakeskin into a living snake, surround themselves with an aura of flames, make rocks move, trees dance, and water burn.  An eyewitness account recorded by one European writer claims an honest gentleman of his acquaintance testified to a healing where the stump of a small tree stuck in a native’s foot was wrapped in beaver skin, the shaman put his mouth to the beaver skin and using sucking and other charms removed it, spat it into a tray of water, and revealed the foot healed.  Other witnesses reported tests reminiscent of Houdini: shamans bound in iron chains and carefully watched who always broke free. Cotton Mather testified that shamans had the power to quiet dogs.

The shamans were so deeply respected by their people one reverend in Virginia in 1621 fumed that the only hope for conversion was to slit the throats of every last one of them.  One wonders how the ideal represented by Jesus the Prince of Peace who taught his followers to teach only by example relates to such a violent fantasy of redemption.  What must have that reverend thought about Colonial America’s first practitioner of a gender alternative lifestyle, Thomas Hall?  In 1629 Hall faced the General Court of Virginia.  Hearing that Hall sometimes dressed as a woman he was set upon by several colonists who wanted to find out exactly what was going on underneath his clothes.  Hall testified that he had lived as a woman in Plymouth where he did needlework, but earlier had served as a male soldier for the British Army against the French.  Upon physical examination it was found that Hall was a hermaphrodite so the court decreed he must wear man’s clothes but a woman’s cap and apron.

Thomas Morton reported on another shaman who amazed his colonist audience by chanting until a thick cloud arrived out of nowhere.  Thunder resounded and  a chunk of ice appeared in the bowl of water on a hot summer day.  As usual, Satan was given credit for the demonstration.  Colonists also reported cases of being bewitched by shamans.  Hearing “oho” chanted in the dark outside their settlement one group of English testified that they became so confused they began fighting with each other, wielding the wrong ends of their tools, they found they could say only “oho” and had lost the power to communicate with each other.

But the shamans could not stop the diseases brought by the Europeans.  Because the colonists sent by Sir Walter Raleigh did not get sick, and because they brought no women with them, Thomas Harriot reported that the natives thought the English an ancient race who had taken bodies again, and they had brought with them English spirits who shot the invisible bullets that killed the natives with disease.  When a native living among them as a sort of ambassador told the tribes that the Pilgrims had a cache of these invisible bullets buried in the ground behind their stockade walls, most of the English were outraged, but some found the ruse useful.

Shamans could also practice malevolent magic.  They were said to be able to send rattlesnakes to kill their enemies.  One shaman was supposed to have by ritual forced the uneasy spirit of a drowned Englishman into the body of a native woman who became very ill.  Another shaman removed it, but told her to relocate far away, for English spirits were difficult to control.  Shamans could “shoot bones” into people’s bodies and these embedded spiritual fragments became the source of pain and disease.  To have a fragment of foreign bone festering in the body is a good metaphor for the localized pain of a disease. This belief isn’t far from Mary Baker Eddy’s conviction that she was being killed by the expectations of death thought by her contemporaries.

Souls were especially vulnerable during sleep and a shaman might steal a fragment of an enemy’s soul and attach it to a fly, which he then imprisoned.  Whatever he did to the fly would then be reflected in the condition of the victim’s body.  Some of the shamanic rituals for war resemble the sympathetic magical practices of ancient Egypt.  Egyptian priests would make figures that represented pharaoh’s enemies then with appropriate ritual and prayer crush them under foot.  Native American warriors would choose fire brands out of the bonfire and mock fight them, until every warrior had thus vanquished a symbol of the enemy.

The natives carved and painted black and white four foot tall idols kept in crude temples.  Thomas Harriot reported that the simpler among the natives considered the carvings themselves to be gods, while the more sophisticated understood them as symbols.

False face-masks of the Delaware tribe or your parents’ unexpected visit?

Certainly some of the glamour of a shaman was the result of bravado.  In an early interaction between a shaman and a colonist, when the colonist interceded to protect a terrified native, the thwarted shaman made terrible threats, promising he’d fly out the chimney and leave the house in ruins behind him.  The colonist promptly seized the shaman, tied him up, hung him on a hook and horsewhipped him.  Apparently neither he nor the intended native victim suffered any repercussions, but the shaman lost his status with the tribe.

Today many psychics and ghost hunters insist that the presence of skeptics weakens the phenomena.  Thoughts are things, they say, and doubt and mockery create a gravity that makes it difficult to encounter the more subtle aspects of experience. Natives were so sensitive to mockery war was often the result of an important leader being laughed at.  Many shamans refused to work in the presence of Europeans.  Shamans told their tribes that their visions and cures were much less powerful when colonists stood judgment over them.  The nexus between belief and will is at the crux of the magical tradition, and the positive thinking movement that evolved from it.  To illustrate this point from literature, when Éowyn slays the Lord of the Nazgûl in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien makes clear that its not a blade that breaks the spell of apparent invulnerability but the doubt engendered in the wizard’s mind by the gender of the attacker.

Traditions and history were kept by carefully chosen lore keepers in separate male and female lines of transmission.  History was also preserved by simple memorials.  The grave of a hero would have a stone added to it by every respectful passerby.  Where any remarkable event happened, at the place or on the path nearby, they would dig a foot deep round hole, which would be kept clear for generations as the story of what happened there was shared with anyone who noticed the subtle monument.

The two greater gods of the Algonquins had several names.  The benevolent god, Tanto was his simplest name, was removed from human affairs.  The god Squanto or Cheepi, was intimately involved in daily life, and he was feared for his power to bring harm.  Death, the cold wind of the northeast, and the underworld belonged to him.  The colonists associated Cheepi with Satan, of course.  The shaman’s job was to learn the ways of Cheepi, to protect the tribe with ritual, to divine the meaning of troubles, and to communicate with and learn from this fearsome deity in dreams and visions. But there were many other gods, some placed the number at 37, including gods of the directions, of places, of the stars, sun, and moon, of women and of children.  Each member of the tribe could have a personal god, a spirit, who would give guidance in dreams.

One English writer preserved a native’s opinion of fire: “…fire must be a God, or Divine power, that out of a stone will arise in a spark and when a poor naked Indian is ready to starve with cold in the House, and especially in the Woods, often saves his life, dresses all our Food for us, and if it be angry will burn the House about us.  Yea, a spark fall in the dry wood, burns up the Country.”  The native view of all nature as the interplay of conscious beings (rather than lifeless matter), was dismissed by critics of 20th century art and literature as “the pathetic fallacy.”

The living fire of the natives was not just a fallacy, but also pathetic, according to 20th century experts on snarky putdowns.

Christian writers reported that Cheepi threatened the natives not to live near the English, and not to learn their language, warning that they would be punished by diseases.  But Cheepi was not only a god of fear and harm; he also gave the natives the gifts of skills they used to master their environment.  He could inspire them to excellence.  Much as the Christian god was a god of both fear and love, so was Cheepi, for he loved the people and they love him.  Through his power they were healed, and received foreknowledge of important challenges and opportunities in the future.  He led them to prey on the hunt, taught them to plant and harvest, and guided even the most simple native folk through signs and omens.  The very power of plants and animals to grow, and of fruit to ripen was the gift of Cheepi.  But Cheepi was also the judge of human behavior, visiting punishment on those who deserved it.  Part of a shaman’s job was to divine what someone had done to deserve suffering.  Cheepi’s sacred color was black and the first Africans in America were frightening apparitions to the natives who sought to conjure the spirit back to its place.

The colonists were confused by the many creation stories they were told.  The Great Hare created the four directions.  He made men and women, and a deer.  Giant spirits tried to eat them but they were only able to kill the deer.  So the Great Hare spread the hairs of the deer over all the land, from which sprang all the wild deer of the American woods.  Then the Great Hare took the human beings out of the bag and put them on the land to hunt the deer.  Roger Williams reported that the Algonquin creator God first created a man and woman out of stone but displeased with them he broke them then made a new man and new woman out of a tree.  Thomas Harriot reported that the first human created had been a woman, and a God had given her the power to give birth to humanity.

When confronted with native creation and religious beliefs we face a chasm of misunderstandings.  Were the natives sharing their true beliefs?  The history of anthropology is filled with stories of tribes who have misinformed researchers for long periods of time before deciding they had earned the right to hear the real stories.  Did the colonists understand the words of these spiritual tales correctly, since they had no command of native language, only of the stripped down version they were taught?  Were the natives speaking in metaphors?  When one shaman told a colonist that he had four spirits in him: a crow in his head, a pigeon in his heart, a snake in his loins, and “a man he saw in air” who lived in his entire body, was he to be taken literally, or was this poetic language?  The crow is a fine metaphor for the alert and acquisitive human mind, the pigeon describes the human heart alternately peaceful and fretful, and the snake, well that’s rather obvious.  The floating man made of air is a common image for the human soul even today.  Another shaman reported that he had a hummingbird that would peck at him when he did wrong, and sing sweetly when he did right.  Under further questioning this shaman admitted that the hummingbird was his metaphor for his conscience.

Thomas Morton who denied the natives had anything like religion, and who didn’t think much of Puritan religion either, reported that the natives believed in a creation that had grown evil and had been destroyed by a flood.  Roger Williams thought he found parallels between ancient Greek, Hebrew and the Algonquin language.  He relates stories they told him of Wetucks, a miracle maker who walked upon the waters Williams thought might have been a memory of Jesus.  But it’s difficult to know whether or not the natives had learned of the flood from other colonists or from the fishermen who had been visiting their shores for generations.  Were they telling Tom and Roger what they thought they wanted to hear?  Finally, it’s quite possible that many natives considered the Christian stories they were being told unbelievable, and so returned nonsense for nonsense, a joke for what appeared to them to be a joke.

Natives who were not shamans also had prophetic dreams and the experience of remote viewing was rather common, as wives kept watch on their husbands away from the hunt by dreaming and warriors located the enemy. Dreams could diagnosis and cure illnesses.  Malevolent spirits could be identified and chased away in a dream.  Such recoveries could occur when a sick person dreamed, or when someone else had a dream about a sick person.  Algonquin mothers would ask their children every morning what they had dreamed. Nightmares were considered warnings, and after awakening from a nightmare natives would pray to understand how they might correct whatever wrong had occurred.  Some natives spoke of a ball of light that would leave someone sleeping, that would return just before they awoke.  They believed this to be the soul going out to have a look for itself.  Some said the dark outline of a body could be seen surrounding the globe of light at its center.  Light phenomena were also common in areas where someone was about to die or had recently passed away.  Today’s ghost hunters call them orbs.

Jaunty Algonquin warrior painted circa 1585 by John White

Many prophecies of the arrival of the white man were given.  Uttamatomakkin, brother in law of Pocahontas, traveled with her to London where he told the English that the God Okeus had warned the shamans of his tribe of the arrival of people from across the sea.  The Mohegans told of one of their chiefs whom as he lay dying warned that light skinned people would soon arrive from across the sea.  In the 1800’s the Narrangassett historian Thomas Commuck claimed that his people had heard music in the air many years before the Europeans arrived, recognizing it at last when hymns were sung at the first church services in Plymouth.  One prophetic vision of the coming of the white race was said to have begun with the sitting of a white whale; Ahab’s Moby Dick may have been a distant memory of a warning about the arrival of Caucasians.

Names held great power to the natives, a curious reflection of the beliefs of John Dee and the other sorcerers of Europe who explored angelic language with the idea that knowing the original and true name of anything would give power over it.  Natives would not give their real names to the colonists.  Pocahontas was only a nickname; her real name was Matoaka.  Natives would also change their names to commemorate important events.  A chief who had been friendly with the English but who now planned to attack them would change his name.  Natives who were kidnapped or who chose to live among the colonists or to visit their world back home would change their names to protect themselves against danger, and to signify their new purpose.

The greatest of the chiefs among the Carolina Algonquins were mummified.  Thomas Harriot carefully described the process by which their bodies were opened and the flesh removed while preserving the skeletal structure, covered with leather, over which the skin was closed again.  The dried flesh was carefully placed in baskets at the feet of each mummy, which were laid side by side on a tall platform under which lived a shaman who prayed day and night.  So little was known about ancient Egyptian mummification at the time no theories about the Algonquins and the pharaohs were hatched.  John Smith wrote of similar practices among the natives of the Chesapeake, who also had copper chains, pearls, and favorite hatchets stuffed into their mummies, and who were carefully wrapped in white furs and woven mats.  Natives of the regular sort were simply buried in the ground in a shroud folded with flowers (unless it was winter).  Their possessions were laid in and on the grave to rot away.

Widows mourned with what English writers called “Irish-like howlings” and shouts of grief for 24 hours, their faces painted black.  Quieter mourning lasted for at least a year.  Friends visited to offer consolation.  The name of the dead person was no longer used, and if someone within the tribe had the same name, they changed it.

Thomas Harriot in the 1580’s reported two near death experiences he was told by the natives.  One freshly buried was liberated from the grave when the earth over it moved.  He reported his visit to the enormous pit near the setting sun where the wicked burn.  He was saved by one of the gods who sent him back to warn others.  The other witness walked the pathway of fruit bushes and arrived at a paradise of fine fields and handsome houses where his father told him to go back to tell the tribe of the rewards awaiting those who live a good life.

The natives believed in the immortality of the soul.  It’s amusing to read European writers’ dismissive accounts of the native afterlife as an “imaginary paradise” and the “fictions” of infernal torture for the wicked, when these beliefs were so like their own.  Williams reported that the wicked were doomed to wander helpless as phantoms.  Accounts differed.  In one the good went to the top of a great tree.  From there they could see the pathway lined by bushes of ripened fruit.  They followed it to the rising sun, pausing half-way there to get refreshments from a goddess.  Finally they came to the house of the Great Hare where they lived a carefree life in the beautiful fields many authors compared to the paradise of Islam.  There they lived until they became old and died, to be born again into a woman’s womb, to live again a physical life.  Pythagoras was mentioned as holding similar beliefs, but it was all dismissed as a fable in favor of the idea of the resurrection of the physical body at the end of days.


Four legged immigrants from Europe ready for their exciting cruise to the New World.

The European colonists were the products of what has been called a disease pool, a confluence of maladies from the Far East, the Mideast, Africa and of course indigenous varieties that produced a robust immunity.  In America the natives were protected from these diseases by ice and ocean.  Once the viruses and other parasites arrived the loss of native life in many areas reached 90%.  Entire villages and even tribes were wiped out by illness and the starvation and war that followed as colonists and natives alike tried to control the resources of newly emptied land.  Thomas Morton called the area around Plymouth a second Golgotha because it was strewn with the skulls and bones of dead natives.  Since virus and other infections can have an influence on the psychology of a human being could it be that the European drive to colonize these lands, and the irrational and destructive efforts made, related somehow to the bugs the colonists brought with them?  The colonists were themselves colonized by life forms that addle human behavior.  Perhaps when we considered native society we got a glimpse of human consciousness free of those microscopic but lethally powerful influences.

The Bible commanded the colonists to “fill the earth and subdue it.”  By 1634 the four thousand colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had 1500 head of cattle, four thousand goats and “innumerable swine.”  Courts regularly ordered compensation be paid to tribes whose crops and stores of corn were invaded by livestock, but woe to a native who killed a marauding animal.  The only solution was building fences, a commitment to concepts of ownership formerly foreign to the native way of life.  Many tribes used the word eat to describe possession of land, so that “we have eaten it all” meant something like ownership.

By the 1640’s native varieties of grasses were being crowded out by European grasses shipped over as fodder and spread by cow dung.  The indigenous grasses did not adapt well to the chewing down of livestock and the trampling and tearing of the ground by hooves, which removed oxygen from the soil.  Before long blue grass, for example, was considered a native grass, though it was really an import.  But the rains brought mud in a way they never had before.

The honeybee was a pleasant import but less pleasant were immigrants like the black fly, the cockroach, the house mouse and the gray rat.  Europeans brought rats and rape.  European style farming greatly increased the populations of worms, caterpillars, maggots and that considerably cuter but nevertheless relentless pest the squirrel.  Still water created by dams caused more mosquito-spread disease.  It’s hard not to think of the colonists as the vampire Nosferatu arriving in a ship teeming with plague infested vermin.


There goes the neighborhood.

Alonso Álvarez de Pineda followed Cortez mapping the Gulf of Mexico.  In 1521 he became the first European to sail up Mark Twain’s beloved mighty Mississippi River.  He called it Rio del Espiritu Santo, the River of the Holy Spirit.  Sailing it for a month, he reached twenty miles up river, making contact with hostile and peaceful tribes along the way, and unknowingly began the spread of epidemics.  On his way home he landed in what is now Texas where Aztec warriors burned two of his ships and captured him.  By then the Spanish had won their war against the Aztec Empire, smallpox was ruining what was left of their culture, but Pineda paid the price.  His captors flayed him alive then hung his skin as a trophy in a temple.

Six years later Jose Maria Narváez sailed with a fleet of five ships and 600 men arriving on the west coast of Florida in spring 1528.  He had already lost almost half his men to storms and desertions. Fighting hostile natives his expedition marched north searching for gold; finding none he built and boarded four rafts of which two were wrecked by a storm, killing him and everyone on board.  Less than a hundred men were left to go on.  They began an overland march to Mexico along which most died of hunger.  Only four survived.  One of them, a sailor named Corvais spent eight years walking home to Mexico City.  Natives captured him.  They forced him by starvation to work as a healer, believing that the strange men who had brought these terrible diseases must somehow be able to cure them.

From 1539 to 1543 Captain Hernando de Soto, an officer of Pizarro the conquistador of Peru, led an expedition in search of silver and gold.  They visited Mississippian villages in the Southeast.  He hoped to gain submission and peaceful compliance from the natives by encouraging them to believe that he was an immortal, a sun god.  They found countless tribes, five hundred different languages, but no treasure.  To each tribe they read in Spanish the Requerimento, first read in 1514 far to the south in what is now Venezuela, it had made its way north all the way to the heartland of what would become the United States of America.  The Requerimento was an announcement in this case delivered by six hundred soldiers, that threatened slavery, “harm and evil,” “deaths and damage;” further declaring that the blame would fall on the natives for disobedience, not on the soldiers or the King.  They claimed all the land as the property of Spain.  The natives must have stood dumbfounded as the Spanish wrote down, witnessed, and signed their justification for invasion in a foreign language.

For many natives it was not only the first time they saw Europeans, it was also the first time they ever saw a horse, or the shining chain mail and battle lances of European soldiers.  The Spanish also brought with them a breed of giant mastiffs bred to kill, called the Canary Island Mastiffs because they exterminated every native inhabitant of the Canary Islands during the Spanish conquest.  These dogs also wore chain mail; the horses had chain mail and metal helmets.  No wonder modern Americans have been so fascinated with the idea of aliens arriving in shiny silver ships out of nowhere to claim dominion.

The epic journey of de Soto the sun god began around what is now Tampa, Florida and continued through Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. In some villages he stayed for a month or more.  Some of these visits were violent and others peaceful.  Some native leaders used his presence as leverage for peace treaties with rival tribes.   When hostilities broke out de Soto’s men usually instigated them.  At Mauvila a fortified native city in southern Alabama a major battle occurred.  Thousands of native warriors were killed.  Two hundred Spaniards died, another 150 were severely wounded.  Mauvila was burned down, but the Spanish had lost most of their supplies and many horses.  Their attacks were so savage that some soldiers of the Spanish expedition were horrified by the terrors inflicted by their own horsemen.  Native women and children were tied to trees then set on fire.  Incidents of rape can be glimpsed in the chronicles, not surprising, since during the conquest of Peru de Soto himself had organized the gang rape of Inca sacred virgins.

In spring 1541 de Soto demanded 200 Chickasaw natives for service as porters to make up for the lost horses. They refused, attacking the Spanish camp at night. The Spaniards lost dozens of men and what was left of their equipment.  According to de Soto’s records the Chickasaw could have killed them all but showed mercy.  By May the expedition reached the Mississippi River.  Their crossing was dangerous as natives patrolled the strong current of the broad river.  Soon after, de Soto was the first European to see the Valley of the Vapors, now Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Tribes had gathered there for generations to heal in the thermal waters.  No weapons were allowed.  De Soto stayed only long enough to claim it for Spain.

De Soto, a Spanish sun god buried in the Mississippi River

After a harsh winter de Soto’s interpreter died, making communication and trading for food even more difficult.  De Soto faced warriors of greater skill and more ferocity as he journeyed west.  He decided to head back for the great river.  Somewhere on the border of Arkansas and Louisiana he died of fever in a native village.  His men hid the sun god’s corpse in blankets weighed down with sand and sank it at night in the Mississippi River.  The survivors headed home by way of Mexico City.  Some of the hogs brought along by de Soto escaped to become the ancestors of the razorbacks of the southeastern United States.  His expedition spread epidemics across America.

The Spanish may have been more ferocious than other European invaders but they could also be more compassionate.  Bartolomé de las Casas first arrived in Cuba as a conquistador but the cruelty he witnessed caused him in 1515 to reject the practices of the Spanish Conquest.  He freed his native slaves and returned to Spain to tell the King what he had seen and to suggest more humane and Christian strategies, ironically, one of which involved bringing over African captives to take over slave labor from the natives.  Casas was sent back to the new world with the title Protector of the Indians.  First as a Dominican Friar and then as the first Bishop of Chiapas he fought for fifty years to give rights to the natives, the same rights any other subject of the Spanish King expected.  Native attacks on his attempts at peaceful communities and Spanish attacks on peaceful natives plagued his efforts.  Many authors who praised the civilizing and missionary glory of the Spanish Conquest sought to undermine him but in 1552 he published his influential A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.  Eventually the Spaniards in the new world created the first universities where natives could study, and the first laws to protect them.  They intermarried with them blending cultures to a degree never practiced by English colonists.

The Spanish visited Chesapeake Bay in 1561.  The son of a chief agreed to go with them to their world.  Don Luis de Velasco was treated like an aristocrat in Mexico City, Havana, and Spain.  The Dominicans took care of him, the crown paid his way, and the viceroy stood for his baptism.  In 1570 the Jesuits brought him back to Chesapeake area where he was to spearhead their mission to bring Catholicism to the tribes.  They were so sure of his conversion they didn’t bring soldiers with them.  Five days after they arrived Don Luis abandoned them.  Shortly after he led the attacks that exterminated the priests and their mission, allowing only a boy to survive.

In what is now North Carolina the Mississippian culture was again confronted by more Spanish explorers when the Juan Pardo expedition built a base there in 1567 christened Fort San Juan. Eighteen months into the experiment the natives killed all the colonists and destroyed the fort.  Five other supporting forts were burned and 120 soldiers killed, leaving only one survivor. So ended the first European colonization of America.  21 years later Sir Walter Raleigh’s Virginian project began, planting the first seed of the culture that would become the thirteen colonies of the United States of America.


Manna-hatta before and after

In 1609 Captain Henry Hudson, an Englishman who worked for the Dutch East India Company, and his crew sailed up what became known as the Hudson River.  Hudson’s pilot jotted down a note in his journal about a place the natives called Manna-hata.  His explorations led to the establishment of New Netherlands in 1624 when the first Dutch fur trading outpost was set up on Governor’s Island.  A year later construction began on Fort Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. The site was bought for about a thousand dollars in today’s money value, an amount paid to natives who lived in what is now Brooklyn, instead of the locals themselves.  Even then.  New York City was born.  New Amsterdam was no puritan Boston; this Protestant town was infamous for its taverns full of smugglers.

Today’s Wall Street takes its name from the earthen wall on the north border of New Amsterdam, protection against not only natives, but also the English.  It should perhaps come as no surprise that the original wall of Wall Street was built by African slaves, as was the settlement, its docks and roads.  Bloody slave rebellion ended in horrific spectacles of torture and execution of rebels.  After much Dutch soul searching the Africans were given “half-freedom.”  They had to pay a yearly tax, and they could be called back to work at any time by the Dutch West India Company.  But they were allowed to have their own homes, and they created one of the first free black towns in America.  The Dutch West India Company was not interested in the sort of homesteading practiced by the English colonists, instead they competed with the French, developing fur trading outposts on the Hudson, Mohawk, Delaware and Connecticut rivers.  The experiment of New Amsterdam only lasted fifty years.

The natives of New England called the ships of the colonists’ giant birds that coughed thunder and lightning.  In the 1630’s William Wood reported that the Massachusetts Indians thought the first ship they saw was a floating island.  They guided their canoes to go pick strawberries on it until the cannon opened fire.  When the Dutch arrived their ships puzzled the natives.  They described them as double ships that go both in the air and under water, apparently mistaking the hull for one vessel and the sails for another.  The French and Dutch established a lucrative fur trade.  By 1628 the Mohawk tribe gained control of the fur trade at Fort Orange, the Dutch colony at New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island.  Less than twenty years later a treaty was brokered between the Iroquois and the Dutch and their native allies.  It would take another thirty more years for the Iroquois to make an alliance with the English.  The natives gained advantages from their alliances with the Europeans.  Chiefs who traded with them grew powerful.  The English were also useful allies against traditional enemies.  The Dutch were played against the English, to gain benefits from both.

But the English with their focus on settlements, and their willingness to redefine and argue any law or deal the Dutch made, eventually took most of the Dutch possessions in North America.  They did it the old fashioned way, by making babies in the New World, building houses, clearing fields, and creating a market the Dutch couldn’t exploit.


French illustration of a fashionable Iroquois warrior

In 1524 Captain Verrazzano, an Italian in the service of the King of France, spent fifteen days exploring the area we now call New England.  He reported large families of 25 to thirty in each home.  He wrote down his first encounter with the native inhabitants of what we now call Manhattan.  “We saw about twenty small boats full of people, who came about our ship, uttering many cries of astonishment, but they would not approach nearer than within fifty paces; stopping, they looked at the structure of our ship, our persons and dress, afterwards they all raised a loud shout together, signifying that they were pleased.  By imitating their signs, we inspired them, in some measure with confidence, so that they came near enough for us to toss to them some little bells and glasses, and many toys, which they took and looked at, laughing, and then came on board without fear.  Among them were two men more beautiful in form and stature than can possibly be described; one was about forty years old, the other about 24, and they were dressed in the following manner: the oldest has a deer’s skin around his body, artificially wrought in damask figures, his head was without covering, his hair was tied back in various knots; around his neck he wore a large chain ornamented with many stones of different colors.  The young man was similar in his general appearance.  This is the finest looking tribe, the handsomest in their costumes that we have found in our voyage.  They exceed us in size, and they are of a very fair complexion; some of them incline more to a white, and others to a tawny color; their faces are sharp, and their hair long and black, upon the adorning of which they bestow great pains, their eyes are black and sharp, their expression mild and pleasant, greatly resembling the ancients. They live a long life and rarely fall sick: if they are wounded they cure themselves with fire without medicine, their end comes with old age.”  Here we have what may be the earliest European record of the natives that were so crucial a part of the birth of America.

Like the Dutch, the French were less interested in colonizing America than they were in profiting from the fur trade.  Outposts were established in Canada and northeastern America.  The power of trading with the French created imbalances among tribes that soon led to conflict.  As the French spread epidemics opportunistic tribal leaders tried to benefit their tribes by gaining new lands.  By 1609 the Iroquois League fought a war with the French and their native allies the Huron. They also moved against the Algonquins and the early English colonies.

Huron warrior just after winning coolest war paint of all time award

In 1634 the French Jesuit Paul le Jeune honestly recorded his attempt to convert a native.  After telling the native that he had left his home and traveled so far for love of him, the Jesuit gave a surprisingly Platonic but moving speech about the beauty and wisdom of the world proving the existence of a divine designer who must watch over every part of it and who judges the dead and keeps the good in happiness for eternity.  The native responded that the Jesuit didn’t know what he was talking about.  In 1684 the Iroquois attacked French trading outposts, which had reached all the way to what is now Illinois.  After three years of war the governor of New France convened a meeting at Iroquois occupied Fort Frontenac with fifty hereditary chiefs of the Iroquois League under a flag of truce.  The truce was a ruse.  French forces recaptured the fort and took captive all fifty Iroquois chiefs, who were sent to Marseilles, France, to be used as galley slaves.  A French armada arrived at Irondequoit Bay, devastating the Seneca homeland.  In retaliation the Iroquois became allies of the English, ending French hopes in America.


Puritan humor and other myths

By the mid 1500’s hundreds of ships visited the New England coast every year, castaways and survivors of wrecks had been interacting with native society for generations. Visitors were surprised to find among the supposedly pristine tribes members wearing European clothes, or using a tailored cloth shirt for a canoe sail.  What must the Pilgrims have thought when the first word spoken by the first Indian they met was “welcome”?

In 1569 David Ingram, one of a hundred men John Hawkins left on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico claimed to have walked in one year from there with two other sailors all the way to Maine where they were picked up by a ship.  His record of the epic journey is a curious blend of observations and hearsay, much of it gathered along the way from natives.  They told him of tribes with teeth like dogs who were cannibals, and Ingram argued that the English should colonize the new world to help defend the good tribes from their monstrous enemies.  One gets the impression that the natives were telling tall tales for their own amusement or benefit.  Even the ever-tolerant Roger Williams reported on a zombie tribe that ate the brains of their enemies, but he added that they lived far away and since they were human beings they might be saved after all.  Other such tales of cannibals with three inch teeth and Mohawks shouting war cries warning they would suck the blood of their enemies were quickly discredited and discarded by publishers once the colonists gained more experience with the natives.

Partly due to prejudices about primitive culture related to their own pagan origins in the blue painted Picts and Druids of ye olden days, and partly due to the Spanish reports of Aztec religious slaughters, some English early writers on native culture assumed human sacrifice was practiced by all tribes.  The huskanaw ritual caused much confusion.  Adolescent boys were painted white.  After a feast and dance, chosen men guided them through gauntlets of men hitting them with bundled sticks while the women mourned and prepared for a funeral.  The boys would then lay motionless under a tree until being led away into the woods where the men would teach them the secrets and skills of the tribe.  Seeing the apparently lifeless bodies of the boys and the laments of the women, some observers assumed they had been murdered.  Eventually more careful witnesses noticed the boys returned after a period of weeks or months.  The famous incident when Pocahontas saved Captain John Smith from having his head bashed in was probably such a ritual, intended to rebirth the Pilgrim as a member of the tribe.  The only ritual sacrifices made by the Algonquins were occasional bonfires of their possessions, intended to restore tribal harmony and the good will of their gods.  Every year those among the natives with the most worldly goods would give them away, especially to the neediest among them, so they could prove the next year their ability to regain all that they had sacrificed.

Algonquin thunder stick carved from a lightning blasted tree

The earliest Spanish visitors to the New World reported that the natives had no religion and no god.  The English instead described the natives as pagans and idolaters, though even the earliest such reports were contradicted by more sensitive thinkers who insisted such summary dismissals misrepresented the resemblances between native and European beliefs.  Roger Williams and other English writers constantly reminded their readers that all men share basic beliefs about the divine order of the universe and the afterlife.  Many English believed native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel.  Didn’t the natives sequester menstruating women, as practiced by the Jews of the time?

From their English nobles the colonists expected courtesy and composure, dignity and honesty.  A good noble would return a favor done for him, and would be good to his word.  He would hate lying, and rude behavior and would comport himself in such a way as to never be laughed at. They were surprised to find these same qualities among the native leaders.  English writers commented on the civility of the natives in one paragraph, while in the next dismissing them as ensnared by Satan in the New World, the devil’s country.

While the Europeans thought the natives demonic; the natives thought the Europeans animal like.  They had so much body hair and a diet of raw foliage (salads).  One native described the French talking over each other in a crowd as no better than a flock of geese.  Natives were shocked by the bad manners and arguments displayed by colonists in their community meetings, since the native councils were dignified, thoughtful and polite.  They taught their children not to be boisterous, to hate ingratitude, and to share however little they might have.  Even a simple piece of bread would be divided equally among all.

As England became more powerful under the four decades of Queen Elizabeth, the Protestants of Europe began to believe the British would lead them into a world where the power of the Catholic church would be broken.  America, which they believed had been divinely hidden until this crucial time, was to become a new,  Catholic free continent, despite the presence of the Spanish in the south and west, and the Catholic colony that would become Maryland.   But England was poor, and divided.  Many loyal to the old faith thought the recurrent plagues were punishment for spiritual disobedience.  While a powerful merchant class grew, so did the numbers of the poor and homeless.  Good simple English values were being corrupted by foreign influence.  To avoid the fate of the decadent French gender distinctions were considered so important the measure of civilization applied to the Native Americans was based on their strict division between the responsibilities of men and women.  Nevertheless fads swept through the poor and rich in England, including scandalous gender bending by wearing items formerly associated only with the opposite sex.  Honesty and charity were for fools, communities neglected members who needed help; the clever were rewarded instead of the virtuous. Still they loved the accomplishments of their civilization, the pomp and splendor of their rulers, and saw themselves as “angel” saxons bringing true religion and improvements in living to the “savages” of the New World.  Meanwhile the hard work demanded by colonization would give England a way to renew the simple virtues while making wealth available to the unsophisticated.

Noble Pict of ancient Britannia, freedom loving and clothing hating tribal ancestor of the English, painted by John White

The Roman historian Tacitus was the most popular ancient writer of the day among the English.  His descriptions of the good simple people of Germania and ancient Britannia, liberty loving and valorous, in contrast to the decadence and political scheming of the Imperial Romans, caused many of the English to compare the native Americans to their own ancestors, as opposed to their fad loving contemporaries, and the corruptions of the royal court.

The English were particularly interested in native hairstyles.  The Puritans disapproved of the long hair and debauched lifestyle of the flamboyant cavaliers.  During the English Civil War that broke out in 1641 friend or enemy could be judged by hair length.  Observers noted that grieving native fathers cut off their hair.  Virgin girls wore their hair over their eyes.  Captive women were humiliated by having their locks shorn.  The most written about native hairdo was worn by males who shaved the right side of their heads and wore their hair long on the other.  Few writers pointed out the practicality involved; native hunters didn’t want their hair interfering with firing their bow and arrows.  The style led to a fad among young English men who took to wearing one long lock of hair, called a lovelock. Pundits decried the sudden variety of hair fashions for degenerating good plain Englishmen into “Virginians, Frenchmen, and Ruffians!”  Native teenage males experimented with their hair with such enthusiasm, one author observed that their hairstyles “would torment the wits of a curious barber.”

The colonists wondered that the native men didn’t sport manly beards, they were said to pluck their sparse facial hair, and if any native naturally grew a beard he was suspected of having a European father.  A few native men wore artificial beards made of animal fur perhaps to appear more European and therefore up to date with the latest historical developments.  Young native men were especially interested in acquiring European clothes but to the disappointment of the colonists they tended to wear them only when visiting, taking them off to return home.  Some among the native leaders were given fine red coats to display their allegiance to King James.

The colonists were somewhat perturbed by the native habit of painting, dying and tattooing their bodies.  Roger Williams learned how to tell them, in their own language, that “the god who made them would not recognize them.”  The colonists were also much concerned with posture, that of the natives and their own.  The Pilgrim Endicott fretted that he had posed too arrogantly for his office as justice of the peace, with his hand on his hip and elbow akimbo.  European artists depicted Sir Walter Raleigh and native chiefs alike in this pose understood to represent the power, and perhaps impatience, of aristocracy.

The jewelry that kisses you back

But the English, including comparative free thinkers like Tom Morton (LINK) nevertheless considered the new world the devil’s playground, and the natives hopelessly enthralled by witchcraft.  John Smith reported that among their curious self adornments native men sometimes sported small bright green yellow under-bellied snakes (probably Opheodrys vernalis, the Smooth Greensnake) that would curl around their necks and kiss their lips; the snake of Eden must have come to mind.  No wonder the Europeans mistook any friendliness for reverence and admiration, but too much friendliness inspired suspicions of treachery.

Native rituals, including rhythmic dances, fists slammed into the ground, nails scratching the earth, clapping, trances of staring into the sky with hands upheld to heaven, singing, howling, and exaggerated expressions, often within a circle of tobacco or corn meal, and around a fire, appeared to the colonists to be reenactments of hell.


The first Bible translated into a native language, that of the Massachusetts tribe

An English minister was said to have converted some natives by praying successfully for rain when their shamans failed.  In 1605 Captain Waymouth used a magnet to move and lift a knife astonishing his native guests.  English technology, clocks, books, guns, were said to be manitou, and the natives wondered if the English had been taught by gods.  Demonstrating the function of a compass could save a captive’s life.  Where English medicines and treatments prevailed, sometimes saving the life of a chief, or many lives in a village, the natives thought that a demonstration of spiritual power.  When the natives attacked and destroyed half the colonist plantations in 1622 letters sent home begging for help lamented that the natives would disbelieve in the Christian god were the English to fail so miserably.  When famine and disease followed the attacks, many colonists called it divine punishment, declaring that unscrupulous private traders were cheating and abusing the natives.

The Christians of this era of colonization were not mutually tolerant.  Protestants referred to the Catholic Church as the Great Whore.  The Pope was considered an Antichrist.  Roman Catholic missionaries in the new world were called vermin.  And Catholics and Protestants referred to each other as atheists.  Preachers of either branch of the business who tried to address the tribes were often driven away.  Sometimes they were told to wait at specific places and times but no one ever arrived to hear them.  Christian ministers were sometimes horrified to hear natives tell them they had themselves crossed over into the spirit world to visit the Christian heaven.  One reported he had seen the great gentleman God, the handsome man Jesus, and the saved, like “butterflies of many colors.”

The natives adopted Christianity in their own way.  The God of the Book was added to some native pantheons.  Two of the most powerful chiefs who fought against the colonists during King Philip’s War kept the Sabbath.  They considered themselves followers of what they called the Great God.  The English blamed the Catholics, and as usual blamed it all on Satan.

Unable to stop the epidemics ravaging their people, some shamans wanted to convert, especially after colonists told them that the spirit of Jesus could do the same things for them that their familiar spirits and traditional gods did: healing, protection from suffering, an end to nightmares, giving them a smoother path through life.  They were told that their spirit guides were demonic imps and their deity the devil.  The spirit of Jesus, they were promised, was much more powerful.  Here begins American Metaphysical Christianity.  The line blurs between native and European.  Jesus becomes an especially powerful spirit, the ally of shamans.  One spirit is exchanged for another.  Jesus must perform the same services as a tribal God: warn of trouble, ward away sickness, give victory in war, end draughts, calm storms, not that he didn’t already have those functions among most European Christians.

A French museum‘s manger scene in the snow of New England, emblem of native culture overshadowed by a new myth

Measles, smallpox, typhoid fever, plague, and the common cold had been wiping out entire native settlements since the mid 1500’s.  Sweat lodges and other traditional healing methods only helped spread the diseases.  by the 1600’s devastated communities lost their ability to function collectively, and were forced to burn even their tools to keep their fires going.  Nature itself seemed to be working against them as America suffered a cold spell known as the Little Ice Age.  Growing seasons were shorter.  Prey and the wild foods natives gathered became scarce. The New England area suffered the worst drought in eight hundred years.  Survivors were forced to band together in new groups.  New leaders arose, often using trade with the colonists to build more power than native leaders had known at any time earlier in their history.  Chiefs became kings.

Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas, tried to tell John Smith that they would both benefit from a loving relationship and both suffer from war, but the natives would suffer the deprivations of hiding their supplies and sleeping uneasily in hidden places while the colonists were facing starvation.  When native food grew scarce and the newcomers ignored warnings and tried to take what they could by force several were found dead in their fort with their mouths stuffed full of bread. English officers faced the challenge of controlling their own men.  As John Smith wrote: “Much they blamed us for not converting the Savages, when those they sent us were little better, if not worse.”  Writers lamented that life in the colonies proved how degenerate and weak the English had become.  Punishments were accordingly severe: hanging, burning, broken on the wheel, shot or starved to death.  The price of English overconfidence is illustrated by an incident during the starving winter of 1609 when Powhatan had a party of English insisting on obtaining food killed and their leader tortured to death by the women of the tribe.  But then, the heads of natives killed in battle were stuck on English stakes, and colonists were known to cut off the hands of natives they thought were spies.

The starvation in Jamestown grew so severe incidents of colonial cannibalism were confessed and punished.  Meanwhile their Pilgrim brethren living by the coast hid their abundant supply of food from their suffering fellow colonists.  When supplies finally arrived from England the colonists took vengeance on the natives, seizing corn, killing the men, and taking women and children hostage. The children were eventually killed, thrown overboard, then shot in the head as they struggled against the waves.  Some argued that the chief’s wife should be burned alive, but she was run through with a sword instead.  Natives never killed women and children in war, it’s difficult to imagine how they viewed these ferocious murders.  The natives learned what the Europeans taught them and against their own tradition massacred European women and children.  Back home in England doubts about the savagery practiced by colonists were met not only by reference to King David’s War in the Old Testament but by the more recent examples of slaughter practiced in the English colonization of Ireland.  Such cruel acts were said to be merciful since the fear they invoked would hopefully prevent further defiance.  When the English Civil War broke out no mercy was shown by either side as Protestants and Catholics alike justified rape, torture and slaughter in the name of religion.

Colonists who went native were regarded with much suspicion.  One Edward Ashley was said to have joined a tribe, to have dressed like them, learned their language and cohabited with their women.  The Pilgrims accused him of cheating them and dealing guns to the natives.  They seized him and sent him back to England.  When they heard news that he was lost at sea on a later expedition they celebrated it as divine judgment against him.  Another colonist who preferred his native family to colonial civilization was captured and whipped.  On the other hand, native children brought up among the English hated to even visit the villages that would have been their homes.  One native who earnestly sought to understand Christianity after witnessing the deaths of so many of his people in a day’s battle against the English, and believing it a sign of the power of their god, braved all insults to preach to his tribe.  He was poisoned.  While many English writers trumpeted his spiritual courage and declared him the first Indian in heaven, Roger Williams reported that the man died with a heavy heart, deeply conflicted: “Me so big naughty heart, me heart all one stone,” the poor man said shortly before he died.

The Seal of Massachusetts Bay Company: note what the Indian is saying, come over and help us (get sick?).

Natives who stayed loyal to the English and their way of life were faced with taunts and death threats.  The go-betweens, essential to relations between the natives and the newcomers, lived difficult lives distrusted by both sides.

By 1677 the English Civil War and The Thirty Years War that ruined and rearranged Europe were an object of curiosity to a new generation hooked on books full of gory details.  One of the popular books of the time was written by a Puritan minister in the New World.  In it he described the torture inflicted by a tribe on a captured enemy.  The captive’s fingers were cut where they joined his hands and then torn off.  The writer was impressed by the lack of emotion on the victim’s face, he showed no sign of agony.  Blood spewing he danced around the fire in a macabre spectacle.  Next his toes were torn off.  Finally his legs were broken and he was forced to sit, waiting until they cracked open his skull.  The writer lingers on the excitement of the torturers and spectators who proved thereby that they were creatures of the devil recreating hell on earth, thus reassuring the English that they were serving the other side, fighting the good fight, though the tortures practiced during the Civil War were just as gruesome.

The natives however experienced this event very differently.  For the torturers this was an opportunity to avenge lost loved ones and to express anger against what they perceived to be injustice.  The spectators were excited not because they enjoyed seeing the suffering inflicted on a native of another tribe, they were reacting to his bravery and his resistance to pain, egging him on.  The bleeding victim was not forced to dance, he danced to demonstrate that they could not reach his inner strength, he danced to mock their torture of him.  For him this was an initiation, a test of strength, a means to achieve an honorable death that would allow him to enter the after world fully conscious.  This is not to say that when English prisoners were tortured the natives did not take sadistic pleasure in their less stoic suffering.  But keeping in mind how much death the English had brought with them the natives must have felt these villains were reaping richly deserved punishment.  Try as the Europeans might to paint the natives as ruthlessly savage, even demonic, the natives did nothing to the English that the Spanish had not already done to tribes all over the Americas, nothing that the English had not done to each other when Protestants battled Catholics.

As in Europe, among the Natives tribal enmities often won out over common interest.  When the Mohegans, made strong by their integration of the shattered Pequots, tried to convince the Narrangansetts to join them in a war of attrition against the English to drive them out once and for all by burning their crops, killing their livestock, and ambushing them, the Narrangansetts, who had long been insulted for being effeminate because they chose to gain power by trade rather than war, sided with the English.

Miantonomi advises his friend Roger Williams not to sit on snow in cloth pants.

The Narrangansetts would reverse their position, and their leader Miantonomi the Narragansett chief of the Montauk Indians of eastern Long Island, famously counseled united warfare against the colonists in summer 1642 : “… our fathers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, and of turkeys, and our coves full of fish and fowl.  But these English have gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved.”  He was captured by a native and delivered up to the English, who gave him to the Mohegans for execution by a hatchet to the head in 1643, the same year his friend Roger Williams published his Key into the Language of America.  The Mohegan chief who killed Miantonomi is said to have eaten a piece of his shoulder.  Incidents of native cannibalism were reported.  The Iroquois were said to be especially feared by other natives for their practice of consuming pieces of their enemies, but this seems to have been rather a rare instance of ferocity, as opposed to an established practice.

By 1660 some native chiefs were warning their tribes that the Europeans would not only never be eliminated from their lands, but were too dangerous an enemy to make war against.  In 1676 a powerful chief named Metacom united the tribes in one last attempt to regain their lost world in what became known as King Philip’s War.  Metacom received his Macedonian name because it was an easy way for the colonists to remember each tribe had an elder chief, Philip, and a younger chief, to whom of course they gave the name Alexander.  Metacom was the son of a chief who had been struggling Plymouth colony’s greatest friend among the natives.  His father was the native chief at America’s iconic first Thanksgiving.

As early as the late 17th century natives had been raised as Christians, sometimes with Christian names, and they preached to small converted congregations.  They walked a difficult and narrow path, distrusted by English Christians, and despised by natives who continued to practice their traditional ways.  They suffered most during King Philip’s War.  For example a minister named John Eliot had translated the Bible into Algonquin and converted many to Christianity.  The question the natives Eliot converted most often asked him was: “Why have not beasts a soul as man has seeing they have love, anger, etc as man has?”  These Praying Indians were used in propaganda to prove that the “savages desire civilization.”  Several decades of their loyalty to the English meant little when war broke out.  They were rounded up and put in a concentration camp in what is now Deer Island, a peninsula of Boston Harbor.  Half of the five hundred prisoners died during the cold winter.  The survivors, most weak from hunger and exposure and sick with disease, were released after the colonists realized they would easily win what was left of the war.

Many colonists died and many plantations burned during King Philip’s War, eleven towns and 1200 homes were reduced to ashes, but by then it was too late.  Tribes were slaughtered, the survivors sold into slavery or stripped of property and individual rights were resettled in communities scattered all over New England. King Philip was killed, beheaded and quartered.  The native who shot him was given Metacom’s severed hand, which he preserved in rum and showed at taverns for a fee.  Metacom’s head was put on display stuck on a pike on a road at Plymouth for almost 25 years.  Cotton Mather took one of the jaws, a macabre collectible.  As for the natives, they claimed to have stolen back King Philip’s head for proper burial.  They insisted the head shown at Plymouth belonged to someone else.  Folk tales were told for more than two hundred years of King Philip’s spirit wandering his old lands, communicating only with his descendants.


Ninigret, Eastern Niantic chief, circa 1681, and the never-ending sunset

As the United States of America was born and history rolled relentlessly forward native beliefs were transformed into folk tales, a new tradition of story telling replaced the old.  Some of these tales were propagandistic.  The crow who brought the corn kernel and the bean became the dove that fed a white man cranberries so he could defeat a native shaman in a spiritual battle of endurance.  Other stories resemble the lore collected by Harry M Hyatt in his massive compilation Hoodoo Conjuration Witchcraft Rootwork.  A blend of coded language, for safety’s sake, and of the confusion of the disempowered (for example a poisonous root used to kill might become a charm that harms the person whose porch it’s buried under).  Witchcraft practices are a strategy for control that flourish among those disadvantaged by communal crisis.  In these stories anyone practicing traditional ways is now called a witch or a medicine devil.  Factional differences are fought out and group boundaries reaffirmed.  Wisdom can be found in the fables but only by those with a strong understanding of context, a feeling for metaphor, and a sharp sense of rural humor.  When a mother told her children that a white feather floating in the room and then up the chimney was a notorious local witch spying on their conversation what did she really mean?  A jest?  A lesson about nosy gossips and the necessity of discretion?  Or did she literally think the witch had shape shifted?

Native gods were transformed into stories about giants; their creation myths now resembled ancient Greek myths about giants throwing islands on shore to create landmark mountains.  Cheepi was reduced to a surrogate for the devil, stripped of his powers of healing and wisdom, and his office of protecting the harmony of the tribe and of nature, he was blamed for any unexplained night terror, and used to inspire greater loyalty to the church, and to make children obedient by teaching them fear of the unknown.

By 1830 writers were fondly remembering their native nannies, who told them meteors were spirits, that the winds were spirits singing lullabies, and a chirping cricket the sign that a spirit was near.  Not only did they see the deceased relatives of the families they were attached to, but they also related details about what matters had inspired the spirit to visit, sometimes startling family members with details thought secret or forgotten.  These surviving elements of native religion were dismissed as quaint superstitions.  Christian natives who practiced tribal herbal medicine were also called witches because of such traditions as picking herbs at midnight, refusing to use metal implements around the herbs, choosing the right phase of the moon for harvesting them.  To say that herbs must never be gathered during the Dog Days of summer, or that drying them in the sun gave them extra power was to risk the appearance of believing in the old sun god and native spirits.

By the mid 1800’s stories circulated about talented psychic herbal healers like Dr. Perry.  The good doctor was renowned for his healing skills.  A respectable white family reported that he healed their daughter of tuberculosis in a matter of days when European doctors had given her up for dead.  Doc Perry had a knack for sensing where he might find a rare herb he needed.  Walking through the woods he would interrupt a conversation to hike off into the trees, returning with some plant he said he had been looking for.  He also showed the uncanny knack of already being on his way to doctor serious cases before having been informed of them.  His story begins to dovetail with the stories of mediums and healers as the spiritualist movement gained momentum in America.  Now the traditional native shaman was no longer a witch but an honored ancestor of the new religion.  No wonder so many of the spirit guides of early mediums were supposed to be native Americans.

Cotton Mather, bane of witches, was not far from native beliefs when he wrote of nature as the “temple of God” and praised the wonders of the sun, stars, moon, of the natural protection and scattering of seeds, and the wonderful variety and interdependence of the animal kingdom, and of even the magnetic power of the lode stone; all were elegant examples of divine creativity.  Like a good Platonist, Mather suggested by admiring such invisible and inscrutable forces as gravity and magnetism we could be led to worshipping the wisdom of the creator.

The impact of the nature religion of the natives of America can be seen in the American Revolution.  For whatever reason the Sons of Liberty dressed themselves as natives for the Tea Party, to the Puritans that would have been an unthinkable abandonment of the trappings of civilization.  While the national flags of Europe sported crosses the flags of early America featured stars, a rattlesnake, the moon and an evergreen tree: nature not religion.  Native ideas about sickness, healing, sorcery and mysterious lights like foxfire and will o’ the wisp were adopted by the colonists.

The flag of George Washington’s navy

For most of American history academic and popular opinion agreed: the natives were savages and America was divinely appointed for Manifest Destiny.  More recently the opposite perspective has gained ground.  Natives lived in harmony with nature and the Europeans intended from the first to ruthlessly exploit and ultimately destroy them.  The truth was more subtle.  The early colonies were very dependent on the natives for food and for trade.  The colonies were business ventures that burned through money quickly.  Skeptical investors back home didn’t have the resources to keep these highly speculative experiments going.  The furs and other goods the natives provided by trade were the only promise of future profits.  Though the colonists were suspicious, rashly vengeful and self-righteous, they nevertheless understood their dependency on the natives.  On the one hand they would behead a chief, burn crops and kill indiscriminately over a rumor, or a stolen silver cup, on the other they worked to learn how to earn the respect of the natives by understanding their customs.

Popular myth told stories of the disappearance of the tribes of the New England.  Books and films have popularized the idea of the Last of the Mohicans.  But the Mohegans still exist.  The tribes found ways to survive, insulating themselves, developing relationships with the new anglo governments that allowed them to privately preserve many of their traditions, selectively fitting in with the new world that erupted around them so quickly only one hundred years after Metacom’s attempt to take back the land the United States of America became a nation.  At the end of the 20th century the Mohegans compiled enough paperwork to prove their existence and so won recognition as a tribe from the U.S. government.

As I write this blog a news story was published that proves the two roots of American Metaphysical Religion have yet to be reconciled.  According to ACLU.org: “The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri have filed a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library and its board of trustees with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites discussing minority religions by improperly classifying them as “occult” or “criminal.”  Salem resident Anaka Hunter contacted the ACLU after she was unable to access websites pertaining to Native American religions or the Wiccan faith for her own research. After protesting to the library director, Glenda Wofford, portions of the sites were unblocked, but much remained censored. Wofford said she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.  Other sites blocked by the library’s Netsweeper software include the official webpage of the Wiccan church, the Wikipedia entry pertaining to Wicca, Astrology.com and The Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains viewpoint-neutral discussions of various cultures’ and religions’ ideas of death and death rituals.”

A few days later the Internet was buzzing with the news that Christian quarterback Tom Tebow had passed for 316 yards, his ten completed passes averaging out to 31.6.  In college Tebow had written John 3:16 on his eye black.  Christians took this as a miraculous sign from God.  American metaphysicians considered it proof that when enough people focus on a thought the material world corresponds.  Mathematicians with their theory of probabilities in our improbable universe were for the most part left out of the debate.  A few days later the media reported that the witches of Salem were casting spells so the New England Patriots would beat Tebow in the big playoff game.  The witches won this time.

The other day I had a meeting about a documentary film with an author and a couple of film editors, all of us white men.  The conversation turned to curing post-traumatic stress with the Peruvian sacred plant Ayahuasca.  Two of them discussed incidents that led them to describe the plant as having a spirit, an ancient wisdom that directly relates to the participant, with the ability to diagnose and cure. They began using the word medicine as the Algonquins did, meaning more than a sacred plant, or an effective herbal remedy, more than a spirit.  To them medicine meant all those things, but also a coherent force of healing, and a power of harmonizing beings.  None of this communication was self-conscious, it was as natural as slang; the simple expression of experience.  While Protestants and Catholics number in the millions, nonetheless the Native American pre-Colonial perspective on life is alive and well, and has migrated across traditional lines of heredity to blossom among the descendants of the Europeans who so readily dismissed it.  For less respectful evidence of this go to YouTube and watch “Shit New Age Girls Say.”

In history more than once the culture of the conquered has become the culture of the conquerors.  The Indo-Aryan invaders ended up practicing the yoga of the Tamil natives they conquered, and so did the British.  The Romans absorbed Greek philosophy, myths, and gods to such a degree they somewhat eclipsed their own culture.  The process takes hundreds of years.  The United States of America is less than three hundred years old.  As our society lurches from one ecological disaster to another, could it be that in the future this amalgam of wisdom native and foreign we call American Metaphysical Religion will create a culture that more closely reflects the sustainability engendered by the values of the Algonquins and Iroquois than the exploitative hubris of dominion practiced by the Pilgrims?

Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, the tragic romance at the heart of Rosicrucianism, and its influence on the birth of America.  Next month.

“America’s Forgotten Spiritual Heritage” the third and last installment of this series on the roots of American Metaphysical Religion will consider the zeal for a new world away from the dark ages of domination by the Catholic Church launched by the Rosicrucian manifestos and other visionary reformers of Europe, and the devastation of their aspirations at the Battle of White Mountain, which left America as their only hope for a brighter future.


Iroquois Cannibalism: Fact Not Fiction
Thomas S. Abler
Journal of Ethnohistory, 1980
American Society for Ethnohistory

Nature Religion in America
From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age
Catherine Albanese
University of Chicago Press, 1980

The First America
The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots and the Liberal State
David Brading
Cambridge University Press, 1993

Native People of Southern New England 1500-1650
Kathleen Bragdon
University of Oklahoma Press 1996

The de Soto Chronicles
The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543
Clayton, Knight and Moore, editors
University of Alabama Press, 1996

Changes in the Land
Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
William Cronon
Hill and Wang, 1983

Davis. Jack L.
“Roger Williams among the Narragansett Indians”
New England Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Dec., 1970)

Hernando de Soto
A Savage Quest in the Americas
David Duncan
University of Oklahoma Press, 1997

Roger Williams
Edwin S. Gaustad
Oxford University Press, 2005

Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun:
Hernando De Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms
Charles Hudson
University of the Georgia Press, 1997

The Forgotten Centuries
Indians and Europeans in the American South 1521-1704
Charles Hudson, editor
University of Georgia Press, 1994

Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America
Karen Kupperman
Cornell University Press, 2000

Settling with the Indians:
The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America 1580-1640
Karen Kupperman
Rowman and Littlefield 1980

The Name of War
King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity
Jill Lepore
Knopf 1998

Manitou and Providence
Indians, Europeans, and the akin of New England 1500-1643
Neal Salisbury
Oxford University Press, 1982

King Philip’s War
The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict
Schultz and Tougias
Countryman Press, 1999

Spirit of the New England Tribes
Indian History and Folklore
William S. Simmons
University Press of New England, 1986

First encounters in the Americas
Lectures in History CSPAN 2011
Christina Snyder

Native American Spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands
The Classics of Western Spirituality
Elizabeth Tooker
Paulist Press, 1979

The New England Indians
An Illustrated Sourcebook
C. Keith Wilbur
The Globe Pequot Press, 1996

A Key into the Language of America
Roger Williams
Gregory Dexter, 1643


6 thoughts on “When First They Met: Red Plus White Equals Blue

  1. Very accurate, good reading for the uninformed and a good refresher for those who are informed but forgot.

    Posted by Andre Leonard, | April 17, 2012, 8:13 am
  2. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It really useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and help others like you helped me.

    Posted by Art | September 12, 2012, 8:12 pm
  3. Wow, should be required reading for all American school kids. Nice job.

    Posted by Jon | January 1, 2013, 5:00 am
  4. In fact this should be a paperback picture book for kids.

    Posted by Jon | January 1, 2013, 5:02 am
  5. I read that you mentioned basically all indians accepted homosexuality. I have read the opposite. I have read that James Adair who lived with Cherokee for 30 or 40 years, said that amoung the Cherokee that if a boy showed effimenint behaviour they were scratched and ridiculed, and any man that could not satisfy a woman was not worth a childs portion of tobacco. I have also read that there were not any homosexual Comanche, nor Apahce. However, I do see alot of new age white authors blanketing all American Indians as accepting homosexualilty, which would really seem rather rare to being. Funny, cause all the Chiefs and Medicine men I see in photos as have wives and children, not their gay lover.

    Posted by jason | September 6, 2014, 6:56 pm

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