In the respective theologies of white colonial settlers and Native Americans, both groups maintained very different perceptions of the divine and the ways in which their beliefs, rituals, symbols, and practices reflect these differences is very clear. First, the differences in overall worldview, that is to say, the actual understanding of how the universe itself is ordered differs strongly between the two, with the native religious concept consisting primarily of interpretations of the sacredness of myth and the importance of harmony and synergy with nature with regards to the formation of a spiritual life, whereas in Christian tradition, a spiritual life is achieved through self-denial and a focus on the afterlife. The god of the Native Americans, moreover, stands in contrast to that of the white European settlers in the sphere of rituals and practices, in which the former is highly centered on interpretations and recreations of the mythic origins of mankind and includes shamanistic practices, whereas the settlers more focused on the institutional practice of organizing religion in an official capacity. Moreover, the Native American religion places far more of an emphasis on nature and communal interaction with the land, which stands in opposition to the settler’s focus on productivity and exploitation of existing resources.
The first, and arguably most significant contrast that can be drawn between the god of the Native Americans and that of the white European settlers can be found in the opening volley of analysis. It is crucial to note that the “god” of the Native American Indians is certainly not a god in the traditional Judeo-Christian sense; rather, by using the term “God” in reference to Native American religious practices, we instead are referring largely to the ways in which native religious beliefs focused on the “people-to-land relationship” and the specific mechanisms by which “individuals try to work with powers [that] emanate from natural phenomena” (Rountree 486). In this sense, the Judeo-Christian is defined as an all-loving, omniscient and omnipotent supernatural entity that exists outside of the constraints of the material world, and has ultimate say over the destinies of mankind. Using the Powhatans as an example, we see that the conception of the divine in Native American religious theology is instead focused on a “pantheon of deities, most of them with only limited power” (487). Limited in the sense that they do not possess the all-encompassing abilities over space and time of the Judeo-Christian God, Native American gods can be conceived as consisting of spirits and natural entities that exhibit highly variable levels of power and influence.
At the same time, the conception of God in the Native American tradition is important in understanding the differences and contrasts with the white settlers in the sense that the archetype of the Native American god is far more focused on the individual and communal interaction with the sacred; that is, native religions tended to view the making of offerings as important in warding off the specter of “poor hunting, a bad crop, marital discord, injuries while traveling, and so on” (488). Hardly omniscient, the broad collection of Native American “gods”, perhaps better called natural spirits, allows for a much higher level of interaction on the microscopic level between the sacred and the profane. In other words, Native American gods exist in a state of harmonious interaction with nature and, by extension, mankind.
Thus, care must be taken to attempt to fully comprehend the significance of the “epistemological problem” of using the phrase “God” when discussing indigenous religious views (Siems 163). This problem, in essence, is that in Native American religions, such as the variations practiced by the Dakotas, there is no “Supreme Being” (173). Projecting traditional Western conceptions of the idea of an omniscient and all-powerful God would be intellectually dishonest; by clarifying the definitions of what we term “God”, a better conclusion can be reached that better reflects the reality of Native American religious practices. Moreover, classifying Native American religions as a unified front runs the danger of cultural projectionism, or rather assumes a similarity between Native American faiths that may not exist in actuality. In reality, these religious views are highly variable and we must focus on areas of broad similarity and not the differences found when analyzing only Native American religious views.
The differences between the god of the Native Americans and the God of the white European settlers must be addressed in the sense of their distinct worldview. Native American religions tend to view “myth [as] not being ascribed the mere role of imaginative fiction on the one hand, or of dogmatic truth on the other”, but rather a broad cultural understanding that “myth is a reality lived” (Machado 18). Here, we see that the perception of reality in Native American religions differs greatly from that of the white European settlers. Instead of a world in which the sacred and the profane are distinct are separate, indigenous faiths believe that “myth [has] a life and power of its own, and [is] capable of acting upon everyday life”, influential enough to transform it and impact the life of an individual or community (18). Far from a sharp distinction between God and Man, Native American religions view this separation as nonexistent—instead, the world itself, and by this, we mean the universe as a whole, is a complex web of interactions and competing influences. The “indigenous world is seen as being imbued with Power; made up of infinite interactive elements”, where every action by an individual or community or animal builds upon previous influences and creates a so-called “web of relations”, where God is, in effect, constantly forming and reforming (19). At no point is divine ever truly alien or inaccessible; instead, the material world itself is, by its own nature, a formation of the interaction of energy that “constitutes and moves it”, meaning that interaction with the divine can be achieved in rituals, the telling of myth, and other shamanistic concepts (19). Interestingly enough, the God of the Native Americans in this sense breaks with the Judeo-Christian theology of the white European settlers given the lack of interaction between the divine and the material world in the latter’s theology.
For the white European settlers, the idea of the New World as a place where they could achieve the development of a new state built on Protestant success and righteousness is a theme that is direct contrast with the Native American perspective. The “determination to build it there anew” present in the white European settlers’ minds created a sense of “religious enthusiasm” and a work ethic designed entirely on developing and exploiting the natural resources of the land in which they found themselves (Paraschivescu 24). Integrated deeply with this sense of divine duty is the Protestant worldview and perception of reality, which argues that an “imperialistic, exploitative, high scheduled orientation to both land and people” is the way a proper Christian should act in the New World (Rountree 496). Belief in their omniscient and omnipotent God led the early settlers to view their God as fundamentally better and diametrically opposed to the “devil-worshipping” Native Americans (Hendry 3). Increasingly, we see that the early English settler’s religion viewed itself as incapable of expressing itself on equal terms with Native American religions, instead realizing its natural opposition to the polytheism, naturalist religion of the indigenous people and its inclinations toward demon worship and immoral behavior. In the end, the God of the white Europeans would not and could not co-exist with a society that viewed the world in such radically different terms. Unlike the Native American religions, myth, shamanism, and magic are not ways the individual or community can interact with the spirits all around us; instead, ritual is a way of showing devotion to the one true God and comes without the ability of mankind to influence or make demands on the immaterial world (Rosenbaum). Indeed, for the Native Americans, the world was “multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories and purposes” that interact and guide the daily lives of humans (Rosenbaum 11). Thus, the God of the white European settlers is one that is far away and distant, yet all-encompassing, which stands in opposition to the Native American tradition of a God driven by daily interactions and embodied by spirits.
In terms of religious values, the white European settlers again break with the Native Americans. Here, the “religious values of the English Anglican colonialists, especially their aggressive preachment and biblically based moral evangelization”, is in direct contrast with the peaceful spiritual integration of the indigenous people (Grim 457). Whereas the Native Americans favored a less violent approach to conversion and instead viewed religion as a largely autonomous affair, the Christianity of the white settlers forced itself to maintain an aggressive policy of conversion as a matter of theological principle. From their perspective, the white settlers had no choice but to attempt to proselytize as much as possible, for the benefit of bringing the true faith and correct interpretation of God to the misguided natives greatly outweighed any cost associated with missionary work.
Perhaps most importantly, the differences in perspective of God between the white European settlers and the Native Americans can be seen in the ways in which the latter attempted to, as much as possible, idolize their gods through the use of gifts, ritual dancing, and shamanistic principles, which contrasts directly with the English settler’s use of religious ritual as a means of reinvigoration of religious duty and to promote the ideology of self-denial. From the perspective of the Europeans, the Native Americans focused far too much on “hedonism” and other immoral practices of common behavior, whereas the Europeans were seen as “worshipping in words, but not in deeds” (Machado 20). The God of the Europeans was not worshipped in a way that the Native Americans could understand in their own particular worldview—the act of merely discussing the theological merits of a far-away and distant God seemed alien and strange, compared to the native insistence on active participation and actual interaction with the divine on a daily basis. Despite the European focus on the “intense […] missionization campaign [aimed at] indigenous peoples” (Hernández-Avila 343). Instead, the spirituality exhibited by the Native Americans seemed to be a path that the Europeans could not follow—despite attempts at understanding the strangeness of shamanism and animalism, the Europeans nonetheless could not comprehend that the Native American religious tradition conceived of a God worshipped in very different and far more natural ways than would be found in the Old World. Moreover, the Native American idea that “anyone can have access to this World of Spirit […] it is only a matter of allowing the experience to take place” (Machado 19) is perhaps the greatest contrast between the two religions that we can see, as it is a complete rejection of the core tenets of Christian faith with regards to interaction with the divine.
The perspective of God as seen by the Native Americans and the white European settlers is fundamentally different. On one hand, Native Americans view their God as one of pure spirit, entities that interact with the world in a very real sense. For the Europeans, God is distant and all-knowing, and man’s purpose in life is to worship him and seek salvation. In the end, the Christian would overwhelm the Native American religious traditions, though a strong strain of indigenous religious beliefs exist today.
Da Silva Machado, Ana Paula. "A "Different World": Indigenous Spirituality at the Root of Conflict with Western Thought." Litteraria Pragensia 21.42 (2011): 16-27. Print.
Grim, John A. "Shamans and Preachers, Color Symbolism and Commercial Evangelism : Reflections on Early Mid-Atlantic Religious Encounter in Light of the Columbian Quincentennial." American Indian Quarterly 16.4 (1992): 445-519. Print.
Hendry, Judith. "Mining the Sacred Mountain: The Clash between the Western Dualistic Framework and Native American Religions." Multicultural Perspectives 5.1 (2003): 3. Print.
Hernández-Avila, Inés. "Mediations of the Spirit: Native American Religious Traditions and the Ethics of Representation." American Indian Quarterly 20 (1996): 329-52. Print.
Paraschivescu, Mihaela. "'We the People' and God. Religion and the Political Discourse in the United States of America." Journal for the Study of Religions & Ideologies 11.33 (2012): 21-35. Print.
Rosenbaum, Ron. "First Blood. (Cover Story)." Smithsonian 43.11 (2013): 27. Print.
Rountree, Helen C. "Powhatan Priests and English Rectors: World Views and Congregations in Conflict." American Indian Quarterly 16 (1992): 485-500. Print.
Siems, Monica L. "How Do You Say "God" In Dakota : Epistemological Problems in the Christianization of Native Americans." Numen 45.2 (1998): 163-82. Print.