In this class, we will be reading and discussing chapter two of Allitt’s MAJOR PROBLEMS. This handout is meant to give you some questions to guide your reading. These questions will form the basis of class discussion.


In conventional memory, missions and missionaries have left a rather bleak image, and that is nowhere more true than in the conversion of the New World. What are the standard images and stereotypes that come to mind when we think about these events? How far do these readings confirm or challenge those?


Why were Christians so anxious to try and convert these new territories? What good did they think they could do both for themselves and for the natives? How did they justify some of the acts of violence or oppression?


Then or now, why should or should not Christians pursue missions to non-Christians?


How did they view the native peoples they encountered? How did they understand their religions? How were their views off native religions shaped by their own historical memories back in Europe?


Reading early accounts of Native peoples and their religions, modern Americans are shocked by what seems like blind and fanatical Christian intolerance. Why and how have attitudes changed so much over time?


Think of some of the films or books that suggest the very positive and favorable attitudes that exist today concerning Native religions; and also of some of the very hostile productions depicting Christian missionaries. Why were earlier generations so intolerant or – equally interesting – why are we today so limitlessly tolerant? What do these changes suggest in the degree of confidence that people have in their own societies?


How did they justify uprooting and destroying these religions? Why was toleration never an option?


How far can we separate the Christian missionary activity from the colonialist and imperialist ventures with which it was associated?


Did the Christian missionaries see native religions as empty superstitions, or as actively dangerous? In what ways?


When we read horrible or disturbing accounts of pagan religions – eg of the Aztecs – how can we tell whether they are likely to be true?


The conversion of the New World was often a violent and forced phenomenon. In the context of the time, could things have happened at all differently?


When you read the texts we are discussing, think: what audiences were these directed towards? Who was meant to read these accounts? What impression were they meant to get of the natives and the missionaries?


As we read these accounts, do any writers seem particularly believable or unbelievable to you? Why? What do you think about the frequent charges of human sacrifice, cannibalism and other Nameless Horrors? Should we be skeptical? Or, do we face the danger of being over-sceptical?


Why did the Europeans mix together culture and religion so totally, eg when they tried to impose their own culture along with their religion? Why could they not separate the native cultures from the pagan religions that were associated with them?


As far as we can tell from these documents – which of course are not mainly from native points of view – what parts of Christianity seemed particularly interesting or exciting or attractive to native peoples? Why – apart from the threat of violence and intimidation – did native peoples convert? When missionaries preached, what parts of their message were likely to carry the most weight?


What parts of Christianity seemed particularly ugly or off-putting to native peoples? When missionaries preached, what parts of their message were likely to carry the least weight? What ideas seemed most ridiculous, or even humorous? How did these encounters parallel what an evangelist might find in a Western society today?


What role did healing and miracles play in the conversion process?


How did Natives use their own myths and stories to try and understand the Christian message they were presented with?


When native peoples accepted Christianity, what forms of the religion worked best for them? How did they adapt the religion to fit their own interests? What aspects of Christianity left the biggest holes in their traditional systems and world-view, and needed filling? Where did Christianity fall short?


How do different notions and images of the Virgin Mary play a role in this story?


How do different notions and images of the Devil play a role in this story?


Why did Native peoples have such a difficult time dealing with Christian ideas of sin and forgiveness?


When native peoples accepted Christianity, who gained most from the transition? Who lost most? What areas of daily life were most dramatically changed?  What was the impact on everyday life? How did family life change? What about the lot of women?


How did Catholic and Protestant missions differ in their approaches?


Why are modern scholars like Albanese so sympathetic to the Native religions?


How would modern-day missionaries approach Native or preliterate peoples? How would they learn from the experience of these earlier generations? What mistakes would they try to avoid?






The following is an extract from my 2004 book Dream Catchers.



America’s Indian dream began as phantasmagoric nightmare. Through most of Christian history, the most common view of other faiths has been that they are, knowingly or otherwise, serving the devil. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, this was the standard interpretation of Islam and Judaism, and even rival branches of Christianity freely traded mutual charges of diabolism. If such abuse was so customary within the monotheistic fold, it is not surprising to find it directed against the pagans and animists whom the European colonists first encountered in the New World. The vast majority of European settlers had no sympathy for the religious activities of their new neighbors, while the clergy had little doubt that Natives were worshipping the devil.

Given the religious sensibilities of the time, European Christians really had little alternative to this grim view. As it was traditionally interpreted, monotheism allows few options for interpreting other religions. Essentially, two views are possible. One doctrine, the starker and more uncompromising, holds that the newfound pagans are simply and literally worshipping the devil and his minions. This view made good sense for a biblically oriented people like the Protestant English settlers of North America, since so much of the Old Testament concerns the war against idols, sacrifices to devils, and all the violence and sexual immorality associated with false gods. Another option was more benevolent in theory, though it still offered little hope for the Native faiths. In this view, pagans were struggling in darkness according to the limits of fallen human nature, though they occasionally received glimmers of divine truth. Paganism might include noble and even proto-Christian elements that would find their fulfillment in the fullness of Christian revelation. Until that point, pagans were still in the bonds of sin and under diabolical authority, from which they needed to be liberated.1

Each of these views suggested an appropriate solution. The first interpretation, that of the pagan as child of the devil, justified the removal or destruction of the evildoers who carried out their atrocious religion and the suppression of their rituals and ceremonies. The second view was more open to compromise with older traditions. Conceivably, Natives already had some of the Gospel truth, which needed cultivating and making manifest. For Catholic missionaries, once the basic fact of conversion was achieved, many of the older rituals and ceremonies could be absorbed into the new faith, as some (though by no means all) of the old feasts were rechristened as festivals of the saints. Protestants, even those who believed that Native faiths might contain some core of truth, were less optimistic about traditional practices, and hoped to uproot vestiges of superstition.2

Of course, such explicitly religious attitudes were chiefly found among clergy and scholars, and did not influence every soldier or administrator who encountered Indians and their religions. Yet in this instance, clerical attitudes carried disproportionate weight, since through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, clergy and missionaries still dominated the implementation of U.S. policy toward Indians. Into the 1930s, Indian reservations still operated under a near-theocratic regime that was startlingly at odds with most assumptions about American government and society. Debates about the devil and his domain still mattered on the reservations, in a way that they had ceased to do in mainstream America a century before.

The rhetorical language of devils and diabolism also permeated secular accounts of Indian cultures and religions. As nineteenth century Americans moved toward secular ideas of progress, they asserted their modernity by distancing themselves from groups who symbolized primitivism and superstition, including “savages” like the Indians. Ironically, in expressing their revulsion at the religion of these supposedly primitive groups, these accounts still echoed the older contrasts between Christian light and heathen night. Whether writing in sacred or secular mode, Americans were slow to disentangle the image of the Indian from that of the devil.

Children of the Devil

From the earliest days of the European settlement, explicit statements linked the Indians to Satan. The first English explorers of Virginia in 1585 reported that the people “have commonly conjurers or jugglers which use strange gestures, and often contrary to nature in their enchantments: for they be very familiar with devils, of whom they enquire what their enemies do, or other such thing.” In 1612, Captain John Smith reported of Virginia’s Powhatans that “their chief God they worship is the devil. Him they call Oke and serve him more of fear than love.” In contemporary Canada, Jesuit priest Joseph Jouvency wrote of the Indians, “There is among them no system of religion, or care for it … They call some divinity, who is the author of evil, Manitou, and fear him exceedingly.” Even Roger Williams – perhaps the most tolerant of seventeenth century Christians – followed his survey of Indian religious customs with a powerful disclaimer. He drew most of his account from the words of Natives themselves, “for after once being in their houses and beholding what their worship was, I durst never be an eye witness, spectator or looker on, lest I should have been partaker of Satan’s invention.”3

This diabolical connection raised expectations about Indian religion, based on the long Christian interaction with Jews and Muslims. The key idea was one of inversion. If Christians worshiped the Christ, Jews (for instance) must follow the Antichrist; if Christians practiced the Eucharist, Jews celebrated a vicious parody involving ritual child-sacrifice, while witches indulged in the Black Mass. These hostile groups were interrelated: Jews had their Sabbath, witches their Sabbat. For early Puritan writers, the Indians represented the dark shadow of the Christian mission into the wilderness.4

Indians, too, were in a blasphemous sense a chosen people, the special servants of hell. As Cotton Mather wrote in his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), “Though we know not when or how these Indians first became inhabitants of this mighty continent, yet we may guess that probably the Devil decoyed those miserable salvages hither in hopes that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them.” They were under “that old usurping landlord of America, who is by the Wrath of God, the Prince of this world.” The New England Puritans “have to their sorrow seen Azazel dwelling and raging there in very tragical instances.” Mather’s goal in writing was to “report the wonderful displays of [God’s] infinite power, wisdom, goodness, and faithfulness, wherewith his divine providence hath irradiated an Indian wilderness.” One demonstration of this “infinite Power” was the devastating epidemics by which much of New England was swept clean of its original inhabitants. Jonathan Edwards believed that before the Christian settlement, North America was “wholly the possession of Satan.”5

For a people as deeply immersed in the Old Testament as the Protestant English, pagan horrors gave an added justification to policies of subjection and removal, on the analogy of the Children of Israel confronting the Canaanite adherents of Baal. In the biblical account of ancient Israel, which provided such a powerful intellectual template, chroniclers regularly denounced not just the heathens but also the supposedly godly rulers who failed to root out these heathen practices. Hebrew kings were condemned for tolerating the pagan sites, the high places, right up to the point at which God finally lost patience with his people and allowed their kingdom to fall. Woe to the devil worshippers, and woe to those misguided Christians who failed to eradicate them.

Indians and Witches

At every stage, Indian religion reflected its diabolical origins. Its priests, the sagamores or Powachs, directly served the devil, and Mather called them “horrid sorcerers and hellish conjurors and such as conversed with demons.” A Powaw was “a priest, who has more familiarity with Satan than his neighbors”; they were “sorcerers and seducers.”6 Consistently, Indian religions are painted in the colors used for contemporary European witchcraft. In 1613, Virginia’s Alexander Whitaker described “the miserable condition of these naked slaves of the devil. . . . They serve the devil for fear, sacrificing sometimes . . . their own children to him. Their priests (whom they call Quiokosoughs) are no other but such as our English witches are.”7 Generally, the English literature on witchcraft differed from the Continental European in placing less emphasis on organized satanic worship. English courts rarely heard tales of the witches’ Sabbat, the pact with the devil, or satanic priests like the notorious “Black Man.” English witches were seen as isolated practitioners, rather than adherents of a vast alternative underground religion. In America, though, confronting the organized pagan worship of the Indian nations and their powerful priests and medicine men, British colonists increasingly looked to European witchcraft theories, to the grotesque mythology of organized satanic worship offered by the notorious witch hunters’ text, the Malleus Maleficarum.8

Based on these ideas, Indian medicine men were believed to receive gifts comparable to those that Satan granted his witch followers in Europe. And at least as they appear in European writings, accounts of Indian contacts with the supernatural have many parallels to European stories of the appearances of the devil. When the Tewa medicine man Popé received a vision commanding him to launch the great Pueblo revolt against the Spaniards in 1680, European observers would immediately have understood the figure who bore that message as a demonic manifestation. His god appeared as a tall black man with yellow eyes; to a European, the classic Black Man of the Sabbat. Just as the devil appeared personally at European Sabbats, so Popé’s gods appeared on another occasion as “three devils in the form of Indians, most horrifying in appearance, shooting flames of fire from all the senses and extremities of their bodies.” Not surprisingly, Popé was “said to have communication with the devil.”9

While Indian religion was false and, literally, of the Pit, its followers still commanded real power, parallel to the notorious sorcerers recorded in biblical and patristic texts. In the biblical book of Revelation, so familiar to colonial readers, the Antichrist is reported to do “great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles.”10 Medicine men might perform successful healings or miracles, though God would cause these powers to fail before a determined challenge from the godly. Narratives of early Christian preachers and missionaries regularly depict struggles with Indian spiritual leaders as demonic powers are confronted and overthrown.11 These accounts draw on a long tradition of Christian literature, dating back to Roman times, and ultimately to the struggles with demons found in the Gospels.

From the Bible, too, the colonists knew that the followers of evil would inevitably try to subvert the kingdom of God. This perception became acute during the various crises that threatened to overwhelm New England in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and may have contributed to the great witchcraft scare at Salem. Though interpretations of this event will always remain controversial, historian Mary Beth Norton has argued convincingly that colonists felt deeply threatened by a supernatural challenge mobilized through the devil’s Indian servants. Some of the leading activists in the Salem affair were refugees from disastrous wars against the Wabanaki Indians in what is now Maine, and the reputed leader of the witches, the Reverend George Burroughs, had supposedly bewitched English soldiers fighting in this war. (Like his contemporary Popé, Burroughs was reputedly under the direct control of the Black Man.) The slave woman Tituba, whose magical practices directly provoked the crisis, was herself a Caribbean Indian.12 Colonial Americans connected witches and Indians just as naturally as Continental Europeans linked witches to Jews……


Hearts of Darkness

Long after the concepts of hell and the devil had lost their central position in mainstream American religion, a very similar rhetoric was applied against Native religions. During the nineteenth century, accounts by quite liberal and secular observers still applied the familiar language of primitive darkness and savagery, although they were now basing these views on racial and evolutionary theories rather than explicitly religious concepts.

The more they condemned Native primitivism, the more “advanced” observers paralleled the traditional language of light and darkness. Such perceptions were only confirmed by seeing the products of Native craftsmanship. Though by the end of the nineteenth century primitive art would attract worldwide admiration, earlier generations generally saw it as crude and meaningless, and words like “weird” and “hideous” abounded. In 1876, the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia included a vast haul of Indian ethnographic treasures, including the first of what would soon become a flood of objects from America’s new Alaskan territories. The crafts and carvings of Northwest Coast peoples attracted special notice, little of it good. House fronts had been “rudely carved into a series of hideous monsters one on top of another, painted in crude colors.” William Dean Howells saw one Indian figure as “a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion other than abhorrence.”18 Diabolical peoples produced diabolical art.

One condemnation of Indian religions—proof, perhaps, of its diabolical origins—was the ritual use of snakes found among southwestern peoples. For a Christian, the serpent had obvious connections with Satan and the powers of darkness: the Christian Bible begins with a diabolical serpent and ends with the fall of “that old serpent, which is the devil, and Satan.” Finding snakes used in Native rituals, Christian observers had only to debate whether this amounted to full-scale ophiolatry (serpent worship) or whether there might be some less sinister explanation. Seeing a Pueblo ritual involving a snake in the 1580s, a Spanish traveler said, “We thought this snake might be the devil, who has them enslaved.”19

Nineteenth-century Americans were equally disturbed to find snake rituals on what was now their soil. In The Snake-Dance of the Moquis of Arizona, Cavalry officer John G. Bourke created a sensation with his account of the “revolting religious rite” of the Hopi. The book was widely reviewed and summarized. Could such “heathen” rituals be perpetrated so close to the outposts of civilization? “This was the snake dance of the Moquis, a tribe of people living within our own boundaries, less than seventy miles from the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, in the year of our Lord 1881.” Just as serpent rituals provided the ultimate condemnation of Afro-Caribbean religions such as Voodoo, so they marked Native American practices as primordial and sinister. At least one Heart of Darkness was firmly located on the North American continent.20

Human Sacrifice

Whatever the theological dangers of devil worship, critics believed that Native religions included a great many practical, this-worldly dangers. Even readers grown skeptical of the real existence of a devil or demons were prepared to accept that genuine horrors could be wrought in the name of devil worship. Familiar to the common Victorian critique of pagan religions was the element of violence, of what elsewhere would be termed “jungle” savagery, which manifested itself in sacrificial rituals and cannibalism.

Human sacrifice was incontestably known among some Native peoples. Of course, some cultures lacked the practice entirely: in the 1540s, Cabeza de Vaca wrote that in all his travels, “nowhere did we meet either sacrifices or idolatry.” But in some places at particular times, the practice may have been widespread, as among the Iroquois. Early Spanish visitors to the southeastern states were appalled by the scale of the seasonal offerings of human victims burned at the stake, commonly drawn from slaves and war captives. Human sacrifice continued long after the period of first contact. The anthropological literature would often repeat the story of a young woman sacrificed by the Pawnees to the morning star in 1838, in what is now Nebraska. The story had a long afterlife, due to its inclusion in Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890). For most Native peoples, such killings were by this point extremely rare, but one would never realize that from the spate of news stories at the end of the nineteenth century.21

The popularity of human sacrifice tales owed something to the exaggerated impression that southwestern cultures bore a close resemblance to the Aztecs, who were credited with many of the great stone structures in the region. U.S. maps still feature names like Aztec and Montezuma’s Castle. Nineteenth-century Americans knew the Aztecs well, or thought they did, through Prescott’s much-read Conquest of Mexico (1843). Prescott discussed human sacrifice at length, in a section littered with words such as “loathsome,” “degrading,” “appalling,” and “blind fanaticism.” “Without attempting a precise calculation . . . it is safe to conclude that thousands were yearly offered up, in the different cities of Anahuac, on the bloody altars of the Mexican divinities.” Even worse, sacrificial victims were sometimes cannibalized. “Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism brought so closely in contact with each other!”22 If a society like the Aztecs had ruled the southwest, then something like their sacrificial cults would have operated, and this idea shaped interpretations of archaeological sites at which people had died violently. When the Anasazi site of Lowry Ruin (Colorado) was excavated in 1929, with bodies showing possible evidence of ritualized violence, even the nonsensational New York Times featured the headline “find tribal murder farm.” An Indian site in Nebraska appeared to show evidence of a highly developed urban community; but the newspaper report had to mention that “on this spot stood torture racks where human sacrifices were made to the morning star” (more shades of the Golden Bough).23

The supposition that Indians were involved in sacrifice or ritual murder shaped media reporting of violent acts, and stories proliferated at the end of the nineteenth century. This boom in Indian horror stories owed much to developments in the media industry and the new sensationalism of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspaper chains. The most successful newspapers had a strong taste for stories of exotic violence, especially when connected with cults and bizarre religions, and even the most respectable media outlets followed this lead. Usually, any story featuring the words “medicine man” could be relied on to include themes of bloodshed, criminality, or fanaticism. In 1902, the New York Times presented the story “big medicine man tortured,” telling how the Yuma people of Arizona had responded to a smallpox epidemic. Reportedly, a shaman was chosen to expiate the sins of the tribe. Despite his efforts to flee, he was tortured to death because “their customs required them to make a heavy sacrifice.” We often hear tales of the murder of medicine men, though it is never clear whether these acts were truly sacrificial in nature, or whether, more prosaically, these leaders were killed as punishment for repeated failures to heal. In 1903, the Times offered a long article on the murder of shamans by the Yakima people of Washington.24

Tales of blood and sacrifice were supported by the unquestioned realities of the Sun Dance. In this ritual, young men practiced a kind of self-torture, tying themselves to a pole by skewers passed under their skin and dancing until they fell into ecstatic states. White observers were appalled. As one journalist wrote in 1871, “The blood streams from the torn and lacerated flesh, while the devotees with demoniac yells plunge around in a perfect frenzy.” Reportedly, a Sun Dance was performed as part of the Canadian anthropological displays at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, to the horror of spectators. The incident, which generated a minor international incident, seemed to prove that Indians did practice forms of self-mutilation and blood sacrifice.25

Horror stories proliferated in the still-mysterious lands of the Southwest. When Frank Cushing published his celebrated and generally sympathetic account of his stay at ZuĖi in 1882–1883, he included some harrowing tales. In one incident, a dog ritually identified as a Navajo man was disemboweled in a scene “too disgusting for description. It finds parallel only in some of the war ceremonials of the Aztecs, or in the animal sacrifices of the savages of the far northwest.” The killers belonged to a “secret order” pledged to carry out such a “horrible ceremonial.” Cushing describes other horrible “ordeals” among the secret orders and brotherhoods, “excruciating rites” of self-torture.26 Consciously or not, such accounts of blood rituals and secret societies closely recall the older stories of witches and Sabbats, and they would have resonated with Cotton Mather and his contemporaries.

Reportedly, even human sacrifice could still be found in these mysterious new territories. In 1905, journalist Gilson Willets alleged that human sacrifice was a regular feature of the religion of the Pueblo Indians of southern New Mexico. “Each year, at Christmas time, up to five years ago, [they] held a barbarous dance publicly in the churchyard of the town, and there publicly compelled a little girl to dance herself to death, beating her with whips to keep her spinning till she dropped dead.”27 In 1913, anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson reported a bizarre tale about the continued practice of human sacrifice in two villages, involving infants in one case, of women in the other: “after certain weird performances, starved rattlesnakes were turned loose from pottery vases and allowed to feast until not an atom of flesh remained.” The more such stories circulated, the more they shaped the questions that journalists asked about Indian cultures, and the more they conditioned the answers that imaginative Native informants were prepared to supply.28 Anthropologists noted how easy it was to get southwestern Indians to tell human sacrifice tales to gullible whites. Tales about bloodthirsty Indian rituals remained commonplace until the 1920s, when media interest shifted to almost-identical stories of human sacrifice, snake worship, and witchcraft in Haiti.

Witches and Wendigos

Sacrificial stories merged with periodic accounts of other religiously motivated violence, notably the killing of Indian witches. Long after white Americans were condemning Indians for actually being witches, they were denouncing them just as fervently for still believing in witches, and thus demonstrating their primitive savagery. The two themes intersected neatly in 1882 when a group of ZuĖi emissaries visited Salem, where they congratulated the citizens for their ancestors’ determined response to the witchcraft problem. Through the 1890s, U.S. authorities were struggling to suppress ZuĖi persecutions of witches in conflicts that nearly led to war.29 In 1897, the New York Times reported on federal efforts to suppress the killing of suspected witches among the ZuĖi people at the behest of their “medicine men” and their allied “fanatics.” Shortly afterwards, an Indian girl in California “was poisoned recently by the medicine man of the tribe because, he declared, she had bewitched her sister.”30

Paganism supposedly inspired bloodshed, whether of the organized kind found in sacrifice or witch-hunting, or through individual brutality. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, news accounts of Native religion featured sensational tales of extreme violence linked to Indian religious worship and shamanism. One recurrent tale involved the Cree legend of the Wendigo, an evil spirit that stalked through the northern woods, possessing Indians and making them run amok with  “an insane desire to kill and eat the flesh of their victims.” Fears of possession probably did lead some Natives to restrain or exorcise their neighbors, and violence and death resulted. Through horror writers like Algernon Blackwood, the Wendigo became familiar to white readers as a demon figure, a deadly ghost (as it survives today in role-playing games).31

Particularly in the early twentieth century, news stories about the crimes and follies of medicine men became a staple of sensationalized news reporting. Apart from hunting witches, medicine men gave advice that caused the death of patients or led their followers to destruction through what were seen as their superstitious delusions. In 1886, in a story headlined “superstitious neglect,” the New York Times reported how interference by an Alaskan medicine man had resulted in the deaths of three poisoned Natives. Some years later, the same paper told how a family of Alaska natives was wiped out when a “sorcerer” failed in his boasts that he could quell a storm, so that the boat in which the group was traveling was lost. When a Colorado Ute was accused of burying his baby alive, he cited the instructions of his medicine man, who claimed that the burial would resurrect the man’s dead wife.32 When the media reported cases of medicine men being punished or killed for failing to live up to their claims, the context was again sinister and alarmingly primitive.

Only slightly less pernicious, for white readers, were cases in which medicine men defrauded or deceived their peoples for their own personal advantage. In 1873, a medicine man reportedly taught the Modoc people of California a special dance that would result in the extinction of whites and the resurrection of the Native dead. Obviously, the tribe soon found that neither event would come to pass. For the press, this was a simple and mildly amusing story of a “false prophet,” a religious confidence trickster, though the ritual described sounds like an early manifestation of the famous Ghost Dance.33 When Lowry Ruin was excavated, archaeologists found secret passages in kivas, which allowed figures to make seemingly supernatural entrances during rituals. The archaeologist concerned was quoted as saying that “the shamans (medicine men) had to make a living and to do that they had to fool the people.”34 The media would never have offered such cynical fare about Christian or Jewish clergy, whose misdeeds and scandals were kept strictly confidential until quite recent times.

The cumulative effect of such reporting was to associate Native religious practices and practitioners with crude violence and fraud. Even when they were not overt exposés, media treatment of Indian rituals into the 1920s emphasized the bizarre, the frightening, and the sinister. These labels would all apply to the coverage of the pagan funeral of an Onondaga medicine man in 1929. According to the New York Times, “Attired in grotesque costumes and hideous masks, the Indians began a weird dance around the house.”35

Satan’s Own Brood: Indians and Catholics

Encountering Indian religion, White Protestant observers reacted with a mixture of disgust and contempt. When in 1840 naturalist John Audubon actually met an Indian spiritual leader, he was appalled by the ludicrous trappings that the religion seemed to demand.

We had entered this curiosity shop by pushing aside a wet elk skin stretched on four sticks.

Looking around I saw a number of calabashes, eight or ten otter skins, two very large buffalo skulls with horns on, evidently of great age, and some sticks and other magical implements with which none but a ‘Great Medicine Man’ is acquainted. During my survey there sat, crouched down on his haunches, an Indian wrapped in a dirty blanket with only his filthy head peeping out.

Yet for all the squalor and gross superstition (as Audubon saw it), Indians treated such mountebanks with awe and devotion. These accounts of cynical priests and fanatical superstition recall another potent kind of religious polemic that flourished in America at this time, namely anti-Catholicism. Anti-Catholic rhetoric and political activism flourished especially in the 1840s and 1850s, during the 1890s, and again in the Ku Klux Klan years of the 1920s. In each period, anti-Catholic assumptions shaped views of Indian religion. Many of the reasons why Native religions offended and irritated American Protestants—ritualism, fanaticism, clericalism, a veneration for sacred objects and places—have to be understood in the context of contemporary anti-Catholicism.36

Protestant prejudice is evident in descriptions of the superstitious awe accorded to American Indian shamans or medicine men, which was analogous to the Catholic subservience to priests. Indians, too, had “conjurers” and “priests,” the latter if anything being an even more suspicious word. English Protestant tradition had long dismissed priests as “conjurers” because of their outrageous claims to be able to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Reinforcing the Catholic analogy, Indian holy men inflicted severe bodily penances on the faithful, recalling the despised Catholic penitential system. And in the eyes of nineteenth century historians, fanatical priests had led the European witch hunts, which merged into images of the Inquisition. Modern Indian witch hunters were only following this disreputable precedent.37

This was an ancient bias. Already in 1613, Alexander Whitaker was using Catholic analogies to describe Virginia’s medicine men. The people “stand in great awe of their Quiokosoughs, or Priests, which are a generation of vipers, even of Satan’s own brood. The manner of their life is much like to the popish Hermits of our age.” In the same region in 1720, Robert Beverly described an Indian idol that:

must needs make a strange representation, which those poor people are taught to worship with a devout ignorance. . . . In this state of nature, one would think they should be as pure from superstition, and overdoing matters in religion, as they are in other things; but I find it is quite the contrary; for this simplicity gives the cunning priest a greater advantage over them, according to the Romish maxim, “Ignorance is the mother of devotion.”

This view of “priestcraft” as primitive superstition would supply a common matrix for Anglo-American encounters with many other cultures. Tibet’s religion was dismissed as “Lamaism,” supposedly a degenerate and inferior form of true Buddhism, and likewise characterized by superstition, corruption, idolatry, and clericalism.38

Nineteenth century critics also depicted American Indians as childishly superstitious, wasting large proportions of their time and wealth on religious rituals. Again, this recalled the stereotypical Papists of American cities. Protestant missionaries repeatedly complained about Catholic tolerance of traditional Indian ceremonies, and their failure to suppress festivals that had clear pagan origins. For Protestants, these conflicts clearly suggested the broad affinity that existed between the primitive paganism of the Indians and the more sophisticated variant proffered by Rome. The analogies are often drawn explicitly. Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico describes Aztec tortures that “doubtless, were often inflicted with the same compunctious visitings which a devout familiar of the Holy Office [the Inquisition] might at times experience in executing its stern decrees.”39

Ghost Dancers

At least until the end of the nineteenth century, Indian religions were feared because they could inspire antiwhite military and political movements. The century’s Indian conflicts roughly began with the movement inspired by the Shawnee Prophet, and ended with the Ghost Dance movement, which culminated with the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Americans were also familiar with religious movements that challenged contemporary European empires, like the Thuggee of India, or the radical Islam represented by the Mahdi in the Sudan, who was repeatedly in the news between 1885 and 1898. And contemporaries did draw analogies between Islam and American Indian cultures. When James Mooney analyzed the Ghost Dance, he included a substantial discussion of Sufi ecstatic practice and trance states. If the Mahdi or the Thugs could challenge British rule, might not an American Indian prophetic movement bring warfare and massacre to the U.S. frontier?40 Potentially, Indian religion could yet produce a rival ideology to challenge and even derail Manifest Destiny.

At least until the collapse of Native American armed resistance in 1890, rumors of new Indian ceremonies or dances were of interest not just as ethnographic study, but also as possible auguries of warfare. A “new pagan mystery dance” in Wisconsin seemed intended to restore the land to the Indians, and to drive the whites back across the Atlantic. Official attempts to interfere with the rites were opposed by a “turbulent and threatening” “cabal” of religious leaders. White fears found a focus in the Ghost Dance, which was described in terms of new Indian messiahs. It was the “Messiah dance,” the “Messiah agitation and the Ghost Dance.”41

Such fears did not cease entirely after Wounded Knee, and again, anti-Catholic imagery helped sustain fears of religious warfare. In the mid-1890s, the American Protective Association became a national political force by spreading scare stories that Catholic priests were about to lead the faithful in an armed crusade against Protestant America. This precedent reinforced Protestant suspicions about the medicine men, who were equally prone to manipulate popular superstitions for their own ends. In 1898, the newspapers were reporting a possible uprising by the Cheyenne in Oklahoma. Reportedly, the Indians were “holding a ghost dance and making medicine,” and were “being worked into a frenzy by the medicine men, who are holding strange rites and ceremonies.” As late as 1900, a Canadian observer wrote that “the painted red men of the prairies and forests we still have with us. In the Sun Dance, the potlatch and other pagan practices—the war-whoop is heard, and the tomahawk and scalping knife flash in the light.”42



Writing about Indian cultures in 1867, Francis Parkman brusquely dismissed Native spiritual practices as a

chaos of degrading, ridiculous, and incoherent superstitions. . . . Among the Hurons and Iroquois, and indeed all the stationary tribes, there was an incredible number of mystic ceremonies, extravagant, puerile, and often disgusting, designed for the cure of the sick or for the general weal of the community. . . . They consisted in an endless variety of dances, masqueradings, and nondescript orgies.

Indian religion taught little morality, and encouraged no scientific or philosophical questioning:

It is obvious that the Indian mind has never seriously occupied itself with any of the higher themes of thought. . . . In the midst of Nature; the Indian knew nothing of her laws. His perpetual reference of her phenomena to occult agencies forestalled inquiry and precluded inductive reasoning. . . . No race, perhaps, ever offered greater difficulties to those laboring for its improvement.24


Such a tirade is multiply offensive to modern readers, who expect a comprehensive tolerance for religious beliefs and practices, and who have learned an instinctive sympathy for the beauties of Indian ceremonies.