Books by Whites about Tribal Religion

Motives for white people who write about Indians are often centered on religion, either claiming that what they thought was just like Christianity, or that the People were all Satan’s work, or that they, the writer, were the only ones really privileged to know the real mystical story. What follows is a few books written by academics, first some general theories and finally the books by one man who wrote specifically about Blackfeet.

Ruth M. Underhill (1883–1984) is one of the classic and respected early writers. “Red Man’s Religion” (1953,1965) is a generalist overview, anchored in facts but tending toward the historic. She had a special closeness to the Papago. Underhill went to the places she wrote about and also traveled Europe.

Joseph Epes Brown (1920–2000) was the most charismatic of writers about indigenous religion. “The Sacred Pipe” is the source of much of its power for white people since it was a restatement of a book by Black Elk. This became an ur-pattern — the wise old man recounting the truth. “The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian” (1982) is not so widely read and Sioux rather that Blackfeet, but it is respected thinking.

Brown was teaching at the U of Montana in Missoula when I attended his class as a visitor over his objections. The reason, which he didn’t tell me and I was slow realizing, was he was quite aware of being made into a kind of shaman, an object of veneration, and intended to nip that in the bud. He invented a ceremony and described it with a straight face that was all about how buffalo cows when their calves are born breathe out a mist of blood that envelopes the baby in a protective fleece of red bubbles and that the tribes then connect that to a girl’s first menstruation and celebrate it in ceremony. He was afraid of how I would react, since I knew buffalo and was quite aware that the mothers cleaned their babies as thoroughly and quickly as possible to evade predators. There is no ceremony except the ones urging those buffalo to get busy and start more babies!

“The Gospel of the Red Man, a Way of Life” (1905, 1935, 1948) is a collaboration between Ernest Thompson Seton (1860–1946) and his wife, Julia M. Seton. Sometimes it’s called “An Indian Bible.” In the terms of comparative religion, it’s apologetics, a reconciliation of Christian and indigenous ideas. It’s romantic, idealistic, and not at all applicable to every tribe. This set of ideas is one of the keystones of the Scouting Movement.

Ernest Thomson Seton and his daughter Anya were huge influences on me when I was growing up, but not this book. Rather I cherished “Two Little Savages” about two boys who were a devoted pair and tried to be like “Indians”. Anya Seton wrote wildly popular historical novels, quite erotic for the times. I read the library’s copies and the librarian wanted to know whether my mother knew I was reading them. There wasn’t much religion in them — too dangerous — and nothing about American Indians.

Sam Gill wrote “Native American Religions, An Introduction” (1982) for the series called “The Religous Life of Man.” A cluster of these globalizing ideas about religion were popular in those years in quite a different way than Brown or Seton lifting up one aspect. In 1978 the US had finally extended freedom of religion to the thought and practice of indigenous tribes. Also, there was a newly cross-discipline idea of thought that let Gill explore his interest in dance and music. Gill is aware that each tribal expression comes from a unique place and expresses relation to it. Not all tribes are just alike. His website is at sam-gill.com. It will keep you busy for a long time, but I never could find his date of birth. I don’t think he plans on dying.

Denise Lardner Carmody and her husband John Tully Carmody collaborated on “Native American Religions: An Introduction.” (1993) It’s another ecological trip through the Americas, including both continents, which is interesting. Covering so much territory means a lick and a sketch for each tribal group, but that can be useful.

Howard L. Harrod’s first book about the Blackfeet was “Mission Among the Blackfeet” (1971) and was written for a series called “The Civilization of the American Indian.” Though he was in Browning in the summers of 1963 and 1969, I don’t remember seeing him. I occasionally attended the Browning Methodist church and in 1988–1989 I was their “preacher” as an ordained UU minister who did nothing else by agreement, except funerals. In the early days Bob Scriver’s parents attended the Presbyterian church which is not discussed much by Harrod, who sees the Blackfeet and white cultures in “confrontation.” But I saw something different when I attended in 1961 when the last of the Fifties family boom was fading.

When the Presbyterian church failed, it was folded into the Methodist congregation which had been intended as a mission. This created a “double-yolked egg” with double members, one that was tribal formal members who never attended — only received charity and visits — and one that was white, regardless of denomination. By the time I was serving in 1988, the congregation was mostly mixed-blood to some degree and the real distinction was between Indians who were Catholic and the not-quite-whites at the Methodist church. The early Bundle-centered tribal practices were barely addressed, which is mostly the way they liked it.

Harrod’s theological school mentor was Jim M. Gustafson at Yale from whom I took a class later at the U of Chicago Div School. Gustafson was a powerful thinker and Harrod appreciated that.

Harrod’s later books about religion were not specifically about Blackfeet and when he was in Montana he was working from the other side of the Rockies, near Missoula.

“Becoming and Remaining a People: Native American Religions on the Northern Plains” (1995) and “The Animals Came Dancing: Native American Sacred Ecology and Animal Kinship” (2000). “Renewing the World: Plains Indian Religion and Morality” (1992) is on Google Books as well as being in print. This book addresses the early ceremonies and what they meant.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.