Plains Indian Supernaturalism

Having just finished Robert Lowie‘s classic Indians of the Plains (1954), I thought it appropriate to comment briefly on chapter six, which is titled “Supernaturalism.” 

Lowie begins by noting that Indians did not recognize the physical/metaphysical dichotomy that characterizes Western thought, but they “can and did react vehemently to perceptions that are wholly out of the normal range of experience.”  These were things that struck them as “mysterious, weird, or miraculous, thrilling or awe inspiring.” 

Nearly every tribe had an umbrella word to describe such perceptions; for the Lakota (Sioux) it is “wakan” and for the Crow (Apsaroke) it is “maxpe.”  There is also the famous Algonkian (Winnebago) “manitou.” 

My version of Lowie’s book (Univ. of Nebraska/Bison) has a preface written by Raymond DeMallie.  In his otherwise superb introduction DeMallie points out some problems with the book, one supposedly being that “Indian religion” is no longer discussed under the heading “supernaturalism.”  This assertion, unexplicated or explained, strikes me as wrong. 

The leading authority on this subject, Ake Hultkrantz, uses the term “supernaturalism” and I think it is quite fitting given the diverse and non-systematic nature of Amerindian beliefs.  Using the term “religion” to describe these ideas sends messages that are not in the ethnohistoric record.

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