The religious belief of the North-American Indians seems, on a first view, anomalous and contradictory. It certainly is so, if we adopt the popular impression. Romance, Poetry, and Rhetoric point, on the one hand, to the august conception of a one all-ruling Deity, a Great Spirit, omniscient and omnipresent; and we are called to admire the untutored intellect which could conceive a thought too vast for Socrates and Plato. On the other hand, we find a chaos of degrading, ridiculous, and incoherent superstitions. A closer examination will show that the contradiction is more apparent than real. We will begin with the lowest forms of Indian belief, and thence trace it upward to the highest conceptions to which the unassisted mind of the savage attained.

To the Indian, the material world is sentient and intelligent. Birds, beasts, and reptiles have ears for human prayers, and are endowed with an influence on human destiny. A mysterious and inexplicable power resides in inanimate things. They, too, can listen to the voice of man, and influence his life for evil or for good. Lakes, rivers, and waterfalls are sometimes the dwelling-place of spirits; but more frequently they are themselves living beings, to be propitiated by prayers and offerings. The lake has a soul; and so has the river, and the cataract. Each can hear the words of men, and each can be pleased or offended. In the silence of a forest, the gloom of a deep ravine, resides a living mystery, indefinite, but redoubtable. Through all the works of Nature or of man, nothing exists, however seemingly trivial, that may not be endowed with a secret power for blessing or for bane.

Men and animals are closely akin. Each species of animal has its great archetype, its progenitor or king, who is supposed to exist somewhere, prodigious in size, though in shape and nature like his subjects. A belief prevails, vague, but perfectly apparent, that men themselves owe their first parentage to beasts, birds, or reptiles, as bears, wolves, tortoises, or cranes; and the names of the totemic clans, borrowed in nearly every case from animals, are the reflection of this idea.

[ This belief occasionally takes a perfectly definite shape. There was a tradition among Northern and Western tribes, that men were created from the carcasses of beasts, birds, and fishes, by Manabozho, a mythical personage, to be described hereafter. The Amikouas, or People of the Beaver, an Algonquin tribe of Lake Huron, claimed descent from the carcass of the great original beaver, or father of the beavers. They believed that the rapids and cataracts on the French River and the Upper Ottawa were caused by dams made by their amphibious ancestor. (See the tradition in Perrot, Memoire sur les Moeurs, Coustumes et Relligion des Sauvages de l'Amerique Septentrionale, p. 20.) Charlevoix tells the same story. Each Indian was supposed to inherit something of the nature of the animal whence he sprung. ]

An Indian hunter was always anxious to propitiate the animals he sought to kill. He has often been known to address a wounded bear in a long harangue of apology. [ McKinney, Tour to the Lakes, 284, mentions the discomposure of a party of Indians when shown a stuffed moose. Thinking that its spirit would be offended at the indignity shown to its remains, they surrounded it, making apologetic speeches, and blowing tobacco-smoke at it as a propitiatory offering. ] The bones of the beaver were treated with especial tenderness, and carefully kept from the dogs, lest the spirit of the dead beaver, or his surviving brethren, should take offence. [ This superstition was very prevalent, and numerous examples of it occur in old and recent writers, from Father Le Jeune to Captain Carver. ] This solicitude was not confined to animals, but extended to inanimate things. A remarkable example occurred among the Hurons, a people comparatively advanced, who, to propitiate their fishing-nets, and persuade them to do their office with effect, married them every year to two young girls of the tribe, with a ceremony more formal than that observed in the case of mere human wedlock. [ 1 ] The fish, too, no less than the acts, must be propitiated; and to this end they were addressed every evening from the fishing-camp by one of the party chosen for that function, who exhorted them to take courage and be caught, assuring them that the utmost respect should be shown to their bones. The harangue, which took place after the evening meal, was made in solemn form; and while it lasted, the whole party, except the speaker, were required to lie on their backs, silent and motionless, around the fire. [ 2 ]

[ 1 There are frequent allusions to this ceremony in the early writers. The Algonquins of the Ottawa practised it, as well as the Hurons. Lalemant, in his chapter "Du Regne de Satan en ces Contrees" (Relation des Hurons, 1639), says that it took place yearly, in the middle of March. As it was indispensable that the brides should be virgins, mere children were chosen. The net was held between them; and its spirit, or oki, was harangued by one of the chiefs, who exhorted him to do his part in furnishing the tribe with food. Lalemant was told that the spirit of the net had once appeared in human form to the Algonquins, complaining that he had lost his wife, and warning them, that, unless they could find him another equally immaculate, they would catch no more fish. ]

[ 2 Sagard, Le Grand Voyage du Pays des Hurons, 257. Other old writers make a similar statement. ]