The Religion of the Indians of California
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Pages (PDF): 39
Publication Date: 1907
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This is Alfred L. Kroebers' classic article on the religion of Native Californians. Subjects covered include, Shamanism, Public Ceremonies, Mythology And Beliefs, Special Characteristics Of Different Tribes, Ceremonial Structures And Paraphernalia, and Customary Observances By Individuals.
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Fundamentally the religion of the Indians of California was very similar to that of savage and uncivilized races the world over. Like all such peoples, the California Indians were in an animistic state of mind, in which they attributed life, intelligence, and especially supernatural power, to virtually all living and lifeless things. They lacked no less the ideas and practices of shamanism, the universal accompaniment of animism: namely, the belief that certain men, through communication with the animate supernatural world, had the power to accomplish what was contrary to, or rather above, the events of daily ordinary experience, which latter in so far as they were distinguished from the happenings caused by supernatural agencies, were of natural, meaningless, and, as it were, accidental origin. As in most parts of the world, belief in shamanistic power was centered most strongly about disease and death, which among most tribes were not only believed to be dispellable but to be entirely caused by shamans. In common with the other American Indians, those of California made dancing, and with it always singing, a conspicuous part of nearly all their ceremonies that were of a public or tribal nature.
They differed from almost all other tribes of North America in showing a much weaker development of the ritualism, and symbolism shading into pictography, that constitute perhaps the most distinctive feature of the religion of the Americans as a whole. Practically all the approaches to a system of writing devised in North America, whether in Mexico, Yucatan, or among the tribes of the United States and Canada, are the direct outcome of a desire of religious expression. The California Indians however were remarkably free from even traces of this tendency, equally in their religion and in the more practical aspects of their life. In many parts of North America, and more often where the culture was considerably developed than where it was rude, there was a considerable amount of fetishism, not of the crass and so to speak superstitious type of Africa, but rather as an accompaniment and result of over-symbolism. This fetishistic tendency was very slightly developed in California, and this in spite of--or as in Americanist could more properly say on account of--the generally rude and primitive condition of culture. By contrast, as the action and the visible symbol were a less important means of religious expression, the word, both spoken and sung, was of greater significance in California. The weakness of the ritualistic tendency is however again marked in the circumstance that the exact form of religious speech was frequently less regarded than its substance. In this aspect the Indians of California differed widely from such nations as the Egyptians and the peoples of Asia, where the efficacy of the word and speech used for a religious purpose was usually directly dependent upon the accuracy of their external and audible rendering, even to their pronunciation and intonation. As an ethnographic province the greater part of California plainly forms a unit. There are, however, two portions of the present political state that showed much cultural distinctness in times of native life and that must usually be kept apart in all matters of ethnological and religious consideration. One of these divergent culture areas comprised the extreme northwestern corner of the state, in the drainage of the lower Klamath and about Humboldt Bay.
The other consisted of what is now usually known as Southern California, extending from the Tehachapi pass and mountains in the interior, and from Point Conception on the coast, southward to the Mexican boundary. The religion of the Indians of the peninsula of Lower California is very little known from literature, and the people themselves are almost extinct. It is probable that it was more or less different from the forms of religion occurring in Southern California, that is to say, the southern part of the American state of California. Ethnographically Southern California was considerably diversified. The tribes of the plains and mountains near the sea must be distinguished on the one hand from those of the desert interior and of the valley of the Colorado river, and on the other from those of the Santa Barbara archipelago and the adjacent coast of the mainland to the north. The latter island group of tribes has become entirely extinct without leaving more than the merest trace of records of its religion. The two other groups, the seaward and the interior, apparently presented a much greater uniformity in religion than in their material and social life, so much so that in the present connection all the tribes of Southern California of whom anything is known may be regarded as constituting a single ethnographic province. The culture of the small Northwestern area was in every way, and that of the larger Southern province at least in some respects, more highly organized and complex than that of the still larger and principal Central region, which comprised at least two-thirds of the state and which, if such a selection is to be made, must be considered as the most typically Californian.
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