THE GREAT MYSTERY
Solitary Worship. The Savage Philosopher. The Dual Mind. Spiritual Gifts versus Material Progress.
The Paradox of "Christian Civilization."
 THE original attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the "Great Mystery" that surrounds
and embraces us, was as simple as it was exalted. To him it was the supreme conception, bringing
with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life.
 The worship of the "Great Mystery" was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. It was silent,
because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of my ancestors
ascended to God in wordless adoration. It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to
us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker. None might
exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another. Among us all men
were created sons of God and stood erect, as conscious of their divinity. Our faith might not be
formulated in creeds, nor forced upon
 any who were unwilling to receive it; hence there was no preaching, proselyting, nor persecution,
neither were there any scoffers or atheists.
There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a natural man, the Indian was
intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face
in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies,
upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky! He
who enrobes Himself in filmy veils of cloud, there on the rim of the visible world where
 our Great-Grandfather Sun kindles his evening camp-fire, He who rides upon the rigorous wind of the
north, or breathes forth His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose war-canoe is launched upon
majestic rivers and inland seas—He needs no lesser cathedral!
That solitary communion with the Unseen which was the highest expression of our religious life is
partly described in the word bambeday, literally "mysterious feeling," which has been variously
translated "fasting" and "dreaming." It may better be interpreted as "consciousness of the divine."
The first bambeday, or religious
 retreat, marked an epoch in the life of the youth, which may be compared to that of confirmation or
conversion in Christian experience. Having first prepared himself by means of the purifying
vapor-bath, and cast off as far as possible all human or fleshly influences, the young man sought
out the noblest height, the most commanding summit in all the surrounding region. Knowing that God
sets no value upon material things, he took with him no offerings or sacrifices other than symbolic
objects, such as paints and tobacco. Wishing to appear before Him in all humility, he wore no
clothing save his moccasins and breech-clout. At
 the solemn hour of sunrise or sunset he took up his position, overlooking the glories of earth and
facing the "Great Mystery," and there he remained, naked, erect, silent, and motionless, exposed to
the elements and forces of His arming, for a night and a day to two days and nights, but rarely
longer. Sometimes he would chant a hymn without words, or offer the ceremonial "filled pipe." In
this holy trance or ecstasy the Indian mystic found his highest happiness and the motive power of
When he returned to the camp, he must remain at a distance until he had again entered the vapor-bath
 and prepared himself for intercourse with his fellows. Of the vision or sign vouchsafed to him he
did not speak, unless it had included some commission which must be publicly fulfilled. Sometimes an
old man, standing upon the brink of eternity, might reveal to a chosen few the oracle of his
The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and
simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the
enjoyment of luxury. To him, as to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes to
the brothers of Saint
 Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the
burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation. Furthermore, it was the rule
of his life to share the fruits of his skill and success with his less fortunate brothers. Thus he
kept his spirit free from the clog of pride, cupidity, or envy, and carried out, as he believed, the
divine decree—a matter profoundly important to him.
It was not, then, wholly from ignorance or improvidence that he failed to establish permanent towns
and to develop a material civilization. To the untutored sage, the
 concentration of population was the prolific mother of all evils, moral no less than physical. He
argued that food is good, while surfeit kills; that love is good, but lust destroys; and not less
dreaded than the pestilence following upon crowded and unsanitary dwellings was the loss of
spiritual power inseparable from too close contact with one's fellow-men. All who have lived much
out of doors know that there is a magnetic and nervous force that accumulates in solitude and that
is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd; and even his enemies have recognized the fact that for a
certain innate power and self-poise, wholly independent of
cir-  cumstances, the American Indian is unsurpassed among men.
The red man divided mind into two parts,—the spiritual mind and the physical mind. The first is
pure spirit, concerned only with the essence of things, and it was this he sought to strengthen by
spiritual prayer, during which the body is subdued by fasting and hardship. In this type of prayer
there was no beseeching of favor or help. All matters of personal or selfish concern, as success in
hunting or warfare, relief from sickness, or the sparing of a beloved life, were definitely
relegated to the plane of the lower or material mind, and all ceremonies,
 charms, or incantations designed to secure a benefit or to avert a danger, were recognized as
emanating from the physical self.
The rites of this physical worship, again, were wholly symbolic, and the Indian no more worshiped
the Sun than the Christian adores the Cross. The Sun and the Earth, by an obvious parable, holding
scarcely more of poetic metaphor than of scientific truth, were in his view the parents of all
organic life. From the Sun, as the universal father, proceeds the quickening principle in nature,
and in the patient and fruitful womb of our mother, the Earth, are hidden embryos of plants and
 men. Therefore our reverence and love for them was really an imaginative extension of our love for
our immediate parents, and with this sentiment of filial piety was joined a willingness to appeal to
them, as to a father, for such good gifts as we may desire. This is the material or physical prayer.
The elements and majestic forces in nature, Lightning, Wind, Water, Fire, and Frost, were regarded
with awe as spiritual powers, but always secondary and intermediate in character. We believed that
the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possesses a soul
 in some degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious of itself. The tree, the waterfall, the
grizzly bear, each is an embodied Force, and as such an object of reverence.
The Indian loved to come into sympathy and spiritual communion with his brothers of the animal
kingdom, whose inarticulate souls had for him something of the sinless purity that we attribute to
the innocent and irresponsible child. He had faith in their instincts, as in a mysterious wisdom
given from above; and while he humbly accepted the supposedly voluntary sacrifice of their bodies to
preserve his own, he paid homage to their spirits in prescribed prayers and offerings.
 In every religion there is an element of the supernatural, varying with the influence of pure reason
over its devotees. The Indian was a logical and clear thinker upon matters within the scope of his
understanding, but he had not yet charted the vast field of nature or expressed her wonders in terms
of science. With his limited knowledge of cause and effect, he saw miracles on every hand,—the
miracle of life in seed and egg, the miracle of death in lightning flash and in the swelling deep!
Nothing of the marvelous could astonish him; as that a beast should speak, or the sun stand still.
The virgin birth would appear
 scarcely more miraculous than is the birth of every child that comes into the world, or the miracle
of the loaves and fishes excite more wonder than the harvest that springs from a single ear of corn.
Who may condemn his superstition? Surely not the devout Catholic, or even Protestant missionary, who
teaches Bible miracles as literal fact! The logical man must either deny all miracles or none, and
our American Indian myths and hero stories are perhaps, in themselves, quite as credible as those of
the Hebrews of old. If we are of the modern type of mind, that sees in natural law a majesty and
 more impressive than any solitary infraction of it could possibly be, let us not forget that, after
all, science has not explained everything. We have still to face the ultimate miracle,—the origin
and principle of life! Here is the supreme mystery that is the essence of worship, without which
there can be no religion, and in the presence of this mystery our attitude cannot be very unlike
that of the natural philosopher, who beholds with awe the Divine in all creation.
It is simple truth that the Indian did not, so long as his native philosophy held sway over his
mind, either envy or desire to imitate the splendid achievements of the white
 man. In his own thought he rose superior to them! He scorned them, even as a lofty spirit absorbed
in its stern task rejects the soft beds, the luxurious food, the pleasure-worshiping dalliance of a
rich neighbor. It was clear to him that virtue and happiness are independent of these things, if not
incompatible with them.
There was undoubtedly much in primitive Christianity to appeal to this man, and Jesus' hard sayings
to the rich and about the rich would have been entirely comprehensible to him. Yet the religion that
is preached in our churches and practiced by our congregations, with its
 element of display and self-aggrandizement, its active proselytism, and its open contempt of all
religions but its own, was for a long time extremely repellent. To his simple mind, the
professionalism of the pulpit, the paid exhorter, the moneyed church, was an unspiritual and
unedifying thing, and it was not until his spirit was broken and his moral and physical constitution
undermined by trade, conquest, and strong drink, that Christian missionaries obtained any real hold
upon him. Strange as it may seem, it is true that the proud pagan in his secret soul despised the
good men who came to convert and to enlighten him!
 Nor were its publicity and its Phariseeism the only elements in the alien religion that offended the
red man. To him, it appeared shocking and almost incredible that there were among this people who
claimed superiority many irreligious, who did not even pretend to profess the national faith. Not
only did they not profess it, but they stooped so low as to insult their God with profane and
sacrilegious speech! In our own tongue His name was not spoken aloud, even with utmost reverence,
much less lightly or irreverently.
More than this, even in those white men who professed religion we found much inconsistency of
con-  duct. They spoke much of spiritual things, while seeking only the material. They bought and sold
everything: time, labor, personal independence, the love of woman, and even the ministrations of
their holy faith! The lust for money, power, and conquest so characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race
did not escape moral condemnation at the hands of his untutored judge, nor did he fail to contrast
this conspicuous trait of the dominant race with the spirit of the meek and lowly Jesus.
He might in time come to recognize that the drunkards and licentious among white men, with whom he
too frequently came in contact,
 were condemned by the white man's religion as well, and must not be held to discredit it. But it was
not so easy to overlook or to excuse national bad faith. When distinguished emissaries from the
Father at Washington, some of them ministers of the gospel and even bishops, came to the Indian
nations, and pledged to them in solemn treaty the national honor, with prayer and mention of their
God; and when such treaties, so made, were promptly and shamelessly broken, is it strange that the
action should arouse not only anger, but contempt? The historians of the white race admit that the
Indian was never the first to repudiate his oath.
 It is my personal belief, after thirty-five years' experience of it, that there is no such thing as
"Christian civilization." I believe that Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and
irreconcilable, and that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is essentially the
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics