A Glimpse Into The Functional Culture And Sacred Attributions Of North American Indigenous Peoples

By J.J. Alan

Shared in memory of Dr. Janet Gould, mentor of wisdom, kind enough to share her philosophical lens into indigenous ancestry. Thank you.

According to Edison film historian C. Musser, this film and others shot on the same day featured Native American Indian dancers from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and constitutes the American Indian’s first appearance before a motion picture camera. DIGITAL ID edmp.4025 /

Academic approaches to the sought understanding of the depth into indigenous cultural remains focus strictly on physical detritus of the pasts’ bearers (Sablof, 19). As such, the archival body of artifactual data, known as “the Archaeological Record”, is an available source of information for academics interested in establishing a firmly set narrative about Native history in the Western Hemisphere; yet, the historical connotation one may perceive from the partial published archaeological data would be considered a misconception of history, due to the lack of the intentional, original, perceived meaning which instilled a culture, described through the artifactual remnants resistant to weathering. This is clear, as the narrative that Native people, have no relevant history, an idea held among scholars and a majority of Americans who maintain the belief that the indigenous people of their land have long since died out — intentionally, or justified through chance — pervades the heart of American universities. As a result of this mentality, the volume of data collected in such large quantities since the 19th century, become less understood through a progressively unfit puzzle of a narrative. Globalization and information exchange appear unavoidable at times, which threaten foundational comprehension of cultural diversity and the history of our species. Thus, the ultimate mode of understanding the instilled meaning behind historical reports, artifacts and traditions of indigenous Americans relies on the connotation of symbolic considerations of sacred practices.

The ancient past of North America concerns the studies of the social and cultural activities through two broad considerations, traditional knowledge of the indigenous populations, and that of the categorical academic perspective. Variable meaning (or lack thereof) received by distinct symbols in culture enables understanding of that which defines a culture but requires concerted analysis and effort for many (Leydesdorff 193). Under the academic anthropological order of the study of human behavioral evolution, lies the practice of archaeology, the artifactual approach to the analysis of culture through strictly physical remnant cultural material defined through symbolic depiction.

The media credits such primary physical evidence, usually a discovery that exists outside of academic historical context, to some form of extra-terrestrial contact, an arguably racist and dangerously popular target for misconception of native history. As of December 2018, a Google search reveals that the most popular of such media television series broadcast to the public since 2009 has 13 seasons, with 149 episodes. Alternative mythologies as this, devoid of sacred cultural meaning, exist without the context of the indigenous cultures symbolic understanding of artifactual symbols; and, risks the loss of culture behind the sacred symbols prevalent within the diversity of Native American existences. Additionally, contentious cultural interactions often occur due to ethnographic bias, the perceptual analysis of unfamiliar phenomena related to individual subjective experience, and invariably exists innately within all humans.

For scholars, academics, or simply anyone interested in the understanding indigenous American culture, thought, and the multitude of cultural diversity within, one should consider the conserved symbolism which defines a culture through sacred principles. Symbols, aside from language alone, through their prevalence in Native culture, allow a deeper understanding for how “sacred” reflects the behavior and culture of indigenous people, rooted in the ancient synthesis of ancestral communication. Ultimately, through the analysis of the characteristic symbols, whether physical, or ideological, one can define a cultural identity in a region. Moreover, symbolism of the traditional practices and stories of a culture demonstrate the means sacred meaning develops for Native people and academics respectively.

Additionally, understanding the sacred as it exists to a Native culture generates a fuller understanding of the sacred as it is conserved through symbols and cultural diversity. Symbols persevere into all elements of human behavior, as they form the basis of written and spoken language, and the landscapes which symbolic medium may represent. Sociologically, and most generally, “Meaning is generated in a system when different pieces of information are related as messages to one another” (Leydesdorff 191).

Among other domains, symbols exist primarily within documentations of the indigenous origin stories of America, and the cultural practices. As such, to any analytical attempt of understanding the historical past, indigenous people and their ancestors should be understood, within the symbolic mediums to instruct indigenous ways of life. Concepts of the sacred, particularly the sacred element of knowledge, ancestral reverence, and perseverance, depicted among symbols variously documented in Native mythology and folklore, offer guidance towards an appreciation of how indigenous people incorporate and consider “sacred” ideology within knowledge. This is because symbols often represent of the natural world, distinct ideas and concepts relevant to human perception which retain flexibility in their instructional role through generations. The physical contexts, such as location in which a story of an origin or creation myth occurs, critically determine the meaning behind a story, which additionally maintains importance towards the establishment of symbolic cultural values that enable the survival and endurance of a people (Leydesdorff 193).

Subjectively, a focus which aims to revolve around the proper acquisition of power to survive and subside with nature, culturally define Native peoples in North America through symbolic descriptions within story mediums. Numerous practices of the Hopi, in the following example, illustrate the sacred principles which incorporate the physical and spiritual domains of though specific to survival within the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. The Hopi way of life preserves several reoccurring symbols which promote focus among tradition, within Loftin’s 2003 overview in “Religion and Hopi life” of the Hopi account on maize farming,

“The digging stick, or sooya, holds great religious significance for the Hopi. According to Hopi tradition related to me by Sekaquaptewa, the sooya was given to the Hopi along with blue corn before their emergence to this world. To work with the sooya is to participate in the way of the “people of the long ago”

Photo of Maize in the desert by

This detailed report provides symbolic depictions of physical tools that enable the growth of corn, which serve a necessary purpose to survive. The meaning of the significance of maize, and the practice of its cultivation with the sooya represents a form of sacred power to the Hopi. The sacred practice of behaviors within farming not only represents agricultural practice necessary for survival, but additionally, the expression of gratitude for one’s existence and the enduring struggles which a person’s ancestors overcame. Moreover, “It too symbolizes the life of humility and hardship chosen by the Hopi in the underworld in the ‘ancient time ago’” (Leydesdorff 193).

The consideration of the former existences as sacred interdependently motivates and nourishes a culture and its people.

Sacred principles, as with the Hopi sooya additionally form as physical embodiments of spiritual principles, such as the subterranean constructs called Kivas. A report of the Hopi ceremonial practices of passage involving the symbolic meaning of initiation in Kivas, published in 2009 to the journal American Antiquities, adds “The sipaapuni, the small excavation often located in the kiva floor, further symbolizes the place of emergence” (Schaffsma). Spiritual meaning, much like the the sooya, additionally presents itself physically as the sipaapuni, the physical emergence from darkness, into the partially lit kiva floor. The unknown “darkness” which exists as the inner portal of the sipaapuni serves to remind one within the inner Kiva, of the relative darkness within their own perceptual environments. This concept intensifies with the emergence from the kiva, into the brightly lit world above, ultimately representing ideas of cyclical rebirth and change towards a more dominant light of continuation and progress towards the light. Thus the connotation for a young boy inside the subterranean structure as a rite of passage, with a single light beam emanating from the portal above, depicts the importance of choice, decisions, and the responsibility for the decisions thereafter.

Kiva at Spruce Tree House. Adam Baker / Getty Images sipapuni behind the small wall blocking any light from the portal.

Schaafsma, in her analysis of the Hopi symbolic depiction of the Kiva, supports such claims as “the related supernaturals” of such tools as the sooya Leydensdorf 192). The challenge of blue corn, and its cultivation in a desert, as Schaafsma writes, are “essential to the success of maize-growing farmers, and hence a life of abundance.” This further suggests the prevalence of symbolic depiction of the essential respect for ancestral pre-existing life as critical among cultures for subsidence and survival. Hopi way of life not only revolves around the reverence and respect for ancestral tradition as sacred, but also humility as one lives a challenging life, in the ways of their ancestors. The meaning of instilled challenges and overcoming hardships as a practiced skill, has not simply maintained existence of a farming community in the desert, but the culture of its people has maintained its own historical existence through the respect of the ancient ways. Further, Leydesdorff supports such sacred practices of symbolic depiction as a sufficient hallmark of progress and adaptability through a sociological lens, “As an evolutionary achievement in interhuman languaging…when meaning can be communicated, this communication can further be codified, and discursive knowledge also developed” (192)

A varied depiction of the sacred values within the symbolism of Hopi traditions further credits an appreciation for the former way of living. The 1973 film “Hopi: Songs of the Fourth World” supports this position through a slightly varied telling of the Hopi emergence story.

Depiction believed to describe Hopi emergence into the Fourth World

Maassaw’ delivers to the Hopi, the decision of which corn they may cultivate after their emergence from the third world of darkness beneath the earth, through a sipapu into the upper Fourth World. Upon the deliverance of blue corn by Maassaw’ the Hopi find their way in the Fourth World to the Central Place which they call home.

The symbolism of their creation, the ultimate meaning intended of the Hopi in which they identify, lies within their response towards challenge and hardship. The individual gifting the emergent Hopi with decision, provides the image of Hopi thus identify with the decisive intent to seek challenges, represented through the blue corn. Corn is the literal substance which constitutes the physical bodies of the Hopi people, upon investment and nourishment by humans. Additionally, the humility of the Hopi becomes meaningful and incites gratitude, and the message that the Hopi will graciously accept the challenges such that others may not face them, or that they remain the people with the means to do so.

Photo by on

One final document regarding the Hopi culture, synthesizes the former perspectives with consideration of the symbolic depictions of emergence, and provides furthur insight towards understanding their sacred beliefs as presented here. Published to the largely dated but pertinent journal American Indian Religions, Christopher Vecsey supports such claims of from his perspective of a synthesis of Hopi emergence stories in a 1983 issue, “The Emergence of the Hopi People”. Vescey writes, “Mentioned formerly, this functions as a survival tool from a non-traditional perspective. He writes, “Through verbal images, tribal myths make graphic the realities of existence. They face the anxieties in subsistence activities, the failures, sorrows, and (most of all) the death contained in life as a whole. That is, they see life in its contradictory, unsatisfactory, paradoxical entirety…by presenting the fullness of human existence, tribal myths have the potential to function as tools by which societal groups and the individuals within them can meet their life-and death challenges. Tribal myths can be means by which people adapt and survive in practial function as well as content” (75) .

Ultimately, the Hopi encompass lasting longevity among ongoing hardships. Though their respect for ancestors as a way of life proves difficult, it yields in continued cultural perserverence within a dynamic phrophetic history. The adaption of new practices also necessitate Hopi continuation through their sacred and dynamic mythology. The power of irreversibility of ones actions becomes clear through the Hopi adoption of current political tensions as instilled “foretellings” within stories. In other words, the dynamic culture of the Hopi equals adaptability, such that all temporal perspectives of the past, present, and future constitute a story and its growth. For example, Vescey continues with an adapted terminus, phrophetically shared to him by the Hopi society which he studied, in which “The story ends with a supposedly ancient prophecy regarding the troubles that whites will deliver unto the Hopi people. The intruders it is foretold, will attempt to take away the bulwarks of Hopi existence. They will try to destroy Hopi habits regarding food and dress. They will turn one Hopi against another, distrupting the cohesiveness of the community. That time, the document states, has come to the Hopi. Past events, oracles, and present events run concurrently and merge into one crucial history and contemporary account”(76).

The symbolism of the physical present threats towards the Hopi evokes an unfortunate realization of historical misfortune placed upon Native people by colonial invaders. “Americans exacerbated the problem of societal tensions reflected in the myth, by demanding that achildren be indoctrinated to white standards. The crucial event during this political strife was a dispute in Oraibi in 1905–6, which literally split asunder the entire community over the issue of accommodation to white demands. The factions ‘hostile’ and ‘friendly’ to white coercion could no longer live with one another in Oraibi, the oldest of the Hopi villages, dating to the middle of the twelfth century… Significantly, Hopi conservatives still turn to Hopi myths and prophecies, traditional ideological weapons, against the devastating offenses of coal and oil companies, greedy for Hopi resources. Now as then, Hopi myths bend to meet the needs of the political winds.”

Photo by of a Thunderbird

Other pre-existing “worlds”, and an ancestrally-linked location of emergence into the existing world occur with high prevalence among documented mythology of North America. The mythological documentation of the Aztec suggest they originate from a land called “Azatlan” in the North. Aztec, interestingly, share the same language family, Uto-Aztecan, with the Ute tribes of Colorado, as well as the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Mexico (Simmons). Considering the ultimate regional adjacency of Mesoamerican peoples to the tribes of the South-West from a pre-colonial landscape, the representation of indigenous peoples in North America expands without modern borders.

A transition North to the Rocky Mountains and Great plains yields a novel, and interesting symbolic investigation of the Ute tribe of Western Colorado. Among variable contribution from the Ute, an dominant theme of origin account arises, “‘We were always here’ say the Utes, reluctant to discuss their history, even their myths”(Simmons, 2). Initially, it seems that symbols are non-existent within such a statement. Yet, perhaps, the words form a symbol for which an invading settler may understand, as the brevity of such words provides no understanding, initially, to the sacred ideology of the Ute. Perhaps, their response towards the interest of colonial powers of the Ute tradition attempts to preserve the culture as with the Hopi. The influence of world through the possession of sacred knowledge, by those who lack initiated understanding threatens Ute existence through a bitter history with invading settlers.

Clearly, the possession of knowledge not only represents sacred existence, but additionally remains innately sacred dependent upon the cultural and ancestral lineage which instilled knowledge as sacred. Simmons continues, “Equally obscure is the archaeological story that might reveal when and how this tribe came to occupy its present territory” (2). The message delivered with such minimal brevity depicts the mistranslation which ensues from variable (in this case, unnoticed) perception of sacred knowledge, and subsequently a cultural understanding though sacred practices. Like the Hopi response to colonial invasion, the Utes assert in subtlety their cultural strength in response to cultural loss through unwilling contribution to academics. Moreover, the “archaeological story” which remains obscure, represents sacred material for the Utes, and should remain as intended by the Ute. Understandably, such artefactual knowledge loses sacred meaning for Native people, when individuals seek knowledge of a culture with ambiguous intent to use such information in a manner void of cultural and physical application of sacred understanding. As an individual without access to sacred knowledge, the speculation remains that it rightfully exists within their cultural domain.

The Acoma Puebloan people of New Mexico employ a similar approach towards the divulsion of their historical understanding. The 2008 UXL Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes lists, “The Acoma maintain a great deal of secrecy about their spiritual traditions. Their chief gods are Ocatc (the Sun, who is called “Father”) and Iatiku (the mother of all Indians).” The information which the Acoma constitute within the Encyclopedia entry is as brief as the Ute. Such reluctance to divulge spiritual tradition likely persists to preserve their culture, among the Hopi, and Ute respectively.

Acoma Pueblo, 2017. Longest continually inhabited indigenous American community and culture, including the Ute, and several other tribal claims

The history of the Western Hemisphere emerges in new light with retained meaning among both descendent colonists and indigenous cultures, with consideration of the indigenous mind and the consideration of symbolic utility as sacred. A synthesis of the symbolic commonalities among collections of documented mythology associated to the indigenous cultures’ lineage of surviving generations within a location can provide numerous perspectives within multiple hypothetical historical, or personal contexts. The search for knowledge contributing towards historical oscillations of human failure and progress may additionally remain within the philosophy of indigenous knowledge. Native traditional oral mythology functions similarly to written historical text in potential for description of prior events, yet variably serves a distinct purpose of instructional behavior, dependent on the context which a speaker tells a story. Both forms of knowledge, academic and oral tradition, ultimately serve a distinct purpose for the audience, to instill future preservation of culture.

1498 Chinese World Map

Unsurprisingly, rather than illustrate a lesson for essential human behavior, historical texts become further misunderstood with varying interpretations of ambiguous terms with unknown application. This sets a dangerous precedent for complete destruction of symbolic meaning within cultural origins of America, seen with the accreditation of monumental petroglyphs and ruins to a “non-human” origin. Coinciding anomalous details of the archaeological record remain poorly understood in part by ethnographic antiquities studies of the late European Enlightenment, which cultural tensions excelled between Native American populations and colonists from Europe.

Moving forward, a synthesis of the documented symbolic motifs among the indigenous people of North America, would provide at least a framework for a progressive, respectfully non-invasive (to sacred knowledge), unbiased, and politically refreshed analysis of the past. Perhaps American materialistic culture and the individuals within, may discover the value towards symbolic meaning as it pertains to the continuation of one’s familial existence. Additionally, to consider symbols, whether spoken or artifactual, one generates further understanding of Native American culture and the associations to sacred principles. To consider the traditional explanations of specific documented symbolic motifs of indigenous Western Hemispheric inhabitants which define the first people to a land, one generates a deeper understanding of the sacred ideology which enables survival of a group through millennia. Such information and understanding of human and environmental interaction remains a crucial facet for the instillation of emergent indigenous ancestry within all of humanity’s shared lineage.

Symbols dynamically preserve meaning within stories, as they depend upon contextualization by a living story-teller. This is clear with the dynamic fruition of sacred mythology that allows the adaptability of the Hopi to weave the past, present, and future, within a dynamic and regenerating tradition, with meaning as ancient prophecy. Thus, future generations of Hopis who hear such stories, will understand them as they always have existed according to such document. In contrast, written text, aside from the ease which it decays, remains stagnant in one’s words in a single moment. Perhaps secrecy of ideological concepts as one operates within such a regime of colonial expansion, could serve as an ultimate preservation of ones uniquely identified culture. Additionally, the strategic element of silent observation of a dominant culture through the inevitable course of societal expansion, further allows the adaptation of new understanding and meaning which can be instilled in future stories for knowledge of survival.

Grandmother Spider, weaving the heavens into existence.

Works Cited

Hopi: Songs of the Fourth World. Dir. et al. Pat Ferrero. 2008.

Leydesdorff, Loet. “‘Meaning’ as a Sociological Concept: A Review of the Modeling, Mapping and Simulation of the Communication of KNowledge and Meaning.” Social Science Information 50.3–4 (2011): 391–413. Report.

Loftin, John D. Religion and Hopi Life. Indiana University Press, 2003. Book.

Schaafsma, Polly. “The cave in the kiva: the kiva niche and painted walls in the Rio Grande .” American Antiquity (2009): 664.

Simmons, Virginia McConnell. “The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.” University Press of Colorado 2000. Document.

UXL. “Acoma Pueblo.” UXL Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Gale Virtual Reference Library, 2008.

Observation and awareness in a living, evolving, dynamic social complex.

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