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Crow Religion


Jane Stanfel

Sweat Lodge - Oil on Old Barnwood

We promised a look at the Crow Indian religion, but before beginning, we must be a little more specific. If we wanted to sketch, say, the religion of Italians, we would have to decide if we meant in 300 BC, 400AD, 1500AD, or exactly when, because practices, even gods, changed over time.

When anthropologists talk about traditional Crow religion, they mean as formed during the time period, 1725-1770, during which their culture changed radically, due to ...? This is a quiz to see who remembers last week's educational article. What happened to the tribe about then? . . . THAT'S WHEN THEY GOT HORSES, which occurred around 1730-1740. [Some of us feel that having horses is a step backward, but scientists don't.]

After some Indian tribes encountered horses, that animal infiltrated their concepts of religion, but that seems not to have happened with the Crow. However, it certainly allowed them greater range and contact with other tribes, so that their own religious practice may have been influenced. Further, with the horse to assist in work, the people had more time for thought and meditation, so religion may have flowered as a consequence of having horses.

It seems likely, however, that selecting that time frame as a reference interval for their religion to have matured, was a consequence of white people's increased con¬tact with them, developing for them a written language, and recording how they lived. In other words they may not have experienced any great change in religious practice and belief, then, but only that outsiders be-came aware then of what they did. It's possible, too, that the Crow may have borrowed ideas from white people's religions.

Therefore, when we write "Crows believe," we mean "is part of their traditional be¬lief dating from that period."

Whereas you may have known people so addicted to cigarettes they seem to worship them, tobacco is very much a part of the Crow religion. In fact, within the tribe is a sect called the Tobacco Society, which honors the plant. Crow belief holds that tobacco was the first plant on Earth, be¬ginning when Morning Star transformed himself into a tobacco plant. Stars are important, too, and more about that later.

Crow legend says that God instructed a chief named "No Intestines" or "No Vitals," [There are no records from the 1400s to account for what seems, in our slang, to be an unflattering so-briquet.] to search for the plant, which he discovered at Devil's Lake in the east part of North Dakota. Remember that North Dakota was one stop on the Crow migration that ended in Montana and Wyoming. God maintained that the worship of this plant would help the Crow honor him.

Another version has No Intestines' dying before locating the plant, which was accomplished by his son near the present lo¬cation of Story, Wyoming. The son then initiated the first Sacred Tobacco Society by spiritually adopting his own son. We return later to this concept of adoption.

Consequently, tobacco is seen as fundamental to the tribe's welfare and as their means of living. The Tobacco Society makes certain that it is cultivated and that all the rituals are correctly performed, so that the tribe will be successful. Smoke from the sacred plant is deemed a medium for carrying prayers to God. Tribal members particularly devoted to smoking may belong to the Sacred Pipe Society, in which one smokes daily and thereby moves closer to God.

A little ahead of our story. We must skip back in the history of things to pose a fundamental question: how did the Earth and people come to be in the first place? The Crow have many creation stories, and fol¬lowing is one found on the web.

Old Man Coyote was all alone in a vast ocean then noticed two drakes floating on it. He had one of them dive to see what lay under the surface, and, after a long wait, it surfaced with a root in its bill. On a second dive, it brought up mud.

With the mud Old Man Coyote built first an island then all the lands, but they were empty, so he used the root to make plants. Earth was too flat, though, so he caused rivers, mountains, and other diverse features to appear. He and the drakes were lonely, however, so he made Man from the clay and then Woman and female ducks, so that everyone would be happy. Old Man Coyote then met another coyote, and they traveled around and had various adventures that created all the animals on Earth. [We found this interesting, because in a former project we had occasion to read a bit of traditional Navajo religious belief, and we found the coyote to be a powerful, fearsome creature to them. For example, if a person sets out on a journey, and a coyote runs across his path, he should give up the idea and go back, for his luck will be bad. The Navajo believe a coyote is the very worst of animals and think it possesses many lives, so as to be almost impossible finally to kill. That the animal is actually the Creator in the Crow story shows it to be a symbol of power to them, too.]

In the beginning the Crow were close to God and prayed constantly to prove their devotion. As in the creation stories of other peoples, however, circumstances declined, they forgot to pray, and misfortunes befell them. They believe that to be prosperous they must re-establish that bond through prayer and that one must have a personal relationship with God in order to be successful as an individual.

With this little exploration into religious belief, we can appreciate better the painting, "The Sacred Tobacco Ceremony." This depicts part of a Sacred Tobacco Society ritual and is part of the adoption rite. [Again, we defer a closer look at the concept of spiritual adoption.] The drum pictured is used only for this ceremony, and the pipe that is held is in the shape of a duck, with which we now associate the creation of the world. The head¬dress must have exactly 48 pigeon feathers, but your reporters cannot account for that design.

The Creator, Old Man Coyote, is the single, omnipotent god that made the universe, which consists of three worlds: our physical world, which is the smallest; the spirit world; and the place where only God lives.

The sacred power of God is called Baaxpe'e, and this must be given one by a patron from the spirit world. That place is between the physical world and where God lives, so spirits are mediators between him and man.

There are two ways to acquire Baaxpe'e, and one is to experience a vision. This is the approach when the help sought is personal, specific to oneself, as when wishing a cure from a sickness or to defeat an enemy in battle. As preparation the Crow petitioner may visit a medicine man to determine what sort of Baaxpe'e would be the greatest help and to learn the rituals and prayers to make sure his quest follows the rules. Then, he will go alone to an isolated and prominent place, such as the top of a hill, to find a place of seclusion for his prayer.

As a penance the seeker vows not to eat or drink for 2-3 days and sometimes makes a sacrifice, possibly the amputation of a finger, as an offering to God and a sign of faith. [For most of us, the prospect of such a pledge would cause second thoughts about the value of the blessing asked and stand as a severe test of our faith.] These acts are to gain the pity of a spirit, which will induce a vision in which the patron spir¬it adopts the Crow and thereby promises to intercede with God for him. The Baaxpe'e granted is not given, but loaned, and the individual must pray to his patron to confirm the bond and keep the power strong. As a father, the spirit guides the Crow child through life, and this describes the notion of spiritual adoption.

When the experience is complete and a vision granted, the supplicant may return to the med¬icine man to discuss the vision and fully understand its meaning. To commemorate the experience, the seeker creates medicine, a physical symbol of the Baaxpe'e, to represent the patron spirit, the power received, and to help the Crow channel and maintain it. For examples, if the vision was of a mountain lion, the medicine might be a claw from that animal; if of an owl, an owl feather.

Animal spirits are strong, and the Crow especially revere bi¬son, birds, and bears, but, as shown, having respect for a creature does not prevent one from killing it. The stars, more of God's creation, are highly sa¬cred, and their spirits also can interact with humans, which is akin to the precepts of astrology.

While the Baaxpe'e and the vision are unique and not transfer¬able, the medicine is a powerful, sacred object that can be passed to another Crow, willed to a family member, or given to someone unable to receive a vision. Should the medicine become impure, as by touching menstrual blood, the Medicine Father, that is, the spirit patron, would be offended and disease brought upon the owner.

The second means to Baaxpe'e is via a Sun Dance, performed publicly in a big lodge for the benefit of the entire tribe. In 1887 the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided, as a means of civilizing the tribe, to ban the Sun Dance from the Crow reservation, but it was revived in 1941.

An offspring of the Sun Dance is the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, which was practiced prior to Reservation days and continues to be performed today. The Sweat Lodge is prescribed to be constructed of 12 poles, covered by 12 skins [reminiscent of the 12 tribes of Israel, which were also symbolic in Christ's choosing 12 apostles]. The door of the lodge faces east to admit the rising sun, and the floor is covered by sweet sage. Centrally is dug a pit two feet square and into it are placed rocks heated by a fire east of the lodge. The layout of the Sweat Lodge is prescribed precisely by the rules of the ritual, and a number of dippers of water are splashed onto the rocks, thus creating steam and the effect of a sauna.

Participation is by invitation of the owner of the lodge, and water-pourer is an honorary position

given to his relative or bought. A symbolic umbilical cord is imagined between the fire and the pit, and it is not to be crossed. The rocks are heated by a person that will not sit and pray with the others and are carried inside by the lodge owner via a pitchfork. The owner offers bear root to God and places it on the rocks, then he and his guests, nude and seated, smudge themselves with smoke and switch themselves with sticks. They remain inside the Sweat Lodge until they feel cleansed, after which they exit, drink water, preferably from a stream, cool themselves, and repeat the ceremony. There are four iterations of the process, and then the women have their turns.

Jane Stanfel

The Sacred Tobacco Ceremony - Oil on Old Barnwood

In context, the Sweat Lodge is meant to rejuvenate and purify the individuals, prepared, as a result, for the Sun Dance Ceremony. Jane's rare scene entitled "The Sweat Lodge" shows one in Reservation times with the faithful posed outside.

As related, the Crow believe that God created everything we see, and, therefore, that the pow¬er of the Creator is in all things, which must, then, be sacred. They have been a religiously tolerant people and believe all

religions are connected to God and so equally valid means for establishing spiritual relation¬ships. They believe it is up to an individual to decide what paths are the most effective and therefore approve their people's belonging to multiple religions. Most faiths, we know, do not reflect such liberal philosophies.

Next week we shall high¬light three special members of the Crow nation.


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