Tuesday, May 14, 2013
This book represents a rich collection of writings about the reincarnation beliefs of North American Indians and the relationship of soul journeys, metamorphosis, and near-death experiences to reincarnation concepts. The collection draws from a wide array of writings on the topic both by American Indians, such as activists Charles Eastman of the nineteenth century and Thomas Sewid of today, and by ethnographers and researchers, including Franz Boas, Paul Radin, Knud Rasmussen, and others. The author presents a variety of writings on the traditional spiritual beliefs of many different American Indian peoples and the spiritual movements, such as the Ghost Dance and Shaker religion, that occurred in the wake of the takeover of the continent by European colonizers.
Most people are unaware of North American Indian reincarnation beliefs, and I welcome this book as a valuable contribution to making people more aware of how North American Indian spiritual beliefs include the view that all life forms reincarnate. When I began my studies of the spiritual beliefs of North American Indians, I had little knowledge of the depth and breadth of reincarnation concepts within their cultures. Even after taking courses in Indian spirituality at Harvard University, I was not aware of how widespread this belief was. It was not until 1964, when I went to the Beaver Indians of northeastern British Columbia, Canada, as a graduate student, that I learned how integral and vibrant the experience of reincarnation is among these Northern Athabaskan people. The experience of finding elders returned as babies among them was, and still is, very real for these people.
Finding the depth of the Beaver Indian experience, I began a search to learn how prevalent such concepts were among other North American Indian peoples. In fact, I found that the concepts are alive and well among many Native groups, despite the influence of Christianity. Reincarnation belief has continued, even if some Indian people have kept their views private or hidden because of the imposition of the Western worldview.
In this book the reader is offered a rich tapestry of accounts from a number of North American Indian peoples about death, dying, and returning to this life. Included are stories from the Inuit of the polar region; the Northwest Coast people, such as the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw), the Gitxsan, the Tlingit, and the Suquamish; the Pueblo people of the Southwest, such as the Hopi and Cochiti; the Winnebago of the Great Lakes region; the Cherokee of the Southeast; and the Sioux people of the Plains areas.
While there are some differences between the concepts and experiences of the varied North American Indian peoples, many aspects of the experiences described for a particular Indian tribe in this tome can be found among other tribes as well. For instance, the depiction of crossing the divide from this world to the spirit world described for the Coastal Salish by Curtis is similar to accounts from other Indian groups; the attempt to bring back a deceased wife from the nether world is recounted among a wide variety of Native peoples; the role of the shamans in healing and bringing people back to life from near death, as in the case of Black Elk presented here, is a theme many North American Indian people would recognize; the pierced-ear marks found on the reincarnated person as described here for the Coastal Salish relate to similar experiences among the Blackfoot and the Gitxsan, among others; and the wailing for deceased relatives and the care taken to not mourn too long, lest the loved one be prevented from getting to the land of the dead, beautifully recounted in the examples presented in this book, have similar expressions among many North American and Inuit peoples.
There have been five hundred years of interpenetration of Western and indigenous concepts since first European contact. While most of the accounts presented here relate to the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, what is impressive is that Indian concepts and experiences about soul journeys, metamorphosis, near-death experience, and reincarnation have survived through this long and difficult history and are aspects of Indian life that continue to be experienced today.
The author suggests the southwestern Cochiti concept of punishment of a soul for an evil life is indigenous. I wonder if this represents an internalization of the judgmental bias Christianity adopted when the concept of reincarnation was made anathema at the second Council of Nicea in the fourth century AD. Perhaps the Cochiti account is an internalization of the Christian concepts of soul punishment combined with the Indian concept of soul journey to the spirit world.
The ethnological record indicates reincarnation beliefs are found among the indigenous peoples on all continents of this earth. And as this book demonstrates, they are also found in most of the world’s major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, esoteric Judaism, the classical Greek tradition, early Christianity, and some sects of Islam. The author’s introductions to the writings that he has selected show that reincarnation concepts are a part of foundational human religious experience and are closely interrelated to shamanism.
I am grateful to Warren Jefferson for his great, pure effort in putting this information together in one volume. A book like this is long overdue and makes a valuable contribution to the study of comparative religion. My hope is that it will bring an increased awareness to the general public about the profound spiritual traditions of the North American Indians, traditions from which I think we could all learn a great deal.
—Antonia Mills, PhD
Professor, First Nations Studies, University of Northern British Columbia