Religion in Contemporary America

Review of Marla N. Powers, Oglala Women, Myth, Ritual, and Reality Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Reviewed by Karen Cisario.

			The key is in the remembering, 
			in what is chosen for the dream.
			in the silence of recovery we hold
			the ritual of the dawn,
			now as then,

				--Paula Allen Gunn 
				  "The Trick Is Consciousness" 	
				  (Powers xi.)

Oglala Women, Myth, Ritual, and Reality by anthropologist Marla N. Powers is an ethnography of the Oglala, a native American tribe of twenty thousand residing on the second largest reservation in the United States, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The study is primarily of the women of the tribe and their role in both the past and present world. However, in order for the role of women to be understood within Oglala society, Powers illuminates the entire Oglala social structure, male and female, and the encompassing Oglala culture, also known as the Buffalo Nation. The Oglala culture is rich in sacred tradition, and religion is not separate from their daily lives. Rather Powers describes them as "complementary"--well integrated and mutually dependent. For the Oglala, their religion is their culture, their culture their religion. It determines every aspect of their social structure. Today, after centuries of forced Americanization, including attempted Christianization, Oglala life has changed drastically, but they still maintain many of their ritual traditions and original beliefs. In order to understand the Oglala religion, one must first understand their creation myth, i.e. "the creation of the universe and the emergence of humans to the surface of the Maka Ina 'Mother Earth'." (Powers 35) The Oglala belief system is based on the myth that the presence of a woman led to the
creation of time and space. It is a woman who, bored with the natural universe, conspires with the culture hero to coax humans, her own people called the Buffalo Nation, from their subterranean world to the earth. It is she who in concert with trickster teaches the people about culture, and it is she who suddenly then leaves them to face the vicissitudes of nature alone. Finally, it is a sacred woman who drops to the earth in the form of a falling star and unites with the most virile of sacred beings, the South Wind. In the transformation of Falling Star into the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman, she brings the starving Lakota nation the instrument of prayer the Calf Pipe, which along with the Seven Sacred Rites will intervene in their lives whenever they are experiencing hardship and danger. (Powers, 35)
The importance of the Calf Pipe lies in it's power, through it's use in prayer, to provide sustenance for the Oglala in the form of the buffalo. For the Oglala, the buffalo was the primary source of survival, both physical and spiritual. The buffalo provided food, clothing, shelter, a purpose to their existence and a sacred object of reverence. The Seven Sacred Rites are ceremonies that both mark cycles of change and pay direct homage to the spirits. The Seven Sacred Rites are "wanagi wicagluha 'spirit-keeping ritual', wiwanyang wacipi 'sun gazing dance, hanbleceya 'vision quest' inikagapi 'sweat lodge'; isnati awicalowanpi 'female puberty ceremony, hunka 'the making of relatives' and tapa wankaiyeya 'the sacred ball game'." (Powers 48)

Every aspect of the Seven Sacred Rites, the placement of objects, the location of the ceremony, the age, sex, and status of the people involved are all specified for the respectful honoring of the spirits. In ritual use objects which literally provide a means for survival as well as a central focus for daily activity, stations of life and life cycle and activities which empower the individual within the community take aspects of ordinary life and transform them into encounters with the extraordinary (Albanese 33). For their ceremonies a structure not present before such as a sweat lodge may be built and daily activities rearranged to allow room for the event; however, ordinary activities are not put aside but integrated and ritualized. Dog meat stew would replace buffalo, but they would eat. A lock of hair from a dead child wrapped in a piece of red cloth becomes the central portion of a spirit bundle. In complementary fashion, within the everyday there is an aspect of ritual to the roles people play and precisely how events are carried through. When a buffalo is killed, women will enter the scene, butcher the animal and scavenge it for all of its many uses, practical and sacred. For example the long tendons of the back are saved for sewing while the skull would become an important ceremonial object. In both ritual and everyday activities the sacred must be attended to. If one turns south a certain spirit is honored; if one turns north it is not. By maintaining close and daily ties with the sacred the Oglala people remain prosperous. While this essential nature of their spirituality has continued into present times, the precise nature of Oglala spiritual and cultural life has been shifted to make room for American and Christian ways. The most obvious major change in Oglala culture has come not simply though encountering the white man, but through their relocation onto reservations. Within this setting, the facilitators of change have been Christian missionaries who established churches and opened schools on the reservations, deliberately setting out to educate and convert the Indians, one by one and in groups, religiously, academically, and culturally. Rather than achieving a complete conversion, however, what happened for the Oglala was a fusion of traditional Oglala values and American, Christian practices.

One has to keep in mind that Oglala are not a religious group or movement; they are a people. One does not "choose" to become Oglala the way one might "choose" to become Muslim , Christian, or Jewish, or even (if one were not native born) "American", and Oglala spirituality is, as we've noted before, a pervasive part of "being" Oglala. While the majority of Oglala became Christians, adopting Christian holidays, religious services, and other customs, they did not completely abandon an Oglala sense of spirituality or all of the practices accompanying it in either ritual or daily life. In one case a song from the Sun Dance might be incorporated into an Easter service. In another case they might have a Christian burial service, and then still engage in Oglala death rituals. And in a simple vein, new foods might still be prepared in old ways.

There are a number of reasons Oglala people can move from one religion to the next, even go to mass on a Sunday and a traditional ritual a few days later. First, from a historical point of view, Indians at Pine Ridge had to belong to a church to receive ration books. One declared membership in a church or risked starvation for the whole family...Second, there was never any good reason why Indians could not join a Christian church and still pray to [their own god]. (Powers 192)
The issue of survival cannot be overlooked. "For some, being a Christian had nothing to do with one's spiritual life--it was an economic, political, and social means to an end." (Powers 190) White expansion took the Oglala land and confined them, taking away their self-determination as well as disfiguring their sacred center: the buffalo itself, which the white man almost completely exterminated. One can only conjecture what spiritual displacement the loss of the buffalo caused the Buffalo Nation, but with it came the more specific displacement of the Oglala man. Just as the religion and the general culture of the Oglala intersect in complementary manner, so traditionally have the roles of women and men. In the Oglala tribe there is a division of labor, but it is neither hierarchical or without crossover tendency. Men were traditionally the hunters, warriors, shamans and chiefs, and the women wives, mothers, and the caretakers of the community. In history men dominate. In myth and ritual women dominate. (Powers 5) Traditionally, in daily life men killed the buffalo and the women prepared it.

The transformation of Oglala life which has taken place due to life on the reservations hasn't affected women's primary roles, and women's skills were easily transferable into the external work force of white America. They could become office workers, nurses--jobs which employed their care taking skills. In addition there was a market for their crafts. However, men's roles--their purpose for being in the society--was largely destroyed. The men's hunting skills could not be adapted into the American agrarian economy. Not to mention the feelings they had for the sacredness of the land, which for them was desecrated through agricultural practices. One could imagine that they would not jump to become farmers--which, in fact, they did not. The main role of men now is in maintaining tribal authority and in representing their people in the external American political system. Simply put, on a day to day basis, this is not the same thing as having something to do that contributes tangibly to survival. For the Oglala this is a spiritual as well as a practical issue. On the practical side it puts them at peril economically, for the men are not making an income to secure the means for food, clothing, and shelter for their families. The burden of doing so has fallen on the women, with the church filling in the rough spots. Whatever cultural information the missionaries set out to instill in the Oglala, they did not prepare the Oglala for this. Yet, one can imagine that Oglala spirituality which has always been so intimately tied to the issue of subsistence could shift to encompass this new means of survival in a now uncomfortable and threatening environment.

Of course, while the Oglala have been drastically affected by American, Christian culture, Americans have not been similarly affected by them. In fact, they haven't been affected at all, except in the need to respond against it: to control, "civilize", and exterminate it. In the end, the United States is not particularly affected by Indian culture and its spirituality, Oglala or otherwise, but neither have they succeeded in completely exterminating it and Oglala spirituality has been strong enough in some manner to survive it.

Reviewed by Karen Cisario
April, 1998

Return to
Religion in Contemporary America
Course Page
Last Modified April 27, 1998
Kenneth J. Banner
Return to the
Religion in Contemporary America