Algonquian Spirituality


Idol Kivasa

Algonquians Dancing

These drawings from the famous watercolors of John White, Governor of Roanoke Colony, capture the spiritual world of seventeenth-century Algonquians. The conjuror held a special place in Wahunsenacah’s world as a predictor of things to come, such as when a shaman predicted an emerging threat to his tribal alliance in the form of the Chesapeake tribe rumored to have been in collaboration with the settlers of Roanoke Colony. Wahunsenacah quickly moved to destroy the tribe. The Idol Kivasa represented figures who maintained a presence in the charnel house, a place of burial for kings. The precise meaning of these idols as human figures or priests is distorted by English chroniclers who viewed them through their own religious beliefs. The dancers moving in a counter-clockwise motion around wooden poles with carved heads of veiled women and three figures in the center have received voluminous attention and comparisons to similar phenomenon among Indian groups throughout the eastern region. From a more recent historical perspective, a different understanding might be given.

During times of distress, Indian religious leaders rose in importance in their communities to give spiritual explanations to unusual phenomena like famine, disease, and the sudden appearance of strangers in their midst. Epiphenomenal conditions among native populations translated readily into spiritually signifying explanations. Paquiquineo’s sudden reappearance, for example, surprised local Indians. The combination of famine, strange visitors, and the sudden visitation of an Indian figure long since vanished suggested supernatural forces at work. Indians reasoned, encouraged by interpretations of their shamans, that he had returned from the dead. His arrival at such a time likely signaled some kind of spiritual sign, something equivalent to the Ghost Dance phenomenon that Plains Indians of the late nineteenth century experienced. He may have been seen as a prophet, for example, who would lead them and show the way out of their misery of famine, warfare, and invasion.

The invaders, on the other hand, interpreted religious dances, prophecies, and spiritual awakenings as signs of paganism.

Creation Story

In 1610, about Christmas time, Chief Iopassus of the Patawomeck tribe, came aboard Captain Argall’s (Argoll) ship and noticed one of the crewmen reading the Bible. He inquired about what the man was reading whereupon the sailor showed him a picture of the Creation of the World. Noting Iopassus interest, Captain Argall then asked Iopassus to tell Henry Spelman, a boy who knew the Algonquian language, their story of creation. This is what he said (paraphrased in modern English from the account of William Strachey): We have five gods. The chief god appeared like a mighty great hare; the other four represented the four corners of the earth: north, south, east, and west. The chief god decided how to people the earth and its creatures. He made “divers” men and women and put them in a big bag. Then big spirits came to the chief god’s dwelling and wanted to eat the men and women in the bag, but the chief god reproved cannibalism and drove them away. The chief god made the water, fish, the land, and a great deer to feed upon the land. The other four gods (north, south, east, and west) were envious, assembled, and killed the great deer. They feasted upon the deer before departing to their four corners. The chief god, out of spite for their actions, spread all the hairs of the slain deer over the earth. Then every hair became a deer. The big bag was opened and the men and women were placed upon the earth in country after country. When they got old, they died gradually and returned to the earth.

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