Folklore, History & the Study of Myth

The Writings of Gary R. Varner

Paiute Cosmology

Paiute rock art, Owens Valley, California

Details: There is little information concerning the cosmological beliefs of the Eastern Mono, or the Northern Paiute in general. The universe was composed of the sky, which fit as a dome over a flat earth which was believed to be held in the hand of a mythic creature who occasionally would shake it.

Steward noted that the Paiute had “some belief” in oceans laying to the east, south and west. Aginsky noted that the Mono recognized the four cardinal directions and believed that the New Moon was a powerful occurrence. The Paiute greeted the New Moon with prayer, shouting, face rubbing and races. The New Moon was also directly linked to the monthly birth and death rates. Steward disagrees with the importance of the moon among the Owens Valley Paiute. Referring to the moon as the “noise maker and funny man; a buffoon in mythology,” he stated that the phases of the moon seemed meaningless although an eclipse signified the moon’s death.

The Mono recognized the seasons of the year and believed the winter solstice to be the beginning of the year. The Owens Valley Paiute observed five seasons rather than four. Their seasons consisted of the fall, winter, spring, summer and midsummer.

Little information exists as to the deities of these Paiute groups. As previously noted, some evidently directed wishes or prayers to the Sun but what the Sun symbolized remains only a vague concept to contemporary researchers. The sun was recognized as the source of light and warmth and that it could become a persons source of “power.” Spirit helpers, guardians and ghosts appear to have been widely perceived but did not necessarily occupy specific locations. Ghosts were often thought to appear in dreams or whirlwinds. While ghosts were feared they were not overly so.

Nature elementals or spiritual beings were believed to manifest themselves in the world through water, lightning, thunder and animals. These spirit helpers, or buha, were sought out to help one with his sexual prowess, gambling, success in war or the hunt or to control the weather.

Within the mythology of the Northern Paiute are elements universally found around the world. Like most every other culture the Paiute had a genesis myth:

“At first the world was all water, and remained so a long time. Then the water began to go down and at last Kura’ngwa (Mount Grant) emerged from the water, near the southwest end of Walker Lake…As the water subsided other mountains appeared, until at last the earth was lest as it is now.”

“Myths of central California,” wrote William J. Wallace, “reflected a greater interest in the genesis of the world and attributed its making to the will of a creator. Very usual were the ideas of a primeval ocean and an already existing divine being sending an animal or bird to dive for a few grains of sand or a little mud, from which he created the earth.”

The Great Flood is one legend associated with the creation of the world. The Owens Valley Paiute, living in the very arid desert regions of California and Nevada were no strangers to the flood myth. “Once there was a great flood,” the storey goes. “There was water everywhere. Mallard duck began to sprinkle dirt upon the water. The dirt became larger and larger and finally the earth was formed. Then Mallard took many tules and bound the earth together so that it would not fall apart.”

In Paiute mythology the flood predated the creation of the earth. “Once the whole world was flooded,” one creation myth starts. “Wolf, who was the strongest and greatest man in the world, was alone in a boat in which he paddled around for a long time. He was lonely and wanted somebody with him. He made Coyote and called him brother.

“Wolf said, ‘We can’t paddle around all the time. We must have some earth.’ He took a handful of earth and placed it on the water. It stayed there. At first it was very shaky, but later it became solid. Then he added more and more earth until he had a little round place. They got out on the earth.

“Coyote, who is always running around, ran back and forth and all over the earth. He said, ‘I want to step a little farther. This is too small. Can’t you add a little more earth? I am tired of this little strip. Can’t you make it bigger?’ His brother added more dirt and Coyote ran around again. He went right to the edge of it. He said to his brother, ‘This is too small. Can’t you make it a little bigger?’ His brother added more earth and the place grew. In this way it grew larger and larger until it became as it is today.”

A story similar to the Biblical account of Adam and Eve was also part of the Paiute mythic cycle:

“Then this woman was created in some unknown place and went over there [to the mountains]. She found the house of the Creator of Men…thus he had a wife for his own...

“The Creator of Men married her then, and they lay together and caused a baby to be made. They found it lying between them in the early morning…”
The woman and the Creator of Men soon had four children, but the children, two boys and two girls, “didn’t think well of their father” and shot him with arrows behind his knees. The children were banished but the Creator of Men and his wife were so overwrought that they wept and wept, submerging the world once again.

Another tale of the children of the Creator of Men is called “The Apple of Wisdom.” The children find a rattlesnake coiled in an apple tree:
“When they found the snake,” the myth relates, “they were deathly afraid. The whitemen came along next, but they were not afraid of the snake. They knocked down the tree and ate the apple. That is why the whitemen are as they are today. They makes houses and stoves and all manner of things out of stone and iron. If our people had not been afraid, they would have been like the whitemen…”

“The whitemen and the rattlesnake have the same kind of eye…Having eaten the apple, the whitemen do all things. That is why the whitemen have white skin and our people have black skin. Not having eaten the apple, the black people now eat worthless things and have no clothing.”

This myth obviously was told to explain why the Paiute had to do with less than their white neighbors. A mixture of Biblical lore and observation, this post contact tale originated after the Paiutes were forced to work as farm workers on white owned farms rather than continue their traditional lifestyles.

William J. Wallace wrote, “no migration narratives of any sort occurred in central…California, where the various tribes assumed that they had sprung into existence…in the very localities in which they lived.”

As in many mythic cycles around the world, magic was a predominate theme in Paiute tradition. Steward reported that “scarcely a myth, irrespective of type, is without it. Magic is used in the creation of things, appears in Coyote’s inglorious failures, and is exhibited in the clashes of great men who have supernatural powers.”

Other themes include hunting, gambling, and lust. Myths concerning war are rare as the Owens Valley Paiute were generally a peaceful people. Animal myths, such as “Cottontail’s Encounter with the Sun,” and “Badger and Chipmunk” were meant purely to entertain. These are very short and have no great moral to relate.

Many other myths were used to explain why the world is as it is, how things were created or why things are used the way they are. The mythic figure coyote, universally used as a trickster figure as well as one through accident of creation, was used in Native American myth to explain why life is so unfair and inconsistent, and it was Coyote who was the most important in Paiute oral literature. The myth “Why People Die” is one such tale. In this tale, Coyote and Wolf are arguing as to whether or not old people should be allowed to continue to climb Bald Mountain and bathe in the spring at the summit. By bathing in this spring the old regain their youth and health. Coyote believed that the old should die. Wolf thought that they should be able to bathe in the waters of the mountain. Coyote got so mad “that he kicked Bald Mountain and it toppled over into the valley below.” This destroyed the source of the healing waters and the old were forever doomed to die. Wallace noted that animal stories such as this were the most common form of mythology in central California.

According to Riddell and Laird, myths were only told during the winter months. To break this tradition was to invite storms or ill-luck upon the individual or the entire village. Few myths appear to have been created to instruct about the celestial bodies. Mooney noted, “in the mythology of the Paiute, as of many other tribes, the Milky Way is the road of the dead to the spirit world.” Other than this meaning, the origin or bigger meaning of the celestial bodies was little regarded in Paiute mythology.

Myths, according to John Bierhorst, “are what others have; we ourselves have ‘scripture’ or ‘history’.” All myths have a foundation in fact, in the history and oral traditions of a people. As such, if we look closely at specific myths, we may find ancient accounts of astounding events—accounts of a people, the environment and geography of a people.

While there is tantalizing evidence that many myths are ancient memories of events carried along by a people over untold years, any proof is unlikely to be uncovered due to the cross-cultural sharing of stories and histories. Jarold Ramsey summarized the issue in the 1999 book, In Reading the Fire: The Traditional Indian Literatures of America:

“That certain myth ‘sets’ in the West are very old, possibly thousands of years old, is not to be doubted, given their wide distribution; and in the case of a special category or narrative, one wonders if they did not originate as oral records of prehistoric natural events. It is known, for example, that Indians were living in the Oregon High Desert at the time of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Mazama seven thousand years ago, leading to the formation of Crater Lake—and there is a theme in Northern Paiute mythology of eruptions, world conflagrations, and the like that might derive from the blowup of Mount Mazama, or form other eruptions in the area before or after it….And the presence in several Paiute stories of odd details about impassible ‘walls of ice’ even raises the possibility, admittedly pretty remote, that such details refer back to the last period of heavy glaciation…some seven to ten thousand years ago!”

Many Paiute locations of mythic events are still in existence and represent the traditional beliefs and legends of this people. Bengston identified 380 locations in Nevada that are mythological places in the Paiute tradition. These locations include Dayton Hill where the first pine nut trees were said to grow in the land of the Northern Paiute; the location of the footprints of Numa na ah, the Father of the Paiute; Grimes Point where it is said that Coyote drew symbols on the exposed boulders; and “wolf house” where Wolf was brought back to life after being killed by another tribe, as well as Mount Grant which figures prominently in Northern Paiute creation myth.
Among the many important Paiute religious and folk locations are caves and traditionally significant rocks. Caves were sought out by men seeking power, power to act as a shaman, to have power to cure the ill, gamble or hunt successfully or to be impervious to arrow or bullet. “In any case” related Paiute informant Dick Mahwee, “a man coming to the cave must state what he wishes and then bravely face the ordeal of staying all night in spite of the terrifying noises. To do so assures the success of the quest, while to leave before morning means that the seeker receives no power.”

Caves of course are entryways between the world of man and the underworld where, supernatural powers may be tapped by those brave enough to seek them out. Caves have long been thought to be portals between these two worlds. The Kawaiisu myth (A Visit to the Underworld) contains an interesting illustration of these portals between worlds. The story tells of a man who entered an opening in a rock, to find himself in another world where the spirits of deer killed in the hunt go after death. The story, as reported by Zigmond, says, “the man saw water that was like a window. He could see the mountains through it. But it wasn’t water. He passed through it and did not get wet. When he was outside, he looked back and saw the ‘water’ again.” This man found himself several miles further up a canyon, just by stepping through the portal. This is a tale of a shaman’s travels, a physical representation of the mental or spiritual transformations that can lead us to a different sense of reality.

Archaeologist David Whitley, an expert on Southwestern rock art, states that “caves often served as vision quest locales because shamans believed the supernatural world lay inside or beyond them; the shaman entered the supernatural when the rocks opened up for him. Caves served as portals to the sacred realm.” Whitley goes on to say that because the Indians believed that spirit helpers lived within rocks, caves and mountains, “it seems natural that within this region shamans received their power from rocks and mountains.”

A cave near Yerington, called Mhannu, was used to test an individual’s special powers. If a man was sent to the cave and was strong enough to stay in it he was considered strong enough to become use his powers. Another cave near Fort Churchill was used by seekers of power as well. Men or women would spend the night being subjected to visions of snakes, lions and monsters in the hopes of receiving a special dream that would grant their request for power. This cave’s ceiling has been covered with rock art and offerings by those seekers in the past.

Other powerful objects include “doctor rocks.” These rocks and rock outcroppings were used as powerful healing stones as well as to grant wishes and to bestow shamantic powers. One near Eastgate, Nevada was used to treat headaches, dizziness and “serious illnesses.” The individual simply placed his or her forehead against the stone and prayed for a cure. Healing stones such as this one are found in other ancient sites around the world—usually associated with megaliths and standing stones. Another, called “Mecicine Rock,” is located near Fallon, Nevada along old Highway 50. According to some researchers “It is one of the most talked about religious and healing sites among many tribal people (both on and off the Walker River Reservation).” Some of these stones acquire offerings that are similar to those made at sacred wells around the world, such as pennies, safety pens, buttons, beads and even human hair. Offerings such as these are used to transfer illnesses from the individual to the stone, as well as to offer some small payment for healing received, this is a very ancient practice.

Hot springs were also sought out for their healing properties. Kyle Hot Springs and Lee Hotsprings are two healing springs. Paiute elders frequent Lee Hotsprings for its medicinal properties and use prayer and ceremony as part of the healing ritual there. In addition, many of the hot springs located in Paiute territory were also known for places of power, such as “clay rock” located on the western shore of Walker Lake south of Schurz. Here hunters could sleep and acquire luck to hunt deer. The hunter’s dreams would show him where to hunt and the circumstances which would permit a successful kill.

Reincarnation Beliefs of Native American Tribes

Details: Many cultures around the world believe, or have believed, in reincarnation—the return of the soul to the world to be reborn. What is the basis for beliefs in reincarnation? According to Antonia Mills, a belief in reincarnation “fits into the basic shamanic belief that typifies hunting and gathering peoples wherever and whenever they are found and…it was probably part of the most ancient human culture.” Belief in reincarnation is still prevalent in many parts of the world today, however—and not just in hunter/gatherer societies. In some Native American cultures this belief was modified in that only certain people were believed to be reborn—normally the disabled or deformed who had not been able to live a normal life previously. The Yuman tribes not only believed that the deformed would be reborn but also twins. “They were believed to come from a village of their own, an adjunct of the village of the dead lying to the northwest,” wrote Spier. “Some of the deformed there were without arms, others without noses or mouths; some had an eye in the middle of the forehead.”

Reportedly, twins and the deformed were born on earth as “visitors.” These individuals, after death, did not journey on to the land of the dead but returned to their village until they were reborn yet again.

Some Canadian Indians believed that both animals and humans are reincarnated. “The physical features of a newborn child are always referred to those of some dead forebear,” noted Werner Müller, “every child is thus a reincarnation.”

Generally speaking, the Plains Indians did not have a definite idea of a final afterworld. That is because they believed that reincarnation occurs to allow a soul to be “finished.” According to St. Pierre “If the soul does not become complete, dies too soon, or fails successfully to traverse a part of the path of life, then it will be sent back to live on this earth again until it completes the journey ‘in a good way.’”

Few in-depth studies have been conducted by anthropologists concerning Native American beliefs in reincarnation. One tribal study by Antonia Mills is that of the Gitxsan on the British Columbia coast. According to Mills, the Gitxsan believe that one soul can be reincarnated simultaneously as multiple people. One such individual reportedly has been reincarnated in seven different bodies since 1987. According to the Gitxsan all of these incarnations “have been within the bodies of her own descendants.”

New England tribes, especially the Algonquian, believed that reincarnation was one form of afterlife that was generally available. Like the Narragansetts, the Huron also believed that the individual was composed of at least two souls and possibly as many as five. One stayed near the corpse until a ceremony called the Feast of the Dead was performed. The feast resulted in the soul being set free to be reborn. The other soul went on its own way to a Village of the Dead where life continued much as it had prior to the individual’s death. Children younger than one month of age were buried along a well-used pathway so that their soul could reenter the womb of a woman who passed by to be reborn. According to anthropologist Alexander von Gernet, “some aspect of the infant’s underdeveloped soul configuration was deemed recyclable and that the Huron attempted to control the fate of this aspect through a strategic placement of the corpse.”

Among some Native American groups, such as the Northern Athapaskan Dene Tha, the soul is regarded as a dual entity. The soul is believed to remain in the afterworld and can be prayed to and, at the same time, exists in the human form of the reincarnated individual, also known as “Those Made Again.”

In some instances, reincarnation occurs as in human to animal form. This is not the common form however with four times more human to human transmigrations reported than human to animal forms. Animal incarnations were commonly believed to occur among the Kwakiutl, Zuni and Mohave. The Zuni and Mohave believed that a human spirit was incarnated four times in a series of animal and insect births. At each incarnation, the spirit became more powerful. Such animal-insect transformations were said to be temporary with human incarnations remaining part of the cycle. Some Native American cultures believed that animal transformations were reserved only for bad people. The Yurok, according to 19th century ethnologist Stephen Powers, “fully believe in the transmigration of souls; that they return to earth as birds, squirrels, rabbits, or other feeble animals liable to be harried and devoured. It is more especially the wicked who are subject to this misfortune as a punishment.” The Wintûn of Northern California, according to Powers, believed that the souls of the wicked “return into the grizzly bear, for that is the most evil and odious animal they can conceive of. Hence they will not partake of the flesh of a grizzly, lest they should absorb some wicked soul. For the most part, however, reincarnation was viewed as a desirable form of soul continuity, be it in animal or human form.

Native American Myth and Religion

Paiute rock art, Owens Valley, California

Details: Religion cannot be defined in simple terms. Religion is a complex set of beliefs, traditions, oral myths and history. It also is composed of ritual, attitudes, laws, lifestyles and one’s own undying curiosity of the origins of life and the events surrounding death.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare” meaning, “to bind.” Religion then is the binding of man to nature and thusly to the Creator—however it is that we picture such a being. To live with this binding is to be in harmony. To disrupt this harmony is to create confusion and chaos.
All people have a concept of what, to them, constitutes the “holy.”

This “holy” is a personal and higher power that is beyond man and his understanding. The religion of the Native American is a non-verbal harmonization between man and nature. The Indian experienced the supernatural daily and this experience was a practical and functional one. Native Americans learned to live with time instead of against it.

This said, even indigenous people did not agree on religion or what it specifically meant to them. Some Native Americans abhorred farming since to them it was comparable to cutting one’s own mother open. The cosmos was not only a personal universe but a tribal one which compassed the essential concepts of renewal through the seasons. The seasons exemplified the sacred beginning and ending cycles of life.

The use of language in cultures where oral communication was paramount was often regulated by religion. Words are powerful and every word, every name, every phrase had its own power and had to be used sparingly and with responsibility. The usage of language drew upon the individuals own power.

The Cosmos

“Cosmos” is an all encompassing term to describe the universe—both the physical and the unseen. To Native Americans cosmos was a private universe, an area where one could enter life, live it and finally die. The circumference of this universe may have only been a few miles from the individual’s home.

Cosmos is an awareness of time, location and season. Combined it is an awareness of what can be considered God. In religion, Cosmos plays an important role in that it establishes definitions tangible to one’s lifestyle. It also gives a foundation to the broader view of religion. Everything must work within the cosmological order or chaos results. Native Americans believed that every individual must have and know his place in this order, which would enable him or her to communicate with nature. Cosmology, then, is an attempt to systematize the world. To this extent, the Native American succeeded.
Belief in the Soul and the Afterlife.

Nearly all indigenous people believe in the soul, or some variation, and most also developed concepts of the afterlife. The soul was regarded as the essence of a creature and the belief that all things in the world have life and a soul. Animism was a fairly universal concept that is still much in existence today.

The Luiseño Indians in Southern California, according to Moriarty, “recognize that there was something within the body that did not die with the flesh.” (1)

The Luiseño believed that when one died the soul went to a heavenly place ruled by Chinigchinix, the god. The Luiseño conceived of this heaven as a place similar to the terrestrial world that they lived in but with a sense that sadness and work were no longer evident. Another belief was that the soul would travel to heaven and become a new star in the night sky. In those cases where an individual died away from their traditional lands it was felt that Chinigchinix would decide if the soul was worthy to live on in heaven or not.

A broader view of the soul was held by the Algonquin. This northeastern people believed that every animal possessed a soul, which enabled even the birds and bears to have reasoning ability similar to man. The Creator imposed and limited this ability but the birds were thought to be able to see within the future and in this way they were aware of the inner workings of the universe.

The Dakota believed that an individual possessed four souls. According to J.W. Lynd, a 19th century ethnologist, these four souls included “a spirit of the body, which dies with the body. The second is a spirit which always remains with or near the body. Another is the soul which accounts for the deeds of the body, and is supposed by some to go to the south, by others west, after the death of the body. The fourth always lingers with the small bundle of the hair of the deceased, kept by the relatives until thrown into the enemies country, where it becomes a roving spirit, bringing death and disease.” (2)

According to Dakota tradition, the third soul was immortal, however this tribe did not have a defined idea as to where the soul eventually went to after death. Or perhaps it was not important.

The Mandan Indians of the plains believed that the soul returned to the subterranean world that was, according to mythology, the place of origin for the Mandan people.

The Assinniboin and Athapascan tribes believed that upon death the soul migrated toward the south where the climate was warm and the game abundant. The Assinniboin concept of hell was, naturally, the reverse of this. Hell was a land of perpetual ice and snow and a lack of everything desirable.

Hidatsa concepts of the afterlife were quite developed and are similar to the mythological concepts of the Greeks. Washington Matthews, a 19th century ethnologist, wrote in an 1877 study:

“When a Hidatsa dies his shade (soul) lingers four nights around the camp or village in which he died, and then goes to the lodge of his departed kindred in the village of the dead. When he arrives there he is rewarded for his valor, self denial, and ambition on earth by receiving the same regard in the one place as in the other; for there, as here, the brave man is honored and the coward despised.” (3)

Individuals who committed suicide also went to this afterworld but had to remain separated from the others—in a form of purgatory.

The Hidatsa concept of heaven is probably similar to the conceptions of other religions—life continues although somewhat altered. The souls of humans hunted and fed off the “shades” or souls of animals that had died on earth. A lifestyle exactly the same as the earthly one was maintained. This new world of the afterlife appeared little different except that the four seasons were reversed in their order.

In Virginia, the Sapona Indians believed in a supreme god and believed that upon death all souls were taken under guard to the “great road” where the good and evil souls traveled together until they reached a fork in the road. One lane of the road was level and clean, the other strewn with rocks, and mountainous. The good and bad souls eventually were separated by strikes of lightning. (4)

According to legend, the level road, the path on the right taken by the good souls lead to a “charming warm country” where time did not exist and the weather perpetually like May. The souls, upon reaching this land, lived much as they had on the earth with one exception: everything that was attempted was successfully accomplished. The animals were plentiful and fat. At the entryway to this land of plenty sat an old man who, like St. Peter, determined if the soul was worthy to enter.

The left path, covered with debris, lead to a land of perpetual hunger. A “bitter kind of potato” was the only source of food which gave the soul-body great ulcers. The land was covered with another miserable thing—an eternal blanket of snow. According to Sapona legend, the women who resided in this hell were all ugly and attacked the men constantly with their unbridled passions. To make things worse they could only communicate in shrill tones. The ruler of this afterworld was an ancient, ugly woman with serpent-like hair. It was her only duty to determine the various degrees and period of torture with the type and amount of torture given out depending on the amount of sins accumulated by the soul. If, after the period of torture was completed, the soul had repented of its crimes it was allowed to travel on to “the regions of bliss.”

Like the Sapona, the Natchez also had a very defined concept of the afterlife. They believed so strongly in a heaven with abundant feasting, dancing women and pleasure that the men willingly went to their deaths in battle so that they would enter this afterworld sooner. The Natchez also believed in a hell in which the soul was left naked and exposed to mosquitoes in a world water covered and food limited to spoiled fish.

The Chippewa (5) and many other tribes believed in the duality of the soul. This, they thought, accounted for the actions of the mind in the dream world. They denoted the duality with the terms “inaindum” for the mind and “otchichuag” for the soul. The ghost or apparition sometimes seen after an individual dies is called the “jebi”. These parts of the self were separate and functioned individually. Some Indians, however, believed that an individual was composed of two souls, one which remained with the body as the other roamed freely in the dream world.

The belief in animal souls was fairly common in both north and south American cultures. Because animals were believed to possess a soul certain proscribed steps had to be taken prior to hunting commencing. If an animal was killed in an “indecent manner,” it could report its death to other animals both living and dead since they shared a “common mind.” If the hunter had wronged the animal, no other animal would permit itself to be taken in this or the next world.

To the Aztecs all beasts and birds possessed souls. The souls of men killed in battle and those of women who died in childbirth were believed to ascend to heaven, to the House of the Sun, to reside with the Lord of Glory, living in happiness and ease. After four years, however, the souls returned to the earth in the forms of beautiful birds or as clouds. Those Aztecs not cremated, and thusly not receiving the final purification, had their souls confined to a “terrestrial paradise” (6) which was blissful but still separate from that in the House of the Sun.

The Tlascallan people had similar concepts of the souls survival except only the noble class would ever return to the earth in the form of beautiful, plumed birds. According to Tlascallan tradition, the common people could only return to the earth as insects. Tlascallan’s who died in disasters, of illness or accident were assured of an afterlife of “peace and pleasure” in the home of the god Haloc.

American Plains Indian concepts were a bit simpler. While an immortal soul was a given, concepts of awards or punishments in an afterworld were not entertained. The most common belief was that the soul would continue to exist in a world parallel to the earthly world.

The Pawnee’s belief system of an afterlife was included in their cosmological views. The Pawnee believed that some souls traveled to the heavens to become stars while other souls belong to those who died of illness or cowardice forever traveled the Milky Way from end to end. Of course, the chiefs, shamans and priests all ascended to a distant heavenly village.

To the Navajo the individual had both good and bad spirits that inhabited the body. (7) Both spirits were said to leave the body at death but neither was considered the true “essence” of the personality. After death, the good spirit was thought to go to a replica of its earthly existence in a subterranean world in the far north. While this existence was not particularly “heavenly”, it did provide for a continued existence in a comfortable environment.

Similar beliefs were held by the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest. This tribe believed in the immortality of the soul and that an afterlife was lived in a parallel world to that experienced on the earth during their lives. The soul was believed to live, work and play in the same manner as the individual had on earth. However, the soul was also thought to have the ability to float in the clouds and to bring rain to the physical world.


Animism is another conceptualization of the soul although one which is more general in its meaning. Many indigenous cultures, the Native Americans included, believed that every object on earth possesses a soul, a spirit or a life force. This is animism. Animism is the belief in the soul as independent of matter. Because of this belief in the many spirits on the earth, all objects took on personality traits, which played important roles in mythology.

The belief in animism appears to have been universal in scope among Native Americans and cultures elsewhere. The concept of the animistic soul was defined by Washington Matthews as the “shade” of the object, a spirit inhabiting every non-man made object.

The Hidatsa, like other tribes, viewed everything that was of natural origin such as rocks, trees, rivers, etc. as sacred and containing the spirit of divinity. They had a reverence for all things of nature and respected the importance that these objects played in their universe. The Hidatsa believed that these objects had a portion of the cosmological power and, because of this, everything was part of a common intelligence which could be called upon to assist the Indian at times of need in some aspects of their lives.

Recent studies in this field have indicated that a primordial form of life may, in fact, exist in every non-animate object including stones. Anthropologist Lyall Watson’s book The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects (8) is an excellent analysis of such phenomena. Watson speaks of an “organic bridge” which links mind and matter—even inanimate matter. The word “animism” is used disparagingly by many as a “primitive” notion, however this biased assumption may be far from the truth and indigenous people may have been right all along.


The word “shaman” is derived from the Tungus language of Siberia. The concept is fairly universal throughout the world. The shaman is a magi-priest, medicine man, sorcerer, prophet, jack-of-all supernatural trades. The shaman developed from a driving need for guidance and knowledge of the supernatural. The shaman, for all practical purposes, developed into the first psychiatric practitioner.

Religious historian Mircea Eliade makes a distinction between shamanism and other native religious practitioners. “Generally,” he wrote, “shamanism coexists with other forms of magic and religion. …Magic and magicians are to be found more or less all over the world, whereas shamanism exhibits a particular magical specialty…’mastery over fire,’ ‘magical flight,’ and so on. By virtue of this fact, though the shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every magician can properly be termed a shaman…every medicine man is a healer, but the shaman employs a method that is his and his alone.” (9)

Eliade further noted, “the practice of witchcraft may be as important a part of shamanism as the curing of disease or the charming of game in a communal hunt. We will designate the term of shamanism, then, all the practices by which supernatural power may be acquired by mortals, the exercise of that power either for good or evil, and all the concepts and beliefs associated with these practices.” (10)
In most tribes, the shaman was a highly respected individual who could shape the political structure of the society to his own liking by using his, or her, influence. The shaman was the sole authority on things which people could not understand. In many cases, the shaman was the sole force that held village society together.

After death, the shaman was responsible for conducting the soul to the afterworld through a set pattern of ritual. The cosmological concepts utilized for this task included the knowledge of the cosmos, the power of the universe and the power’s sacredness. These items became the structure in which the shaman worked.

While also venerated as a priest there is a definite distinction between a priest and a shaman. Priests were considered apart from the common people while shamans were considered equals until sought out for their particular power. Priests also held a specialized religious office which the shaman did not. Another distinction between the two was that the priest was concerned mostly with the rituals and items that affected the well-being of the total tribe or village while the shaman acted on a one-to-one basis with the individual tribal member.

A shaman was usually chosen because of dreams that he had which indicated specific divine favors or influences. Other factors which might have indicated the appropriateness of shamanic ability included neurotic tendencies or epileptic seizures—both being signs of divine choice.

The life expectancy of a shaman was fairly short, no more than thirty years for most, due perhaps to the tremendous psychological stress that became the shamans burden. In addition, the failure to cure an illness or to find a lost item could result in death at the hands of a dissatisfied customer.

Occasionally feuds would develop in tribes between the priests and the shamans who were considered “free lance” priests. In the Natchez tribe this was handled by the priests delegating certain small duties to the shaman with the places of worship, rituals and religious paraphernalia remaining in the priests control. The training involved in becoming a priest in Natchez society took many years and the shaman was not allowed to threaten the priests’ position in Natchez society. The position of the shaman was often hereditary, passed down in certain families. In some circumstances, the shaman could foreshadow the priesthood in influencing tribal society.

Eliade noted that in Asian societies “the chief methods of recruiting shamans are: (1) hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession and (2) spontaneous vocation (‘call’ or ‘election’). There are also cases of individuals who become shamans of their own free will…or by the will of the clan… But these ‘self-made’ shamans are considered less powerful than those who inherited the profession or who obeyed the ‘call’ of the gods and spirits.” (11) This was also true for Native American shamans.

The North West coast shamans shared a dual leadership with the village chief and, in some cases, both shaman and chief were of the same family or one individual held both positions.
The Wahpeton Dakota believed that shamans existed prior to their earthly existence. They lived alongside the “Thunderers” and had knowledge of future events and their own future, mortal lives. (12)

The shaman in Dakota society began their duties at an early age. It was believed that if they disobeyed their divine orders the Thunder Beings would punish or kill them. The shaman had to continuously exhibit their power to keep the respect and to hold on to their office. This was done through periodic and competitive “magic” exhibits before the whole village. These exhibitions varied in content with firewalking practiced by the Arapaho and Cheyenne, burning corn husks and boiling water handled by the Pawnee, and materialization of animals performed by the Crow, Mandan and Hidatsa. (13)

The most important aspect of the shaman’s powers was that of medicine. Under divine direction, one shaman might treat only pregnancy, another was gifted in the treatment of poisons, etc. Their curing powers were usually quite successful considering what they had to work with. The shaman’s ability to manipulate the power of suggestion undoubtedly accounted for much of their success.

Schoolcraft wrote in 1857 that the Dakota shamans were “always treated with the greatest respect, and generally furnished with the best of everything…there are from five to twenty-five of these men and women at each of the villages, most of whom have a fair and considerable employment…” (14)

Schoolcraft went on to say, “I do not believe that an individual Dakota can be found, who does not believe that [the shamans] can heal disease without the help of vegetable or mineral medicines.” (15)

The Dakota believed that the shamans were reincarnated four times, each time as a more powerful shaman until they were returned to the cosmos. After each death, the shaman’s spirit sought out a suitable expectant mother to enter and to be reborn among the people to continue with its divine purpose.

Contrary to Weston La Barre who believed that shamans were usually deviant to the extent of being “criminally insane”, or at least being “naïve believers to conscious manipulators,” (16) Schoolcraft wrote that the shaman’s power was “assumed by persons possessing more than ordinary mental capacity” although he acknowledged the shaman’s “art in practicing and concealing glaring deceptions.” (17)

Schoolcraft believed that no Indian hero ever reached that distinction without the aid of a shaman.


1. Moriarty, James Robert. Chinigchinix: An Indigenous California Indian Religion. Los Angeles: Southwest Museum 1969, 50.
2. Lynd, J.W. Religion of the Dakotas. Minn. Hist. Soc. Collection., ca. 1857, vol. 2, pt. 2., 68, 80.
3. Matthews, Washington. Ethnological and Philol. Of Hidatsa Indians. Washington: U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey, Misc. Publications #7, 1877, 49.
4. Byrd, William. History of the Dividing Line, Vol. 1, 1792 (reprinted 1866), 106-108.
5. Schoolcraft, Henry R. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States. New York: J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1857, 638.
6. Sejourne, Laurette. Burning Water. Vanguard Press 1956, 101.
8. Ferm, Vergilius, ed. Ancient Religions: A Symposium. New York: Philosophical Library 1950, 360.
9. Watson, Lyall. The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects. Rochester: Destiny Books 1992.
10. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1964, 5.
11. Ibid, 298.
12. Ibid., 13.
13. Lowie, Robert H. Indians of the Plains. New York: Natural History Press 1954, 176.
14. Ibid., 177.
15. Schoolcraft, op cit. 657.
16. Ibid.
17. La Barre, Weston. The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion.. New York: Doubleday & Company 1970, 179.
18. Schoolcraft, op cit. 647.

The Spirit Land

Details: Most every culture believes in the existence of the soul after death. Usually the afterworld was a duplicate of the earthly existence of the deceased although much more pleasant with abundant game, beautiful mountains, rivers and forests. Usually the soul also must meet certain tests to transition from the physical world to the land of the dead.

Many of these tests call for the spirit to cross vast chasms with narrow passageways or traverse over massive waterfalls while monstrous creatures attempt to pull the soul into oblivion.

The afterworld of the Lakota Sioux is in the northern sky. Here the departed live on in peace and plenty free of illness and sorrow. They spent their eternity playing games, singing, dancing and hunting as they wished. It is said that “agreeable women and fine horses” are also there to make the afterworld an even finer experience.

In Lakota myth, the spirits of cowards or mean spirited people are met by the Spirit of the North on a narrow trail on the path to the Otherworld. The Spirit of the North trips the soul so that it falls into the waters, which separate the land of the living and the land of the dead, the Spirit of Waters is allowed to do as it will with the fallen soul. Another Lakota tradition says that after death the soul “must cross a river on a very narrow tree. If he is afraid to cross the river, he returns to the world and wanders about forever. If he crosses the river, he goes to the spirit world.”

The theme of the soul crossing over an abyss by walking over a narrow ledge is a widespread one. In every case, the soul is threatened with monsters, guardians of the otherworld and other varied distractions, which attempt to pull the soul into swirling waters or into deep crevasses so that it is not able to reach the underworld where eternal life is waiting.

Native Americans believed in an existence after death, the quality of which depended on how an individual lived and died. The Nahuatl believed that all persons continued to live eternally and that the soul was not affected by the personal behavior of the individual prior to death. The Aztecs, on the other hand, believed in the consequences of acts that were outside those normally accepted. While the Nahuatl believed in a “heaven” where the soul continued to live much as it had on earth, they also believed in the concept of multiple heavens of lesser degrees—somewhat similar to the Christian concept of purgatory.

The Luiseño Indians in Southern California, according to Moriarty, “recognize that there was something within the body that did not die with the flesh.”

The Luiseño believed that when one died the soul went to a heavenly place ruled by Chinigchinix, the god. The Luiseño conceived of this heaven as a place similar to the terrestrial world that they lived in but with a sense that sadness and work were no longer evident. Another belief was that the soul would travel to heaven and become a new star in the night sky. In those cases where an individual died away from their traditional lands it was felt that Chinigchinix would decide if the soul was worthy to live on in heaven or not.

The Gabrielino, a neighboring tribe to the Luiséno, believed that the hearts of fully initiated tribal members took their places as stars in the heavens. The other, more ordinary members, “went to an underworld where they made merry with dancing and feasting.” Like other groups the Garbrielino believed that the Milky Way was the home of the spirit—at least for those initiated members.
Another California tribe, the Pomo, believe that the afterworld is in the heavens as well. To get their after death the Pomo believe that “they will ascend by a ladder. The souls of the wicked will fall off the ladder in the ascent and descend into negative and nondescript limbo, where they will be neither happy nor tormented, but rove vacantly and idly forevermore.” The truly evil, however, are transformed into the grizzly bear or the rattlesnake which must crawl over the burning sand or be forever hungry.

The Coast Miwok believed that the dead leapt into the sea at Point Reyes and followed a string through the surf to the west and the setting sun where they resided with Coyote in the afterlife. In many native traditions Coyote plays a major role as both trickster and a cultural hero who created the earth, caused death, taught the people about fire and generally brought knowledge to humankind.

The Hupa Indians residing in the far northwestern corner of California believed in a “damp, dark underworld” with only the spirits of shamans and singers who participated in major ceremonies allowed to journey on to a more pleasant afterworld in the sky. Other California tribes as well, such as the neighboring Karok, believed that the afterworld was established along class lines. The Karok did believe that the spirits of all dead journeyed to an afterlife in the sky, however, “an especially happy place was reserved for rich people and ceremonial leaders.”

The Karok soul must chose between two paths after death. One was a path of roses which leads to the “Happy Western Land beyond the great water” and the other a path of thorns and briers which leads to a dark land of evil.

Another Northern California tribe, the Mattoal, believe that the afterworld lays southward in the Great Ocean. The souls of the bad did not journey on to the afterworld but transformed into the grizzly bear which was representative of sin.

The Mandan Indians of the plains believed that the soul returned to the subterranean world that was, according to mythology, the place of origin for the Mandan people.

The Assinniboin and Athapascan tribes believed that upon death the soul migrated toward the south where the climate was warm and the game abundant. The Assinniboin concept of hell was, naturally, the reverse of this. Hell was a land of perpetual ice and snow and a lack of everything desirable.

Hidatsa concepts of the afterlife were quite developed and were similar to the concepts of the ancient Greeks. Washington Matthews, a 19th century ethnologist, wrote in an 1877 study:
“When a Hidatsa dies his shade (soul) lingers four nights around the camp or village in which he died, and then goes to the lodge of his departed kindred in the village of the dead. When he arrives there he is rewarded for his valor, self denial, and ambition on earth by receiving the same regard in the one place as in the other; for there, as here, the brave man is honored and the coward despised.”

Individuals who committed suicide also went to this afterworld but had to remain separated from the others—in a form of purgatory.

The Hidatsa concept of heaven is similar to the concepts of other religions—life continues although somewhat altered. The souls of humans hunted and fed off the “shades” or souls of animals that had died on earth. A lifestyle exactly the same as the earthly one was maintained. This new world of the afterlife appeared little different except that the four seasons were reversed in their order.

In Virginia, the Sapona Indians believed in a supreme god and believed that upon death all souls were taken under guard to the “great road” where the good and evil souls traveled together until they reached a fork in the road. One lane of the road was level and clean, the other strewn with rocks, and mountainous. The good and bad souls eventually were separated by strikes of lightning.

According to legend, the level road, the path on the right taken by the good souls lead to a “charming warm country” where time did not exist and the weather perpetually like May. The souls, upon reaching this land, lived much as they had on the earth with one exception: everything that was attempted was successfully accomplished. The animals were plentiful and fat. At the entryway to this land of plenty sat an old man who, like St. Peter, determined if the soul was worthy to enter.

The left path, covered with debris, lead to a land of perpetual hunger. A “bitter kind of potato” was the only source of food, which gave the soul-body great ulcers. The land was covered with another miserable thing—an eternal blanket of snow. According to Sapona legend, the women who resided in this hell were all ugly and attacked the men constantly with their unbridled passions. To make things worse they could only communicate in shrill tones. The ruler of this afterworld was an ancient, ugly woman with serpent-like hair. It was her only duty to determine the various degrees and period of torture with the type and amount of torture given out depending on the amount of sins accumulated by the soul. If, after the period of torture was completed, the soul had repented of its crimes it was allowed to travel on to “the regions of bliss.”

Like the Sapona, the Natchez also had a very defined concept of the afterlife. They believed so strongly in a heaven with abundant feasting, dancing women and pleasure that the men willingly went to their deaths in battle so that they would enter this afterworld sooner. The Natchez also believed in a hell in which the soul was left naked, exposed to mosquitoes, the world covered in water, and food limited to spoiled fish.

The Pawnee’s belief system of an afterlife was included in their cosmological views. The Pawnee believed that some souls traveled to the heavens to become stars while other souls belong to those who died of illness or cowardice forever traveled the Milky Way, also referred to as the “ghost road” from end to end. Of course, the chiefs, shamans and priests all ascended to a distant heavenly village.

“When at last it shakes free of its corporal abode,” wrote Hoebel, “the Cheyenne soul wafts free and light up the Hanging Road to dwell thereafter in benign proximity to the Great Wise one and the lonng-lost loved ones. Only the souls of those who have committed suicide are barred from this peace.” Where these souls wind up is not revealed however although the Cheyenne do not have a Hell.

Existence on the Hanging Road, a world suspended between the heavens and the earth, is just as it was for the Cheyenne while they were living. “All the Cheyennes of the past live in heaven, just as they did on earth—and have a good time of it,” states anthropologist Hoebel.

The Hopi Indians of the American Southwest believed in the immortality of the soul and that an afterlife was lived in a parallel world to that experienced on the earth during their lives. The soul was believed to live, work and play in the same manner as the individual had on earth. However, the soul also was thought to have the ability to float in the clouds and to bring rain to the physical world.

Contrary to the Hopi, the Navajo have an extreme fear and avoidance of anything having to do with death. The afterworld is, according to Kluckhohn, “a shadowy and uninviting thing.” The Navajo believe that the afterworld is just like the physical world of the living but located in the north just below the earth’s surface. The spirit must travel down a trail until they reach a sandpile at the bottom. Here the spirits deceased relatives, who look just as they did while living, guide the soul to the afterworld which takes a four day journey.

In Apache tradition “the ghost of the departed makes its way or is led by other ghostly kin to the underworld, ‘a beautiful place beneath the ground, where a nice stream of water flows between banks that are lined with cottonwood trees, and everything is green.’”

The way to this beautiful world was through an opening in the ground “cut out like a window.” This opening is hidden by tall grass and the departed soul must be led to it so that it isn’t missed. Once inside the opening, however, it is almost impossible to return.

An individual who had a “near death experience” described this afterworld:
“The same ways we have here are carried on down there too. Those people dance, eat, and sleep. A person down there can actually feel another in the flesh. The people remain the same age as they were when they died. I saw people as they were when they went. That is the way it is always seen. There is no sickness, death, pain, or sorrow there…The same places, the same sacred mountains, the same ceremonies exist there as here. It is just as though everything is transferred to a different country.”

The spirit land, according to the Maricopa, was a duplicate of the physical world of the living, except day and night and the seasons were reversed. “The dead were constantly at dances and games,” wrote Spier, “so many of them together that there were crowds at the games. They went to war. They were always enjoying themselves, with plenty to eat.”

In the Maricopa afterworld, as in so many others, the old became young and “old things new.” However, babies matured to age fifteen or so. The dead who inhabit this afterworld mate and have children. “Living” in the land of the dead was not eternal however. The inhabitants eventually get old and die again—in fact they have three lives and die three times. At the fourth death the soul becomes “nothing more than a bit of charcoal lying in the desert.” The only complaint voiced by the Maricopa dead is how rapidly they could travel:

“When a living person wanted to go somewhere, he had the pleasure of anticipation and fulfillment: he set a day and on that day went off camping enroute for however long it might take him. ‘But with us,’ the dead complain, ‘when we want to go anywhere, we are there before we know. We do not like that.’”

The Indians in Northern California living in the Lassen volcano area believed that the dead lived on much as they had in life—using sweat houses, hunting, sleeping and carrying on as they always had. The major difference is that sickness no longer exists. No clear picture of their ancient beliefs can be obtained however since after the white settlers arrived the Native traditions became heavily influenced with Christian dogma. These people believed that after death the soul would go south where it was ‘evaluated” and, after passing the evaluation, it would travel to a distant place in the west by way of the Milky Way.

Many Native American stories of the afterlife speak of the dead hunting as they had in life. What exactly did they hunt? According to Father Paul Le Jeune, who wrote of the Montagnais Indians in 1634, “They hunt for the souls of beavers, porcupines, moose, and other animals, using the soul of the snowshoes to walk upon the soul of the snow, which is in yonder country; in short, they make use of the souls of all things, as we here use the things themselves.”

The Chumash Indians of California’s Santa Barbara coastal area believed that the soul is eternal and reincarnation a normal part of the cycle. However, there are differences in the final disposition of the spirit. “The dead go west and are born again in this world,” writes anthropologist Thomas Blackburn. “It is all a circle, an eddy within the abyss.” After death, unless cremated, the spirit remains in the area where they lived for five days. Those who were cremated immediately go to the west and do not remain for the five day period to pass. The souls of those drowned, however, always remained in the sea, never reaching land and never being reborn. Likewise souls of infants never reached the afterworld of the adults. Most souls, who did not drown or were infants at death, traveled west where they remained for twelve years. At the end of the twelve years the soul would be reborn. During this time, the soul was free to travel the world although they inhabited another sphere, far in the west.

The Chumash believed that the dead found their way to the afterworld through a sacred pool at Point Humqaq. Point Humqaq was so holy that all Chumash avoided it except for periodic pilgrimages to leave offerings at the shrine. Point Humqaq was viewed as a “portal” used by the souls of the Chumash to reach heaven where they awaited their turn at reincarnation. Humqaq Pool, located nearby, is a basin in which fresh water continuously drips and where the Chumash spirit “bathes and paints itself” while waiting to ascend to heaven.

The Chumash myth "The Soul’s Journey to Šimilaqša" tells of the soul’s journey from the grave to Point Conception where the sacred pool is located. The story says that “there in the stone can be seen the footprints of women and children. There the spirit of the dead bathes and paints itself. Then it sees a light to the westward and goes toward it through the air, and thus reaches the land of Šimilaqša (‘land of the dead across the sea’).”

The souls of the Chumash dead must cross a river or pool that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead, as they did at the River Styx and other boundaries throughout the legends of many other cultures. A slender pole is dropped across the water on which the soul must walk to the other side. To complicate the issue two water monsters attempt to dislodge each soul as it crosses the pole, if they fall they are doomed to be transformed into a being with both human and frog-like attributes, forced to live in the waters for eternity. The myth goes on to say that the souls of murderers and other evil people are turned to stone and do not cross the river but must watch as the other souls are allowed to cross throughout time.

Far to the north, the Netsilik Eskimo believed that there are three afterworlds. The first is called “the village,” or Agneriartarfik. Located in the sky, this afterworld provides an abundance of game with caribou in huge herds. If, however, the spirit tires of hunting and eating caribou “the moon spirit helps them down to the sea where they can kill seals.” This afterworld is beautiful with good weather and the residents “continuously happy.” The dead play at games and everything is supposedly happiness and fun. This afterworld is reserved for hunters who have died violently and for women who have undergone the pains of receiving large and beautiful tattoos. The dead remain at their age when they died.

The second afterworld is located in the underworld, deep beneath the tundra. Called Aglermiut, the dead here experience the same benefits that the dead in Agneriartarfik receive. Salmon fishing and caribou hunting are excellent and the dead live on in happiness and abundance. The main difference between this afterworld and the physical world is that the seasons are reversed. Aglermiut is populated with hunters and tattooed women as Agneriartarfik is.

The third afterworld, called Noqumiut, is also located underground and just below the earth’s crust. This world is reserved for the lazy hunter and women who would not undergo the pain of receiving tattoos. The residents here huddle together with hanging heads and closed eyes. They are perpetually hungry and apathetic with the only food the butterfly, which can only be caught if it flies too close to the head of a dead man or woman.

As in most cultures, those individuals who break societal rules or who do not contribute to the wellbeing of the whole are punished. In Netsilik society, the lazy and idle received the most severe punishment after death.
The Tollamook Indians on the Oregon Coast believed that after death the soul had to travel a long distance to reach the world of the dead. After two days of walking a river was reached where the soul had to wait for ten days. After ten days, a canoe crossed the river to get the soul and take it to the other side. On the other side, all the other souls had gathered in a large house to greet the individual. Dancing and feasting soon commenced. This land is said to be beautiful with colorful birds and plentiful game and fish to take. The best thing is that the old are young once more. The Tillamook also believed that the vast schools of salmon were also composed of the spirits of dead ancestors who returned to Tillamook Bay each year to provide food to those still living. The spirits reincarnated as salmon hope to be captured by their descendents.

New England tribes had similar beliefs in the afterworld as other tribes across North America. The Narragansetts, who occupied much of Rhode Island, believed that the soul consisted of two parts. One was believed to exist while the body slept and the other which was a reflection of the body. After death one of them continued to an afterlife similar to the physical existence during the time the individual lived. This afterlife existed for the souls of “great and good men and women” who lived on in the house of the creator, Cautántowwit. The souls of murderers, thieves and liars were sentenced to an existence of continuous wandering and restlessness.

The Algonquians of Virginia had two philosophies regarding an afterlife. The upper class believed that only chiefs and shamans could expect a life after death. However, the majority of Algonquian believed in reincarnation and survival after death.

The Algonquians of North Carolina also believed in an afterlife structured according to the individual’s moral conduct. Those with evil souls were believed to go to a pit of fire in the west while reincarnation was commonly viewed as an outcome for most.

The Huron believed that after death and after the Feast of the Dead had been performed, souls “would assemble covered in their robes and grave goods and depart on a path along the Milky Way.” The souls of the very young or the elderly remained in a special village and used the corn fields abandoned by those still living. These earth-bound souls were occasionally noticed but were not feared or considered a threat. In fact, efforts were made by the villagers to keep these souls supplied in provisions.
Those who had been killed in battle or who committed suicide were feared by both the living and those who died peacefully and went to their own villages of the dead. Along the way to the afterworld, souls were faced with obstacles which must be passed.

According to Heidenreich, “the souls had to go past the rock ecaregniondi in the Petun country. Near this rock lived oscotarach ‘head-piercer’ who drew out their brains and placed them in pumpkins. Next, the souls had to pass over a log that lay across a raging river guarded by a fierce dog. Many who were frightened by the dog fell off the log and drowned. After many months, the souls would finally get to the village of the dead, which was very much like that of the living. There they would continue as they had in life, their occupations and status unchanged.”

The Aztec and Maya, who lived life so close to death, believed in an afterworld of thirteen layers above the earth and nine below. The underworld was a place of fear, dread and darkness. The thirteen layers of heaven above the earth were for a select few who died in battle, in childbirth or even by suicide. Those who died in battle would enter the paradise world of Tonatiuhichán where they would join the sun and take the form of a butterfly or hummingbird. Those who died in water or in storms entered Tlalocán which was a paradise ruled by the rain god Tláloc. Fruit and delicacies were abundant in Tlalocán along with life-giving rain and waterfalls. Those who resided in this paradise could do so in their leisure for work was no longer necessary.

The twelfth and thirteenth layers of heaven were occupied by the Lord of Duality, Ometeotl along with babies who had died before their time and those who died in their sleep inexplicably. These souls would obtain a new life in a new world to be created after the cataclysm that is to end the fifth sun in the form of a massive earthquake.

The Maya believed in an afterworld shaded by the World Tree where the dead spent their time drinking chocolate. The vast majority of the Maya, however, would not enter paradise but rather the underworld of Xibalba, “Realm of Fright,” where hellish creatures tormented them unceasingly.

The Case for Cultural Diffusion


Standing stone marking the Spring and Fall Equinox, New Hampshire.

Details: The most commonly accepted theory concerning the origin of the Native Americans is that some ten to twenty thousand years ago several waves of Asian people crossed the Bering Strait and filtered down and across the North and South American continents.

However, the discovery of Del Mar (1) man in Southern California, dated with amino acid racemization to 48,000 years BP, may have meant that man actually crossed into North America as early as 70,000 years ago. (2)

Some people that an ancient human with a “pre-projectile” tool technology existed in North America as far back as 500,000 years BP. The most conclusive evidence of skeletal remains is still lacking however. This pre-projectile horizon culture consisted of crude tools which even trained archaeologist would be hard pressed to identify from naturally broken stone.

Peter Farb believed that the Native American actually developed into a separate racial group, separate from any possible Asiatic ancestors. The American Indian possesses a distinct blood group and physical characteristics such as finger prints patters, low incidence of red-green color blindness, etc that are found no where else in the world. (3)

Many Native American myths concerning their origin indicate that their ancestors came from a land in the east. Bancroft wrote, “The Quiche traditions speak of a country in the far east, to reach which immense tracts of land and water must be crossed. There, they say, they lived a quiet but civilized life, paying no tribute, and speaking a common language…They worshipped no graven images, but observed with respect the rising sun and poured forth their invocations to the morning star.” (4)

According to legend, the Quiche left their home in the east in an expedition of unknown purpose under the direction of “certain chiefs” and reached America after a long journey.
Bancroft noted that some scholars of his time believed that the ancestors of the Quiche made frequent trips to the northwest coast of North America and only decided to stay after the expedition mentioned above, eventually filtering down to Central America. (5)

Other tribes in the Yucatan area also speak of origins in the east. Among these are the Yucatecs who reportedly came from the east “passing through the sea, which God made dry” for their journey. Other tribes believed that their descendents were exiled from an island in the east and came to America, which at that time, according to legend, was much smaller.

The Chippewa migration myth is also supportive of an eastern or Asiatic origin. According to Bancroft, “they came from a distant land. Where a bad people lived, and had to cross a narrow lake, filled with islands, where the snow continuously existed.” (6)

This appears to refer to the original land bridge that is speculated to have allowed some of the original inhabitants of North America to cross from Asia.

Throughout these legends, a feeling for the necessity to migrate or to flee in exile is evident. Was America’s occupation the result of political or social upheaval or massive cataclysmic events? It is a possibility not to be overlooked. The Algonquin’s celebrated an annual thanksgiving to commemorate their safe arrival from their long sea migration.
Many Native American legends speak of crossing vast frozen areas that, to the Indians, looked like “shining sands.” Could these frozen areas also account for the Yucatec legend that God “dried” up the sea to enable them to pass? Perhaps not dried—simply frozen?

Spence wrote that mythology of the Lenape Indians of Peru stated that they “went over the water of the frozen sea to possess the land.”(7) The legend states, “it was wonderful when they all went over the smooth deep water of the frozen sea at the gap of the snake sea in the great ocean.” (8) This probably refers to the narrow corridor between eastern Russia and western Alaska.

The Chinese & Others in Ancient America

The most persuasive evidence of ancient Chinese visits to pre-Columbian America was written by Chinese historian Li Yan Tcheou who lived in the seventh century. Tcheou wrote about an expedition of Chinese adventurers to the “mysterious land” some 20,000 li (a “li” is 1/3 of a mile so this distance is approximately 7,000 miles) from what is now Kamchatka. He told in great detail of encounters with natives “who possess neither arms nor troops and…never age war…There is no iron, but copper is met with. Gold and silver are not valued. Commerce is free, and the people are not given to haggling about prices.

“In former times the religion of Buddha was unknown in this country, but in the fourth of the years ta ming, in the reign of Hi ao Wou Ti of the Soung dynasty (458 CE) five…missionaries from the country Ki Pin, went to Fusang (the name given to the “mysterious land”) and diffused Buddhist faith. They carried with them sacred books and images, they introduced the ritual, and inculcated monastic habits of life. By these means they changed the manners of the people.” (9)

Fusang may have been western Mexico or California although Gustaaf Schlegel wrote in 1892 that ancient mapmakers knew that Fusang was an island just off the northeast coast of Asia. This is another example of conflicting evidence, which makes it so difficult to determine the correct facts.

The evidence of pre-Columbian contact with Chinese sailors appears to be getting greater over time. Such theories are more acceptable to archaeologist today than they have been over the last few decades.
Farb wrote of unusual pottery with a Japanese connection found in Ecuador dating back some 5,000 years:

“The earliest pottery found anywhere in the New World dates from about five thousand years ago in the area around Valdivia on the Coast of Ecuador. It’s distinctive designs and decorations did not exist any place else in the world except in the Jomon culture on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan—and the dates for that kind of pottery in both places are approximately the same.” (10)

The pottery is so similar that, Farb notes, it is “impossible to tell the Valdivian (pottery) from the Jomon.”
Other researchers have reported that “Valdivian pottery is characterized by a diversity of shapes and decorative techniques—a style that has been called ‘incongruous.’

Suddenly, it would seem, a highly developed and varied body of ceramic work appears out of nowhere. Simpler ware, indicating a line of development, is not in evidence at the Valdivia site.

“…archaeologist…proposed that the art of pottery-making was introduced to Valdivian villagers by Japanese fishermen who made an unexpected landfall in Ecuador some 4,000 years before the Vikings reached the shores of North America.” (11)

Another rather odd piece of evidence for cultural diffusion comes in the form of the chicken. Anthropologist George F. Carter in a letter to Current Anthropology wrote, “I find that chickens in America, concerning whose pre-Columbian presence there has been some question, are, in fact, East Asiatic in origin. They are given, by the Arawak, (12) a Hindu name, which in India is applied specifically to black-skinned chickens, one of the varieties known among American Indians—also their fighting cocks have Asiatic spurs; Spanish do not use spurs.” (13)

Many other pieces of evidence, some which appear unimportant when looked at separately but quite revealing when put together, have been uncovered in recent years varying from identical instruments found in Arizona and China to rock art with origins that appear to be Viking or Celtic.

Chinese Anchors off California

The California coast has yielded perhaps the most conclusive physical evidence of pre-Columbian visitations from China. Since 1972, the deep waters around Santa Rosa Island have given up a dozen or so stone anchors weighing up to 120 to 300 or more pounds and approximately two to three feet in diameter.

The anchors, resting on the sea floor 3600 feet below the surface, were encrusted with three millimeters of a ferromanganese deposit, which, it is believed, forms no faster than one millimeter per thousand years. The anchors themselves are composed of a sandy limestone.

Soon after the recovery of these anchors and a partial analysis of one of them, Dr. James R. Moriarty III, a noted archaeologist from the University of San Diego, declared that was identical to ancient anchors of Chinese and Japanese origin. Dr. Moriarty said, “to prove diffusion you need real artifacts from one of the Asian cultures. We now may have such artifacts in the anchors.”

An additional 20 to 30 such stone anchors were recovered off the Los Angeles coast in 1975 in water 12 to 30 feet deep. These stone anchors weighed as much as half a ton and were obviously made by human hands into cylindrical and doughnut shapes with grooves or drilled holes. Moriarty at this time “was persuaded that an ancient Chinese vessel foundered at the site.” (14)

Not all researchers are fond of this theory however. Historian Frank J. Frost refutes the notion, writing in a 1982 issue of Archaeology that the stones are indeed legitimate Chinese anchors but of modern origin, “lost by local California fishermen of Chinese extraction.” (15)

Underwater photographs of the area where they were found, however, “show only American iron anchors on immigrant craft.” (16)

Moriarty believes that the anchors found date to shipwrecks from the 7th century and that other artifacts will some day be discovered on the seabed.
Dr. Ching Chang Woo of the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute possessed one of the anchors found off the Santa Rosa Islands. He was going to try to match the limestone material with quarries in China but results have not been forthcoming.

Other diffusionists, such as John Rankin in the 19th century, believed that remnants of a destroyed Mongolian fleet landed on the shores of Peru in the 13th century to establish the Inca civilization.

However, there is no reference in Inca history to any recognizable Mongolian trait or “memory” of such a beginning. It would seem implausible for a people to loose a memory, even a folkloric one, of a former place of origin as well as customs in three scant centuries before the arrival and domination of the Spanish in Peru.

English archaeologists Channing Arnold and Frederick Frost at the turn of the 20th century believed that Buddhist travelers from Indonesia or Java might have settled in Yucatan around the eight century to influence the inhabitants in the construction of ancient cities and temples.

According to Arnold and Frost, the similarities between Buddhist and oriental lifestyles and those of the Mayan are much more than similarities. Those “cultural ties” of which Arnold and Frost thought to be indicative of cultural diffusion between the two peoples included:
• Monasteries and nunneries
• Similar days of fasting
• The practice of celibacy and meditation
• The belief in sacred foot prints
• Similar types of books
• Similar caste systems
• Stone head carvings identical between the Olmecs and Toltec’s and the Indo-Chinese
• Similar burial customs
• Similar architecture (17)

According to Arnold and Frost, it is possible that Chinese Buddhist arrived in the Americas because of persecution in their native lands:

“Taking Java as their starting point, we have shown how the currents cross the Pacific to the Caroline Islands. This group, lying directly in the course of a migrating people, would be certain to be a resting-place on their journey. They might…stay some weeks, perhaps months there, possibly leaving some trace of their culture, and that is exactly what we do find. There are architectural remains in the Carolinas… (and) there is evidence that they are just as we should expect of the men who were the tutors of the Mayans.” (18)

The authors believed that the Buddhists landed in ships near or at Yucatan and settled at what was to become Copan were they accomplished the remarkable carvings and architecture still present today. Noting that the carvings at Copan are strikingly oriental in nature and execution of style, Arnold and Frost believed that the Buddhist “probably were watched at their work by neighboring Indians who crowded in to see the new wonder and learn the art.” (19) As the Mayans gradually took control of the growing empire and the Chinese Buddhists, disappearing through intermarriage the art and architecture became more basic and lost its oriental flavor and delicacy.
Early Japanese arrivals also have been proposed with findings of Jomon pottery, previously discussed, as well as other unusual artistic artifacts such as a terracotta figure found in Mexico in a perfect representation of a Japanese Sumo wrestler. This artifact has been dated to 1400-1150 BCE. (20)

Some researchers believe that Japanese-Indian intermarriage actually produced the culture of the Northwest Indians. As an example how this could have occurred, between 1782 and 1886 forty-one Japanese junks floated a shore on the beaches of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. All but twelve of these boats were occupied and all of the Japanese sailors became permanent residents and mixed with the surrounding population of Native Americans. This event could have occurred throughout history. As an aside, several words in the Chinook language are identical in sound and meaning as words in the Japanese language.

In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that some early Native American people have the same origins as the early Japanese. The Japanese-Native American tie may be several millennia old. The La Jollan Indians of Southern California, a Paleo-Indian group that no longer exists, were remarkably similar to prehistoric Japanese. Dr. Spencer Rogers, a director of the San Diego Museum of Man, wrote, “there is an impressive similarity in many physical characteristics between the La Jollan’s and a prehistoric population of the island of Kyushu, Japan. It should be noted that the Jomon pottery originated on the island of Kyushu as well.

Rogers noted, “This suggests that the peopling of the coast of North America from Asia involved the movement of population groups which retained their ancestral hereditary structural characteristics for a considerable time after their arrival in the Southern California coastal regions.” (21)

In the ancient ruins of Mexico are found dozens of sculptures, engravings and painting depicting a wide variety of racial groups. Distinct Chinese faces and figures are found next to bearded, mustachioed faces of European character and the stoic look of Africans. Perhaps North America has been the melting pot of the world for eons.

The Norsemen in America

An early visit by the Norsemen is one pre-Columbian contact between Native Americans and European cultures that is not controversial. However, just how early did these Scandinavians arrive in the Americas?

Columbus, the Italian seaman and slave trader of which the eminent archaeologist C.W. Ceram wrote, “introduced slavery to America and syphilis to Europe,” (22) was preceded by at least four centuries by the stocky Scandinavian warriors in their fragile-looking long boats.
Evidence obtained from radiocarbon dating verifies the Norse sagas of Leif Erikson’s expedition and settlement in Newfoundland almost a thousand years ago. Later expeditions to “Vineland” did not fare as well. His brother, Towald, was killed in an attack by Indians braves the Vikings named “the Skraelings.” (23)

The Vikings and the Skraelings teetered precariously between cautious trade and open warfare. The last known Viking expedition ended abruptly in 1023 after a series of murders in the Norse settlement. The persistence adventurers may have traveled inland as far as Minnesota although substantial physical evidence is lacking. Various rock carvings with possible Norse engravings have been found throughout the east and Midwest but conclusive evidence tying these to the Norse expeditions has not been found.

In December, 1975 Dr. Jaime Maria de Mahieu, director if the Science Institute of Man in Buenos Aires, Argentina, announced that he had found the remains of a Viking “fortress” in the Aquidaban River valley approximately 300 miles north of the capital of Paraguay, Asuncion.
According to Dr. Mahieu, the Vikings reached Mexico and filtered down into Paraguay between the 8th and 9th centuries—a good two to three hundred years before the arrival of the Norsemen into North America so immortalized in the 11th century sagas.
Mahieu, citing the existence of a wild tribe of “white Indians” in Paraguay’s interior, believed that the traveling Scandinavians settled in the area and intermarried with the indigenous people. Reportedly, Dr. Mahieu found a shield; three feet square in size, covered in runic engravings, an engraved stone depicting the Norse god Odin, and, what he believed to be a complete Viking settlement resembling a “military camp.”

Dr. Mahieu also believed that that Vikings founded an empire in Bolivia at the same location that the Inca’s eventually established theirs.

However, there is a substantial lack of any cultural or physical evidence to support such a theory that a Scandinavian empire once existed in the region.

Evidence does appear to substantiate that until the Dark Ages, cultural, exploratory contacts between continents and people took place on regular intervals, and that commerce was much as it is today. There is no reason to perpetuate the mind set so prevalent in American archaeology that ancient cultures had to remain isolated from each other, remaining in cultural vacuums.

Many artifacts found in the mounds in the Eastern United States are strikingly similar to Mayan and Aztec design. The fact that an Indian civilization showing advanced gains in society was emerging in the St. Louis area, nearly reaching the greatness of Mesoamerica, indicates that cultural diffusion and cooperation were commonplace events.

The Case for Egyptian Influence

Are the pyramids found in various areas of the world of a common origin? An Egyptian origin? Bancroft and Garcia y Cubas believed that the pyramids in the Americas and those in Egypt were associated with each other. Cubas wrote:

“The site (for the pyramids) …is the same; the structures are oriented with slight variation; the line through the center of the pyramids is in the ‘astronomical meridian’; the construction in grades and steps is the same; in both cases the larger pyramids are dedicated to the sun; (Egypt) has a ‘valley of the dead’, as at Teotihuacan there is a ‘street of the dead’…the smaller mounds are of the same nature and for the same purpose; both pyramids have a small mound formed to one of their faces; the openings discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon are also found in some Egyptian pyramids; the interior arrangement of the pyramids is analogous.” (24)

Another similarity between the pyramids of America and Egypt was unknown at the time Bancroft and Cubas did their research. A burial chamber and sarcophagus were discovered at the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque—making the construction and use of the pyramids in Egypt and Yucatan almost identical.

Other structures of amazing design and of unknown origin are found in many places throughout Mesoamerica. Baldwin wrote of one great city that now lies in ruins:

“At one place, near Chavin de Huanta, there are remarkable ruins which are very old…From the interior of one of the great buildings there is a subterranean passage which, it is said, goes under the river to the opposite bank…the natives traditions said this city was built by bearded white men, who came there long before the time of the Incas, and established a settlement.” (25)

It may be difficult to equate “bearded white men” with the Egyptians but Egypt is only one of many possible places of origin for early colonists. Another may be the Phoenicians.

Phoenician Colonization

Joseph Gardner raises some perplexing questions concerning the Phoenician and their possible excursions into America:

“Were the Phoenicians, who practiced child sacrifice, responsible for teaching this fairly unusual, (26) as well as shocking, practice to the Gulf Coast Olmec? Does an Olmec relief carving depict an ancient Phoenician, since the figure is bearded and sports up-turned shoes worn in the eastern Mediterranean? Can the numerous monumental stone Olmec heads with Negroid lips and noses be taken as proof that the Phoenicians brought along their black slaves on the lengthy voyages to America?” (27)

Schoolcraft wrote in his monumental work “during the process of opening the great tumulus at Grave Creek, in western Virginia, in the year 1838…a small inscribed stone was discovered, in connection with the remains of a human skeleton and its accompanying mementoes, which appears to possess an alphabetical value. This curious relic…appears to reveal, in the unknown past, evidences of European intrusions into the continent (of America)…” (28)

The Grave Creek stone turned out to be engraved with Phoenician script. The Biblical land of Ophir, to which King Solomon sent expeditions manned by Phoenician sailors, is thought by some to be America.

Many ancient writers and historians, such as Homer, Plutarch, and Diodorus Siculus, wrote of large islands situated several thousands of miles west of the Pillars of Hercules. The early civilizations of the western world continuously mention a “great Saturian continent” which was said to be “larger than Asia, Europe and Libya” combined. This land was thought to be the legendary Atlantis; however, it could also have been a reference to North America.

The numerous accounts of “bearded white men” and their settlements may have been due to the reports of the Phoenicians and their colonization attempts. It is possible that these men found burgeoning civilizations in the Americas and inadvertently influenced their development.

Diodorus Siculus wrote of “the land beyond the Pillars of Hercules” in the years preceding the Christian era:

“Over against Africa lies a very great island, in the vast ocean, many days sail from Libya westward. The soil there is very fruitful, a great part whereof is mountainous…which is…watered by several navigable streams, and beautiful with many gardens of pleasure planted with…trees and an abundance of orchards. The towns are adorned with stately buildings…pleasantly situated in their gardens and orchards.” (29)

Is Diodorus Siculus’ accounting of pre-Columbian Mexico at a time when the “bearded white men”, possibly the Phoenicians, set foot on Yucatan’s shores?

Peter Tompkins records additional similarities between the cultures of the Olmecs and Mayans and that of the Phoenicians in his book, Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids. In fact, Tompkins wrote, “So impressive is the evidence accumulated by scholars to the effect that the Phoenicians reached the shores of both North and South America, it is hard to understand why it continues to be shunned.” (30)

One of the most remarkable similarities between the two civilizations is that of mathematics. “In common with the Maya,” Tompkins wrote, “the Babylonians were the only known ancient civilization that had a place value in their mathematics, the concept of zero, and the ability to express large numbers…Like the Maya, and their possible predecessors the Olmecs, the Chaldeans had records of stars going back 370,000 years, while the Babylonians kept nativity horoscopes of all children born for thousands of years…Like the Maya, the Babylonians measured the year in 360 and 365 days; and the estimated the period of the moon’s return to within a matter of seconds.” (31)

Other interesting similarities include
• Clay figurines of dwarfs
• Representations of the rain god Tlaloc as a white man with handlebar mustache and long beard—similar to the Phoenician rain god
• Deforming the heads of newborn children
• Twisted rope borders on sarcophagi and seals
• Pyramidal temples
• Use of gnomons to measure the sun’s shadow and to determine latitude

Tompkins noted as well that a cache of Carthaginian coins was found near Cape Cod that was dated to the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE. He theorizes that after Carthage became a major Phoenician outpost colonist were sent out in the hopes of finding suitable locations for the burgeoning population to expand. “From that latitude,” he wrote “these Carthaginians, like their Phoenician predecessors, would well have sailed to the New World and made landfalls in Yucatan, Tabasco, or Chiapas, giving substance to the tale of Votan.” (32)

Evidence for other visitations by foreign explorers includes that of the ancient Hebrews.

Possible Judaic Expeditions to America

A stone tablet found in Brazil in 1872 was discovered to be covered in ancient Hebrew script. It reads:
“We are sons of Canaan from Sidor, from the city where a merchant (prince) has been made king. He dispatched us to this distant land, a land of mountains. We sacrificed a youth to the celestial gods and goddesses in the nineteenth year of Hiram, our king. Abra! We sailed from Ezion-gerber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years around Africa. Then we got separated by the land of Baal and we were no longer with our companions. So we have come here, twelve men and three women, into one island, unpopulated because ten died. Abra!

“May the celestial gods and goddesses favor us!” (33)

This stone has been dated approximately to 530 BCE due to the ancient form of Hebrew used. In fact, at that time this was the language of both the Hebrews and the Phoenicians. Another stone with similar inscriptions was found at Bat Cave, Tennessee in 1887 and has been dated to 100 CE. The Bat Cave stone clearly has the words “for Judea” or “for the Judeans” carved on its surface.

Gordon offers another piece of curious evidence for Hebraic expedition to America:

“…On a stela from Campeche, Mexico, a man wearing a reedboat hat has an earplug with the Star of David. The Star of David first appears in Palestine at Megiddo in a Solomic context.” (34)

Gordon suggests that the reed-boat represents an important navigator. The Hebrew merchant-ships, while made up almost entirely of Phoenician crew members, undoubtedly were commanded by Hebrew officers.

Bancroft again notes an interesting discovery that ties the Hebrews with early American visitations:

“…in 1815, (John Merrick) was leveling some ground under and near an old wood-shed…situated on Indian Hill (near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). …After the work was done…he discovered, near where the earth had been dug the deepest, a black strap, as it appeared, about 6 inches in length, and one and a half in breadth, and about the thickness of a leather trace to a harness. He perceived it had, at each end, a loop, of some hard substance, probably for the purpose of carrying it.

“After some time, he thought he would examine it; but in attempting to cut it, found it as hard as bone; he succeeded, however, in getting it open, and found it formed of two pieces of thick rawhide, sewed and made water tight with the sinews of some animal, and gummed over; and in the fold was contained four folded pieces of parchment. They were of a dark yellow hue, but contained some kind of writing. …Mr. Merrick…sent them to Cambridge, where they were examined, and discovered to have been written with a pen, in Hebrew, plain and legible. The writing on the…pieces of parchment, was quotations from the Old Testament.” (35)

The text was determined to be that of Deuteronomy 5:4, 9 and 11:13-21 and Exodus 8:11-16.

In 1840, another discovery was made near Newark, New Jersey:

“About eight miles south-east of Newark there was formerly a large mound composed of masses of free-stone…some fifteen years ago, the county surveyor…turned his attention to this particular pile…Before long he was rewarded by finding in the center and near the surface a bed of tough clay generally known as pipe-clay…Imbedded in the clay was a coffin, dug out of a burr-oak log, and in a pretty good state of preservation. In the coffin was a skeleton, with quite a number of stone ornaments and emblems, and some open brass rings, suitable for bracelets or anklets.” (36)

In a separate, smaller coffin, the surveyor and his party found a stone tablet, one and a half inches thick, eighteen inches long and twelve inches wide. Again, Bancroft:

“On the face of the slab was a figure of a man, apparently a priest, with a long flowing beard, and a robe reaching to his feet. Over his head was a curved line of characters, and upon the edges and back of the stone were closely and neatly carved letters.” (37)

According to Bancroft, the stone tablet was a rendition of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.

Other writers, such as James Adair, offer the suggestion that the Hebrew were the original progenitors of the Native Americans…the “Lost Tribe of Israel.” This is preposterous.

However, there are some loose shreds of evidence to suggest that the ancient Hebrews did journey, either by accident or by design, to America, as did the Asians, Phoenicians, Norsemen and perhaps others.

Many of the accounts of bearded white men and prophets may be linked to these various explorers. As most of the legends about the prophet indicate that they arrived by ship from eastern waters and eventually returned to their homelands in the east, it is a fairly safe assumption that the Hebrews and Phoenicians were the “prophets” referred to in these legends. However, we can only conjecture.

St. Thomas in America?

As previously mentioned St. Thomas has been associated with Wixepecocha, one of the many prophets in Native American lore. There are some rather curious language links associated with this theory in the Quiche culture. Bancroft studied this theory in some detail and wrote “the hero-gods proper name Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl closely resembles in sound and significance that of Thomas, surnamed Didymus; for ‘to’ in the Mexican name, is an abbreviation of Thomas, to which ‘pilcin’ meaning ‘son’ or ‘disciple,’ is added; while the meaning of Quetzalcoatl is exactly the same as that of the Greek Didymus, ‘a twin,’ being compounded of quetzalli a plume of green feathers, metaphorically signifying anything precious, and coatl, a serpent, metaphorically meaning one of two twins.” (38)

Other artifacts supposedly supporting this theory include paintings found in Mexico by Boturini depicting a cross surrounded by five “white balls on an azure shield” which Boturini said “without doubt (are) emblems of the five precious wounds of our Savior.”

This connecting with St. Thomas would appear to be somewhat suspect however the saint did travel extensively during his life from the Holy Land through India, as far as Meliapour and, some suggest, even into Central America.

A Linguistic Conclusion

A linguistic study performed some years ago by Jack Cohane in England on the word similarities between the Old and New World appears to substantiate the theories of pre-Columbian contact across the ocean.

Cohane believed that there is a direct link between 20% of Aztec and Mayan vocabularies and Hebrew. He also believes that intra-continental contacts, through maritime means, were common occurrences from the Bronze Age onward. The bearded “white gods” are legends resulting from contacts between different cultures that contributed to the societies of both in a variety ways, but mostly to the Native Americans in North, Central and South America in their mythology and architecture.

Polynesian Contact in Ancient America

This chapter is primarily concerned with the discussion of possible cultural contact between Native American societies and travelers from other parts of the world. However, there is growing evidence for the spread of culture from America to other lands as well.

The existence of the South American sweet potato in Polynesia has long been known and debated. Researchers before 1970 believed that the sweet potato was spread by Spanish and Portuguese sailors in the 16th century, however it was then discovered that the sweet potato was being intentionally cultivated by the Polynesians at least 1,000 CE—six hundred years earlier than the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the islands.

A recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that a sailing vessel from South America blown off course could have landed in the Polynesian islands within 90 days resulting in some cultural contact between the two peoples. One of the researchers noted that the Quechua word for sweet potato was cumul, which is very similar to the Polynesian term for the tuber, kumala. Obviously, for language sharing to exist it would be necessary for the Quechua and the Polynesians to have had personal contact.

Patrick Kirch, an archaeologist with the University of California, Berkeley campus “thinks that more extensive and deliberate contact must have taken place. ‘In my view, the most probable mechanism of transport was Polynesians sailing to South America.’” (39)

There is considerable evidence for other pre-Columbian contacts between indigenous cultures of America and Polynesia as well. As noted previously, the Chumash Indians that inhabited Southern California coastal areas and the Santa Barbara Channel Islands may have obtained their knowledge of canoe construction from such contacts. The Chumash, and later the Gabrielino Indians, were the only North American Indians who built sewn-plank canoes, which were ideal for deep-sea fishing and for the hunting of marine mammals. These two tribes accumulated great wealth because of their ability to command the sea.

However, there were two other locations in the world where similar boats were in use—Chile and Polynesia.
Archeologist Blake Edgar asked an important question in regards to the Chumash development of the plank canoe, “What if the Chumash encountered the unchallenged masters of oceanic navigation, the Polynesians, and learned the idea from them? The suggestion provokes archaeologists because it implies that the tomol (the Chumash name for their canoes) did not stem from Chumash cultural evolution but rather from a chance landing of people who traveled from more than two thousand miles away. Could something as important as the development of the tomol have been an accident of history?” (40)

A more recent discovery that indicates Polynesians had visited the New World before the Spaniards comes from an unlikely source—the chicken. Bones from fifty chickens have been discovered at an archaeological site in the Arauco Peninsula of Chile. This site is important, as it is the first excavated settlement of the Mapuche— and Andean people who lived in the area between 1000 to 1500 CE. The chicken bones were given a DNA analysis, which indicated that the chickens were identical in their DNA sequence with chickens raised at the same time on the islands of Tonga and American Samoa. The bones have been dated between 1321 and 1407 CE, w hich is the time when Easter Island and other eastern islands of Polynesia were being colonized. (41)

When the Spanish did arrive in Peru in 1532, Francisco Pizzaro noted the chickens’ presence and the fact that they were utilized in Inca ritual—obviously, the chicken had arrived sometime prior to the Spanish conquest.

Perhaps the most important discovery in years that proves the case for cultural diffusion also involves the Inca. The Norway Post announced on June 27, 2007 that a skeleton of an Incan male was uncovered in Sarpsborg, Norway that had been buried in that city over a thousand years ago. While further research is being conducted, it would seem that the Vikings not only traveled to the east coast of North America but also possibly as far south as Peru, bringing one visitor at least back with them. (42)

Perhaps Dr. Mahieu’s theory of Viking visits to Central and South America were not so wrong after all.


1. Rogers, Spencer L. “An Ancient Human Skeleton Found at Del Mar, California”, San Diego Museum Papers #7, July 1974.
2. Minshall, Herbert L. The Broken Stone: The Case for Early Man in California. San Diego: Copley Books 1976, 125.
3. Farb, Peter. Man’s Rise to Civilization. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. 1968, 228.
4. Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Native Races: Primitive History, Vol. 5. San Francisco: The History Company 1886, 21.
5. Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Native Races: Primitive History, Vol. 5. San Francisco: The History Company 1886, 21.
6. Ibid., 21-22.
7. Spence, Lewis. The Myths of Mexico and Peru. London: George G. Harrap & Company 1917, 234.
8. Ibid.
9. Bancroft, op cit. 34, 36.
10. Farb, op cit. 215.
11. Gardner, Joseph I. ed. Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. Pleasantville: Readers Digest Association, Inc. 1986, 24.
12. A large linguistic group of South American Indians.
13. Current Anthropology, December 1968, Pt. II, vol. 9 #5, 477. For further discussion concerning the chicken in pre-Columbian America see pages 189-190.
14. Gardner, op cit., 28.
15. Frost, Frank J. “The Palos Verdes Chinese Anchor Mystery” in Archaeology 35:23, January/February 1982.
16. Gardner, op cit.
17. Arnold, Channing and Frederick J. Frost. The American Egypt: A Record of Travel in Yucatan. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company 1909.
18. Ibid., 281.
19. Ibid., 285.
20. Gardner, op cit., 24.
21. Pourade, Richard F. Ancient Hunters of the Far West. San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company 1966, 8.
22. Ceram, C.W. The First Americans. New York: New American Library 1971, 39.
23. There are two similar words used by the Norwegians and the Icelanders. “Scaela” is a Norwegian word meaning “scream” and “scraelna” is Icelandic meaning “shrink”—indicating either their size or their terrifying war cries.
24. Bancroft, op cit. 55.
25. Baldwin, John D. Ancient America in Notes on American Archaeology. New York: Harper & Brothers 1905, 243.
26. Child sacrifice is not all that unusual. Not only were children sacrificed by the Phoenicians, Olmecs and Mayans, but also to some extent the Hebrews and Celts.
27. Gardner, op cit. 17.
28. Schoolcraft, Henry R. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States. New York: J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1857, 610.
29. Baldwin, op cit. 162.
30. Tompkins, Peter. Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers 1976, 348.
31. Ibid., 351.
32. Tompkins,op cit., 352.
33. Gordon, Cyrus. Riddles in History. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1974, 76.
34. Ibid., 152,
35. Bancroft, op cit., 93.
36. Ibid., 94-95.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid., 25.
39. Borrell, Brendan. “Drifters could explain sweet-potato travel” in 18 May 2007.
40. Edgar, Blake. “The Polynesian Connection: Did Ancient Hawaiians teach California Indians how to make ocean-going canoes?” in Archaeology Vol 58, Number 2, March/April 2005, 42-45.
41. Powell, Eric A. “Kon Tiki Fried Chicken?: Evidence emerges that Polynesians introduced the chicken to South America.” 6/4/2007
42. Solholm, Rolleiv. “Archaeological sensation in Oestfold” in The Norway Post. June 27, 2007.

Glenn Cove--Sacred Indian Burial Ground


Glenn Cove--Sacred Indian Burial Ground

Details: Glenn Cove is not a typical “sacred site.” It is not a holy well, it is not a hot spring, it does not serve as a vortex nor is it associated with supernatural lore. However sacred it is. Glen Cove is located in Vallejo, California along the Carquinez Straight which empties into the San Pablo Bay. Glen Gove is an Indian burial ground belonging to the Patwin, Ohlone, Wintu, Yokut, Miwok and other tribes of the San Francisco Bay area. Glen Cove is also an endangered site.

A large village site and shell midden neaby has already been paved over and a shopping mall built on top of it.
Glen Cover is slated for development as a regional park with bathrooms and picnic tables scheduled. Periodic protests have been held with more planned in the future by Native Americans who wish for the site to be left alone in its pristine condition.

The site is truly beautiful. On a recent visit in I observed a wide variety of native plants and fowl such as the Blue Heron, Egrets, large flocks of Red-winged Black Birds, Mallards and pelican. The top of the bluff overlooking the water is a massive burial site. The Greater Valley Recreation District, the entity planning the “improvements” wants to cover over the burial ground to preserve it. However, as one member of the Vallejo Intertribal Council said, “They want to give us a little area with a cap on top of it and say it’s a sacred site. As indigenous people, we believe our ancestors need to see the sun rising in the east, that’s why they’re always buried facing east, to see the morning star. They dug up grandma and left grandpa. That’s their ‘compromise.’ There is no compromise on sacred sites and burial grounds.”

Like many sacred sites of Native Americans, water plays an important part of what has truly made the site “sacred.” Today the local tribes continue to visit Glen Cove to conduct ritual and to pay respect to their ancestral dead. It is not too difficult to turn your back on the large houses surrounding this sacred site and see it the way the Native Americans did hundreds and thousands of years ago. As I was leaving the beach at Glen Cove, I noticed a large piece of ochre which had obviously eroded from the bluff. Ochre has been used for untold millennia to stain the bodies and bones of the deceased prior to burial. Insignificant on its own this piece of the earth was to me a direct link between people separated for 6,000 years.