World Religions Report

Indigenous Religions
© Steve And Donna O’Meara/National Geographic/Getty Images
First Encounter
As it is for most visitors, your first stop in Hawai`i is crowded Waikiki, on the island of O`ahu. *
After four days of swimming, sightseeing, and viewing the sunsets, you fly to Maui for a few
days, and then on to the much less populated island of Hawai`i—called the Big Island by local
residents. From the airport in Hilo, you begin to drive upcountry, toward the little town of
Volcano. The area around Hilo, on the rainy side of the island, resembles the tropical paradise of
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fantasy: the leaves of the trees are bright lime-colored flames, and the yards of the houses are
planted with vanda orchids and fragrant white-flowered plumeria trees.
* Note: The ‘okina (glottal stop mark) is used throughout this book in the spelling of certain
Hawaiian words. It is indicated by a backward apostrophe.
As you drive inland and upward, lawns and homes yield to fields of beige grass and clusters of
dark brown rock. Banyan trees give way to small, silver-leaved `ohi`a lehua bushes, as delicate
as their red flowers. Now you are closer to the volcanoes that are still producing the island. The
land here is raw and relatively new. You check into the old lava-rock hotel near the volcanic
crater and look forward to settling in for the night. After supper you listen to ukulele music in
front of the big fireplace in the lobby and watch a man and two women perform a slow hula for
the guests.
The next morning, after a good sleep, you walk out to the rim of the crater. You are a bit startled
by the steam rising through cracks and holes in the rock. You hike down a trail that leads to a
bed of old lava, passing yellow ginger and tiny wild purple orchids on the way. The lava in the
crater at this spot is dry; it crunches underfoot. Here and there you see stones wrapped in the
broad leaves of the ti plant and wonder why they’re there.
On the way back up the trail, you fall in step with a woman who explains that she was raised on
the Big Island but now lives on another island. She is here just for a few days, to visit the
volcano area and to see old friends. She tells you about Pele, the goddess of fire, whose place of
veneration is the volcano. “When I was young I learned that Pele came from the island of Kaua`i
to Maui, where she lived in Haleakala Crater before she moved to this island. Nowadays, people
here are mostly Buddhist or Christian, but they still respect Pele. I know a man who says Pele
once appeared to him. He told me she had long hair and was surrounded by fire. Other people
have seen her on the road. Pele gets a lot of offerings—mostly ti leaves and food. But when the
lava is flowing toward Hilo, people also bring out pork and gin,” the woman says with a laugh,
“and my friends tell me that the offerings work.”
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The lava, she explains, is active now at the other end of a series of craters, closer to the ocean.
She suggests that you drive to the lava flow before dark and adds, “Be sure to have good walking
shoes, as well as a flashlight in case it gets dark before you go back to your car. And don’t take
any lava rock away with you. They say it brings bad luck, you know.”
In midafternoon, you drive down the curving black asphalt road, past old lava flows, to the
highway near the ocean. You stop and park near the cars of other lava watchers and then begin
hiking with a few people across the fresh lava, toward the ocean. About half a mile in, you
encounter yellow caution strips and overhear an officer warning one man to stop. “Farther on it’s
just too dangerous. It looks solid on top, but you can slip through the crust.” You and the others
crowd up next to the barriers and see steam rising on the right up ahead. Through the rising
steam you glimpse a bright orange band of molten lava underneath the dry crust as the lava falls
into the ocean.
Sunset comes quickly, and even more people arrive, some with blankets around their shoulders.
As darkness falls, the flowing lava becomes more visible, and the steam takes on a reddish glow.
“Look over there,” someone says. In the distance a bright stream of orange lava slides down a
hill, a slow-motion waterfall of fire. You watch at least an hour as the sky becomes completely
dark. Now the only light comes from the flowing lava and a few flashlights. It is, you think, like
being present at the time of creation: this land is being born.
The next morning in the lobby you see the Hawaiian woman again. “Well, did you see Pele last
night?” she asks, smiling. You smile back. For the rest of your stay you wonder about Pele,
about what else might remain of native Hawaiian religion. Isn’t hula, you ask as you think back
over what you’ve read, an expression of Hawaiian beliefs? Why do people make offerings of ti
leaves? How much of the ancient religion lives on?
Discovering Indigenous Religions
The practice of native religions takes place throughout the world. Among the Ainu of far
northern Japan, the Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada, the aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Maori of
New Zealand, and the many indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas, religious teachings
have been passed on primarily by word of mouth rather than through written texts. In some areas,
the ancient religious ways of traditional peoples may not be easily apparent, but certain
characteristics live on in local stories and customs.
There is no agreement on how to speak of these ancient religious ways. Various terms include
traditional, aboriginal, indigenous, tribal, nonliterate, primal, native, oral, and basic. Each term
is inadequate. For example, although the word native is used frequently in the Americas, that
term in Africa—with memories of colonial offices of native affairs—can be offensive. The
words oral and nonliterate describe correctly the fact that most indigenous religions were spread
without written texts. But there have been exceptions: the Mayans and Aztecs, for example, had
writing systems, and even many native religions without writing systems have had their sacred
stories and beliefs written down by scholars at some point. The distinction between oral religions
and others is also blurred by the fact that religions that have written texts are also, to a large
degree, transmitted orally—for example, through preaching, teaching, and chanting. The term

traditional would be suitable, except that all religions but the very newest have many traditional
elements. Some terms, such as primal and basic, may be viewed as derogatory (like the older
term primitive religions). The word indigenous has the advantage of being neutral in tone;
however, it means the same thing as native, except that it comes from Greek rather than Latin.
There is no easy solution. Although indigenous comes closest to capturing these ancient
religions, we will use several of the preceding terms interchangeably throughout the text.
Indigenous religions are found in every climate, from the tropical rain forest to the arctic tundra,
and some are far older than today’s dominant religions. Because most of them developed in
isolation from each other, there are major differences in their stories of creation and origin, in
their beliefs about the afterlife, in their marriage and funeral customs, and so on. In fact, there is
as much variation among indigenous religions as there is, for example, between Buddhism and
Christianity. In North America, for instance, there are several hundred Native American nations
and more than fifty Native American language groups. The variety among indigenous religious
traditions is stunning, and each religion deserves in-depth study. But because of the limitations of
space, this book must focus on shared elements; regrettably, we can barely touch on the many
differences. (You can complement your study of basic patterns by making your own study of a
native religion, especially one practiced now or in the past by the indigenous peoples of the area
in which you live.)
Past Obstacles to the Appreciation of Indigenous Religions
Up until the early part of the twentieth century, scholars focused more on religions that had
produced written texts than on those that expressed themselves through orally transmitted stories,
histories, and rituals. This lack of attention to oral religions may have been due in part to the
relative ease of studying religions with written records. Religions with written records don’t
necessarily require travel or physically arduous research. Moreover, when scholars have
mastered reading the necessary languages, they can study, translate, and teach the original
writings either at home or to students anywhere.
There has also been a bias toward text-based religions because of a misconception that they are
complex and that oral religions are simple. Greater research into oral religions, however, has
dispelled such notions of simplicity. Consider, for example, the sandpaintings of the Navajo
people and the ceremonies of which the paintings are a part. “In these ceremonies, which are
very complicated and intricate, sandpaintings are made and prayers recited. Sand-paintings are
impermanent paintings made of dried pulverized materials that depict the Holy People [gods]
and serve as a temporary altar. Over 800 forms of sandpaintings exist, each connected to a
specific chant and ceremony.” 1
Indigenous religions have, of course, created much that is permanent, and sometimes even
monumental. We have only to think of the Mayan pyramids in Yucatán and the great city of
Teotihuacán, near Mexico City. But native religions often express themselves in ways that have
less permanence: dance, masks,…

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