PLAINS INDIAN THEOLOGY: AS EXPRESSED IN MYTH AND RITUAL, AND IN THE ETHICS OF THE CULTURE

O. DOUGLAS SCHWARZ, Fordham University

Abstract

Plains Indian theology centers on the concept of the Great Mystery (Wakan Tanka, in the Lakota tongue), a Power whose nature is not and can never be fully understood by human beings. The Great Mystery may be thought of in anthropomorphic terms as a masculine Supreme Being associated with the sky. However, "He" may also be thought of as the mystical union of several distinct spiritual entities (e.g. Sun, Sky, Earth, and Rock), or as a transpersonal, diffuse Power present in all things. These conceptions are in certain respects contradictory. This does not concern the Plains peoples, however, for any human conception of the Great Mystery must necessarily be flawed and incomplete.^ Because the Great Mystery is present in all things, all things are "holy" or "sacred" (wakan, in Lakota)--that is, they express something of the nature of the Great Mystery. In addition, all things are involved in sacred relationships with one another, by virtue of their mutual participation in the nature and being of the Great Mystery. These truths find expression in Plains origin myths, which tend to emphasize the unity and interdependence of all creation, and downplay the uniqueness of the human species.^ It is vital for human beings to understand their place within the system of sacred relationships, and to behave accordingly. The primary source of such understanding, for Plains culture, is the vision, a direct, personal experience of the Great Mystery. The rites of the Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest, and Sun Dance have as their goal the discovery, understanding, and strengthening of the sacred relationships that exist between the people (individually and collectively) and creation as a whole.^ Evil, in the view of Plains culture, is the inevitable result of actions taken without regard for the sacredness of all things. There are certain entities--notably the "trickster" Coyote--whose natures are inherently evil; they continually misunderstand or ignore their proper places within the system of sacred relationships. The evils they cause are thus permanent features of reality. Human beings may cause evil as well, but they are also capable of learning the error of their ways through visions, thus undoing the evils they cause. No being, however evil, ever ceases to be sacred; thus even evil is a manifestation of the presence and power of the Great Mystery. From this it follows (as certain Plains spokespersons freely acknowledge) that the Great Mystery itself has an evil aspect.^ Despite this, belief in the Great Mystery leads directly to a number of important ethical attitudes. Among these are respect for forms of life other than human, and tolerance of religious diversity. In these and other areas, the teachings of Plains religion are clearly relevant to the concerns of contemporary Western theology. ^

Subject Area

Religious history

Recommended Citation

SCHWARZ, O. DOUGLAS, "PLAINS INDIAN THEOLOGY: AS EXPRESSED IN MYTH AND RITUAL, AND IN THE ETHICS OF THE CULTURE" (1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8111316.
https://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8111316

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