Northern Paiute - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Northern Paiute believed that power ( puha ) could reside in any natural object and that it habitually resided in natural phenomena such as the sun, moon, thunder, clouds, stars, and wind. Any individual could seek power for purposes such as hunting and gambling, but only shamans possessed enough to call on it to do good for others. Supernatural beings could include any or all of those who acted in myths and tales. Not all modern representatives of animal species were necessarily supernaturals, but occasionally such a special animal was encountered. Anthropomorphic beings, such as water babies, dwarfs, and the "bone crusher," could also be encountered in the real world. Water babies, in particular, were very powerful and often feared by those other than a shaman who might acquire their power. Prayers were addressed each morning to the sun for a successful day. Ghosts could remain in this world and plague the living, but specific ghosts could also be sources of power for the shaman. Personal relationships with power sources were private matters. Leaders of communal hunts usually had power—for antelope, always. A rich body of myth and legend, the former involving the activities of animal ancestors, set values and taught a moral and ethical code. Today, people remember parts of these old narratives and often mix them with various Christian beliefs. The Native American Church is active in a few areas, as are the more recent Sweat Lodge and Sun Dance movements.
Religious Practitioners. The shaman was the primary Person who put his power to use to benefit others, particularly for healing. Shamans could be either men or women. They acquired their first power unsought, usually in a dream. After that time, and an apprenticeship under a practicing shaman, they might acquire other powers either unsought or courted. Powers were highly specific, and the instructions they gave regarding food taboos and other activities had to be followed to the letter or the power would be withdrawn.
Ceremonies. Group approaches to the supernatural were limited. In all areas dances and prayers were offered prior to communal food-getting efforts. Most of these activities were directed by specialists. All times of group prayer and dancing were also times for merriment. Night dances were followed by gambling, foot races, and other forms of secular entertainment.
Arts. Oral tradition was a major area for the development of personal skill and expression. Gifted narrators were recognized among all groups, and people would spend many winter evenings listening to their performances. Singers were also greatly respected. Some songs, especially round dance songs, have lovely imagery in their texts.
Medicine. The primary function of shamans was the curing of serious illness, which was accomplished in ceremonies held at night in the home of the patient with relatives and friends attending. The shaman went into a trance and attempted to find the cause of the illness and then a prescription for a cure. Since 1900, the number of shamans has been declining, and today very few are active, modern Western medicine prevailing. Less serious illness was formerly treated with home remedies made from over one hundred species of plants. Some families still use plants from this repertoire. Death and Afterlife. At death the person was buried in the hills along with his or her personal possessions. Cremation was reserved for individuals suspected of witchcraft. In Owens Valley and the extreme southern portion of the Northern Paiute area, the Mourning Ceremony of southern California tribes has been practiced since about 1900. This is accompanied by stylized singing and the burning of the Personal property of the deceased. In all areas, funerals remain the most important events of the life cycle.