Southern Paiute (and Chemehuevi) - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Southern Paiute people believe that supernatural power resides in all living things and in many nonanimate objects found in nature as well as in the sun, moon, stars, wind, and so on. Persons are free to establish a relationship with objects of power, but only doctors or shamans possess enough of it to aid in healing. Their powers (often multiple) come unsought in dreams, or they could be courted by going to certain places. Ordinary persons rarely spoke of their powers, although the community might know if they had special powers for large game animals. Special classes of anthropomorphic spirits (water babies, dwarfs, changeable beings) resided at various places. Encounters with these were considered dangerous. Today, elderly people and some younger persons believe in these spirits and in the power of living things and the earth. They may also be Christians (especially Mormons) and/or followers of the Native American (Peyote) church. There is little clear evidence that a supreme being existed in native religion, although some persons feel strongly that one did. Ethnographic description came after a long period of contact and substantial acculturation in religious views. The existence of natural and anthropomorphic spirits is well documented, and these beliefs are still active to varying degrees today.

Religious Practitioners. In aboriginal times, the principal religious practitioner was the shaman, who held power through tutelaries to cure illness. Native doctors could be either men or women. They cured the patient through a self-induced trance, during which their powers revealed the cause of the illness (ghost or object intrusion, soul loss) and the prognosis for a cure.

Ceremonies. The principal ceremony today is the Mourning Ceremony, or "Cry," related to that of southern California. The ceremony is held today as a funeral, although in former times it might occur later than the time of a person's actual death. It involves the singing of standardized song cycles, in which a singer usually specializes. Singers are few, as the work is considered a special gift. In former times, people volunteered property to be burned as a show of grief. Today, the immediate possessions of the deceased are commonly offered. A second, or Annual Mourning Ceremony might be held as an anniversary. Sometimes families with relatives deceased within the past year hold one jointly. Apart from funeral observances, celebrations were held in the spring to renew the earth or in the fall when pine nuts were harvested. The spring ceremony usually involved the Bear Dance, learned from the Ute. Pine nut harvest was an occasion for the Circle Dance, but also for offering prayers of thanksgiving for a good year. The Ghost Dance of 1890, a messianic movement begun in western Nevada, reached the Southern Paiute in that year and persisted for a time.

Arts. Aesthetic expression focused on song, recitatives, and folk tales. Songs often came in dreams, although they could be given to friends and relatives, and some were widely known. The Chemehuevi had cycles of songs, reminiscent of those of the Mohave, that often established hunt territories. Others had texted songs involving animals or natural imagery, and most were highly poetic. Recitatives occurred in the context of myths and tales, where animal actors took speaking or singing parts using stylized voices. Good narrators, most often men, might solicit help from the audience in giving these performances. Tales, sometimes told in long sequences on winter evenings, involved the adventures of animal actors in a time before people. Many of these cycles today are no longer remembered, owing in large part to language loss. Skill at singing is still much valued, and some categories of native songs have persisted.

Medicine. Diseases cured by shamans or native doctors were thought to be due to supernatural causes. Those less serious were treated by persons knowledgeable in plant remedies. Some persons today still use this pharmacopoeia, but most also depend on Western medicine. The Native American church functions in some areas in curing.

Death and Afterlife. Little is known about concepts of the afterlife, other than that ghosts and souls can remain in the vicinity and occasionally cause harm to the living. Some people feel that spirits of the deceased go underground to a world where everything is reversed. Others think that the abode of the dead is in the sky, where activities are much as in this world but done in comparative ease. Proper prayers to the spirit of the deceased were and are considered necessary to protect the living, especially children. Some of this is accomplished through the Mourning Ceremony, but others may be required. Traditional families today usually combine aspects of these older beliefs with Christian (usually Mormon) Services.


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