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|The Great Sun's morning ritual and Natchez religion|
If you could go back in time to the days of the Natchez Indians and observe the religious and symbolic leader of the tribe begin his day you would witness a very simple, yet powerful, daily ritual.
According to Father Mathurin Le Petit, the principal symbol of heaven or a heavenly body to the Natchez was the sun, which moved across the sky and lighted the world. This was the visible image of the supreme being for Indians did not worship the sun but the power behind the sun.
Among the Natchez, the Great Sun -- the great chief of the tribe -- was the younger brother of the sun, who each morning communicated and worshipped the beauty of the universe. To help the two converse, Le Petit said the Indians raised for their great chief a "mound of artificial soil, on which they built his cabin, which is of the same construction as the temple." From his home atop this mound the front door faced east, and when big brother began to rise from the horizon the Great Chief of the Natchez "salutes him with many howlings..."
Then the calumet was lit and the Great Sun "makes him (the sun) an offering of the first three puffs which he draws." Afterward, the Natchez chief would raise his hand "above his head, and turning from east to west" would show the sun "the direction which he must take in his course."
French settler Le Page du Pratz learned to speak the Natchez language and once questioned a temple guardian about the beliefs of the tribe. The Supreme Being was also known as "Coyocop-chill," and there were many lesser spirits, all called "Coyocop-techou." One story handed down -- similar to the Christian belief of creation -- was that Coyocop-chill created man by first making a human figure in clay before bringing the figure to life with his own breath. It is fascinating to note, too, that the Natchez, like many other tribes, believed that there had been a time when the earth was deluged with a great flood which man and nature survived.
Natchez Indian historian Jim Barnett notes that the "temple guardian told a story of a shining man and woman who descended from the sun to help the people govern themselves. The couple remained on earth and led the people to a new land where they established the tribe's social and religious systems. After the shining man's death, his descendants formed the Sun lineage that governed the nation. The temple guardian went on to tell DuPratz of a time when the Natchez people lived in another country to the southwest. They moved to their present location, carrying their sacred fire with them, to escape warlike neighbors."
Just exactly where the Natchez came from hasn't been pinpointed, but some believe they may have immigrated from Mesoamerica -- a region which comprises much of Central America -- parts of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and El Salvador and parts of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. This region was, says historian Carl Waldman "the most densely populated area" of the Americas in the centuries before the Europeans arrived.
In his book, "Atlas of The North American Indian," Waldman says of Mesoamerica: "Great cities would be built, house successive groups of people, then be abandoned becoming legendary for still others. New art forms would be developed and shared. Religious practices and gods would inspire. And out of religion would emerge writing and science."
Historians report that all Native North American tribes had a religious belief system although they had no word for "religion." Indians were by and large faithful to their beliefs which were tied to the natural world, agriculture, hunting, society, politics and any and everything that brought meaning to their lives. They were respectful to God and to nature.
Writes Waldman: "Religion and magic were fused with practical science; for example, prayer was used in conjunction with practical hunting and fishing techniques, and incantations accompanied effective herbal remedies in the curing of disease. It can be said for Native peoples the natural was inseparable from the supernatural. Myth was a way of understanding reality. Spirituality played a prominent role in the interpretation of the universe and in the adaptation of human activity in the patterns of nature."
Additionally, Native Americans believed that the earth was possessed by powerful spirits, good and bad, and that magic could control spirits. They also felt "a sense of kinship with the natural world and the attribution of innate souls and human properties to plants, animals, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena."
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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