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How Colonialism Erased First Nations’ Beliefs and Religions

Before the arrival of European explorers and traders, First Nations in North America were thriving as they had their own culture, language, religion, and customs. However, the process of colonialism and the institution of imperialism erased a great part of the beliefs and religions of the First Nations.

Several of these beliefs that the Empire erased and silenced were related to Queer identities. This is so because colonialism often imposed a restricted and binary view of gender. But, first things first – it’s hard to talk about colonialism without defining the term. So let’s start there.

What is colonialism?

Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. In North America, colonization occurred from the 16th century onwards, when a new group of people from Europe migrated to North America, taking over, seizing the land, and imposing their own cultural values, religions, and laws. Colonialism in the US lasted for at least 500 years.

This new group of people started making policies that did not favor First Nations. These First Nations were Indigenous People that were organized into complex, self-governing jurisdictions. There were an estimated 10 million people divided into 600+ First Nations across eight broad geographical and cultural areas in the US. Each Nation had its own language, beliefs, and customs. Each Nation had its own religion or system of beliefs as well.

Colonization occurs partly because the colonizers think that they are superior to all the colonized. This happened with Europeans, who did not even consider Indigenous Peoples to be human. Colonizers disregarded First Nations’ beliefs, cultures, medicines, laws, and governments. Colonizers believed they had the right to make decisions that involved First Nations without consulting any representatives from the Nations themselves.

Colonialism in North America

In the early days, the relationship between Europeans and the First Nations was mutually beneficial. Traders and explorers from Europe –like Great  Britain and France– offered valuable materials and goods to Indigenous Peoples. In turn, First Nations shared their knowledge and expertise on how to adjust to the new land. However, as Europeans started to settle, the relationship between colonizers and Indigenous Peoples became more complex and challenging.

It all began with settling: Europeans believed that these lands, unexplored by them, were nobody’s land. They simply ignored the fact that First Nations had been living there for thousands of years and started claiming these lands as theirs.

Settlers from Europe also ignored the names that First Nations had given to mountains, bodies of water, and other natural landmarks. Instead, Europeans renamed these landmarks. A good example is the mountain T?u?kášila Šákpe (“Six Grandfathers”), which was renamed Mount Rushmore. The name T?u?kášila Šákpe was given to the mountain by a medicine man of the Lakota Nation after he had a vision of six sacred directions: West, East, North, South, Above, and Below. “The directions were said to represent kindness and love, full of years and wisdom, like human grandfathers” (Native Hope blog).

European settlers and Indigenous First Nations had competing sets of values regarding gender identity, gender expression, the role of women in society, ownership and use of land, governing, education and upbringing, among others.

British and French colonizers viewed North America as a source of raw materials. In their worldview, the environment was a resource that could be exploited for individual gain. First Nations, on the other hand, value the collective more than the individual. Each person has their role, and women are equal to men. The natural world deserves to be respected because, according to them, each object and landmark has a spirit.

Another issue was disease. European colonizers brought with them diseases that were unknown in North America. First Nations had no immunity to these ailments and 90%-95% of the First Nations population died from these diseases the Europeans brought with them.

Christian missionaries told First Nation members that the reason for their sickness was that they didn’t believe in the Christian God. Many were persuaded or forced to abandon their beliefs and convert to Christianity. They were also required to learn to speak and read English. They had to adopt monogamous heterosexual marriage and give up non-marital sexual relationships. Finally, they had to accept the concept of individual ownership of land and other property.

The Indian Removal Act and The Trail of Tears

In the US, The Indian Removal Act was passed on May 28, 1830, under President Andrew Jackson. The law authorized the removal of southern Native American tribes, also known as “The Five Civilized Tribes”, who were the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Muscogee-Creek, the Seminole, and original Cherokee nations.

The Trail of Tears is the name given to aseries of forced displacements of approximately 60,000 Indigenous People between 1830 and 1850 by the United States government. Besides the Five Civilized Tribes, additional people affected included the Wyandot, the Kickapoo, the Potowatomi, the Shawnee, and the Lenape.

The Indian Removal Act was passed to give the Southern states the land that belonged to the First Nations. The Removal Act was strongly supported in the South, especially in Georgia, which was involved in a jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee.However, the Indian Removal Act was controversial. Many Christian missionaries protested against it.

The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their newly designated Indian reservation. Reservations were also places of great suffering. Thousands died from disease before reaching their destinations or shortly after. According to activist Suzan Shown Harjo of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the event constituted a genocide.

American Indian Residential Schools

Residential schools for “American Indians” (First Nations) were established in the United States from the mid-17th to the early 20th centuries with a primary objective of “civilizing” or assimilating Native American children and young people into white culture. These boarding schools were first established by Christian missionaries but were often approved by the federal government.

Schools forced the removal of Indigenous cultural signifiers: cutting the children’s hair, having them wear American-style uniforms, forbidding them from speaking their language, and replacing their names with English-language names. They forcibly separated the children from their families and forced to abandon their Native American identity. Children sometimes died in the school system due to infectious diseases. Investigations of the 20th century revealed cases of sexual, physical, and mental abuse, occurring mostly in church-run schools.

First Nations’ beliefs

The blog Native Hope summarizes First Nations’ beliefs by saying that they “did not think of religion as a distinct element of their larger life as a culture and community. Instead, they thought of all of life as part of a larger sacred story. The spiritual and the physical are not separate, but interwoven and constantly interacting with each other” (Native Hope blog).

For First Nations, life and spirituality take place in the context of community. Each member of the tribe is born into a specific set of responsibilities. Your actions, thoughts, energy, and relationships impact the community, and the health and life of each individual helps or harms the whole Nation.

They consider the cosmos is a living womb that sustains everything. All life is animated by the Great Spirit, and humans have to be respectful towards all natural elements. Spiritual traditions are passed down through generations through storytelling.

The Cherokee myth of creation goes like this: “There was a time when there was no earth, and all creatures lived in a place above the sky called Galvlo’i. Everything below was only water, but when Galvlo’i got too crowded, the creatures decided to send down Water Beetle to see if he could find them a new place to live. He obliged them and dove down into the water, all the way to the bottom of the sea, where he picked up a bit of mud and brought it to the surface.

Once above the water, the mud spread out in all directions and became an island. The Great Spirit secured the island by attaching cords to it and tying it to the vault in the sky. Though the land was now stable, the ground was too soft for any of the animals to stand on, so they sent down Buzzard to scope it out. He flew around for some time until he could find a dry enough spot to land, and when he did the flapping of his wings caused the mud to shift. It went down in some places and up in others, creating the peaks, valleys, hills, and mountains of the earth.

The rest of the creatures were now able to come down, but they soon realized it was very dark, so they invited the Sun to come with them. Everyone was happy except Crawfish, who said his shell turned a bright red because the sun was too close, so they raised the sun seven different times until Crawfish was satisfied.

The Great Spirit then created plants for this new land, after which he told the animals to stay awake for seven days. Only Owl was able to do so, and as a reward, the Great Spirit gave him the gift of sight in the dark. The plants tried as well, but only the pines, furs, holly, and a select few others were able to stay awake, so he gave them the gift of keeping their leaves year-round.

Great Spirit then decided he wanted to have people live on this island, so he created one man and one woman. The pair did not yet know how to make children, so the man took a fish and pressed it against the woman’s stomach, after which she gave birth. They did this for seven days until Great Spirit felt there was enough humans for the time being, and made it so a woman could only give birth once a year.” (Matt Clayton, 2019).

First Nations’ beliefs and Queerness

As we have stated in our previous blog post “Pride Special: Nonbinary and Gender-Nonconforming People in First Nations in the American Continent”, many First Nations had a third gender that existed outside what Western ideas consider the gender binary. These identities were respected. In fact, in many North American cultures, shamans and important religious leaders were outside the gender binary.

In the North Peigan Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy, there was a gender identity called ninauposkitzipxpe. Roughly translated, it means “manly-hearted woman”. These individuals were AFAB (assigned female at birth) and did not necessarily wear masculine clothes. However, they were unrestricted by the social constraints placed on women in their society.

In the Lakota nation, there were people called winktewho were AMAB (assigned male at birth) and assumed traditional women’s roles, such as cooking and caregiving. They also played an important part in rituals and served as the keepers of the community’s oral tales.

In the Navajo nation, the nadleehiwere AMAB people who embodied the masculine and feminine spirit. The dilbaa, on the other hand, were AFAB individuals who also were considered to encompass both genders.

In the Zuni nation, the lhamana people existed. These individuals lived as both genders at the same time. In that sense, they performed traditional women’s work, as well as traditional men’s work. They played a key role in society as mediators, priests, and artists.

Finally, we can mention the Mohave nation. Their creation myth talks about a moment in time when humans were not sexually or gender-differentiated. The Mohave recognized four genders: men, women, hwame and alyha. Hwame were AFAB individuals who identified as male, while alyha were AMAB people who identified as female.

In conclusion, we can see that colonialism and Christianity have had a deep impact on First Nations’ beliefs, Christianity and colonization the West have systematically silenced and erased from history.

Queerness, which was accepted and cherished in many North American First Nations, has suffered in a deep way. Luckily, First Nations are still fighting for their rights, and their braveness has made them preserve a lot of customs and traditions still today.

Verene Snopek
Verene Snopek

Verene Snopek is a Content Writer at Aquamarine Content. She is a Cancer Sun, Gemini Moon, and Libra Rising. A Jane of all trades, she is a certified clinical psychologist specializing in CBT and DBT. This cat lover also works as a professor of History, Literature, and Ethics in a Teacher Training College, in addition to teaching English Language at the National University of Córdoba. She is interested in past lives and energy healing and has been learning about Astrology and Tarot reading for over a year. Her favorite crystal is Amethyst and her favorite Tarot card is The Lovers.

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