3) Calusa v. Iroquois: Religious Beliefs

Religion and the rituals that came along with them also differed among Indian tribes. The Calusa Indians and the people of the Iroquois tribes may have agreed about the existence of deities, however they did not agree on every aspect regarding these higher beings. They had different men whom they considered to be their spiritual leaders. Spiritual leaders had certain characteristics that, according to their tribe, proved their abilities to take on the role of a spiritual leader. The cacique (in the Calusa tribe) and the shaman (in the Iroquois tribes) also had different ways of gaining information from their deities. These are all important things to consider when discovering the ways in which the religions between the Calusa and Iroquois differed.

The Calusa Indians believed that three gods existed (Dormer, pg. 7). Each god had a specific role that they were responsible for. The most powerful was in charge of the moon, stars, sun, and weather; another in charge of the chiefdom; and the final one had control over wars. Festivals were also held, one for each god (Dormer, pg. 7). In addition to these three gods, the Calusa also believed that each person had three souls (MacMahon, pg. 83). Each soul was connected to a certain part of the body, “One is the little pupil of the eye; another is the shadow that each one casts; and the last is the image of oneself that each sees…in a calm pool of water” (MacMahon, pg. 83). According to Darcie MacMahon the Calusa believed that when a person died their soul attached to the pupil would remain in the body; the body would then seek others who are deceased in order to ask for advice (pg. 83). The remaining two souls would flow into the life of a small animal or fish. This cycle would continue, with the soul moving to smaller and smaller bodies, until it eventually reaches, “the point of being reduced into nothing (MacMahon, pg. 83).

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the Calusa Indians religious beliefs is the fact that they placed a great amount of importance on their cacique. Being a cacique meant that the individual was required to have intricate knowledge about information regarding the spiritual beliefs of the Calusa peoples. Darcie MacMahon makes this clear when she states, “Thus, Calusa beliefs, tied closely to political authority, were integral to Calusa society” (pg. 85). If their cacique was not knowledgeable in the areas of all things religious, then it meant he would be destroyed as a leader, “his reason for existence” would be stripped away from him (MacMahon, pg. 85). For this reason it was imperative that the cacique be well versed in all things religious!

The tribes within the Iroquois Confederacy had beliefs that were somewhat similar to those of the Calusa Indians. The religious beliefs of the Iroquois Indians also had a large impact on the tribe’s way of life (Richter, pg. 1). For one example, the Seneca tribe strongly believed that everything around them was alive; that everything had feelings, thoughts, and reactions to what was going on around them (Hewitt, pg. 33). However one of the major differences was that the greatest importance was not placed on the sachem (chief) of the tribe, rather it was placed on the shaman, those that interpreted for the spirits.

The shaman within the tribes had the potential to be female, however they were predominately male (Dixon, pg. 2). The position of the shaman was passed down similar to the way in which the position of sachem was passed on. According to Dixon, “…the shaman descends by inheritance…according to the prevailing system of tribal descent” (Dixon, pg. 2). This meant that the position of the shaman would also be passed on through the female line. Becoming a spiritual leader was not an option for shaman in the Iroquois tribe. Those in line to become shamans also had to be chosen by the spiritual forces. If chosen by these spiritual beings than the individual had one of two options: accept the position or die (Dixon, pg. 3). These spiritual leaders were said to have characteristics that would be quite evident to those around them. They were prone to having epileptic seizures, dreams, and visions…among other things (Dixon, pg. 3). There were many ways in which the leaders could receive their messages including: from one of many animals and their spirits (dead or alive), the spirits of the dead, or even from the gods themselves (Dixon, pg. 3).

These are just a few of the many differences that existed among the Calusa and Iroquois spiritual leaders. The Calusa believed that their cacique was not only the leader of their tribe, but also their spiritual leader. They had three specific deities that they believed their cacique interpreted for. The Iroquois, on the other hand, placed the shaman at the head of all things spiritual. Their gods were living all around them. Their position was passed along through the female line as well as secured when they were chosen by the spiritual beings they believed in. While both groups of Indian people had religious beliefs, their leaders were chosen differently, and their leaders also interpreted messages from their deities in different ways.


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