Extending the circle
Tribal religions find a great affinity among species of living creatures, and it is at this point that the brotherhool of life is a strong part of the Indian way. The Hopi, for example, revere not only the lands on which they live but the animals with which they have a particular relationship. The dance for rain, which involves the use of fascination of whites, primarily because they have traditionally considered reptiles -- particularly snakes -- as their mortal enemy.In this attitude and its ensuing fascination, we may illustrate, perhaps, the alienation between the various life forms which Christian peoples read into the story in Genesis. This alienation is not present in tribal religions.
Behind the apparent kinship between animals, reptiles, birds, and human beings in the Indian way stands a great conception shared by a great majority of the tribes. Other living things are not regarded as insensitive species. Rather they are "peoples" in the same manner as the various tribes men are peoples. The reason why the hopi use live reptiles in their ceremony goes back to one of their folk heros who lived with the snake people for a while and learned from them the secret of making rain for the crops. It was a ceremony freely given by the snake people to the Hopi. In the same manner the Plains Indians considered the buffalo as a distinct people, the Northwest Coast Indians regarded the salmon as a people. Equality is thus not simply a human attribute but a recognition of the creatureness of all creation.
Very important in some of the tribal religions is idea that men can change into animals, and birds and that other species can change into men. In this way species can communicate and learn from each other. Some of the these tribal ideas have been classified as "witchcraft" by anthropologists, primarily because such phenomena occurring within the Western tradition would naturally be interpreted as evil and satanic. What Western man misses is the rather logical implication of the unity of life. if all living things share a creator and a creation, is it not logical to suppose that all have the ability to relate to every part of the creation? . . . Recent studies with the dolphin and other animals may indicate that Western man is beginning to shed his superstitiions and consider the possibility of having communication with other life forms.
But many tribal religions go even farther. The manifestation of power is simply not limited to mobile life forms. For some tribes the idea extends to plants, rocks, and natural features which Western men consider inaminate. Walking Buffalo, a stoney indian from Canada, explained the nature of the unity of creation and the possibility of communicating with any aspect of creation when he remarked:
Did you know that trees talk? Well, they do. they talk to each other, and they'll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don't listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don't suppose they'll listen to other voices in nature.But I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.