There is no clear empirical historical data to inform us as to what the Arapaho, a nomadic and oral culture, believed about what we call "ultimate reality" prior to European contact. Employing the phenomenological method, this paper examines, first, records of anthropologists and historians, and, second, direct communications of contemporary or recently deceased Arapahos fluent in their language, in order to describe belief-statements and symbols since the beginning of recorded contact. These documents already show the influence of Christianity.

We go on to explore the linguistic meanings of concepts for the supernatural, the spiritual, "the people", "life", mysterious beings, and the creator-figure with related images. We focus on words used to explain Arapaho belief in God, and attempt to distinguish concepts that might be pre-contact from those that seem to be post-contact, always bearing in mind that Arapahos insist on their own primordial monotheism. We also examine the fundamentally "cosmological" sense of ultimate meaning, as opposed to the "anthropocentric-historical" meaning, but with the argument that cosmological world views do not in themselves preclude transcendence.

Next, the paper enters into an effort to "understand" Arapaho beliefs about ritual and symbol, visions, alienation and sin, and life after death. Finally, we venture some "transcendental phenomenology" intuitions as well as some

causal inferences as to the aboriginal meaning of creation, creator, spiritual power, ritual, and transcendent destiny.



There are two pre-notes to the present discussion, and they are points that trouble all such inquiries. The first pre-note is this: the attempt to learn what aboriginal peoples thought and believed in "pre-contact" times is at best educated guesswork, and, in most North American research, it is minimally educated guesswork. There is simply no recorded history there by which to educate one's guesswork. South of the Rio Grande, it has been possible for archeologists to arrive at rather well-founded opinions in studies of Aztec, Maya and Inca culture, once they have found keys to decipher messages in stone. But in North America, aside from some petroglyphic information, and from the remains of the midwestern "mound culture", there is little data that reveals any detailed account of religious belief. And in dealing with traditionally nomadic peoples, such as those I will focus on in this paper, one finds sparse "documentation" indeed.

The second pre-note regards the problem of "bias", which Bernard Lonergan calls "a block or distortion of intellectual development". (Lonergan, 1972, 231) As with all areas of human understanding, bias of one sort or another must be recognized in themselves by all who attempt to interpret aboriginal spiritual and intellectual culture. The early missionaries certainly carried biases grounded in their theology, relying on such ancient philosophers as Aristotle and Plato, and on such patristic theologians as Augustine and Cyprian. From this viewpoint, they were unable to grant authentic spiritual values to the forms of "pagan" religion that they encountered. The modern descendents of these missionaries are conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists conditioned to deny anything good or "salvific" where the name of Jesus has not been confessed and repentance fully accepted; mission theology demands a theory of "discontinuity": that is, that there is no integral spiritual relationship between pre-Christian and Christian experience, and thus conversion to Christianity demands a total break with one's past.

A second kind of ideological bias can be seen in the work of scholars such as Andrew Lang (Lang, 1898) and Wilhelm Schmidt (Schmidt, 1935, 1939), both of whom formed conclusions supporting a primitive ethical monotheism in certain African and Australian tribes. The work of Schmidt, a Roman Catholic priest, has generally been critiqued as influenced by his need to uphold the then rigid dogmatic interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

On the other end of the theoretical spectrum sits the bias of atheism or agnosticism and the conclusions that flow from this type of perspective. This bias would lead one to assert that aboriginal tribes had no form of monotheistic belief but were either polytheistic, animistic or dynamistic. Without here attributing motivations, the non-theistic bias would embrace the argument advanced by Professor Jordan Paper, for example.

Accordingly, I must state my own biases. Fundmentally, these have developed ever since I first sought in undergraduate Greek courses for what I later learned to name as Tertullian's "anima naturaliter christiana" (the soul is naturally Christian) in certain pagan philosophers. The same bias continued in my quest for the validity of the theory of a "baptism of desire" as understood by Roman Catholic theology. To sum up this bias, it was basically the desire to believe that salvation is available to the "good pagan", and this desire intensified later when I agonized over what response I was to offer a native Christian who asked me if he or she would meet their ancestors in heaven.

Later studies led me to interpret historically the biases of an Augustine or a Cyprian, as well as to embrace the "inclusivist" position (I.e., all persons, Christian or not, can be saved through God's grace in Christ) reflected most notably in Karl Rahner and in Vatican Council II, which he helped to influence. It is a position that states, in effect, that the exclusivist God is too small, and that God is gracious to "all who seek him with a sincere heart" (from the fourth eucharistic prayer of the Catholic liturgy). This continues to exert on me a magnetic pull toward the camp of Lang and Schmidt, whatever their shortcomings. This attraction has always been reinforced by the constant testimonies of native elders that their people always believed in some kind of supreme being. But we shall return to this later.

The present essay will employ some of the themes discussed in previous articles of my own (Starkloff, 1983, 1992) and will rely on the method that I still employ in teaching about "primal religion" - the phenomenological method, as developed by Gerardus Van der Leeuw for the study of religion (Van der Leeuw, 1950). Basically this means that the first step in the phenomenological study of religion is to "bracket" the phenomena appearing in experience - here from both written and oral sources. Thus, I attempt to practice the epoch, or "restraint" of biases, and "intense focusing" on the phenomenona while witholding ontological judgments, in order to engage in careful discription. However, I shall conclude this paper on a more parlous Kantian note by risking some exercise in "transcendental phenomenology" that examines some "intuitions" into the "essence" of the phenomenona and attempts to describe them.

One article that continues to be helpful in this investigation is Paul Radin's classic "Monotheism among American Indians" (Tedlock and Tedlock, 1975, 219-247). While suggesting that animism, polytheism and poly-spiritism are probably the earliest stages of religion, Radin elsewhere (Radin, 1951, 254-255) goes on to give a reticent nod to the primitive monotheism theories of Lang and Schmidt, although he rejects, not without respect, Schmidt's theory of devolution from primitive monotheism (Radin, 1951,76).

Radin suggests that tribal belief varies from a belief in a being who was an amalgamation of culture hero/trickster-transformer figures, to an "otiose deity", to the highly monotheistic Tirawa of the nineteenth century Pawnees, and the seemingly christianized Earthmaker of Winnebago peyotists. All in all, for Radin, the supreme being is probably a development that synthesizes a number of more primitive notions or beliefs, developed by creative "religious individuals" or "religious formulators", (Tedlock and Tedlock, 241) Radin does not say, however, whether the accretions are pre-contact or post-contact. In the final analysis, my own study accepts this ambiguity as a part of a mystery with which we must be content. However, I shall try to render this study more contemporary by showing how some aboriginal persons with feet in both tribal and mainstream cultures have attempted to formulate their beliefs in the Supreme Being.

A final propaedeutic comment must be made about "meaning", and the nature of ultimacy. For the sake of brevity, I shall accept the description of "meaning" offered by the URAM "Notes for Contributors":

...that to which the human mind reduces and relates everything and which one does not reduce or relate to anything else, or as horizon, i.e. world view in the light of which humans understand, or as supreme value, i.e. that for which someone would sacrifice everything and which one would not lose for anything.[1]

This description carries a special poignancy when we speak about the Arapahos, who, like all other high plains cultures, had to sacrifice their ultimate value on this earth - their "sacred space", as expressed in their creation myths, on the altar of "manifest destiny" and the relentless frontier expansion of the nineteenth century.

As I shall illustrate, I am inclined to hold with those scholars who argue for a basically cosmological world view (one that emphasizes humankind's immersion in nature, or in the "cosmos") among native peoples, as contrasted with a more historico-anthropocentric world view (which emphasizes the ascendency of humans over the rest of creation). Tribal origin myths focus on how "the people" was created, and how it received its "sacred place at "the centre of the earth", in which to dwell with "all their relations", animal, vegetable and mineral. At the same time, I would dispute any argument that native people saw themselves as so totally a part of their environment that they wer no different from the animal world. Their mythology (as I shall argue) shows that humans did in fact "stand out" from their world of relationships, even though the concept of a more individualized, historical and universalist meaning would come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.


The Arapahos


In this paper, I shall focus almost entirely on the Arapaho people, and on the northern division of their tribe residing since the late nineteenth century in Wyoming. The name "Arapaho", as with so many names now used by tribal groups, is not their name for themselves, but was probably bestowed on them by the Crows, or Absarokas, of Montana. Pronouced in Crow as "Alapaho", the word, as I was advised, describes a "greasy nose", in reference to their way of wearing paint. But the Arapaho, like most tribes everywhere, called themselves Hinno (Hinawnaw'ay), meaning "people" or "human beings" - a word rooted in Hnen (Heenen) for "man".[2] When a traditional Arapaho described himself or herself, they employed the expression "Hinnono' (Hinawnaw'aynaw), meaning, "I am a human being", or "I am of the people", or, as they came to translate matter-of-factly, "I am an Arapaho."

The Arapahos now number some six thousand in both Wyoming and Oklahoma. They belong to that most vastly distributed linguistic family, the Algonkian, whose proto-Algonkian origin has been placed in the area around the juncture of New York and Pennsylvania. Linguist friends have suggested to me that the difference in language between the Arapahos and eastern Algonkians like the Ojibways and Algonquins might indicate a separation of some five thousand years. Arapahos today still cite an inherited story about how their ancestors long ago, in crossing a great frozen lake or river, were separated from some of their relatives when the ice broke, splitting them up forever. These were "those old Arapahos", as some still say today.

The Arapahos gradually adapted from woodland to plains culture, and seem to have developed a rather loosely defined social structue combining both patriarchal and matriarchal traits, and were organized into bands rather than tight clans or "totems" (Hilger, 1952, 192) (I would add, however, that I have known some Arapahos who did practice a certain taboo on eating the meat of one or other animal because of some totemic relationship.) In any case, today, since being forced onto the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to share it with their traditional enemies the Shoshones, in 1876, the Arapahos have accepted and developed government by a joint tribal council wiht the Shoshones (Fowler, 1982) The more ancient or prehistoric expressions of cultural and spiritual world-views can be seen now only in certain religious structures.


Concepts of Ultimacy



In keeping with the cosmological nature of this tradition, it seems more appropriate to begin with creation even before discussing the Creator. The earliest recorded accounts of variations of the creation myth - basically of the "earth-diver" category - are found in those communications shared with George A.Dorsey and his eventually famous junior colleague Alfed Kroeber in the first years of the present century. (Dorsey, 1903; Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903; Kroeber, 1907 and reprinted 1983; Kroeber, 1916) Today this mythology is even more tightly guarded among Sun Dance participants, so that I will refrain from discussing the brief oral testimonies shared with me, along with my own observations, and simply summarize what these scholars recorded.

The narrative begins with a primordial expanse of water, upon which there appears a humanoid figure (a man, actually), carrying a pipe, although one version describes a family of mother, father and child floating on the pipe. (Dorsey-Kroeber, 1903,3) The man in the more lengthy account is heard "lamenting" with loud cries that draw several small animals who swim to him across the water. When they ask him why he is weeping, he responds, "It is because I have nowhere to put my pipe." The animals volunteer to help him find land. Each one in turn (usually the duck, the beaver and the muskrat are mentioned) dives to the bottom to find mud, but without success. Finally, a little turtle (a very sacred animal among many tribes) dives for a long time, and finally surfaces with mud in his claws, although one Arapaho told the inquirers that this diver was the duck. (Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903, 6) From this primordial mud, the man makes flat strips of soil and spreads them out over the water until there is an expanse of land.

There is are also fragmentary accounts of how Whirlwind Woman, seeking for a place to rest, flies around the mass and enlarges it to the size it has today. (Kroeber, 1983, 60-61; Dorsey-Kroeber, 1903, 98) This feminine personage, while she does not receive extensive treatment in ther recorded narratives, does appear having culture-hero traits in two recorded tales. First of all, she is the object of the trickster's affections, but is unwilling to marry him and settle down, and she outwits all his efforts to seduce her. The narrative concludes not only by giving instructions on how to deal with whirlwinds, but also with the tantalizing assertion, "In the story about the Whirlwind Woman, travelling from place to place, making tipi discs, etc., we are told how the earth was enlarged." (Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903, 101) One might be tempted to wonder about a more "patriarchal" tradition that suppressed further stories about thie character. In all the accounts, the creator-figure next fashions from the mud other living creatures, and finally a man and a woman, breathing into them and placing them in "the middle part of the earth" (Dorsey-Kroeber, 1903,48) which they are henceforth to call home. It may be argued that this "center of the world" image describes the fundamental cosmological "ultimate reality" concept for ancient Arapahos. This longing to dwell in their sacred space has been argued cogently by Vine Deloria, Jr. (Deloria, 1973, Cc.5-12)

Various descriptions have been given of a subsequent event in the origin narrative. In one account, after the making of the human couple, the man casts a dry buffalo chip onto the water, saying that, as the chip floats, so too should human life be: that is, humans will live forever. However, another person, in one case his woman companion, throws a rock into the water, saying that, as it sinks, so too must human life be, lest, if all live forever, there will not be enough space for all. In a similar version, she argues that death will give us reason to pity one another. Is this a version of the widely distributed theme that connects woman with death and suffering? Or is it simply, as some women of other tribes have suggested to me in class, that the woman was simply being practical and realistic in limiting the overwheening ambition of her mate? In any case, there is yet another version, which describes the trickster throwing the stone and thus bringing death. This too can be read diversely: either it is simply part of the trickster's role to cause misery, or it is his role as culture hero to arrange the best possible way of life. Or, might one speculate that, according to the Arapaho language, since the name of the trickster is Nih3oo (Nihawthaw) (applied to the "white man", as we shall see), this is a kind of neo-malthusian anecdote describing how the whites will reduce the Indian population in order to provide space for themselves? The point acquire greater poignancy in another (obviously late) story in which Nihoo3oo appears in his more heroic form, and prophecies to his people that "The white people will come back again." (Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903,81)

The creation narratives described above are part of the fragmentary mythology that Dorsey and Kroeber recorded in connection with the "Sun Dance" or "Offerings Lodge", which, as we shall discuss below, is the tribe's annual and most sacred rite of renewal. Traditional Arapaho secrecy around this rite, now more intensified because of the crush of tourists and "new agers", prompts me to avoid entering into detailed discussion of the ritual, even as recorded in monographs. I will content myself with explanations of "ultimate meaning" terminology.


Creator; God; Supreme Being Concepts

Written Sources. It is significant that information recorded by anthropologists finally leads us into a cul-de-sac in the search for a primordial belief, and this, perhaps, because anthropologists were not primarily concerned to inquire into such beliefs. On the other hand, neither were missionaries able to penetrate to the aboriginal, simply because, as would be true for secular scholars as well, they were already dealing with post-contact people. In both cases, too, it is likely that native people either told whites what they figured they would like to hear, or, perhaps, were "adapting" their explanations to language they believed the foreigners were able to understand. For my part, I cannot claim to have uncovered any more irrefutable "data". However, I shall describe additional investigations that help to clear up some of the puzzlement around several spiritual concepts.

A strictly linguistic study of Arapaho tradition was published by Kroeber in 1916, with the assistance of the young William Shakespeare, who, some half century and more later, generously assisted me with my own understanding of some traditions. In the Kroeber-Shakespeare manuscript, certain concepts appear that may or may not be aboriginal. The most general term is, in Kroeber's spelling, nnb'na (Kroeber, 1916,76), which Kroeber ( and no doubt Shakespeare) translated as "supernatural". Elders much later told me that it is better explained by the idea that "We don't have much to do with it", while Ben Friday ,Sr., seeking to adapt to my thought patterns, suggested that the word means what I mean by "taboo". My own experience leads me to believe that this explanation perfectly captures the sense of the word.

As we search for more personal spiritual concepts, we find in this text a word translated as "spirit": tcyataw inenit , which also means "untrue being". (Kroeber, 1916, 86) This is opposed to 0awa0 inenit , or "true being". Elders later advised me that these were terms of discernment as to the difference between a disembodied wraith or type of deceptive spirit, and a real embodied human being. That is, the real person was a human being, and perhaps, in accord with the ancient custom of tribals calling themselves the "human beings", this authentic figure was an Arapaho.

It ia worth noting here that within the list of "supernatural" concepts is given the vivid phrase "s-i0ixahun", literally "one who is pegged out flat", (Kroeber, 1916,86) describing one form of torture of enemy captives or even of oneself as an act of personal asceticism in the quest for visions. The post-contact word describes the very visual understanding of the crucified Christ, and thus becomes part of the spiritual vocabulary of later Arapahos.

More oriented toward ancient divine concepts are the following, employing phonetic spelling:

b-hei-nihnixt - "owner (keeper?) of all" (Kroeber, 1916,102)

heisonanin - "our father" (Kroeber, 1916,119)

nbciwa - "my grandfather" (Kroeber, 1916,119)

h heisonanin - "Ha! Our father!" (Kroeber, 1916,119)

no-ha-bcibe'hin - "Our grandfather" (Kroeber, 1916, 119)

These are terms which may be variously directed to supernatural beings (one song addresses the eagle as grandfather), and especially to the Four Old Men, the spirits of the four directions, who are personified in ritual by the four elders who guide tribal ceremonial life. The corresponding female word, Neinoo (Naynaw) - "Grandmother" - is not recorded, but, as I shall note below, the word for "mother" does appear in prayer form.

In other writings by Dorsey and Kroeber we find corroborations of the above, with one important addition. Dorsey's lengthy and detailed report on a Sun Dance held in Oklahoma in 1902 (Dorsey, 1903) does not attempt to enter into detail on vocabulary, but records prayers by Offerings Lodge leaders to "Our Father, Man Above", and to other "holy ones". This reference is important in relation to explanations given shortly below.

In their record of an ancient origin myth, the two scholars write of a "father" (probably meaning the tribal progenitor) who they equate with the sacred Flatpipe, here identified as the creator. (Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903,2, nt.9; Kroeber, 1983, 308) Kroeber later calls this pipe "the chief fetish of the tribe", because of its all-important place, guarded by heavy prohibitions, in the religious structure. I will not enter into detail on this sacred possession, except to note that contemporary leaders reject the word "fetish" as demeaning, whether or not the anthropologists intended it simply to mean "human-made object" as the original Portuguese word meant, or meant it in the Marxist-Freudian sense as self-alienating projection. I would add that it was suggested to me by the late John C'Hair (sp.sic!), a dedicated traditional as well as Catholic, that the Flatpipe is "our Ark of the Covenant". I can imagine no more fitting analogy, but it is obviously a Christian Arapaho's form of interpretation.

Among the origin stories is also recorded a reference to a white woman secretly with child, "the son of Hixtcb Nihaan, or "above white man", the God of Christianity. (Dorsey-Kroeber, 1903, 6) This seems to be parallel with "man above" who hears our prayers and vows and give us certain commandments, which the Arapahos came to connect with membership in the Buffalo Lodge. The woman seems to be related to the woman who in other accounts climbs up into the sky and marries a male figure, depicted as a porcupine, and eventually returns to earth to give birth to her offspring. (Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903, 321-341) The figure of Nihaan, here is described as the trickster figure similar to the Ojibway Manabozho (Nanabush), and thus as a creator figure as well. Dorsey and Kroeber narrate a tradition that, after creating, "Nihaan lived in the sky and was called our father." (Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903, 321-340, narrative 1-49) Thus, the trickster figure here is "the man" named in other fragments.

Before returning to detailed analysis of this mysterious figure, we can conclude our report on written sources of deity and personal spirits by citing a prayer invocation recorded by Kroeber: "biitawu neina hixtcb neisonan". This prayer (or better, perhaps, "credo") can be translated, depending on very subtle nuances in pronunciation, as either "The earth is my mother, the (one) above is my father", or "My mother is on the earth, my father is above." The prayer suggests an interesting consideration in the light of religion scholar Sam Gill's recent book Mother Earth, which seeks to deny that "mother earth" was an aboriginal American concept. (Gill, 1987)

A Detailed Excursus on the Creator Figure. I will now turn from the Dorsey-Kroeber figure Niha ca to further analyze usage of this name, which would be rendered in the Salzmann orthography as Nih3o (Nihawthaw) (Cf. Salzmann, 1967). Most primitively, Nih3oo means "spider", a name apparently derived from a root indicating a very slender waist. However, we meet this character repeatedly, not only in the origin myths, but in many stories where he is the trickster figure much more than the creator, thus filling the ambivalent role featured in mythologies the world over of such characters as Iktomi (Siouan "Spider"), Raven, Hare, Nanabush (Manabozho) to name a few. In these stories, we are shown that assemblage of personalities in the trickster, one who has challenged and puzzled ethnologists, religion scholars, linguists and other social scientists from the rise of anthropology down to the speculations of Jung and Radin (For bibliography, see Starkloff, 1992). This bafflement can be clearly seen in my own early and more naive efforts to understand during the early 1970s (Starkloff, 1974, 25-35). Nih3oo is indeed multiplex: scheming and deceiving thief, rapist and murderer, absurd buffoon who constantly undoes himself thorugh his greed and lust; numinous culture hero who is at least partly responsible for the world of the Arapahos and for what they are today.

In post-contact times, the name Hixcbe Nih3o (Hichchebba Nihawthaw) becomes even more baffling. We have already met it with a different orthography in the accounts of Dorsey and Kroeber, and we encounter it again in a monograph by Sister M. Inez Hilger (Hilger, 1952), who spells the name He'jabbaneaxa, which she recognizes as related to the word for spider. Again, the name emerges in an Episcopalian catechism, undated, but most likely from the turn of the century. On the first page, in the customary catechetical format (e.g., "Who made you?" "God made me", etc.) the name given for God is "Ichjevannauthau". However, when the catechism instructs on how to pray The Lord's Prayer, it translates it as "Vahadicht hevanitheid", which would read in the Salzmann rendering as Behtixt hownothit, indicating the prayer of worship. As we shall see below, all of this terminology leads to deeper understanding of religious vocabulary. Finally, another document available from the same period is a set of field notes of Father J.B. Sifton, S.J., a missionary among both the Gros Ventres and the Arapahos from the turn of the century and two decades into the twentieth century, and fluent in both of these related tongues. Sifton also employs the name Ichchebbaniatha to describe God.

Oral Sources. To further unravel the mystery of the divine names, I turn to personal recollections and notes beginning in 1959, although the bulk of my work took place during the decade between 1970 and 1981. The name Nih3oo, I found, always evoked laughter from the elders whenever I asked about it. Ralph Antelope, in his usual jolly and teasing manner, roared with laughter once, and cried out, "He wasn't God! He was just crazy!" And on evenings during dinner conversations, another elder, Ralph Grasshopper, enjoyed regaling us with stories about the character whose name translates into "White Man" - although he avoided the more salacious tales!

That Nih3o should become White Man in his more "crazy" and cruel aspects is hardly surprising. However, conversations with the elders also gradually revealed other etymological explanations. Ernest Sun Rhodes, Sr., our respected mission senior catechist, surmised that the spider appelation was given to the whites to describe their "tight clothing", and another person (who this was I do not recall) further added that the Arapahos had first met whites in the persons of the Spanish in the late sixteenth century. The men's costume among these was, of course, made up of a kind of "panty hose", emerging out of a puffed-out and slashed upper pantaloon, topped by a tight armor corselet at the waste. In other words, the costume made its wearer resemble a spider.

Yet another elder, William C'Hair, Sr., once offered me another suggestion. As the native people observed with both puzzlement and eventually horror the vast hordes of whites overrunning their country, what they saw in the mid-nineteenth century was a creeping web of fences, railroads and telegraph wires, gradually spun by those beings as they swarmed over the prairies. In all these cases, the invaders fully merited the name of spider in the profound effect they had on the life of the native peoples and on their sacred space.

How, then, does all this word-study lead to "ultimate reality" concepts? As we have seen, the name Hixcbe Nih3oo (Hichchebba Nihawthaw) was communicated to Dorsey and Kroeber and others, each recording his or her own version of it, as meaning either "above white man" or "white man above". This name even made it into the pages of Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (Eliade, 1967, 53-55) But Eliade (perhaps following Schmidt) seems to have misconstrued its linguistic origin and context, by mentioning the high god "Chebbeniathan", to whom "the Algonquins" (employed here in a highly generalized sense) made vows. The word would almost certainly have to be either from Arapaho or Gros Ventre rather than from any other Algonkian sources.

We have seen also how Arapaho usage applied ascension language to the culture hero, noting that Nih3oo, after creating, lived in heaven and was called "our father". Thus, certain culture hero traits - among which would be a possible "shamanistic" motif of moving between worlds - were applied to Jesus and crossed over to God the Father in the course of local interpretations of the catechism. (Starkloff,1983,1992) In fact, Ernest Whiteman, another Arapaho fluent in his own language, remarked to me as recently as the late 1970s that Hixcbe Nih3o was understood to be Jesus. To complicate this information, we must also cite one story recorded by Dorsey and Kroeber (1903, 277-279) about a person called Man Above, who was a powerful and good medicine man. But no Arapaho version of the name was given there, so we cannot easily connect this person with the character we are discussing.

I have recorded elsewhere the aftermath of all this discussion. (Starkloff, 1983) To sum it up here, the conversation took place among elders and some mission staff during our staff's efforts to create authentic catechetical and liturgical materials, especially for young children in danger of losing their own language. The elders had chosen to employ the name Hixcbe Nih3oo for God the Father in one short prayer, although never in the Lord's Prayer, for which they chose the same phrase as had been used in the Episcopalian catechism cited earlier.

A lengthy discussion ensued over this, as we debated the wisdom of changing the divine name to Behtixt (Bahticht - "the one over all things", i.e. "Lord"). To support this argument, one elder quoted a short creedal expression:

Hnnsixt nwo' tnit (Hnneesicht nawaw'aw tnit), meaning "He is the only one we worship". The root of the verb "nwo -",according to several Arapaho sources, is a very "ultimate reality" concept, referring to prayer offered only to God (what theologians call latria). Be that as it may, we went on to use the name Hixcbe Nix3o with the children, until a young mother protested against our teaching her daughter to name God as a white man! Her protest, after further discussion, led to the adoption of the name Behtixt for God, thus striking a blow against oppressive language, both racist and sexist.

More recently Arapaho leaders have suggested that this latter name, even though avoiding the offensive "white man" imagery, is itself not an aboriginal name, but was adopted as a response to missionaries. Nonetheless, Arapahos have persisted in defending their own aboriginal monotheism. Very recently, I was led to examine another expression that I had heard much earlier in the prayers of elders, when they would begin "H Bten" (Ho Btn). I had taken this simply to be a salutation such as "Hail Holy One", addressed to God. However, William C'Hair, Jr. has explained that the short word H (Ho), is itself the name for God. He drew this explanation from the name for the Northern Arapahos' most important winter dance, the so-called "Dog Dance", a prayer for the hunt. According to C'Hair, this name, H nowt (Ho nawat), certainly does not refer to a dog, even though that ceremony is the one rite in which Arapahos sacrifice and eat a dog, but actually means "God Dance". For some contemporary Arapahos, this has come to be the basis of argument for the aboriginal name of the Supreme Deity in the tribe.


Further Concepts of Ultimate Meaning


We can now move more rapidly through the remainder of this rather laborious essay, with a summary of concepts relating to the fundamental "ultimate reality" language above. I shall indicate in the course of writing the combination of earlier written sources and current language.

To say that Arapaho spirituality is basically "cosmological", while it indicates an integral relationship with the cosmos, certainly does not mean that it is pure immanentism. Rather, the statement affirms that transcendence includes a harmonious relationship between Creator and all creation in a life of shared dwelling on this planet and that this relationship will hopefully continue in the world to come. Given limitations of space, it seems most helpful to sum up these beliefs under four headings: 1) The purpose of ritual and symbolism; 2) The meaning of visions; 3) The mystery of alienation and evil; 4) Life beyond death.

Ritual and Symbols. Kroeber's lengthy study (Kroeber, 1907, 1983), in its religion section, says little about ultimate concepts, focusing instead on studying the rich symbolism described to him. (For complete color meanings, the reader must consult the 1907 edition.) Here impressive attention has been paid to details, especially the symbolism of colors, numbers and geometrical designs. Kroeber himself wrote on this: "Where we think geometrically, the Indian thinks symbolically; where we are realistically visual or spatially abstract, he is pictrographic."(Kroeber, 1983,413) The "four Directions" have a prominent place here, as is true of all Amerindian cultures with which I am familiar. Kroeber seems to mean that colors, numbers, designs, etc. are not simply "empirical" but intuit deeper meanings in the universe, which then find interpretation in mythology. One of Kroeber's concepts, however, "hiteni" (hnott, as it was communicated to me) , for "abundant life", symbolized by a square rectangle (and not, interestingly, by a circle), seems to indicate some powerful capacity for "abstraction" symbolizing the way the universe should be.

The Offerings Lodge or "Sun Dance" has received no extensive treatment since Dorsey's, for reasons discussed above. Here it will suffice to note that this rich ceremonial complex reinforces the argument that aboriginal traditions are basically cosmological, emphasizing the relationship between humans and their environment, including adoptive kinship systems that are ceremonially grounded. But the fact that persons make vows to the Creator on behalf of loved ones, and seek personal visions and healing for their own lives precludes any facile attempt to create a dichotomy between the cosmological and the anthropocentric.

Visions. The quest for visions is central to many if not all aboriginal spiritualities, and it continues today, given some forms of syncretism with contemporary spritualities, including Christian. The basic method for seeking a vision is fasting in the wilderness for from one to four, and even more days. Among the Arapahos, the fast was traditionally undertaken only by adults, in contrast to its puberty rite-of-passage usage among other tribes. The adult who embarks on such a fast does so by making a "vow" - noky3 (nawkawyeith), a term which has come to be applied to the entire complex of the quest ceremony, ending with a sweat lodge. Kroeber (1983,418) observed that the vision-seeker desired communion with the good supernatural powers, who generally appeared as guardian spirits in animal form.

The introduction of the peyote religion and the Native American Church (its official title) into Arapaho culture in the early twentieth centrury led to this as an alternative form of vision seeking, since peyote is itself a mild hallucinogen, called "medicine" by native leaders. There is some disagreement within the tribe about this ceremony, with some more traditional persons avoiding it as foreign to their tradition, while others participate in both forms, perhaps along with active membership in a Christian church.

Alienation and Sin. Aboriginal people have not traditionally held a concept comparable to the Christian "original sin" as it received prominence through St. Augustine - as an inherited stain or guilt that must be cleansed by baptism for entrance into eternal life. However, if we look more deeply into the Genesis understanding of the primordial fault, we do find parallels with aboriginal concepts, since all cultures seem to have wondered about evil in the world. Written sources for this abound in the records of Dorsey and Kroeber. To understand what traditional storytellers understood as signs of alienation, one must examine the narratives about how death was introduced into the world. In addition, there are mnany related narrative "just so" stories about how humans had to break their immediate kinship with the animals in order to secure food, clothing and shelter, or to gain power to employ them for various uses.(E.G., Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903, 404-418)

Several words for "evil-doing", or what we have called "sin", have been shared with me in the process of developing liturgical prayers. The word "to do" - tn (tawn), was connected to various prefixes to describe types of offensive behavior. In composing the Our Father, elders eventually agreed on nntn (nawntawn) for "forgive us our trespasses", but changed to the form cnitn (cheenitawn) for the phrase "those who trespass against us." These two versions do not seem to differ greatly in meaning; however, another word for sin, wxtn (wochtawn), using a prefix that also refers to the bear, always drew a laugh from the elders. It seems to describe certain forms of "x-rated" mischief, and is not a fit term for prayer.

In sum, however, evil-doing is most evident as that which causes a rent in society, in nature, and perhaps in ritual itself. Elders generally agreed that tradition did not see human evil deeds as directly affecting the Creator, though they seem to have prayed that the Creator, under whatever name, might preserve the people from evil actions that lead to division. Elders further described how one who had offended another would undertake a very ceremonious process of making amends to the aggrieved person's entire family.

Life after Death. Although little is recorded about Arapaho "eschatology", there is scant doubt that they believed in life after death. Some testimonies have suggested a simple form of reincarnation, without the elaborate metaphysics associatd with Hinduism and Buddhism. It was suggested that certain striking similarities between a new infant and a deceased person indicated the return of that ancestor. (W.Shakespeare, 1967, 35) But an ultimate passage of the soul (perhaps one of several "souls" in the living person) finally occurs, whereby the spirit travels across the heavens to be with its kin in "the good place." This is the language of condolence still used today by spiritual leaders at wakes and funerals, and employs a mixture of traditional and Christian imagery. While "hell" is generally accepted by Christian Arapahos, and has even caused deep anxiety to some, the most severe penalty for evil in traditional menings was that the soul might have to "wander" for long time - a kind of "purgatory" for certain offenses.


Conclusion: Some "Transcendental Phenomenology"


It is a rather perilous endeavor to attempt to "intuit" certain "essential" elements in the phenomenology of religion. Some famous scholars have tried it, such as Levy-Strauss, Eliade and Van der Leeuw. I have attempted it over the years, always trying to refer the intuitions back to native persons for comment. In some instances I have prompted strong nods of agreement, but in other cases, of non-comprehension. By means of this process, I have come to see certain examples of analogous experiences between my own tradition and that of native persons. Again, whether these native experiences could have been found prior to Christianity is a question that will never be answered.

Creation. It seems valid to say that origin myths grow from an archetypal spiritual search for "the centre of the universe", or a place of wholeness aand security, even though a few scholars argue that the stories are of a more practical etiological nature, told to explain where everything comes from. The fact that origin myths are part of tribal ritual suggests that those myths and ritual served to restore the values of what Eliade and Van der Leeuw have called "sacred space" and "sacred time", where "power" was greatest and life was full. The entire complex of aboriginal ritual indicates the quest for this primeval wholeness, so that we might speak of a certain spiritual "protology" in the quest for the primordial. The distant future, on the other hand, was not an urgent question, as several elders have pointed out, although their Christian faith now directs them to hope for that wholeness as a promise of future re-creation.

Creator. The Arapaho origin myth itself gives no evidence of a Supreme Being, the creator being rather a kind of "demiurge" figure in humanoid form. However, the watery deep is the result of a flood that had destroyed a previous creation, to punish the people for spearing a sacred water monster. (Dorsey and Kroeber, 1903, 8-12) Whether there was a sovereign Creator of this earlier world will never be known; or if the story exists, it has remained skillfully ensconced within privileged oral tradition.

In conversation with Arapaho elders, however, I have found general agreement that "We always believed there was someone there, but Christianity made it clear to us." Their testimony matches the belief among most contemporary aboriginal spokespersons that their people believed in a "high god". On the other hand, it must be noted that such testimonies come from persons who accept that monotheism is the highest form of religion. Some scholars, including a few native persons, have argued that polytheism is the higher form, since it explains better the multiple phenomena of experience, or of many causes for diverse realities. (E.G., Deloria, 1973, 79-80)

As the Christian scholar seeks to "understand" the "essence" of religious experience, he or she affirms an intuition that there is an ultimate possessor of power. Behind this, however, is not only intuition but patristic and scholastic reasoning that argues against an infinite regress in causes, and aginst a multiplicity of beings claiming supreme power. Pastoral history in dealing with "bad medicine", "Bearwalk" or other forms of sorcery has led me to urge people to trust in the One who has all final power, and employs it only benevolently. Humans are thus not thrown back onto a reliance on their own skills at spiritual conjuring or bargaining. Virtually all native persons with whom I have discussed it believe in this, and agree that finally the prayer of worship must be given to the Creator alone. I do not, however, consider this a form of hermetically sealed "proof" of anything, but rather part of "the Great Mystery" with which we must all live.

Ritual, and especially vision quests in native culture are carried out in quest of guidance or healing for the present life. In this they can teach Christians a great deal about the folly of believing that human effort can control ultimate destiny, even while reminding us that religion is deeply related to life. My own understanding and belief in "resurrection" is corroborated by the parallel intuition of phenomenology into "the soul", which has a transcendent destiny once all human efforts to save the body have failed.

The mystery of evil in aboriginal belief, although native Christians accept a certain possibility of a "hell", generally yields to the world view that sees eternal damnation as in contradiction to a good Creator who gave us this world as a place in which to find the good life. I must conclude this involved narrative and speculation by concurring with this belief, or at least hope, that the Great Mystery is indeed finally benevolent, and fully intends that ultimate reality be one of harmony and of the transformation of creation, which will thus harmonize the cosmological and the anthropocentric without "subduing" the former or "submerging" the latter.


Carl F. Starkloff

Regis College,

Toronto School of Theology







Deloria, Vine, Jr. God is Red: An Indian Manifesto, New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1973.


Dorsey, George A., The Arapaho Sun Dance: Ceremony of the Offerings Lodge, Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, 1903.


-----------------, w. Alfred L. Kroeber, Traditions of the Arapaho, Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, Publication 81, Anthropological Series, Vol.V, October, 1903.


Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed, Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1967.



Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1973.


Fowler, Loretta, Arapaho Politics: 1851-1978. Symbols of Crisis of Authority, Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1982.


Gill, Sam, Mother Earth: An American Story, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987.


Hilger, M. Inez, Arapaho Child Life and its Cultural Background, Washington,D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 148, 1952.


Kroeber, Alfred L., "Arapaho Dialects", Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology, Vol.12, No.3, June 28, 1916, PPp.71-138.


------------------, The Arapaho, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol.XVIII, May, 1907; Reprint: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.


Lang, Andrew, The Making of Religion, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1898.


Lonergan, Bernard J.F., Method in Theology, New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.


Paper, Jordan, "The Post-Contact Origin of an American High God: The Suppression of Feminine Spirituality", American Indian Quarterly,7 (4), 1-24.


Radin, Paul, Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin, New York: Dover Publications, 1957.


Salzmann, Zdenek, "Some Aspects of Arapaho Morphology", Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 24, Anthropological Series No.78, Contributions to Anthropology and Linguistics I, 1967.

Schmidt, Wilhelm, The Origin and Growth of Religion, trans. H. J. Rose, New York: The Dial Press, 1935.


----------------, Primitive Revelation, trans. Rev. Joseph J. Baierl, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1939. Both books represent more popularized presentations of Schmidt's massive Ursprung der Gottesidee.


Shakespeare, Tom, The Sky People, New York: Vantage Press,1971. This book summarizes much of the work of the author's father, William Shakespeare.


Sifton, J.B., Unpublished Field Notes, St. Stephen's Mission, St. Stephens, WY, U.S.A.


Starkloff, Carl F., "Aboriginal Cultures and the Christ", Georgetown University, Washington D.C.: Theological Studies, Vol.53,No.2, June, 1992, Pp.288-312.


------------------, "God as Oppressor?: Changing God's Name Among Contemporary Arapahos", Ottawa, St. Paul University, Kerygma, 17 (1983), Pp.165-174.


-------------------, The People of the Center: American Indian Religion and Christianity, New York: Seabury, 1974.


Tedlock, Dennis and Tedlock, Barbara, Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy, New York: Liveright Press, 1975. See, Radin, Paul, "Monotheism among American Indians", Pp.219-247.


Van der Leeuw, G. Religion in Essence and Manifestation, trans. J.E. Turner, New York: Harper and Row, 1950.




I have tried to give many parenthetical explanations of terminology as the paper progresses. However, I will add the following. These are listed as they appear in the text.


Exclusivism: the position that only Christians are saved.


Inclusivism: the position that holds the unique mediation of Christ, but includes in his saving activity all persons of good will.


Primal religion: religious experience prior to critical analysis, whether as part of an aboriginal system or in the contemporary individual before reflective criticism. At times it is taken to mean "tribal" as opposed to "universal" religion, but I prefer the qualification I have made above.


Sacred space: the spiritual space of primordial origins, especially consecrated by the creative power; may or may not coincide with contemporary geography.


Sacred time: as opposed to chronological or clock time, the time of origins and mythological enshrinement.


Cosmological: the world view that understands humans to be inseparably part of their environment.


Anthropocentric-historical: the world view that understands humans as "standing out" from the rest of creation and directing it toward a certain goal.


Aboriginal: "from the beginning"; does not deny development, but is in contrast with what happened after contact with Europeans.


Protology: a focus on "the first things" as opposed to "eschatology", a focus on "the last things"; emphasizes the power of origins.

[1] It is worth noting that this description closely approximates Clifford Geertz's definition of culture: "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which [men] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." (Geertz, 1973, 89) Significant, I suggest, because culture itself, thus understood, takes on a certain quality of ultimacy.

[2]Throughout this paper, facing the annoying problem of correct orthography, I shall use the system created by the linguist Zdenek Salzmann, and now accepted officially in their schools by the Northern Arapaho tribe. (Salzmann, 1967) However, as a service to the reader for pronunciation, I shall give in parentheses my own less accurate phonetic spelling. At certain points, I will be forced to write certain words in the very complicated phonetics created by the ethnologists Dorsey and Kroeber around the turn of the century. I will not underline any of these words, since this would simply create further confusion.