J.S. Hittell says of the Indians of California:
“They had no religion, no conception of a deity, or of a future life, no idols, no form of worship, no priests, no philosophical conceptions, no historical traditions, no proverbs, no mode of recording thought before the coming of the missionaries among them.”
Seldom has there been so much absolute misstatement as in this quotation. Jeremiah Curtin, a life-long student of the Indian, speaking of the same Indians, makes a remark which applies with force to these statements:
“The Indian, at every step, stood face to face with divinity as he knew or understood it. He could never escape from the presence of those powers who had made the first world.... The most important question of all in Indian life was communication with divinity, intercourse with the spirits of divine personages.”
In his Creation Myths of Primitive America, this studious author gives the names of a number of divinities, and the legends connected with them. He affirms positively that
“the most striking thing in all savage belief is the low estimate put upon man, when unaided by divine, uncreated power. In Indian belief every object in the universe is divine except man!”
As to their having no priests, no forms of worship, no philosophical conceptions, no historical traditions, no proverbs, any one interested in the Indian of to-day knows that these things are untrue. Whence came all the myths and legends that recent writers have gathered, a score of which I myself hold still unpublished in my notebook? Were they all imagined after the arrival of the Mission Fathers? By no means! They have been handed down for countless centuries, and they come to us, perhaps a little corrupted, but still just as accurate as do the songs of Homer.
Every tribe had its medicine men, who were developed by a most rigorous series of tests; such as would dismay many a white man. As to their philosophical conceptions and traditions, Curtin well says that in them
“we have a monument of thought which is absolutely unequalled, altogether unique in human experience. The special value of this thought lies, moreover, in the fact that it is primitive; that it is the thought of ages long anterior to those which we find recorded in the eastern hemisphere, either in sacred books, in histories, or in literature, whether preserved on baked brick, burnt cylinders, or papyrus.”
And if we go to the Pueblo Indians, the Navahos, the Pimas, and others, all of whom were brought more or less under the influence of the Franciscans, we find a mass of beliefs, deities, traditions, conceptions, and proverbs, which would overpower Mr. Hittell merely to collate.
Therefore, let it be distinctly understood that the Indian was not the thoughtless, unimaginative, irreligious, brutal savage which he is too often represented to be. He thought, and thought well, but still originally. He was religious, profoundly and powerfully so, but in his own way; he was a philosopher, but not according to Hittell; he was a worshipper, but not after the method of Serra, Palou, and their priestly coadjutors.