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A Primitive Religion

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Pueblo Indian Religion. By Elsie Clews Parsons. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Two volumes. $7.00.

The Indians of the American Southwest were discovered by Coronado in 1540, only a scant fifty years after the first voyage of Columbus, and they live today at many of the same sites they occupied then. The Spaniards found them living in villages of adobe and stone, and because of their habitation in towns they were called “pueblo” [town] Indians. Unlike the Incas and the Aztecs and the Indians of most of North America, the Indians of the Southwest did not suffer greatly at the hands of the white man, The poverty of their land has protected them; the meagerness of the rainfall and the absence of precious metals have saved them from the settler and the prospector. They have continued to live in nearly the same manner in which they did when Castenada wrote his account of Coronado’s conquest. But because they have had frequent contacts with their nominal conquerors, a record exists which covers in a sketchy fashion four hundred years of the life of a primitive civilization. If this is not enough to stir the imagination, let it be added that within recent years archaeologists have come into possession of a tree-ring technique which has established an exact chronology of the ancestors of the pueblo peoples through the period of the cliff-dwellings of Mesa Verde and the large communal ruins of Chaco Canyon, back even to the early centuries of the Christian era.

Anthropologists have not been unmoved by the appeal of the Southwest; since 1880 there has been a constantly increasing stream of investigators to this area and a constantly mounting quantity of publication. The author of “Pueblo Indian Religion,” Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons, is herself one of the outstanding students at first hand of the Southwest. She has conducted anthropological studies in various pueblos intermittently during a quarter of a century. Her publications in this field comprise a dozen monographs and fifty articles. (A complete bibliography on the Southwestern Indians would include more than five hundred titles, but this wealth of material consists almost entirely of reports on specialized aspects of particular towns. There has been a dearth of generalized and summary accounts, except for those of a popular nature.)

Dr. Parsons’s work presents a comparative account of the religion of the various pueblos. When it is realized that these volumes deal with nineteen groups of Indians, no two of which can be treated as identical, and when it is considered that the ceremonies of these people constitute the most complicated part of their culture, the magnitude of the task can be appreciated. It has been done with scholarly exactness. The work is not merely a summary of what is already in print. Much of it is new material obtained by Dr. Parsons and published for the first time. A very complete index makes the book easy to use as a reference work.

The book opens with a general introductory chapter on the pueblos. This is followed by chapters which describe the general pueblo pattern and which note the inter-pueblo contrasts in the ceremonial organization, the cosmic notions, the notions of the supernatural, the rituals, the ceremonies, and the ceremonial calendar. This section is followed by a review of several of the towns, and finally by two long and important chapters on variation and borrowing and other processes of change. The student of cultural processes will naturally find the last chapters most interesting.

In the case of a book which has entailed an enormous amount of work, the reviewer hesitates to wish that more time had been spent in the task of writing, but the reader will undoubtedly agree. If the reader has not seen the pueblos, he will wish that the author had somehow given each one a setting so that the reader would know in what directions he is moving when within one page his attention is transported from Acoma to Walpi to Jemez to Picuris. Without personal experience with these towns, orientation is very difficult. It is also bothersome to find technical terms such as Corn Chief, Koyemshi clowns, kachina mask, prayer-sticks, Wawanatutu, Water Skate, and Spider Woman introduced without explanation, as if they were common to every primer. The index shows on what pages the words are used but it does not show what they mean, The author’s chief means of presenting comparative facts is a bare juxtaposition of information, without supplementary statements that would greatly help the reader. The book is definitely not easy reading, but perhaps it could not be made so by however much effort. A complicated religion, foreign to our own background, cannot readily be rendered simple.

While Dr. Parsons does not stray from her topic or from her area, her interest goes beyond pueblo religion to touch general topics to which her material is relevant. Her interpretation of the term “religion” is broad, and has to do with the relation of man to man as well as the relation of man to the gods. In consequence, the book will be of interest to persons other than those whose exclusive concern is the American Indian. Dr. Parsons even suggests that in pueblo society we may find social characteristics which are “an American lead to that working substitute for the glorification of God or of State or of Mankind other Americans are seeking.”


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