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Indian Secret Societies

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Societies or brotherhoods of a secret and usually sacred character existed among very many American tribes, among many more, doubtless, than those from which there is definite information.

On the Plains the larger number of these were war societies, and they were graded in accordance with the age and attainments of the members. The Buffalo society was a very important body devoted to healing disease. The Omaha and Pawnee seem to have had a great number of societies, organized for all sorts of purposes. There were societies concerned with the religious mysteries, with the keeping of records, and with the dramatization of myths, ethical societies, and societies of mirth-makers, who strove in their performances to reverse the natural order of things. We find also a society considered able to will people to death, a society of “big-bellied men,” and among the Cheyenne a society of firewalkers, who trod upon fires with their bare feet until the flames were extinguished.

According to Hoffman the Grand Medicine society, or Midewiwin, of the Chippewa and neighboring tribes, was a secret society of four degrees, or lodges, into which one could be successively inducted by the expenditure of a greater and greater amount of property on the accompanying feasts. As a result of these initiations the spiritual insight and power, especially the power to cure disease, was successively increased, while on the purely material side the novitiate received instruction regarding the medicinal virtues of many plants. The name of this society in the form medeu occurs in Delaware, where it was applied to a class of healers. In the neighborhood of New York Bay there was a body of conjurers who “had no fixed homes, pretended to absolute continence, and both exorcised sickness and officiated at the funeral rites.” Their name is interpreted by Brinton to mean ” Great Snake,” and they participated in certain periodical festivals where “a sacrifice was prepared, which it was believed was carried off by a huge serpent.”

In the southwest each Pueblo tribe contains a number of esoteric societies, which mediate between men and the zoomorphic beings of Pueblo mythology. At Zuñi there are 13 of these societies, and they have to do especially with healing, either collectively in their ceremonies or through individual members. They also endeavor to bring rain, but only by means of the influence which the beast gods are able to exert over the anthropic beings who actually control it. Rain, bringing itself is properly the function of the rain priests and of the Kótikilli society, the latter consisting of Zuñi of the male sex, and occasionally some females. Admission to this is necessary in order that one may have access after death to the dance-house of the anthropic gods. There are six divisions of the Kótikilli, holding their ceremonies in as many kivas corresponding to the six world-quarters, and in their performances members wear masks representing the anthropic beings, which they are then supposed actually to embody, although they sing to them at the same time in order to bring showers. The Rain priesthood and the Priesthood of the Bow are considered under the caption Shamans and Priests, but they may be classed also as brotherhoods concerned respectively with rain-making and war (see Stevenson in 23d Rep. B. A. E., 1905).

At Sia the Society of the Cougar presides over hunting, and there is also a Warrior society. Parents apply to have their children admitted into a society, or a person who has been cured by the society may afterward be taken in. A person may belong to more than one society, and most of the societies also consist of two or more orders, the most important “being that in which the members are endowed with the anagogics of medicine.”

Since the Hopi clans have been shown by Fewkes to have been originally independent local groups, the secret society performances among them would appear to be nothing more than the rituals of the various groups, the societies themselves being the members of the groups owning such rituals and certain others that have been granted a right to participate. The principal war society, however, has resulted from a fusion of the warriors or war societies of all the clans of the Hopi pueblos except one. Besides the two war societies, and two societies devoted to the curing of diseases, all of these brotherhoods devote themselves to bringing rain and stimulating the growth of corn. Each is headed by a chief, who is the clan chief as well and the oldest man in his clan, and contains several subordinate chiefs, while the oldest woman of the clan occupies a conspicuous place.

The Californian Maidu had a society into which certain boys chosen by the old men were annually admitted. The societies were called Yěponi, and included all the men of note in the tribe. “The ceremonies were more or less elaborate, involving fasts, instruction in the myths and lore of the tribe by the older men, and finally a great feast and dance at which the neophytes for the first time performed their dances, which were probably received through visions.” (Dixon, Maide Myths, 1902.) Each village or group of villages commonly had a separate branch of the society under a leader called Húku, who was one of the most important personages in the place, being frequently called upon to settle disputes that could not otherwise be composed, lead a war-party, or determine when the people should go to gather acorns. He was usually a shaman also, and was then considered more powerful than any other, for which reason he was looked to, to make rain, insure good supplies of acorns and salmon, keep his people in good health, and destroy their enemies by means of diseases. He was the keeper of a sacred cape made of feathers, shells, and pieces of stone, which was made for him by the previous leader and would kill anyone else who touched it. He was appointed by the most noted shaman in the society, who pretended that he had been instructed in a dream, and usually held office as long as he chose, though he might be deposed. Powers quotes a local authority to the effect that there was a secret society among the Porno which conjured up infernal horrors for the purpose of “keeping their women in subjection,” and they are also said to have had regular assembly houses, but the account of this society is evidently garbled and distorted.

The sense of supernatural as distinguished from purely secular relationships received its logical recognition among the Kwakiutl of the coast of British Columbia in a division of the year into a sacred and a profane period, during each of which the social organization and along with it personal appellations of the tribe changed completely. In the first place, a distinction was made between present members of the secret societies, called “seals,” and the quéqutsa, those who were for the time being outside of them. These latter were furthermore divided, in accordance with sex, age, and social standing, into several bodies which received names generally referring to animals.

The “seals,” on the other hand, were subdivided into societies in accordance with the supernatural beings supposed to inspire the various members. All of those whose ancestors had had an encounter with the same supernatural being were thus banded together, and, since only one person might represent each ancestor, the number in a society was limited, and one might join only on the retirement of a member. Every secret society had its own dances, songs, whistles, and cedar bark rings. The right to a position in a secret society might be acquired by killing a person of some foreign tribe and taking his paraphernalia, or for one’s son by marrying the daughter of him who possessed it. At the time of initiation the novice was supposed to be carried away for a season by the spirit which came to him. and after his return he usually went through the different houses in the town accompanied by other members of the society who had been initiated previously. In case his spirit were a violent one, he might break up boxes, canoes, etc., which the giver of the feast had to replace. The most important part of these societies were the ones inspired by the cannibal spirit, the origin of which has been traced by Boas to the Heiltsuk tribe and to customs connected with war.

From the Kwakiutl and Heiltsuk these secret society dances spread northward and southward. The Nootka are said to have had two principal secret society performances, the Dukwally (i. e. Lū’koala), or Thunder-bird ceremony, supposed to have been obtained from the wolves, and the Tsáyeq (Kwakiutl Ts’ā’eqa), or Tsiahk, into which a patient was initiated when the shaman had not succeeded in curing him. According to Swan the latter was performed after the patient had seen a dwarfish spirit with long, yellowish hair and four horns on his head who promised relief if the ceremonies were performed.
The Songish of British Columbia have two societies called Tcivī’wan and XAnxAnī’tAl, obtained from the Nootka. The first is open to anybody and consists of five subordinate societies. That to which a man belongs depends on the dream he has after retiring into the woods. Unlike the other, only rich people can become members of the XAnxAnī’tAl, as heavy payments are exacted for initiation. The XAnxAnī’tAl novice also obtains his guardian spirit in the woods, after which he performs his first dance with masks and cedar-bark ornaments. Among the coast Salish of Fraser valley is found a brotherhood or society called Sqoíaqī, which enjoys special prerogatives and possesses certain emblems and dances. Bellacoola secret societies are closely bound up with the festivals and the tribal organization. They are of two varieties, the Sisaúk·, obtained from a being of that name who resides in the sun, and the Kfū’siut, which were derived from a female spirit who lives in a cave in the woods and comes out only in winter when the feasts are about to be held. He who sees her has to invite people to dance the Kfū’siut. There are several different societies or degrees of this, however, corresponding to the highest ones among the Kwakiutl. The dances, masks, etc., used at such times, and only then, seem to be the special property of the different clans, but right to wear them has to he acquired by ,the individuals.

The Tsimshian societies were all received from the Heiltsuk through Kitkatla, but according to Niska tradition they were obtained by the former from a man who went to live among the bears. There are said to have been five or six of these societies among the latter people, and the number of places in each was limited. The performances were similar to those seen among the Kwakiutl, except that they were not so elaborate.

The Haida have had secret societies only during the last 100 to 150 years.  The entire performance consisted in the supposed possession of the novice by some one of a number of spirits, who carried the youth away and made him act the way the spirit himself was supposed to act.  Tome of these ways of acting were introduced, while others were in accordance with native conceptions.  They were largely the property of certain chiefs who would allow only their own families to use them.  Among the Tlingit the society appears to have been employed in a very similar manner, but with the northern Tlingit they had barely made their appearance.


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