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The Great Spirit, called Wakan Tanka among the Sioux, and Gitche Manitou in Algonquian, is a conception of universal spiritual force, or supreme being, prevalent among some Native Americans and First Nation cultures. According to Lakota activist Russell Means, a better translation of Wakan Tanka is the Great Mystery.
The Great Spirit was not always what Native Americans believed in. The Great Spirit is a God-like entity that was adopted by Native American religion in the 18th century. The Great Spirit is an “anthropomorphic celestial deity who personally ruled the world and intervened regularly with human affairs” (Cave, 3). He is the God of creation, history and eternity. Before contact with Europeans there was no word in any Native American language that represented a God or a supreme being. Anthropologists have determined that the idea of a "Great Spirit" is wholly an invention of the white man. There are many different prophets of the Great Spirit. While each prophet is made up of different myths each one has the same goal. Each prophet aims at restoration and preservation of a way of Native American life that is diminishing. The Great Spirit is used to guide individuals and their communities with the lessons through the prophets. The Great Spirit is expressed through multiple Native American Tribes which is why each story regarding the Great Spirit is different- they are products of various cultures. Some prophets call for war, while others call for peace. Certain prophets call for acculturation between the Native Americans and whites, while others call for complete segregation.
Two of the most well known prophets' prophecies took place in the early 1800s. The Shawnee Prophet occurred in 1824. Tenskwatawa, a religious and political leader of the Shawnee tribe, warned The Governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, that the children of the Shawnees tribe would carry the “scared flame”. This flame would end the world as it was between the Native Americans and Whites. Once the destruction was complete, the Great Spirit would restructure and repopulate the world in the way it was believed that it should be.
Another well-known story happened in 1827 and involves William Clark and Kennekuk, a spiritual leader of the Kickapoo nation. This is known as the Kickapoo Prophet. Kennebunk informed Clark that he must be careful while exploring the land that is now Illinois. This warning was so that the relocation of Kennekuk’s tribe would be delayed. He proclaimed that the Great Spirit would give a sign when it was safe to continue traveling.
The Great Spirit according to Native America
The Great Spirit is portrayed in American Indian history as a powerful force that guides the people in wisdom and survival. In the various tribes, The Great Spirit might be called Earthgrasper, Earthmaker, Gisha Munetoa, Gitchi Manido, The Great Spirit is also referred to as the “Creator”.
An Algonquin legend speaks of a Delaware Indian called Eroneniera that travels to meet The Great Spirit. Upon meeting, The Great Spirit tells Eroneniera that he is the “Maker of Heaven and Earth…because I love you…the land on which you are, I have made for you” (Schoolcraft.1856). The Great Spirit teaches him a prayer to share with his people that they should repeat it every morning and night. The stories of the Native American helped explain mysteries and abstract ideas. The stories also explained weather, animals, and land formations.
The Great Spirit and many other deities are mentioned in the mythology of the Native American. These spirits were characters in stories that were told to “amuse, to instruct, to distract from the cold, hunger, and threats outside the warm circle of the family, band, and culture. Stories explained how the world had been created and how to behave in it” (Brehm. 2011).
Chief Mononcue, of the Ohio Wendat a nation of Christianized Indians, spoke to a group of white Methodists in the 1820s. He pointed out that both the Indians and the white men had been taught to do good. “The Great Spirit has taught you and us both one thing- that we should love one another and fear him. He has taught us by his Spirit and you white men by the Good Book, which is all one.” Mononcue tells the gathered crowd that the white men say that they love the Indian but they give them whiskey and this causes evil and that the white man cheats the Indian and treats him as if he is less than the white man. “Now, your Good Book forbids all this. Why not then, do what it tells you? Then Indians would do right too….Now, brothers, let us all do right; Then our Great Father will be pleased and make us happy in this world, and after death we shall all live together in his house above and always be happy” (Brehm. 2011.)
The Christian missionaries often used the similarities of the two beliefs to teach the Indians about Christianity.
Myths about the Great Spirit
The Story of the Sleeping Bear Dunes
According to a Chippewa legend a forest fire on the Wisconsin shoreline forced a mother bear and her two cubs into Lake Michigan. The cubs became tired and fell behind their mother and eventually drowned within sight of the shoreline. The mother made it to the shore and climbed to the top of a dune to look for her cubs, but they were gone. The mother waited there for days in hopes that her cubs would appear. The Great Spirit was moved by the mother’s devotion and commitment to find her cubs and covered the mother in a blanket of sand so she would have a final resting place and be able to reunite with her cubs. It is said that the mother is still lying in this spot today waiting for her cubs to appear. The Great Spirit also created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs had drowned. The two islands are known today as the North and South Manitou Islands. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are located on the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan in the city of Leelanau.
Superstitions of the Strawberry and Blackberry
The Great Spirit created man and woman and they "lived in happiness for a time, but as husbands and wives have done ever since, they soon began to quarrel". The story explains that the wife leaves the husband and sets off walking toward "the setting sun". The Great Spirit sees that the man is unhappy and creates berries along her path; she ignores the huckleberries, cherries and blackberries along the way. Then The Great Spirit creates strawberries and the woman stops to gather some and the man is able to catch up to her, she shares them with him and they return home together. The berries are then named Odamin, meaning heart berry.
- Ostler, Jeffry. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge University Press, Jul 5, 2004. ISBN 0521605903, pg 26.
- Thomas, Robert Murray. Manitou and God: North-American Indian Religions and Christian Culture. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 0313347794 pg 35.
- Means, Robert. Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means. Macmillan, 1995. ISBN 0312147619 pg 241.
- Cave, Alfred A. Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2006. Google Books. 2006. Web.
- "The Great Spirit". www.phy.duke.edu. Retrieved 2016-12-09.
- References: Schoolcraft, Henry R. The Myth of Hiawatha and other oral Legends, Mythologic and Allegoric of the North American Indians. J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1856. Brehm, Victoria. Star Songs and Water Spirits, a Great Lakes Reader. Ladyslipper Press. 2011.
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore,“The Legend of Sleeping Bear” http://www.nps.gov/slbe/historyculture/stori
- Wright, John C., The Crooked Tree, Indian Legends of Northern Michigan. Thunder Bay Press 1996. p. 131-132.