Ethnographic Comparison: Religion of the Lakota of the United States and the Bhil People of India

The search for truth and a deeper understanding of reality has long been an unending task for humanity. Life in its purest form presents unrivaled beauty second to none, prompting many societies to seek answers on the origins of this enigma. Successive generations in human societies attempted to find these answers in the existence of a supreme being and eventually developed their own set of unique beliefs. It was at this point that religions were born as an attempt to explain the origin of man and the purpose of life. A common denominator among these faiths is the search for an in-depth understanding of the meaning of life and the universe in a world filled with mystery.  Creation is often among the integral facets of their beliefs as it traces their origin and therefore seeks to put the pieces together and explain the origin of life on the planet. Moreover, they seek to pay homage to a superhuman agency through strict observance of fundamental beliefs and a ritual observance of a moral code that is expected to guide the conduct of all parties involved. The 15th century is by far one of the most pivotal epochs in human history as expert explorers were beginning to take center stage due to their bravery sailing on unchartered seas searching for trading routes and land. Christopher Colombus was one such figure whose voyages resulted in his stumbling upon the New World. In this new land, he was surprised to find native tribes that had already made it their home and were living in perfect harmony (Burgan, 2009, p. 45). As a Christian from Spain, he was taken aback by the realization that these people already had a well-established system of beliefs and a form of spirituality that was central to their way of living. Similarly, the British were confronted with a similar scenario when they established their rule over the Maharajas of India. In this essay, I will discuss the religion of the Lakota Native Americans and the Bhil of India offering a concise comparison of their beliefs and practices.

The Lakota People of North America trace their roots to the Sioux group. They are proud of this heritage since their ancestors were among the First Nations People, a confederacy of ethnic groups that are often hailed as the original inhabitants of North America. Anthropologists unanimously agree that these Paleo-Indians crossed Beringia, a land mass formerly present on the Bering Strait, and crossed over from Asia to North America. Socially, the Lakota were long known for being nomadic and lived in the Rocky Mountain ranges bordering other Great Plains people. After adopting the horse as the tribe’s identity, the Lakota soon became famed equestrians across the plains and famous for hunting bison on horseback. They did this to obtain meat and fur that was vital for their religious practices. Additionally, fur was a prime commodity for European American trappers which ultimately led to war and strife between them and other Native American tribes (Miller, 2003, p. 89). This, together with the incursion of American settlers on their land was one of the reasons why they were pushed further to Mississippi and South Dakota. Treaties such as Fort Laramie with the Federal Government were expected to broker peace and allow these native people to live in peace and practice their religion. The Bhil, on the other hand, is an ethnic group residing in North West India. Their language is classified among the Indo-Aryan languages and still makes the most significant tribal group in the whole Indian subcontinent (Gajrani, 2004, p. 12). They were some of the most respected organizations during the British conquest of India since they mainly collaborated with the imperialists. They, therefore, became administrators, helping the empire impose its indirect rule on this crown jewel through many of their clans. Their impeccable mastery of Hindustani, Marathi and the more Sanskrit sophisticated Hindustani gave them a privileged status that allowed them to practice their religion freely.

One similarity in religious practices among these two groups was a belief in a supernatural power that was behind their creation and a broad sense of spirituality. The Lakota, for instance, have a spiritual philosophy that is deeply ingrained in their religion. It focuses on understanding nature and creating a rhythm with life and all other aspects that accompany the universe. Their religious beliefs assert that spirits were the original inhabitants of the earth. Takuskankan is one dominant spirit that often worked for hand in hand with Wi and Hanwi (the sun and the moon). It is for this reason that they are always in search of equilibrium in life that would lead to a state of harmony between all groups inhabiting the earth. Central to this belief, however, is Wakan Tanka often referred to as the Great Mystery. It is a power central to creating the rhythm evident. In essence, it can be referred to as a “monotheistic religion” since Wakan Tanka appears as a deity central to the group and every ritual that accompanies their religion.  They practice seven sacred rites: Ininikagapi (renewal of life), Handblyeceyapi (a cry for vision), Winagi Wicalguha (Spirit keeping), Wiwanyang Wacipi (sun dance), Hunkapi (the making of relatives), Isnati Awicalowanpi (the puberty ceremony) and Tapa Wankayeyapi (the throwing ball ritual) (Sullivan, 2003, p. 9). Conversely, the Bhil are animists who have, over the years, combined their faith with Hindu beliefs. It is for this reason that the Bhil have polytheistic tendencies in as far as their religion is concerned.  A plethora of deities, such as Wagh do (tiger god) and Nandervo (the god of fertility) exist and are central to their religious rites. Out of all these stands Bhagwan who acts as supreme to all other deities. “Mother Earth” also counts as a deity who is revered but even greatly feared (Mehta, 2004, p. 6). The Padova acts as a conduit to the heavens and also doubles up as a healer to worshipers. Belief in spirits is central to the Bhil animist religion and the reason why cremations are performed to free them from the bodies after death.

Just like many other Native American nations, the Lakota have suffered a great deal of injustice perpetrated by the Federal Government. Most of the treaties signed between the Lakota People and the Federal Government were almost immediately violated.  Lands were in the hands of the Lakota people were subject to incursion by prospectors and pioneers making their expansion westward. Such was the case when George Armstrong Custer commanding the Seventh Cavalry took control of the Black Hills, at He Sapa. This was after the discovery of gold. After the signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830, President Andrew Jackson paved the way for settlers to occupy land formerly under the Lakota while the latter was pushed to the reservation. The impact of this policy is evident presently. Reservations such as Pine Ridge in South Dakota are still dominated by the Lakota and the Oglala Sioux, who are some of the marginalized communities in the United States. Jobs are hard to come by with most of its residents lacking necessities that would allow them to educate their children. Depression is a standard mental health issue here with most of those afflicted by this malady succumbing to suicide. Pine Ridge is also remembered as the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 of nearly 300 Lakota Sioux cut down by the United States Army bullets (Andersson, 2008, p. 67). These men, women, and children were on their way to Wounded Knee Creek to perform the Ghost Dance, a religious practice that the Lakota Oglala held dear. The Bhil has also been the subject of marginalization in India where the caste system is still a dictate of society. Fewer members of this community have had an opportunity to gainful employment with most of their children lacking primary education. In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh states, starvation has become a standard phenomenon with children often proved to be malnourished (Minahan, 2012, p. 43). The Indian government has continually failed to intervene and the reason why aid groups seek to provide help to these forgotten people.

In conclusion, religion is central to humanity and his quest to understand the universe. The Lakota in the United States and the Bhil in India have strong religious beliefs that have withstood the test of time. Their firm religious beliefs and practices might be why they have managed to surmount all these debacles faced.

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