In this essay I will be discussing the role that religion played in the American colonization process. When the Europeans explored to America, their religious beliefs were major influences on how they approached the natives, treated the land, and fulfilled their exploration. Let’s begin with why the Europeans felt that the Native Americans were savage and barbaric. Thousands of years before the Europeans knew of America, the Indians called America home. Many Indian tribes established empires and conducted business with each other, as well as battled one another.
During the period c. 150-900, we study about the empire of the Mayans. These people were highly sophisticated in their system of math and astronomy . Their religious practices consisted of having human sacrifices and studying the stars. For the Europeans, even though the Mayans were intelligent, their beliefs were not acceptable and some even thought these beliefs to be secular. The Mayans are just one of many examples of the type of religious practices that was preformed by the natives. Among all the natives, idols and sacrifices were common.
The Natives all held a belief of animism- a spirit is present in everything. The world was contentious and they had to develop a relationship with the spirits. With this, the world and everything that dwells on it is connected in some way. Everything had a social interaction. Unlike the European’s state of mind that man is superior to everything on earth, the Indians worked very hard not to offend the spirits. For example, they understood that they had to kill animals and trees to survive; however, they would conserve so that they would not offend the spirits.
Another example taken from Chapter 1 in the Major Problems in American Colonial History book is how the natives would put together a great ceremony with the best sacrifices to give, and all the idols and images put in order. Once everything was in order, a grand dance was preformed to entertain the Great Being in hopes to not only make him happy, but to smooth things over if he was mad at them. (pg. 30) When the Europeans started to colonize to this new found world, they also started to observe the differences between themselves and the natives.
In many ways they did not like their beliefs, nor did they feel that the Indians had the right to practice their religion. In the European’s minds, they were far more superior to the natives and it was their responsibility to convert these savages to Christianity. The Europeans considered how the Indians “worshipped” nature to be blasphemous to God. In the mind’s of the “white” man, if someone is not following God’s commandments, than they obviously are inferior and need salvation. Their concept of spirit and nature was very different to how the Indians believed.
Christians invested all their time and energy in getting to heaven and did not consider the materials on earth important. When the Europeans moved to their new home, it meant nothing to them if they cut and destroyed hundreds of trees or if they killed more animals than they needed. At times, the Europeans would hunt for the fun of it and not care about making the spirits mad. Many Europeans felt it was their duty to help the souls of the Indians and some just felt that it was their right to do so. Where did they get this mentality?
I feel that The Crusades had a lot to do with how they treated the Indians. In 1095, The Crusades was a series of wars conducted by the Catholic Church to rescue the holy land. The Crusades developed and changed the European culture that they knew. These wars helped to weaken the futile system and also developed new technology, such as gun powder, new ships (controlled by wind instead of man power) and the compass. This allowed the Europeans to conduct explorations to find new lands, and also taught them that force can be a useful tool in obtaining what you want.
We will see time after time how the Europeans felt they were superior then anyone else that did not live or believe like they did. On many occasions, the Indians were made into slaves and stripped of their rituals and practices. This treatment was going on all around the world. In the Canaries, the Gaunche people were considered as animals. According to a Portugal King, the Gaunches were like animals because they had no writing techniques, no form of money, no metals, and lived with out the contact of other people. Therefore, these natives were treated horribly.
The brutal treatment of Indians was not looked down upon by the Europeans or the Crown. In their opinion, it was just the normal thing to do. Many conquistadors such as, Cortez, was just plain greedy. Their priority was for wealth of gold and silver. They explored new lands mainly for obtaining great fortunes. The use of converting lost souls to Christianity was a good facade for their actions. Even though some did not care, there were many who in fact made it their life to help spread God’s salvation. In New Mexico, the missionaries really wanted to help others through God and they were very successful.
Many Indians accepted the Missionaries beliefs and rejoiced in their newfound religion. By 1628, they had already founded 50 missions with 1,000 converts (Berkey notes, 2/20/07). Friars that truly believed in the mission made a grand impression on the natives. One way the Franciscans appealed to the Indians was by theatrics. For example, they would try to time their arrival to New Mexico so that it would coincide with the rainy season (MPACH, pg. 165). At times, the Indians pretended to convert to Christianity but still practiced their own rituals.
Even though the Missionaries had good intentions, a lot of times, conversion had to be reinforced. What other choice did the Indians have? The church was at the center of the village and if an Indian tried to resist, he/she would be punished, most of the time by whippings. Let’s look at an example of force, all the Kirvas, a sacred structure used my natives for ceremonies, was destroyed. In doing this, the Indians were being conformed into “gente de razon”- people of reason. Also, the Indian woman had to change how they dressed and cover themselves from the neck to their ankles.
Even though some Indians converted, there were still those who got tired of being oppressed. In the Major Problems in American Colonial History text, it explains how some Indians revolted. The Pueblo leaders worked out a plan to regain their religious freedom and to free themselves from obligated labor and tribute. They wanted to rid the Spaniards from New Mexico. In conclusion, religion was a huge factor in the Europeans colonization process. With the Crusades, they were able to gain better tools through better technology. This allowed the Europeans the capability to expand to other lands and take over the environment.
Also, when they did contact the natives, they felt that the way they treated the Indians was justified because these brutes were far less human than they were and they needed salvation. Religion differences also made it difficult on the Indians because the Europeans did not feel that nature had spirits and controlled what happened. The Europeans were very materialistic and did not care about the way they treated the land. In their minds, getting to heaven was most important and thing here on earth was for them to use anyway they wanted.