Indian symbols, by by Capt. Seth Eastman, U. S. Army, (1808-1875)

Manitou in Context

by Mary Ellen Lepionka. Featured image by Capt. Seth Eastman, U. S. Army, (1808-1875)

Children in the colonial era were taught that the Indians’ Great Spirit was an avatar of Satan. Children today are taught that the Great Spirit is a version of the Christian God. How far from the truth are both these ideas? How—really—and how much did Algonquian perspectives on death and life and the sacred and profane diverge from European perspectives?

The Algonquians were matter-of-fact, even sanguine, about matters of life and death—as red in tooth and claw as their prey and their enemies. Their burials and totemic symbols and religious practices nevertheless attest to their beliefs in a positive afterlife and a vast spirit world overseen by higher powers. One higher power was a god-like power called Gitchi Manitou, Great Spirit, known by many other names as well. This “god” was the creator Kitanitowit (Katanitowit, Cautantowwit), defeater of evil spirits and creator of all things. Traditionally Kitanitowit was never anthropomorphized or gendered. It existed as a supernatural force found in highest concentration in mountaintops. Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, for example, is literally Katanitowit’s Mountain. 1

Indians dancing around a circle, by John White, 1590,
Indians dancing around a circle, by John White, 1590, Grenville Collection of the British Museum

The creator power was regarded as the equal of other powers in the skyworld and the underworld, but it is Kitanitowit’s Gitchi Manitou that ascended to prominence under the influence of Christianity. Of all the great spirits, it most resembled the Christian God and was transformed accordingly during the Contact Period. Today, Word autocorrects manitou for Manitou.

Algonquians believed in a three-part intersecting universe, with an upperworld (skyworld), earth, and a lowerworld (waterworld). Connections between the three worlds had to be kept open for the universe to be in balance. Many rituals had to do with maintaining these connections, that balance. According to ethnological and ethnohistorical accounts, the three worlds were inhabited by god-like spiritual forces such as Kitanitowit, demi-gods, ancestors, demons, spirits, and elf- or troll-like little people. These all had the power to enter into, transform into, or impersonate a person, plant, animal, landform, constellation, or natural phenomenon. 2

Everything identified as animate, or “alive”—and this included people, trees, and rocks along with spirit-gods and little people—was endowed with innate manna-like spiritual power called manitou (manitôk or manidoo). This power could be increased or decreased, lost or found, and transferred. Manitou could cause physical transformations and work magically for good or for bad. Shamans invoked and channeled or warded off manitou as they mediated between people and the spirit world. The shaman’s arts and ritual paraphernalia used in spirit world communications, curing ceremonies, and sorcery included quartz crystals, polished gemstones, hallucinogenic substances, and the bones of small animals, carried in a medicine bag and kept secret. The practice of sorcery was standard, along with all forms of magic, and the colonial witchcraft hysteria of the 1690s extended to Native Americans as a consequence. 3

Algonquin shaman
An Algonquian shaman making his medicine. He chants as he mixes various ingredients together, while shaking a calumet (rattle).

While the aim of Puritan religion was redemption of the soul, the central theme of traditional Algonquian belief and expression was the attainment, conservation, and use of manitou. Manitou came from one’s kinship and ancestry, spirit guide and totem, personal visionary experiences and dreams, special talents and skills, and luck or success in forming relationships and making a living. Spiritual power also came from touching sacred objects and being in sacred places, which supported a tradition of pilgrimage. One could increase one’s manitou by handling dangerous or unusual or rare objects containing spiritual power (such as scalplocks taken as coups, poisonous snakes, eagle feathers, and specially carved effigies of spirits in stone or clay). One could protect one’s spiritual power through right living, ritual observances such as sweat lodge purification, and the use of amulets as personal medicine bundles. Spiritual power also came from communally shared expressions directed toward spirits, such as praying, chanting, dancing, and drumming—the powwow. 4

Talking to the wind, reading animal encounters as omens, acting on dreams, hiding from meteor showers, experiencing spirit possession, and leaving votive offerings at cracks in bedrock would all have been perfectly normal. The universe was alive in every way, and everything in it was self-conscious, cognizant of the world, and imbued with manitou. It was always possible that you couldn’t believe your eyes. Nothing was what it seemed. You could not know for certain if a rock was really just a rock, for example, or a tree really a tree. These beliefs shaped the native people’s body images and identities, their relationships with each other, and their behavior toward others, nature, and the land. Their celebrated culture of respect for all things was really born of fear–fear and uncertainty in the face of a multiplex, all-powerful, unpredictable and capricious supernatural world. 5

Hariot's "A Briefe and True Report of...Virginia, 1590" by John White.
Indians praying around a fire, engraving from Hariot’s “A Briefe and True Report of…Virginia, 1590” by John White.

It’s as if the Indians were living in a state of magic realism in real time—time that continually curved and re-curved on itself, for they lived in a nonlinear multiverse. Europeans’ superstitions were no match, and Europeans ultimately lived in a post-Enlightenment empirical world of cause and effect—a linear world of beginnings, middles, and ends—a world where things were expected to be rational, and where monotheism and religious dogma had the power to simplify everything. 6

I think this divergence in beliefs is the real source of the incredible mismatch between the Indians and the Europeans, equally driven by their beliefs (and, in my opinion, equally irrational). Their ultimate mutual failure in cultural contact was the result. From the beginning the Europeans dehumanized the pagans, and the earliest Indian wars against them were attacks on Christianity. Today, Manitou is perceived as a physical entity in the image of man rather than as a supernatural force: a Judeo-Christian patriarch—Moses and Jesus and Katanitowit all rolled into one. What should we tell the children?


1. Colonial sources on Algonquian religious practices include Roger Williams, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, Thomas Morton, John Winthrop, Richard Mather, John Eliot, and Daniel Gookin, and other 17th and early 18th Century observers. Contemporary works describing Algonquian religion include:

2.For an anthropological perspective on Algonquian resistance to Christianity in the 17th Century and an explanation of the manitou concept, see

3. Classic ethnographic works on Algonquian shamanism include:

4.Sources on animism and animatism include

5. Authentic expressions of magic realism in Algonquian spiritualism appear in early native texts.

6. For an appreciation of the concept of ceremonial time in Algonquian culture, see

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