While the majority of the QIN no longer practices its traditional religion, it is due to a very different set of circumstances than with many other tribes. The familiar story goes that European settlers arrived, took offense at the “barbaric” religions of the native people, outlawed those religions, and prosecuted the followers for performing their traditional ceremonies. It is true that the QIN experienced some prosecution for their religion, but the majority of religious change was brought about in a different, yet equally destructive manner.
As mentioned in the previous post about culture, by 1888 there were as few as 95 living Quinault Indians as a result of massive smallpox, influenza, and measles epidemics beginning in the 1830s (Ruby 251). As Quinault historian Pauline Capoeman states, “In many cases religious beliefs followed the dead, and the religion became discredited, having failed to protect its believers” (Storm 46). In this manner, hundreds of years of rich religious practices vanished within a few short generations, replaced by two new groups of believers.
Though traditional religion was mainly lost through disbelief, Christian mission schools also played a role. Quinault children were taken to a school in Taholah in the 1880s and virtually held prisoner as their hair was cut, their beliefs were shamed, and they were converted to Christianity (Storm 128). Yet the Quinault took to education and Christianity very well, and “were the first to show a great desire for education” (Storm 128). In fact, the QIN was so interested in education that many educated Quinaults became schoolteachers for the nearby Queets and Quileute, and the QIN had taken control of the mission school in Taholah by 1920 (Storm 128). Because previous traditional tribal beliefs held that all guardian spirits were sent from one Supreme Being, the new Supreme Being of God was not all that farfetched to the Quinault (Storm 125). Many were converted to Christianity in the mission school and remain so today.
Besides Christianity, the Shaker Church was also introduced to the Quinault around 1885 (Storm 170). Today, it is second only to Christianity in number of QIN followers, and has many followers from other nations as well. The Shaker Church was brought to Earth by a man named John Slocum who visited God in heaven for 5 days as he lay dying of illness (Storm 171). God told him that he should forsake alcohol, tobacco, and gambling, and that he should perform Shaker rituals of healing. In these ceremonies, members dance feverishly from about 9 pm until 3 am, shaking and spreading the power to novices who wish to join (Storm 171). The Shaker Church is like many other revitalized Indian Churches in that it condemns alcohol and other vices brought to the tribe by Europeans.
Though few in number, some members of the QIN still practice their traditional religion in a modified form today, and the QIN as a whole recognizes the beliefs held by their ancestors. Much of our knowledge of traditional religion and lore is learned from a Quinault shaman named Bob Pope, who was born in the late 1840s and lived well into the 1900s (Storm 58). When interviewed in the 1920s, Pope discussed how Quinault power came from spirits, and he himself had control of nearly 30 (Storm 58). Guardian spirits were obtained through perseverance and cleansing rituals which culminated in a vision quest. Around the age of 8, boys who wished to receive a guardian spirit would begin to bathe daily in freezing rivers, eat only certain foods, and take long journeys of solitude (Olson 143). Although it often took years for the first guardian spirit to appear, once it did, the boy began to receive visions much more often. The spirits would instruct the boy to build power boards, figurines, and dolls in the likeness of the spirit. The guardian spirit would also teach the boy the songs and dances that would give him power (Olson 145). These powers could be anything from medicine to controlling the weather to communing with the dead (Olson 146). Girls could also undergo the vision quest, but it was much less common.
Given the choice between Christianity, the Shaker Church, and traditional practices, the QIN has been able to practice religious freedoms for most of their history. Although it is likely true that Europeans would have taken offense at their traditional beliefs during early contact, the crippling epidemics which spread across the peninsula and destroyed faith in the old religion paved the way for Christianity to take its place.
Olson, Ronald L. The Quinault Indians and Adze, Canoe, and House Types of the Northwest Coast. University of Washington, 1936, 1927.
Storm, Jacqueline M. et al. Land of the Quinault. Quinault Indian Nation, 1990.