REGION 9: RELIGION (The Southwest) Fun Facts


Central & Southern California * Texas * Arizona * Utah * New Mexico

Mission Concepcion (8)

Religious and cultural differences were part of the landscape of America long before  European arrival and settlement. The native people of this land Europeans called the “new world” were separated by language, landscape, cultural myths, and ritual practices. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, most did not even consider that the peoples they encountered had cultural and religious traditions that were different from their own; in fact, most believed native communities had no culture or religion at all. As the migration got underway, Spanish and French Catholics were the first to arrive, beginning in the sixteenth century. Profit-minded Spanish conquistadors and French fur traders competed for land and wealth, while Spanish and French missionaries competed for the “saving of souls.” By the mid-century, the Spanish had established Catholic missions in present-day Florida, New Mexico, California and the (now) American Southwest. Meanwhile, the French were steadily settling the Great Lakes region, and later, Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta.

The history of religion in the American Southwest can be summed up in three general and very basic studies:

*Native Americans prior to the arrival of Spain.

*The Spanish influence in the American Southwest.

*The settlement of the Mormons in Utah


            *The Pueblo Indians were one of the oldest cultures in the nation.

*The Pueblos are believed to be the descendants of the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi tribes with history that dates back some 7,000 years.

*Ancient Puebloans evolved from nomadic hunter-gatherers to a more sedentary culture, settling in the SW.

*Ancient Puebloans expanded into a farming culture, learning to cultivate maize, squash, beans and corn.  They also learn to raise turkeys.Aquivas Aqueducts (6)

*The ancient Puebloans developed a complex irrigation system.

*The ancient Puebloans also developed great skill in basket weaving and pottery making.

balcony house mesa verde (21) *The Ancient Puebloans are the first to create apartment-like dwellings in the cliffs, which were the forerunners of the later pueblos.

*They also built kivas which were the most sacred places in their communities.  Tbalcony house mesa verde (5)he kiva represented the hole in the earth from which they came and from where they could communicate with the mother and the gods.Ceremonies were held in the kivas when help was needed from the gods during the phases of the year.

            *The majority of Puebloan tribes lived in a clan-like system together with the Hopi, Zuni, Keres, and Jemez tribes.

*The women of the clans owned the houses and gardens and received more respect than in the more Northern tribes of the time.

*The Puebloans traditional enemies were the Apache, Comanche and Navajo tribes.

*The Pueblo’s way of life declined in the 1300’s most likely due to inter-tribal war and drought.

            *Around 1100 AD the Navajo, along with the Hopi, were the earliest of the modern Indian tribes began to develop in the Southwest.

*The main tribes of the Southwest are the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Apache and Pueblo.

*Most tribes of the SW are farmers and live in villages.RR96

*SW Indians make beautiful art.  They weave

baskets, make clothing and blankets and pottery.

* Because they are very spiritual tribes, RR92RR93

most of their art contains symbols and signs of their beliefs, dreams, and visions.

     *The Zuni and Hopi Southwest Indians carved dolls, called Kachina dolls, out of wood. The dolls were decorated with masks and costumes to represent the Kachina spirits. These dolls help children of the tribe learn tribal ceremonies.

*Turquoise is a much used stone used in Southwest Indian jewelry. RR94The Indians value the stone as they believe it promotes health, happiness, and good fortune.

*The naming of a newborn baby is such an important part of the Southwest Indian culture that it is not done by the parents, but instead by relatives and tribe leaders. Hopi babies are not named until 20 days after they are born.

*Indian babies spent the early years of their life strapped to their mothers in what is called a papoose. Young girls learn to help around the village, doing chores, making food, weaving baskets, and sewing. Young boys of the Southwest Indian tribes learn to hunt and make weapons.

*Despite the religious and cultural differences between the tribes of the SW, there are some basic commonalities among them.


RR98*The Great Spirit:

The Great Spirit was a supreme being that watched over everything including the other spirits of the world. There were different versions of the Great Spirit.


*Guardian Spirits:

The Native Americans of the Southwest believed that all living things were watched over by guardian spirits. This included animals, trees, people, and even some inanimate objects like the wind, storms, and water. Young boys would have to discover their own personal guardian spirit before they could become men. Each boy would venture off alone to commune with nature looking for a sign from his guardian spirit. Once found, this spirit would bestow a special characteristic or power on the boy and he would return to the tribe a man.

*Medicine Men and Women or Shamans:rr910

The spiritual leaders of the Native American Indians were the Shamans of the village or tribe. These men and women often used herbs to help heal sick people. They also called on the spirits to help the tribe asking for assistance in areas such as healing, good weather, and help in battle. Sometimes the Shaman was a respected elder who was known for being wise and who others went to for advice.

rr911*Vision Quests:

In order to get closer to the spirits, some men went on vision quests. They would go off into the wilderness alone. Usually they go without food and sometimes they would take drugs or inflict wounds on their bodies. In the end, they hoped to gain a vision from the spirits that would guide them or help them make an important life decision.

*Rites of Passage:rr912

One of the most important times in any Native American’s life was their coming of age. This was when they went from being considered a child to being an adult. Different tribes had different ways of celebrating this moment. In some tribes the boy or girl had to undergo an ordeal to prove they were worthy. Young men who passed the ritual would often be given a new name to indicate their status.


Indian tribes in the Southwest called their spirits kachinas. They made special decorated kachina dolls that represented the different spirits. They also made kachina masks that helped them to channel the spirits.

*Many tribes also had a ceremonial pipe they would smoke using tobacco and other herbs. They believed that the smoke provided a pathway to the spirit world.

*Unlike many cultures, Native American religion wasn’t overly concerned with the afterlife and death. They accepted death as a matter of fact and believed the afterlife was a happy place with sunny skies and bountiful hunting grounds.

*The traditional Native American religion was revived with the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dancers believed that the Great Spirit would remove the white men from their land.


            *The native people of the Americas are believed to have initially crossed the Bering Strait from the Asian Continent to North America.

            *Although France came to the ‘New World’ for furs, Spain came for gold and silver.

*Beginning with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean in 1492, Spain began its conquest of the Southwest territories.  That conquest would last three centuries.

*By the 1500’s, Spain had taken over the (now) American SW as well as (now) Mexico, the Gulf Coast regions and the Caribbean.

*The colonies were called ‘New Spain’ and were important to the economy of Spain due to the precious metals found there.

*In the mid 1500’s, a small contingent of Franciscan friars came to the Southwest, and immediately set about building churches and missions. Moving slowly up the Rio Grande, theMission San Juan (10) missionaries met with relatively little resistance, and their efforts produced many converts. The number of new Catholics recorded, however, were misleading. Whereas the Jesuits accepted converts only after they had mastered the intricacies of Christian theology, the Franciscans were content to give the Indians only the barest outlines of their faith before immersing them in water. Indians who learned to sing hymns, who received a rudimentary education, who mastered Castilian Spanish, and who accepted the new Hispanic way of life were counted among the members of the new republic of Indians.

*Priests also challenged the powers of native healers and shamans and managed to persuade many natives that they and not the indigenous spiritualists had access to the wondrous powers of the heavens.

*The Spanish language still dominates the SW.

*Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810, loosening Spain’s control of the SW.

*In the 1820’s, English speaking people from the east began settling in what would become Texas, and formed their own government.

*The U.S. annexed Texas, initiating the war with Mexico in 1846.


            *The main goal of the Spanish missions was to convert Native Americans into devoted Christians and Spanish citizens. Spain used mission work to influence the natives with cultural and religious instruction, and actually served as the primary means of integrating Indians into the political and economic structure of Spain.

*Spain established many missions – and the forts to protect those missions – throughout the Southwest.

*Missions introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, and industry into the Southwest.

*There were three major agencies employed by the Spanish crown to extend its borders and settle its colonial territories: The presidio (fort), pueblo (town), and the mission.

*Missions provided a safe home for Native Americans – especially the peace loving tribes who were vulnerable to attack and at risk.

*Living within the mission meant morning prayer and religious instruction followed by chores.

*Chores involved learning skills in everything from carpentry work, digging irrigation ditches, masonry, weapon making, farming, harvesting, blacksmithing, sewing, weaving, fishing, and medicine making.

*Children were allowed to play, learn to play musical instruments, and learned Spanish dances.

*Ultimately, the blending of the Spanish and Native American races resulted in a hybrid race initially called Hispanos.

*The Hispanic population is now the 2nd largest ethnic group in the U.S.



*1801: Brigham Young was born in Vermont

*1805: Joseph Smith was born in Vermont

*1820: Joseph Smith receives  ‘First Vision’, a pillar of light descending from heaven followed by an image of 2 personages (presumed to be God and Jesus Christ) warning Smith that all religions have strayed from the truth and he should not join any of them.

*1823: Smith receives a vision of the angel named Moroni, who speaks of a book written on gold plates and buried in a nearby hillside. According to Moroni, the book describes the people who used to inhabit America and contains “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.”

*1827: Joseph Smith marries Emma Hale

*1827: Joseph Smith begins the task of translating the writing of the gold plates

*1829: Joseph Smith, who has completed the translation at Peter Whitmer’s farm in Fayette, New York, receives a copyright for The Book of Mormon.

*1830: The Book of Mormon is published.

*1830: Brigham Young, a practicing Methodist, reads the Book of Mormon shortly after publication and will be baptized as a Mormon two years later.  Followers would become known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

*1830: LDS missionaries taking The Book of Mormon’s message to the Indians in Ohio and Missouri have stopped in Kirtland, Ohio. A Baptist minister, Sidney Rigdon decides to join the LDS and brings his congregation with him. Soon afterward, a vision instructs Smith to move the new LDS community west to Kirtland. Other missionaries proceed to Missouri and settle in Independence.

*1831: Joseph Smith begins work on a (perceived) inspired translation of the Bible.

*1833: The first collection of Smith’s revelations is prepared for publication as The Book of Commandments.

*1833: Brigham Young, now a widower, arrives with his two young children in Kirtland.

*1835: 138 of Smith’s revelations are published in a book called Doctrine and Covenants. Included among these are the sixty-five revelations published in The Book of Commandments, plus seven “Lectures on Faith” prepared by Joseph Smith, which are not described as revelations.

*1838: Smith is arrested, charged with treason, and sentenced to death, his life only spared when the officer ordered to carry out the execution refuses. Smith instead will spend the next five months in jail.

*1839: While being moved from one trial location to another, Smith is allowed to escape and flees to Illinois. There he buys land for a new settlement named Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi River, about 200 miles from St. Louis.

*1839: Led by Brigham Young, the Missouri Mormons reach safety in Illinois.

*1840: Joseph Smith becomes both mayor and military leader of Nauvoo, which quickly grows and becomes nearly the size of Chicago within 4 years. The population includes an influx of Mormon converts from Europe.

*1843: Joseph Smith announces revelations about two new practices:

  • First, the dead can be baptized.

-Second, polygamy, or plural marriage, is not only permissible but in certain cases required. Joseph Smith will eventually have more than 25 wives, while Young will come to embrace the doctrine, take 20 wives, and father 57 children.

*1844: Joseph Smith declares that he will run for president of the United States, and announces in a sermon that those who obey God’s commands can become gods themselves, and orders the destruction of an opposition newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. The outcry that followed led to criminal charges, and after starting to flee, Smith changes his mind and surrenders to state authorities.  While in jail, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum are shot and killed by members of a mob. No one will ever be convicted of the crime.

*1846:  Facing further harassment, thousands of the Mormons, but not all, march west from Nauvoo.  Some settle in Michigan while others settle in other parts of the Midwest. Brigham Young, who is head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, (a church leadership body) directs the exodus.

*1847: Brigham Young and those with him reach the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and SL-Temple2-620x370Brigham, who will be made church president later in the year, confirms that this is where the Mormons will settle.  His followers promptly mark off an acre that will be reserved for a temple and then begin laying out city streets and setting up irrigation systems.

*1850: Brigham Young is appointed governor of the Utah territory.

*1877: Brigham Young dies.

*1893: The Salt Lake City Temple is completed.


So regardless of your reason for visiting America’s Southwest – the National Parks, the incredible canyon lands, the red rocks, an ancient cliff dwelling or a handmade necklace for the turquoise love of your life – make sure to do a little digging into the religious past of this region.  Discover how the faith of Spain, the ancient beliefs of the Native Americans, and the practices of the LDS church has helped shape the religious personality of this corner of the country!

'Still haven't given up on your lawn, eh, Pertzborn?'


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