Hanging the Salem Witches was a Good Idea, said the Zuñis.

From Philip Jenkins’ Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality, which I am reading as part of some research on changing attitudes towards shamanism:

In 1882 when a group of Zuñi emissaries visited Salem [Mass.] . . . they congratulated the citizens for their ancestors’ determined response to the witchcraft problem. Through the 1890s, U.S. authorities were struggling to suppress Zuñi persecution of witches in conflicts that nearly led to war. (31)

Which reminded me of one of my all-time favorite articles, Malcolm Brenner’s “A Witch among the Navajo,” or what happens when Pagan Witchcraft meets witch-as-translation-for-our-word-for-evil-magic-worker.

At the time of writing it, Malcolm was a newspaper reporter in Gallup, New Mexico, and the Zuñi tribal government was part of his beat. Previously he had lived on the Navajo reservation to the north, during which the events he described took place. His website.


8 thoughts on “Hanging the Salem Witches was a Good Idea, said the Zuñis.

  1. Interesting. I am in the middle of “Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish & Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande,” (Marc Simmons, U of Nebraska Press) a book which echoes this sentiment over & over. I would offer up a relevant quote regarding the Zuni here, but the book unindexed — very annoying.

    I have an old & precious friend who was instructed by his Cherokee elders in traditional medicine. (Gah, that sounds so cliche, but it’s true.) He was always ambivalent about my use of the word “Witch.” When I regurgitated the alleged etymology of “Wicca” as “to change or bend” (I remember this so well) his eyes grew large, then dark & he told me that was exactly how he understood witchcraft & it was to be frowned upon. (This has heavily influenced our intense yet sometimes ambivalent bond.) Twenty years later, I don’t think his opinions about this have changed — there’s this differentiation between people who use magick for their own selfish purposes (witches) and those who work for the benefit of the community (healers/priests). I am not sure Pagan Witchcraft’s ideology can ever cross that cultural divide.

  2. Isn’t it obvious that there is a serious issue with translation here? The Zuñis were accepting the New Englanders’ claim that the “Witches” in question were all inherently evil. But what if the good Puritans had explained that their definition of Witchcraft was not limited to workers of malefic magic, but also covered those who heal, find lost objects, foretell the future, communicate with the dead, and even those who can perform protective magic against malefic “witches”? And what if the Zuñis found out that some of the Puritans actually thought that “Witches” who healed and performed other beneficial magic were more dangerous and more deserving of death than “Witches” who curse?

    One must always be very suspicious when attitudes toward “Witches” and “Witchcraft” are attributed to people whose native language is not English.

    1. Rombald

      Yes, but within European/Christian history there was also a tension between whether the “witches” to be persecuted were (i) anyone using supernatural powers, or (ii) people using such powers to do harm.

      For what it’s worth, I think the punishment of people in category (ii) is, in principle, justified, although in practice I would generally oppose it just because of the difficulty of obtaining proof.

    1. Gareth

      Yeah I did a quick google search on Brenner to see if he’d written anything else of interest. I’m sure what he has written is of interest to some, just not to me.

  3. Gareth

    Just read “A Witch among the Navajos” it was a very interesting read. I’m curious to know how various indigenous religions view and interact with contemporary Western Paganism. Brenner mentions that it was often presumed that all ‘bilagaanas’ were Christian; personally I’m more concerned with Paganism being conflated with New Age.

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