Originally, an ordeal was a form of trial to determine guilt or innocence; however, the term evolved to be applied to any severe trial or test of courage, endurance, or fortitude. Therefore, the two usages of the term among the North American tribes may be divided into those ordeals which were used to establish guilt and to settle differences, and those which were undergone for the sake of some material or supernatural advantage.
The ordeals corresponding closest to the tests to which the name was originally applied were those undertaken to determine witches or wizards. If it was believed that a man had died in consequence of being bewitched, the Tsimshian tribe would take his heart out and put a red-hot stone against it, wishing at the same time that the enemy might die. If the heart burst, they thought that their wish would be fulfilled; if not, their suspicions were believed to be unfounded.
A Haida priest would repeat the names of all persons in the village in the presence of a live mouse and determine the guilty party by watching its motions.
A Tlingit suspected of witchcraft was tied up for 8 or 10 days to extort a confession from him, and he was liberated at the end of that period if he were still alive. But, as confession secured immediate liberty and involved no unpleasant consequences except an obligation to remove the spell, few were probably found innocent. This, however, can hardly be considered as a real ordeal, since the guilt of the victim was practically assumed, and the test was in the nature of a torment to extract confession.
Also connected with ordeals of this class were contests between individuals and groups, for it was supposed that victory was determined more by supernatural than by natural powers. A case is recorded among the Comanche where two men whose ill will toward each other had become so great as to defy all attempts at reconciliation were allowed to fight a duel. Their left arms were tied together, a knife placed in the right hand of each, and they fought until both fell. A similar duel is recorded in a Teton myth and the Eskimo practiced similar contests.
In this culture, when two Eskimo groups met for the first time, each party selected a champion, and the two struck each other on the side of the head or the bared shoulders until one gave in. Champions of ancient Eskimo bands, Netchilirmiut and Aivilirmiut, contested by pressing the points of their knives against each others cheeks. Such contests were also forced on persons wandering among strange people and were often matters of life and death. Chinook myths speak of similar tests of endurance between super natural beings, and perhaps they were shared by men. Differences between towns on the north Pacific coast were often settled by appointing a day for fighting, when the people of both sides arrayed themselves in their hide and wooden armor and engaged in a pitched battle, the issue being determined by the fall of one or two prominent men. Contests between strangers or representatives of different towns or social groups were also settled by playing a game. At a feast on the north Pacific coast one who had used careless or slighting words toward the people of his host was forced to devour a tray full of bad-tasting food, or perhaps to swallow a quantity of urine. Two persons often contested to see which could empty a tray the more expeditiously.
Ordeals of the second type covered the hardships placed upon a growing boy to make him strong, the fasts and regulations to which a girl was subjected at puberty, and those which a youth underwent in order to obtain supernatural helpers, as well as the solitary fasts of persons who desired to become priests or medicine men who desired greater supernatural power. These tests of endurance were especially applicable to the fasts and tortures undergone in preparation for ceremonies or during initiations into secret societies.
Initiating a youth into the mysteries of the tribe took place about the time of puberty and varied greatly from tribe to tribe. Pueblo children, when old enough to have the religious mysteries imparted to them, went through a ceremonial flogging. Similarly, the Alibamu and other Indian tribes of the Gulf states would require the children to pass through a group that whipped them until they drew blood.
The huskanaw was an ordeal among Virginia Indians undertaken for the purpose of preparing youths for the higher duties of manhood. It consisted in solitary confinement and the use of emetics, “whereby remembrance of the past was supposed to be obliterated and the mind left free for the reception of new impressions.” Among those tribes in which individuals acquired supernatural helpers, a youth was compelled to go out alone into the forest or upon the mountains for a long period, fast there, and sometimes take certain medicines to enable him to see his guardian spirit.
Similar, were the ordeals gone through by chiefs among the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and other north Pacific coast tribes when they desired to increase wealth, have success in war, or to obtain long life. It was also practiced by priests and medicine men who wished to increase their powers. At such times they chewed certain herbs supposed to aid them in seeing the spirits. The use of the “black drink” by Muskhogean tribes was with similar intent.
While undergoing initiation into a secret society on the north Pacific coast a youth fasted and for a certain period disappeared into the woods, where he was supposed to commune with the spirit of the society in complete solitude. Anyone discovering a Kwakiutl youth at this time could slay him and obtain the secret society privileges in his stead. On the plains, the principal participants in the Sun Dance had skewers run through the fleshy parts of their backs, to which thongs were attached and fastened at the other end to the Sun Dance pole. Sometimes a person was drawn up so high as barely to touch the ground and afterward would throw his weight against the skewers until they tore their way out. Another participant would have the thongs fastened to a skull, which he pulled around the entire camping circle, and no matter what obstacles impeded his progress, he was not allowed to touch either thongs or skull with his hands.