The Religion and Spirituality of Native Americans
What do we mean when we talk of Native American religion? Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, it has no single founder. Unlike Judaism, it’s not the continuing story of a people with a strong sense of their own identity. Neither does it resemble Hinduism, with its historical and all-inclusive adaptiveness. In a sense, Native American religion doesn’t exist at all: there’s nobody religious expression common to the 250 different Native American individuals still surviving as America goes throughout the 21st century. And complicating the question even further is the fact that few Native American people today can say for certain how their ancestors worshiped before the onslaught of European immigrations: Too much death lies between the current and pre-Columbian America, a lot of cultural devastation, too many forced conversions to Christianity. The series of elders preserving tradition was broken by war and disease. Many modern Native Americans interested in understanding their own legacy have found themselves in the odd position of having to consult anthropologists for information.
However, anthropology has its own issues. Significant attempts to study Native American culture did not start until the mid-to-late 19th century, 200-300 years after the first European conquests, and 50-100 years following the start of serious western growth. Many Native American people no longer lived in their sacred homelands, and amounts of eastern tribes had completely vanished. When anthropological studies were undertaken, early reports often judged Native Americans from the values of European guys, disregarding their stores of wisdom, their spiritual insights, and their different approaches to sex roles. Frequently, the Native Americans interviewed did not make anthropologists’ jobs any easier: The Wintu of California had a saying that when the white men come,”. . .we will forget our tunes.” According to the Lakota, “When it had been told to a white guy, it’s untrue.” The Hopi learned early about anthropologists’ love of publishing and permanently closed their ceremonials to all but their own individuals. The list could go on and on.
Anthropologists divide the Native American cultures of North America into seven classes: Eastern Woodlands, Southeastern, Plains, Plateau, Great Basin, Southwestern, and Northwest Coastal. All these geographical groupings contain many different peoples with only the broadest characteristics in common, each with their own culture and spiritual beliefs. Any attempt to briefly summarize such a rich variety of individuals — as this page does — will involve inexact generalizations: It cannot be helped. Where space allows, examples appear from various tribal groups, but they don’t start to reflect the diversity of Native American spirituality.
Native American – Myth
What part do sacred history and stories play in Native American religion?
In Native American narratives, one can detect two types of time: A time before time, or outside time (mythic time), where things aren’t as they are here, and historic time, similar in many respects to modern life. In mythic time, no barriers exist between the spirit and physical worlds. Earth, animals, plants, and people understand each other’s languages. Spirit beings walk the ground openly and interact with human beings sometimes helping, sometimes harming, occasionally mating with them. Gifted people may venture into soul realms — these men are often called shamans. Native American creation stories, migration reports (tales of how many people found its way into the sacred homeland), and tales of culture heroes (those who collect the wisdom and rituals which hold a people together) are tales of mythic time. The winter counts of Plains individuals (pictographic summaries of passing years, each year represented by a memorable event) are examples of history.
Stories of mythic time frequently have the capacity to bring the story’s audience within that time — to the non-ordinary time of the spirit world. Storytelling among Native Americans — when the story is of mythic time — dissolves boundaries. Reenacting such a story overlaps the worlds even more ardently, filling the people with the power present in the original occurring. The smoking of the Lakota pipe brings the soul of its giver (White Buffalo Calf Woman) in their midst, in addition to linking the smokers together in familial relationship with all of nature. Among the Iroquois, ritually donning a mask made in the image of the wonderful Defender, or humpbacked one, (assigned by the Creator to heal illness) brings his healing power to a sickroom.
Family: ritual and humor are as inseparable in Native American life as soul and flesh. Much traditional ritual recreates myth, bringing the narrative’s power into everyday life. White Buffalo Calf Woman’s pipe is 1 example. One of the Northwest Coastal individuals, glorious masked dancers recreate the mythic beginnings of the own families, bringing the power of the heritage being — raven, killer whale, etc. — to their center.. One of the Hurons, an annual service dramatizes and satisfies people’ significant night-dreams, thus bringing spiritual health to the entire community. The Navajo of the Southwest recreate the stories of the Yei, or Holy People, in their sand paintings, curing illness through the energy of their overlapping spirit world.
Native American – Doctrine
How can traditional Native Americans clarify their beliefs?
Traditional Native Americans have had little interest in creating what is considered as spiritual philosophy. Their involvement in nature and soul doesn’t lend itself readily to standing apart and assessing. Inherited tradition, religious experiences of ordinary people and spiritual experts, judgment of the elders, and the welfare of the people all interacted creatively in every generation to form religious reality. Spirituality was a fluid thing, responding to changes in many different circumstances.
Significant dreams and dreams played significant roles in forming beliefs. The 19th century movement called the Ghost Dance, culminating among the Lakota in the massacre at Wounded Knee, originated from the west with one man’s vision of the white race’s defeat and the buffalo’s return. The 19th century Iroquois prophet Handsome Lake almost single-handedly stopped the disintegration of his people’s spiritual traditions by his eyesight led association of the Iroquois Long home faith. White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared among the Lakota sometime after 1500 and staged their entire approach to life.
Traditional Native American religion today has lost much of its fluidity. Like most dispossessed peoples, Native Americans often look on what remains of the original culture as infinitely precious — too valuable to risk losing. This way, tradition can harden into a rigid shell of traditionalism, no more responsive to the people’s experiences or to the changes around them. But as more Native Americans seek to recapture the wisdom of previous generations and use it to their modern lives, their customs will have a higher prospect of revival, in addition to ongoing transformation. In academic terms, Native American spirituality might be described as panentheism (deity/spirit present in, in addition to past, everything). Such a world view assumes the presence of Spirit beyond the visible world, but also living in all that is. Words such as animism (belief in spirits in natural phenomena, like trees, stones, animals, fire) are frequently used to describe Native American religion, but if one fails to include the wider presence of Spirit beyond bodily character, this explanation is incomplete. The Lakota concept of Wakan Tanka (most often translated as Good Spirit) illustrates panentheism nicely: Wakan Tanka is the Spirit above, under, and throughout each the physical world, its guiding principle, present in individual phenomena yet not restricted to it, not strictly singular nor plural, neither genuinely personal nor impersonal. Manitou/Manito’s of the Algonkians is a similar idea.
Native American Society
How Can American Spirituality Work Itself Out On Earth?
Each Native American people handed down its creation narratives and migration accounts, usually telling of production by benevolent deities/spirits, who put the people in their sacred homelands. These homelands often contained the website of a group’s development in the earth in mythic time and were always viewed as the world centre, the most important and effective website in the world, around which all else revolved — and where ritual must be performed to work. Spiritually speaking, a Native American people’s connection to their homeland was like that of a tree into the ground than of a European’s attachment to their property. The several removals that ripped Native Americans out of their sacred lands actually abandoned them rootless — in the sense of a shrub that’s torn in two. Today, Great Basin peoples continue to pursue long-standing disputes with the federal government about its usage of the Nevada homelands for military test ranges. The Black Hills of South Dakota, long the sacred homeland of the Lakota, but now teeming with tourist glitz, are the subject of lengthy, unresolved treaty breach suits from the Lakota people. The Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni of the Southwest are one of the fortunate ones allowed to keep a core of the ancestral lands, thus enabling their customs to survive more almost intact.
There’s absolutely no one pattern of spiritual structure in Native America. Remnants of the metropolitan Mississippian priesthood still stayed throughout much of the Southeast from the early contact period. From the urban cultures of the Southwest, every sacred society (known as kivas by a few ) had its own ritual priests or leaders. Sophisticated ceremonials and hierarchies characterized both regions. One of the Woodland peoples, an assortment of spiritual practitioners thrived, specializing in a variety of means of influencing the soul world, recovery, and foretelling the future. Some Great Basin groups sought out men struck by lightning as their spiritual leaders. Shamans one of the California Shasta tended to be the brothers of recognized female shamans. One of the Plains peoples, ordinary members of the community became religious leaders based on personal skills. A variety of names describe the non-priestly spiritual leaders of Native America: medicine man or woman, shaman, diviner, herbalist, conjurer, healer, crystal gazer, and dreamer are just a couple. Where one professional responsibility starts and another’s ends is frequently uncertain.
At the core of traditional Native American society is the value set on the welfare of this group as a whole. Selfless devotion to “the people” characterized nearly all Native American groups. Southeastern leaders revealed their greatness by how well they cared for their people and the number of spoils of war they could collect — to be able to give all of them away. Willingness to suffer and die was assumed when the safety or survival of this group was at stake. As the future of this tribe, kids were protected and valued. Girls were revered as life-bearers and wielded significant power in many councils. (Most Native American societies were matrilineal, tracing the descent of children through the mother’s line, in place of the fathers.)
Most bands’ names for themselves interpret in their own languages as “the people,” or “the people,” compared to other groups, who were always somewhat less than human. Small scale war with these other groups was an important part of Native American life, a way of making glory and esteem and of acquiring slaves, possessions, and occasionally adopted family members to grow the group’s strength. In pre-contact America, it never approached the levels of European motivated war, nor was its main goal slaughter.
Native American – Ethics
How Does Native Americans Address Right and Wrong?
Concepts of right and wrong in traditional Native American societies tend to get attached to actions which promote or reduce the even flow of life — the equilibrium — which must be kept at all times. Human beings have duties to act in certain ways toward the other elements of creation. If these duties are honored, stability and balance are maintained. Poor relationships of any sort — relationships that fail to follow patterns laid down in mythic time — ruin the balance, whether it’s a connection between human and human, soul and human, animal and human, or plant and human. The Navajo word hozho points to all this. Even though it’s hard to translate into English, its sense is of balance, harmony, beauty, and completeness. Wrong actions are those which disrupt balance and stability, jeopardizing the well-being of a people and the cosmos as a whole. The Cherokee, a individual who share characteristics of both Woodlands and Southeastern areas, developed a complicated system of maintaining this balance. In their own world, all phenomena belonged to groups of similar beings, each of which had its reverse. Opposing groups must never be correlated with each other except with rigorous controls and ritual limitations. Men and women were members of two such classes (masculine and feminine), and their connections were carefully controlled. Fire and water were another such group.
A different, crucial type of equilibrium was attained among human beings, animals, and plants. According to conventional Cherokee narratives, humanity’s reckless killing of animals for food and clothes caused great resentment among the animals, who chose to infect humanity with a new disease whenever an animal was killed. Plants took pity on the suffering individuals and provided themselves, with their wisdom, as remedies for the animal plagues. Ever since that time, plants have been allies of the Cherokee, and hunters have taken great care to follow appropriate rituals to honor the spirits of animals killed in the hunt. Every tribe developed its own distinct formulas connecting human behaviour to the routines of the world. Sometimes the resulting laws were as complicated as those of the Mississippian priesthoods in the Southeast. Occasionally they laid subtle Aztec requirements on the members of exclusive groups, like the kivas of the Southwest or the warrior societies of the Plains. Occasionally they were easy and unambiguous, almost consumed with mothers’ milk. But in every instance, they tried to align with the tribe’s activities with religious realities perceived in the world around them.
Native American – Expertise
What is the essence of religious knowledge in Native American religion?
Individual experience of Spirit was fundamental to a lot of Native American religion, and the vision quest, common to most of the continent, was the most widespread type of such experiences. Within the priestly cultures of the Southeast and Southwest, however, spiritual guidance was provided by the priests, who acted as intermediaries between Spirit and people in major festivals. Visions were usually not sought by ordinary men and women. Some shaman led individuals also restricted vision experiences to those known as shamans, but, generally speaking, non-priestly societies tended to place greater importance on individual experiences with Spirit.
The vision quest was a structured search for private vision found throughout pre-Columbian Native America and even to some extent in the Southwest and Southeast. In its simplest form, a vision quest included a person alone in the wilderness, spending quite a few times fasting and seeking religious power/vision for life. In most societies, the vision quest was a part of a youth’s ritual passage into maturity. In certain societies both girls and boys went on vision quests, in others just boys. Frequently, a young woman’s seclusion happened within a special lodge, as opposed to in the wilderness. For many groups, the vision quest was only a ritual of puberty, a rite in which a young man acquired their lifelong soul guardian. Among other peoples, especially in the Plains, anybody might seek out supernatural guidance in a pursuit at any critical point in life — or just pursuit occasionally as a religious discipline. The quest held the best importance for young men training to be warriors: with no soul guardian, no guy survived many battles.
The Chickasaw of the Southeastern region necessary forest fasts of the young men in order for them to obtain animal guardians, but the creature received was predetermined by the youth’s clan. The young man’s male relatives cared for him during his quick, teaching him all he needed to know about his clan spirits, but no eyesight was hunted. Visions were the privilege of spiritual leaders alone. One of some Northwest Coastal individuals, the search for soul guardians became highly ritualized. Like the Chickasaw, the protector received was predetermined by a boy’s arrival clan or clan by union. The youth’s isolation from the woods was short and symbolic, and the soul possession resulting from it carefully choreographed. Some Plateau and Great Basin tribes, along with a number in the Eastern Woodlands, believed a vision for a call to a shaman’s vocation. One of the Southwestern pueblos, though their ceremonial system concentrated on group experience, putting no importance on acquiring soul guardians, folks still hunted solitary visions occasionally, especially in aid of searching, recovery, and craft design.
All Native American religions involve rituals which gather the community together in common bonds of expertise. One of the Iroquois peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, annually in spring and autumn, community ceremonies are caused by the “false faces,” wooden masked impersonators of the spirit who protects the people from illness, to drive disease off. Among the most crucial yearly rituals among the Southeastern peoples was the Green Corn Ceremony, where the people purified themselves, cleaned their homes, fasted and prayed, and offered up the first ears of green corn in the fire, seeking Spirit’s blessing for a healthy harvest. The high point of the festival was the relighting of the sacred fire from the spiritual leader and its distribution to all of the neighborhood houses. The multi-day ceremonies concluded with a terrific feast of celebration.
The Sun dance of the Plains peoples varied from place to place, but was held in the summer, at a time when insight and help was particularly needed from spirit beings; it happened over a few days, during which time guys (and in some instances women, although individually and with different ritual) danced around a central pole, often staring at the sun, occasionally attached to the pole by thongs through their flesh: They were offering Spirit the one thing that was really theirs — their very own flesh — in an effort to rouse the spirits’ shame and secure their aid. In the Zuni Shalako ceremonial held every year in late autumn, the Zuni people celebrate the spirit beings’ (known as kachinas, such as the Hopi) coming at Zuni, bringing rain and blessings. All of the scattered Zuni people who will come home to Zuni for the all-night dance and feasts.
Although a lot of Native American groups put great importance on human spiritual experience, they were not religious customers, nor were such encounters private. All supernatural experiences were evaluated, and approved or rejected, by the elders of the group. The objective of this experience was always the strengthening of the person for all the people, never simply personal edification.