Native American Spirituality

native american indian

As American Indians emerged during the past century from the controlling influence of Christian missionaries on the reservations, they have fought to reclaim their religious heritage and to guard it from distortion by the dominant white culture of North America. Some Native Americans have expressed the feeling that their religion is not appropriate for use by outsiders, and that non-Indians have no business participating in Indian rituals such as the sweat lodge and vision quest. Other Indians have taken a different stance, saying that there is no reason why outsiders should not participate in and learn from Native American rituals and beliefs in much the same way that they have benefited from the practices of Zen, Sufism, Yoga, and other non-European belief systems. As these Indian teachers and spokespeople argue, the world has never been more deeply in need of what their tradition has to offer. And it is an ancient culture of enormous value, reaching back to the very earliest forms of spiritual life that were practiced on the earth.

Archaeologists propose that tens of thousands of years ago a somewhat uniform culture stretched around the northernmost regions of the globe from Greenland and Scandinavia to northern Asia and Siberia. The peoples of this circumpolar culture shared a common history and many religious beliefs and practices including animism, shamanism, and ceremonies centered around hunting and animals. The culture reached down into China, where it influenced the development of Taoism, and Tibet, whose shamanistic Bon culture left its stamp on Tibetan Buddhism. Beginning as long as 60,000 years ago, the peoples of northern Asia migrated across what is now the Bering Sea to Alaska and Canada, and then down through the Great Plains of North America to Central and South America.

The culture of these migrants, the ancestors of the North American Indians, incorporated elements of religion based on both nomadic hunting (mountain and sky gods) and agriculture (earth goddesses, shrines, and temples). As in many Goddess religions, the Native American conception divides the universe into heaven, earth, and underworld. Distinctions among spirits, divinities, humans, and animals are often blurred. Animals, places, even stones and trees can possess spirits that interact with humans in a kind of cosmic harmony, similar to the ancient concept of kami in the Shinto tradition of Japan. This belief, known as animism, is common to many preliterate religions which hold that personal, intelligent spirits inhabit almost all natural objects, from stones, plants, and rivers to insects, birds, animals, trees, and mountains. Indians regard some, but not all, places as sacred; certain locations and animals are singled out as manifestations of the supernatural, including those seen in dreams or visions.

The native religions of North America, like those of other continents, by and large rely on oral rather than written transmission, which is why they are sometimes called preliterate, or primal, acknowledging their ancient status (the term “primitive” is no longer applied, because of its pejorative connotation). In the truest sense, they make up a communal religion; many tribes and members contributing to a tradition which is basically the same for most Indians, with a wide rangs of regional and tribal variations.

Indigenous peoples look on the cosmos as a living womb that nurtures their lives, and so they have less need to destroy or reshape it as more technologically developed cultures do (although they sometimes abuse the land and livestock as developed cultures do). Their goal could be described as achieving harmony in the personal, social, and cosmic realms, rather than gaining personal salvation or liberation as historical religions aim to do.

The Roots of Democracy

The terms Native American and American Indian, or just Indian, are both used by various North American tribes and tribal representatives to refer to their people. Some insist on Native American; others say that only white liberals use that term, and they prefer the traditional, respectful title of American Indian. In fact, though, most spokespeople use the phrases interchangeably with little concern for political correctness. Further, the terms actually used by tribes such as the Comanche, Hopi, and Lakota Sioux to refer to themselves in their native languages can be translated as “The People.”

According to historians who have studied the relations between the Indians and the early colonists, the men we call our Founding Fathers were profoundly influenced by their contacts with the land’s inhabitants. The idea of uniting the thirteen American colonies came originally from the Indian leader Chief Canassatego of the Iroquois League. In that historic confederation, founded between 1000 and 1400, five and later six member nations had equal voices irrespective of their numbers or seniority — a forerunner of the Continental Congress and the Senate. The Iroqouis League also had provisions for the democratic political processes known as initiative, referendum, and recall. Even the concept of an open meeting in which citizens exercise an equal voice in decision-making was borrowed from the Indians, along with the Algonquian word for it: caucus. The Indian tradition of having separate leaders for war and peace was also adopted by the Americans (unlike England and many African and Latin American democracies, military leaders cannot serve in the U.S. government unless they first resign their commissions).

Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, among others, openly acknowledged their debt to Native Americans for the structure of the democracy they crafted. The same revolutionary concepts of government they learned from the Indians were later exported to Europe, where they were carried directly by Thomas Paine. Paine had negotiated with the Iroquois during the American Revolution, tried to learn their language, and sought to incorporate their social structure into the Constitution.


“Indian religion is interwoven into your life. Everything, the way you live, the way you sleep. Indian religion is a way of life. To call it a “religion” is misleading. Everything is close to Mother Earth, in accordance to the way we are taught.”

Ron Barton, quoted in The Sacred.

Indian spirituality centers on a collection of beliefs shared by most tribes, with variations in details, rituals and ceremonies. Distinctions are often made, for example, between the Plains Indians of the Midwest, the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, and the Northern Woodland Tribes. Yet almost all tribes practice a modified monotheism — belief in the Great Spirit alongside an animistic belief in individual spirits residing in animals and forces of nature, none of which are seen as higher than the Great Spirit. As a result, Native American spirituality is nature-based, growing out of a strong sense of interrelation with the earth; shared communal ritual and sacred traditions are accompanied by the teaching of morals and ethics. This is especially true of North American Indians; Indians of Central and South America follow somewhat different belief systems. The Aztecs of Mexico, for example, who built much of their knowledge and belief on that of the Mayas and other Mezo-Americans (the Toltecs and Olmecs) worshiped over a hundred gods, ranked hierarchically and somewhat bureaucratically like the deities of ancient China.

Shamanism is one of the most widely shared components of Indian life. Shamans are spiritually gifted people who through a variety of means have acquired the ability to help others through trance and dream journeying. As in the ancient cultures of China, Tibet, and Northern Russia, North American shamans induce trance states in themselves to facilitate contacting the spirit world and to help heal the afflicted. Shamanic trances can be induced through a variety of techniques, including chanting or drumming, fasting, and in some cases the use of psychotropic substances, the mildest of which might be tobacco, but which can sometimes include entheogens such as peyote and ayahuasca. During these trance contacts, shamans may communicate with spirits of the dead or other spirits and learn what they need to know to help heal the body, mind, or soul of a patient, to locate game, or to predict the future. Because in many tribes almost all men, and some women, went on a vision quest and were said to have contacted the supernatural, sometimes the only difference between shamans and the rest of the tribe was the number or relative power of the spirit guides or helpers contacted by the shamans.

White anthropologists have often used the name “medicine man” (even though many were women) to indicate a mixture of shamanic and priestly capacities. In this context, priestly implies the use of rituals, songs, and verbal formulas learned from other priests in the manner of the Brahmans of India. Although the term medicine man has acquired a derogatory overtone from countless bad Hollywood westerns, it does reflect that many tribal shamans were also knowledgeable in the use of hundreds of herbal remedies unknown to white explorers and settlers. The 16th-century French explorer Jacques Cartier, for example, had lost 25 of his men to scurvy when a band of Iroquois cured the rest by administering a decoction of pine bark and needles, a source of Vitamin C.

The Great Spirit

Indian concepts of God may appear contradictory at times, probably because they derive from both patriarchal and matriarchal traditions. For example, Wakan Tanka, the Lakota Sioux name for “Great Spirit,” “Great Mystery,” or Supreme Being, is an amalgamation of a dominant Father sky god, Mother Earth, and numerous spirits who control the elements as well as human life. Other Indian nations since ancient times have believed in a Supreme Being whom they called “father” and thought of either as a man or an animal — especially a wolf — with human thoughts and speech. This creator god is addressed by the Shoshone, for instance, as Tam Apo (“Our Father”). Belief in a Mother Earth figure echoes the Neolithic Goddess culture in which women were essentially equal partners with men, and the feminine principle was openly acknowledged as the great source of human, animal, and vegetable life.

Indian culture also shows the impact, however, of the warlike post-Goddess era, with its violence and its masculine hierarchies, so any attempt to see Native American religion as a direct descendant of Goddess culture is awkward at best. And yet the male and female principles appear to be far more equitably balanced in most American Indian traditions than in Western historical religions. North American Indian culture is divided between primarily hunting and primarily agrarian tribes, patrilineal and matrilineal descent, and women are given a place of respect and influence rarely acknowledged in either the East or West.

The juxtaposition of a personal creator God and anthropomorphic animals derived from mythology is no more inappropriate, however, than the behavior of Christians at Christmas time who set out a creche depicting the birth of Jesus next to a Christmas tree derived from an ancient pagan festival. Native American concepts of life after death can also seem contradictory, incorporating elements of reincarnation (either as human or animal), a heavenly afterlife, and ghosts. The often-disputed Indian belief in a “happy hunting ground” is at least consistent with nomadic hunting cultures in Scandinavia and Asia, for whom the afterlife promises an abundance of game. Agrarian cultures, on the other hand, often saw the afterlife as a subterranean land from which the Mother Earth Goddess generated new life and vegetation.

Rituals and Customs

Although Indian beliefs and customs represent a wide range of sources and have evolved over millennia, many of them are remarkably similar. Most tribes, especially among the Plains Indians, have traditionally practiced some form of potlatch, or give-away ceremonies, highlighted by the lavish distribution of goods and food to members of other clans, villages, or tribes. The potlatch embodies a sense of communal responsibility reaching back to aboriginal times, and the tradition is tied in with the democratic beliefs of The People. Anyone elected to a leadership position was expected to give away all his possessions so as not to be able to profit materially from his new position. Related to that is a belief in stewardship rather than ownership of the land. The Europeans who settled America had difficulty comprehending this as they kept trying to buy land from the Indians.

In many cases, however, tribes differ among themselves as to specific rituals and ceremonies. According to Sioux tradition, for instance, seven ceremonies were taught to tribal elders by the Buffalo Calf Woman, who appeared to two members of the Sioux tribe in a vision and explained that the sacred pipe was to be used in seven rites. She also taught the seven ceremonies to the tribe, the first in person and the other six in visions granted after she departed, leaving behind her sacred bundle, which is still kept on one of the Sioux reservations. The medicine bundle remains a significant element of Indian religion, a collection of sacred objects carried by Native American males of any importance in their community. The bundles’ “medicine” consists of sacred objects that facilitate interaction with the supernatural, especially a pipe and tobacco, which are smoked whenever the bundle is unwrapped and used for religious purposes. Some of the bundle’s contents are incorporeal, such as songs and rituals that go with it when the bundle is bought or sold. Historically, one could own more than one bundle, a sign of wealth or importance within the tribe.

Rituals and ceremonies of special significance, especially among plains Indians, include the Sweat Lodge ceremony (communal spiritual cleansing); Vision Quest (a rite of passage for the young or spiritual quest for adults); Sun Dance Ceremony (an annual tribal thanksgiving to the Great Spirit held in late summer); Making Relatives (entering a relationship with a nonrelative that is stronger than kinship); Preparing a Girl for Womanhood; and Throwing the Ball (a ritual that evolved into a game upon which LaCrosse is based). The sacred pipe, ritually filled with tobacco or tobacco substitute — but never with any psychotropic substance as is often mistakenly believed — is passed among participants at all sacred ceremonies (inhaling is not required of nonsmokers).

Source: “Native American Spirituality,” from

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