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Native American Spirituality Myopia
Article ID: 15925
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Spirit Walk Ministry
Posted: October 24th. 2015
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Before you can attempt to answer the questions you have about the spiritual beliefs of the Native American people you must first decide who exactly it is you are talking about, and the answer to the question of “Who are the Native Americans?” really depends on who you ask.
From a literal perspective, “Native American” would seemingly refer to any and all of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and include the ancient native peoples of North, South and Central America. But trying to define and label any collection of peoples, spread over such a vast geographic area as a single anthropological group, would not be logical. Trying to assert that the Inuit tribes of Northern Canada and the Mapuche tribes of Argentina are the same people is like trying to see the culture of the Celts of Britain as analogous to the culture of the Zulus of South Africa.
In popular culture, “Native American” is generally held to be a term describing the indigenous people of the continental United States, ranging from Northern Mexico up into Canada. Again, this is the popular perception and not the “correct” perspective as the native people of Hawaii also claim status as Native Americans. But, even if we were to limit the discussion of Native American spirituality to the indigenous tribes of the continental United States we do more to expose our ignorance than unveil the reality.
North America is big, REALLY BIG! You may think that it is a long flight from Boston to San Francisco, but try walking it! It would take the covered wagon pioneers of the mid-1880’s as long as six months to get to California, and they would start from Missouri, in the middle of the continent. We therefore are talking about a vast number of differing Native American tribes spread out over an extremely large land mass.
For the sake of this discussion, what does this mean?
For one thing, being Native American is a bit like being Irish. Culturally, the Irish all seem the same, but some belong to one of the tribes in the North and some belong to one of the tribes in the South. It is important for you to understand the differences between these tribes before choosing which Irish Pub to frequent. You need to know which tribe the other patrons belong to before you start singing the wrong tribal drinking song.
Speaking of the native people of the continental United States prior to the arrival of the Europeans, by “popular” labeling, the indigenous people of the Iroquois Nation in the Northwestern woodlands and the indigenous people of Apache Nation in the Southwestern deserts, would be considered homogeneous parts of the “Native American” people.
Using the same parameters of anthropological labeling, we would then expect that the ancient peoples of Ireland would be part of the same culture and background of the ancient peoples ancient Greece and be a homogeneous part of the “Native European” people. From our own experience we know that these two people from such geographically and climatically different regions do not have a similar culture or spiritual belief system, so by the same logic, we should not expect the Native American peoples of the northeastern Iroquois nation and the southwestern Apache tribes to be that similar either.
The Iroquois people relied on agriculture, as well as hunting and gathering. Their environment had fertile soil, plentiful game and fish, as well as rivers and lakes streams that provided them with a plentiful supply of water.
The Apache people’s environment left them with a lifestyle where all their time and energy was spent on survival. Theirs was a non-agricultural society where what little water they could find was for warding off thirst and left none for irrigation of the soil. What game existed was scarce and the environment was a barren wasteland and basic sustenance had to be fought over on a daily basis.
The relative ease at which the Iroquois Nation was able to provide for the needs of its people allowed for the development of one of the most highly organized civilizations among Native American tribes in North America. They had a sense of being in harmony with the environment and in control of their daily destiny as a large tribal group. By contrast, the Apache were a loosely organized group, who saw the environment as a foe to be overcome and that could only be done in small, often warring, tribal bands. So we cannot expect these two peoples, from such divergent circumstances to develop similar cultures, with similar myths and legends, let alone similar systems of spiritual belief.
Another factor to consider, in contrast to our “Hollywood” understanding of the Native American people is that some of the individual tribes were not as culturally static as others and were undergoing a drastic change, in terms of lifestyle and spiritual belief at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans.
With the arrival of the Spanish came a factor that changed the destiny of many of the indigenous tribal peoples and that factor was the horse. With the arrival of the horse came a form of transportation that had been unknown to the Native American population and with it came the opportunity for what had once been sedentary hunter-gatherer tribal groups to evolve into fast moving mounted nomads.
The expansion of the Spanish empire northward into America reached its peak in the mid 1500’s, but the now free roaming herds of former Spanish horses continued expanding upward into the American West. After a while the Native American tribes of “The Plains” began to capture and domesticate the horse for their own use. It was then that tribal groups like the Sioux and the Cheyenne began to come into prominence. They evolved from hunting and gathering on foot to horseback warriors moving with the great buffalo herds, with the buffalo now becoming their prime source of their sustenance and the new central deity in their tribal myths and legends. Ironically this was all happening at about the same time that the first English settlers were arriving at Jamestown and Plymouth in the early 1600’s, thus setting the stage for the clash of these two cultures in the notorious Plains Indian Wars of the 1800’s.
In the end, in your search to understand “Native American Spirituality” you are going to have to come to the realization that your present understanding probably comes more from what you have learned from James Fennimore Cooper’s and John Ford’s depiction of “the Indians” than from actual fact and that while you may find similarities in Native American beliefs, these similarities are probably more akin to the similarities of the Greek Gods, the Norse Gods and Celtic Gods, as universal mythological archetypes.
To understand the mystery of Native American Spirituality, you have to begin by seeing it as a tapestry, with each tribe as a tread in that tapestry and you must try unraveling that mystery, one thread at a time.
Copyright: article author John Reder
Spirit Walk Ministry
Location: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
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