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Native American Religion

Author: Gentle Deer Lion Tamer [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: February 28th. 2010
Times Viewed: 5,370

What do we mean when we speak of Native American religion?

Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, it has no single founder. Unlike Judaism, it is not the ongoing story of a people with a strong sense of their own identity. Neither does it resemble Hinduism, with its ancient and all-inclusive adaptiveness. In a sense, Native American religion does not exist at all: There is no one religious expression common to the 250 distinct Native American peoples still surviving as America approaches the 21st century.

And complicating the question even further is the fact that few Native American people today can say for sure how their ancestors worshipped before the onslaught of European immigrations: Too much death lies between the present and pre-Columbian America, too much cultural devastation, too many forced conversions to Christianity. The chain of elders preserving tradition was broken by disease and war. Many contemporary Native Americans interested in knowing their own heritage have found themselves in the peculiar position of needing to consult anthropologists for information.

But anthropology has its own problems. Serious attempts to study Native American culture did not begin until the mid-to-late 19th century, 200-300 years after the first European conquests, and 50-100 years after the beginning of serious western expansion. Many Native American people no longer lived in their sacred homelands, and numbers of eastern tribes had completely disappeared. Even when anthropological studies were undertaken, early reports frequently judged Native Americans by the values of European men, discounting their stores of wisdom, their religious insights, and their different approaches to gender roles.

Often, the Native Americans interviewed didn't make anthropologists' jobs any easier: The Wintu of California had a saying that when the white men come, "...we will forget our songs." According to the Lakota, "If it was told to a white man, it is untrue." The Hopi learned early about anthropologists' love of publishing and permanently closed their ceremonials to all but their own people. The list could go on and on.

Anthropologists divide the Native American cultures of North America into seven groups: Eastern Woodlands, Southeastern, Plains, Plateau, Great Basin, Southwestern, and Northwest Coastal. Each of these geographical groupings contains many distinct peoples with only the broadest characteristics in common, each with their own culture and religious beliefs. Any attempt to briefly summarize such a rich variety of peoples -- as this page does -- is going to involve inexact generalizations: It can't be helped. Where space permits, examples appear from different tribal groups, but they do not begin to reflect the diversity of Native American spirituality.

Native American - Myth

What part do sacred stories and history play in Native American religion?

In Native American narratives, one can notice two kinds of time: A time before time, or outside time (mythic time) , where things are not as they are here, and historical time, similar in most respects to contemporary life. In mythic time, no barriers exist between the spirit and physical worlds. Earth, animals, plants, and humans understand each other’s languages. Spirit beings walk the earth openly and interact with human beings freely, sometimes helping, sometimes harming, sometimes mating with them.

Gifted humans may venture into spirit realms -- these persons are often called shamans. Native American creation stories, migration accounts (stories of how a people found its way to the sacred homeland) , and stories of culture heroes (those who gather the wisdom and rituals that hold a people together) are stories of mythic time. The winter counts of Plains peoples (pictographic summaries of passing years, each year symbolized by a memorable event) are examples of ordinary history.

Stories of mythic time often have the ability to bring the story's audience into that time -- into 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 powerfully, filling the people with the power existing in the original happening. The smoking of the Lakota pipe brings the spirit of its giver (White Buffalo Calf Woman) into their midst, as well as joining the smokers together in familial relationship with all of nature.

Among the Iroquois, ritually donning a mask made in the image of the Great Defender, or humpbacked one, (assigned by the Creator to cure sickness) brings his healing power into a sickroom. Narrative and ritual are as inseparable in Native American life as spirit and flesh. Much traditional ritual recreates myth, bringing the story's power into everyday life. White Buffalo Calf Woman's pipe is one example.

Among the Northwest Coastal peoples, magnificent masked dancers recreate the mythic beginnings of their families, bringing the power of the founding being -- raven, killer whale, etc. -- into their midst. Among the Huron, an annual ceremony dramatizes and fulfills individuals' significant night-dreams, thus bringing spiritual health to the whole community. The Navajo of the Southwest recreate the stories of the Yei, or Holy People, in their sand paintings, curing illness through the power of the overlapping spirit world.

Native American - Doctrine

How do traditional Native Americans explain their beliefs?

Traditional Native Americans have had little interest in developing what is thought of as religious doctrine. Their participation in nature and spirit does not lend itself easily to standing apart and analyzing. Inherited tradition, spiritual experiences of ordinary people and religious specialists, judgment of the elders, and the welfare of the people all interacted creatively in each generation to shape religious reality. Spirituality was a fluid thing, responding to changes in a variety of circumstances.

Significant dreams and visions played important roles in shaping beliefs. The 19th century movement known as the Ghost Dance, culminating among the Lakota in the massacre at Wounded Knee, originated in 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 singlehandedly halted the disintegration of his people's religious traditions by his vision-led institution of the Iroquois Longhouse religion. White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared among the Lakota sometime after 1500 and reshaped their whole approach to life.

Traditional Native American religion today has lost much of its fluidity. Like many dispossessed peoples, Native Americans often look on what remains of their original culture as infinitely precious -- too precious to risk losing. In this way, tradition can harden into an inflexible shell of traditionalism, no longer responsive to the people's experiences or to the changes around them.

However, as more Native Americans seek to recapture the wisdom of past generations and apply it to their contemporary lives, their traditions will have a greater chance of revival, as well as ongoing transformation. In academic terms, Native American spirituality may be described as panentheism (deity/spirit present in, as well as beyond, everything) . Such a worldview assumes the existence of Spirit beyond the visible world, but also dwelling in all that is.

Words like animism (belief in spirits in natural phenomena, such as trees, rocks, animals, fire) are commonly used to describe Native American religion, but when one neglects to include the broader presence of Spirit beyond physical nature, this explanation is incomplete. The Lakota concept of Wakan Tanka (most frequently translated as Great Spirit) illustrates panentheism well: Wakan Tanka is the Spirit over, under, and throughout all of the physical world, its guiding principle, present in individual phenomena yet not confined to it, not strictly singular nor plural, neither truly personal nor impersonal. Manitou/manitos of the Algonkians is a similar concept.

Native American Society

How Does American Spirituality Work Itself Out In The World?

Each Native American people handed down its own creation narratives and migration accounts, usually telling of creation by benevolent deities/spirits, who placed the people in their sacred homelands. These homelands often contained the site of a group's emergence from the earth in mythic time and were almost always seen as the world center, the most important and powerful site on earth, around which all else revolved -- and where ritual must be performed to be effective.

Spiritually speaking, a Native American people's relationship to their homeland was more like that of a tree to the earth than of a European's attachment to his or her property. The various removals that tore Native Americans from their sacred lands truly left them rootless -- in the sense of a tree that is torn in two.

Today, Great Basin peoples continue to pursue long-standing disputes with the federal government about its use of their 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-violation suits by the Lakota people. The Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni of the Southwest are among the fortunate ones permitted to retain a core of their ancestral lands, thus enabling their traditions to survive more nearly intact.

There is no one pattern of religious structure in Native America. Remnants of the urban Mississippian priesthood still remained throughout much of the Southeast in the early contact period. In the urban cultures of the Southwest, each sacred society (called kivas by some) had its own ritual leaders or priests. Complex ceremonials and hierarchies characterized both areas.

Among the Woodland peoples, a variety of religious practitioners thrived, specializing in various means of influencing the spirit world, healing, and foretelling the future. Some Great Basin groups sought out persons struck by lightning as their religious leaders. Shamans among the California Shasta tended to be the daughters of established female shamans.

Among the Plains peoples, ordinary members of the community became spiritual leaders based on personal abilities. Various names describe the non-priestly religious leaders of Native America: medicine man or woman, shaman, diviner, herbalist, conjurer, healer, crystal-gazer, and dreamer are only a few. Where one professional's responsibility begins and another's ends is often unclear.

At the heart of traditional Native American society is the value placed on the welfare of the group as a whole. Selfless devotion to "the people" characterized almost all Native American groups. Southeastern leaders demonstrated their greatness by how well they cared for their people and how many spoils of war they could accumulate -- in order to give them all away. Willingness to suffer and die was assumed when the safety or survival of the group was at stake. As the future of the tribe, children were treasured and protected. Women were revered as life-bearers and wielded significant power in many councils. (Most Native American societies were matrilineal, tracing the descent of all children through the mother's line, rather than the father's.)

Most groups' names for themselves translate in their own languages as "the people, " or "the humans, " in contrast to all other groups, who were necessarily somewhat less than human. Small-scale warfare with these other groups was an essential part of Native American life, a means of earning glory and respect and of acquiring slaves, possessions, and sometimes adopted family members to increase the group's strength. In pre-contact America, it never approached the levels of European-inspired warfare, nor was its primary goal slaughter.

Native American - Ethics

How Do Native Americans Address Right and Wrong?

Concepts of right and wrong in traditional Native American societies tend to be attached to actions that either promote or diminish the even flow of life -- the balance -- that must be kept at all times. Human beings have obligations to behave in certain ways toward all other aspects of creation. If these obligations are honored, harmony and balance are preserved. Poor relationships of any kind -- relationships that fail to follow patterns laid down in mythic time -- destroy the balance, whether it is a relationship between human and human, human and spirit, human and animal, or human and plant.

The Navajo word hozho points to all of this. Although it is difficult to translate into English, its sense is of balance, harmony, beauty, and completeness. Wrong actions are those that disrupt balance and harmony, jeopardizing the wellbeing of a people and the cosmos as a whole.

The Cherokee, a people who share characteristics of both Woodlands and Southeastern regions, developed a complex system of keeping this balance. In their world, all phenomena belonged to groups of similar beings, each of which had its opposite. Opposing groups must never be associated with each other except with strict controls and ritual limits.

Men and women were members of two such groups (masculine and feminine) , and their contacts were carefully controlled. Fire and water was another such pair. A different, crucial kind of balance was achieved among human beings, animals, and plants. According to traditional Cherokee narratives, humankind's irresponsible killing of animals for food and clothing caused great resentment among the animals, which decided to infect humankind with a new disease every time an animal was killed. Plants took pity on the suffering humans and offered themselves, with their wisdom, as cures for the animal plagues.

Ever since that time, plants have been allies of the Cherokee, and hunters have taken great care to follow proper rituals to honor the spirits of animals killed in the hunt. Each tribe developed its own unique formulas connecting human behavior to the patterns of the universe. Sometimes the resulting laws were as complex as those of the Mississippian priesthoods in the Southeast. Sometimes they laid subtle ceremonial requirements on the members of exclusive groups, such as the kivas of the Southwest or the warrior societies of the Plains. Sometimes they were simple and unambiguous, almost absorbed with mothers' milk. But in every case, they attempted to align the tribe's actions with spiritual realities perceived in the universe around them.

Native American - Experience

What is the nature of religious experience in Native American religion?

Individual experience of Spirit was central to much of Native American religion, and the vision quest, common to most of the continent, was the most widespread form of such experiences. Within the priestly cultures of the Southeast and Southwest, however, religious guidance was provided by the priests, who also acted as intermediaries between people and Spirit in major festivals. Visions were generally not sought by ordinary people. Some shaman-led peoples also limited vision experiences to those called to be shamans, but, in general, non-priestly societies tended to place greater significance on individual encounters with Spirit.

The vision quest was a structured search for personal vision found throughout pre-Columbian Native America and even to some extent in the Southwest and Southeast. In its most basic form, a vision quest involved an individual alone in the wilderness, spending a number of days fasting and seeking spiritual power/vision for life. In most societies, the vision quest was part of a youth's ritual passage into adulthood. In some societies both boys and girls went on vision quests, in others only boys. Often, a young woman's seclusion took place inside a special lodge, rather than in the wilderness.

For some groups, the vision quest was solely a ritual of puberty, a rite in which a young person acquired his or her lifelong spirit guardian. Among other peoples, particularly in the Plains, anyone might seek supernatural guidance in a quest at any critical point in life -- or simply quest periodically as a spiritual discipline. The quest held the greatest significance for young men training to be warriors: Without a spirit guardian, no man survived many battles.

The Chickasaw of the Southeastern region required forest fasts of their young men in order for them to receive animal guardians, but the youth’s clan predetermined the animal received. The young man's male relatives cared for him during his fast, teaching him all he needed to know about his clan spirits, but no vision was sought. Visions were the privilege of religious leaders alone.

Among some Northwest Coastal peoples, the search for spirit guardians became highly ritualized. Like the Chickasaw, the guardian received was predetermined by a boy's birth clan or clan by marriage. The youth's isolation in the forest was brief and symbolic, and the spirit-possession resulting from it carefully choreographed. Some Plateau and Great Basin tribes, as well as a number from the Eastern Woodlands, considered a vision to be a call to a shaman's vocation. Among the Southwestern pueblos, even though their ceremonial system focused on group experience, placing no significance on acquiring spirit guardians, individuals still sought solitary visions at times, particularly in aid of hunting, healing, and craft design.

All Native American religions involve rituals that gather the community together in common bonds of experience. Among the Iroquois peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, each year in spring and fall, community ceremonies are led by the "false faces, " wooden-masked impersonators of the spirit who protects the people from disease, to drive all disease away.

One of the most significant annual rituals among the Southeastern peoples was the Green Corn Ceremony, in which the people purified themselves, cleaned their houses, 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 by the religious leader and its distribution to all the community homes. The multi-day ceremonies concluded with a great feast of celebration.

The Sundance of the Plains peoples varied from place to place, but was generally held in the summer, at a time when help and insight was especially needed from spirit beings; it took place over several days, during which time men (and in some cases women, although separately and with different ritual) danced around a central pole, often staring at the sun, sometimes attached to the pole by thongs through their flesh: They were offering Spirit the only thing that was truly theirs -- their own flesh -- in an attempt to rouse the spirits' pity and secure their help.

At the two-day Zuni Shalako ceremonial held each year in late fall, the Zuni people celebrate the spirit beings' (called kachinas, like the Hopi) arrival at Zuni, bringing blessings and rain. All the scattered Zuni people who can come home to Zuni for the all-night dancing and feasts.

Although many Native American groups placed great importance on individual spiritual experience, they were never spiritual consumers, nor were such experiences private. All supernatural encounters were evaluated, and accepted or rejected, by the elders of the group. The purpose of such experience was always the strengthening of the individual for good of the people, never simply personal edification.


Gentle Deer Lion Tamer

Location: Houston, Texas


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