Many followers of Aboriginal religions, such as the many types of Native American Spirituality, do not regard their spiritual beliefs and practices as a "religion" in the way in which many Christians do. Their beliefs and practices form a integral and seamless part of their very being.
A quote from Native American Religions by Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin (Facts on File, New York, 1992, ISBN 0-8160-2017-5) is instructive:
".....the North American public remains ignorant about Native American religions. And this, despite the fact that hundreds of books and articles have been published by anthropologists, religionists and others about native beliefs......Little of this scholarly literature has found its way into popular books about Native American religion..."
Yet Natives culture and religion should be valued. They have made many contributions to North American society:
an awareness of concern for the environment
food staples such as corn, beans, squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes
the design of the kayak, toboggan and snowshoe
the original oral contraceptive
over 200 drugs, derived from native remedies
It is ironic that the wine that is the Christians' most sacred substance, used in the Mass to represent the blood of their God, has caused such a trail of devastation within Native populations. And the Natives' most sacred substance, tobacco, has caused major health problems for so many Christians.
According to the Canadian 1991 census, there were 1,002,945 Canadians with North American Indian, Métis and/or Inuit origins. 10,840 are recorded as following an aboriginal spiritual path. The latter is believed to be greatly under-reported.
There was, until recently, a consensus among scientists that prior to perhaps 11,200 years ago, the Western Hemisphere was completely devoid of humans. Much of the world's water was frozen in gigantic ice sheets. The floor of the Bearing Strait between Siberia and Alaska was exposed. Big-game hunters were able to walk to Alaska. They turned south, spreading out through the Great Plains and into what is now the American Southwest. Within a few thousand years, they had made it all the way to the tip of South America. Recent archeological discoveries have shown that people may have arrived far earlier "in many waves of migration and by a number of routes" -- perhaps even from Australia, South Asia or Europe. 13,14 Some native tribes contest these theories, believing that their ancestors have always been in the Americas or that they emerged into the present world from beneath the earth. 1
Because of the wide range of habitats in North America, different native religions evolved to match the needs and lifestyles of the individual tribe.
Religious traditions of aboriginal peoples around the world tend to be heavily influenced by their methods of acquiring food, whether by hunting wild animals or by agriculture. Native American spirituality is no exception. Their rituals and belief show a blending of interest in promoting and preserving their hunting and horticulture.
The arrival of Europeans marked a major change in Native society. Tens of millions died due to sickness, and programs of slavery and extermination.2 Europeans and their missionaries looked upon Native Spirituality as worthless superstition inspired by the Christian devil, Satan. Many of the survivors were forcibly converted to Christianity. The US and Canadian governments instituted policies to force Natives onto reservations and to encourage them to become assimilated into the majority culture. 3 Some suicidologists believe that the extremely high suicide rate among Natives is due to the suppression of their religion and culture by the Federal Governments. This suppression is still seen in the prison administrations; Canadian prisons have only recently allowed Native sweat lodge ceremonies; most American prisons routinely deny permission.
Natives today follow many spiritual traditions:
Many Native families today have been devout Christians for generations.
Others, particularly in the Southwest have retained their aboriginal traditions more or less intact.
Most follow a personal faith that combines traditional and Christian elements.
Pan Indianism is a recent and growing movement which encourages a return to traditional beliefs, and seeks to create a common Native religion.
The Native American Church is a continuation of the ancient Peyote Religion which had used a cactus with psychedelic properties called peyote for about 10,000 years. Incorporated in 1918, its original aim was to promote Christian beliefs and values, and to use the peyote sacrament. Although use of peyote is restricted to religious ritual which is protected by the US Constitution, and it is not harmful or habit forming, and has a multi-millennia tradition, there has been considerable opposition from Christian groups, from governments, and from within some tribes.
The traditional Inuit (Eskimo) culture is similar to those found in other circumpolar regions: Northern Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries. Life has been precarious; there are the double challenges of the cold, and the continual threat of starvation. (The popular name for the Inuit, "Eskimo", is not used by the Inuit.).
Their religious belief is grounded in the belief that anua (souls) exist in all people and animals. Individuals, families and the tribe must avoid a complex system of taboos to assure that animals will continue to make themselves available to the hunters. Many rituals and ceremonies are performed before and after hunting expeditions to assure hunting success.
An underwater Goddess Sedna or Takanaluk is in charge of the sea mammals. She is part human and part fish. She observes how closely the tribe obeys the taboos and releases her animals to the hunters accordingly. There is an corresponding array of deities who release land mammals; these are Keepers or Masters, one for each species.
The Angakut or Shaman is the spiritual leader of each tribe. He is able to interpret the causes of sickness or lack of hunting success; he can determine the individual or family responsible and isolate the broken taboo. In a manner similar to Shamans in may other cultures, he enters a trance with the aid of drum beating and chanting. This allows his soul to leave his body and traverse great distances to determine the causes of sickness and other community problems.
Native religions in these areas share some similarities, and differ significantly from Inuit culture described above. Tribes also differ greatly from each other. Spiritual elements found in some (but not all) non-Inuit native religions are:
Deity: A common concept is that of a dual divinity:
- a Creator who is responsible for the creation of the world and is recognized in religious ritual and prayers
- a mythical individual, a hero or trickster, who teaches culture, proper behavior and provides sustenance to the tribe.
Creation: Individual tribes have differing stories of Creation. One set of themes found in some tribes describes that in the beginning, the world was populated by many people. Most were subsequently transformed into animals. Natives thus feel a close bond with animals because of their shared human ancestry. Dogs are excluded from this relationship. This bond is shown in the frequent rituals in which animal behavior is simulated. Each species has its master; for example, the deer have a master deer who is larger than all the others. The master of humans is the Creator.
Emergence of the Tribe: This is a concept found extensively in the Southwest. The universe is believed to consist of many dark, underground layers through which the humans had to climb. They emerged into the present world through a small hole in the ground - the world's navel. Other tribes believe that their ancestors have been present in North America as far back as there were humans.
Sacred Texts: Many tribes have complex forms of writing. Other tribes have preserved their spiritual beliefs as an oral tradition.
Afterlife: In general, Native religions have no precise belief about life after death. Some believe in reincarnation, with a person being reborn either as a human or animal after death. Others believe that humans return as ghosts, or that people go to an other world. Others believe that nothing definitely can be known about one's fate after this life. Combinations of belief are common.
Cosmology: Again, many tribes have unique concepts of the world and its place in the universe. One theme found in some tribes understands the universe as being composed of multiple layers. The natural world as a middle segment These layers are thought to be linked by the World Tree, which has its roots in the underground, has a trunk passing through the natural world, and has its top in the sky world.
Shamans: Although the term "Shaman" has its origins in Siberia, it is often used by anthropologists throughout the world to refer to Aboriginal healers. Spirits may be encouraged to occupy the Shaman's body during public lodge ceremonies. Drum beating and chanting aid this process. The spirits are then asked to depart and perform the needed acts. Other times, Shamans enter into a trance and traverse the underworld or go great distances in this world to seek lost possessions or healing.
Vision Quest: Young boys before or at puberty are encouraged to enter into a period of fasting, meditation and physical challenge. Girls are not usually eligible for a quest. He separates himself from the tribe and go to a wilderness area. The goal is to receive a vision that will guide his development for the rest of his life. They also seek to acquire a guardian spirit who will be close and supportive for their lifetime.
Renewal Celebrations:The Sun Dance amongst the Plains Natives is perceived as a replay of the original creation. Its name is a mistranslation of the Lakota sun gazing dance. Other tribes use different names. It fulfilled many religious purposes: to give thanks to the Creator, to pray for the renewal of the people and earth, to promote health, etc. It also gave an opportunity for people to socialize and renew friendships with other groups. A sweat lodge purifies the participants and readies them for lengthy fasting and dancing. It was successfully suppressed in most tribes by the Governments of the US and Canada. However, it survived elsewhere and is now being increasingly celebrated.
Sweat Lodge: This is structure which generates hot moist air, similar to a Finnish sauna. It is used for rituals of purification, for spiritual renewal and of healing, for education of the youth, etc. A sweat lodge may be a small structure made of a frame of saplings, covered with skins, canvas or blanket. A depression is dug in the center into which hot rocks are positioned. Water is thrown on the rocks to create steam. A small flap opening is used to regulate the temperature. As many as a dozen people can be accommodated in some lodges.
Hunting ceremonies: these involve the ritual treatment of a bear or other animal after its killing during a successful hunt. The goal is to appease its spirit and convince other animals to be willing to be killed in the future.
Prophets: The Abramic Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) trace their development through a series of patriarchs and prophets. Native religions do not have corresponding ancient revered persons in their background. There have been a few prophets among the Natives - the most famous being Handsome Lake in the Iroquois Confederacy. However, they appeared after the European invasion.
Traditional housing: There were many variations across North America: conical wigwams or tipis, long houses, and cliff dwellings. The shape of the structure often represents a model of the cosmos.
- Vine Deloria, "Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact," Fulcrum Pub (1997). You can read reviews and/or order this book from Amazon.com on-line bookstore
- Ward Churchill, "A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present," City Lights Books, (199. Read reviews and/or order this book
- Ward Churchill et. al., "Agents of Repression: the FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement." South End Press, (198. You can order this book
- Native American Sites contains an index of Native sites, media, powwows, Native enterprises, etc. See: http://info.pitt.edu/~lmitten/indians.html
- Native Web contains links dealing with Native news, events, enterprises etc. See: http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/nativeweb/
- The Index of Native American Resources on the Internet has an immense number of links to Native resources on culture, history, education, language, health, indigenous knowledge, government programs, art and much more. See: http://hanksville.phast.umass.edu/misc/NAresources.html
- Native American Tribes: Information Virtually Everywhere has links to tribal information, media, Native studies etc. See: http://www.afn.org/~native/
- The National Indian Policy Center has links to maps, native events, grant sources, museums etc. See: http://gwis.circ.gwu.edu/~nipc/
- The Jalbun Healing Lodge and Spiritual Retreat is a small lodge, 2 hours north of Toronto ON. They offer "native ceremony, drumming, legend in a TeePee setting" as well as spiritual counseling and massage. See: http://www.miditrax.com/redroad.htm
- American Comments is a Web magazine dealing with Aboriginal issues. See: http://www.iwchildren.org/
- Picaro Press ™ is a " publisher of mainstream fiction and poetry; Native American Cultural themes. " See: http://www.picaro.com/
- The Native American Embassy and Native American Holocaust Museum share a web site at: www.nativeamericanembassy.net
- J.N. Wilford, "New answers to an old question: Who got here first?" New York Times, 1999-NOV-9
- T.D. Dillehay, "Monte Verde: A late Pleistocene settlement in Chile: The archeological context and interpretation," Smithsonian Institution Press, (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. This is not an inexpensive book!
- Shaman Neeshanha has a web page which includes material on Shamanism and Native American art. See: http://www.shamanneeshanha.com/
Latest update: 2000-JUN-4
Author: B.A. Robinson
Reproduction by permission of the copyright holder, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, granted on 6 June 2000 to the USN Chaplain Corps.