It is important to note that there is
no one American Indian religion. Just as there is no one American
Indian culture. However, there are many beliefs and ceremonies which
are common to many Native American religions. In this cyber-paper, I am
going to focus on these common beliefs and also explain symbolism and
ceremonies which are common to most Plains Indians and some others. I
am going to focus on the Plains Indians for two reasons. First, because
when I think of American Indians, I tend to think of Plains Indians.
Second, because I was particularly impressed with the beliefs of Black
Elk, an Oglala Sioux. Furthermore, I hope to show that the concepts
held by Native Americans are valid and that many of these concepts are
shared with other philosophies and religions.
I have mentioned, Native Americans share many common beliefs. The first
thing that is noticeable about most Native American religions is that
they do not recognize a dichotomy of the sacred and the profane. In one
sense, Native Americans have no religion because their religious
beliefs cannot be separated from their daily life and their beliefs
about the world. To them, all things are sacred. This is true whether
the phenomen is natural or supernatural. Their religions tend to be
pantheistic. To them, everything that is in the universe, both visible
and invisible, is a part of God. However, God is more than just the sum
of all the parts of the universe. In the book "The Sacred Pipe", which
is Black's Elk's account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux as
recorded by Joseph Epes Brown, Black Elk puts it this way:
should understand well that all things are the works of the Great
Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the
grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals,
and the winged peoples: and even more important, we should understand
that he is also above all these things and peoples. When we do
understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love,
and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as He
because all things are part of God, they believe that people are
related to all things through the Great Spirit. Black Elk has also been
quoted as saying:
... comes within the souls of men when they realize their relationship,
their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they
realize that at the center of the universe dwells "Wakan Tanka" (The
Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within
each of us."
Americans consider Mankind as the guardian of Nature, rather than its
master. It seems to me that if all Americans adopted this belief to a
greater extent, the environment would be in a much better condition,
and the world would have a brighter future.
common attribute is the Native American belief about language.
Generally, words are thought to have a force which is related to their
specific sounds. Basically, words are not considered as symbols for
reality, but rather as forces themselves. Since the breath is
identified with the principle of Life, and since words are spoken with
the breath, words are considered sacred and must be used with care.
Also, since words are considered as forces, it is thought that the
spoken word can have a direct affect upon the natural world. This idea
is similar to the concept of magical incantations and the use of
mantras. Native Americans are not the only ones who consider sound or
vibration as a creative force. Consider this quote from the Holy Bible.
The gospel according to Saint John (Chapter 1 verses 1-4) puts it this
the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by
Him; without Him was not anything made that was made. In him was Life;
and the Life was the Light of Men."
"Word" or Logos is an ancient Greek concept. It is basically the idea
that everything manifests through vibration. Furthermore, ancient
Greeks believed that everything came into existance by a sacred Word
spoken by God. As a matter of fact, at the molecular level, everything
is vibrating. Furthermore, if a note is intoned at the proper pitch, a
glass or other object will shatter, thus proving that sounds are
forces. So the American Indians and the Ancient Greeks may be right.
third belief is that natural materials used in arts and crafts express
sacred powers which are related to their nature. The art form is seen
as having its own power. It is not merely a symbol, but an actual
power. There is no distinction between the art form and its message or
power. All art objects radiate their powers. In some cases, these
powers must be activated through a rite, a song, or a prayer. However,
the power is alwas latent in the design and materials used. One example
of this is the Navaho sand painting which is used for healing purposes.
When the sand painting is complete, and the form activated by prayer,
it is believed that the god or power animal it represents is actually
present and exerting an influence on the people present. Furthermore,
when a person making an art form or especially a ceremonial object, the
person may fast and pray in preparation. When making the object, the
person is aware of the meaning and potency of the art form. It is
believed that the proper attitude enhances and strengthens the power of
the completed form. It is my opinion that many ancient people of Europe
and the Middle East held similar ideas concerning their idols and
sacred objects. They did not believe that the stone statue was a god,
but rather that the power of the god manifested through the statue
which was made with loving care.
belief is that time is cyclic, rather than progressive. The seasons
come in cycles. The sun, moon, and stars move in cycles. This concept
is expressed in rituals and art forms. As Black Elk has said:
the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and
I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the
stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nests
in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes
forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both
are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and
always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a
circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where
power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these
were always set in a circle, the nation's hoop, a nest of many nests,
where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children".
concept of the "Power of the World" working in circles is well known to
scientists. Electrons move around the nucleus of an atom in circles,
and the planets revolve around the sun in an eliptical orbit.
fifth belief which was common to most Native American religions of the
last century is that animals to be killed for food must first be
propitiated in some way. This might involve a ceremony before and after
the hunt, or it might involve praying before hunting. During the hunt,
the hunter held a respectful and grateful attitude towards his prey. In
addition, it was thought that the hunter must follow certain taboos or
the animals would not present themselves willingly. Animals were
thought of as having immortal souls. So when the animal was killed, his
soul was either reborn or it returned to its spiritual home. This idea
relates to the concept of Man as being the guardian of natural forms.
It would be unthinkable to the American Indians of the past to waist
any part of the animals which gave their bodies to the hunters.
sixth common belief is that the world is filled with spirit beings
associated with natural and supernatural phenomenon. Natural forces or
forms such as wind, various species of plants and animals are believed
to be controlled by a spirit of some kind. These spirits are not
ghosts, but rather consious aspects of the Great Spirit which control a
specific part of the natural or supernatural world. They might also be
considered sacred powers. These powers are thought to be transferable
to other beings or even to objects. Animals possess powers and
characteristics associated with their spirit owner. However, humans are
capable of possessing all the powers in the universe. These might be
obtained by propitating the various spirits associated with the power
desired, or they might be obtained in a vision quest.
final common belief I am going to discuss is the concept of Mana. This
is a universal force which is in all things. It is similar to Life
Force. In a sense, all things including rocks and soil are considered
to be alive to varying degrees. This relates to the pantheistic view
held by most Native Americans. This force can be used for good or evil.
Before using it, the person must make special prepartion or he could be
harmed by the force. The concept of Mana and pantheism is shared by the
Hindu religion, yogic philosophy, and others. Mana is called pranya by
yogic philosophers. It is the force that makes up the universe.
Although Hindus worship many gods, these gods are really aspects of the
universal consciousness called Brahman. All that exists is said to be
part of Brahman. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred Hindu texts,
has this to say:
the gods of the sun, and those of fire and light; the gods of storm and
lightning, and the two luminous charioteers of heaven. Behold marvels
never seen before. See now the whole universe with all things that move
and move not, and whatever thy soul may yearn to see. See it all as One