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bullet"The culture, values and traditions of native people amount to more than crafts and carvings. Their respect for the wisdom of their elders, their concept of family responsibilities extending beyond the nuclear family to embrace a whole village, their respect for the environment, their willingness to share - all of these values persist within their own culture even though they have been under unremitting pressure to abandon them." Mr. Justice Thomas Berger, Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, (aka the Berger Inquiry).
bullet"Rather than going to church, I attend a sweat lodge; rather than accepting bread and toast [sic] from the Holy Priest, I smoke a ceremonial pipe to come into Communion with the Great Spirit; and rather than kneeling with my hands placed together in prayer, I let sweetgrass be feathered over my entire being for spiritual cleansing and allow the smoke to carry my prayers into the heavens. I am a Mi'kmaq, and this is how we pray." Noah Augustine, from his article "Grandfather was a knowing Christian," Toronto Star, Toronto ON Canada, 2000-AUG-9.
bullet"If you take the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone.  Our bible IS the wind." Statement by an anonymous Native woman.

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Many followers 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.

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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:

bulletan awareness of concern for the environment
bulletfood staples such as corn, beans, squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes
bulletthe design of the kayak, toboggan and snowshoe
bulletthe original oral contraceptive
bulletover 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 ancestry. 10,840 are recorded as following an aboriginal spiritual path. The latter is believed to be greatly under-reported.

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From where did Native Americans originate?

There are at least four conflicting beliefs about the origin of Native Americans:

bulletThere has been, until recently, a consensus among scientists that prior to perhaps 11,200 years ago, the Western Hemisphere was completely devoid of humans. They believed that:
bulletMuch of the world's water was frozen in gigantic ice sheets.
bulletThe floor of the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was exposed.
bulletBig-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.
bulletRecent archeological discoveries have convinced some scientists that people may have arrived far earlier than about 9200 BCE "in many waves of migration and by a number of routes" -- perhaps even from Australia, South Asia and/or Europe. 13,9
bulletMany native tribes contest these theories. Their oral traditions teach that their ancestors have always been in the Americas. 16
bulletSome Natives believe that their ancestors emerged from beneath the earth into the present world through a hole in the earth's surface, .

Some Natives find the suggestion that their ancestors migrated to North America only a few tens of thousands of years ago to be quite offensive. 1

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Native Religious Development:

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 During the middle decades of the 20th century, whole generations of children were kidnapped, forcibly confined in residential schools, and abused physically, sexually and emotionally. In Canada, these schools were operated on behalf of the Federal Government by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches. Both the government and these religious institutions have been hit by a multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuit. Claims against the Anglican Church are much greater than the Church's current assets. They may be forced into bankruptcy by legal costs.

Native spirituality was suppressed by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Spiritual leaders ran the risk of jail sentences of up to 30 years for simply practicing their rituals. This came to an end in the U.S. in 1978 when the Freedom of Religion Act was passed.

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:

bulletMany Native families today have been devout Christians for generations.
bulletOthers, particularly in the Southwest have retained their aboriginal traditions more or less intact.
bulletMost follow a personal faith that combines traditional and Christian elements.
bulletPan Indianism is a recent and growing movement which encourages a return to traditional beliefs, and seeks to create a common Native religion.
bulletThe 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.

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The Inuit

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 follow 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.

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Eastern Subarctic, Eastern Woodlands, Plains and Southwest Cultures

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:

bulletDeity: A common concept is that of a dual divinity:
bulleta Creator who is responsible for the creation of the world and is recognized in religious ritual and prayers
bulleta mythical individual, a hero or trickster, who teaches culture, proper behavior and provides sustenance to the tribe.

There are also spirits which control the weather, spirits which interact with humans, and others who inhabit the underworld. Simultaneously the Creator and the spirits may be perceived as a single spiritual force, as in the unity called Wakan-Tanka by the Lakota and Dakota.

bulletCreation: 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.
bulletEmergence 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.
bulletSacred Texts: Many tribes have complex forms of writing. Other tribes have preserved their spiritual beliefs as an oral tradition.
bulletAfterlife: 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.
bulletCosmology: 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 is 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.
bulletShamans: 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.
bulletVision Quest: Young boys before or at puberty are encouraged to enter into a period of fasting, meditation and physical challenge. 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. Girls are not usually eligible for such a quest. 
bulletRenewal 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.
bulletSweat 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.
bulletHunting 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.
bulletProphets: The Abramic Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) trace their development through a series of patriarchs and prophets. Native religions do not have as many corresponding revered persons in their background. Some Native prophets include Handsome Lake in the Iroquois Confederacy, Sweet Medicine of the Cheyenne, and White Buffalo Woman of the Lakota & Dakota tribes.
bulletTraditional 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.

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Absorption of Native beliefs and practices into other spiritual paths:

Many Native people (some would say all traditional Natives) object to others incorporating Aboriginal beliefs, practices, rituals, tools, and traditions into their own spiritual paths. They find this assimilation to be particularly offensive when it is motivated by a desire for profit. It is seen as a horrendous desecration. 

In a "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," three traditional Lakota spiritual leaders condemned:

bullet"...having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian 'wannabes,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled 'New Age shamans' and their followers."
bulletHaving their precious Sacred Pipe sold openly at flea markets, New Age stores, etc.
bulletProfit-making groups holding sweatlodges, sundances, shaminism, and  vision quest programs for the public.
bulletInaccurate and negative portrayal of Indian people in movies and TV.
bulletEfforts to create syncretistic religions by combining Native rituals and beliefs with New Age and Neopagan spiritual paths. 14,15

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Recognition of native tribes:

The Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL) is a non-profit organization, which supports the needs of six Indian Tribes of Virginia: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Upper Mattaponi, Nansemond and Rappahannock. "The Commonwealth of Virginia formally recognizes eight tribes, whose ancestors and cultural connections can be traced directly to groups documented to have been living in Virginia in 1607 at the time of initial English colonization." However, although the U.S. federal government has recognized hundreds of tribes in the U.S., not one is from present-day Virginia. A major activity of VITAL is to seek this recognition. 17

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  1. 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 on-line bookstore
  2. Ward Churchill, "A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present," City Lights Books, (1998). Read reviews and/or order this book
  3. 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, (1988). You can order this book
  4. Native American Sites contains an index of Native sites, media, powwows, Native enterprises, etc. See:
  5. Native Web contains links dealing with Native news, events, enterprises etc. See:
  6. 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:
  7. Native American Tribes: Information Virtually Everywhere has links to tribal information, media, Native studies etc. See:
  8. The National Indian Policy Center has links to maps, native events, grant sources, museums etc. See:
  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 online book store. This is not an inexpensive book!
  10. American Comments is a Web magazine dealing with Aboriginal issues. See:
  11. Picaro Press ™ is a "publisher of mainstream fiction and poetry; Native American Cultural themes." See:
  12. The Native American Embassy  and Native American Holocaust Museum share a web site at:
  13. J.N. Wilford, "New answers to an old question: Who got here first?" New York Times, 1999-NOV-9
  14. Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, et al., "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," at: 
  15. "Responses to the Declaration: War against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," at: 
  16. "Low Bridge, Everybody Cross," a chapter in Vine Deloria Jr.'s book: "Red Earth, White Lies,"
  17. The Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL) has a home page at:

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