"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).
"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.
"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.
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.
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 ancestry. 10,840 are recorded as following an
aboriginal spiritual path. The latter is believed to be greatly under-reported.
From where did Native Americans originate?
There are at least four conflicting beliefs about the origin of Native
There 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:
Much of the world's water
was frozen in gigantic ice sheets.
The floor of the Bering 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 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
Many native tribes contest these theories. Their oral traditions
their ancestors have always been in the Americas. 16
Some 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
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:
Many Native families today have been devout Christians for generations.
Others, particularly in the Southwest have retained their aboriginal traditions more or
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
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
In a "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality,"
three traditional Lakota spiritual leaders condemned:
"...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."
Having their precious Sacred Pipe sold openly at flea markets, New
Age stores, etc.
Profit-making groups holding sweatlodges, sundances, shaminism,
and vision quest programs for the public.
Inaccurate and negative portrayal of Indian people in movies and TV.
Efforts to create syncretistic religions by combining Native rituals
and beliefs with New Age and
spiritual paths. 14,15
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
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/