JR'S Free Thought Pages
Native American Religion & Spirituality
“Our religion seems foolish to you, but so does yours to me.” – Sitting Bull, 1889
"Unbelievers deserve not only to be separated from the Church, but also... to be exterminated from the World by death." - Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, 1271).
"They came with a Bible and their religion. They stole our land and crushed our spirit and now tell us we should be thankful to the ‘Lord’ for being saved." - Chief Pontiac
Most history textbooks designed for high school courses mistakenly consider the various Native American religions as an indistinguishable whole. One popular textbook, The American Way describes Native American religion in these words: "These Native Americans [in the Southeast] believed that nature was filled with spirits. Each form of life, such as plants and animals, had a spirit. Earth and air held spirits too. People were never alone. They shared their lives with the spirits of nature." The American Way may have been attempting to show respect for Native American religion, but it doesn't wash. Stated unequivocally in this way, the beliefs are depicted as opaque or meaningless fallacy and fable, not the sophisticated theology of a higher civilization. Let us attempt a similarly succinct summary of the beliefs of many Christians today as might have been described by Native Americans:
"These white men believed that one great invisible infinitely wise and powerful male god in the sky ruled the world and that he must be obeyed or we will be punished for eternity after we die. Sometimes they divided the deity into three parts, which they called Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They ate wafers and wine, believing that they were eating the body of the God’s son named Jesus and drinking his blood. Jesus was born to a virgin and was later murdered on a wooden stake in the form of a cross but after three days rose from the dead. If people were obedient and believed strongly enough, they would live on forever after they died in a place called Heaven. They believe we are all born morally depraved, born into ‘sin’ and that the son of God was sacrificed so that our sins could be expunged. ”
In the excellent Canadian movie Black Robe (1991) the Mohawks and other native tribes were incredulous and dazed by the childlike beliefs espoused by the Catholic missionaries who attempted to convert them to Christianity. In consideration of the above, this incredulity and skepticism is certainly plausible.
In spite of its stark truth, textbooks however would never describe Christianity in this manner since it would be considered offensive to the dominant cultural and ethnocentric white European worldview of Judeo-Christianity. But as Robert A Heinlein the great science fiction writer once said, “One man’s religion is another man’s belly laugh”. Christian beliefs such as a virgin birth, a resurrection from death and the existence of an omnipotent invisible God whose only son on died for our sins are not perceived by Christians as mindless superstition. But the Native American belief in the Great White Spirit, the efficacy of a rain dance or that all living things have spirit lives is regarded as such.
Textbooks could present American Indian religions from a perspective that takes them at least as seriously and appealing as mainstream Christianity. My personal view is that all religions are equally superstitious and false but that is not the point of this discussion. But on a plausibility scale, the Native American religions make a lot more sense than do any of the three main monotheisms of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The anthropologist Frederick Turner has pointed out that when white people remark upon the fact that Indians perceive a spirit in every animal or rock, they are simultaneously admitting their own loss of a deep spiritual relationship with the earth. Native Americans are "part of the total living universe," wrote Turner; "spiritual health is to be had only by accepting this condition and by attempting to live in accordance with it." Turner contends that this life view is healthier than European alternatives: "Ours is a shockingly dead view of creation. We ourselves are die only things in the universe to which we grant an authentic vitality, and because of this we are not fully alive." Thus, Turner shows that taking Native American religions seriously might require re-examination of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But no textbook would ever entertain such a controversial issue. Native Americans could never understand the white man’s total lack of respect and reckless disregard for the natural environment which they held in reverence. They would burn and slash, kill hundreds of thousands of buffalo and leave the carcasses to rot on the plains. To the Comanche and Kiowa for example the white man seemed to hate everything in nature. As the Kiowa chief Satanta said, “A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers; but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers there here on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that my heart feels like bursting; I feel sorry.” A Crow chief, Bear Tooth, in a speech to commissioners at Fort Laramie talked about the destruction of the Powder River Valley:
“The Great Father sent his soldiers out here to spill blood. I did not first commence the spilling of blood…If the Great Father kept white men out of my country peace would last forever, but if they disturb me there will be no peace…The Great Spirit raised me in this land and raised you in another land.
“Fathers, fathers, fathers, hear me well. Call back your young men from the mountains of the bighorn sheep. They have run over our country; they have destroyed the growing wood and the green grass; they have set fire to our lands. Fathers, your young men have killed my animals, the elk, the deer, the antelope and my buffalo. They do not kill to eat them; they leave them to rot where they fall. Fathers, if I went to your country to kill your animals, what would you say? Should I not be wrong, and would you not make war on me”?
Western European writers traditionally referred to indigenous Americans’ ways as “animism,” a term that means “life-ism.” And it is true that most or perhaps all Native Americans perceive the entire universe as being a living organism (Gaia)—that is, as having mobility and the ability to act. But more than that, indigenous Americans tend to see this living world as a fantastic and beautiful creation engendering extremely powerful feelings of thankfulness and indebtedness, obliging us to behave as if we are all related to one another. An overriding characteristic of Native North American religion is that of gratitude, a feeling of overwhelming love and thankfulness for the gifts of the Creator and the earth/universe. Perhaps the most important aspect of indigenous cosmic visions is the conception of creation as a living process, resulting in a living universe in which a kinship exists between all things. Thus the Creators are our family, our Grandparents or Parents, and all of their creations are children who, of necessity, are also our relations.
The Lakota medicine man Lame Deer says that the Great Spirit “is not like a human being. . . . He is a power. That power could be in a cup of coffee. The Great Spirit is not an old man with a beard.” The concept perhaps resembles the elohim of the Jewish Genesis, the plural form of eloi, usually mistranslated as “God,” as though it were singular. Lame Deer put it this way:
Black Elk, the well-known Lakota medicine man, told
us that “The four-leggeds and the wings of the air and the mother earth were
supposed to be relative-like. . . . The first thing an Indian learns is to love
each other and that they should be relative-like to the four-leggeds.”And thus
we see this very strong kinship relation to the Wemi Tali, the “All Where”: “The
Great Spirit made the flowers, the streams, the pines, the cedars—takes care of
them. . . . He takes care of me, waters me, feeds me and makes me live with
plants and animals as one of them. . . . All of nature is in us, all of us is in
Native people, according to Luther Standing Bear, Chief of the Oglala, Lakota (1905-1939, were often baffled by the European tendency to refer to nature as crude, primitive, wild, rude, untamed, and savage, something to be controlled, tamed and exploited indiscriminately. “For the Lakota, mountains, lakes, rivers, springs, valleys, and woods were all finished beauty. . . .”
Lame Deer says: “You can tell a good medicine man by his actions and his way of life. Is he lean? Does he live in a poor cabin? Does money leave him cold?” Thus, humility and a lack of arrogance are accompanied by a tendency toward simple living, which reinforces the ideal of non-exploitation of other living creatures. A consciousness of death also adds to the awareness of the importance of concentrating on the ethical quality of one’s life as opposed to considerations of quantity of possessions or size of religious edifices. “A man’s life is short. Make yours a worthy one,” says Lame Deer.
Respect and humility are the building blocks of indigenous life-ways, since they not only lead to minimal exploitation of other living creatures but also preclude the arrogance of aggressive missionary activity, capitalist imperialism and greed, as well as the arrogance of patriarchic monotheistic religions.
There were over one thousand different tribal peoples1 indigenous to the North American continent when Europeans first arrived in that territory. Each tribe had its own set of festivals, rituals, and spiritual beliefs, therefore to write of 'Native American spirituality' as one entity would be erroneous. However, common features are apparent across tribal peoples, pointing to some of the assumptions which inform the spiritual beliefs and practices of those indigenous to the North American continent2. Spirituality played a central role in the lives of many of these peoples, for as Angie Debo writes:
he [the Indian] was deeply religious. The familiar shapes of earth, the changing sky, the wild animals he knew, were joined with his own spirit in mystical communion. The powers of nature, the personal quest of the soul, the acts of daily life, the solidarity of the tribe--all were religious, and were sustained by dance and ritual.3
This piece attempts to highlight some of the key aspects which Native American peoples share in terms of their spirituality. There is much that has been written in this area, and the brief list of suggested books I offer may provide a starting point for those wishing to pursue this area further.
For each tribe of men Usen created He also made a home. In the land for any particular tribe He placed whatever would be best for the welfare of that tribe…thus it was in the beginning: the apaches and their homes each created for the other by Usen Himself. When they are taken from these homes they sicken and die.4
This quote provides a clue to the reason why there
should be a proliferation of so many different festivals, rituals and rites
among Native American tribes. Each tribe's rituals were tied to the specific
qualities of the land the tribe called 'home'. For example, Great Plains Indians
such as the Sioux and the Apache celebrated elaborate festivals worshipping the
sun and the great sky they experienced in their daily lives. Native Americans
who were agriculturalists worshipped the corn god, and for those peoples who
relied upon the buffalo for their food, clothing, shelter and implements, the
buffalo played a central role in their cosmology.
When Garry, of the Spokanes of eastern Washington said, 'I was born by these waters. The earth here is my mother,' he is not using a poetic figure of speech; he was stating what he felt to be the literal truth.5
Perhaps a place to start in developing an understanding for this interconnection between the Native American and the natural environment is to consider his mythology around Creation, and how it is human beings and the land first came to know one another.
Native American Creation Mythology
Although many differences can be seen between the
creation myths of different tribes, two similarities stand out in sharp contrast
to those of us who grew up with Judeo-Christian creation mythology: 1) there is
no concept of original sin, no initial wrong-doing by humans which has resulted
in our being cast out of the place we truly belong in which a God-Man sacrifices
himself in order to expunge all humanity of those sins, and 2) the Earth home,
there is no 'Kingdom of Heaven' awaiting us which is our 'true' spiritual home,
with time on Earth to be used as a 'testing ground'. Nor is there a place of
eternal punishment for those who fail to obey God’s commands.
Yet for all their range and variety, these stories often have a similar feel to them. When you set them alongside the biblical Genesis, the common features suddenly appear in sharp relief; they seem to glow with the newness and immediacy of creation, offering vivid explanations for the behavior of an animal, the shape of a rock or a mountain, which you can still encounter in the here and now. Many tribes and nations call themselves, in their own languages, 'the first people', the 'original people', or the 'real people', and their stories place them firmly in a place of special power and significance…Far from telling them that they are locked out of Eden, the Indians' myths confirm that (unless they have been displaced by European contact and settlement) they still live in the place for which they were made; either the site of their own emergence or creation, or a 'Promised Land' which they have attained through long migration.6
Critically, as opposed to those of us who grew up in
the Western Christian tradition, the Native American experienced earth as HOME.
The Earth is perfectly adapted to all of our requirements as human beings. The
implications of this are huge in the way in which the Native American treated
the Earth from day to day. First of all, the 'Kingdom of Heaven' is actually
happening here and now, not in some mythical place in the future. It also means
the earth is definitely NOT a dumping ground, a way-station on our way somewhere
According to Native American spirituality, everything is imbued with spirit. Furthermore, there is a constant dialogue between all of these manifestations of creation.. In order to survive, human beings must understand this dialogue, and they must be careful not to insult the spirits of the wind, or the earth. Everything is seen to have its own volition, and spirit. Consciousness is also not just the province of human beings in this world view. Winona LaDuke articulates this belief when she writes:
According to our way of looking, the world is animate. This is reflected in our language, in which most nouns are animate...Natural things are alive, they have a spirit. Therefore, when we harvest wild rice on our reservation we always offer tobacco to the earth because, when you take something, you must always give thanks to its spirit for giving itself to you.7
Perhaps John Mohawk most eloquently expresses the indigenous relationship to creation when he writes:
The natural world is our bible. We don’t have
chapters and verses; we have trees and fish and animals. The creation is the
manifestation of energy through matter. Because the universe is made up of
manifestations of energy, the options for that manifestation are infinite. But
we have to admit that the way it has manifested itself is organized. In fact, it
is the most intricate organization. We can’t know how we impact on its law; we
can talk only about how its law impacts upon us. We can make no judgment about
Although within the indigenous cosmology everything
is endowed with spirit, it is also recognized that certain landscapes, land
formations, and types of matter embody a special quality of sacredness. Native
American cultures are full of stories about the particular significance of
certain rocks or hills, and these are often used in key rituals and rites of
passage. These places, especially mountaintops or isolated areas of wilderness,
are where, in indigenous cultures, initiation ceremonies take place, people go
to fast and pray, and visionary dreams are revealed. Unfortunately, this kind of
sensibility is lost on modern peoples, who consider such beliefs to be nothing
more than ‘superstitions’.
A sacred high place, where for ages people have gone to fast and be alone with the spirits - a point at which above and below meet - must not be dug into and damaged, for it is charged with spiritual power. When a sacred place is desecrated - which is what the great disk-like water tank gouged in the side of the hill entails - one can expect that there will be consequences. One can feel the disturbed energy in the air around the water tower; there is wild graffiti completely encircling the tank, and everywhere around that bluff one feels the sense of desecration.9
This brings us full-circle, back to the basis of Native American spirituality, which is the relationship between human beings, the land, and all living things. To end, I'd like to offer this quote from Weatenatenamy, Young Chief of the Cayuse nation, which seems to encapsulate this feeling which is at the heart of Native American spirituality:
I wonder if the ground has anything to say: I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said…the earth says, God has placed me here. The Earth says, that God tells me to take care of the Indians on the earth; the Earth says to the Indians that stop on the Earth feed them right. God named the roots that he should feed the Indians on; the water speaks the same way…the grass says the same thing… The Earth and water and grass say God has given our names and we are told those names; neither the Indians nor the Whites have a right to change those names, the Earth says, God has placed me here to produce all that grows upon me, the trees, fruit, etc. The same way the Earth says, it was from her man was made. God, on placing them on the Earth, desired them to take good care of the earth do each other no harm. God said.10
Suggestions for Further Reading:
(In addition to those references which are
footnoted, the following would be of interest to those who would like to pursue
this area further: