Spirituality is not religion to American Natives.
Religion is not a Native concept, it is a non Native word,
with implications of things that often end badly,
like Holy wars in the name of individuals God’s and so on.
Native people do not ask what religion another Native is,
because they already know the answer.
To Native people, spirituality is about the Creator, period~”
The general characteristics and origins of Native American religion shed light upon the more contemporary sects. But the development of the numerous individual traditions, passed down orally, remains unclear. The sheer number of groups and the diversity of the nuances of belief complicates matters further.
The religions do share some common tendencies. Religion tends to be closely related to the natural world. The local terrain is elevated with supernatural meaning, and natural objects are imbued with sacred presences. Ceremonial rituals involving these supernatural-natural objects are meant to ensure communal and individual prosperity (Lamphere, 339). These common underlying features unite a diversity of contemporary Native American sects.
The original hunting knowledge brought with the first North American immigrants became influenced or usurped altogether by new horticultural religious influences. Animal ceremonialism, the quest for spiritual power, Male Supreme Being, annual ceremony of cosmic rejuvenation, few stationary cult places, shamanism, and life after death beyond the horizon or in the sky were tenets of hunting pattern religions. Rain and fertility ceremonies, priestly ritual, goddesses and gods, yearly round of fertility rites, permanent shrines and temples, medicine society ritualism, and life after death in the underworld or among the clouds characterized the new horticultural pattern religions (Hultkrantz, 14).
Ceremony plays a vital, essential role in Native American religions. Whereas western religions typically consider ceremony the servant of theology, Native American religions barely recognize the distinction between myth and ritual. Often the ritual proves to be established and secure while the myth is vague and unclear. Indian ceremonies grew up within local groups; some elements of Indian ceremonials have been traced back to the Old World. The ceremonies were adapted locally, using both traditional and borrowed elements, to suit local needs (Underhill, 4). These ceremonies often began as practical actions. Indians were eager to embrace ceremonies or portions of ceremonies that provided power to conquer the difficulties of life. As these practices developed, they were modified and imbued with additional meanings and purposes (Underhill, 7).
The medicine men and priests among the Indians were usually merely those men who thought more deeply and strenuously than the average men in the tribe. These thinkers tended to live among the more successful tribes. To think, one needed at least some time free from the chore of procuring food. These medicine men or shamans were in a different class than the other men of their tribe. This special status was not dependent on their hunting and fishing. Contact with other tribes enabled thinkers to build and expand their belief frameworks, so shamans were more prevalent in tribes that were accessible to outsiders.
As contemporary Native American religious flowerings are best understood by first examining the origins of Native American Spirituality, all of the contemporary sects are best comprehended in light of the traditional religions. As these differ from their New Age and Christian versions, each group is also unique compared to other traditional sects. These traditional sects are best understood as a conglomerate by investigating a few individual traditional Native American religions.
Native American Spirituality and Christianity
The subject of Christianity has long been a touchy topic. To many Native Americans, as well as millions of Americans who came from all over the world, Christianity is associated with great tragedy and injustice to the indigenous peoples of North America. The Europeans saw the indigenous peoples as barbaric and savage, their spiritual practices as pagan. Those who came to “Christianize the Indians” also sought to supress indigenous spirituality. Today, the arrival of Europeans to the Americas with the sword and the cross has become an indelible symbol of shame.
An important casuality results from focusing on our collective shame. In focusing on this master image, we have ignored the details. We lack fundamental understanding of how Christianity impacted Native American spirituality and vice versa. As Gill notes,
“[w]e have been far too narrow-minded in appreciating the important influence of Christianity on Native American cultures and religions, preferring to set the acceptance of Christianity as synonymous with the loss of native tradition (1988:149).”
To be sure, some Christian missionaries and many ethnographers have had enormous insights into the nature of Native American spirituality, but this knowledge base has largely escaped our collective consciousness. In truth, just as with every culture that has conquered a people and imposed its religion on the conquered, the indigenous religions of the Americas have made their mark on the faith of the conquers. We need to better understand this phenomenon.
The failure of the typical white American to understand how profoundly our cultural values have been influenced by indigenous belief in the harmony of all life on Mother Earth has resulted in a diminution of understanding of ourselves. Our receptiveness today to the necessity of creating technology that is in harmony with the natural environment is possible because of the nourishing these values have achieved through the influence of Native Americans. On the other hand, Native Americans who view Christianity as synonymous with “religion” have similarly experienced at least some diminution of their own spirituality.
Perhaps the most overlooked dimension of Native American spirituality is the fact that many Native Americans did become Christians. Further, there is considerable evidence to indicate that Christianity preached by Native Americans for Native Americans is a vibrant development today in indigenous communities.
Understandably, this development is troubling to many Native Americans. Students and scholars alike should recognize that this response is not very different from reactions to other new religions on the spiritual landscape. Our goal should be to understand how this phenomenon may impact the communities of Native Americans.
Several Native American Christian groups now have a presence on the Internet. This presence helps us identify and begin to know something about these groups. We have included a set of links at the end of the links section of this page. Annotations and additional groups will be added later.