North American [Indian] Religions: An Overview

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Because of the isolation of the New World from the high civilizations of Europe, Asia, and Africa and from the communicative network between them, North America had preserved, until the end of the last century, cultures and religions of archaic types. Local historical traditions, intertribal diffusion, social structure and environmental pressure combined to form among the North American Indian tribes a series of religions that were only secondarily influenced by elements from outside the continent. North American religions have become known as varied, colorful, and spiritual. In the religio-scientific debate among anthropologists and historians of religion, such concepts as power and supreme being, guardian spirits and totems, fasting visions and shamanism, myth telling and ritualism, have drawn on North American ideas and religious experiences.

Soon after the arrival of the white man in the 1500s the first information concerning Indian religious worship reached the Europeans. Through Jesuit documents and other reports the religious development of the Iroquoian and eastern Algonquian groups can be followed continuously from 1613 onward. Spanish sources from the same time illuminate at least some aspects of Southwest Indian religious history. In the eighteenth century travel records and other documents throw light on the Indians of the Southeast Woodlands, of the mid-Atlantic region, and of the Prairies and on their religions. It was, however, only at the end of the eighteenth century and in the course of the nineteenth century that knowledge spread of the Plains, Basin, California, Plateau, Northwest Coast, western Canadian, and Alaskan Indian religions.

Main Religious Features

North America is a continent with many diverse cultures, and it is therefore meaningless to speak about North American religion as a unified aggregate of beliefs, myths, and rituals. Still, there are several religious traits that are basically common to all the Indians but variously formalized and interpreted among different peoples. These traits are also found in the religions of other continents and areas, particularly among the so-called primitive or primal peoples. Two characteristics are, however, typically Amerindian: the dependence on visions and dreams, which can modify old traditional rituals, and an intricate and time-consuming ceremonialism that sometimes almost conceals the cognitive message of rituals.

Spirit World

To these common elements belongs the idea of another dimension of existence that permeates life and yet is different from normal, everyday existence. Concepts such as the Lakota wakan and the Algonquian manitou refer to this consciousness of another world, the world of spirits, gods, and wonders. This supernatural or supranormal world is sometimes manifest in nature, which then receives a sacred import. Often the campsite or the village is arranged in a pattern that establishes a ritual identity with the supernatural world. In twentieth-century pan-Indian religion the connection between terrestrial phenomena and the other world is extremely important.

Supreme being

The supernatural world is primarily expressed through the spiritual powers residing in a host of gods, spirits, and ghosts. In many American tribes prayers are directed to a collectivity of divine or spiritual beings, as in the pipe ceremony. Foremost among these divinities is, in most tribes, a sky god who represents all other supernatural beings or stands as their superior and the ruler of the universe. The Pawnee Indians in Nebraska, for instance, know a hierarchy of star gods and spirits, all of them subservient to the high god in the sky, Tirawa. It could be argued that their idea of a high god is formed after Mexican conceptual patterns, since the Caddoan-speaking peoples to whom the Pawnee belong were much inspired by the Mexican-derived prehistoric Mississippian culture. However, there are clear examples of a supreme being among many North American peoples, and scholarly attempts to trace these figures to Christian influence have so far failed. In most cases the supreme being is vaguely conceived as the ulterior religious force in situations of need and frustration.

The supreme being is closely associated with the axis mundi, or world pillar. The Delaware Indians say that he grasps the pole that holds up the sky and is the center of the world. In ceremonial life the world pole, or world tree, is the central cultic symbol in the great annual rites of peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains, the Basin, and the Plateau. At this annual celebration the Indians thank the supreme being for the year that has been (the ceremony takes place in the spring in most cases) and dance in order to secure the support of the Great Spirit and all the powers for the year to come: the Plains Sun Dance is a good example.

In California, a region of frequent earthquakes, similar world renewal rituals have as their main aim the stabilizing of the universe. In the east, the Delaware Big House ceremony is an adaptation of the hunters' annual ceremony to the cultural world of more settled maize-growing peoples: the sacred pillar is here built into a ceremonial house. In many places throughout North America myths testify that the annual ceremony is a repetition or commemoration of the cosmic creation at the beginning of time. This connection is, however, not present everywhere, and many Sun Dance rituals have origin myths of quite a different character.

The culture hero

The connection of the supreme being with creation is often concealed by the fact that in mythology another supernatural being, the culture hero, is invested with creative powers. His true mission is to deliver cultural institutions, including religious ceremonies, to the first human beings, but he is sometimes an assistant creator as well. In this quality he competes with the Great Spirit and appears as a ludicrous figure, a trickster, or an antagonist of the Great Spirit, an emergent "devil." (It should be observed that all this takes place only on a mythological level, for the culture hero disappears after his work has been completed and in many quarters becomes a star.)

Trickster tales occupy a major part of American Indian mythologies and have attracted all kinds of comic folktale motifs. The tales usually portray the culture hero/trickster as a zoomorphic being: a white hare in the Northeast; a coyote on the western Plains, in the Basin, the Plateau, and California; and a raven in the Northwest.

Spirits and ghosts

The other beings of the supernatural worldand they are innumerable, varying from tribe to tribemay be partly distinguished according to their physical location:

  1. Sky beings, including star gods, Sun (usually a manifestation of the supreme being), and Moon (who sometimes represents the vegetation goddess). The Milky Way is thought of as the road of the dead in some places, and the northern lights as the dead at play.
  2. Atmospheric spirits, which usually comprise the Four Winds (they emanate from caves situated in the four cardinal directions), Whirlwind (often thought of as a ghost), the rain spirits, and Thunderbird. This last spirit, of which a parallel conception is also found in Siberia, is a giant eaglelike bird; according to many informants his blinking eyes make the lightning, while his flapping wings cause the thunder.
  3. Spirits of the biosphere, many of them rulers, or owners, of animal species or plant species (Buffalo Spirit, Caribou Spirit, Maize Spirit), others connected with natural places like mountains, stones, deserts, swamps, waters, and so on. Human beings (medicine-men, for example) may also manifest supernatural powers.
  4. Powers of the underworld, such as Mother Earth, underwater monsters (snakes or panthers), and the ruler of the underground dead, who is usually identical with the first ancestor or is a brother of the culture hero.

However, there are powers that do not fit into this scheme. Such powers are the dead, who operate in different places in different types of cultures. Hunters believe the dead are in the sky or somewhere beyond the horizonbeyond the western mountains, beyond the sea where the sun sets. Horticulturists may believe that the dead are in the ground, returning to Our Mother's bosom, or at the place of emergence of mankind; and in stratified agricultural societies like those of the Mississippian culture there are different abodes for different social categories of dead. At the same time there is everywhere a belief in ghosts on earth, who are often heard whistling in the night. Independent of these beliefs is a ubiquitous idea of reincarnation or transmigration into animals.

Guardian spirits and vision quests

Other spirits are the guardian spirits acquired in fasting visions by youths of the Plateau and the Northeast Woodlands and by both boys and men of the Plains and the Basin. These spirits are mostly zoomorphic. They may be animal spirits or spirits that show themselves in animal disguise. Everywhere except among the pueblo-dwelling peoples of the Southwest it has been the individual hunter's ambition to acquire one or several of these guardian spirits. They usually appear to the person after a vision quest during which he has spent several days and nights in fasting and isolation at some lonely spot in the wilderness. The spirit endows his client with a particular "medicine," that is, supernatural power (to hunt, to run, to make love, to cure), gives him a sacred song, and instructs him to make a pouch or medicine bag in which he is to keep the sacred paraphernalia associated with his vision. The vision quest is basic to most American Indian hunting religions.

In some places special societies were established for young spirit seekers who expected to meet the same spirit. This was, for instance, the case among the Kwa-kiutl of Vancouver Island and vicinity. The vision itself was no longer central here, the neophyte being abducted by masked men to the woods and told there the secrets of his patron, Cannibal Spirit, whose frenzied behavior he imitates in a ceremony on his return.

There seems to be a direct relationship between the individual's guardian spirit and the complex of totemism. If totemism is defined as the mysterious relationship between a segment of a tribe, usually a clan or other unilineal kinship group, and a particular animal species that is its congener and patron, then totemism exists in many places where unilineal societies exist. Several American cases suggest that the totem is the original guardian spirit of an individual that has then been inherited by this person's descendants as their common supernatural partner.

In some more complex societies the medicine bags, or sacred bundles, have become inherited treasures within the vision seekers' families; in other societies they can even be purchased. Where a powerful object has been handed down in a family it is often made a symbol for a larger community, and its uncovering is surrounded by rituals and recitations of its origin myth. A typical example is the sacred bundle of the Arapaho, which contains a flatpipe.

Medicine men and medicine societies

The medicine man is a visionary who has succeeded in receiving power to cure people. However, visionaries with other extraordinary powers, such as the capacity to find lost things or divine the future, have also been labeled "medicine men." In very many cases a bear spirit is the medicine man's patron, so he dresses in a bearskin and mimics a bear's movements and sounds when doctoring people. Diseases may be ascribed to any of several causes, such as witchcraft or the breaking of a taboo. They manifest themselves mainly in two ways: a spirit or disease object is supposed to have intruded into the body (or even, on the Northwest Coast, to possess the person in a psychological sense); or the sick man's soulin some cases, his powerhas been stolen. In the former case it is the medicine man's task to frighten the spirit away or to remove it from the body by sucking, fanning, or drawing it out; in the latter case he has to catch the lost soul, which can be done in an imitative séance. Alternatively, the medicine man may sink into a trance, release his own soul, and send it out after the runaway or stolen soul. The medicine man who becomes entranced in this way may be characterized as a shaman.

In cultures with more complicated social organizations, medicine men may join together, exchanging experiences and working out a common, secret ideology, or they may form medicine societies into which persons are accepted after passing through a series of ritual events. An example of this is the Midewiwin, or Great Medicine society, of the Ojibwa, which is organized like a secret order society and has four or eight hierarchical grades.

In some cultures in the Southwest where collectivism is part of the cultural patternas, for instance, among the agricultural Pueblothe medicine man is replaced by an organization of professional healers, and rituals are performed to aid individuals. Among the Navajo, the old medicine man lives on as a diagnostician ("hand trembler") whereas the curing itself is performed by a ritually skilled singer. The regaining of the patient's health means that harmony has been restored between man and the world of the gods and spirits.

Ritual acts

Harmony or spiritual balance is what North American Indians want to achieve in their relations with the supernatural powers. A harmonious balance can be reached through prayers and offerings or through imitative representation of supernatural events.

Prayers and offerings

Prayers range from a few words at meal offerings to detailed ritual prayers, from casual petitions of blessing to deeply emotional cries for help and sustenance. Indeed, Navajo prayer has been characterized by one researcher as "compulsive words," by another as "creative words." There is often beauty in Indian prayers, the usual eloquence of the Indians giving moving expression to their religious experience.

There are many kinds of offerings. A simple form is throwing tobacco or food into the fire or onto the ground at mealtimes. Another example is the placing of tobacco pouches on the ground at the beginning of dangerous passages, such as crossing a lake or walking over a mountain ridge.

Tobacco has been intimately related to American Indian religious practice. Even today no Indian conventions or powwows are undertaken without a preliminary pipe ceremony, an invocation of the powers that grant harmony between men and between gods or spirits and men.

When hunters killed game they usually performed rites over the body. For instance, after the animal was eaten, the bones might be given a ritual burial; they were reassembled in anatomical order, and the skull of the animal was elevated on a pole or a tree. These rituals were especially important in the case of the bear. This so-called animal ceremonialism was often intended to appease a particular spirit, the master of the game, but the primary purpose of such burials was to ensure the return of the game by showing proper respect for the animals. True sacrifices were not common, but did occur in the Northeast Woodlands, where white dogs were sacrificed to the powers. In many places the skins of animals (and, later, pieces of cloth as well) served as offerings. There was religious cannibalism in the East, even endocannibalism (the eating of one's family dead) in ancient times. Mutilations of fingers and other cases of self-mutilation as offerings occurred in the Sun Dance of the Lakota and in the closely related Mandan Okipa ceremony.

Ritual representations

Harmonious relations with the supernatural world could be restored by the dramatic imitation of the creation, often in an annual rite, as, for instance, the Sun Dance. The performance of such rituals often had the character of dancing, and most observers have therefore described American Indian ceremonies as dances. In the enactment of mythical drama, performers assumed the roles of supernatural beings, as in the representation of the kachina, cloud and rain spirits, and spirits of the dead in the Pueblo Indian Kachina Dances. In the Pawnee sacrifice to Morning Star, a young captive girl was tied to a frame and shot with arrows; she was supposed to represent Evening Star, a personification of the vegetation whose death promotes the growth of plants. Even today a Navajo patient is cured through a process of ritual identification with the universe and its powers: the patient sits in the middle of a sand painting symbolizing the cosmos and its powers while the practitioner pours colored sand over him.

Historical Survey

Most North American religions express the worldview typical of hunters and gatherers. This is natural, since the first immigrants who arrived perhaps forty to sixty thousands years ago were Paleolithic hunters who came by way of the Bering Strait. At that time the sound between Asia and North America was dry, due to the absorption of oceanic waters into the glaciers of the Great Ice Age. A narrow corridor stretched between the ice fields, allowing the migration of North Asiatic proto-Mongoloid groups into Alaska. The migration probably involved small groups who traveled independently, perhaps at a rate of four miles a year. Since ecological conditions were similar on both sides of the Bering Sea, the migration did not entail any break in historical and cultural traditions.

The Arctic substratum

This origin in northern Asia explains why so much of American Indian religion bears an Arctic or sub-Arctic stamp, and why so many features even in more temperate areas seem to be derived from northern cultures. Of course, particularly in the extreme north, we find native religions that are direct counterparts to the circumpolar religions of northern Eurasia. Both ecological and historical factors account for this uniformity. We may pinpoint such common religious elements as belief in a high god, Thunderbird, and Mother Earth; practices such as the bear ritual, hunting taboos, the sweat bath for ritual cleaning, and shamanic rituals; and a good many myths and tales. All these circumpolar traits represent Arctic or sub-Arctic forms of the ancient Paleolithic hunting culture in Eurasia.

There are some problems in establishing American connections with the Old World circumpolar culture, however. The weaker cultural links in eastern Siberia may be correlated with the influx into this area of Tunguz and Turkic tribes from the south during the last millennia. Perhaps under the influence of Lamaism and other forms of Buddhism, there evolved in Siberia an intense form of shamanism, with emphasis on deep ecstasy and possession by spirits. This specialized form of shamanism, so typical of parts of Siberia, finally spread to North America, where it influenced the Northwest Coast Indians and the Inuit (Eskimo). Other shamanic rituals in North America, such as the so-called Shaking Tent (the tent is shaking when spirits enter at the request of the shaman, who is fettered in the dark), found among Inuit groups, and Algonquian- and Salish-speaking tribes of the Plateau, also have their close counterparts in Siberia. But these other rituals derive from a more general form of shamanism that is also present in South America and Southeast Asia and is certainly a heritage from very ancient times.

The languages of the North American Indians are enormously diverse, and with the exception of the relatively lately arrived Athapascan groups none seem related to known Old World languages. The common factor joining them all is their polysynthetic structure, whereby many sentence elements are included in a single word by compounding and adding prefixes and suffixes. Paul Radin suggested many years ago that there may be a genetic relationship between most of these languages, except those of the Aleut and Inuit, who differ from the mainstream of American aborigines in race, culture, and religion.

Development of hunting religions

The early hunters brought with them a legacy of ideas and rituals developed in the Old World. These were adapted to the changing habitats in the New World. We can follow the major trends in cultural differentiation after about 10,000 bce, and we can draw some conclusions also about probable religious orientations.

Thus, the Paleo-Indians of eastern North America were big-game hunters, concentrating on animals like the mammoth, the giant bison, the three-toed horse, and the camel. In all likelihood the inherited concepts of animal ceremonialism and the master of the animals were applied to these animals. The big game died out, because of climatic changes or human overkilling, during the period from 8000 to 4000 bce. Only one big animalthe bearsurvived and continued to be the focus of special rites. The ritual around the slaying of the bear, distributed from the Saami (Lapps) of Scandinavia to the Ainu of northern Japan, and, in North America, from the Inuit and Athapascans in the north and west to the Delaware in the east and the Pueblo Indians in the south, seem to be a leftover from these Paleolithic and Mesolithic days.

It is difficult to say whether Asian ideas still streamed into North America at this time, but it seems probable. We know that many myths disseminated from Asia are mostly found south of the sub-Arctic area in North America. To this category belongs the myth of the earth diver, a primeval divine hero who fetches mud from the bottom of the sea, thereby creating the ground on which men live. It is important because it includes not only the flood myth, or the myth of the primeval sea, but also the idea of twin creators, one good and one less good or even bad, or one the main creator and the other his assistant (the culture hero). Another important myth that scholars have traced to Asia is the Orpheus myth, but proofs of its dissemination are inconclusive. Several mythic motifs have, however, definitely spread from the Old World, such as the magical flight and the Symplegades (clashing rocks), or the motif of the celestial vault that moves up and down.

The old hunting culture slowly disintegrated into a series of more specialized regional cultures about 70005000 bce, and there are reasons to presume that the religious structures changed accordingly. In fact, it seems that the native hunting, fishing, and gathering cultures and religions that persisted into the historical period began to take form at this time, the changes stimulated to a major extent by ecological and climatic shifts.

An exceptional development took place in the south. In the increasingly arid regions of the Great Basin, the Southwest, and parts of California a so-called desert tradition was established, with heavy dependence on wild plants, seeds, and nuts. The corresponding religious system survived in late Great Basin religions, and part of it was also preserved in many Californian Indian religions. In the Southwest, the Basket Making culture, while an example of the desert tradition, also served as a link to horticultural development.

There is some evidence that psychotropic or hallucinogenic drugs were used primarily in plant-collecting areas. Within the region covered by the desert tradition jimsonweed, peyote (in northern Mexico), pulque, and, of course, tobacco were all employed.

Growth of agricultural religions

It seems fairly certain that the cultivation of tobacco spread from Mexico into North America with maize, for maize and tobacco cultivation share the same general distribution within the eastern regions of North America. In the Southwest, however, while maize was cultivated, tobacco was gathered wild.

The introduction of maize, or Indian corn, had basic consequences for aboriginal religions, for it changed the whole outlook on life, the religious pattern, and the character of supernatural powers. There were many incentives for this change: the concentration of the population in more or less settled villages; the preoccupation with sowing, planting, and harvesting; the enhanced position of women (from that of seed collectors to that of seed producers); and the new forms of social organization (matrilineage, or, among the Iroquois, even some sort of matriarchy). Typical of these agricultural religions were concern for crops and fertility, the rise of priestly organizations, the creation of temples and shrines, and the appearance of deities, often of the female sex (or even androgynes), who impersonate the plants or lend fertility. Rituals, in turn, grew more complex, incorporating greater numbers of discrete actions, and sacrifices of a bloody kind (including human sacrifice) became more widespread. Nowhere, however, did agriculture entirely supplant hunting, particularly not in the east, where the rituals for encouraging the growth of maize, beans, and squash are basically the same as the rituals for slain animals. Of course, the death-and-revival pattern is fundamental to both animal and vegetational ceremonialism.

Appearance of maize religion in the Southwest

The introduction of maize into North America occurred in two places, the Southwest and the Southeast. From all appearances it was known earlier in the Southwest, where it is recorded from 3000 to 2000 bce in the wooded highland valleys of New Mexico. Village agriculture was firmly established at the beginning of the Common Era and was effective after 500 ce.

Some of the religious innovations surrounding the maize complex and accompanying it on its diffusion from Mexico have been revealed through archaeology. The best illustrations are provided by the so-called Hohokam culture in southern Arizona. It was deeply influenced by Mesoamerica from about 500 to 1200 ce, when it suddenly declined, probably as a consequence of the fall of its model, the Toltec empire in Mexico. The most important evidence of the cultural influence from the south is the architectural planning of the towns: irrigation canals, oval ball courts for ritual games, and platform mounds of earth or adobe serving as substructures for temples with hearths and altars.

The Mexican influence on religion can also be seen in the neighboring Anasazi or Pueblo cultures down to our own time. Mesoamerican symbols appear in the bird designs that decorate Hopi pottery. Some of the religious fraternities that meet in the semisubterranean ceremonial chambers probably have Mexican prototypes, for instance, the kachina societies that are reminiscent of the cult organizations that surrounded the Mexican rain god Tlaloc.

Appearance of maize religion in the Southeast

The maize complex entered the Southeast slightly later than the Southwest, perhaps sometime after 1000 bce; there is, however, no certain proof of agriculture there until the birth of Christ. It seems that influences from Mesoamerica were responsible for the so-called Burial Mound cultures, 1000 bce to 700 ce, with their earthworks, including mortuary mounds, and for their ceramic figurines. At least the latest of these cultures, the Hopewell, was acquainted with maize ceremonialism.

A major change took place with the introduction of the so-called Mississippian tradition about 700 ce. Large rectangular and flat-topped mounds of unprecedented size were arranged around rectangular plazas. The mounds served as foundations of temples, whence the name Temple Mound, also used to designate these cultures. Intensive agriculture belonged to this new tradition, which flourished in the lower and middle Mississippi Valley but was particularly anchored in the Southeast. Its last representatives were the historical Natchez Indians of the lower Mississippi, known for their hierarchical class system with a sacred king, called the Great Sun, at its apex, for their sacred center, including temple and burial mounds, and for an elaborate ceremonial complex.

The agricultural religions rarely reached such an advanced stage of development in eastern North America, but they spread from the Southeastern hearth in different directions. Mississippian traits mingled with older Woodland traits in the Iroquois culture in the north and, after 1000 ce, with Plains hunting religions in the river valleys to the west.

A Regional Survey

The religions of the indigenous peoples in North America have developed on the foundations that have just been described. However, factors other than historical have contributed to the differentiation in religious profiles that occurs in every region, and especially in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Plains. Such factors include local geographic conditions and the ecological adaptations of individual cultures. Religious differentiation is closely related to cultural diversity, for geographical and ecological factors act first of all on a group's cultural and social structure, and then through these structures on religion.

Roughly speaking, North America can be divided geographically into two main parts, the mountainous regions in the west, or the Rocky Mountains system, and the large plain and woodland country to the east. We find a relatively greater number of tribes and tribelets, often in great isolation from each other, in the mountainous West. The cultural variation there is therefore considerable. The vast eastern country, on the other hand, is populated by widely dispersed, large tribes in close contact with each other. Culturally, it can be seen as one large, relatively uniform area, in which the regional variants are relatively undifferentiated.

As Clark Wissler and others have noted, the geographic regions and the cultural areas correspond closely to each other. Since geographical and ecological factors have influenced religious forms, each region reveals unique features.


The barren country around the Arctic coasts is sparsely inhabited by the Inuit and, on the Aleutian Islands, their kinsmen the Aleut. Inuit religion carries all marks of a hunting religion, concentrating on beliefs and rituals related to animals and on shamanism. The hunting rituals are rather intricate, in particular in Alaska where they focus on the whale (whale feasts are also found among the Nootka of the Northwest Coast and the Chukchi and Koriak of Siberia). A great role is played by the mistress of the sea animals, called Sedna among the Central Inuit. She figures in shamanic rites: when taboos have been transgressed her hair gets filthy, and in rage she holds back the animals; it is the shaman's task in a séance to descend to her home at the bottom of the sea and clean her hair so that she will free the animals again.


A vast region of the coniferous forests, lakes, and swamps in interior Alaska and Canada, the sub-Arctic is sparsely inhabited by Athapascan-speaking Indians in its western half and Algonquian-speaking Indians in its eastern half. The Athapascans are latecomers from Siberia, arriving perhaps around 9000 bce; their linguistic affiliations are with the Sino-Tibetan tongues. The Algonquian tribes conserve religious traits that associate them closely with the circumpolar culture.

The region is inhabited by hunting cultures, with inland game, in particular the caribou and the moose, as food resources. People are organized in loose bands or, since the introduction by Europeans of the hunting of fur-bearing animals, in family groups who have hunting grounds reserved for their exclusive use.

Religion is dominated by hunting ceremonialism and, to a certain extent, by shamanism. Bear ceremonialism is widespread, and hunting taboos are very common. Sweat baths grant their practitioners ritual purity before hunting or important ceremonies. The vision and guardian-spirit quest is fairly common. Shamanism is characterized by shaking tent ceremonies, usually performed for divination, and by scapulimancy (foretelling the future by inspecting the shoulder blades of animals). Athapascan and Algonquian groups show separate development: the former hold girls' puberty rites and fear their dead; the latter are known for a strong high-god belief, a consistent system of masters of the animals (in which each species has its own master), and an intense dread of cannibal monsters, which are called windigo.

Northeast woodlands

Formerly covered by mixed coniferous and deciduous trees, the Northeast woodlands held a large population of Algonquian-, Iroquoian-, and Siouan-speaking tribes. In historical and protohistorical times both agriculture and hunting were practiced, particularly by the Iroquoian groups; the Algonquian tribes were hunters with only limited horticulture. The social systems of these groups were often complicated, with unilineal kinship groups, clan organization, and chieftaincy.

The double economic heritage is to some extent mirrored in the religious pattern. The hunters concentrate on hunting rituals and vision quests, the planters on rituals and beliefs surrounding the crops. The Iroquois, for instance, have a series of calendar rites celebrating the planting, ripening, and harvesting of the "three sisters": maize, squash, and beans. The midwinter ceremony, formerly a new year ceremony with the kindling of new fire and the sacrifice of a white dog, is the main ritual event. As in many other rituals of agricultural peoples, great attention is paid to the dead, in whose honor feasts are arranged.

Southeast woodlands

In the southern deciduous forests, with their savannas and swamps, the tribes of Muskogean stock, interspersed with Siouan groups and the Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee, kept up a peripheral high culture, the last vestiges of the prehistoric Mississippian culture. The Southeastern Indians were, at least at the beginning of the historical era, predominantly engaged in agriculture, and their sociopolitical organization was adjusted to this fact. Thus, the Creek had a maternal clan system, with clans subordinated to both phratries and moieties. The latter had ceremonial functions, often carried out in ball games.

Characteristic of Creek religion is the emphasis laid on ceremonialism and priestly functions. The priests, who were instructed in secrecy in the woods, along lines reminiscent of the vision quest, were divided into several classes: one was in charge of the sacred cult objects, another divined hidden things (such as the causes of diseases), and still another cured people from diseases. Even today, a major part of the curing ceremonies is the recitation of sacred formulas.

The main religious ceremony is the maize harvest ceremony, called the Busk. It is also a New Year ritual, in which old fires are extinguished and a new fire is kindled and people ritually cleanse themselves through washing and the drinking of an emetic.

Prairies and plains

The tall-grass area (with some parkland and river-bottom woodland) between the woodlands in the east and the high Plains in the west is known as the Prairies. The Plains are the short-grass steppe country, too dry for agriculture, that stretches toward the mountains and semideserts in the far West. (In Canada, the Great Plains are sometimes referred to as the Prairies.)

The historical cultures were formed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the acquisition of horses made the wide-open spaces easily accessible to surrounding tribes and white expansion forced woodland Indians to leave their home country for the dry, treeless areas. Algonquian and Siouan tribes immigrated from the east and northeast, Caddoan tribes from the south. Several groups ceased practicing horticulture (the Crow and Cheyenne) and turned into buffalo hunters, but they kept parts of their old social and political organization. In the west, Shoshonean groups held the ground they had traditionally occupied, and groups of Athapascansfor example, the Apacheforced their way to the southern parts of the region.

Whereas the Prairies could be regarded as a periphery of the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains region offers a late cultural and religious complex of its own. The religion is a mixture of derived agricultural ceremonialism and hunters' belief systems. The major New Year ceremony is the Sun Dance, during which asceticism, dancing, praying, and curing take place. Other forms of ritualism center around tribal and clan bundles, and the sacred ritual known as the Calumet Dance, or Pipe Dance. There is much cosmological speculation and an advanced concept of the godhead. The vision and guardian spirit complex is well developed. The Plains religious pattern has become among modern Indians the model for a pan-Indian religion, transcending old tribal and cultural boundaries.

Northwest Coast

The broken coastline, high mountains, and deep fjords of the Northwest Coast were the home of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Wakashan tribes and some Coast Salish and Chinookan groups in the south. With their totem poles, their plank houses and canoes, and their headgear reminiscent of East Asian conic hats, these Indians make an un-American impression, an impression that is strengthened by their social organization with its give-away feasts (pot-latches) intended to "shame" invited guests and thus increase the host's prestige. There have apparently been contacts with both northern and eastern Asian cultures, although the nature of this exchange is little understood. The basic substratum seems to be a fishing culture that developed on both sides of the North Pacific and gave rise to both Inuit and Northwest Coast cultures. The abundant animal and fish life along the coast, together with the rich herbal and animal life of the dense woods, provided a living standard that sometimes excelled that of the agriculturists. It is perhaps not surprising that rank differentiation, based partly on wealth, and slavery appeared here.

The religion is characterized partly by its association with the activities of hunters and fishermen, partly by its secret societies adapted to the complicated social structure. The animal ceremonialism is focused on the sea fauna, and there are many sea spirits in animal forms. The dead have their realm, or one of their realms, at the bottom of the sea. The secret societies recruited individuals who had an inherited right to make contact with a certain kind of guardian spirit. Famous societies are the Wolf society of the Nootka and the Cannibal society of the Kwakiutl. Possession by spirits also occurred in shamanism, which here reached a high point of development in America.


The Intermountain area, which includes both the Columbia and the Fraser river drainages, is known as the Plateau; it was inhabited by Salish and Shahaptin tribes that lived on fish and, secondarily, on land animals and roots. The area is partly wooded, partly a bunchgrass steppe. The culture area is an offshoot of the sub-Arctic hunting culture, tempered by influences from the Northwest Coast and the Plains. The sociopolitical group consisted of the village, under the formal control of a hereditary chief.

In their religion the Plateau Indians stressed the visionary complex and food ceremonies. The vision quests were undertaken at puberty by both sexes. The relation between the guardian spirit and his client was displayed in the Winter Dance, or Spirit Dance, a ceremony, under the supervision of a medicine man, in which the spirit was impersonated. Important celebrations were firstling rites, first-fruits rites, and the First-Salmon rite. In this last rite, which was guided by a so-called salmon chief (who had the salmon as one of his guardian spirits), the first salmon was greeted and its "leader" hailed with special ceremonies.

Great Basin

A dry region of sands and semideserts, the Great Basin was inhabited by Shoshonean (Numic) groups, some of them, like the Gosiute, the most impoverished of North American groups. Seeds, nuts, and rodents provided the principal food. The social organization was often atomistic. The cultural profile represented a remnant of the old desert tradition.

The religious pattern was closely adapted to a lifestyle based on the bare necessities. Hunters had to be blessed by spirits in visions in order to be successful, but there was little elaboration of guardian-spirit beliefs. Medicine men had specialized powers; for instance, the antelope medicine man attracted the antelopes by singing. Harvest ceremonies were round dances at which thanks were given to the supreme being.


Whereas the northern, eastern, and southern parts of California were peripheral to the Northwest Coast, Great Basin, and Southwest cultural areas, respectively, the central valleys and coastland constituted a separate cultural area, known as the California region, densely populated by Penutian, Hokan, and Numic groups. These natives, living in a mild climate, dedicated themselves to collecting, hunting, and fishing. Their staple food consisted of wild plants and their fruits, in particular acorns, all of which were found in abundance. The political unit was usually the village (under the leadership of a headman), but was sometimes a lineage.

In this diversified culture area religious expressions were most varied. North-central California is known for its lofty concept of a supreme being and for its initiation of youths into religious societies, such as the Kuksu, Ghost, and Hesi societies. Guardian spirit quests were rare, and medicine men received unsought visions. In the southern part of the area, initiation ceremonies were accompanied by the drinking of drugs prepared from jimsonweed and by various symbolic acts referring to death and rebirth. In some places there were great commemorative ceremonies for the dead.

The Southwest

A magnificent desert country with some oases, particularly along the Rio Grande, the Southwest was populated by hunting and farming groups of Piman and Yuman descent, by former hunters like the Athapascan Apache and Navajowho did not arrive here until about 1500 ceand by the Pueblo peoples, intensive agriculturists mostly belonging to the Tanoan and Keresan linguistic families. I shall here concentrate on the Pueblo groups, the descendants of the prehistoric Anasazi culture. Their culture is famous for its big community houses on the mesas, its intensive horticulture (with irrigation in the Rio Grande region), and its complex and beautiful ceremonialism. Each Pueblo town is an independent unit governed by the heads of the religious societies.

Religion penetrates all aspects of Pueblo life. A rich set of ceremonies that mark the divisions of the year are conducted by different religious societies. Their overall aim is to create harmony with the powers of rain and fertility, symbolized by the ancestors, the rain and cloud spirits, and the Sun. Each society has its priesthood, its attendants, its sacred bundles, and its ceremonial cycle. There are also medicine societies for the curing of diseasesthe inspired, visionary medicine man has no place in this collectivistic, priestly culture.

No other American Indian societies lay so much stress on ceremonialism as do the Pueblo. Their supernatural beings are almost unthinkable without the rituals through which they are manifested.

See Also

Cosmogony; Inuit Religious Traditions; Sedna; Tobacco.


For discussion of sources and research the reader is referred to my work The Study of American Indian Religions (Chico, Calif., 1983) and Harold W. Turner's North America, vol. 2 of his Bibliography of New Religious Movements in Primal Societies (Boston, 1978).

On the topic of North American Indian religions, several surveys and introductions are available. In chronological order there is first Werner Müller's "Die Religionen der Indianervölker Nordamerikas," in Die Religionen des alten Amerika, edited by Walter Krickeberg (Stuttgart, 1961), a thoughtful presentation of native religious structures. Ruth M. Underhill's Red Man's Religion (Chicago, 1965) describes religious beliefs and practices in their cultural interaction. Two later syntheses are my The Religions of the American Indians (Berkeley, 1979), which concentrates on religious ideas in historical perspectives, and Sam D. Gill's Native American Religions (Belmont, Calif., 1982), which emphasizes some major features of Indian religious life. A detailed, provocative investigation of the religions east of the Rocky Mountains will be found in Werner Müller's Die Religionen der Waldlandindianer Nordamerikas (Berlin, 1956).

A number of scholars in the field have issued collections of their articles on North American native religions. Here could be mentioned Müller's Neue SonneNeues Licht, edited by Rolf Gehlen and Bernd Wolf (Berlin, 1981), a representative selection of this author's most engaging articles; my Belief and Worship in Native North America (Syracuse, N. Y., 1981), which among other things discusses belief patterns, ecology, and religious change; and Joseph Epes Brown's The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian (New York, 1982), a book that beautifully outlines the deeper meaning of Indian philosophy and ceremonialism. An older publication in the same genre is the philosopher Hartley Burr Alexander's posthumous work, The World's Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians (Lincoln, Nebr., 1953). Anthologies by several authors are Seeing with a Native Eye, edited by Walter Holden Capps (New York, 1976), and Teachings from the American Earth, edited by Dennis Tedlock and Barbara Tedlock (New York, 1975). The former contains articles by scholars of religion; the latter, articles by anthropologists.

Among general comparative works, a classic in the field is Ruth Fulton Benedict's The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America (Menasha, Wis., 1923). Shamanism in North America is the object of a study by Marcelle Bouteiller, Chamanisme et guérison magique (Paris, 1950). The patterns of soul and spirit beliefs are analyzed in my work Conceptions of the Soul among North American Indians (Stockholm, 1953). The corpus of American Indian myths and legends is carefully annotated in Tales of the North American Indians, edited by Stith Thompson (Cambridge, Mass., 1929). My study The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition (Stockholm, 1957) is an extensive treatment of the Orpheus myth and its religious prerequisites. One mythological character, the culture hero and trickster, is the subject of Arie van Deursen's detailed research work Der Heilbringer (Groningen, 1931). Secret societies and men's societies are penetratingly discussed in Wolfgang Lindig's Geheimbünde und Männerbünde der Prärie- und der Waldlandindianer Nordamerikas (Wiesbaden, 1970). Among comparative works on rituals and ritualism three interesting studies are Ruth Underhill's well-known Ceremonial Patterns in the Greater Southwest (New York, 1948), John Witthoft's illuminating Green Corn Ceremonialism in the Eastern Woodlands (Ann Arbor, 1949), and William N. Fenton's detailed ethnohistorical study The Iroquois Eagle Dance: An Offshoot of the Calumet Dance (Washington, D. C., 1953).

An Indian's own view of native American religions in their relations to Christianity and to whites is presented, somewhat polemically, in Vine Deloria Jr.'s God Is Red (New York, 1973).

Åke Hultkrantz (1987)

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North American [Indian] Religions: An Overview

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North American [Indian] Religions: An Overview