Indigenous Religions

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Indigenous Religions

The word indigenous refers to anything that is native to a particular geographical region. This includes people, cultures, languages, or species of plants or animals. The Aborigines of Australia, for example, are an indigenous people, in contrast to the European settlers who arrived on the continent long after. Similarly, American Indians are the indigenous peoples of North America. A synonym often used for indigenous is "native," but the word native in connection with peoples and their cultures is potentially offensive. It could be considered a stereotype, suggesting that they are primitive or backward.

Scholars (those who research and study a subject in-depth) often distinguish between two types of indigenous religions. One type has been practiced by tribes of people that have lived in the same region of the world for perhaps thousands of years. These religions would be indigenous to that region of the world. The other type includes indigenous religions that were carried by people to other regions of the world. People continue to practice those religions, often in combination with more dominant religions such as Christianity, but they are not indigenous to their new homes. These religions are formed from a synthesis, or combination, of indigenous and nonindigenous beliefs.

Examples of synthetic religions can be found in the Caribbean. During the time of the slave trade, Africans were transported to these regions, bringing their religious beliefs with them. At the same time, Spanish colonists and slave merchants carried Catholicism to the New World, where it became the dominant religion. The interaction between African religions and Christianity gave rise to at least two new religions: Vodou, which is dominant in Haiti, and Santería, which is widely practiced in Cuba. Strictly speaking, these religions are not "indigenous" to either Cuba or Haiti, but they have many of the characteristics of an indigenous religion and are based on indigenous practices in Africa.


The worship of trees, rocks, mountains, and such, which are believed to have supernatural power.
An indigenous religion of Tibet.
A South American religion with many similarities to Santería, often used synonymously with Santería.
The "Evil-Minded," the evil spirit of the Iroquois nation.
The Great Spirit of the Iroquois nation.
The Invisible Agents, or lesser spirits, of the Iroquois.
A word that describes a people, culture, or religion that is native to a particular geographical region.
The name of the supreme god in Santería.
Name given to the lesser gods of Santería.
Regla de Ocha:
The formal name for the Santerían religion.
The "way of the saints"; an African-based religion practiced primarily in Cuba and other Central and South American countries.
A practitioner of Santería.
A priestlike person in an indigenous religion who is thought to have special powers to communicate with the spirit world; often used as a synonym for a traditional healer.
A term used generally to refer to indigenous religions that believe in an unseen spirit world that influences human affairs.
That which is beyond the observable world, including things relating to God or spirits.
An African-based religion practiced primarily in Haiti and in other Central and South American countries.
An uninitiated practitioner of Vodou.
Wakan tanka:
The world's motivating force for the Sioux.
The incomprehensibility of life and death for the Sioux.

The number of indigenous religions in the world, as well as the number of their practitioners, is nearly impossible to calculate. Even asking the question "How many?" implies that an indigenous religion exists as a formal, defined institution whose members can be counted with some degree of accuracy. The reality is that indigenous religions, rather than being formal institutions, tend to be an undefined part of everyday life. Many indigenous cultures do not even have a word for "religion." Many of these religious systems do not have a name other than the name attached to the tribal group itself.

The best estimate of the number of practitioners of indigenous religious beliefs is about 300 million. If that figure is accurate, it would make this group, taken together, the seventh-largest religious group in the world. In all likelihood, however, this number is inexact, in part because the lines between indigenous and imported religions are not always distinct. In Tibet, many people who are officially Buddhist continue to practice the folk religion called Bon. A folk religion is a system of beliefs shared by the common population. In Africa many people practice a blend of indigenous religious beliefs and more widespread religions, such as Christianity and Islam. When asked, these people very often identify themselves as Christians or Muslims or Buddhists, though they continue to practice indigenous beliefs.

Characteristics of indigenous religions

While the world's indigenous religions show remarkable variety, they also tend to show important similarities. These similarities appear not in the specifics of the belief system but rather in its overall nature. Some features that characterize indigenous religions include the following: geographic location, the use of ritual and artifacts, community participation, a fluid structure, and belief in a supreme God or other divinities (gods).

An indigenous religious group tends to live within a specific bioregion, or a region with a relatively uniform environment and ecology (mountain, desert, rainforest, or plains). Because of characteristics of this environment (for example, a short growing season in mountainous regions, drought in a desert, heavy rains in a rainforest region, and so on), indigenous religions develop explanations of the world and its origins based on the characteristics of their region. Most such religions have strong ecological beliefs as people try to live in harmony with the natural order.

Indigenous religions rarely have written sacred texts. Rather, their beliefs focus on dances, costumes, masks, ritual traditions, and sacred artifacts (material objects). These practices are part of a people's cultural identity and help them forge a sense of connection with their world. Indigenous religions transmit wisdom, cultural values, and history, not through formal education but through myths, storytelling, drama, and art.

They tend not to rely on silent meditation or individualized experiences but on ritual activities that bind people to the community. Many of these rituals mark important occasions, such as planting or gathering a harvest. Yet in many indigenous religious traditions, people seek wisdom of their own through vision quests and similar private rituals. Some religions rely on hallucinogenic substances (mind-altering drugs), as well as chanting and ritual, to create a trancelike state in which they can experience the spiritual.

Indigenous religions are not bound by formal theologies. They tend to evolve and change as the conditions of life change. Sometimes the term traditional is used to refer to these religions. Many modern religious scholars, however, avoid this word because it suggests something old and unchanging rather than something living and adaptable.

Most indigenous religions believe in some sort of great spirit, a god, whether male or female, who created the world and is responsible for the way the world works. Some believe in multiple gods. Such religions also tend to believe that the natural world is full of spirits who control such things as the weather, the harvest, the success of a hunt, and illness. Shamans and diviners are believed to be able to read the signs of the natural order, communicate with the spirits, and understand the future and the will of the god or gods. Shamans are priests or priestesses who have strong connections to the spiritual world and use that connection to help others. Diviners are people who can read signs in nature to determine things such as the location of scarce water or future events.

African indigenous religions

In many fundamental ways, African indigenous religions are little different from many of the world's more dominant religions. They believe in the concept of God and the supernatural. The supernatural is anything that is beyond what is observable, including things relating to God or spirits. This belief is part of their everyday lived experience. As they go about their daily activities (hunting, farming, traveling, giving birth, working, treating illness and injury, getting married, and burying the dead), they remain aware of the presence of the supernatural and its effect on the success or failure of their activities and on their relationships with the community.

African indigenous religions provide people with a way of seeing the world and of understanding their place in it. Like Judaism or Islam, these religions give people a system of values, beliefs, and attitudes from the time they are children. An outsider could adopt the religion of an African culture only to the extent that he or she could come to see the world in the same way that the culture does.

The religions also promote a system of morality (values) and good behavior. Such a moral code may not be as formalized as Jewish law as it is developed in the Torah (one of Judaism's sacred texts), for example, but all children grow up learning right from wrong. This knowledge of right from wrong becomes part of the world view of members of the group.

As in other religions, African indigenous religions recognize the importance of ritual, which is a way of carrying out a ceremony or event. These rituals are often associated with important events, such as planting or harvesting crops, as well as with birth, marriage, and death. These rituals are important because they serve as a way of binding the members of the community to one another, in much the same way that Jews or Muslims find a sense of community in attending worship services at temples or mosques.

The supernatural world

Most African indigenous religions believe in a supreme God. The names of the supreme God are many and differ with the many language groups of Africa. To cite just a few examples, in the Congo, the supreme God is variously called Akongo, Arebati, Djakomba, Katshonde, Kmvoum, Leza, and Nzambi. In Kenya, it has the names Akuj, Asis, Mulungu, Mungu, Ngai, and Nyasaye. In Nigeria, the supreme God is called Ondo, Chuku, Hinegba, Olódùmarè, Olorun, Osowo, Owo, and Shoko.

The supreme God shares many characteristics with the God of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. God is seen as the creator of all things who sustains (maintains), provides for, and protects creation with both justice and mercy. God rules over the universe. He (or She) is all-knowing and all-powerful. African indigenous religions believe that it is not possible for human beings to know God directly. God is often seen as a parent: in some instances, a father; in others, a mother.

In contrast to the major monotheistic (believing in one god) religions, African indigenous religions tend to believe that God, after creating the world, withdrew and is not involved in the day-to-day affairs of humans. That task is left to a group of lesser spirits. These spirits are similar to the angels and demons of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. They communicate directly with people and act as intermediaries between God and humans.

About Indigenous Religions

  • Belief. Indigenous religions have a strong connection to nature and have worship practices that bring the community together. They usually do not have any formal teachings, but seek to live in harmony with nature.
  • Followers. There are about 300 million followers of indigenous religions, though they may also practice other faiths.
  • Name of God. Indigenous religions have many different names for their God or gods, including Olódùmarè, Gran Met, the Great Spirit, Nzambi, and Dagpa.
  • Symbols. There is no symbol that represents all indigenous religions. They each may have objects special to their beliefs. For instance, the Sioux hold the hoop, or circle, as a sacred symbol of unity.
  • Worship. Indigenous worship is primarily nature-based, with ceremonies using objects from nature or occurring outdoors.
  • Dress. Dress for worship may vary across indigenous religions, but often there are no requirements.
  • Texts. Written texts are a distinct non-feature in indigenous religions.
  • Sites. Sacred sites may vary from religion to religion.
  • Observances. Each indigenous religion has its own special observances, oftentimes surrounding periods of seasonal change.
  • Phrases. Some indigenous religions may have a common phrase that unites their followers, but many do not.

These lesser spirits can be either good or bad. Good spirits provide humans with a host of benefits. They protect crops and livestock, ensure success in hunting, and provide such benefits as good health and long life, life-giving rains (especially in dry climates), and children. People can win and keep the favor of these spirits through good behavior. If a person or community offends the spirits, the spirits can withdraw their favor. It is in this way that African indigenous religions explain such misfortunes as drought, failed crops, and illness.

Good spirits can be divided into two categories. One consists of ancestral spirits that continue to play a role in human affairs. Some of these ancestral spirits are those of the recently dead. They help the community and the family remain prosperous and healthy, although they can also send illness or failed crops as a warning against bad behavior. Other ancestral spirits are those of the long dead, particularly those of rulers or very wise people. These spirits can ensure that the community survives for a long time and enjoys prosperity.

Because of this emphasis on the wisdom of ancestors, African indigenous religions tend to conduct elaborate funeral rites for the dead. They also continue to honor the dead by compiling genealogies (family trees) and offering symbolic food and drink to the ancestral spirits.

Living with spirits

Many African indigenous religions, though not all, also recognize nature spirits. These spirits are believed, for example, to inhabit the sky to control rain and weather or to inhabit streams to control fish. Others inhabit the trees, mountains, and rocks. This belief in nature spirits is often referred to as animism. Strictly speaking, however, the term animism implies that people worship natural objects themselves. African indigenous religions do not worship the objects but the spirits they believe animate, or enliven, these forces of nature. An important characteristic of these religions is that they see little if any distinction between the natural and the supernatural worlds.

African indigenous religions, like many Western religions (the religions of countries in Europe and the Americas), believe in evil spirits as well. These evil spirits cause disruption and chaos in response to bad behavior on the part of people. Just as an ancestral spirit can cause a drought as a warning to the community, evil spirits can cause drought as a form of punishment or simply because they are evil.

An African Shaman Speaks

Human beings never feel that they have enough of anything. Offtimes what we say we want is real in words only. If we ever understood the genuine desires of our hearts at any given moment, we might reconsider the things we waste our energy pining [wishing] for. If we could always get what we thought we wanted, we would quickly exhaust our weak arsenal [supply] of petty desires and discover with shame that all along we had been cheating ourselves.

Love consumes its object voraciously [hungrily]. Consequently, we can only experience its shadow. Happiness does not last forever because we do not have the power to contain it. It has the appetite of a ferocious [violent] carnivore [meat eater] that has been starved for a long time—this is how much love and bliss and happiness there is in nature, in the place that was there before we existed in it.

       Somé, Malidoma. Of Water and Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. New York: Penguin Books, 1994: page 222.

Helping to ward off the influence of these evil spirits is a class of shamans, priests, and diviners. (Sometimes the word shamanism is used to refer to any religion that believes in an unseen world of spirits that continue to play a role in the affairs of the living.) An individual shaman is believed to have special wisdom and insight and can communicate with this spirit world, including ancestors, to heal the sick. In decades past, the term "medicine man" was used to refer to these people. In the twenty-first century the preferred term is "traditional healer" or "traditional doctor." Indigenous religions see sickness as having a spiritual cause, so they seek spiritual remedies. Many people also rely on herbalists, that is, those who learn through training and experience the medicinal properties of fruits, berries, roots, leaves, bark, and other extracts from plants.

Priests serve a function similar to that of priests, ministers, and rabbis in Western religions. They conduct religious rituals that serve to bind the people into a community. In many African religions the priest is responsible for the rituals surrounding a particular spirit or group of spirits. In other cases priests maintain a shrine to an important ancestor and conduct rituals to honor that ancestor.

Influences of African indigenous religions

Historically, African indigenous religions had little contact with the rest of the world, so their impact on world affairs was minor. This began to change with the spread of Christianity and Islam into Africa. Both of these religions were founded in the Middle East (Christianity in Palestine, Islam in modern-day Saudi Arabia). As they spread, they moved into nearby northern Africa. In time, Islam came to dominate such North African countries as Libya and Egypt. Later, Christianity became more dominant in other parts of Africa as a result of colonization by European countries that sent Christian missionaries to win converts. Missionaries are people who seek to grow their religion by converting others to the faith.

Both Islam and Christianity were accepted with relative ease by many indigenous African communities for two reasons. First, they shared with Christianity and Islam a belief in a creator-god, so they found these systems of belief compatible with their own. Second, indigenous religions tend to be flexible and adaptable. They have no fixed set of teachings and readily absorb the beliefs of other religious systems. The result has been a blend of religious traditions. It is not unusual for a person to, for example, attend a Christian service and then immediately afterwards attend an indigenous ritual. African indigenous religions have influenced Christianity and Islam in Africa by making them more mystical, reflecting Africans' strong belief in an unseen spirit world. For instance, African shamans who practice Christianity alongside indigenous beliefs will often say that they have mystical powers that come from the Holy Spirit, which enable them to channel the spirits of others.

In contemporary life, the indigenous religions of Africa have enjoyed a revival. Many Westerners are exploring the belief systems of indigenous religions around the world because of dissatisfaction with Western religions. They are also attracted by the strong environmental component of many indigenous religions.

From Africa to the New World: Vodou and Santería

Two religions in Central America have their roots, at least partially, in African religious beliefs. These religions, Vodou and Santería, emerged in Haiti and Cuba, respectively, when the beliefs of African slaves blended with those of indigenous peoples and other migrants to these islands. The result of this cultural contact was the merger of two dominant religions that attracts many followers in modern times.

The number of practitioners of Vodou and Santería, however, is virtually impossible to calculate. Most of the people who practice these religious beliefs also practice other religions, particularly Catholicism, and they are most likely to identify themselves as Catholics. Further, both religions are extremely loosely organized. In the case of Santería, the religion goes by different names in different regions, including Candombleí in Brazil. It has been suppressed in Cuba, so arriving at an accurate head count is difficult. Some sources estimate that about three million people practice Vodou. The number of Santeríans includes about eight hundred thousand in the United States, one million in Brazil, and three million in Cuba.


A proper understanding of Vodou, sometimes spelled vodun or vodoun, requires distinguishing it from the Western stereotype. In the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas), particularly in the United States, "voodoo" (as it is usually spelled) is associated in the popular mind with witchcraft, black magic rituals, zombies, and other beliefs that are regarded as superstitious, such as sticking pins into voodoo dolls to bring bad luck to another person. While practitioners of voodoo can be found in the United States, voodoo is a stereotype that has little to do with the religion of Vodou as it is practiced.

Vodou is practiced primarily in Haiti, the western portion of the Central American island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. It can also be found in Cuba and in parts of South America. Vodou is a blend of three different religious traditions. The first is that of the indigenous Taino and Arawak Indians who inhabited the island until it became a Spanish colony following the voyages of exploration of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506). The Spanish colonists, however, virtually exterminated these peoples. The survivors developed close cultural contacts with African slaves who were brought to the island by the Spanish, and later by the French, to work on Haitian agricultural plantations. The third group that contributed to the development of Vodou included immigrants from Europe, particularly France and the British Isles, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. These people brought Catholicism with them.

The dominant influence on the development of Vodou, however, was that of the various African tribes. These tribal influences led to the development of at least three sects, or subgroups or denominations, of Vodou. Orthodox Vodou reflects the traditions of the Dahomean and Nigerian tribes. Makaya, another branch, shares many of the beliefs of orthodox Vodou but differs in its ceremonial practices. The third denomination reflects the traditions from the Kongo tribe. Each branch dominates in different regions of the country.

These denominations share a number of core beliefs. One is a belief in a single, supreme God, called Gran Met, meaning "Great Master," or Bondye. Practitioners of Vodou also believe in lesser ancestral spirits called lwa (sometimes spelled loa). These spirits are accessible to those who have been initiated into Vodou through spirit possession. While "possession" is often associated with demons and Satan, in Vodou, possession is a highly desirable state that allows the person to make contact with his or her ancestors. Practitioners of Vodou also believe that spiritual energy can be manipulated to perform magic.

The differences between Vodou denominations are differences in the nature of one's participation. The general term used for practitioners of Vodou is vodouisants. These people attend ceremonies, receive counseling and medical treatment, and generally take part in Vodou activities. In orthodox Vodou the main ritual is that of initiation, called kanzo. Initiates can be either men or women. Males are referred to as Houngan, while females are referred to as Mambo. These initiates receive the sacred asson, or rattle, and thereby become the chief organizers of Vodou ceremonies. During these ceremonies, the Houngan or Mambo is the one most likely to be possessed by a lwa, though in principle anyone can become possessed. While these ceremonies can take place in homes, they often take place in privately owned peristyles (open spaces surrounded by columns), which serve the same purpose as churches or temples.

In the Makaya tradition the leader of a congregation (group of worshippers) is nearly always a man, called a Bokor. He achieves this position not as a result of an initiation ceremony but as a result of having a strong pwen, that is, a powerful lwa. He becomes the leader of his congregation because he protects them, assists them with business dealings, and cures their physical and spiritual illnesses. In the Kongo tradition the leaders of congregations are called serviteurs, or "servants" of the lwa.

Orthodox Vodou recognizes four levels of participation. The first includes the uninitiated vodouisant, called a hounsi bossale, which literally means something like "untamed (or wild) bride of the spirit." This person is in effect in training for initiation. An initiate is then referred to as a hounsi kanzo. His or her status becomes similar to that of a Christian who has received confirmation, the rite that allows a person to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. At the next level, the person is considered si pwen, sur point, meaning that he or she enjoys the patronage of a lwa and can receive the sacred rattle. This person is similar to a priest or minister in Christianity. At the final level of initiation, a person is referred to as asogwe, similar to the position of a bishop in Christianity. Such a person can initiate others.


Discussions of Santería can be confusing for several reasons. First, "Santería" is the popular name for the religion. More properly the religion is referred to as Regla de Ocha, or sometimes just Ocha, meaning "The Rule of the Orisha," referring to the gods of Santería. Other names given to the religion include Lukumi, an African Yoruba word that means "friend," and La Regla Lucumi. Yoruba is an African language spoken primarily in Nigeria and in parts of Togo and Benin. Further complicating matters is that worship of the orishas, or lesser gods, is also a feature of Candomble, a Brazilian religion very similar to Santería. African religious beliefs were carried to the New World and evolved into different religious traditions in different geographical regions.

Vodou, Zombies, and Voodoo Dolls

One of the stereotypes associated with "voodoo" is the existence of zombies, the "walking dead." This stereotype has been fostered by horror movies that feature zombies. The word zombie has entered the English vocabulary to refer to a person who is "spaced out" or whose behavior is unconnected to the world.

The zombie, though, does have a place in Vodou. The zombie is a person whose soul has been broken and part of it stolen. According to Vodou the soul comprises three parts. One part is shared by all beings; one part allows the individual body to stay alive; and one part is the seat of the personality and spirit. It is the last part that has been stolen from a zombie.

The stereotype of voodoo dolls also has a basis in Vodou belief. Africans made ritual carvings of the lwa and carried them to the New World on slave ships. They were forbidden to keep their carvings, but they were allowed to keep dolls, called poppets, that had been part of European folk tradition. Soon, the Africans began to use these dolls as a substitute for their carvings of the lwa. In time, some practitioners of Vodou believed that the dolls could be used for magic. They stuck pins into "voodoo dolls" to bring misfortune to an enemy. Most practitioners of Vodou, however, place little stock in this belief.

Santeros (those who practice Santería) themselves sometimes regard the name "Santería" as offensive. The word, meaning "the way of the saints," was an insulting term that Spanish colonists applied to the religion practiced by their African slaves. When these slaves were brought to Central and South America in the 1700s, they were immediately baptized into the Catholic Church, meaning they were made a member of the Church. Practice of their African religious beliefs was forbidden. The slaves, however, quickly discovered that they could continue to practice their religion by disguising it with Catholic images and symbols. Many of the orishas were worshipped as if they were Catholic saints. For example, the orisha Babalz Ayi became Saint Lazarus, the patron saint of the sick. Oggzn became Saint Peter, and Shangs became Saint Barbara. For this reason, the Spanish coined the term Santería to suggest that the Africans worshipped saints at the expense of God. Although the term can be potentially offensive and hurtful, many who practice the religion have accepted it. It continues to be widely used.

Santería blends the beliefs of the traditional Yoruba and Bantu peoples of West Africa with Catholicism. A principal belief of Santeros is that the universe is motivated by ashe, a growth and movement forward to divinity. Ashe, often translated as "energy," is the cosmic force that binds all of creation into a web. Santeros believe that this ever-changing force leads to a principal deity called Olódùmarè, the "owner of heaven" or sometimes the "owner of all destinies." Olódùmarè, the supreme creator-god, is the object of ashe, the direction in which the energy of the universe moves.

In addition, Santeros honor a number of orishas. The orishas are spirits that represent the forces of nature. Each of the orishas is associated with a Christian saint, as well as with an important number, a principle (such as sensuality, war, money, roads and gates, illness, or thunder and lightning), a dance posture, an emblem, a color, and food. It is believed that for an orisha to remain effective, it must be offered animal sacrifices, as well as pre-pared food dishes. Orishas are not distant from or inaccessible to humans. On the contrary, they are intimately involved with human life, acting as messengers for Olódùmarè.

Orisha of Candomblé

Like Central American Santeros, practitioners of Candomblé worship orishas, or lesser gods. A few of the important orishas include the following:

Ésù: The messenger of the orisha, an intermediary between the orishas and humans.

Ògún: The god of war, battles, metal, roads, agriculture, and justice.

Orúnmìlà: The witness to the destiny of each person. His symbol is the seed of the oil palm. Practitioners use these seeds to communicate with him to learn a person's destiny.

Osányìn: The god of herbs.

Òsùmàrè: The rainbow.

Osun: The goddess of fresh water, beauty, and health, in contrast to Nàná, the goddess of swamp mud and stagnant water.

Shàngó: The god of fire and thunder.

Osòosì: The god of the hunt, who lives in the forest.

Accordingly, Santeros take part in animal sacrifices. These sacrifices are an important part of Santerían religious rituals. The most commonly used animals are chickens, which are generally cooked and eaten after the ritual. Sacrificing the animal is believed to please the orishas, which brings good luck, forgiveness of sins, and purification. This belief in animal sacrifice has caused a number of animal rights groups to oppose the practice of Santería. Santeros counter that the animals are sacrificed humanely and that they are eaten afterwards. The conflict has led to court cases, including one heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the animal sacrifices of Santería are a legally protected religious belief.

Santeros also believe in spirit possession. An important part of Santerían rituals is dancing, which leads to the possession of the dancer by the orishas. Finally, ancestor worship is an important part of Santería, just as it is for Vodou, and the names of ancestors are often recited at Santerían rituals. Ancestor worship is based on the belief that the dead live on in some form of afterlife and are able to influence the lives of their still-living family members. The living family members exercise great respect for their ancestors and may ask them for favors.

The Santerían Eleven Commandments

Just as Christianity and Judaism follow the Ten Commandments delivered to the Jewish people by Moses (c. 1392–1272 bce), Santeros follow the Eleven Commandments of Olódùmarè, who handed them down through the orisha Obatala, the father of the orisha:

  1. You will not steal.
  2. You will not kill, except in self-defense and for your sustenance.
  3. You will not eat human flesh.
  4. You will live in peace among yourselves.
  5. You will not covet your neighbor's properties.
  6. You will not curse my name.
  7. You will honor your father and mother.
  8. You will not ask more than I can give you and you will be content with your fate.
  9. You will neither fear death nor take your own life.
  10. You will teach my commandments to your children.
  11. You will respect and obey my laws.

Santerían rituals

Many of the rituals and practices of Santería are kept as secret as possible. A person can gain full and accurate information about Santería only by being initiated into the religion. Such a person is called an "ab'orisha." Santería, unlike such religions as Christianity and Judaism, does not have a sacred book or formalized set of teachings. Traditions are maintained orally (by word of mouth) through the generations.

A typical Santerian ritual begins by invoking Olódùmarè, while drums beat in traditional African rhythms. These rhythms, called oru, change to one associated with a particular orisha. Dance and animal sacrifice are important parts of the rituals. Priests in Santería are called babalochas. Priestesses are called lyalochas or santeras. Olorisha can refer to a priest of either gender. All receive many years of training in the oral traditions of Santería. They also undergo a period of solitude following their training. One visible feature of Santería is the presence of stores called botanicas that sell charms, herbs, potions, musical instruments, and other objects associated with Santería.

The New World: Native American religious beliefs

The phrase "Native American religion" implies that all of the tribes inhabiting the North American continent for the past ten thousand years or so share common religious beliefs. While all have in common a reliance on oral rather than written traditions and a lack of boundaries between the spiritual and physical worlds, there are marked differences as well. These differences represent each tribe's response to the physical conditions of the environment in which they lived. The religious beliefs of three nations, the Iroquois, the Dakota, and the Apache, illustrate how environmental factors can at least partially shape religious beliefs.


The eastern woodlands of North America were dominated by the Iroquois tribe, who developed one of the most advanced and organized civilizations on the continent. The Iroquois occupied most of what is now the state of New York, as well as part of Canada. The Iroquois were surrounded by forest wilderness. While they survived by hunting and fishing, they also relied on agriculture. The Iroquois owed much of their success to the region's fertile soil, to forests with plentiful game, and to the many rivers and streams filled with fish.

Because the conditions of life were relatively easy, the Iroquois nation had the opportunity to develop a complex system of religious beliefs. At the center of Iroquois religion was belief in an all-powerful creator called Ha-wen-ne-yu, or the Great Spirit. They believed that they lived under the constant care of the Great Spirit, who ruled the world and especially the affairs of the Iroquois nation. The Iroquois did not develop a detailed description of the Great Spirit. He was an all-powerful ruler, beyond their comprehension.

The Iroquois further believed in a class of lesser spirits who administered to the material world. While the nature of the Great Spirit remained undefined, the Iroquois developed detailed descriptions of these lesser spirits, called Ho-no-che-no-keh, or Invisible Agents. These spirits owed their power to the Great Spirit's enormous power. Some had names, while others were associated with a natural force or object. One example was He-no, to whom the Great Spirit gave the thunderbolt. He-no controlled the weather.

The Great Spirit was regarded as benevolent (kind). The Iroquois did, however, note the existence of evil, represented by the Great Spirit's brother, Ha-ne-go-ate-geh, or the Evil-Minded. The Evil-Minded existed independently from the Great Spirit and controlled his own lesser spirits. People could choose whether to obey the Great Spirit or to give in to the temptations of the Evil-Minded. At death the Great Spirit would judge a person's immortal soul and punish those who had failed to obey him. For this reason, the Iroquois developed a moral code that contributed to the nation's success.

The ritual practices of the Iroquois were passed down through generations. Rituals were associated with the seasons of the year, reflecting the relationship between seasonal changes and agriculture. Great festivals were held in connection with agricultural periods to thank the Great Spirit for His protection and gifts. Leading the ceremonies were Ho-nun-den-ont, or Keepers of the Faith, a loose council of tribal members who maintained the ritual practices of the Iroquois.


In contrast to the Iroquois, who inhabited the dense woodlands of eastern North America, the Dakota (or Sioux, as they are popularly called) inhabited the northern Great Plains (present-day North and South Dakota and Minnesota). Because the Sioux occupied a much larger geographical region, they were less organized than the Iroquois. The tribe included a number of subtribes, such as the Oglala Sioux. Also unlike the Iroquois, the survival of the Sioux depended almost entirely on the hunting of buffalo. The buffalo provided the Sioux with virtually all the necessities of life. The hides provided clothing and shelter; the meat provided nourishment; and the horns provided utensils and cutting tools. Even the sinews were used for bow strings. For this reason, the Sioux were much more nomadic than the Iroquois, meaning that they moved from place to place as they followed the buffalo herds. The Sioux had no permanent settlements.

Symbolism in Religion

A common feature of a religion is an object or objects that serve as symbols of the faith. These objects are often inspiring to the religion's followers and may be used by them to focus their prayer or announce their faith, such as if worn as jewelry. Just as the assan, or rattle, is a symbol in Vodou and the hoop is sacred to the Sioux, Christianity, Hinduism, and Jainism have objects that are special to their followers. A prominent symbol of the Christian faith is the cross. It represents to Christians the sacrifice that the religion's founder, Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce), made for them when he died on the cross. The cross is a reminder of Jesus's sacrifice, love, and forgiveness. This symbol appears outside and within churches, on the rosary (Christian prayer beads), and even on jewelry.

Both Hinduism and Jainism share sacred symbols: the aum and the swastika. The aum, or om, in Hinduism represents a sacred sound that stands for all of God that is knowable and unknowable. It represents the past, present, and future. In Jainism, the aum is used as a repeated prayer that can take one to a trancelike state. The word swastika is Sanskrit for "may good prevail." It has the shape of a cross with all four of its branches bent at right angles and facing clockwise. For Hindus, the swastika is a reminder that God is present in all things. Jains understand the swastika to symbolize the four forms of existence held by souls that have not been freed. It reminds them of their goal of freeing the soul from worldly existence.

The chief characteristic of Sioux religious belief was a sense of oneness and unity between the natural and the supernatural worlds. This sense of unity was expressed in a number of ways. One was the prominence in Sioux life of the hoop, or circle, which symbolized the unity of the people. The people were imagined as united in a circle, just as the four directions of the compass were seen as part of a vast circle that has no beginning or ending. This symbolism was used in Sioux living arrangements. The people lived in tepees that were circular at the base, and tepees in a village were arranged in a circle. Another symbol was the Sacred Pipe, which symbolized the unity of the Sioux people with the earth, of which the pipe is made. It was believed that when people prayed with the Sacred Pipe, the spirits would come. Care of the Sacred Pipe, also known as the Calf Pipe, was given to the Sioux by a spirit called White Buffalo Woman. The Pipe remained in the hands of a keeper.

The Sioux believed that ultimately the world, including life and death, was not able to be understood. The word wakan is used to suggest this mysteriousness and unpredictability. Within the world was a motivating force, an energy, called wakan tanka. This force created the universe. The physical world was made up of manifestations of wakan tanka, so nothing in the physical world was regarded as real. Everything in the physical world only appeared to be real. "Wakan people," such as the White Buffalo Woman, interacted with the world and controlled humans' lives.

Sioux holy men were called wicasa wakan. Their function was to help the Sioux make sense of the world. These men did not develop a set of dogmas or beliefs but tried to help the Dakota people understand their place in the world.

Rituals centered on the buffalo. The Sioux believed that a bond existed between themselves and the buffalo as part of the interconnectedness of the world ruled by the force of wakan tanka. Most Sioux worship focused on personal mystical experiences rather than rituals conducted by a class of priests. These experiences were most often expressed in the form of a dance inspired by the tribal member's personal vision.


The Apache lived in the Southwest, including present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and portions of Mexico. Like the Sioux, they were a nomadic tribe. Unlike the Sioux, they were gatherers rather than hunters. The harsh desert climate of the Southwest did not support herds of game, nor did it support agriculture. Accordingly, living conditions for the Apache were difficult. Most of the tribe's energies were devoted to the search for scarce resources. Under these conditions, the Apache gave little thought to religious matters. They did not recognize gods and goddesses such as the Wakan people. The Apache belief system instead focused on the "supernaturals," or cultural figures that were responsible for the Apache's mode of life. These supernaturals had little to do with the day-to-day activities of the Apache, although an individual could call on them for help if necessary.

Religious ritual played little role in Apache life, again because so much attention was devoted to survival. Because the southwestern deserts lack seasons that are as noticeable as those of the Northeast or the Great Plains, the Apache did not celebrate seasonal events. Furthermore, the Apache had little in the way of formal ceremonies for such events as marriage and death. Marriage was regarded merely as the absorption of the couple into the Apache extended family, and death was seen as a failure of survival, not an event in any way to be celebrated. The Apache did not give much attention to the concept of an afterlife.

Because of the demands of survival, the tribe did not devote much time to religion. Each tribal member was encouraged to find a relationship with the supernatural powers through individual quests. What organized religious activity existed was led by shamans, who derived power from their ability to heal illness. The skilled shaman could become a powerful figure in the tribe by his ability to link the healing powers of the supernatural world to the Apache people.

Indigenous religions in Asia: Bon

Asia is home to a large number of indigenous religions. One that has attracted increasing attention is Bon, found in Tibet. Interest in this religion has grown as Tibet has become a more popular tourist destination. Bon is believed to have originated in Olmo Lungring, a land to the west of Tibet. It was introduced to Tibet by Tonpa Shenrab Miwo, who was born a prince about 18,000 years ago.

The Bon believe in a heaven occupied by three gods who control the world: Dagpa, who controls the past; Salba, who controls the present; and Shepa, who controls the future. Tonpa Shenrab Miwo claimed to be these gods' earthly incarnation or human form. Bon was once a flourishing religion in Tibet. But beginning in the eighth century, when a unified Tibet was formed, Buddhism was chosen as the official religion. Bon went into decline. Later in the eighth century ce the beliefs of Bon and of Buddhism merged to form a religion unique to Tibet.

Buddhism was regarded as the religion that dealt with otherworldly concerns. Bon was more of a folk religion (the beliefs of the common people) that dealt with the affairs of this world. Tibetans historically have believed that their harsh, mountainous country is inhabited by spirits and supernatural forces that have a direct effect on people's lives. A class of shamans communicates with these spirits and predicts the influences of the spirits on people. The shamans help people perform rituals either to enlist the help of the spirits or to overcome the harmful effects of spirits.

For More Information


Beier, Ulli, ed. The Origin of Life and Death: African Creation Myths. London: Heinemann, 1966. Adapted versions available at "Exploring Africa," (accessed on February 27, 2006).

Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick. Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Campbell, Susan Schuster. Called to Heal: African Shamanic Healers. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2000.

De La Torre, Miguel A. Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.

Glazier, Stephen D. Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin. Encyclopedia of Native American Religions: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2001.

Powers, John. "Bon: A Heterodox System." Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995. Available at (accessed on October 12, 2005).

Richman, Karen E. Migration and Vodou. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2005.


"Sioux Religion." St. Martin's College. Overview of World Religions. (accessed on June 5, 2006).