Native American Religions

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Native American Religions

Indigenous peoples across the United States developed distinct but complementary or even congruent religious beliefs and practices related to natural environments. There is no one "Native American religion," no homogeneous set of beliefs and practices; rather there are varieties of religious perspectives that share some commonalities. From the northeastern Haudenosaunee ("People of the Longhouse"/Six Nations/Iroquois) to the northwestern Wanapum ("River People"), from the southwestern Muskogee (Creek) to the southeastern Seminole, and ranging across the United States to include the Lakota (Sioux), Chippewa, Cherokee, and numerous others, native peoples developed a broad sense of spirituality rather than structured and stratified religions with unified and enforced beliefs. Native forms of spirituality tolerate alternative worldviews; they do not attempt to impose their understanding of the sacred on other peoples. This demonstrates not weak faith but an understanding that spiritual reality cannot be totally defined by any one culture. Such tolerance has enabled cultural integrity amid diffusion of beliefs and rituals. Only Hopi elders (or Arizona) of the snake society do a rain dance with live, venomous snakes clenched in their teeth, only the Diné (Navajos of Arizona and New Mexico) bury a newborn's umbilical cord next to their sheep corral, linking them to Mother Earth and to their community in life and death, and only the Wanapum (or Oregon and Washington) have Dreamers chosen by the Creator through spontaneous visions to use dreams and visions to guide communities and link them with the salmon cycle of the Columbia River; but the Hopi, Navajo, Wanapum, and all indigenous peoples regard their world as Mother Earth, a sacred and living nurturer, and care for her accordingly; and all recognize one Great Holy One or Great Mystery or Grandfather and lesser spirits who guide, guard, and heal. Spirituality ordinarily focuses on present life—physical, social and psychological needs—rather than on an afterlife. Religious rites are communal or personal: An elder guides community worship, but individuals develop their own relationship with the sacred both individually—smoking the sacred pipe or singing a Spirit-given personal chant—and communally, passing a pipe around a sacred circle to be smoked by all, or focusing on the Spirit during a sun dance. The rising smoke of the sacred pipe offers to the Creator unified prayers from all creatures. Their unity is expressed also in a prayer often offered by elders before civic or religious gatherings: "Greetings, all my relations." The "relations" are not only one's ethnic group or all humans but also all living creatures. Life is sacred and taken only from necessity. Deer and buffalo are killed for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, never for sport; and a prayer of gratitude is expressed to the individual animal or its species spirit (such as the deer people) for its gift of life to meet human needs. In the sun dance (Plains peoples), dancers hoping for a vision sacrifice a piece of flesh torn from their skin and chest muscle when dancing backward (blowing eagle bone whistles clenched in their teeth, while others drum the heartbeat of Mother Earth and sing sacred songs) from the center tree to which they are attached by ropes and skewers. The sweat lodge ceremony or "sweat" cleanses participants of physical, spiritual, and psychological ailments. In a dome-shaped structure made of bent willows draped with animal skins or heavy blankets, in total darkness representing the womb of Mother Earth, profuse perspiration occurs when an elder sprinkles water on hot rocks in a center pit. The purified participants emerge reborn. Indigenous peoples believe in guardian spirits, who might reveal themselves in animal form during a solitary vision quest. The animal guide imparts to its human relation particular powers or insights. Among the Oglala Lakota a bear brings healing power and courage, a wolf teaches cooperation in the hunt and family stability, a turtle guides women and shields warriors. In some cultures animals are clan totems: honored for their attributes or, more commonly, as guides and granters of special power who must not be hunted. Encounters with the spirit world usually occur in the natural world away from the community. New places of encounter become sacred; sometimes encounters are sought in places made sacred by others' experiences. Such sacred sites might be identifiable by symbolic markings or natural features, or might be known only to spiritual leaders, or might include an entire mountain or forest. Indigenous morality follows oral natural laws given to ancestors by the Creator. There is no "separation of church and state." Religious law is civil law. Morality is taught through stories and example and involves concern for the community as a whole, including future generations.

Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Leaders

Native peoples have a firm belief in the guiding power of dreams and visions. Visions are sought—through prayer, fasting, and heroic practices (such as a vision quest in which the supplicant spends four days fasting alone in a remote area seeking a connection with a guardian spirit, or during a sun dance when the supplicant dances over a four-day period in the hot sun, hoping for a message from the spirit world)—or a vision is spontaneous: a person at prayer receives an unexpected call from the Spirit through extraordinary images, words, and a powerful energy flow. Prophets are men and women called to be messengers of the Spirit who sometimes foresee and interpret future events. Well-known prophecies come from the Hopi clans in the Southwest, and from the eighteenth-century Seneca leader Handsome Lake in the Northeast. Spiritual leaders (who might also be prophets) are extraordinary individuals gifted with spiritual powers, sometimes expressed through curative rituals; healers use their knowledge of herbs and mind-body connections. Nonnatives call native healers "medicine men" or "medicine women," but their abilities are spiritual as well as medicinal, and often more psychic than pharmacologic.

The term "shaman" is another misnomer, a term of Siberian origin but more widely applied by anthropologists, scholars of religion, and some "New Age" adherents. The spiritual leaders (by dreams, visions, and instruction) and healers (by intuition, instruction, and experience) seem to have extraordinary knowledge of the physical and psychological needs of their patients and of the remedies for those needs. Many have a secondary employment (carpenter, fisher, etc.) to financially supplement their primary calling as a healer. Healing powers are their gift from the Creator for the community; they do not charge for the use of sacred power (which is seen as residing in them or flowing through them), but they do accept posthealing gifts of gratitude. Noted twentieth-century spiritual leaders include Black Elk (Lakota); Phillip Deere (Muskogee); David Sohappy, Sr. (Wanapum); and Leon Shenandoah (Onondaga). In the nineteenth century, Wovoka (Paiute) had a vision and taught the ghost dance: His followers should dance, wear ghost shirts, and follow a way of nonviolence to see their ancestors return from the dead and bring a renewed world in which indigenous peoples would regain their lands and way of life.

Transcultural Diffusion

In the last half of the twentieth century, interest in native cultures generated by the publication of spiritual leaders' writings, American Indian Movement activism, and treaty negotiations has led to the diffusion of indigenous peoples' beliefs and practices among nonnatives. Indigenous spirituality-based ecological perspectives have become more appreciated and appropriated by other religious traditions and environmental organizations. Historians now recognize the contributions of Haudenoshaunee governance to the development of the U.S. Constitution. New Age groups have appropriated aspects of indigenous spirituality, sometimes with care, appreciation, and respect, but often superficially or for commercial purposes. Native elders hope that transcultural diffusion will stimulate respect for indigenous beliefs, culture, and sovereignty, and promote enhanced care for Mother Earth by the broader society.

See alsoBlack Elk; Ecospirituality; Native American Church; New Age Spirituality; Peyote; Shamanism; Spirituality; Sun Dance; Sweat Lodge; Totem; Visionary; Vision Quest.


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John Hart

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Native American Religions

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Native American Religions