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Native American Religions, Bioethics in



Using the phrase "Native American" signals a recognition that there are indigenous peoples on the North American continent who retain distinct ethical perspectives within the mainstream cultures of the United States and Canada. Terms such as "First Peoples," "American Indian," and "Amerindian" are also used to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Each term has a history of use and limitations in its reference. For example, there are no actual people who call themselves Native Americans in their traditional language; rather, there are distinct ethnic groups who were on the North American continent prior to the arrival of Europeans, Africans, and Asians. Prior to contact with European settlers in the fifteenth century, it is believed, there were over 2,000 different native communities on the continent. Over 700 of these ethnic groups have survived repeated invasions, epidemic diseases, cultural genocide, and ideological exploitation. Thus, when we use the term "Native American," it is at a general level of understanding and reference that is fictional and conceptual. A deeper understanding of Native Americans must move to another level of reference, beginning with the names by which indigenous peoples know themselves.

In this entry the following system will be used. The indigenous name will be followed by the popular name in Canada and the United States. The peoples who call themselves Anishinabe are also known as Chippewa/Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Pottawatomi. In some instances, there are historical and sociological reasons for differentiating specific tribal names among a larger nation such as the Anishinabe. So also, the term Haudenosaunee, or "Long-House People," is the name of the northeastern North American peoples whom the French called Iroquois. Either term is often used to indicate individual nations within the Haudenosaunee political confederation, or "long house": Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Mohawk. Other examples can be listed: Apsaalooke/Crow; Tsistsistas/Cheyenne; Muskogee and Miccosukkee/Creek; Dine/Navajo; Ashiwi/ Zuni; Tohono O'odham/Papago; and Skittagetan/Haida. This usage recognizes the right of a people to be known by the name by which they describe themselves.

The term religion raises a similar ethical concern; it carries associated references that can mislead an inquiry into Native American ways. The term religion derives from the Latin religio, "to bind fast." Traditionally this has carried associations from its Mediterranean-Atlantic heritage, namely, to be reunited, after a pilgrimage through life, with the personal, monotheistic, creator God who transcends earthly existence. The connotations of monotheism, the one deity as personal and transcendent, and a pilgrimage orientation to life are embedded in the term religion for many Euro-American Christians.

In contrast, the term lifeway emphasizes the road of life as indigenous people see it. Such a perspective can be associated with the concept "worldview," a distinct way of thinking about the cosmos and of evaluating life's actions in terms of those views. The Dakota/Sioux lawyer and professor of history Vine Deloria, Jr., speaks thus of an Indian ethical view of the universe: "In the moral universe all activities, events, and entities are related, and consequently it does not matter what kind of existence an entity enjoys, for the responsibility is always there for it to participate in the continuing creation of reality" (Deloria, p. 63). This view understands all life forms as having purpose, as being related, and as being cocreators of the world they occupy. The religious structure that flows from these views gives rise to a moral imagination in which the sacred is immanent, within the earth, and revealed in one's contemplation of natural occurrences. All life in one's local bioregion is both interdependent and participating in the act of creation evident, for example, in the changing seasons. The term bioregion, is used here to suggest the Native American reverence and respect for all life forms in the local region. Indians have traditionally understood their local bioregion as filled with moral purpose, interrelated, and alive.

Cosmic Interdependence

Moral actions in Native American lifeways are acts in harmony with a sacred power that is believed to pervade the world and is experienced most immediately in the local bioregion. While moral actors are not limited to the human community, any particular human is seen as integrated into the larger harmony by means of his or her community. Someone who has committed a crime is not made into an outsider by virtue of an isolated act. Rather, the one who is out of balance must be brought back, if possible, into the community by ritual treatment with that power believed to pervade the cosmos.

Native peoples in North America have articulated terms such as Wakan Tanka (Lakota), Kitche Manitou (Anishinabe), or Akbatatdia (Apsaalooke), which convey an understanding of the mysterious presence and fullness of pervasive cosmic power. These terms have often been used by nonnative missionary traditions to communicate ideas regarding the sacred, especially belief in a personal God. While such usage may be sanctioned by Christian native peoples, some traditional practitioners object to this interpretation as misleading. Sacred power, and the native terms used to evoke that mystery, do not indicate a patriarchal deity but emphasize the web of cocreative relationships throughout the spiritual realms and the ecological terrain, or bioregion. This pervasive power is experienced in a plurality of manifestations, or spirits, that relate to the presence of transformative power in distinct spiritual realms of the cosmos but especially to the local bioregion. Thus, Native American lifeways may be described as manifesting an "ethical naturalism" in which moral choices flow from the desires of individuals and communities to flourish within the limits and opportunities of nature as understood by the people and as typically observed within the particular bioregional conditions of a people (Lovin and Reynolds).

Synthetic Ethics

Questions of the relation of ethics to ritual and myth are also analytical themes in the study of religion, but in Native American traditions these questions are inextricably linked. This article will attempt to communicate this ethical wholeness by describing practices related to both ritual and the daily life of native North American peoples. One term used throughout this entry, synthetic ethics, refers to the Native American effort to bring people into the most immediate and profound encounter with resources for thought and for food: the bioregion, the animals hunted, the human community, the seasons, and the spiritual realm.

Synthetic ethics signifies the seamless whole of the Native American world in which personal actions affirm mythic values and in which ritual actions reflect relationships established with the surrounding bioregion. Rather than abstract principles, these ethical relationships correspond to moral metaphors transmitted in the myth stories. Such generative metaphors as the living earth and purposeful animals cause a person to contemplate, as ethical experiences, the seasons, or the hunt, or the eating of local foods at their harvest time. American Indian moral imagination arises from formal structures that are believed to govern personal and community life as well as the bioregion and the larger cosmos. Such a worldview implies integration of a situational ethic, which guides one in daily life, and a cosmological ethic, which flows from the harmonious rhythms of nature. Thus, the terms lifeway, synthetic ethics, and bioethics are used in this entry to suggest the wholeness or totality of a good life that is lived in thoughtful relationship to the seasons and the living bioregion.

Each particular native people has its own terms for such concepts as synthetic ethics and lifeway. For example, Winona LaDuke writes:

The ethical code of my own Anishinabeg community of the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota keeps communities and individuals in line with natural law. "Minobimaatisiiwin"— it means both the "good life" and "continuous rebirth"—is central to our value system. In minobimaatisiiwin, we honor women as the givers of lives, we honor our Chi Anishinabeg, our old people and ancestors who hold the knowledge. We honor our children as the continuity from generations, and we honor ourselves as a part of creation. Implicit in minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous habitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem and of the need to maintain this balance. (p. 70)

It is possible to find similar expressions by elders from indigenous communities in North America that articulate the relationship between social justice and ecojustice in their lifeway. The range of indigenous terms need not be discussed here but, where appropriate, such terms will be introduced.

Land and the Human Presence

Three features of Winona LaDuke's description of Anishinabe/Ojibwe ethical naturalism—enduring habitation (land), cosmological understanding (lifeway), and ecological balance (synthetic ethics)—can be used to frame the Native American appreciation of land and the human presence. The Winter Dance among the Okanagan/Salish/ Colville peoples of Washington State provides a unique insight into the relationships of land, lifeway, and synthetic ethics. The Winter Dance introduces us to a developed native North American lifeway in which ritual participation is believed to transform individuals, communities, and bioregions. Moreover, the Salish understand the relationships established during the ritual as historical, that is, they deepen as an individual matures in the ethical path.

While this ritual, from the interior Salish-speaking peoples of the Columbia River plateau, has been selected for discussion here, it should be emphasized that the themes discussed have parallels in many distinct native North American rituals. The Green Corn, or Busk, ceremony of the Muskogee in the Southeast, the Shalako and Winter Solstice rituals of the Ashiwi in the Southwest, the Ashkisshe, or Sun Dance, of the Northern Plains Apsaaloke and many more rituals throughout Indian country continue to be performed in sacred settings by traditional practitioners.

OKANAGAN/SALISH/COLVILLE WINTER DANCE. Among many Salish people the Winter Dance begins the annual ritual calendar. Rituals performed during the calendar year include individual and communal activities, such as sweat-lodge ceremonies, vision questing, stick gambling, curing rituals, and first fruits and harvest festivals for deer, salmon, and root crops. However, the major ritual, which draws together all of the old subsistence and healing rituals, is the Winter Dance. This dance is a complex renewal ritual convened by individual sponsors from late December through February. An abbreviated form of the ceremony can be performed at any time for someone in need. Simply by ritually establishing the center pole, the most significant symbol of the bioregion, in the middle of the dance house the curative and transformative powers of the Winter Dance can be evoked.

The Winter Dance ritual complex is especially focused on the singing of guardian spirit songs over the successive days of the ceremonial (Grim, 1992). Singing begins in the evening of each day and continues until dawn. "Ceremonial" also refers to the accompanying ritual activity that occurs during the day, such as feasting, sweat-lodge rituals (healings, purifications, petitions), giveaways, stick-game gambling, and storytelling. At the ritual heart of the Winter Dance, however, is the individual-guardian spirit relationship. Most important, this spirit-human exchange generates and reenacts the time of the traditional mythic stories, or cosmogony, in which the universe was created. The Salish moral imagination is established in this cosmogonic symbolism that is believed to renew community life and to regenerate plants and animals. Thus, individual-guardian spirit relationships form the core of the Salish synthetic ethics in which stories, songs, and symbolic actions bind individual, community, and bioregion together to generate a sacred cohesiveness and a spiritual empathy. This Native American ritual, then, provides an excellent example of the close relationship between land, lifeway, and synthetic ethics.

Prior to contact with mainstream America and the establishment of the reservation system in the nineteenth century, the Winter Dance provided the major impetus for independent villages to undertake ritual diplomacy with other villages. The ritual was the locus of interaction that smoothed individual conflicts and encouraged group cohesion. Thus, the multifaceted Winter Dance diminished aggressive rivalry between villages and brought them together for the shared task of world renewal. Just as the Winter Dance was the locus for negotiation between fiercely independent and self-governed villages, so this ritual continues to be the central place for negotiation between the human and spirit realms.

As a world renewal ceremony the Winter Dance calls the spirit powers of the bioregion into reciprocal relationship with the human communities. This ceremonial makes explicit the interdependence of minerals, plants, animals, and humans through the songs that are sung by those who have had visionary experiences of these spirits in special places of the bioregion. There is no explicit recitation of a cosmogony during the Winter Dance; however, during the days between the evening and all-night ritual activity, individuals are encouraged to tell stories. Coyote stories are especially popular on these occasions. While there is no single cosmogony among the Salish people, the cycle of Coyote stories has cosmogonic features that describe the formative activities in the time of mythic beginnings (Mourning Dove, 1933). The often humorous Coyote stories are ensembles of generative moral metaphors in which the ambiguous and mistaken actions of Coyote are narrated as examples of inharmonious behavior. Thus, the formal activities of singing vision songs and the giving of gifts, as well as the informal storytelling, serve to activate a ritual logic that informs participants of both the sources of motivation for a moral life and the purposive world around them.

The most significant symbol of land and the human presence is the center pole, a lodgepole pine ninety or so inches high. The center pole, symbolic of the bioregion, is set up in the middle of the dance hall. It is the most significant place for contact with, and communication from, guardian spirits. Songs and giveaways are the mode of the moral imagination during this ritual, and the singers are said to experience a spirit sickness because of their proximity to the cosmogonic powers. The singers go to that center pole to sing, speak in moral exhortation to the assembled community, and give gifts just as the ancient mythic spirits gave to humans. While dancing around the pole to the songs of the visionaries, the participants are said to be like the animals who "are moving around" during the snows of the Winter Dance season. The very structure of the Winter Dance as animals moving about the land is presented as having moral force in Salish thought. More than simply isolated ritual acts or symbolic gestures, it is understood as bringing a person and a community into the moral order established during the time of the cosmogonic events when the mythic plants, minerals, and animals decided to give their bodies to humans for food.

In the traditional Winter Dance singers renewed themselves in the centering experience of the ceremony, and by doing so re-created their village communities. Much has been lost due to the intrusion of the dominant Euro-American worldview, which has devalued the sacredness of the community of all life forms and has often misunderstood the visionary experiences of guardian spirits. Still, the Salish Winter Dance retains striking continuity with a traditional ethics of giving, evident in the giveaway features of the ritual, and of empathy, apparent in the spirit sickness. This is because of the evocation in the Winter Dance ritual of the ancient cosmogonic knowledge transmitted in the sacred power (sumix) of the mineral, plant, and animal persons, in the spirit sickness of the singers, and in the cosmic symbolism of the centering tree. This relationship between ritual and ethics can be labeled "synthetic" to signal the holistic character of the traditional lifeway of these people.

Health, Sickness, and Healing

Knowledge of health, reproduction, and death among particular native North American peoples developed in relation to their investigative exchange with bioregions, and in historical contacts among indigenous peoples long before the arrival of Europeans. One ancient religious practice, that of the healer, or shaman, still embodies traditional knowledge of bioregions accumulated over centuries of historical change. Comparative studies in shamanism suggest that Native American peoples brought healing practices with them in their transcontinental passages from Siberia as long as 40,000 years ago. The shaman, as a specialist in psychological and spiritual healing, can be contrasted in some native North American traditions with herbalists, who also sought to cure ills. Among the Winnebago of the western Great Lakes region of Wisconsin the following advice was given to young men who were about to seek a vision experience:

There are individuals who know [the virtues and powers]. It is sad enough that you could not obtain [blessings from the more powerful spirits] during fasting; but at least ask those who possess plants to take pity on you. If they take pity on you, they will give you one of the good plants that give life [to man] and thus you can use them to encourage you in life. However, one plant will not be enough for you to possess. All [the plants] that are to be found on grandmother's hair, all those that give life, you should try to find out about, until you have a medicine chest [full]. Then you will indeed have great reason for being encouraged. (Blowsnake, p. 75)

Such advice not only emphasizes the disciplined attention given to the plant world and to those who know the healing properties of plants but also suggests the broad connections between religion, ethics, and bioregion.

The last 500 years of historical contacts with Eurasia have brought "virgin soil epidemics," diseases against which native peoples had no natural defense (Crosby), resulting in demographic devastation among Native American populations (Dobyns). The initial challenge to and decline in the ritual authority of Native American shamans due to disease during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries did not lead to the disappearance of these ritual practitioners. Rather, as epidemics subsided, traditional practices were often given full credit for effecting cures (Trigger). Currently, traditional healers are often found working with scientific medical practitioners on many reserves and reservations.

Mainstream American popularizations of surviving Native American healing practices resulted, during the nineteenth century, in misunderstandings of herbal healers or medicine persons (Albanese). This has led to romantic fictional accounts of shamans as creative individualists. One characteristic that courses through all of this interest in Native American health systems is the close connection between medicine and religion. As we have emphasized in the use of the term lifeway, religion is a relational practice, and an indigenous shaman always stands in close connection with his or her bioregional community.

Ritual specialists capable of diagnosing disease, treating ailments, and guiding the dead are found in all traditional native North American settings (Hultkrantz). In many agricultural communities these specialists organized in priesthoods that transmitted traditional lore and ritual experiences that addressed specific sicknesses. Among the Ashiwi/ Zuni in the Southwest, research on the human body was extensive and, during healing rituals, patterns symbolic of the somatic knowledge of Zuni healers were drawn on the patient (Hultkrantz). The physiology and anthropology informing this ritual, however, were not necessarily drawn from cadaver experiments or empirical observations of social structure. These healing societies typically abhorred cutting a dead body, for it still embodied ancestral animating principles in the process of release or dying. Often specialists in dreams, visions, and spiritual travel to other-than-human realms were believed to have acquired knowledge of the human body that could not have been obtained by observational means (Deloria).

The gathering-and-hunting societies of the period before the late nineteenth century, as well as many of these extant native communities, generally sanction individual shamans. Different from priests, who may be inducted into a healing cult through a personal healing or clan privilege to learn a traditional body of lore (Ortiz), shamans are usually called by vivid experiences of spirits that "adopt" them and enable them to respond to specific needs of their people (Grim, 1983). Myths among diverse native North American peoples, such as the Apsaalooke/Crow and the Dine/Navajo, often described a hero or heroine as someone who had been abandoned by the people and consequently, "adopted" by a spirit power (Eliade; Grim, 1983; Sandner; Sullivan).

Disease in a traditional Native American setting is usually attributed to transgression of a cosmological principle, performance of prohibited behavior, intrusion of an object "shot" into a diseased individual by witchcraft, or loss of a vital soul. Prohibitions in a native context often constitute a major ethical system involving hundreds of rules for the treatment of living organisms, handling the remains of organisms, and strategies for living with the spiritual powers in the bioregion. The Koyukon people of Alaska, for example, have an elaborate system of rules and regulations called hutlanee (Nelson). Disease and death can result from breaking these rules and disrupting the natural balance of sinh taala, "the power of the earth." Koyukon shamans, diyinyoo, know the spiritual powers that reside in the bioregion and use their power to diagnose disease, to treat illness, and to restore sinh taala, the foundation of their medicine. Shamans and elders teach the wisdom needed to restore the power of the earth and to meet death with knowledge of the paths to those places in the bioregion where the dead one will live. These teachings are found in the stories from the Distant Time, or Kk'adonts'idnee, in which the origin, design, and functioning of nature were established. Instituted in Distant Time, the hutlanee, moral codes for conserving game animals and the environment, are not simply superstitions but the Koyukon synthetic ethics that governs life.

Disease that results from "object intrusion," or witchcraft, often implies a worldview in which balance or harmony between one's body and the local bioregion has been purposely broken by a malicious individual. Among the Dine/Navajo, the health of an individual is not an isolated case but a matter of the whole community of life. The "beauty," or hozho, inherent in the world can be put out of harmony by the malicious act of witchcraft. Cosmological ceremonies of great beauty, called chantways, are conducted by ritual specialists, or singers, to reestablish the diseased person's bodily harmony by removing the intruded object or retrieving lost vitality. The key relationship in Dine/Navajo rituals is that between the Holy People, Diyin Dine'e, who are potentially malevolent as numinous forces in the landscape, and the Dine themselves, as earth-surface people. To reestablish health, the ritual evokes the Holy People, who are the inner forms of the elements of nature. Through the narrative power of language, especially in a form of the chantway called Enemyway, which exorcises evil, the chaos of witchcraft can be transformed into order and beauty (Witherspoon). The synthetic ethics of the Dine/Navajo people does not expel malicious people from the community, where there would be no opportunity to undo their evil. Rather the hope is that they also can be restored to "beauty" and cosmic harmony.

In the Dine/Navajo Emergence Myth, the basic narrative source for the chantway stories, the beauty of the earth is evoked in the following chant to restore health: "Then go on as one who has long life, Go on as one who is happy, Go with blessing before you, Go with blessing behind you, Go with blessing below you, Go with blessing above you, Go with blessing around you, Go with blessing in your speech, Go with happiness and long life, Go mysteriously" (Sandner, p. vii). Through this repetitive language, the chanters amplify sacred power and control the inner forms of themselves, of their patients, and of the spiritual powers in the landscape that have been evoked into the sandpainting ritual. The chanter restores the blessedness of the one sung over by bringing the patient into the healing environment.

Current Ethical Perspectives

Major ethical issues involving native North American peoples have coalesced around the following three areas: ancestral bones, religious freedom, and sovereignty. The passage of the Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 has helped to slow the pillage of ancestral Native American gravesites. So also the itemization of Native American holdings in major museums will enhance the possibility of the return of sensitive religious material to native peoples from whom it was often improperly obtained.

Serious questions of trust and sovereignty between the American government and Native American peoples have arisen in the late twentieth century in a series of court cases in which indigenous religious freedom has been curtailed. The history of mainstream American cultural and legislative antagonism toward Native American lifeways had been momentarily reversed in the passage in 1978 of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. However, a sequence of Supreme Court cases (especially Lying v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association and Employment Division v. Smith) has challenged the sovereignty of Native American lifeways and demonstrated an unwillingness to recognize their sacred relationships to land.

The emergence at the end of the twentieth century of a global voice of indigenous people comes as a result of such negative factors as the environmental crisis and the proximity of indigenous peoples to undeveloped areas on the globe. In the United States and Canada, native North American peoples, having been pushed onto reservations and reserves away from the majority populations of mainstream culture, now manage resources and undeveloped land. Native American peoples have increased their close contact with other indigenous peoples around the globe in an effort to protect themselves from environmental racism, the imposition of projects such as hydroelectric dams and toxic dump sites that destroy the environments of minority peoples. Gatherings such as the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the meetings titled "Changing Ecological Values in the 21st Century" in Kyoto, Japan, in 1993 have included native North American representatives. Meetings have also brought together representatives from the world's religions to talk with elders from Native American lifeways about their traditional environmental ethics.

The remarkable resurgence of native North American peoples in the late twentieth century, after 500 years of suppression, derives from a complex process, but undoubtedly the knowledge transmitted in traditional ethics is a singular component of their endurance. Often dismissed as superstitious or derogatively labeled as primitive, the affective and holistic insights of native peoples are now recognized as ways of knowing grounded in close relationship with local bioregions. Those native teachers who still know this ethical system present their insights as a gift, a giveaway, to dominant America, which for so long juxtaposed the "nobility" of Enlightenment reason with the "contemptible character" of native thought. For traditional native North American peoples, the world is alive and, far from being a random collection of objects, is seen by some as our Mother and by many as a community of knowing subjects. Rather than a branch of knowledge, bioethics, in a native North American context, brings one to the heart of a way through life.

john a. grim (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Alternative Therapies; Animal Welfare and Rights; Body; Bioethics, African-American Perspectives; Conscience, Rights of; Environmental Ethics; Ethics: Religion And Morality


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