Category:Working Within the Native American Tradition

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The Great Serpent Mound of the Adena tribe of Ohio formed part of a complex Mississipian Valley culture in which snakes played an important sacred role, and large funerary mounds were erected.

Traditional Native American religions vary greatly, in the same way that Native languages and cultural beliefs vary, and for the same reason: their basis is regional and tribal. As in all parts of the world, such cultural diversity is due the relative bio-regional isolation of people prior to the age of mass transport. Native trade routes existed throughout North, Central, and South America for thousands of years prior to invasion and colonization by European forces, but the distinctive crafts, clothing, and music of each region were intact until the Americas were overrun and vanquished by Europeans.

As in India and Africa, where indigenous cultures and religious practices were partially destroyed, then misinterpreted and blurred together, and eventually re-emerged after the era of European colonization and exploitation. Unlike the situation in India and Africa, however, the Native American population was so small that no tribe ever successfully overthrew and repelled their oppressors. The systematic destruction of Native cultural institutions and infrastructures, and the partial or complete adoption of various forms of Christianity among Native people has led to the extinction of entire tribes, their languages, and their pantheons. It has not obliterated Native American religions, but it has changed them.


The Basis of Native American Spirituality

Hopi Kachina dancers in New Mexico, painted by Louis Akin in 1912; the Kachinas are the tribe's pantheon of deities
Modern Mayans restoring and recreating an ancient ceremony
Grand Entry at the 1983 inter-tribal Pow Wow in Omaha, Nebraska
A Navajo healer creates a sand-painting using natural minerals for colour; sand painting is also found within Hopi, Zuni, and some Plains tribes healing or curing ceremonies; the pictures generally depict the coming of gods and heroes to Earth
Ohlone dancers perform a sunrise ceremony at Yosemite Slough in San Francisco, California in 2010; photo by Paul Chinn
A masked dancer performing at the Haida Heritage Centre in British Columbia; photo by Andrew Hudson

Traditional Native American religions are, like indigenous religions worldwide, local traditions, but they do hold some philosophical principles in common.

  • Panentheism is a widespread belief: this is the perception that God is not separate from the universe, but animates every molecule and every cell, and so is within reach of every conscious being.
  • Animism is also widespread: it incorporates many divine forces, not just one. Human beings are not the only type of person; animals are on an equal footing with humans, and the very waters, rocks, and mountains are also alive and conscious. Mind and nature are not separate among animist thinkers.
  • Community tribal ceremonies are widely practiced: traditional songs and seasonal dances are a popular way to enact the stories and actions of local deities, to honour them, and to petition for their aid.

Generally speaking, Native American spirituality is grounded in personal integrity and a perception of the inter-connectivity between the mundane, natural, and spirit realms. Many adherents of traditional Native cultures prefer not to single out their beliefs and practices as a "religion" per se, choosing instead to describe their entire tribal culture and social structure as a "way" or "path."

The Varieties of Native American Religion

Local traditions have been sacked and partially overlaid by British, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonization and by Christian missionary efforts. Forced deportation to boarding schools, with the express purpose of compulsory assimilation of the people and destruction of Native culture and language, have also damaged the fabric of indigenous religion and spirituality in the Americas. What survives is the result of generations of underground resistance and the passing along the old stories and the old rituals, supplemented by new rituals, stories, and reformations as directed by the visions and revelations of Native American seers of all tribes.

Even after centuries of oppression, destruction, and neglect, there are vast differences in religious beliefs between Native American tribes. Some tribes retain all, most, or a significant portion of their culture-ways and religious practices, while others, smaller in number, have thrown their lot in with what is called the inter-tribal Pow-Wow Movement, a form of pan-Nativism similar to the pan-Indian Hinduism that emerged in India in response to British colonization.

Contemporary Native American Religions

Contemporary Native American religions tend not to be institutionalized but rather experiential and personal and may include, in addition to the veneration of deities and spirits, acts of individual asceticism, for instance through sweat lodge ceremonies. Religious practices tend to be carried out in a traditional family or tribal location and may mark a seasonal transition, a tribal commemoration, or a life event of the celebratory participants. Conversations about theology and cosmology may be limited, to instruction of the young, and the religious functions are primarily perpetuated during tribal ceremonies.

Native American religions had to respond to the invasion by white settlers. One response was the creation of new religious movements, such as the Ghost Dance. Another response was the restriction of attendance at religious ceremonies to Native Americans, to prevent tourism. A third adaptation was to organize the public performance of sacred seasonal dances as a way to draw in tourism and revenue. This last method of overcoming cultural annihilation has given rise to popular events in which Native foods and story-telling are showcased, and prizes may be awarded for authentic costumes and virtuoso performances of sacred drumming, song, and dance, in order to encourage perpetuation of the broader tribal traditions, as well as the tribal religion.

Native American Deities

For more information, see the page on Native American Deities

The veneration of ancient Native American deities was violently suppressed by European colonizers, who hoped to replace all Native religions with various denominations of Christianity. However, due to centuries of covert and overt resistance, knowledge of these deities and the ceremonies appropriate to their veneration have been partially retained and also deliberately revived as contemporary Native American traditions. (Read More... )

Native American Spiritual Figures

For more information, see the page on Native American Spiritual Figures

Within the various Native American traditions, the visions of prophets and the ministry of shamans and medicine people are generally integrated into the culture, and spiritual leaders have made a strong impression on tribal beliefs and customs. Some of these people have gone on, after their deaths, to be revered by spiritual followers, both within their respective tribal traditions and from outside of them. Through spirit mediumship and the veneration of ancestors, these Native American spiritual figures have assumed great importance outside their original cultures. (Read More ... )

Native American Spiritual Figures as Spirit Guides

For more information, see the page on Spirits and Spirit Guides

Spirit work involves enlisting the psychic aid of various spirits in order to accomplish specific spell-casting goals. These spirits may include the spirits of ancestors and the dead; the crossroads; Guardian Angels; the spirits of places, animals, plants, water sources, and beings other than humans; and a rich and varied roster of spiritual entities such as the Native American Black Hawk and the Guatemalan Maximon (San Simon-Judas). (Read More ... )


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Pages in category "Working Within the Native American Tradition"

The following 2 pages are in this category, out of 2 total.



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