Much of the design of Native American blankets and throws, as well as items like Hopi Indian jewelry, is inspired by American Indian legend. The Native Americans are known to be very spiritual people – but do they follow a religion? And how does spirituality differ between tribes?
Just like every other culture on Earth, the Native Americans have their own belief systems and religious rituals…
The Native American religions rely on oral tradition – they are communal and can vary widely depending on tribe and region. Yet these beliefs are not considered by First Nations people to be “religion” in the way Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others view them.
Instead, Native American practices and rituals are considered to be a seamless, integral part of life and how they interact with the world and each other. The ceremonies they participate in mark milestones (birth, puberty, marriage, death), celebrate seasons and special events, and give people the power to rise above life’s challenges.
As the needs of individual tribes have altered, so to have the rituals and practices they follow.
The Ancient Roots of Native American Spirituality
Based on archaeological evidence, historians suggest that many thousands of years ago there was a homogeneous culture which stretched across the Arctic Circle, extending from what is now Greenland to Scandinavia, across Russia and Siberia. These people shared a common racial background, culture, and spiritual beliefs and rituals, including ceremonial hunting, animism, and shamanism. (The Inuit of Greenland and the Sami of Scandinavia are genetically related to the Indigenous North Americans of today). This culture extended through China and Tibet, ultimately influencing Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism.
Migration across the Bering Sea to what is now Alaska and Canada began up to sixty thousand years ago, and these people ultimately migrated through North America’s Great Plains to Central and South America – and these were the direct ancestors of today’s American Indians.
Native American Religion – Some Basic Principles
These early migrants followed a religion which was based on both mountain and sky gods (a nod to nomadic hunting) and earth goddesses (based on agriculture) – not dissimilar to the western Pagan Father Sun, Mother Earth traditions. Like other religions based around a goddess, much Native American belief divides the Universe into Heaven, Earth, and Underworld. Spirits inhabit all natural things, from animals to trees, rivers to birds, insects to mountains, places to rocks – and these intelligent spirits interact with humans in a belief (animism) that places can be sacred and animals manifest the supernatural. Visions and dreams carry real, tangible meaning.
The Cosmos and “God”
For American Indians and Canadian First Nations people, the galaxy and stars are a living womb which nurtures humans and other life on Earth. These native peoples aim to live in harmony with all life and each other.
Rituals between tribes are very diverse, yet almost all spiritual belief systems are closely connected to the supernatural and the land. They all recognize an invisible, constant Universal force – what many of us call “God”.
Yet the concept of God for Native Americans is not generally that of a personal being or supreme ruler over all things like it is for Christians and other western religions. Instead, it is an abstract and complex idea of a supernatural, sacred power imbued throughout everything in the Universe. There is no definitive god-like being, but rather an all-pervading element or force which has an indefinable source.
- The Dakota (Sioux) of the Great Plains recognize a complex spiritual hierarchy. The Sun is the pinnacle of this hierarchy, closely followed by Sky, Earth, and Rock. This is followed by Moon and Mediator (who are female) along with Wind and Winged One. Inferior beings follow – buffalo, bear, whirlwind and four winds, and others thereafter.
- The Pawnee of the Central Plains recognize a sacred quality dwelling in all the world, alongside a “Father” which oversees the heavenly bodies, thunder, lightning, rain and winds.
- The Blackfoot of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Great Plains of Montana arranged the Universe into “powers” with the Sun being the greatest, the Moon his wife, and Venus (the Morning Star) his son.
Nature is at the core of native spirituality. The natural world is honored in Native American jewelry and blanket design – including wind, water, and sacred animals.
Next time we will look at The Great Spirit – and later, Shamanism, and Tribal Rituals and Customs.