A Primer on Native American Spirituality: It’s History, Influence & Legacy

“Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, among others, openly acknowledged their debt to Native Americans for the structure of the democracy they crafted. The same revolutionary concepts of government they learned from the Indians were later exported to Europe, where they were carried directly by Thomas Paine.”

As American Indians emerged during the past century from the controlling influence of Christian missionaries on the reservations, they have fought to reclaim their religious heritage and to guard it from distortion by the dominant white culture of North America. Some Native Americans have expressed the feeling that their religion is not appropriate for use by outsiders, and that non-Indians have no business participating in Indian rituals such as the sweat lodge and vision quest. Other Indians have taken a different stance, saying that there is no reason why outsiders should not participate in and learn from Native American rituals and beliefs in much the same way that they have benefited from the practices of Zen, Sufism, Yoga, and other non-European belief systems. As these Indian teachers and spokespeople argue, the world has never been more deeply in need of what their tradition has to offer. And it is an ancient culture of enormous value, reaching back to the very earliest forms of spiritual life that were practiced on the earth.

Archaeologists propose that tens of thousands of years ago a somewhat uniform culture stretched around the northernmost regions of the globe from Greenland and Scandinavia to northern Asia and Siberia. The peoples of this circumpolar culture shared a common history and many religious beliefs and practices including animism, shamanism, and ceremonies centered around hunting and animals. The culture reached down into China, where it influenced the development of Taoism, and Tibet, whose shamanistic Bon culture left its stamp on Tibetan Buddhism. Beginning as long as 60,000 years ago, the peoples of northern Asia migrated across what is now the Bering Sea to Alaska and Canada, and then down through the Great Plains of North America to Central and South America.

The culture of these migrants, the ancestors of the North American Indians, incorporated elements of religion based on both nomadic hunting (mountain and sky gods) and agriculture (earth goddesses, shrines, and temples). As in many Goddess religions, the Native American conception divides the universe into heaven, earth, and underworld. Distinctions among spirits, divinities, humans, and animals are often blurred. Animals, places, even stones and trees can possess spirits that interact with humans in a kind of cosmic harmony, similar to the ancient concept of kami in the Shinto tradition of Japan. This belief, known as animism, is common to many preliterate religions which hold that personal, intelligent spirits inhabit almost all natural objects, from stones, plants, and rivers to insects, birds, animals, trees, and mountains. Indians regard some, but not all, places as sacred; certain locations and animals are singled out as manifestations of the supernatural, including those seen in dreams or visions.

The native religions of North America, like those of other continents, by and large rely on oral rather than written transmission, which is why they are sometimes called preliterate, or primal, acknowledging their ancient status (the term “primitive” is no longer applied, because of its pejorative connotation). In the truest sense, they make up a communal religion; many tribes and members contributing to a tradition which is basically the same for most Indians, with a wide range of regional and tribal variations.

Indigenous peoples look on the cosmos as a living womb that nurtures their lives, and so they have less need to destroy or reshape it as more technologically developed cultures do (although they sometimes abuse the land and livestock as developed cultures do). Their goal could be described as achieving harmony in the personal, social, and cosmic realms, rather than gaining personal salvation or liberation as historical religions aim to do.

The Roots of Democracy

The terms Native American and American Indian, or just Indian, are both used by various North American tribes and tribal representatives to refer to their people. Some insist on Native American; others say that only white liberals use that term, and they prefer the traditional, respectful title of American Indian. In fact, though, most spokespeople use the phrases interchangeably with little concern for political correctness. Further, the terms actually used by tribes such as the Comanche, Hopi, and Lakota Sioux to refer to themselves in their native languages can be translated as “The People”.

According to historians who have studied the relations between the Indians and the early colonists, the men we call our Founding Fathers were profoundly influenced by their contacts with the land’s inhabitants. The idea of uniting the thirteen American colonies came originally from the Indian leader Chief Canassatego of the Iroquois League. In that historic confederation, founded between 1000 and 1400, five and later six member nations had equal voices irrespective of their numbers or seniority — a forerunner of the Continental Congress and the Senate. The Iroqouis League also had provisions for the democratic political processes known as initiative, referendum, and recall. Even the concept of an open meeting in which citizens exercise an equal voice in decision-making was borrowed from the Indians, along with the Algonquian word for it: caucus. The Indian tradition of having separate leaders for war and peace was also adopted by the Americans (unlike England and many African and Latin American democracies, military leaders cannot serve in the U.S. government unless they first resign their commissions).

Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, among others, openly acknowledged their debt to Native Americans for the structure of the democracy they crafted. The same revolutionary concepts of government they learned from the Indians were later exported to Europe, where they were carried directly by Thomas Paine. Paine had negotiated with the Iroquois during the American Revolution, tried to learn their language, and sought to incorporate their social structure into the Constitution

Rituals and Customs

Although Indian beliefs and customs represent a wide range of sources and have evolved over millennia, many of them are remarkably similar. Most tribes, especially among the Plains Indians, have traditionally practiced some form of potlatch, or give-away ceremonies, highlighted by the lavish distribution of goods and food to members of other clans, villages, or tribes. The potlatch embodies a sense of communal responsibility reaching back to aboriginal times, and the tradition is tied in with the democratic beliefs of The People. Anyone elected to a leadership position was expected to give away all his possessions so as not to be able to profit materially from his new position. Related to that is a belief in stewardship rather than ownership of the land. The Europeans who settled America had difficulty comprehending this as they kept trying to buy land from the Indians.

In many cases, however, tribes differ among themselves as to specific rituals and ceremonies. According to Sioux tradition, for instance, seven ceremonies were taught to tribal elders by the Buffalo Calf Woman, who appeared to two members of the Sioux tribe in a vision and explained that the sacred pipe was to be used in seven rites. She also taught the seven ceremonies to the tribe, the first in person and the other six in visions granted after she departed, leaving behind her sacred bundle, which is still kept on one of the Sioux reservations. The medicine bundle remains a significant element of Indian religion, a collection of sacred objects carried by Native American males of any importance in their community. The bundles’ “medicine” consists of sacred objects that facilitate interaction with the supernatural, especially a pipe and tobacco, which are smoked whenever the bundle is unwrapped and used for religious purposes. Some of the bundle’s contents are incorporeal, such as songs and rituals that go with it when the bundle is bought or sold. Historically, one could own more than one bundle, a sign of wealth or importance within the tribe.

Rituals and ceremonies of special significance, especially among plains Indians, include the Sweat Lodge ceremony (communal spiritual cleansing); Vision Quest (a rite of passage for the young or spiritual quest for adults); Sun Dance Ceremony (an annual tribal thanksgiving to the Great Spirit held in late summer); Making Relatives (entering a relationship with a nonrelative that is stronger than kinship); Preparing a Girl for Womanhood; and Throwing the Ball (a ritual that evolved into a game upon which LaCrosse is based). The sacred pipe, ritually filled with tobacco or tobacco substitute — but never with any psychotropic substance as is often mistakenly believed — is passed among participants at all sacred ceremonies (inhaling is not required of nonsmokers).

Source: This article is an excerpt from the essay “Native American Spirituality” by Caroline Myss, on myss.com. It has been shared here with permission. Myss is a spiritual teacher and author of numerous books. To read the article in its entirety, which includes the sections Shamanism and The Great Spirit, click here. You can also follow Caroline on Facebook and Twitter.