NATIVE AMERICAN

SPIRITUALITY

Quotation:

bullet"Rather than going to church, I attend a sweat lodge; rather than accepting bread and toast [sic] from the Holy Priest, I smoke a ceremonial pipe to come into Communion with the Great Spirit; and rather than kneeling with my hands placed together in prayer, I let sweetgrass be feathered over my entire being for spiritual cleansing and allow the smoke to carry my prayers into the heavens. I am a Mi'kmaq, and this is how we pray." Noah Augustine, from his article "Grandfather was a knowing Christian, Toronto Star, Toronto ON Canada, 2000-AUG-9.
bullet"If you take the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone.  Our bible IS the wind." Statement by an anonymous Native woman.

Disclaimer

Many followers of Native American Spirituality, do not regard their spiritual beliefs and practices as a "religion" in the way in which many Christians do. Their beliefs and practices form a integral and seamless part of their very being.

Introduction

A quote from Native American Religions by Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin (Facts on File, New York, 1992, ISBN 0-8160-2017-5) is instructive:

".....the North American public remains ignorant about Native American religions. And this, despite the fact that hundreds of books and articles have been published by anthropologists, religionists and others about native beliefs......Little of this scholarly literature has found its way into popular books about Native American religion..."

Yet Natives culture and religion should be valued. They have made many contributions to North American society:

bulletan awareness of concern for the environment
bulletfood staples such as corn, beans, squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes
bulletthe design of the kayak, toboggan and snowshoe
bulletthe original oral contraceptive
bulletcotton
bulletover 200 drugs, derived from native remedies

It is ironic that the wine that is the Christians' most sacred substance, used in the Mass to represent the blood of their God, has caused such a trail of devastation within Native populations. And the Natives' most sacred substance, tobacco, has caused major health problems for so many Christians.

According to the Canadian 1991 census, there were 1,002,945 Canadians with North American Indian, Métis and/or Inuit ancestry. 10,840 are recorded as following an aboriginal spiritual path. The latter is believed to be greatly under-reported.

From where did Native Americans originate?

There was, until recently, a consensus among scientists that prior to perhaps 11,200 years ago, the Western Hemisphere was completely devoid of humans. Much of the world's water was frozen in gigantic ice sheets. The floor of the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was exposed. Big-game hunters were able to walk to Alaska. They turned south, spreading out through the Great Plains and into what is now the American Southwest. Within a few thousand years, they had made it all the way to the tip of South America. Recent archeological discoveries have shown that people may have arrived far earlier "in many waves of migration and by a number of routes" -- perhaps even from Australia, South Asia or Europe. 13,9 Some native tribes contest these theories, believing that their ancestors have always been in the Americas or that they emerged into the present world from beneath the earth. 1

Native Religious Development

Because of the wide range of habitats in North America, different native religions evolved to match the needs and lifestyles of the individual tribe.

Religious traditions of aboriginal peoples around the world tend to be heavily influenced by their methods of acquiring food, whether by hunting wild animals or by agriculture. Native American spirituality is no exception. Their rituals and belief show a blending of interest in promoting and preserving their hunting and horticulture.

The arrival of Europeans marked a major change in Native society. Tens of millions died due to sickness, and programs of slavery and extermination.2 Europeans and their missionaries looked upon Native Spirituality as worthless superstition inspired by the Christian devil, Satan. Many of the survivors were forcibly converted to Christianity. The US and Canadian governments instituted policies to force Natives onto reservations and to encourage them to become assimilated into the majority culture. 3 During the middle decades of the 20th century, whole generations of children were kidnapped, forcibly confined in residential schools, and abused physically, sexually and emotionally. In Canada, these schools were operated on behalf of the Federal Government by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches. Both the government and these religious institutions have been hit by a multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuit. The Anglican Church expects to be forced into bankruptcy by legal costs during 2001.

Native spirituality was suppressed by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Spritual leaders ran the risk of jail sentences of up to 30 years for simply practicing their rituals. This came to an end in the U.S. in 1978 when the Freedom of Religion Act was passed.

Some suicidologists believe that the extremely high suicide rate among Natives is due to the suppression of their religion and culture by the Federal Governments. This suppression is still seen in the prison administrations; Canadian prisons have only recently allowed Native sweat lodge ceremonies; most American prisons routinely deny permission.

Natives today follow many spiritual traditions:

bulletMany Native families today have been devout Christians for generations.
bulletOthers, particularly in the Southwest have retained their aboriginal traditions more or less intact.
bulletMost follow a personal faith that combines traditional and Christian elements.
bulletPan Indianism is a recent and growing movement which encourages a return to traditional beliefs, and seeks to create a common Native religion.
bulletThe Native American Church is a continuation of the ancient Peyote Religion which had used a cactus with psychedelic properties called peyote for about 10,000 years. Incorporated in 1918, its original aim was to promote Christian beliefs and values, and to use the peyote sacrament. Although use of peyote is restricted to religious ritual which is protected by the US Constitution, and it is not harmful or habit forming, and has a multi-millennia tradition, there has been considerable opposition from Christian groups, from governments, and from within some tribes.

The Inuit

The traditional Inuit (Eskimo) culture is similar to those found in other circumpolar regions: Northern Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries. Life has been precarious; there are the double challenges of the cold, and the continual threat of starvation. (The popular name for the Inuit, "Eskimo", is not used by the Inuit.).

Their religious belief is grounded in the belief that anua (souls) exist in all people and animals. Individuals, families and the tribe must follow a complex system of taboos to assure that animals will continue to make themselves available to the hunters. Many rituals and ceremonies are performed before and after hunting expeditions to assure hunting success.

An underwater Goddess Sedna or Takanaluk is in charge of the sea mammals. She is part human and part fish. She observes how closely the tribe obeys the taboos and releases her animals to the hunters accordingly. There is an corresponding array of deities who release land mammals; these are Keepers or Masters, one for each species.

The Angakut or Shaman is the spiritual leader of each tribe. He is able to interpret the causes of sickness or lack of hunting success; he can determine the individual or family responsible and isolate the broken taboo. In a manner similar to Shamans in may other cultures, he enters a trance with the aid of drum beating and chanting. This allows his soul to leave his body and traverse great distances to determine the causes of sickness and other community problems.

Eastern Subarctic, Eastern Woodlands, Plains and Southwest Cultures

Native religions in these areas share some similarities, and differ significantly from Inuit culture described above. Tribes also differ greatly from each other. Spiritual elements found in some (but not all) non-Inuit native religions are:

bulletDeity: A common concept is that of a dual divinity:
bulleta Creator who is responsible for the creation of the world and is recognized in religious ritual and prayers
bulleta mythical individual, a hero or trickster, who teaches culture, proper behavior and provides sustenance to the tribe.

There are also spirits which control the weather, spirits which interact with humans, and others who inhabit the underworld. Simultaneously the Creator and the spirits may be perceived as a single spiritual force, as in the unity called Wakan-Tanka by the Lakota and Dakota.

bulletCreation: Individual tribes have differing stories of Creation. One set of themes found in some tribes describes that in the beginning, the world was populated by many people. Most were subsequently transformed into animals. Natives thus feel a close bond with animals because of their shared human ancestry. Dogs are excluded from this relationship. This bond is shown in the frequent rituals in which animal behavior is simulated. Each species has its master; for example, the deer have a master deer who is larger than all the others. The master of humans is the Creator.
bulletEmergence of the Tribe: This is a concept found extensively in the Southwest. The universe is believed to consist of many dark, underground layers through which the humans had to climb. They emerged into the present world through a small hole in the ground - the world's navel. Other tribes believe that their ancestors have been present in North America as far back as there were humans.
bulletSacred Texts: Many tribes have complex forms of writing. Other tribes have preserved their spiritual beliefs as an oral tradition.
bulletAfterlife: In general, Native religions have no precise belief about life after death. Some believe in reincarnation, with a person being reborn either as a human or animal after death. Others believe that humans return as ghosts, or that people go to an other world. Others believe that nothing definitely can be known about one's fate after this life. Combinations of belief are common.
bulletCosmology: Again, many tribes have unique concepts of the world and its place in the universe. One theme found in some tribes understands the universe as being composed of multiple layers. The natural world as a middle segment These layers are thought to be linked by the World Tree, which has its roots in the underground, has a trunk passing through the natural world, and has its top in the sky world.
bulletShamans: Although the term "Shaman" has its origins in Siberia, it is often used by anthropologists throughout the world to refer to Aboriginal healers. Spirits may be encouraged to occupy the Shaman's body during public lodge ceremonies. Drum beating and chanting aid this process. The spirits are then asked to depart and perform the needed acts. Other times, Shamans enter into a trance and traverse the underworld or go great distances in this world to seek lost possessions or healing.
bulletVision Quest: Young boys before or at puberty are encouraged to enter into a period of fasting, meditation and physical challenge. He separates himself from the tribe and go to a wilderness area. The goal is to receive a vision that will guide his development for the rest of his life. They also seek to acquire a guardian spirit who will be close and supportive for their lifetime. Girls are not usually eligible for such a quest. 
bulletRenewal Celebrations: The Sun Dance amongst the Plains Natives is perceived as a replay of the original creation. Its name is a mistranslation of the Lakota sun gazing dance. Other tribes use different names. It fulfilled many religious purposes: to give thanks to the Creator, to pray for the renewal of the people and earth, to promote health, etc. It also gave an opportunity for people to socialize and renew friendships with other groups. A sweat lodge purifies the participants and readies them for lengthy fasting and dancing. It was successfully suppressed in most tribes by the Governments of the US and Canada. However, it survived elsewhere and is now being increasingly celebrated.
bulletSweat Lodge: This is structure which generates hot moist air, similar to a Finnish sauna. It is used for rituals of purification, for spiritual renewal and of healing, for education of the youth, etc. A sweat lodge may be a small structure made of a frame of saplings, covered with skins, canvas or blanket. A depression is dug in the center into which hot rocks are positioned. Water is thrown on the rocks to create steam. A small flap opening is used to regulate the temperature. As many as a dozen people can be accommodated in some lodges.
bulletHunting ceremonies: these involve the ritual treatment of a bear or other animal after its killing during a successful hunt. The goal is to appease its spirit and convince other animals to be willing to be killed in the future.
bulletProphets: The Abramic Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) trace their development through a series of patriarchs and prophets. Native religions do not have corresponding ancient revered persons in their background. There have been a few prophets among the Natives - the most famous being Handsome Lake in the Iroquois Confederacy. However, they appeared after the European invasion.
bulletTraditional housing: There were many variations across North America: conical wigwams or tipis, long houses, and cliff dwellings. The shape of the structure often represents a model of the cosmos.

Absorption of Native beliefs and practices into other spiritual paths:

Many Native people (some would say all traditional Natives) object to others incorporating Aboriginal beliefs, practices, rituals, tools, and traditions into their own spiritual paths. They find this assimilation to be particularly offensive when it is motivated by a desire for profit. It is seen as a horrendous desecration. 

In a "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," three traditional Lakota spiritual leaders condemned:

bullet"...having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian 'wannabes,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled 'New Age shamans' and their followers."
bulletHaving their precious Sacred Pipe sold openly at flea markets, New Age stores, etc.
bulletProfit-making groups holding sweatlodges, sundances, shaminism, and  vision quest programs for the public.
bulletInaccurate and negative portrayal of Indian people in movies and TV.
bulletEfforts to create syncretistic religions by combining Native rituals and beliefs with New Age and Neopagan spiritual paths. 14,15

An appeal:

On 2000-JUL-27, a bill was introduced to Congress, called the "Thomasina E. Jordon Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2000." If passed, certain Natives tribes in Virginia would be formally recognized for the first time by the U.S. government. This would help these tribes with support for education, housing, etc. They are appealing for support. See: "Weeping Willow's Home" at: http://community-2.webtv.net/VA-BORN246/

References

  1. Vine Deloria, "Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact," Fulcrum Pub (1997). You can read reviews and/or order this book from Amazon.com on-line bookstore
  2. Ward Churchill, "A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present," City Lights Books, (1998). Read reviews and/or order this book
  3. Ward Churchill et. al., "Agents of Repression: the FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement." South End Press, (1988). You can order this book
  4. Native American Sites contains an index of Native sites, media, powwows, Native enterprises, etc. See: http://info.pitt.edu/~lmitten/indians.html
  5. Native Web contains links dealing with Native news, events, enterprises etc. See: http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/nativeweb/
  6. The Index of Native American Resources on the Internet has an immense number of links to Native resources on culture, history, education, language, health, indigenous knowledge, government programs, art and much more. See: http://hanksville.phast.umass.edu/misc/NAresources.html
  7. Native American Tribes: Information Virtually Everywhere has links to tribal information, media, Native studies etc. See: http://www.afn.org/~native/
  8. The National Indian Policy Center has links to maps, native events, grant sources, museums etc. See: http://gwis.circ.gwu.edu/~nipc/
  9. T.D. Dillehay, "Monte Verde: A late Pleistocene settlement in Chile: The archeological context and interpretation," Smithsonian Institution Press, (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. This is not an inexpensive book!
  10. American Comments is a Web magazine dealing with Aboriginal issues. See: http://www.iwchildren.org/
  11. Picaro Press ™ is a "publisher of mainstream fiction and poetry; Native American Cultural themes." See: http://www.picaro.com/
  12. The Native American Embassy  and Native American Holocaust Museum share a web site at: www.nativeamericanembassy.net
  13. J.N. Wilford, "New answers to an old question: Who got here first?" New York Times, 1999-NOV-9
  14. Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, et al., "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," at: http://puffin.creighton.edu/lakota/war.html 
  15. "Responses to the Declaration: War against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," at: http://puffin.creighton.edu/lakota/war_resp.html 

Copyright © 1995 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2001-JAN-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

 

Seven is a Magic Number

Seven was a magic number to the Cherokees as evidenced by their seven ceremonies, seven clans, seven-sided council houses, and the seven sacred directions (north, south, east, west, up, down, and here).

 Native American Commandments

  Remain close to the Great Spirit
  Show great respect for your fellow beings
  Give assistance and kindness wherever needed
  Be truthful and honest at all times
  Do what you know to be right
  Look after the well being of mind and body
  Treat the earth and all that dwell thereon with respect
  Take full responsibility for your actions
  Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good
  Work together for the benefit of all mankind

"Journey of Renewal" by J. Kramer ColeRainbow

Soul's Journey

 by Debbie St. George


The morning mist surrounds me,
A light shown down from above to help me see,
We're never alone, it just seems that way,
To be free as soul, we just have to be.

The Spirit of Life said, "Speak my words to someone you love."
The white light appears... and often times takes many forms,
Sometimes as an eagle, sometimes as a dove.

As soul I donned this material sheath,
so I could come out and play,
But when I'm called into the higher worlds,
Well I'll go without delay.

For soul's journey is just a grand adventure,
And we're still so far from home,
Sometimes we're up, sometimes we're down,
Affecting the many spheres where we can roam.

I was called upon to view the inner matrix,
The wisdom the ancients interpret and feel,
Spirit said, "Look to other people's second self,
If you listen... their secrets will be whispered and revealed."

For I am just a vehicle for Spirit,
A spoke upon the wheel,
A traveling star moving through
vibrational worlds only imagined real.
Yes, I'm a view point positioned high above the spheres of life,
As Soul, I'm alive without a body....
and I can see, and be and feel.

 

 


CALL TO THE FOUR SACRED WINDS
by Spirit Wind

I call to the East, where the Father ascends
to all Mother Earth where life begins.
I fly through the cedars, pines, willows, and birch
as animals below me wander and search.

I call to the South, to the land down below.
Turtle stands silent, as man strings his bow
to hunt food and fur for his kin before snow
A life will end so others will grow.

I call to the North, that yansa once knew.
I follow their path til it disappears from view.
Once vast in number, there stand but a few.
I hear only ghost thunder of millions of hooves.

I call to the West, to the ends of the lands,
to the Tsalagi, Kiowa, Comanche ... all bands.
Unite for the strength. Teach the young and demand
that you are Native Americans.
Learn your tongue and stand.
My name is Freedom... I fly through this land.
I call to the Four Sacred Winds of Turtle Island.

 

 

Symbolic colors

 

 

The symbolic color system was as follows:

East = red = success; triumph
North = blue = defeat; trouble
West = black = death
South = white = peace; happiness
Up Above = yellow
Down Below = brown
Here in the Center = green

The Red Man, living in the East, is the spirit of power, triumph,
and success. The Black Man, in the West, is the spirit of death. The
shaman would invoke the Red Man to the assistance of his patient and
consign his enemy to the fatal influences of the Black Man.

According to Thomas Mails, in his book, "Cherokee People," the
mythological significance of different colors were important in
Cherokee lore.
Red was symbolic of success.
It was the color of the war club used to strike an enemy in battle as well as the other club used by the
warrior to shield himself. Red beads were used to conjure the red spirit to insure long life, recovery
from sickness, success in love and ball play or any other undertaking where the benefit of the magic s
pell was wrought.

Black was always typical of death.
The soul of the enemy was continually beaten about by black war clubs and enveloped in a black
fog. In conjuring to destroy an enemy, the priest used black beads and invoked the black spirits-
which always lived in the West,-bidding them to tear out the man's soul and carry it to the
West, and put it into the black coffin deep in the black mud, with a black serpent coiled above it.

Blue symbolized failure, disappointment, or unsatisfied desire.
To say "they shall never become blue" expressed the belief that they would never fail
in anything they undertook. In love charms, the lover figuratively covered himself with red
and prayed that his rival would become entirely blue and walk in a blue path. "He is
entirely blue," approximates meaning of the common English phrase,
"He feels blue." The blue spirits lived in the North.

White denoted peace and happiness. In ceremonial addresses, as the Green Corn Dance
and ball play, the people symbolically partook of  white food and, after the dance or game, returned
along the white trail to their white houses. In love charms, the man, to induce the woman to
cast her lots with his, boasted, "I am a white man," implying that all was happiness where he was.
White beads had the same meaning in bead conjuring, and white was the color of the stone
pipe anciently used in ratifying peace treaties. The White spirits lived in the South.