From a western perspective, native Americans had no religion. Native Americans were not followers of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism or any other set of beliefs and practices which is recognized as a religion today. Linguists could not find a word that is close to “religion” in all native American languages. If we treat religion and spirituality as the same concept, it will be difficult to understand and appreciate what is native American spirituality.
To get answers to the question, what is native American spirituality, it is important to study their history. Documented details about native Americans prior to European contact is limited.
Experts believe that native American settlement is at least ten thousand years old. Native American is a diverse set of people culturally and linguistically. In the United States alone, there are 573 distinct native American groups of people. But the communities did not live in isolation and there used to be regular interaction and assimilation.
Following the European conquest of America, native American population reduced drastically for various reasons. Many aspects of the ancient native American life seems to have been lost.
Multiple beliefs , practices, legends are found among native American communities that may give us insights about what is native American spirituality. Though native Americans do not seem to be followers of a religion or a well-defined set of beliefs. But the history of spirituality of native American people is very old. These were shaped by the environment, circumstances and struggle for survival of the native American communities.
Different native American Communities and their beliefs
It was a developed native American society. Their location was the present day New York State .Iroquois people believed in the great spirit “Ha-wen –ne-yu”. The spirit supervised and ruled the world through his inferior invisible agents . Similar to the great spirit, there exists an evil spirit surrounded by his inferior invisible agents.
Later Iroquois people got assimilated into white culture, but their descendants still strive to maintain age old traditions.
The Dakotas were less organized than the Iroquois people. Buffalo hunting was their major occupation. They believe in “Wakan Tanka” who is incomprehesnsible. Wakan Tanka uses Wakan People to control the affairs of the world. The Dakotas should serve the Wakan People. White buffalo woman is an example of such Wakan People. The Dakotas resisted the cultural onslaught of invaders and could retain their religious identity to a large extent.
The Apache People
It was a nomadic tribe. For them survival was the primary concern and rituals did not play any significant role in life. They believed in supernatural forces. According to them survival in life depended on meaningful interactions with these supernatural forces. The Apache had religious leaders called as “ Shaman’’. The Shamans had healing power and connected the Apache people with supernatural forces.
There are multiple distinct identities of the diverse native American people. There are variations in the understanding of spirituality of each group.
Ceremonies ,Practices and beliefs of native American people
As a hunter gatherer or as a agriculture based people, native Americans performed various activities that tell us what is native American spirituality. Similar practices followed in the journey of life such as birth, death, marriage also provide us same answers. We can observe that the practices and beliefs of native Americans were to align themselves with nature. They also attempt to associate the society with spirits so as to keep the community safe.
About death: Many native American tribes believe that spirit continues to live after the death. The death happens only to the physical body. The concept sounds similar to beliefs of many religions in the world. It is also an extension of the philosophy that life is a journey and death is a progression in the journey. Like many other religions , native Americans used to conduct funeral services. Reincarnation is an accepted belief of many North Americans.
Festivals in planting and harvesting: Like all societies, native American agricultural communities practiced cleansing, dancing, feasting and having fun during planting and harvesting seasons. Celebration of abundance of food is also a spiritual act that aims to bring the society together. Green corn festival is one such festival. Creek, Cherokee, Yuchi are some tribes that observe green corn festival. This festival is way of thanking food gods.
The concept of God : Native American communities believe in the existence of many deities controlling different things in the world. But there are communities that believed in a single power. Wakan-Tanka is a great spirit believed by communities such as Lakota, Sioux and Dakota. The spirit interacts with the world in various ways. It is also believed that the spirit exists in every object in the world. The concept is also widely called as animism in different parts of the world. Similarly the Pawnee people believes in “Tirawa” which controls winds, thunder, lighting and rains. But they also believe in Kawaharu which is almost same as the great spirit. The blackfoot people visualizes sun as the greatest power, the moon as his wife and the morning star as his son.
The Sun Dance: Similar to Hindu belief, native Americans consider the sun as a great power. In honor of the sun ,native Americans dance around a painted pole. The objective of the dance is to unite with nature and spirits. Sacrifice is a part of the dance. Fasting prior to participation in the sun dance is must. Dancers are required to pierce their bodies so that spirits respond for the well being of the society. This dance form was outlawed at a time but later permitted as a religious activity.
The Ghost Dance: It is a spiritual movement in the form of a dance which started in late 1800s among Paiute, a native American community. Wovoka, the leader of the community envisaged the concept. The movement occurred at a time when the native Americans were losing their identity due to European aggression. Native Americans led by Wovoka fought back spiritually to revive their lost traditions and oppose white culture .One aspect of the ghost dance was to see rebirth of their ancestors. The participants of the group dance could establish contacts with their dead ancestors. Apart from answering the question what is native American spirituality, the ghost dance depicts the sustained suppression of native Americans. Though the movement was spiritual and peaceful, the US military resisted it brutally.
Sweat Lodge : Sweat lodge is a purification exercise by some native American communities. It is carried out in a dome-shaped structure or lodge. Heating is done by steam, and steam is produced by pouring water into heated rocks. The participants lose toxins, negative energy and life’s imbalances by sweating. Thereby they are purified in body, mind and soul.
Practices vary across communities. Prayers and offerings are parts of the ceremony.
Pipe ceremony: Pipe smoking is done in some sacred native American ceremonies. There are ceremonial pipes used for the purpose. Pipe ceremony may be for making commitment or sealing off a peace treaty.
Smoke rises in the air. This symbolism is used as desire to connect the earth and the sky.
Smudging : Smudging is similar to other practices available across the world which is essentially burning scared herbs. Smudging includes burning of designated plants such as cedar, sweetgrass or tobacco. Feathers are used to waft the smoke in certain directions. Dispelling negative energy and cleansing the mind are some objectives of the practice.
Vision Quests: Native Americans have a practice of looking for spiritual solution through “vision quests’’ by taking help of guides or spirits. Normally young male adults undertake the exercise. In involves fasting for several days and nights continuously, remaining in isolation and praying to spirits for guidance.
Legends of native American People
Native Americans have legends in their oral history that sometimes resemble European and Hindu tales. The legend about the deluge or great flood in which the earth is submerged is similar to a Hindu mythological story.
Native Americans did not create a definite concept of God. But they emphasized on spirits – major and minor, supernatural powers, human links with nature, the continuation of life after death.
Present scenario of native American spirituality
Spiritual practices of native Americans have survived despite many challenges. The inherent strength of native American spirituality is evident from this fact alone. European invasion could not lead to its extinction. It is no longer written off as “heathenish” though there are multiple practices being termed as native American spirituality.
There was a time ( 1883) when many spiritual practices of native Americans were declared as unlawful. In 1978 the US government had acknowledged the inhibitions and passed the religious freedom act. There are examples of assimilation of traditional beliefs with Christianity as well. The Native American Church or Peyotism combines native American religious beliefs and Christianity. Similar examples are Indian Shaker Religion and Longhouse Religion. Native Americans are also apprehensive about use or misuse of traditional spiritual knowledge.