There are more than 8.7 million Native Americans in the United States who belong to 574 tribal villages and nations.
The Native Americans are one of the unique people in the world who possess a rich history and culture. Each of its tribes possesses different culture, spiritual beliefs, and practices.
Sadly, a lot of information about the beliefs of Native Americans is generalized and stereotyped. An in-depth understanding and respectful acceptance of their vibrant culture can help fight against these issues.
Native American Spirituality
According to Pow Wows, Native American practices and beliefs are not a set religion. Instead, they are a system of spirituality involved in each aspect of their lives.
There are hundreds of tribes across the United States, and their spiritualities and culture are unique to one another.
Most Native tribes are polytheistic, where they revere more than one deity. While some only believe in one major god or goddess.
Unlike other world religions, there is no homogenous religion that exists. Native beliefs are not tied to political or economic systems. They do not have a particular set of laws, standards, or a holy scripture that they follow.
Also, it’s crucial to note that the Native Americans’ religion and spiritual beliefs are not organized.
Organized religions have a set of doctrines, and most emphasize a division between the real and the supernatural (which is ruled by one or multiple divine entities).
On the opposite side, Native Americans do not separate the two concepts. For them, the supernatural and the spiritual world are the same as the real world, where they can access them easily.
Pow Wows added that there is no concept of inaccessibility for many Native American tribes as they believe that all are related or connected, which can also lead to the belief that they are one with nature.
Although such a concept can also be attributed to New Age beliefs, at its core, it still pertains to the idea that everything in the real world possesses a sliver of spirit in them.
Jack Forbes stated in his book that the spirituality of Native Americans is more than just seeing the whole universe as being alive.
Their spirituality is also about seeing the world as a beautiful place where profound feelings of gratitude, love, respect, and indebtedness are cultivated.
Native American Spiritual Beliefs and Values
According to Pow Wows, Native American Spirituality has many similar ideas to other world religions, but most of their spiritual practices are integrated into their daily lives.
They do have special occasions or ceremonies for births, deaths, harvests, marriages, and so on, but their everyday life is just as important and filled with spiritual beliefs as holidays would be.
The Great Spirit
We believe in deities and divine entities that control the world, our life, or the underworld. For some Native American tribes, the Great Spirit is present in all living things.
The Great Spirit emerges throughout Native American spirituality and has different names depending on the tribes.
- Wakan-Tanka (means great or sacred mystery)- The Great Spirit of the Sioux.
- Apistotoke- The Great Spirit of the Blackfeet.
- Maheyo- The Great Spirit of the Cheyenne.
- Tirawa Atius- The Great Spirit of the Pawnee.
- Manitou- The Great Spirit of the Iroquois.
The Great Spirit interacts with the world in diverse ways. It is believed to be present in every human, plant, animal, and object, which is similar to animism practiced in different pagan religions around the world.
According to Caroline Myss, the Great Spirit is perceived as male and female, separate but a single deity. Some tribes call the Great Spirit the Father, Old Man, or Grand Father.
On the other hand, the feminine aspect of the Great Spirit or Mother Earth dates back to the Neolithic Goddess culture. Women are equal to men and are believed to be the source of vegetation, animals, and human life.
Rod added that during the post-goddess era, patriarchy thrived, but the Native American culture still considers men and women equal. Their societies’ feminine and masculine aspects are more balanced than most Western cultures and religions.
Going back, the Great Spirit is seen by the Lakota Sioux as the unity of Father Sky, Mother Earth, and the army of spirits overseeing the world.
While the Pawnee people believe in Tirawa, who controls the winds, thunder, lightning, and rains, they also believe in Kawaharu, which is almost the same as the Great Spirit.
Lastly, the Blackfoot people visualize the sun as the greatest power, the moon as his wife, and the morning star as his son.
According to Robert G. Brown, the Great Spirit is a beautiful example of a non-anthropomorphic deity intertwined with the very being of the universe yet personally involved in the web of life on an earthly scale.
Death and Afterlife
According to the Pow Wows, the Native American concept of death is largely related to the concept of other world religions.
They believe that death is a natural part of life and that the spirit of the dead leaves the physical body to venture to another realm or the spirit world and live another life there.
This concept might be derived from their lifestyle, where the natives traveled a lot in the past and thus saw journeys as a normal part of life and the afterlife.
Customs on Death
The Alive Hospice shared that Native Americans consider the corpses of their loved ones as sacred, which is why they hold different ceremonies and rituals.
The ceremonies and rituals for the dead are unique to each tribe, and here are some of them.
Cremation is a custom of many tribes, including the Odawa. They believe the ritual helps their loved one’s journey to the afterlife as the smoke sends their spirit upward.
A mortuary pole is a rare type of totem pole used by the Haida and Tlingit for the significant members of their tribes. These poles keep the ashes of their loved ones and serve as their memorial.
For the Sioux tribe, burying their loved ones in the dirt is a means of reconnecting them to Mother Earth and liberating their soul.
The Ute used cedar trees as a scaffold to lift the deceased into the sky. Similar to the Tibetan Sky burial, animals will consume the body as it is believed to be a part of the life cycle.
Furthermore, the Native Americans also believe in cases where the spirit of the dead is stuck in the mundane world and cannot leave.
According to Alive Hospice, some tribes, such as the Apache and Navajo, feared the ghosts who are believed to resent the living.
The Alive Hospice added that many Native Americans believe that their ancestors’ spirits help and guide them.
The Sioux and the Navajo reach out to the spirits of their loved ones to ask for their aid. At the same time, the Lakota believe in a spirit world in the sky where those who have passed away are free from pain and suffering.
Planting and Harvesting
The Native Americans believe that plants have spirits. They harvest plants with gratitude through social and religious ceremonies, consume them in a prayerful and preservationist manner, and thank the spirits for the blessings they receive.
The Pow Wows shared that celebrations for the abundance of food were already a part of early civilizations greatly involved with agriculture. These events are opportunities for communities to come together and strengthen their connections.
The Pow Wows shared that agricultural Native American tribes, especially those in the Eastern and Southern parts of the United States, have celebrations like the Green Corn Festivals.
The Iroquois, Creek, Cherokee, and other Native American nations hold these ceremonies about harvesting corn at the end of the growing seasons and waiting until they are ready for consumption.
Included in these ceremonies are rituals of cleansing, dancing, feasts, and other practices that are serene and fun.
Common Native American Spiritual Ceremonies
The Pow Wows explained that, often, non-natives tend to have a general view of the Native American religion, practices, and beliefs. There are Native American terms often heard by many but are not deeply understood. Here are some of them.
The Sun Dance
In the past, the sun is considered a powerful entity. Eastern countries consider it a symbol of their divine deities and greatly associate it with their royal families.
In many cultures, the sun holds great power in the spiritual world, and they practice the Sun Dance as a way of revering to the sun.
Patti Wigington explained that young Native American warriors perform the Sun Dance to honor the sun, test their stamina, and receive spiritual visions.
The Sun Dance consists of erecting a large, painted pole at the center of the place for the ritual. Dancers will fast, paint or decorate their bodies, and perform a circular dance.
Also, there are some instances where dancers occasionally pierce or cut their skin by using blades and hooks in the dance.
Ceremonies such as the Sun Dance had undergone unfair treatment from non-natives in the past.
According to the Pow Wows, the European settlers once prohibited the ritual as part of their plan to eliminate the culture and religion of Native Americans and force them to assimilate into European culture.
It took many years for the natives to reclaim their freedom to express their culture and religion. This was in the 1970s when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was established.
Today, ceremonies such as the Sun Dance are performed during special occasions and public events to educate non-natives about the beautiful and unique culture of Native Americans.
If you are a non-native, it’s important to note that the Sun Dance is a unique and sacred ritual for Native Americans.
You can respectfully watch it during public events but should refrain from joining. Always be mindful and careful, especially in places not open to the audience. Respect boundaries at all costs.
Smudging is similar to other practices worldwide. It is a ritual where burning sacred herbs cleans the aura and the spirit, dispelling negative energies and healing.
Smudging uses sacred 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.
The Ghost Dance
It is a spiritual movement in the form of a dance that started in the late 1800s among the Paiute, a Native American community. Wovoka, the community leader, envisaged the concept with the aspiration to restore the hope of his tribesmen.
The Ghost Dance is a mysterious and misunderstood ritual that brought fear to white Americans in the late 1800s.
What most do not know is that behind its seemingly ominous name is a nonviolent religious movement called Fight No One. Hate No One.
In their time, diseases spread in their communities, which decreased their numbers. They lost their land, their culture, and their freedom.
From his vision, the great Wovoka believed that the dance would bring peace, happiness, and comfort to the Native American tribes devastated by their situation during that time.
The Native Americans spiritually and peacefully fought back against the European aggressors through their dance, but everything became a tragedy on December 29, 1890, when hundreds of Lakota people were massacred by white American soldiers at Wounded Knee.
The Purification Ceremony or Sweat Lodge
The Purification ceremony, most known for its misnomer, Sweat Lodge, is a purification process exercised by Native American communities.
Practices vary across communities, but prayers and offerings are the most common. It is carried out in a dome-shaped structure or lodge. Wherein 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.
The Purification Ceremony is a meaningful event for the natives; however, because of its rising trend in modern society, its true essence is being tampered with.
Some non-natives trick others into performing this ceremony in exchange for money. That’s why Native Americans warn others of these people, as the Purification Ceremony is a gift from the spirit world that one cannot compensate with material things.
The Pipe Ceremony
The Pipe Ceremony is a Native American sacred ritual to connect the physical and spiritual worlds. The pipe serves as a link between the earth and the sky.
It is said that the pipe represents the prayers of the Native Americans. The fire from the pipe represents the sun which life comes from. The smoke from it represents their words and becomes a part of everything as it dissipates.
Tobacco links the sky and earth because its roots emblem deeply into the earth, and its smoke can reach the heavens.
Also, there are different pipes used by Native Americans depending on the occasion and purpose of an event.
According to the Pow Wows, Vision Quests are held to encourage a connection with the spirit world or with spirit guides. These quests provide Native Americans insight into their purpose, answers, and guidance.
The great Wovoka experienced vision quests and thus formed the tradition of the Ghost Dance. With his visions, he brought significant changes in their tribe and culture.
Problems Faced by Native American Spirituality
The Pow Wows argued that most misconceptions regarding Native American beliefs came from bigotry and ignorance.
In the past, it was the Europeans who tried to eliminate their culture and identity, but now, aside from the remnants of history, the popular media have introduced much false information about Native American practices and beliefs.
With the rise of New Age philosophies, Native American practices and beliefs are also trending. While this might be a good sign to raise awareness about their culture, the opposite happens.
Because of trends, many Native American sacred places and traditions are being tampered with by non-natives.
And similar to other cultures, some people pretend to be Native American spiritual gurus and shamans, siphoning off money from oblivious individuals. Such doings taint the reputation and dignity of Native American culture.
Everything Starts With Learning
The Native Americans are still fighting for their rights and the preservation of their identity. They have been continuously challenged by time and modern society.
One of the challenges they face now is the continuous misinformation and stereotyping of their culture.
According to the Pow Wows, the primary action to knowing the Native American Culture is through learning.
When approaching a culture, religion, or belief different from yours, the first thing to do is to learn with respect and great purpose. You can seek reliable resources about Native Americans on websites like Pow Wows, Native Americans Online, and Prairie Edge.
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