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Native American Religion

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    Native American religion penetrated every aspect of their

    culture. This makes it difficult for a predominantly white, European,

    secular society to interpret Native Indian spirituality. There is no

    single Native American religion, but rather as many religions as there

    are Indian peoples. Religion and ritual were a function of all activity:

    from the food quest and other survival-related work to technology,

    social and political organization, warfare and art. Religion and magic

    were fused with practical science; for example, prayer was used in

    conjunction with hunting and fishing techniques, and incantations

    accompanied effective herbal remedies in the curing of disease. I

    would like to elucidate on Native American views in relation to their

    As stated by Lester Kurtz, “In a structurally differentiated

    society, every institution is given a specialized task; the task of

    religious institutions is to tend to spiritual and ethical issues” (167).

    Religion played a prominent role in the interpretation of the universe

    for the American Indians. It facilitated in the adaptation of human

    activity to the patters of nature. Indians were traditionally a holistic

    and reverent people, viewing themselves as extensions of animate

    In addition to this holism, other generalizations can be made in

    regard to Indian religion. Part of the special intimate relationship with

    nature involved a sense of kinship with the natural world and the

    attribution of innate souls and human properties to plants, animals,

    inanimate objects and natural phenomena. Indian religion generally

    also involved the belief that the universe is suffused with

    preternatural forces and powerful spirits.

    From what tribal populations already know, historians can

    conclude there are common characteristics that seem to be shared by

    all of the Native Americans. Although there are many points of

    contrast, the beliefs of Native Americans are distinguished by some

    common convictions. Some of these features are that all the Native

    American religions seem to believe in the existence of a high god or

    vital force along with lesser gods and spirits. They also believe that

    certain individuals possess sacred power and therefore can act as

    intermediaries between the tribe and the deities.

    Shamanism, (individual sacred power), was a common form of

    religious practice, in which individuals sought control of these spirits

    through the use of magic. Other traits characteristic of most

    traditional Indian cultures was a richness of myths, legends,

    ceremonies and sacred objects. Other common traits was the quest

    for visions and the use of psychotropic plants to facilitate those

    visions. Music and dance was a part of the rituals and the notion of

    sacrifice to gain the favor of the gods or spirits. I should state that not

    all Native American cultures participate in sacrifice. It can be said that

    for Indians the natural world was inseparable from the super-natural.

    Myth was a way of understanding reality.

    Apart from these shared traits, however, Indian religion

    presents a wondrous variety of beliefs, sacraments and systems.

    Different tribes or related groups of people had different views of the

    supernatural world, with varying types of deities and spirits. Some

    Native Americans societies believed in monotheistic and omnipotent

    universal spirits, some did not. Indian peoples had variegated

    mythologies and lore concerning the creation and structure of the

    universe. They had an array of rites, ceremonies, sacred objects and

    differing systems of religious organizations. In order to obtain more

    clarity on the Native American religion, it is necessary to understand

    the religious diversity at the time of European contact.

    According to scholars, the religious beliefs, rituals, and myths of

    aboriginal American seems to arise from the diffusion and

    cross-fertilization of two indistinct cultural traditions: the Northern

    Hunting traditions and the South Agrarian tradition. The older

    Northern Hunting tradition dates back to the first arrival of

    Paleo-Siberian peoples in North America during the Ice Age. Their

    ideology and forms of worship were rooted in the ancient Paleolithic

    way of life. Hunting and healing rituals and magic, the vision trances

    of shamans, and the worship of a Mater of Animals who protects game

    and regulates the hunt are all typical features of the Northern Hunting

    tradition. These people lived in the Northern part of the U.S. and

    As the ancient Paleolithic beliefs and rituals were diffused

    southward, they met and intermingled with the younger Southern

    Agrarian tradition, which was moving northward, with the spread of

    maize from the Valley of Mexico. In this second tradition, priesthood

    and secret cults replaced the individualistic shamans of the Northern

    Hunting tradition as the religious leaders in society. Hunting magic

    and rituals were incorporated into agrarian ceremonies devoted to the

    seasonal cycle of crops. The roots of these two belief systems date

    back millions of years. Collectively, they form a rich and diverse trivia

    of legends, rites and rituals, the core of which remain intact today

    Diverse Indian religions have a great deal in common, including

    the fact that the word religion, though used for convenience,

    inadequately defines their spirituality. In truth, the Indian equivalent

    of the word does not appear in any of the hundred of languages and

    thousands of dialects spoken in North American. The word implies that

    the various aspects of life can be segmented into the sacred and the

    secular — a notion country to Native American beliefs. According to

    traditional Indian thinking, there is nothing that can be seen or

    touched, living or inanimate, that does not have a spirit. Spirituality

    and ordinary life are as interconnected as the strands of a tightly

    woven rug. There is no separation between the sacred and the

    Sacred tradition has taught respect for the natural world, so has

    it reinforced the idea of an individual’s responsibility to others and to

    the tribe at large. In the world of Indians, however, Christian notions

    of good and evil have been viewed in terms of balance and imbalance,

    harmony and disharmony. In times past, the ideals of behavior that

    were taught by the elders to promote harmony — unselfishness,

    patience, forgiveness — were necessary for the very survival of the

    community in a harsh and variable wilderness. Indian notions of

    personal success and status hinge on spirituality. Good fortune comes

    to those who acquire sacred knowledge. Only with the help of

    supernatural forces can an Indian hunt well, farm well, bring up

    children well, and if necessary , fight well.

    In the words of author George Catlin from his book Native

    American Indians, “that he witnessed Indians’ sincerity of worship and

    he had never seen any other people who spend so much of their lives

    in worshipping The Great Spirit” (473). After culminating my research

    for this paper on Native American religion, I perceive that Indians

    prefer to believe that the Spirit of God is not breathed in man alone,

    but that the whole universe shares in the immortal perfection of its

    Maker. The heroes and demigods of Indian tradition reflect the typical

    trend of their thoughts, their interpretation of personality and

    responsibility to the elements, animate or inanimate.

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