Through out history, historians have had the ability to pass on the knowledge of the past because of written documents and other forms of evidence that acknowledge the existence of past civilizations and cultures. When there are no written documents, whether lost or never created, it can be more difficult for historians to explain past civilizations. The Native Americans were a group that kept no written records. The information that we know today was passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions. Despite the information we have, there is much more that researchers don’t know about because a considerable amount of information has either been lost or has been impossible to obtain. But from what we already know, historians can conclude there are common characteristics that seem to be shared by all of the Native Americans. I will also include the creation myth of the Osage Indians and the afterlife beliefs of the Lakota Sioux.
Although there are many points of contrast, the beliefs of Native Americans are distinguished by some common characteristics (p.54 Nigosian). Some of these characteristics are that they all seem to believe in the existence of a high god or vital force along with lesser gods and spirits and that certain individuals possess sacred power and therefore can act as intermediaries between the tribe and the deities. In the ceremonies associated with ritual and initiation, they engaged in certain traditional rites that were designed to perpetuate the smooth operation of the natural order, including human society, and they all believed that by repeating stories or by storytelling they kept the world alive (p.54 Nigosian).
Therefore, the Native Americans viewed life evolving around a holy force that holds all things together, which leads to the basic goal of staying in “harmony with all natural and supernatural powers (p.62 Nigosian).” This leads me to believe that the spirits they had for different aspects of nature and their environment were the primary deities they worshipped or venerated. “By and large, however, [Native Americans] believed that the aid of the high god may be propitiated by ritual action (p.62 Nigosian).” And in spite of disparities among regions, the majority of the Native Americans believed in the active roles of both good and evil spirits. Amid the good spirits are mythical such as “thunderbirds, as well as mountains, rivers, minerals, flint, and arrowheads.” The evil spirits were “giant monsters, water serpents, tiny creatures that haunt woods and ponds, and the spirits of the dead that come to inflict pain, sorrow, or death (p.62 Nigosian).” Each tribe also had a “culture hero,” whose job was to socialize the tribe. In opposition or contrast was the “antihero,” or better known as the trickster.
Another common feature of Native American traditions is creation myths. “In these imaginative stories, no distinctions are made among gods, spirits, the universe, nature, animals, and human beings. On the contrary, the stories imply a close mystical relationship binding each element (p.64 Nigosian).” Although the Native Americans had several types of creation stories, “the two most common themes are those of creation emerging out of chaos” and creation as a result of conflict between good and evil forces (p.64 Nigosian). The following is a basic gist of the Osage Indians’creation story. Once, the Osage Indians lived in the sky. Wanting to know their origin, they went to the sun. The sun told them that they were his children. Then they wandered about until they came to the moon. She told them that she had given birth to that and that the sun was the father. Then she told them to go settle on the earth. When they came to the earth, they found it covered with water. So they wept, because no on would answer them, and they couldn’t return to their former place. While floating around in the air, they searched for help from a god but with no avail. The animals were there, too, and they appealed to the elk, the most finely and most stately. The elk then jumps into the water and calls for the wind, which then lifted up the water like a mist. The elk then provides land and food.
As for the concept of an afterlife, it seems that Native Americans were not as concerned with the hereafter as they were with their immediate life. However, an afterlife was a common belief that varied with the different tribes. Here is an example, the afterlife belief of the Lakota Sioux. “The Lakota Sioux Indians have beliefs that are unique to their heritage. They believe in a reincarnate religion with certain ideas about the afterlife. It is believed that a person lives through four stages of life, or generations. These generations are childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age. When a person dies, one of the four “souls” from the generations travels along the Wanagi Tacanku Southward, where the soul meets with an old woman who judges the soul’s earthly virtues. She then directs it either to the spirit world, a hazy analog of earthly life where there is an unending supply of buffalo and where people rejoin their kin, or back to earth. If sent back to earth, the soul lives as a ghost in order to haunt others and to entice them to join the soul in haunting the living. Parts of the soul being sent back to earth illustrate the reincarnate idea of this religion in that other aspects of the four souls are invested into unborn fetuses. This receiving of the souls is what gives the fetuses life (http://www.creighton.edu/~amd/afterlife.html).
The Native Americans were a very diverse peoples that many different aspects of religion that varied from tribe to tribe. Interestingly, the Native Americans did not have a concept of individual sin and salvation. If they did, it would have been possible that they would have had an entirely different set of beliefs. However, they did have strong similarities that were equally important to each tribe. It was very apparent that they loved the earth and that played a key role in terms of creation and an afterlife.