The purpose of this essay is to present the spiritual world of the Native Americans, which is one of the oldest forms of Spirituality that exists on earth. The main reason why I have chosen this topic is because I want to find out more information about their spiritual dimension and perhaps to understand better the main differences between our religion and theirs. In order to better observe this aspect, I will be analyzing the religious beliefs of three Native American tribes, such as: The Iroquois, the Apache and the Dakota tribes.
To start with, I consider it relevant to mention that the Native American religions centers on a collection of beliefs, which vary from tribe to tribe. However, almost all tribes practice a modified monotheism , which is the belief in the Great Spirit. They also have an animistic belief in individual spirits residing in animals and forces of nature, but none of these is higher than the Great Spirit (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992).
In other words, this means that Native American spirituality is nature-based, since it is so closely connected with the earth. As I have previously mentioned, many Native Americans believe in The Great Spirit, who is “the high deity amongst all of the spirits” (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). Since ancient times, the Native Americans have believed in a Supreme Being whom they called “father” and they believe this entity is either a man or an animal, especially a wolf, which has human thoughts and is even able to talk (Panther-Yates, n.d).
In order to control the forces of the spiritual world , the Native Americans used ceremonial practices, since these were considered to “renewed the bond between human beings and the spirit world” (Irwin, 2000). I will later on mention about these ceremonies and the person who is entitled to contact the spirits.
In order to have a better understanding of their beliefs I have inserted here one fragment of the spiritual speech held by Charley Elkhair, one of the Native American indian: “We are thankful to the East because everyone feels good in the morning when they awake, and sees the bright light coming from the East; and when the Sun goes down in the West we feel good and glad we are well; then we are thankful to the West. And we are thankful to the North, because when the cold winds come we are glad to have lived to see the leaves fall again; and to the South, for when the south wind blows and everything is coming up in the spring, we are glad to live to see the grass growing and everything green again. We thank the Thunders, for they are the manitous that bring the rain, which the Creator has given them power to rule over. And we thank our mother, the Earth, whom we claim as mother because the Earth carries us and everything we need.” (Elkhair in M. R. Harrington, 1921).
When researching for this essay I came across a very interesting comparison belonging to professor Harrington, who states that: “ The juxtaposition of a personal creator God and anthropomorphic animals derived from mythology is no more inappropriate, however, than the behavior of Christians at Christmas time who set out a creche depicting the birth of Jesus next to a Christmas tree derived from an ancient pagan festival” ( Harrington, 1921). Another interesting element about at the Native American religions is the fact that they are basically free of any priesthood. However, there are still people who have a special connection to the spiritual world, called shamans: “Shamans are spiritually gifted people who through a variety of means have acquired the ability to help others through trance and dream journeying” (Irwin, 2000).
Moreover, it is quite strange that the white anthropologists have often used the name “medicine man” (even though many were women) to indicate a mixture of shamanic and priestly capacities (Irwin, 2000). Shamanic trances can be induced through a variety of techniques, including chanting or drumming, fasting, and in some cases the use of psychotropic substances, the mildest of which might be tobacco ( McGaa, n.d). During these trance contacts, shamans may communicate with spirits of the dead or other spirits and learn what they need to know to help heal the body, mind, or soul of a patient, to locate game, or to predict the future ( McGaa, n.d). In the following lines, I will briefly present three Indian tribes in order to observe the differences and similarities between them as far as their spiritual world is concerned. The first tribe I will be analyzing is the Iroquois. This Native American tribe believes in twin forces known as “Loskeha” meaning good and “Tawiscara” meaning bad (Robinson, 2002).
The Native Americans believe Loskeha brought all the goodness in life, while Tawiscara spread sufferings and brought ill-luck (Robinson, 2002). The Iroquois also believed in the constant care of the Great Spirit, who ”ruled and administered the world, and the affairs of the red race.” (Robinson, 2002). What really fascinates me at this tribe is that it does not have a detailed conception of his creator because they believe that the Great Spirit was beyond their abilities to understand. However, they have some very detailed descriptions of this lower class of spirits that is believed to interact with the material world. The were known as “Invisible Agents” or “Ho-no-che-no-keh.” (Morgan in Robinson, 1954). These spirits possessed their power from the Great Spirit and were considered to be the manifestations of his unlimited power (Morgan in Robinson, 1954).
Some of these spirits were given names and they were often identified with the object or force that they presided over (Morgan in Robinson, 1954). For example, He-no, one important spirit, was given the thunderbolt and controlled the weather. Morgan states that: “he had the form of man and wore the costume of a warrior” ((Morgan in Robinson, 1954). The Iroquois tribe believes not only in the kindness of the Great Spirit but also in the forces of evil. According to their belief, evil is represented by the brother of the Great Spirit, “Ha-ne-go-ate-geh”, or “the Evil-minded” (Robinson, 2002), who controls its own inferior spiritual beings. This tribe also believes that the Great Spirit does not have any type of positive authority over the forces of evil, except for “the power to overcome them when necessary”(Robinson, 2002).
Therefore, the Iroquois can either choose to obey the Great Spirit or to the Evil-minded. It is important to note that the Iroquois developed the idea of an immortal soul, which will be judged by the Great Spirit the moment the body will die. This is why, they are afraid of being punished in the afterlife and therefore they worship him through many rituals and ceremonies (Robinson, 2002). These ritual ceremonies practiced by the Iroquois tribes occurred in certain seasonal periods throughout the year, but most commonly during important agricultural periods (Irwin, 2000). Even some of the “Invisible Agents” were honored at this ceremonies depending on what time of year the ceremony was taking place. The ceremonies were led by “Keepers of the Faith”, or “Ho-nun-den-ont” (Irwin, 2000), who were “a loosely organized council of qualified individuals who were assigned the task of maintaining the ritual practices of the Iroquois people”(Irwin, 2000).
The second tribe I will briefly describe is The Apache tribe. Little is known about this nomadic group of Native Americans due to the fact that it lived an isolated existence in the harsh environment of the arid southwest. This tribe relied on scarce resources found in their desert environment for survival (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). Due to the fact that survival was difficult under these conditions they were not so preoccupied of the spiritual world (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). This is the reason why the belief system of the Apache tribes is less developed than the other tribe mentioned earlier. For instance, the Apache religion did not recognize a “large pantheon of gods and goddesses.” (Opler in Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992) and focused on supernatural cultural figures that are responsible for the Apache way of life.
What is interesting to notice at these entities is the fact that they interfered little in the daily activities of the people unless people called for their help. (Opler in Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). The Apache tribe has no religious ritual either since it is a non-agricultural society. Thus, they had no reason to celebrate seasonal periods and rarely celebrated any type of annual gathering. Instead, they focused all their time and energy on survival (Opler in Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). More importantly, however, was the fact that the Apache lacked an organized belief in an afterlife and instead they focused all attention towards survival in this world.
This is why the most common form of ceremony for them were the curing rites, performed only by shamans (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). Opler describes the Apache religion as a form of “devotional shamanism.” : “It conceives of a universe permeated with supernatural power which must realize itself through man or not at all.” (Opler in Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). The third tribe I will be analyzing is the Dakota tribe. According to Raymond J. DeMallie, the Dakota world was “characterized by its oneness, its unity.” (DeMallie, 1987:27). There was no separation of the natural world from the world of the supernatural: ”This unity in nature was thought to be beyond the comprehension of mankind and could only be shared in through the practice of rituals” (DeMallie, 1987:27).
The “animating force” that acted as the common denominator of the universe was known as “Wakan Tanka” (Densmore,1918:85).The physical world was composed of the manifestations of this animating force, which basically means that they believed that every object was spirit, or “wakan.” (Densmore, 1918:85). In other words, the Dakota tribe believed that nothing was real in the universe since everything in the material world had only the appearance of being real.
Like the inferior spirits in the Iroquois belief system, Wakan Tanka employed the use of “Wakan people” (DeMallie 1987) to interact with the material world and control the lives of men. These characters were often the objects of worship and praise. According to DeMallie, Wakan Tanka was explained in relation to the Dakota by “wicasa wakan”, or holy men. (DeMallie 1987). These men attempted to create some type of order and understanding of this “Great Incomprehensibility.” (DeMallie 1987).
White Buffalo Woman was one of the most important Wakan people to the Dakota. Their myth states that she gave the Dakota people the “Calf Pipe” (DeMallie, 1987) through which they could communicate with the invisible spirit world. According to DeMallie, Dakota rituals were based on mystical experiences instead of systematic worship. The most important aspect of ritual was the individual personal experience. The experience was usually related in the form of an interpretive dance inspired by a personal vision (DeMallie, 1987).
There are several observations I need to make at the end of this research about the Native American spirituality. The first observation is that each of the tribes presented above are similar in the way in which they interact with the natural world. Therefore, the Native American spirituality can be characterized by this intimate relationship these people have with nature. They have a deep respect for Mother Earth and they praise her through these rituals that they so often perform.
Secondly, I consider it important to mention the fact that there isn’t a clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural in any of the three tribes mentioned earlier. Also, their beliefs are rather a way of life and each tribe has his own system of beliefs.
Based on the analysis of these Native American tribes the following conclusion can be formulated: these people have this deep religious feeling, even when systematic rituals are absent (which was the case of the Apache tribe). Kahlil Gibran once asked, “Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupation?”(Gibran in Robinson, 2002).
It seems that Native Americans could not make this distinction either. I believe that is very difficult for other cultures, including our own, to have a full perception and understanding towards the Native American spirituality, since we were not educated into their belief system .Therefore, there are too many differences between the Christians beliefs and theirs, (I am not referring here to religion only, but also to their whole different culture and their unique way of life) which makes it almost impossible to fully understand their spiritual world.
Arlene B. Hirschfelder & Paulette Molin, “The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions: An Introduction,” Facts on File, (1992).
Charley Elkhair, quoted in M. R. Harrington, Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, Indian Notes and Monographs, Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, vol 19 (1921).
Lee Irwin, “Native American Spirituality: A critical reader,” University of Nebraska Press, (2000).
McGaa, Ed “Eagle Man”. Interview with Jean Holmes. LightNews.org: NativeAmerican Beliefs- Culture Near Extinction. http://www.lightnews.org/November%20Light%20News/Native_American_Beliefs.htm
“Native American Spirituality.” Ed. Donna Ladkin. GreenSpirit. http://www.greenspirit.org.uk/resources/NatAmerSpirit.htm Native American Beliefs.
Native American Religion. 1998. The Institute for Philosophy, Religion, and the Life Sciences, Inc. 24 Nov. 2002 http://www.stormwind.com/common/nareligion.html
Panther-Yates, Donald. Remarks on Native American Tribal Religions. Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia. http://www.wintercount.org/remark.doc
Religious Movements Homepage: Native American Spirituality.,University of Virginia, Nov. 2002 http://http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/naspirit.html Robinson, B.A.. Religious Tolerance.org: Native American Spirituality, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, Nov. 2002 http://www.religioustolerance.org/nataspir.html