Native American Religion



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
religion.
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
and inanimate natural objects..
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
Canada.
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