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Encyclopedia of North American Indians


The phenomena referred to by the term Native American religions pose an interesting and complex problem of description and interpretation—one that has consistently captured the imagination of European immigrant peoples. These phenomena have been misunderstood, maligned, romanticized, and misappropriated. In almost every case the authoritative and definitive analyses of particular Native American religious traditions have been written by non-Indians, and thus nonadherents, who lacked any lifelong experiential basis for their analyses. It seems that now, at the end of the twentieth century, deeply held Indian traditions and beliefs have been politicized—on the one hand by academic experts, and on the other by New Age aficionados who have mistakenly seen Indian spirituality as a new trade commodity. It has become increasingly clear that those phenomena we call Native American religions were and are yet today very complex socially and philosophically and are therefore not easily represented or described by means of either popular interpretation or the critical categories of academic analysis, especially when those categories have been constructed in a cultural context alien to the traditions themselves.

Most adherents to traditional American Indian ways characteristically deny that their people ever engaged in any religion at all. Rather, these spokespeople insist, their whole culture and social structure was and still is infused with a spirituality that cannot be separated from the rest of the community's life at any point. The Green Corn Ceremony, the Snake Dance, kachinas, the Sun Dance, sweat-lodge ceremonies, and the sacred pipe are not specifically religious constructs of various tribes but rather represent specific ceremonial aspects of a world that includes countless ceremonies in any given tribal context, ceremonies performed by whole communities, clans, families, or individuals on a daily, periodic, seasonal, or occasional basis. Whereas outsiders may identify a single ritual as the "religion" of a particular people, the people themselves will likely see that ceremony as merely an extension of their day-to-day existence, all parts of which are experienced within ceremonial parameters and should be seen as "religious."

For instance, among the Ni U Konska (Osages), what ethnographers would classify as "religion" pervades even the habitual acts of sleeping and putting on shoes. All the ceremonies and prayers of the Osages reflect the principle of the simultaneous duality and unity of all existence. Prayers commonly begin with an address to the Wakonda Above and the Wakonda Below (manifested in Sky and Earth, respectively), the two great fructifying forces of the universe. This principle is mirrored in the architectural structure of Osage towns and in the marriage customs of the people. Each Osage town was divided by an east-west road into two "grand divisions" representing Sky and Earth. Just as Osages perceived the necessity of these two forces coming together in order for life to be sustained, so too they saw the two grand divisions of the people as sustaining the life of the whole. To insure that the principle of spiritual and political unity in this duality would be maintained, Osages were mandated by social custom to marry someone from the other grand division. To further enforce this religious sense of wholeness, members of each of the two grand divisions developed distinct personal habits that helped remind them of their own part in the communal whole. For instance, those from the Honga grand division customarily slept on their right side and put on the right shoe first, whereas those from the Tsizhu grand division functioned in the opposite manner. As a result, even in sleep the two divisions performed a religious act that maintained their unity in duality as they lay facing each other across the road that divided the community.

Thus the social structures and cultural traditions of American Indian peoples are infused with a spirituality that cannot be separated from, say, picking corn or tanning hides, hunting game or making war. Nearly every human act was accompanied by attention to religious details, sometimes out of practiced habit and sometimes with more specific ceremony. In the Northwest, harvesting cedar bark would be accompanied by prayer and ceremony, just as killing a buffalo required ceremonial actions and words dictated by the particularities of tribal nation, language, and culture. Among the Osages the spiritual principle of respect for life dictated that the decision to go to war against another people usually required an eleven-day ceremony—allowing time to reconsider one's decision and to consecrate the lives that might be lost as a result of it. Because to be successful the hunt required acts of violence, it was also considered a type of war. Hence the semiannual community buffalo hunt, functioning on the same general principle of respect for life, also required a ceremony—one that was in all respects nearly identical to the War Ceremony.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of American Indian religious traditions is the extent to which they are wholly community based and have no real meaning outside of the specific community in which the acts are regularly performed, stories told, songs sung, and ceremonies conducted. Vine Deloria, Jr., described the communitarian foundations of American Indian existence in his 1973 book God Is Red, his point being that ceremonies are engaged in not primarily for personal benefit but rather for the benefit of an entire community or nation. The most common saying one hears during the Lakota Sun Dance is "That the people might live!" This sentiment becomes the overriding reason for and purpose of this ceremony. Likewise, violations of the sacred become threatening to the whole community and not merely to the one who commits the error. The communitarian nature of Indian ceremonies represents a key distinction between Native American religious traditions and modern Euro-American New Age spirituality, with its emphasis on radical individualism.

Some would argue that the so-called vision quest is evidence of the quintessential individualism of Plains Indian peoples. However, just the opposite can be argued, because in Plains cultures the individual is always in symbiotic relationship with the community. This ceremony involves personal sacrifice: rigorous fasting (no food or liquids) and prayer over several days (typically four to seven) in a location removed from the rest of the community. Yet in a typical rite of vigil or vision quest, the community or some part of the community assists the individual in preparing for the ceremony and then prays constantly on behalf of the individual throughout the ceremony. Thus by engaging in this ceremony, the individual acts on behalf of and for the good of the whole community. Even when an individual seeks personal power or assistance through such a ceremony, he or she is doing so for the ultimate benefit of the community.

Unfortunately, the traditional symbiotic relationship between the individual and the community, exemplified in ceremonies such as the vision quest, has become severely distorted as a shift in Euro-American cultural values has begun to encourage the adoption and practice of Indian spirituality by the general population no matter how disruptive this may be to Indian communities. The resulting incursion of Euro-American practitioners, who are not a part of the community in which the ceremony has traditionally been practiced, brings a Western, individualistic frame of reference to the ceremony that violates the communitarian cultural values of Indian peoples. The key concern for Indian people in preserving the authenticity and healthy functioning of the relationship between the individual and the community is the question of accountability: one must be able to identify what spiritual and sociopolitical community can rightly make claims on one's spiritual strength. In the Indian worldview, this community—this legitimate source of identity—is intimately linked to, and derives directly from, the significance of spatiality, of space and place.

In God Is Red Deloria clearly identified and described another characteristic feature of American Indian religious traditions: spatiality. Indian ceremonial life and all of Indian existence are rooted in a profound notion of space and place. The spatial layout for any ceremony takes on paramount importance. As with the structure of the Osage village, most Osage ceremonials are structured around a north-south, Sky-Earth division. In a similar manner, the structure for a Green Corn Ceremony, the subterranean location of a kiva, the design of a sweat lodge, or the direction one turns in a pipe ceremony all have tribally specific cosmic representational value that reflects the spiritual relationship of a particular people with the spatial world around them. This understanding of the importance of spatiality also emerges in the longstanding identification of places that are known to a tribe to be particularly powerful spiritually. For most Indian communities, there are one or more such places that they have long identified as powerful: the Black Hills for the Sioux Nation; Blue Lake for Taos Pueblo; Mount Graham for the San Carlos Apaches; the mountains that mark the territorial boundaries of any pueblo—to mention but a few examples.

Indian peoples, then, tend to locate sacred power spatially—in terms of places or in terms of spatial configuration. This is in stark contrast to European and Euro-American religious traditions, which tend to express spirituality in terms of time: a regular hour on Sundays and a seasonal liturgical calendar that has become more and more distanced from any sense of the actual flow of seasons in particular places and is therefore both more abstract and more portable than Native American traditions. In the Southern Hemisphere, for instance, Christians celebrate Lent (named for springtime and the lengthening of the days) and Easter during the antipodean autumn. It would be an exaggeration to argue that Indian peoples have no sense of time or that Europeans have no sense of space. Rather, spatiality is a dominant category of existence for Native Americans whereas time is a subordinate category. Just the opposite is generally true for European peoples.

The identification of places of particular spiritual power points to yet another important aspect of Indian religious traditions: these places are experienced as powerful because they are experienced as alive. Not only are they sentient; they are intelligent manifestations of what Native Americans call the Sacred Mystery or the Sacred Power. The Sacred Mystery, sometimes simplistically and badly translated as "the Great Spirit," is typically experienced first of all as a great unknown. Yet this unknown becomes known as it manifests itself to humans spatially: as the Mystery Above and Mystery Below; as the Mystery (or Powers) of the Four Directions; as the Sacred Mystery in its self-manifestation in a particular place, in a particular occurrence, in an astronomical constellation, or in an artifact such as a feather. All of the created world is, in turn, seen as alive, sentient, and filled with spiritual power, including each human being. The sense of the interrelationship of all of creation—of all two-legged, four-legged, wingeds, and other living, moving things (from fish and rivers to rocks, trees and mountains)—may be the most important contribution Indian peoples have made to the science and spirituality of the modern world.

In conclusion, the religious traditions of Indian peoples are communitarian and have no meaning outside the particular community of reference. Unlike Euro-Americans, Indian people do not choose which tribal religious traditions they will practice. Rather, each of them is born into a community and its particular ceremonial life. Indian traditions are fundamentally spatial in nature and in configuration, which makes them peculiarly difficult for temporally oriented peoples to understand. Because of cross-cultural misunderstandings, distortions are now threatening Native American religious traditions on several fronts. Many Native American religious traditions are undergoing a transformation under intense pressure from New Age would-be adherents. The modern Euro-American appropriation of native traditions is introducing a mutation that is now shaping those traditions in the image of European individualism. Moreover, the systemic pressures of the colonial experience, which have worked variously to eradicate, suppress, or at least erode Native American religious traditions, continue today in the legal and economic activities of corporate and government interests; for example, American Indians have little legal recourse for protecting places of traditional spiritual value to them. Yet the religious traditions and indeed the cultural whole of many Indian peoples continues today to give those peoples hope and life.

See also Ghost Dance; Missions and Missionaries; Native American Church; Religious Rights.

Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion 2d ed. (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994).

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