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Native American Spirituality

Beliefs of Native Americans,
from the Arctic to the southwest

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The Inuit

The traditional Inuit (Eskimo) culture is similar to those found in other circumpolar regions: Northern Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries. Life has been precarious; there are the double challenges of the cold, and the continual threat of starvation. (The popular name for the Inuit, "Eskimo", is not used by the Inuit.).

Their religious belief is grounded in the belief that anua (souls) exist in all people and animals. Individuals, families and the tribe must follow a complex system of taboos to assure that animals will continue to make themselves available to the hunters. Many rituals and ceremonies are performed before and after hunting expeditions to assure hunting success.

An underwater Goddess Sedna or Takanaluk is in charge of the sea mammals. She is part human and part fish. She observes how closely the tribe obeys the taboos and releases her animals to the hunters accordingly. There is an corresponding array of deities who release land mammals; these are Keepers or Masters, one for each species.

The Angakut or Shaman is the spiritual leader of each tribe. He is able to interpret the causes of sickness or lack of hunting success; he can determine the individual or family responsible and isolate the broken taboo. In a manner similar to Shamans in may other cultures, he enters a trance with the aid of drum beating and chanting. This allows his soul to leave his body and traverse great distances to determine the causes of sickness and other community problems.

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Eastern Subarctic, Eastern Woodlands, Plains and Southwest Cultures

Native religions in these areas share some similarities, and differ significantly from Inuit culture described above. Tribes also differ greatly from each other. Spiritual elements found in some (but not all) non-Inuit native religions are:

bulletDeity: A common concept is that of a dual divinity:
bulleta Creator who is responsible for the creation of the world and is recognized in religious ritual and prayers
bulleta mythical individual, a hero or trickster, who teaches culture, proper behavior and provides sustenance to the tribe.

There are also spirits which control the weather, spirits which interact with humans, and others who inhabit the underworld. Simultaneously the Creator and the spirits may be perceived as a single spiritual force, as in the unity called Wakan-Tanka by the Lakota and Dakota.

bulletCreation: Individual tribes have differing stories of Creation. One set of themes found in some tribes describes that in the beginning, the world was populated by many people. Most were subsequently transformed into animals. Natives thus feel a close bond with animals because of their shared human ancestry. Dogs are excluded from this relationship. This bond is shown in the frequent rituals in which animal behavior is simulated. Each species has its master; for example, the deer have a master deer who is larger than all the others. The master of humans is the Creator.
bulletEmergence of the Tribe: This is a concept found extensively in the Southwest. The universe is believed to consist of many dark, underground layers through which the humans had to climb. They emerged into the present world through a small hole in the ground - the world's navel. Other tribes believe that their ancestors have been present in North America as far back as there were humans.
bulletSacred Texts: Many tribes have complex forms of writing. Other tribes have preserved their spiritual beliefs as an oral tradition.
bulletAfterlife: In general, Native religions have no precise belief about life after death. Some believe in reincarnation, with a person being reborn either as a human or animal after death. Others believe that humans return as ghosts, or that people go to an other world. Others believe that nothing definitely can be known about one's fate after this life. Combinations of belief are common.
bulletCosmology: Again, many tribes have unique concepts of the world and its place in the universe. One theme found in some tribes understands the universe as being composed of multiple layers. The natural world is a middle segment. These layers are thought to be linked by the World Tree, which has its roots in the underground, has a trunk passing through the natural world, and has its top in the sky world.
bulletShamans: Although the term "Shaman" has its origins in Siberia, it is often used by anthropologists throughout the world to refer to Aboriginal healers. Spirits may be encouraged to occupy the Shaman's body during public lodge ceremonies. Drum beating and chanting aid this process. The spirits are then asked to depart and perform the needed acts. Other times, Shamans enter into a trance and traverse the underworld or go great distances in this world to seek lost possessions or healing.
bulletVision Quest: Young boys before or at puberty are encouraged to enter into a period of fasting, meditation and physical challenge. He separates himself from the tribe and go to a wilderness area. The goal is to receive a vision that will guide his development for the rest of his life. They also seek to acquire a guardian spirit who will be close and supportive for their lifetime. Girls are not usually eligible for such a quest. 
bulletRenewal Celebrations: The Sun Dance amongst the Plains Natives is perceived as a replay of the original creation. Its name is a mistranslation of the Lakota sun gazing dance. Other tribes use different names. It fulfilled many religious purposes: to give thanks to the Creator, to pray for the renewal of the people and earth, to promote health, etc. It also gave an opportunity for people to socialize and renew friendships with other groups. A sweat lodge purifies the participants and readies them for lengthy fasting and dancing. It was successfully suppressed in most tribes by the Governments of the US and Canada. However, it survived elsewhere and is now being increasingly celebrated.
bulletSweat Lodge: This is structure which generates hot moist air, similar to a Finnish sauna. It is used for rituals of purification, for spiritual renewal and of healing, for education of the youth, etc. A sweat lodge may be a small structure made of a frame of saplings, covered with skins, canvas or blanket. A depression is dug in the center into which hot rocks are positioned. Water is thrown on the rocks to create steam. A small flap opening is used to regulate the temperature. As many as a dozen people can be accommodated in some lodges.
bulletHunting ceremonies: these involve the ritual treatment of a bear or other animal after its killing during a successful hunt. The goal is to appease its spirit and convince other animals to be willing to be killed in the future.
bulletProphets: The main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) trace their development through a series of patriarchs and prophets. Native religions do not have as many corresponding revered persons in their background. Some Native prophets include Handsome Lake in the Iroquois Confederacy, Sweet Medicine of the Cheyenne, and White Buffalo Woman of the Lakota & Dakota tribes.
bulletTraditional housing: There were many variations across North America: conical wigwams or tipis, long houses, and cliff dwellings. The shape of the structure often represents a model of the cosmos.

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Copyright 1995 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-JAN-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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