When we think of Native American culture, elements of religious practice inevitably come to the fore. This has probably been reinforced in our thoughts because virtually every TV show or movie that features Native American culture has some kind of religious practice as a prominent feature. Whether showing totem poles, having discussions about the various spirits, seeing religious ceremonies performed around the campfire, watching the practices of the “witch doctor” or observing the talismans and decorations, religion is always close to the surface.
In modern times, Native American religious practice is not visible everywhere. For the most part, it is limited more to places where there are communities of Native Americans – particularly on the reservations. As such, it is not likely that the average person will run into a lot of it without going to where those communities are. That doesn’t, though, mean that there are no opportunities to observe it first hand. There very well could be chances to share Christ with some of these communities by participating in various ministry opportunities or by becoming a missionary to serve in those locations. But whatever your situation, you are bound to come across the beliefs associated with Native American religions in some form or another.
An explanation of the worldview beliefs of Native American religions is probably a bit less specific than the descriptions of many of the other belief systems we have dealt with. That is because there are actually a large number of Native American tribes and the specifics of each of their religions are slightly different. That being said, they all fall under the same worldview category. The purpose of this explanation is not to give a full account of each possibility, but simply to give a sense of the worldview foundation of the traditional Native American religions.
It used to be thought that most Native Americans migrated to the Western Hemisphere across the Bering Strait from Siberia, passed through Alaska, and spread from there throughout North America. Recent archeological discoveries, however, indicate that the migrations may have come from much more diverse lands – perhaps even as far away as Australia, South Asia and Europe.
Because of the huge diversity of Native American tribes and their geographical distribution, the specific worship practices evolved somewhat differently in different places. The rituals that emerged in each location reflect these individual situations. Some groups were oriented more toward hunting and gathering and looked to the spirits to help them find game. Other groups were more agricultural and looked to the spirits to provide the kind of weather that allowed for good crops. That being said, all of them are established on the foundation of an Animistic worldview and hold many things in common.
In modern Native American religious practice, another influence has also had a profound impact. The arrival of Western Europeans injected a whole new set of factors into the mix. Over time, as the population of the new arrivals expanded, every element of the lives of the Native Americans was altered. Many died due to illness and war. In some cases, Native American spiritual practices were suppressed and the populations forced to convert to Christianity. Also, government policies forced the tribes onto reservations or created situations where they were compelled to assimilate into Western culture.
Because of the upheaval over the years, Native Americans in modern society follow a large variety of spiritual traditions. Some are devout Christians while others have almost completely maintained their traditional religions. It is also not unusual to find situations where the ancient traditions have been syncretized with Christian or even New Age beliefs.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
While recognizing that there is great diversity in the religious practice of the various Native American religious traditions, we can also see that they do share worldview similarities that allow us to make a few general observations.
First, in every case, all of creation is seen to be interrelated. These systems all believe that it is the responsibility of humans to oversee and protect the material world.
Secondly, there is a basic belief that all of life is of equal value. They understand there to be a spark of life in all humans, animals and plants. This life force is considered to be sacred and connects all living things together. All life forms have as much right to existence as human beings, and should not be damaged or destroyed. They believe that plants and animals may be used for food, medicine and to take care of other needs, but there are limitations on that use.
A third common characteristic relates to a long term concern for life. They are willing to forego short-term expediency in order to assure the long-term viability of the natural world.
Finally, there is a deep gratitude to the Creator for life and for the things it makes possible. This gratitude is expressed by both public and private worship traditions.
The basic Native American view of deity is dualistic – there is believed to be good and bad in the spiritual world. Most believe in a creator God who was responsible for creating the world. They acknowledge him in their worship practices and pray to him. They also believe that there are other spirits which are able to interact in the material world. These spirits have control over such things as the weather and other circumstances which affect humans.
Since the introduction of Westerners into the picture, other religious traditions have also entered into the mix. Christianity, in particular, has greatly penetrated Native American spirituality in the last century. Additionally, New Age beliefs have become quite prominent in the last few decades.
Most Native American groups acknowledge an all-powerful, all-knowing creator God or “Master Spirit.” They also recognize numerous lesser supernatural spirits which interact with material life from their position in the spirit world.
Mankind is seen to be simply one expression of the universal life force that courses throughout all living things. Man is to live harmoniously in the world and in relationship with all other living things. In addition, he has the responsibility to help maintain the web of life.
Salvation, in Native American religious tradition does not generally relate to the forgiveness of sin. Rather, it deals with how to practically make it through this life. The spirits are called on to help one navigate life in the material world and to move smoothly into the next.
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
Most Native American religious traditions acknowledge an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator God or “Master Spirit.” In different traditions, this Master Spirit will take various forms. In addition to the Master Spirit, each species of animal has its own master. The master of humans is the Creator.
There are numerous ways that universal reality is envisioned. One belief is that the universe consists of many dark, underground layers through which humans climbed in order to get to this world. When they made it to the present world they had to climb up through a small hole in the ground – the world’s navel. Another belief is that Native American ancestors have been present in North America as far back as there have been humans on earth. Still another belief is that the universe is composed of layers – our natural world being the middle segment. These layers are connected by the World Tree which has its roots in the underground, a trunk which passes through the natural world, and its top is in the sky world. One other tradition is that in the beginning, the world was populated by many people. Most were later transformed into animals. As a result humans and animals are seen to have common ancestors – thus the sense of closeness.
Regardless of the particular mythology, virtually all traditions conceive of a connection between the sky, earth and underworld with spirit beings having the ability to move between them.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
Traditional Native American religion does not clearly distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. They understand the material and spiritual realms to be interconnected. All life forms – plants, animals and humans – are kin, and are participants in the operation of the world. They all interact with the spirit world through guardian spirits who provide the world with life and power. The spirits provide mankind with elements which make life on earth run smoothly and also require prayer, sacrifices, dances and songs from human beings in order to meet needs in the spirit world.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
Humanity, in Native American religious thought, is simply one part of the web of life. Humans are not believed to be superior to any other life form since all are vitally connected. The role of humanity is to protect and support the spirits in their environment.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
Most traditional tribal beliefs assert the immortality of the human soul and an afterlife. The primary image of this afterlife portrays a situation where there is an abundance of good things which make earthly life secure and pleasant. It is difficult to be much more specific than that. In general, there is no single belief about life after death that covers all tribal beliefs. Some believe in a form of reincarnation where a person is reborn as either a human or animal. Others believe that humans return as ghosts or that people go to another world. In general, though, there is the idea that the person who dies will remain a part of the relationship between the material and spiritual world, just from a different position.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
In Native American religious thought, knowledge tends to be processed in the form of stories. These stories are about the lives of ancestors, animals or spirit beings. As such, knowledge is not so much expressed in the form of propositional statements but in the themes told in the stories. The stories do, however, express what is known about the world and the consequences of actions. In this worldview paradigm, there is no particular explanation as to why knowledge exists in humans, it is simply the way things are.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
Moral knowledge, in Native American religions, is known and passed on from generation to generation by stories about the ancestors and the spirit beings.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
Native American religious tradition conceives of history as linear in the present material world, but without transcendent meaning. However, some traditions believe it is possible for a person’s life force to recycle back into another life at a future time.
There are no scriptures, as such, that Native American religions look to as divine sources of authority. There have been spiritual stories which have been written down and these have helped preserve some of the ancient beliefs. That being said, these are not considered to be sacred scripture. An understanding of the things of God are primarily passed down from generation to generation as oral tradition in the form of stories, legends and the teachings of the elders.
Evidence for the Authority
Since there is no objective source of authority in Native American religious tradition, evaluations of the validity of any religious practice has to be made on the basis of each individual system. That being said, the understanding of reality portrayed in virtually all systems is based on subjective perceptions and traditions that have been passed down through the generations. There is no concrete evidence to support the validity of any of the religious beliefs of Native American religions.
The various Native American belief systems don’t all have the same particulars, but they all fall squarely into the category of Animistic beliefs. They all understand reality to consist of a symbiotically connected spiritual and material world.
There is no evidence to back up the validity of any Animistic belief system, including all of the Native American religions. The only evidence consists of anecdotal stories which are, themselves, dependant on the presuppositions of the Animistic worldview. On the other side, there are considerable issues which point to a discrepancy between the beliefs of Native American religions and the way human beings actually experience life. Grasping a basic knowledge of these beliefs should be useful in helping you share the love of Christ with those who come from Animistic belief traditions.
© 2011 Tal Davis