An Introduction to Native American Spirituality
An Overview of Native Americans and their Spirituality
The pre-Columbian population of Native Americans in what is now the US may have been as large as 18 million. Census figures place the current number of Native Americans in the US at a little over 3 million, or one percent of the population. There are more than 500 registered tribes in the US. Many of these have their own distinctive spiritual practices, and so there is no specific “Native American Religion” (though there is one small group that calls itself ‘Native American Church’). It should be noted that a significant percentage of Native Americans combine their traditional practices with some form of Christianity. However, many tribes have common spiritual practices and beliefs, and we will discuss these here, but only as observations rather than as definitive statements. These observations are taken in large part from the book, Teaching Spirits. For many Native Americans what other religions think of as religion is not a separate aspect of life. Religion in Native American life is so pervasive and so integrated that there is probably no Native American language in which there is a term that could be translated as ‘religion.’
The Native American Concept of ‘God” And the Idea of Relationship
Much of Native American spiritual practice acknowledges and honors a Great Spirit or Great Mystery (which in some ways is equivalent to the notion of God in the West). Native American spirituality is built around and deeply informed by the relationship between human beings and the natural world. In this spiritual tradition, humans connect with the Great Mystery by entering into relationship with its innumerable forms and dimensions in the natural world. This series of relationships begins with the immediate family and reaches out to the band, then the clan, and finally the tribal group. Relationships do not stop with humans, but also include the land, animals, plants, clouds, the elements, the stars… and ultimately the entire universe.
Scripture. The spiritual aspects of the natural world serve the same function as revealed scriptures in other religions. Historical and pre-Colombian Native Americans did not have written or printed scriptures. It has been said that many Native Americans find reflections of the Great Spirit in the Natural world, and especially in animals. Animals are often seen as intermediaries or links between human beings and the transcendent.
Reciprocity with the Natural World
For many Native American cultures, living in close understanding with non-human beings is essential to becoming fully human. A key concept of Native American spirituality is the theme of reciprocity which permeates many aspects of their cultures. Reciprocity here means the process by which if one receives or takes away, one must also give back. In treating the world and all its beings in a sacred manner, one will be in turn treated well by nature. A sacred pact is forged among all beings of the world, which, instead of emphasizing their material differences, focus on their inherent commonality. The binding force in this pact is the sacred lore held by the people and supported and transmitted by legends, ceremonies, songs, rituals-- all imbued with a sense of humility.
Holidays and the Notion of Sacred Time
In traditional practice, many Native Americans do not often celebrate holidays or religious observances on specific calendar dates as is the case with many other religions. Rather, spiritual practice is closely tied to cycles in the human and natural world, with non-date-specific observances of the changing of seasons, planting and harvest, and transitional points in the human life cycle. Native American cultures observe that the rhythm of the world is circular, as is the life of all beings and forms. Time tends to be experienced as cyclical and rhythmic, rather than linear and progress oriented. Cyclical, not linear, processes of change are inherent in all forms and patterns of nature, such as the life cycles of animals, the ebb and flow of water, the growth of plants, the turning of the seasons. Humans experience time by interacting with these natural cycles and by orchestrating their actions to fit the cycles’ rhythms. As human life moves from birth to death, it recapitulates the cycles of the cosmos, the sun and the seasons.
Sacred Space. Some tribes have structures for spiritual practice such as kivas. Historically, many tribes did not have a permanent structure that functioned as the equivalent of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. They instead viewed the natural world itself as worship space. Because the land contains spiritual power, many tribes look to the land for assistance and guidance…the land is not only alive it is a moral force. It holds ethical codes that can show us how to live. The Native American dwelling, tipi, longhouse, earthlodge, like a cathedral or temple, determines space in a way that establishes a sacred center as an axis between heaven and earth that pierces through multiple worlds. Many Native American structures reflect an image not only of the universe but also of the human being. As such they remind their inhabitants that, like the kiva or the Hogan, they, too, bear the sacred center within themselves.
Ritual and Creative Expression
Rituals and creative expression play a key role in the spiritual expression of most Native Americans. When the elements of time, place, language, art and the spiritual come together as they do in ritual, the experience of the sacred is intensified. Rituals accomplish three cumulative possibilities: purification, expansion and identity. Many Native Americans believe that rituals transmit sacred power beyond the participants to nourish and sustain the entire world. They think of the whole act of living in harmony with nature as a creative act. The items that they carve, paint or decorate are to them only one small aspect of the creative act of living. Creative visual expression includes rock paint, sand painting, the creation of fetishes, the crafting of household items, the making of totems and totem poles, prayer flags, kachinas, dreamcatchers, clothing and habitat, drums flutes and other musical instruments, talking sticks and more. Among the key rituals are the chantway, ceremony of the four directions, sweatlodge, tobacco offering, visionquests, potlaches, giveaways, sun dances, the way of the pipe, green corn ceremonies and many other sacred acts.
Sources for Further Information about Native American Spirituality
A good, brief introduction to Native American spirituality is Teaching Spirits by Joseph Epes Brown (who worked closely with Black Elk) and Emily Cousins. Another good source of information is Indian Spirit, edited by Michael Oren Fitzgerald.