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Arikara man at the alter, Edward S. Curtis, 1908.Though Native Americans' spirituality, ceremonies, and rituals were often referred to as “religion,” most  did not consider it in the way Christians do. However, it was labeled as such by American writers, soldiers, and settlers, who called it such, perhaps because they didn't know how to otherwise describe the rituals and ceremonies. The Native Americans, themselves, believed that their rituals and practices formed an integral and seamless part of their very being. Like other aboriginal peoples around the world, their beliefs were heavily influenced by their methods of acquiring food, – from hunting to agriculture. They also embraced ceremonies and rituals that provided power to conquer the difficulties of life, as wells as events and milestones, such as puberty, marriage, and death. Over the years, practices and ceremonies changed with tribes' needs.


From tribe to tribe, these rituals exhibited a great deal of diversity, largely due to the relative isolation of various cultures that were spread out across the the North American continent for thousands of years. However, most all "religions" were closely connected to the land and the supernatural, addressing an ever present invisible universal force.


In 1920, Clark Wissler, in his book North American Indians Of The Plains, briefly described some of the religious concepts of the Plains tribes. (Excerpt is edited and not verbatim.)


"To most of us the mention of religion brings to mind notions of God, a supreme over ruler, and decidedly personal being. Nothing just like this is found among the Indians. Yet, they seem to have formulated rather complex and abstract notions of a controlling power or series of powers pervading the universe. Thus, the Dakota use a term Wakan Tanka which seems to mean, the greatest sacred ones. The term has often been rendered as the "Great Mystery" but, that is not quite correct. It is true that anything strange and mysterious is pronounced Wakan, or as having attributes analogous to Wakan Tanka; but this seems to mean supernatural.


In fact, the Dakota do recognize a kind of hierarchy in which the Sun stands first, or as one of the Wakan Tanka. Of almost equal rank is the Sky, the Earth, and the Rock. Next in order, is another group of four -- the Moon (female), Winged-One, Wind, and the "Mediator" (female). Then come inferior beings, the buffalo, bear, the four winds and the whirlwind; then come four classes or groups of beings and so on in almost bewildering complexity. So far as we know, no other Plains tribe has worked out quite so complex a conception. The Omaha Wakonda is in a way like the Dakota Wakan Tanka. The Pawnee recognized a dominating power spoken of as Tirawa, or, " father," under whom were the heavenly bodies, the winds, the thunder, lightning, and rain; but, they also recognized a sacred quality, or presence, in the phenomena of the world, spoken of as Kawaharu, a term whose meaning closely parallels the Dakota Wakan. The Blackfoot resolved the phenomena of the universe into "powers," the greatest and most universal of which is Natosiwa, or sun power. The sun was in a way a personal god having the moon for his wife and the morning-star for his son. Unfortunately, we lack data for most tribes, this being a point peculiarly difficult to investigate. One thing, however, is suggested. There is tendency here to conceive of some all-pervading force or element in the universe that emanates from an indefinite source to which a special name is given, which in turn, becomes an attribute applicable to each and every manifestation of this conceivably divine element. Probably nowhere, not even among the Dakota, is there a clear cut formulation of a definite god-like being with definite powers and functions.


A Supernatural Helper - It is much easier, however, to gather reliable data on religious activities or the functioning of these beliefs in actual life. In the Plains, as well as in some other parts of the continent, the ideal is for all males to establish some kind of direct relation with a divine element or power. The idea is that if one follows the proper formula, the power will appear in some human or animal form and will form a compact with the young man for his good fortune during life.




Sacred White Buffalo,Generally, the youth will put himself in the hands of a priest, or shaman, who instructs him and requires him to fast and pray alone in some secluded spot until a vision or dream is obtained. In the Plains, such an experience results in the conferring of one or more songs, the laying on of certain curious formal taboos, and of the designation of some object, such as a feather, skin, or shell, to be carried and used as a charm or medicine bundle.


This practice has been reported for the Sarsi, Plains-Cree, Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakota Sioux, Assiniboine, Omaha, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Pawnee. It is probably universal except perhaps among the Ute, Shoshone, and Nez Perce. We know also that it is frequent among the Woodland Cree, Menomini, and Ojibway. Aside from hunger and thirst, there was no self torture except among the Dakota and possibly a few others of Siouan stock. With these, it was the rule for all desiring to become shamans, or those in close rapport with the divine element, to thrust skewers through the skin and tie themselves up as in the Sun Dance.


When a Blackfoot, a Dakota, or an Omaha went out to fast and pray for a revelation, he called upon all the recognized mythical creatures, the heavenly bodies, and all in the earth and in the waters, which are consistent with the tribes' conceptions of power. If this divine element spoke through a hawk, for example, the young man would then look upon that bird as his Wakonda. He would then keep in a bundle the skin or feathers of a hawk that the divine presence might ever be at hand. This is why the warriors of the Plains carried such charms into battle and looked to them for aid.


Banning of Religious Rights:


The arrival of European settlers marked a major change in Native American culture. Some of the first Europeans that the Indians would meet were often missionaries who looked upon Native American Spirituality practices as worthless superstition inspired by the Christian devil. These early missionaries then determined to convert the Native Americans to Christianity.


As more and more Europeans flooded North America, US and Canadian governments instituted policies to force Natives onto reservations and to encourage them to become assimilated into the majority culture.


Beginning in 1882, the Federal Government began to work towards banning Native American Religious Rights, which impacted their spiritual traditions.


At that time, U.S. Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller, ordered an end to all "heathenish dances and ceremonies" on reservations due to their "great hindrance to civilization." This was further supported the following year by Hiram Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, when his 1883 report stated:


"...there is no good reason why an Indian should be permitted to indulge in practices which are alike repugnant to common decency and morality; and the preservation of good order on the reservations demands that some active measures should be taken to discourage and, if possible, put a stop to the demoralizing influence of heathenish rites."


These attempts to suppress the traditions of Native Americans eventually led to the Massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, when the government attempted to stop the practice of the “Ghost Dance,” a far reaching movement that prophesied a peaceful end to white American expansion and preached goals of clean living, an honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation by Native Americans.


Ghost Dance of the Sioux, illustrated in London News, 1891When the Seventh U.S. Calvary, was sent into the Lakota Sioux's Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations to stop the dance and arrest the participants, approximately 150 Native American men, women, and children were killed. Though charges of killing innocents were brought against members of the Seventh Calvary, all were exonerated. Just two years later, further measures were taken to suppress Native religions, when Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan ordered penalties of up to six months in prison for those who repeatedly participated in religious dances or acted as medicine men. However, these new laws were almost impossible to enforce and the Native Americans continued their customs.


Though some traditions were lost along the way, many others survived despite the ban, and various tribes continue to follow many spiritual traditions. Some Native Americans have been devout Christians for generations, and their practices today combine their traditional customs with Christian elements. Other tribes, particularly in the Southwest, have retained their aboriginal traditions, mostly intact.


Amazingly, the ban against Native American spiritual rituals continued to be in place until the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Today, many tribes continue to guard the knowledge of their medicine people and will not discuss the topic with non-Indians. Some believe that sharing healing knowledge will weaken the spiritual power of the medicine."




In 1906, the Bureau of Ethnology published a large four volume of work entitled the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. This work was compiled by some of the best and well known Indian researchers of the time from 1873 to 1905, and edited by Frederick W. Hodge, an anthropologist, archaeologist, and historian who worked for the bureau.


Within this work, Native American Religion is described, providing a view of perceptions over a century ago. Below is an edited excerpt from this historical publication.



Indian Religion From the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, by Frederick W. Hodge, 1906


Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico

For the purpose of a brief description of the religion of the American Indians we define religion as a group of concepts and acts which spring from the relation of the individual to the outer world. The scope of religious concepts depends, to a certain extent, on the knowledge of the laws of nature; and, since the natural and the supernatural, as conceived in the mind of Native Americans, does not coincide with our view of this subject, there are marked differences in the scope of religion.


For instance, the causal relations determining the movements of the stars are now recognized by civilized man; but, at an earlier time it was believed that the positions of the stars, influenced in a mysterious manner, the fates of man and that their movements could be controlled by his will. Among tribes which held to the latter opinion, views relating to the heavenly bodies would form part of the religion of the people; while among those peoples to which the causal relations determining the motions of the stars are known, these motions are no longer subject to religious interpretations.


Among American terms, the word "Manito" has been most frequently used to express this idea. The degree to which the magic power of nature is individualized differs considerably among various tribes. Although the belief in the powers of inanimate objects is common, we find that, on the whole, animals, particularly the larger ones, are most frequently considered as possessed of such magic power. 


The whole concept of the world, or mythology of each tribe, enters to a very great extent into their religious concepts and activities. The mythologies are highly specialized in different parts of North America; and, although a large number of myths are the common property of many American tribes, the general view of the world appears to be quite distinct in various parts of the continent. Taking into consideration the continent of America as a whole, we find a type of explanation of the world which is psychologically quite different from the familiar biblical type. Native American mythologies, in their broadest outlines, may be distinguished:

Snake Priest by Edward S. Curtis, 1900.

  • In the Eskimo area, the mythology is characterized by an abundance of purely human hero-tales, and a very small number of traditions account for the origin of animals, and these are largely in a human setting.
  • The North Pacific Coast area is characterized by a large cycle of transformer myths, in which the origin of many of the arts of man is accounted for, as well as the peculiarities of many animals; the whole forming a very disconnected heterogeneous mass of traditions.
  • Allied to these, appear the traditions of the Western plateau and of the Mackenzie basin area, a region in which animal tales abound, many accounting for the present conditions of the world, the whole being very disconnected and contradictory.
  • The Californian area, the mythologies of which are characterized by a stronger emphasis laid on creation by will-power than is found in most other parts of the American continent.
  • The principal characteristic of the mythologies of the area of the Great Plains, the eastern woodlands, and the arid Southwest, is the tendency to systematization of the myths under the influence of a highly developed ritual.
  • This tendency is more sharply defined in the south than in the north and northeast, and has perhaps progressed further than anywhere else among the Pueblos, to whom the origin of the clans and societies seems to give the keynote of mythological concepts; and among the Pawnee, whose contemplation of the stars seems to have given the principal tone to their mythology. The religious concepts of the Indians deal largely with the relation of the individual to the magic power, and are specialized in accordance with their general mythological concepts, which determine largely the degree to which the powers are personified as animals, spirits, or deities.



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