Native American Religion

Arikara Indian at the alter, by Edward Curtis, 1908

Arikara Indian at the alter, by Edward 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 describe the rituals and ceremonies otherwise. 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 well 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 North American continent for thousands of years. However, most “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 Blackfeet 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 a 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 relationship 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.

White Buffalo

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, Blackfeet, 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.

Sun Dance ceremony by George Catlin

Sun Dance ceremony by George Catlin

When a Blackfeet, 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 superstitions 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, the United States 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

Ghost Dance of the Sioux, Illustrated in London News, 1891

When the Seventh U.S. Cavalry 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, which are 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

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.

Snake Priest by Edward S. Curtis. Touch of color by LOA.

  • 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.
Appeal to the Great Spirit by the John Drescher Co, 1921.

Appeal to the Great Spirit by the John Drescher Co, 1921.

Social taboos are also practiced, an example of which includes never touching or even seeing the contents of sacred bundles. Other rules of conduct are not “taboos,” but rather, standards of behavior intended to retain the goodwill of the food animals and show them respect. The first game animals obtained at the beginning of the hunting season are always treated with particular care. The complicated customs relating to buffalo hunting, and the salmon ceremonials of the northwest Indians, as well as the whale ceremonials of the Eskimo, are a few examples. Dogs are not allowed to gnaw the bones of food animals, because it was a sign of disrespect.

Respectful behavior toward the elderly and generally decent conduct are also often counted among such required acts. Here may also be included the numerous customs of purification that are required in order to avoid the ill will of the powers. These, however, may better be considered as constituting one of the means of controlling magic power, which forms a very large part of the religious observances.

Not satisfied with the attempt to avoid the ill will of the powers, the people also try to make them subservient to their own needs. This end might be attained in a variety of ways. Perhaps one of the most characteristic methods of gaining control over supernatural powers was the acquisition of one of them as a personal protector.

Generally, this process is called the acquiring of a manito; and the most common method of acquiring it is for the young man, during the period of adolescence, to purify himself by fasting, bathing, and vomiting, until his body is perfectly clean and acceptable to the supernatural beings. At the same time, the youth works himself by these means, by dancing, and sometimes also by means of drugs, into a trance, in which he has a vision of the guardian spirit which is to protect him throughout life. These means of establishing communication with the spirit world were also practiced at other periods of life in dances, “ordeals,” and other rituals. The magic power that is acquired at these times is thought to give special abilities such as successful hunting, strength as a warrior, skills for priests; or even power to acquire wealth, success in gambling, or the love of women.

It is also believed that there were other means of acquiring magic power, particularly among those tribes where strong clan organizations prevailed. In such cases, people believe that wonderful powers may be attained by inheritance. In other cases, as among the Arapaho and Blackfeet, it is believed that acquiring this power and the control over it, can be purchased. Among the American Eskimo, it is thought that the power may be transmitted by teaching and by bodily contact with a person who controls such powers. Ordinarily, its possession is considered so sacred that it must not be divulged except in cases of extreme danger, but among other tribes, it may be made known to the whole tribe.

Another means of controlling the powers of nature is by prayer, which may be directed either to the protecting spirit of the individual or to other powers. Objectives of prayer may be protection in danger, removal of sickness, the obtaining of food or other material benefits, or a more general and abstract request for the blessing of the powers.

Another way of invoking the protection of the powers is through the use of charms or fetishes. The charm is either believed to be the seat of magic power, or it may be a symbol of such power, and its action may be based on its symbolic significance. Of the former kind are presumably many objects contained in the sacred bundles of certain Indians, which are believed to be possessed of sacred powers; while symbolic significance seems to prevail in charms like the stones worn by the North Pacific Coast Indians, which are believed to harden the skin against missiles of hostile priests, or the magic whip of wolf-skin of the Eskimo, which is believed to have the power of driving away spirits. Symbolic actions are also made use of, such as the setting-up of prayer-sticks, which are meant to convey man’s wishes to the powers. Often these wishes are indicated by special attachments, expressing in a symbolic or pictographic manner the thing wished for.

Still more potent means of influencing the powers are offerings and sacrifices. Unlike the indigenous peoples of Mexico, human sacrifice was only known in rare instances, as among the Pawnee. However, many cases of torture, particularly of self-torture, are seen. Other bloody sacrifices are also rare but sometimes exist such as the sacrifice of the dog among the Iroquois and to a limited extent, the killing of game as a bloody sacrifice. On the other hand, sacrifices of tobacco smoke,  corn, other food, small manufactured objects, and symbolic objects, are very common. These gifts may be offered to any of the supernatural powers with the intent of gaining their assistance and avoiding their enmity.

Sioux Prayer to the mystery by Edward S. Curtis

Sioux Prayer to the mystery by Edward S. Curtis

Still another way of gaining control over supernatural powers is by incantations, which are related to prayers, but which act through the magic influence of the words. Therefore, the traditional form of these incantations is rigidly adhered to. They occur frequently among the Arctic tribes of the continent, but, are also used by many other tribes, who believe that the recitation of a short formula may aid in reaching the desired end. In the same way that incantations are related to prayer, certain acts and charms are related to offerings. The custom of performing certain acts are effective through their own potency. Such acts are the use of lucky objects intended to secure good fortune; or the peculiar treatment of animals, plants, and other objects, in order to bring about a change of weather.

There is also found among most Indian tribes the idea that the supernatural powers if offended, may punish an individual. Such punishment may consist in the removal of the offender, who may be killed by the members of the tribe, or milder forms of punishment. Confession is a means of appeasement found among the Athapascan, the Iroquois, and the Eskimo. Other forms of punishment are based largely on the idea of purification by fasting, bathing, and vomiting. Among the Plains Indians the vow to perform a ceremony or another act agreeable to the powers is considered an efficient means of gaining their goodwill or of atoning for past offenses.

Protection against disease is also sought by the help of superhuman powers. Disease is conceived of principally in two forms, either as due to the presence of a material object in the body or as an effect of the absence of the soul from the body. The cure of disease is entrusted to priests or healers, who obtain their powers generally by the assistance of guardian spirits, or who may personally be endowed with magic powers. It is their duty to extract the disease by sticking or pilling with the hands; or to go in pursuit of the absent soul, recover it, and restore it to the patient. In treating the patient, the healers use various means to work themselves into a state of excitement, which is produced by singing, drums and rattles, and by dancing. Care must be taken to remove all disturbing and impure elements from the place where the healer’s performance is held.

The belief that certain individuals can acquire control over the powers has also led to the opinion that they may be used to harm enemies. Hostile priests may throw disease into the bodies of their enemies, or they may abduct their souls. They may do harm by sympathetic means, and control the willpower of others by the help of the powers at their disposal. This was considered witchcraft and a crime.

Besides those manifestations of religious belief that relate to the individual, religion has become closely associated with the social structure of the tribes; so that the ritualistic side of religion can be understood only in connection with the social organization of the Indian tribes. This is true particularly of clans that are characterized by totems. The totem is almost always an object of religious reverence to the clan, and there are many cases in which taboos relating to the totemic animal exist.

Also in cases where the clans have definite political functions, like those of the Omaha and the Iroquois, these functions are closely associated with religious concepts. The position of officials is also closely associated with definite religious concepts. Thus, the head of a clan at times is considered as the representative of the mythological ancestor of the clan, and as such, is believed to be endowed with superior powers. In this sense, many, of the political functions among Indian tribes are closely associated with what may be termed “priestly functions.” The religious significance of social institutions is most clearly marked in cases where the tribe join in the performance of certain ceremonies, which serve a political or religious purpose. Such acts include intertribal ballgames, the Busk of the Creek, the Sun Dance of the Plains Indians, and performances of numerous warrior societies. Here also belong the secret societies, which are highly developed among the Pueblos, in California, and on the North Pacific coast. It is characteristic of some of these rituals to develop into dramatic representations of the myth from which the ritual is derived. For this reason, he use of masks is a common feature, in which certain individuals impersonate supernatural beings.

On the whole, the Indians incline strongly toward all forms of religious excitement. This is demonstrated not only by the exuberant development of ancient religious forms, but also by the frequency with which prophets have appeared among them, who taught new doctrines and new rites, based either on older religious beliefs, or on teaching partly of Christian, partly of Indian origin.

Perhaps the best known of these forms of religion is the Ghost Dance, which swept over a large part of the continent during the last decade of the 19th century. But, other prophets of similar type and of far-reaching influence were numerous. One of these was Tenskwatawa, the famous brother of Tecumseh; another, the seer Smohalla of the Pacific coast; and even among the Eskimo, such prophets have been known, particularly in Greenland.

Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908

Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908

Historic Text compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2024.

Also See:

Mythology and Legends

Native American Dances

Native American Rituals and Ceremonies

Native American Medicine

Native American Ordeals