Native American Religion

Ghost Dance of the Sioux

Ghost Dance of the Sioux

When 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

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

Snake Priest by Edward S. Curtis

  • 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 good will 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 form a very large part of the religious observances.

1 thought on “Native American Religion”

  1. I am in the process of studying several areas of America. In this process I have been trying a site that conveys the TRUTH about the time, people, and anything that influence the people.
    In the study of history a very point must be adhered to and this: Never judge the past by the present. This concerns ALL areas of life.
    I say all this to say in all articles there is a grain of truth and a grain of error. I have noticed concerning the Indian and his life. There are comments regarding their religion. There seems to be put down of their Beliefs.A way of saying what they believed in is a myth. It seems the writer is saying that to modern man the Indian’s beliefs were nothing but a myth.
    In saying that tot the Romans Christianity was a myth. Even today people are quick to say another’s belief’s are a myth because they are different.
    At another I might if given the opportunity to expand on this as this is already lengthy.

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