Native American religions, religious beliefs and sacramental practices of the indigenous peoples of North and South America. Until the 1950s it was commonly assumed that the religions of the surviving Native Americans were little more than curious anachronisms, dying remnants of humankind’s childhood. These traditions lacked sacred texts and fixed doctrines or moral codes and were embedded in societies without wealth, mostly without writing, and without recognizable systems of politics or justice or any of the usual indicators of civilization. Today the situation has changed dramatically. Scholars of religion, students of the ecological sciences, and individuals committed to expanding and deepening their own religious lives have found in these traditions many distinct and varied religious worlds that have struggled to survive but that retain the ability to inspire.
The histories of these worlds are also marked by loss. Five hundred years of political, economic, and religious domination have taken their toll. Scholars note when complex ceremonies become extinct, but often community members mourn even more the disappearance of small daily rituals and of religious vocabularies and grammars embedded in traditional languages—an erosion of memories that include not only formal sacred narratives but the myriad informal strands that once composed these tightly woven ways of life. Nevertheless, despite the pervasive effects of modern society, from which there is no longer any possibility of geographic, economic, or technological isolation, there are instances of remarkable continuity with the past, as well as remarkably creative adaptation to the present and anticipation of the future.
Native American people themselves often claim that their traditional ways of life do not include “religion.” They find the term difficult, often impossible, to translate into their own languages. This apparent incongruity arises from differences in cosmology and epistemology. Western tradition distinguishes religious thought and action as that whose ultimate authority is supernatural—which is to say, beyond, above, or outside both phenomenal nature and human reason. In most indigenous worldviews there is no such antithesis. Plants and animals, clouds and mountains carry and embody revelation. Even where native tradition conceives of a realm or world apart from the terrestrial one and not normally visible from it, as in the case of the Iroquois Sky World or the several underworlds of Pueblo cosmologies, the boundaries between these worlds are permeable. The ontological distance between land and sky or between land and underworld is short and is traversed in both directions.
Instead of encompassing a duality of sacred and profane, indigenous religious traditions seem to conceive only of sacred and more sacred. Spirit, power, or something akin moves in all things, though not equally. For native communities religion is understood as the relationship between living humans and other persons or things, however they are conceived. These may include departed as well as yet-to-be-born human beings, beings in the so-called “natural world” of flora and fauna, and visible entities that are not animate by Western standards, such as mountains, springs, lakes, and clouds. This group of entities also includes what scholars of religion might denote as “mythic beings,” beings that are not normally visible but are understood to inhabit and affect either this world or some other world contiguous to it. Continue reading from Encyclopedia Britannica
Native American stories are as varied as the trees on the Earth and yet have many common themes, whether told by the Inuit of Alaska or the Seminole of Florida. Traditional Native stories are based on honoring all life, especially the plants and animals we depend on, as well as our human ancestors.
Indigenous storytelling is rooted in the earth. Years upon years of a kinship with the land, life, water and sky have produced a variety of narratives about intimate connections to the earth. In a call and response lasting through time, Native peoples have experienced a relationship of give and take with the natural world.
In the basket of Native stories, we find legends and history, maps and poems, the teachings of spirit mentors, instructions for ceremony and ritual, observations of worlds, and storehouses of ethno-ecological knowledge. Stories often live in many dimensions, with meanings that reach from the everyday to the divine. Stories imbue places with the power to teach, heal and reflect. Stories are possessed with such power that they have survived for generations despite attempts at repression and assimilation.
Most stories talk about the living beings within a specific tribe’s homeland—the raven of the Pacific Northwest, the coyote from the desert, the buffalo of the Plains, the beaver of the Eastern woodlands. Stories explain why and how certain local plants and animals came to be, such as Narragansett storyteller Tchin’s lesson of why rabbits have such long ears. Other stories explain ceremony and ritual, such as Hoskie Benally’s story “The Five Sacred Medicines”.
Prayers, songs and dances are all types of stories, which can be offered to honor the earth, or as Western Shoshone elder Corbin Harney describes it, the Nature Way. Some stories provide practical instructions on traditional living, such as Rosella Archdale’s lesson about preparing foods with reverence. Other stories tell about child rearing, friendship and love, hunting routes, bird migrations, family lineage, and prophecies that describe and predict major ecological, celestial and spiritual events.
Some Native songs are sung in great cycles, containing over 100 songs for a specific ritual. The Mojave Creation songs, which describe cremation rituals in detail, are a collection of 525 songs and must be performed for the deceased to journey to the next world. These stories can take many days to be shared, and within these longer story-song cycles much information is given to instruct, entertain, and heal.
Without our ancestors, we would not have the gift of life. Therefore, one of the most important and common themes among Native stories are creation stories, which are universal among all cultures. Native creation stories explain how life began on Earth and how a particular tribal nation came to be. They talk about spiritual and mythical origins within real, physical landscapes and outline the “original instructions” or natural laws of how to live in balance with creation.
Above all, each Native story is a part of a greater whole, a continuum of stories that has neither a beginning nor an end. Each story in its own way fills in a section of the larger narrative, giving us a fuller sense of life. Continue reading from PBS