Native American Religion

Native American Religion
•Great diversity – many tribes (from small to large)
–Ute, Mohawk, Apache, Navajo, Delaware, Hopi, Sioux, Iroquois, Cherokee, etc.
•Holistic; more than rational; their approach to life is supra-rational
•No separation between the sacred and the mundane
•Book “poverty” (WS 570)
•No written text; an oral tradition
•There is no “theology” here, much less any “systematic theology”
•The power of the spoken word (Gill 39) [consider a “poker game”]
•Many stories
–Stories of the past, of the “fathers,” of natural phenomena, of heroic exploits
–the way of bequeathing values and belief
–The “word” is a very powerful instrument of education
There is a “supreme God”
The “Supernatural” is a more adequate category for life
There is an “immediacy” about “God”
He is “up there”
A certain inaccessibility
Our immediate experience and feeling
Great Spirit (WS 594)
Many lesser deities and divinities under the “supreme God”
All nature, every aspect of it, is sacred
– Underhill 21
Reality is like a “spider’s web”
Close kinship with all nature: “Mother corn” “brother coyote” “mother earth”, “sister
rabbit” etc.
This is not meant as a denigration of human beings, but as an elevation of nature
Just as a scientist approaches nature with a magnifying glass, the Native American
sees all nature
as a living, holistic organism
as sacred
as a “temple”
The “Center” and the “four directions” must be fixed properly
Human Being
We have a body and at least 2 and sometimes several “souls”
– One like a life or breath soul (departs with the death of the body)
– One was a free soul (and can leave the body)
We are a being-in-relationship
We are akin to all of nature (brother coyote) – modern human beings
have lost this
We live “equidistant from all boundaries”
Personal names are private, sacred (they lengthen as one matures)
Relationships are defined through relational terms (much like Korea,
Rites of passage are important
– Separation, transformation, reinsertion
– Conception and birth
– Naming
– Marriage
– Death
Religious roles:
– Shaman or medicine man
– Priest
– Messiah
One very Important rite of passage is the vision quest (WS 606-7. 315,
582, 647)
Quest for a vision: preparation, purification, the quest, the return
• Preparation (boy at the right age and with appropriate training)
– What to expect, how to conduct yourself, how to seek
• Purification
– Prayer, cleanliness, fasting, isolation, meditation, etc.
• The quest
– Left in the mountains, etc.; the young man must seek for a vision
– He may have “helping” spirits
– He may be tested (a herd of buffalo; a bear, etc.)
– He must “risk his life” because the vision is more important than physical life
– He may achieve success, or he may fail
– If he fails, he returns to the village, to prepare and try again
• If he succeeds
– He experiences a profound life-changing vision (perceptions, values, etc.)
– He returns to the village a different person; a changed person
– New expectations, new obligations, new roles, etc.
– He may spend the rest of his understanding the vision he has received
– Black Elk Speaks (a profound vision when young, book written when old)
» “The Three Circles of Existence” (p 28f)
Human Problem
Bad death, disease, famine, short life, etc.
A great problem is to have confusion in heart or mind
WS 277 problems come from thinking or acting only for oneself
One’s soul can be “stolen” (black magic; must take preventive measures)
The modern Native American Indian society has high rates of alcoholism, suicide,
and other social problems.
– Much of this has been catalyzed by the decadent society of the West
– There is a lack of proper education for Native American Indians
– This is one of the collective sins of the “American” people
Salvation (Healing)
Long, productive, happy life in this world, with peace, joy and prosperity
Many children
Medicine bundle (examined soon)
Harmony and balance with people and with nature
“Enjoy the beautiful land, know the spirits intimately”
It is not easy to know the spirits intimately
There are religious figures in NA religion, which helps in this process
In the West, we have ministers, priests, and chaplains
In NA tradition, we have shaman, priest, and medicine man
We also have the Trickster and the Clown….
Mythical figures
– Trickster
– Clown
• These interesting figures are significant in their religious roles
• Akin to the Freudian “id”
• The human desire to be free of rules, to be unbounded is played out in
the Trickster stories
• The Trickster defies definition: an existence without boundaries
• The Clown is the master of symbolism
• The NA clown often acts “contrary”: he does everything backward
Rides backward on his horse
Puts his boots on the wrong feet
Walks backward
Wears heavy clothing in summer and goes naked in winter
Says “yes” when he means “no”, etc.
• A major symbolic role of the NA clown is the portrayal of all things that
are forbidden, unnatural, or considered inhuman.
– They will eat whatever is considered defiling, etc.
– These figures serve to break us loose from our everyday consciousness,
and to put us in an altered state of awareness, in which state we are more
open, more susceptible to higher influences
Live equidistantly from all boundaries [TF: up, down, front, behind, right, left]
WS 381-2; 244
“Religion” is a “centering” process
It is necessary to maintain a purity of heart (WS 381-2)
WS 244 – keep heart pure; related to destiny
Family conduct: WS 178, 700, 173*
Appropriateness re: natural world
the idea of “taking”
In other words, live in a balanced manner; harmonious in all respects
It is not appropriate to “take” something, when one is expecting “something”
It is always appropriate to “give” first, and then receive from nature (the idea of “taking”
is foreign to the Native American Indian)
Imagine their sensitivity to the modern American way of life (greed, ambition, “rat race”)
Extremely important rituals
– Ritual of the “peace” pipe (instrument of meditation; “self-directed”)
– Purification rites: sweat lodge
– The medicine bundle….
The (sacred) medicine bundle (Gill 68)
– A seeming common thing, which is actually an esoteric religious object.
– They are not public property, and they are rarely, if ever, displayed.
– A simple description would scarcely hint that they are among the most
sacred of items.
– Commonly consist of an array of things (feathers, bones, claws, teeth,
minerals, deer tail, herbs, etc.)
– Throughout one’s life, one accumulate “meaningful items” (memories, etc.)
– They have enormous spiritual power, even the power of healing
– Considered to be alive, they have the power to heal, to be clairvoyant, to
call animals, to assure success in a hunt, even to attract someone
– They are the place of residence of living spirits
– They are kept by the most responsible persons and families and cared for
– Opening a bundle is ordinarily a complex affair, highly constrained by ritual
– It is through the stories of their origin, the histories of their owners and use,
the occasions and manner of their use that these objects come to bear
significance of a magnitude that infinitely surpasses their commonplace
material character. It is in the power they generate, in the significance they
evoke, in the awe and respect they command that the symbolic powers of
these sacred medicine bundles must be understood and appreciated.
Usually no word for eternity
Ideally a long life in this world
Details about the soul and its destiny is not clear (Underhill 77)
Spiritual world (WS 233-34; 249-50; 742)
Rebirth is an accepted belief
WS 53-54
The Ghost Dance religion (messianic in nature)
The White Buffalo and its significance