A Summary of Native American Religions

by David Ruvolo

The history of American religions is dominated by the presence of Christianity brought to the New World by European settlers. Columbus's discovery in 1492 marked the beginning of a massive "white" invasion that would consume the entire continent of North America over the next four centuries. Although Christianity manifested itself in countless denominations, it was, nevertheless, the umbrella under which most Europeans in America gathered. It served as common ground on which white settlers could stand together in the struggle for survival in the wilderness of the New World. Whatever differences there were between denominations were insignificant when compared to the differences between the white European Christianity and their counterparts on the continent, the resident Native Americans. This fact, along with the desire and need for land, turned Native Americans into a convenient enemy for most groups of European settlers.

In essence, time had run out for the indigenous race that populated the continent of North America. Like the Israelites of the sixth century B.C.E., Native Americans were faced with an enemy that was more advanced. Ironically, the invading whites are the religious descendants of those same Israelites who were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.. Armed with technologically advanced weapons, diseases which were foreign to the continent, and a concept known as Manifest Destiny, European settlers began an assault on the North American Continent the result of which was nothing short of genocide. Within four hundred years of their first contact, the white man had succeeded in stripping Native American civilizations of virtually all of their land and had nearly wiped their cultures from the face of the earth.

Popular American history has traditionally viewed the past through white eyes. Much of the history and culture of many Native American civilizations were lost during the European invasion of the continent. The absence of a written language among most tribes force them to depend on aril traditions that were difficult to maintain as their civilizations were being killed off and separated by the dominant white culture. For this reason, it is often difficult to locate information concerning the religious beliefs and rituals of the large variety of Native American civilizations that flourished in North America before the time of the European invasion. This project will provide some of this information by taking a cross-section of certain Native American tribes from separate and distinct geographic regions and comparing certain aspects of each of their religious beliefs and rituals. I plan to show how each tribe's religion was impacted by the environmental conditions that surrounded it, and in what ways these religions were affected by the invasion of Christianity. The Iroquois Nation of the eastern woodlands, the Dakota tribes of the central plains, and the Apache tribes of the southwestern desert shall serve as the subjects of this project.

The Iroquois Nation of the eastern woodlands was one of the most highly organized civilizations that developed among Native American tribes in North America. This particular "league", as it is sometimes referred , is surpassed in greatness only by the advanced civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas in the pre-discovered Western world. "They achieved for themselves a more remarkable civil organization, and acquired a higher degree of influence, than any other race of Indian lineage,...{in North America}." (Morgan 1954,3). The league occupied most of the area that makes up the present day state of New York, however, it's influence and territory extended into parts of Canada. Their society was centered around the wilderness that surrounded them. The Iroquois relied on agriculture, as well as hunting and gathering. Their environment provided them with fertile soil, plentiful game, and streams that were full of fish. The rich natural resources that surrounded the Iroquois were undoubtedly their greatest strength and directly responsible for the success of the nation.

The relative ease at which the Iroquois Nation was able to provide for the needs of it's people allowed for the development of a systematic belief system that was more developed than most other systems found among Native American civilizations. According to Lewis H. Morgan, their religion is characterized by a monotheistic belief in an all-powerful creator known as the "Great Spirit", or "Ha-wen-ne-yu." "The Iroquois believed in the constant superintending care of the Great Spirit. He ruled and administered the world, and the affairs of the red race." (1954,146). The Iroquois failed to see the need in developing a detailed conception of their creator. This knowledge was thought to be above and beyond their capabilities to understand. His power was administered to the material world through "a class of inferior spiritual existences, by whom he was surrounded." (1954,147). While divine attributes concerning the Great Spirit remained undeveloped, the Iroquois gave detailed descriptions of this lower class of spirits that interacted with the material world. The were known as "Invisible Agents" or "Ho-no-che-no-keh." (Morgan 1954). The power possessed by these spirits was given to them by the Great Spirit and were the manifestations of his unlimited power. Some of these spirits were given names, however, they were often identified with the object or force that they presided over. For example, He-no, one of the more important spirits, was given the thunderbolt and controlled the weather. According to Morgan, he had the form of man and wore the costume of a warrior (1954,147).

While the Iroquois belief system centered around the idea of a benevolent Great Spirit, it did not ignore the existence of evil in the world. Evil is represented by the brother of the Great Spirit, "Ha-ne-go-ate-geh", or "the Evil-minded" (1954,147). This evil spirit exists independently and controls it's own inferior spiritual beings. These agents of evil also exist in the material world and are place there in an attempt to bring about evil. According to Morgan, the Great Spirit does not have any type of positive authority over the Evil-minded, except for the power to overcome him when necessary (1954,148). The red race is left to choose either obedience to the Great Spirit or submission to the Evil-minded. It is important to note that the Iroquois developed the idea of an immortal soul. This soul was judged by the Great Spirit upon the death of the body. The threat of punishment in the afterlife increased morality concerns, which aided in the success of the Iroquois Nation.

The ritual ceremonies practiced by the Iroquois tribes were systematic worship services that occurred in accordance to certain seasonal periods throughout the year. The rituals were handed down through the generation and remained unchanged for centuries. Festival most commonly occurred during important agricultural periods. Worship and thanks were given to the Great Spirit for protection and survival. One of the "Invisible Agents" were usually honored depending on what time of year the ceremony was taking place. The ceremonies were led by "Keepers of the Faith", or "Ho-nun-den-ont" (Morgan 1953,177). They were not an organized priesthood like one would imagine, but rather a loosely organized council of qualified individuals who were assigned the task of maintaining the ritual practices of the Iroquois people.

The Iroquois were first encountered by the white man around 1609 during the height of Dutch exploration. The league spent the majority of the seventeenth century at war with neighboring tribes as well as French invaders. Their influence spread through the northeast and reached a culminating point around the turn of the century. Within fifty years of this time, the power and population of the once proud Iroquois Nation was cut in half. White settlers had moved into their territory and forced the Iroquois to give up their homeland.

The belief system of the Iroquois was the closest a Native American civilization had come to the complex theology of Christianity. One major difference between the two religions is evident when looking at how each faith explains mankind's participation in the workings of the universe. While most Christian denominations sought to participate actively in the evolution of their world, the Iroquois say mankind as too insignificant to take part in the grand scheme of the Great Spirit. For example, many Christian denomination, like the Puritans of New England, believed that they were the chosen people of God and were working toward the creation of a true "Kingdom of God" located in America. The Iroquois, on the other hand, believed that the world was as it should be, and there was nothing that could be done by mankind to change this fact. This idea would eventually change somewhat as the Iroquois were influenced more and more by European Christianity. Furthermore, their ideas concerning punishment in the afterlife were also influenced by Christian concepts. According to Morgan, the Christian concept of purgatory seems to have seeped into the Iroquois belief system sometime during the white man's invasion (1954,163).

While the Iroquois Nation was the strongest Native American civilization east of the Mississippi river, their integration into the dominant white culture went relatively smooth compared to most other instances of integration among the native tribes of North America. I think this was due to the similarities between their belief systems which made it easier for the two races to find common ground. The religion practiced by Iroquois descendants is remarkably similar to the one practiced by their ancestors. The similarities between the two distinct religions seem to have saved the weaker Native American system from extinction.

The Dakota, or Sioux as the are commonly called, inhabited the great plains and prairies surrounding the modern states of North and South Dakota, as well as Minnesota. This was their home until white mining interests forced them out of their homeland during the mid-1800's. The Dakotas were less organized and more spread out than their cousins in the east, the Iroquois. Their society was based almost entirely on the hunting of buffalo, which provided them with virtually all of their survival needs. Their territory consisted of seasonal hunting grounds that forced the tribal units to live a nomadic lifestyle on the plains. There was no need for permanent settlements due to the fact buffalo herds would rarely stay in one place for a long period of time. The Dakota's existence centered around the movements of the herds.

According to Raymond J. DeMallie, the Dakota world was "characterized by its oneness, its unity." (1987,27). There was no separation of the natural world from the world of the supernatural. This unity in nature was thought to be beyond the comprehension of mankind and could only be shared in through the practice of rituals. The "animating force" that acted as the common denominator of the universe was known as "Wakan Tanka." (1987). "Wakan Tanka was an amorphous category most precisely defined by incomprehensibility." (Densmore 1918,85). The physical world was composed of the manifestations of this animating force. In essence, they believed that every object was spirit, or "wakan." For this reason, the Dakota held a docetic view of the universe in which nothing was real. Everything in the material world had only the appearance of being real. Like the inferior spirits in the Iroquois belief system, Wakan Tanka employed the use of "Wakan people" (DeMallie 1987) to interact with the material world and control the lives of men. These characters were often the objects of worship and praise.

According to DeMallie, Wakan Tanka was explained in relation to the Dakota by "wicasa wakan", or holy men. (DeMallie 1987). These men attempted to create some type of order and understanding of this "Great Incomprehensibility." (DeMallie 1987). The did not concentrate of strict religious doctrine or structure due to the ambiguous nature of Wakan Tanka. Instead, they served as guides to assist Dakota people in coming to their own personal understanding of their place in the universe. It was believed that mankind is required to serve the Waken people who administered and controlled the forces that surrounded them. White Buffalo Woman was one of the most important Wakan people to the Dakota. Their myth states that she gave the Dakota people the "Calf Pipe" (DeMallie 1987) through which they could communicate with the invisible spirit world.

It is impossible to separate the Dakota people from the buffalo. A bond existed between the two that was steeped in religious tradition and survival. For this reason, the buffalo played an equally significant role in the Dakota's religious belief system. A co-existence was achieved between these two life forms within an interconnected universe governed by the collective forces of Wakan Tanka. Most of the Dakota's rituals were centered around this relationship. According to DeMallie, Dakota rituals were based on mystical experiences instead of systematic worship. The most important aspect of ritual was the individual personal experience. The experience was usually related in the form of an interpretive dance inspired by a personal vision (DeMallie 1987). The Dakota were encouraged to contribute to the understanding of Wakan Tanka through their own individual relationship with the spirit world.

The religious beliefs and rituals of the Dakota people were not as compatible with Christianity as the Iroquois' were. Their religious ties to their land place them at great odds with the invading white settlers. The unity and balance demonstrated in the Dakota's world contrasted sharply with the one-sided , monotheistic characteristics of Christianity. The Dakota people attempted to retain their own religion in the face of cultural extinction, however, few aspects of their culture were left unaffected by their interactions with whites. One significant influence that Christianity had on the Dakota belief system involved the personification of Wakan Tanka. (DeMallie 1987,28). Before contact with European settlers, Wakan Tanka was without distinction. The Dakota seem to have give anthropomorphic attributes to their creator fashioned after the God of Christianity.

The Apache tribes of the southwestern desert region of the United States remain as one of the more elusive civilizations in American history. Little is known about this nomadic group of Native Americans that lived a somewhat isolated existence in the harsh environment of the arid southwest. Their territory encompassed the modern states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and extended into parts of Mexico. they were generally nomadic gatherers who relied on scarce resources found in their desert environment for survival. Survival under these conditions was difficult and there was little time for speculating in detail on matters of religion. For this reason, the belief system of the Apache tribes is less developed than the other two tribes mentioned earlier. Apache religion did not recognize a "large pantheon of gods and goddesses." (Opler 1969,21). Instead, their belief system concentrated on supernatural cultural figures that are responsible for the Apache way of life. These "supernaturals" (Opler 1969) interfered little in the daily activities of the people unless called upon to help an individual.

The Apache lifestyle left little room for religious ritual. This non-agricultural society had no reason to celebrate seasonal periods and rarely celebrated any type of annual gathering. All time and energy was spent on survival. Two illustrations of this point lie in the fact that the Apache lacked formal ceremonies for both marriage and death; two events that traditionally involve elaborate ceremonies in most civilizations. According to Opler, marriage among the Apache "was less the founding of a new social unit that it was the absorption of the couple into an on-going extended family." (1965,25). Death was considered to be "the ultimate foe and its triumph was not to be celebrated." (1969,25). Sickness and death were formidable problems for a society that needed every individuals efforts for survival. More importantly, however, was the fact that the Apache lacked an organized belief in an afterlife. This focused all attention towards survival in this world. For this reason, curing rites were the most common form of ceremony demonstrated by the Apache people.

The individual power quest was the foundation of Apache religion. The group, as a whole, was too involved with issues of survival to spend time with religious issues. Therefore, the Apache were encouraged to establish their own relationship with the supernatural forces that surrounded them. According to Opler, the Apache believed that the world was "suffused with supernatural powers, eager to be associated with human affairs." (1969,24). Mankind could manipulate these powers to serve him for both good and evil reasons. Life for the Apache was a struggle for survival governed by one's interactions with these supernatural forces.

The Apache religion was loosely organized and headed by leaders known as "shaman." Their power rested in their ability to heal. This power, if used well, could make the shaman an influential figure among Apache tribes. Opler describes the Apache religion as a form of "devotional shamanism." "It conceives of a universe permeated with supernatural power which must realize itself through man or not at all." (1969,29). The shaman was the link that connected the Apache people to the healing powers of the supernatural world.

The Apache tribes were invaded by white culture around 1850. The people and their culture were quickly removed from the land to make way for the expanding American population. There was little time for the Apache to be influenced by Christianity due to the fact that the United States sent military forces to the region before the Christian churches sent missionaries. In any case, I have a difficult time thinking that the Apache would have had any need for the religion of the white man.

The connection between environmental factors and the development of religious systems among Native America cultures should be clear. In general terms, a tribes ability to develop extensive religious belief systems was directly proportional to it's ability to provide for the survival of it's people. A large supply of natural resources, as in the case of the Iroquois, provided more time to develop religious ideas. The Apache, on the other hand, had little time to spend on religious thought. They were unable to develop an extensive religious theology due to the amount of time and energy they were forced to put towards survival. Furthermore, the connection between the Dakota's belief system and their environment is glaring. Their dependency on the buffalo gave rise to a religious system of co-dependant survival within a world characterized by oneness and unity.

While each tribes unique environment impacted their belief systems in a different way, all three demonstrate similarities in the way in which they view their interaction with the natural world. There is little evidence of a separation between the natural and the supernatural in any of the religions discussed. It can be said that Native American cultures were characterized by an intimate relationship with nature. This relationship was explained in terms of the supernatural and was experienced at the subjective level. Deep religious sentiment permeated most aspects of Native American life in the pre-discovered North American continent even when systematic rituals were absent. Kahlil Gibran once asked, "Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupation?" (1994,77). It seems that Native Americans could not make this distinction either.