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Native American Religions

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Presentation on theme: "Native American Religions"— Presentation transcript:

1 Native American Religions

2 QUESTIONS What relevance does Native American religion have for today?
What are some elements of Native American religion would interest “New Age” religion and spiritual people? What are some common parts of Native American religion?

3 Native American religion
Difficult to define because they are so diverse (hunting-gathering societies to agricultural societies, small nomadic bands to towns, cities, and empires, in every section of America) Estimated that there may have been as many as 2,000 different Native American cultures in North America Must make generalizations based on certain shared religious characteristics seen across Native American tribes

4 Limitations on sources
First people came to Americas 15,000 to 20,000 years ago (some Natives believe their ancestors were created in Americas) 20,000 years of Native Americans in Americas Information only available from last 400 years Most sources were from Christian missionaries and explorers Difficult to understand how much Native American religion has been influenced by contact with Europeans

5 polytheistic All nature is alive with spirits
Spirits take the forms of animals, plants, and appear in visions Guardian spirits Spirits of the dead who live in the Land of the Dead Mother Earth – she provides the bounty of the Earth Lightening and thunder – individual deities

6 Monotheistic The Supreme Being or High God
Separate from the concerns of Earth People pray to the nature spirits or ancestors for matters of daily life The High God is appealed to only rarely and is seldom mentioned in religious conversation

7 monistic Some Native Americans believe the High God is a divine or sacred power similar to the Tao. Dakota Sioux believe in Wakan Tanka or “The Great Mysterious” Creative force found in all beings and spirits Any object or being that has influence over the course of life is seen as a manifestation of this divine power

8 So, is native American religion polytheistic, monotheistic, or monistic (henotheistic)?


10 animism An animist is someone who believes that the trees, rocks, rivers, plants, and animals are spiritually alive. Spirits in nature have the ability to help or harm. Animists offer some form of worship to these spirits. Native Americans are thus animists in a sense.

11 Animism continued If the Supreme Being lives and manifests itself in all creation, nature should be respected and cared for. In general, a different view than white European settlers, who viewed nature as something to be exploited. White Europeans were willing to sacrifice the beauty and life of the land to build a technology that would make life more comfortable and pleasant. Native Americans had a reverent attitude toward nature and sought to live in harmony with it.

12 hunting Important to Native Americans; both a practical and religious experience Native American hunters often prayed to the spirit of the animal before the hunt. Only those animals absolutely needed were killed Hunters asked for forgiveness from the animal Every part of the animal was used Euro-American hunters slaughtered herds, took hides and tongues leaving the bulk of the animal to rot.


14 agriculture Native Americans revere the soil, plants, and trees
The soil is personified as Mother Earth. Plants are thought to have spirits. For many Native American people, farming is a religious activity. Hopi of the Southwest continue to farm for corn, even when the bulk of their food comes from “modern” sources

15 Agriculture continued
Even gathering clay to make pottery is done with an understanding of the life in the soil. The Papago women of southern Arizona speak of the clay they dig for pots: “I take only what I need. It is to cook for my children.” Cutting down a tree is not done without making an offering to the tree first Trees are sacred and have feelings that must be respected

16 Contacts with the spirit world
Native American people tend not to see the universe as being under the control of an all powerful God Interested in day-to-day life among multiple spirits Native Americans seek to maintain good relationships with spiritual beings (forests, streams, and animals, among others) that share the world with humans.

17 Sacrifice Most world religions practice some form of sacrifice to please deities Animals, grain, wine, beer, and human blood sacrifice have been offered by different religions Such sacrifices were rare among the native peoples of the United States and Canada Human sacrifice was used by natives of Central and South America (Maya of Guatemala, Aztecs of Central Mexico, Inca of Peru, and communities of American Southwest).

18 sacrifice Sacrifice is used to help human obtain assistance from spiritual beings Some rituals such as the Sun Dance of the Great Plains Native Americans involve self-torment or sacrifice This is seen as a way of obtaining the spiritual power necessary for human survival Medicinal bundles made from animal hides, bones, plants, and minerals are other sources of spiritual power. Medicinal bundles are greatly valued by Native Americans.

19 Why do you think that the great blood sacrifices of other world religions was/is uncommon in native American religion?

20 taboos One way that Native Americans protect themselves from possible danger from the spirit world is through taboos. Taboos are actions, circumstances, persons, objects, etc., which owing to their dangerousness fall outside the normal everyday categories of existence. Taboo is a kind of religious action that enables people to avoid doing things that would offend the spirits of nature and the ancestors.

Women participate in child production and thus have special powers Menstruating women are seen as especially powerful Interacting with or even being looked at by a menstruating women could ruin a hunter’s abilities for life; even weapons could be rendered useless; wild game could be driven away Menstruating women were often kept separate

Native Americans feared that the spirit of the dead would remain for a time and attempt to take family and friends with it. Native Americans avoid the dead except in cases of extreme emergency. Among the Navaho and other tribes of Arizona and New Mexico, dead bodies, their clothing and belongings are greatly feared. They are reluctant to touch the bodies of victims of automobile and other accidents. Care of the dead is often left to non-native people

Steps taken to keep bodies away from contact with the human world Sometimes, names of dead are not spoken for many years after their deaths Dead buried by special members of tribe not immediate family These people were ritually unclean for a time and unable to partake of tribal meals

Archaeologists and scientists often study human remains to learn about the diets and health of prehistoric people Native Americans are troubled by what they see as a disrespect for the dead They have fought for the return and reburial of the remains discovered by archaeologists

Native Americans sought to control the forces of the spiritual world with ceremonies The purpose of ceremonies, rituals, songs, and dances is not necessarily to worship They are a means of renewing the partnership between humans and the spirit world Ceremonies and rituals include dancing, singing, fasting, ordeals, bathing, and observing taboos.

The entire community participates Used to prepare for a hunt, agricultural season, or for celebration; they were also used in the preparation for war Used as a rite of passage Dance is accompanied by the beating of drums, singing of songs, shaking of rattles, and playing of flutes

Rhythms can be simple or complex Several people banging on a log to complex rhythms played on animal skin drums Verses could be simple and repetitive or tell detailed stories of creation or heroes of the past Hours of song and steady rhythm are hypnotic Long hours of dancing in this atmosphere prepares the participants to interact with the spirits

28 RITUALS FOR HUNTING Animals were important to Native Americans for food and raw materials (hides for warmth, bones for tools and weapons) Rituals prepared hunters for their work Hunting could be unpredictable; one season their would be an abundance of game and the weapons could be very accurate; another season game could be scarce and weapons ineffective Spirits of animals and the hunters and weapons themselves had to be properly prepared

29 PUEBLO HUNTING RITUAL Pueblo ritual of the southwest
Men dressed as deer and crawled around to the beat of a drum and the singing of songs Hunters acted as if they were killing them and the animal actors as if they were dying Sympathetic or imitative magic – persons imitating the game animals in the ceremony were symbolically called forth and killed in the belief that this would occur during the real hunt

30 THE VISION QUEST To gain special power in life, Native Americans often seek visions that put them in contact with the spirit world Visions sought by young people at the time of puberty One day they go alone into the wilderness to live alone until a vision is received The young person lives without food, limited water, and with hardly any possessions Done to appear poor and humble before the spirits

Sometimes, the young person is painted to resemble a famous person from the tribe When the vision comes, the spirits often appear in the guise of animals in a dreamlike or trancelike state The animal may become the person’s special guardian; the person may change his/her name to include the animal’s name A bond is formed with that animal that lasts for life

Spirits may appear as a man or a woman If no vision occurs after a few days, then the young person may cut his/her flesh or even cut off a finger as a sign of sincerity. When the vision comes, the young person returns to the community as a full member of the group, having moved through this rite of passage.

33 VISIONS THEN AND NOW Visions are sought by Native Americans at other times in life – ex. On the eve of a major battle Visions sought in connection with hunting such as the great buffalo hunts in the 19th century Today, they are sought before making major life decisions such as marriage, running for political office, or moving from the reservation for employment or education

34 SUN DANCE Practiced Native Americans of the Great Plains
Dance takes place during the summer, on the solstice when the sun is near its peak; lasts usually three days and nights. Dancers seek a vision Gather in a lodge especially built for the purpose Sacred pole in the center of the lodge cut from a tree chosen for this sacred purpose People may be hung from the pole by hooks through pectoral muscles in order to contact the spirits Contact with the spirit world for too long can be dangerous, so they fight to free themselves from the hooks quickly.

35 SMOKING Natives smoked strong tobacco (Nicotina rustica plant) from long, decorative pipes (works of art, valued possessions that could be traded) Most people cannot take more than six puffs from the pipe without feeling almost intoxicated (not like mass-produced tobacco grown today) Native Americans (men mostly) did it occasionally to enhance bonding between tribal leaders, agreements among tribal members Not smoked as a habit

36 PEYOTE Spineless cactus that grows in American Southwest and Mexico
Natives of Central America and Southwest ate it to have visions Peyote has 9 narcotic alkaloids including mescaline (which is used to make acid) Most states have drug regulations banning mescaline Federal courts have upheld the state laws Native Americans continue to appeal to federal courts including the Supreme Court as they feel that their religious freedoms under the Bill of Rights are being abridged. Why is this a significant issue?

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