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Religion & Spirituality in the Native American Culture

When the topic of the beliefs of the Native American culture arises, most people have generally the same ideas about the culture’s beliefs: they are very strong. Being part Native American myself, from the Cherokee tribe, I was raised to know my culture pretty well and follow the same beliefs that they teach and follow. One thing f that my grandma, who is the great-granddaughter of a Cherokee Chief, instilled in me is the importance of my beliefs in God.

When the Europeans came to North America and saw the spiritual practices, ceremonies, and rituals being performed, they thought of the Native Americans as barbarians and their practices pagan, and that’s when the fight to keep their spiritual practices alive began. The Europeans sought to “Christianize the Indians” and sought to suppress indigenous spirituality (Doak).

The United States government tried to force Christianity upon the Indians in a desperate attempt to destroy their traditions and to assimilate them into white Christian society; but it soon became “apparent to United States political and Christian leaders that the political and religious forms of tribal life were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable, and that in order to successfully suppress tribal political activity, it was imperative that tribal religious activity be suppressed as well”(Dill). Jordan Dill, states well in his article that:

As the United States government realized early on, Native American spirituality differs from Christian religious doctrine. For Christians, there is a distinct separation between religious practice and everyday activity. For Native Americans, however, no such clear-cut distinction exists because religion cannot be separated from everyday life. Even using the word “religion” to describe Native American spirituality is misguided, because it fails to take into consideration the inseparable connection between spirituality and culture. One cannot exist without the other.

Native American spiritual observances are “guided by cycles, seasons and other natural related occurrences,” and these spiritual aspects are inextricably woven into the culture itself (Dill). Basically, I feel that Dill is stating that the government tried to separate the culture of the Native Americans and the spirituality of the Native Americans, but did not succeed because they are one in the same, not able to survive solely. Throughout the decades, United States policy in Indian affairs shifted, and eventually Congress took steps to establish certain protections for Native American religious practices.

In 1978, Congress enacted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act which stated: “[I]t shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites” (Dill).

As promising as this Act appeared for Native Americans wanting to be free from governmental intrusion in practicing their native spirituality, it contained a fatal flaw: there was no provision for enforcement. The Supreme Court interpreted the Act to be merely a requirement that the government consult with the Indians about the potential devastating effects its actions might have on Indian religious practices.

For the Indian people, the Act meant absolutely nothing without provisions for enforcement. Many Native Americans ended up in prison for simply practicing their spirituality in the traditional ways that their ancestors had used since time immemorial (Dill). So when the Native Americans were imprisoned because of their beliefs, practices, spiritual teachings, or rituals, it doesn’t change. The only thing that does change is the atmosphere where this occurs, behind the bars.

While imprisoned, the prison officials, also are so unexposed or just plainly ignorant and that the “white men” do not understand the purpose for the sacred pipes, long hair, eagle feathers and herbs are all essential items of the ceremonies and are a necessity for their spiritual expression (Dill). One way that this could be understood is comparing their items to those of the Christian or Catholic faith. Catholicism uses a Rosary when praying, Christians, Lutherans and other faiths partake in the symbolic “drinking of the blood” and “eating of the flesh” known as communion.

The problem here is that the Native Americans just couldn’t get the government, prison officials or their persecutors to understand their ideas and connections they were making to the religions that were familiar at the time. A commonality of the culture as a whole is that there is a belief of divinity throughout the tribes. Each tribe of the Native American culture shares similar beliefs in one Creator who is responsible for creating and sustaining life. The Creator is recognized and honored in religious rituals and prayers and taught to each generation (Dill).

Specific tribes also have many beliefs in spirits. Some tribes have spirits that they believe that control the weather, health/sickness, directions, animals and other such things. The Navajo believe in powerful Holy People, with whom the Navajo aim to live harmoniously (Doak). These Holy People are specific beings that are above them in stature and control the activities and happenings of the Navajo people, therefore, it is thought of as bad to anger a Holy Person, for fear something terrible would happen to them.

Some may also believe in a “Mother Earth” and that it is the giver of all in existence (similar to God). Basically, the religion of the Native American culture is closely connected to the natural world. Ceremonial rituals involving these supernatural-natural objects are meant to ensure communal and individual prosperity (Doak). Ceremony plays a vital, essential role in Native American religions. Whereas western religions typically consider ceremony the servant of theology, Native American religions barely recognize the distinction between myth and ritual.

Often the ritual proves to be established and secure while the myth is vague and unclear. Indian ceremonies grew up within local groups; some elements of Indian ceremonials have been traced back to the Old World. The ceremonies were adapted locally, using both traditional and borrowed elements, to suit local needs (Doak). I found it very interesting when researching for this paper, one thing that Michael Doak stated in his website:

The failure of the typical white American to understand how profoundly our cultural values have been influenced by indigenous belief in the harmony of all life on Mother Earth has resulted in a diminution of understanding of ourselves. Our receptiveness today to the necessity of creating technology that is in harmony with the natural environment is possible because of the nourishing these values have achieved through the influence of Native Americans. On the other hand, Native Americans who view Christianity as synonymous with “religion” have similarly experienced at least some diminution of their own spirituality (Doak).

I noted this particularly appealing because what it is saying to me is that “the white man” sees the Native Americans almost as a “freely floating”, happy, content people because of their beliefs, and that they are immune to the negativity of the world, but Doak is saying that the Native Americans view their Christianity as their religion, and they too, have experienced sadness, pain, and hurt. Ceremonial rituals were a big part of the Native American life.

Specifically focusing on the Iroquois tribes, their ritual ceremonies were systematic worship services that occurred in accordance to certain seasonal periods throughout the year, as similar to other tribes. Festivals most commonly occurred during important agricultural periods. 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 (Ruvolo). Worship and thanks were given to the Great Spirit for protection and survival.

One of the “Invisible Agents” was usually honored depending on what time of year the ceremony was taking place. The ceremonies were led by “Keepers of the Faith” (Ruvolo). 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. One major difference between the religions of Christianity brought here by the Europeans and the Iroquois tribe 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 advancement of their world, the Iroquois say mankind is too insignificant to take part in the grand scheme of the Great Spirit. For example, many Christian denominations, 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 (Ruvolo).

Clearly religion and spirituality in the Native American culture is a very important aspect of their society and culture and taken very seriously. Throughout history, Native Americans have been severely persecuted for their beliefs and have endured some serious hardships, including death, but have continued to remain strong in their faith despite what they have been put through by the “white man”. I think that culture as a whole is a very strong and determined culture and I’m proud to be part of it.