Native American Spirituality

It is difficult to sort the current popular understanding of the term “Native American Spirituality” from the reality of the practices of the original Native peoples. When we use those words nowadays, the images that come to mind are of sweat lodges, dreamcatchers, and a general belief in the sacred nature of the Earth. However, the truth is much more complicated, and the spirituality of First Nations’ peoples is as varied as they were.


It’s impossible to speak of a single “Native” spirituality as a monolithic system. The peoples of the Americas were divided into over 1500 different cultures from the tip of South America to the Arctic Circle, with a similar number of languages being spoken. These groups existed in a huge variety of natural environments and in a myriad of social structures; their religious practices were as varied, and there were few common elements.


One of those common elements was the close association of God and the divine spirit with the Earth. This is something that the Natives held in common with indigenous cultures all over the world; when survival and continuation of a culture depends on an intimate relationship with the natural environment, a corresponding sense of the sacred nature of the environment is almost assured. Most cultures had some sense of sacred space, associating the features of the local landscape, plants, and animals with spiritual beings that had to be taken into account while hunting, food gathering, etc. Indeed, most cultures did not separate the two – hunting and killing a deer, for instance, involved appeasing the spirit of the deer both prior to and after its death, so small rituals and prayers that had to be performed while hunting were common.


The variety of other religious practice among the Native peoples was, and is, huge. It encompasses everything from the elaborate sacred calendars and ritual sacrifices of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas to the sacred dances and ceremonies of the Pueblo peoples, from the False Face societies of the Iroquois ( which used masks to represent the spirits of trees and animals) to the Sun Dances of the Lakota, the chants and sand paintings of the Southwestern Navajo, and the contemporary use of the hallucinatory drug peyote in the rituals of the Native American Church.


The Plains tribes of North America (the Lakota, the Blackfoot, the Comanche, the Cheyenne, the Crow, etc.) have contributed much to the current popular image of Native Spirituality. The sweat lodge – where people undergo exposure to hot steam, speaking of their problems, and chanting in an effort to connect to the entire universe – as it is commonly practiced usually follows Lakota customary practice, although sweat lodges are found in many cultures. The dreamcatcher – a hoop of leather-wrapped wood with a spider web of intricate weaving inside – is a Northern Plains item that isn’t found in many other places. The dreamcatcher were originally conceived as a way of stopping bad dreams and influences from reaching children, but in its modern conception is sometimes seen as a tool for holding on to good dreams and influences – a good example of how Native Spirituality has shifted as it has been popularized.


While many people feel that the addition of Native spiritual practices add greatly to their understanding and centering practice, many Natives themselves are uncomfortable with what they see as the commercialization of their cultural heritages, and with the misperceptions that are attached to them. Still, enough people derive spiritual healing from even these representations that it seems difficult to believe they will go away anytime soon.

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