Native American Religions Research Paper

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The term religion suggests that the sacred can be separated from ordinary life. Among Native American peoples the sacred, the appearance of the extraordinary, and the most meaningful values are intertwined with daily concerns. Thus the pursuit of sustenance, and the making of useful objects or political decisions, may be charged with the presence and power of that which moves the cosmos. The term lifeway indicates this close connection.

Such a complex topic as understanding historical consciousness in Native American religions begins with two major insights. First, the religions of the over one thousand indigenous societies of the American hemisphere involve concepts and practices that cannot be separated from the spheres of life in those societies termed economic, political, cosmological, and artistic. Lifeway is used here to indicate this seamless interweaving of the spiritual and the historical. Second, history can be recorded and transmitted in forms other than writing, There are, for example, the winter counts on bison hides among the North American Plains peoples, quipu or knottying of narratives among Andean peoples, and the accordion-style screen-fold picture books of preconquest Mexico. All of these historical expressions have oral myth-telling at their core.

Diversity of Native American Religions

The term “Native American” suggests homogeneous societies, but the native communities of North, Central, and South America are extremely diverse in their lifeways. For example, the archaeological record gives evidence of major cultural and civilizational developments in central Mexico associated with the pyramids at Teotihuacan (200–900 CE), Toltec sites (900–1000 CE), and the massive pyramidal structures built by Mayan peoples in Yucatan, Guatemala, and Belize (300–900 CE). Archaeological evidence in South America suggests that interactions of Amazonian cultures are as complex and old as those in the Andean highlands that led to the late Incan Empire. Moreover, while North and Central America were home to over five hundred native languages, South America has over eight hundred indigenous languages.

In the region of the current United States alone, the diversity of cultural-historical developments is ancient and impressive. An indigenous culture named Hopewell (200 BCE–400 CE), based on corn agriculture, piled soil to create burial and effigy mounds in the central Ohio River watershed. A cultural florescence called Mississippian (600–1400 CE) left temple mounds from the Gulf of Mexico up the Mississippi River to the current state of Wisconsin. Similarly, in the Southwest cultures now called Anasazi and Kayenta (400–1300 CE) built remarkable cliff and pueblo dwellings at many sites including Mesa Verde in Colorado, Chaco Canyon and Montezuma in New Mexico, and Keet Seel and Betatikin at the Navajo National Monument in Arizona. Finally, the pottery skills and irrigation canals for agriculture of the T’ohono ancestors sometimes named Mogollon and Hohokam (100–900 CE) are still used. The progeny of these ancestral archaeological cultures migrated into diverse settings, continued ancient visions, and developed distinct religious concerns.

Religious Differences Among Native Americans

The North American Plains native peoples place a greater emphasis on individual visions and their relationships, in the symbolism of the circle, with the well-being of the community of life. The Northwest coast peoples celebrate a human community’s privileges and obligations in a universe of giving subtly imaged as worlds within worlds symbolically imaged as boxes within boxes.

Southwest Puebloan peoples stress processes of nurturing rain and corn-growth in communitarian ethics and ritual cycles that connect with ancestral histories. Southeastern native peoples continue ancient ceremonies of the first corn of the season, the Green Corn, at which they light the new fire of the community as a cosmological act revivifying creation.

Northern sub-Artic and Artic peoples produced elaborate technologies (e.g., seal hunting, snowshoes, toboggan, igloo) developed for survival in that harsh cold climate as well as intense shamanistic healing practices. A variety of terms are used to refer to all of these peoples in an effort to suggest shared similarities, such as American Indian, First Peoples, and First Nations. The most appropriate terms that honor their differences are those used by the peoples themselves, for example, Anishinabe (Ojibway), Lakota (Sioux), Yup’ik (Eskimo), Muskogee (Creek), and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).

Lifeway as the Context of Native American History

The term “religion” suggests that the sacred can be separated from ordinary or profane life. But among Native American peoples the sacred, the appearance of the extraordinary, and the most meaningful values of life are inextricably intertwined with the pragmatic concerns of daily existence.

Thus, the ordinary pursuit of sustenance, the making of useful objects, as well as political decision-making may be charged with the presence and power of that which moves the cosmos. The term “lifeway” indicates this close connection of the spiritual awareness of cosmological forces as the key to understanding the meaning of both individual lives and larger societies.

From Denial to Ethnography

Early European studies of Native American societies from the late-fifteenth-century encounter period often reported that historical consciousness and religion did not exist among these peoples. This rejection of religion and systematic remembrance of the past among Native American peoples largely derived from the dominance of the Bible in European worldviews as the singular, literate revelation in which all of world history was revealed. Thus, when unknown peoples were encountered they were explained by locating them within the Bible.

Gradually, the significance of the encounters and the striking differences of native peoples caused Europeans to rethink their own identities and to reflect on their own historical past. The European Enlightenment and scientific worldview from the eighteenth century gave rise to ethnographic analyses of the societies and religious activities of distinct native peoples. Influenced by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropology, the historical studies of Native American societies from this period often presented a single informant’s remembered culture as normative and timeless for that whole society. These idealized perspectives tended to freeze Native American lifeways as unchanging over time.

Ethnohistorical studies have critiqued these static interpretations by simply presenting the changing descriptions of native peoples within written Euro- American historical records themselves. These academic investigations are significant, but they are strikingly different from native modes of historical remembrance. In fact, many researchers manifest an ahistorical bias that does not allow them to understand the deep historical visions embedded in Native American lifeways. Some of these native modes of historicity are consciously articulated while others are more performative and symbolic. Often these native modes of remembering and transmitting the deeper meanings of their cultures resisted the historical impositions of dominant societies.

History Among Native American Religions

From Native American perspectives the question “What ways of knowing history are embedded in Native American religions?” generates strikingly different responses. While not exhaustive, the following list includes some considerations for understanding the history of “Native American religions” from the standpoints of native communities and individuals:

  1. Native American religions begin and end with living peoples who speak of the origins of the world and themselves as present realities. This historical consciousness is now both oral and literate, but in both instances it is told by native voice and not locked in library texts or museum holdings of mainstream societies.
  2. Discussion of rituals, myths, sacred objects, songs, and seminal places and ideas all hold historical insight for native peoples. Unlike academic history that attempts to describe objectively events, religious objects, and narratives, native historical awareness often sees them as persons deserving respectful treatment, even avoidance if one is not qualified to approach or embrace them.
  3. Native history typically makes connections that seem atemporal to Western academic perspectives, but that actually link past, present, and future like a “hypertext” in which past or future events stand in immediate relationship with the present with regard to meaning, causality, and consequence. This shape-shifting and multivocal character of native narratives is not simply a matter of style of literature but indicates ways of perceiving the world that are creatively different.
  4. Place occupies a central role in native historical consciousness. In native understanding the sensual engagement with place is an act of cultivation that may bring an individual or group to realization of cosmological values embedded in the lifeway. Sacred places provide foundational insight into that which gives identity to native peoples. This is unlike the passive, objective roles of the environment in Western historical thought, in which the subjective human constructs, manipulates, and imposes meaning on place.

Narratives as Present Realities

Regarding the first point in the list above: the ways in which native peoples present themselves in remembered form are the myths of origin and legends of historical events considered to have happened since humans arrived. The historicity of myths and legends is a major stumbling block for most Western historians. For example, the Tewa anthropologist Alphonse Ortiz, in recounting the San Juan Pueblo origins, gave a strikingly simple and direct account of his people, saying: “In the very beginning we were one people. Then we divided into Summer people and Winter people; in the end we came together again as we are today” (Ortiz 1969, 29). Understanding this complex mythological statement involves research into Tewa language, myth, social structure, political governance, and religious ecology. That is, the myth provides insight into the living social structures of San Juan Pueblo, and the myth provides formative insight into Puebloan understanding of who they are as a people from the origin time into their present homeland.

The Jemez Pueblo historian Joe Sando (1982, 2) observed that:

If we accept Native North American oral history . . . then we can start with the ancient people who have been in North America for many thousands of years and still allow for European and Mediterranean colonists to strengthen or boost the developing culture. This appears to be what indigenous people have been saying in their oral history. But later Europeans with their “proof positive” and “show me” attitudes have prevailed, and remain largely unwilling to consider, much less confirm, native creation accounts.

Sando claims a literalist interpretation for myth based on the living presence of his people in their ancestral Pueblo homes. Acceptance of the historicity of myths is a major challenge for historians, but it also opens the possibility for “seeing with a native eye” the historical facts embedded in these stories (Capps 1976, 9).

The Oral Native Voice

The second point in the list draws attention to the need for native voice in reconstructing Native American religious history. Deep authenticity and fragility of native voice are found in the oral narratives that transmit the creation stories, legends, and tales of the people. Actual native voice, layering of stories within stories, and the immediacy and intimacy of oral narratives are crucial correctives to a view of native history that abhors subjective interpretation, ambiguity of outcome, and experiential voice as authoritative.

When oral stories are labeled myths it accentuates their sacred, revelatory character, but that term may also situate the stories as timeless, unchanging, and permanently past. When native peoples narrate stories of origins they may or may not be evaluated according to their conformity to traditional versions. Often narrations are accompanied by rituals that emphasize the living, present character of the beings, places, and events named. Thus, among a number of native nations there are animal-addressing, place-naming, ethic-declaiming narratives that accompany major rituals. These should not be seen as either simply describing past events or as objectively categorizing land, animals, or laws.

For example, the Midewiwin ceremony of the Anishinabe peoples of the Great Lakes region transmitted narratives of these tribes’ origin-migration. Named geographical locations not only indicate where the ceremony had been performed but they are also honored as significant stopping places of sacred, spirit beings (Manitou). In effect the ceremony of Midewiwin validated the migration and formation of this Great Lakes people by appealing to the ancient spiritual animal masters. Midewiwin has been described as an “extinguished” ceremony in some academic works, but native practitioners have reasserted the contemporary survival and relevance of this ceremonial complex. While not all Anishinabe religiosity can be collapsed into Midewiwin, the revitalization of this ceremony in the contemporary period accentuates an emphasis in native religious understanding that formative cosmological experiences endure into the present and identify living people as much as ancestors, according to the author Wub-e-ke-niew (1995) in We Have the Right to Exist.

Cosmological Narrative and Song

The third point draws attention to the interactions of rituals, myths, sacred objects, songs, and seminal places and ideas as having the status of “persons” in Native American religions. While this complex of relations is differently expressed among particular peoples, one striking example comes from the Gitskan peoples of central British Columbia.

Each Gitksan house is the proud heir and owner of an adaox. This is a body of orally transmitted songs and stories that act as the house’s sacred archives and as its living, millennia-long memory of important events of the past. This irreplaceable verbal repository of knowledge consists in part of sacred songs believed to have arisen literally from the breaths of the ancestors. Far more than musical representations of history, these songs serve as vital time-traversing vehicles. They can transport members across the immense reaches of space and time into the dim mythic past of Gitskan creation by the very quality of their music and the emotions they convey…

Taken together, these sacred possessions—the stories, the crests, the songs—provide a solid foundation for each Gitskan house and for the larger clan of which it is a part. According to living Gitskan elders, each house’s holdings confirm its ancient title to its territory and the legitimacy of its authority over it.

In fact, so vital is the relationship between each house and the lands allotted to it for fishing, hunting, and food-gathering that the daxgyet,or spirit power, of each house and the land that sustains it are one. (Wa and Delgam 1987, 7, 26)

The historical testimony of this complex of songs and rituals connects architecture and traditional environmental knowledge. Gitskan elders voice their concerns in these religious performances for the cosmological and historical continuity of community vitality.

The Linkage of Past, Present, and Future

Regarding the fourth point, namely, the simultaneity of memory in Native American religions, the Pawnee/Otoe author Anna Lee Walters (1992, 77) wrote that she:

discovered two principal sequences of tribal history. The first starts at the beginning and works its way toward the present. The second starts with the present and works its way back to the beginning. Although there may be discussions on the history of the people moving to a particular place, for example—isolated events—often these historical notes seem to be just that until they are pinned down in this large framework.

Interpreting these dynamics of native historicity may necessitate abandoning chronological, linear, interpretive- building emphases on personalities, events, or social and economic forces. In the time-linkage narratives of Native American lifeways the primary focus is more typically on seminal realities of place, action, and spiritual presence. Rather than accept ideas or mental constructs as primary, the mutual participation of humans and the beings of the Earth opens a way toward understanding the wisdom of history.

A striking illustration of this complex linkage is the tobacco symbolism found throughout the American hemisphere. In one particularized expression of tobacco ceremonialism the shaman-healers of the Warao peoples of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela describe the history of human consciousness as beginning in the House of Tobacco Smoke. When a Warao shaman applies tobacco smoke to a patient or a victim, he breathes a cosmological force that simultaneously reaches back to primordial origins, heals in the present, and establishes ethical responsibilities and orientations into the future. For the Warao wisdom-keepers tobacco symbolism is a linkage to an archaic shamanistic substratum that still extends throughout the American hemisphere, according to Wilbert in Mystic Endowment (1993).

Place and Historical Consciousness

Finally, a widespread cultural activity among Native Americans that provides exceptional insight into their historical consciousness is sensing place. Native sensing of place is a daily, lifeway engagement with the local landscape as a means of cultivation of self and community. Ordinary lifeway interactions with local places are charged with stories that transmit ethical teachings, community identities, and cosmological presences.

The felt authority of the past in a particular place is communicated with humor and poignancy by the Western Apache, whose understanding of place is likened to drinking deeply of the ancestral wisdom that resides there. Such wisdom cannot be taught by rote but is awakened by engaging place deeply with all of the senses, with one’s body. This is a historical consciousness that acknowledges informative ideas rising up from soil, that filters stories linked to places through one’s own emotions, and that searches visually and intellectually for a whole understanding. After hearing a story of an Apache ancestor who fooled Coyote by enticing him to look up at her in a tree, Keith Basso describes how an Apache wisdom teacher, Dudley Patterson, affirmed his deep yearning to know the historical presence in places, saying:

“Our Ancestors did that!” Dudley exclaims with undisguised glee. “We all do that, even the women and children. We all look up to see her with her legs slightly apart. These places are really very good! Now you’ve drunk from one! Now you can work on your mind.” . . . As vibrantly felt as it is vividly imagined, sense of place asserts itself at varying levels of mental and emotional intensity. Whether it is lived in memory or experienced on the spot, the strength of its impact is commensurate with the richness of its contents, with the range and diversity of symbolic associations that swim within its reach and move it on its course. (Basso 1996, 143, 145)

Thus, Native American lifeways provide multiple ways of thinking about history, namely, in terms of the precontact history of Native American societies, the history of the encounter with European cultures, and the modes of historical consciousness embedded within Native American religions themselves.


  1. (1992). The things that were said of them: Shaman stories and oral histories of the Tikigaq. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: Landscape and language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  3. Capps, W. (1976). Seeing with a native eye: Essays on Native American religion. New York: Harper Forum Books.
  4. Hill, J. D. (1988). Rethinking history and myth: Indigenous South American perspectives on the past. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  5. Hoxie, F. E. (1988). Indians in American history. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson.
  6. Mihesuah, D. A. (1998). Native and academics: Researching and writing about American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  7. Nabokov, P. (2002). A forest of time: American Indian ways of history. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Ortiz, A. (1969). The Tewa world: Space, time, being, and becoming in a Pueblo society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Sando, J. S. (1982). Nee Hemish: A history of Jemez Pueblo. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  10. Thornton, R. (1998). Studying native America: Problems and prospects. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  11. Wa, G., & Delgam, U. (1987). The spirit of the land: The opening statement of the Gitskan and Wets’uweten hereditary chiefs in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Gabrola, BC: Reflections.
  12. Walters, A. L. (1992). Talking Indian: Reflections on survival and writing. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
  13. Wilbert, J. (1993). Mystic endowment: Religious ethnography of the Warao Indians. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions.
  14. Wub-e-ke-niew. (1995). We have the right to exist: A translation of “Aboriginal indigenous thought,” the first book ever published from an Ahnishinahbaeotjiway perspective. New York: Black Thistle Press.

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