Native American Spirituality
Development of Aboriginal culture.
Absorption of Native beliefs & practices.
Development of Aboriginal culture:
Because of the wide range of habitats in North America, different native religions
evolved to match the needs and lifestyles of the individual tribe.
Religious traditions of aboriginal peoples around the world tend to be heavily
influenced by their methods of acquiring food, whether by hunting wild animals or by
agriculture. Native American spirituality is no exception. Their rituals and belief show a
blending of interest in promoting and preserving their hunting and horticulture.
The arrival of Europeans marked a major change in Native society. Millions died
due to sickness, and programs of slavery and extermination.
Europeans and their missionaries looked upon Native Spirituality as worthless superstition
inspired by the Christian devil, Satan. Many of the survivors were forcibly converted to
Christianity. The U.S. and Canadian governments instituted policies to force Natives onto
reservations and to encourage them to become assimilated into the majority culture.
During the middle decades of the 20th century, whole
generations of children were kidnapped, forcibly confined in residential
schools, and abused physically, sexually and emotionally. In Canada, these
schools were operated on behalf of the Federal Government by the Roman
Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches. Both the government
and these religious institutions have settled a multi-billion dollar
class-action lawsuit. Claims against the Anglican Church were much greater than
the Church's current assets. The was a concern for a while that the church might
be forced into bankruptcy due to legal costs.
Native spirituality was suppressed by the U.S. and Canadian
governments. Spiritual leaders ran the risk of jail sentences of up to 30
years for simply practicing their rituals. This came to an end in the U.S.
in 1978 when the Freedom of Religion Act was passed.
Some suicidologists believe that the extremely high suicide rate among Natives is due to
the destruction of their religion and culture by the Federal Governments. This suppression
is still seen in the prison administrations; Canadian prisons have only recently allowed
Native sweat lodge ceremonies; many American prisons routinely deny permission.
Natives today follow many spiritual traditions:
||Many Native families today have been devout Christians for generations.
||Others, particularly in the Southwest have retained their aboriginal traditions more or
||Most follow a personal faith that combines traditional and Christian elements.
||Pan Indianism is a recent and growing movement which encourages a return to
traditional beliefs, and seeks to create a common Native religion.
||The Native American Church is a continuation of the ancient Peyote Religion
which had used a cactus with psychedelic properties called peyote for about 10,000 years.
Incorporated in 1918, its original aim was to promote Christian beliefs and values, and to
use the peyote sacrament. Although use of peyote is restricted to religious ritual which
is protected by the US Constitution, and it is not harmful or habit forming, and has a
multi-millennia tradition, there has been considerable opposition from Christian groups,
from governments, and from within some tribes.
Absorption of Native beliefs and practices into other spiritual paths:
Many Native people (some would say all traditional Natives) object to others
incorporating Aboriginal beliefs, practices, rituals, tools, and traditions into
their own spiritual paths. They find this assimilation to be particularly
offensive when it is motivated by a desire for profit. It is seen as a
In a "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality,"
three traditional Lakota spiritual leaders condemned:
||"...having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual
practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian 'wannabes,'
hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled 'New Age
shamans' and their followers."
||Having their precious Sacred Pipe sold openly at flea markets, New
Age stores, etc.
||Profit-making groups holding sweatlodges, sundances, shaminism,
and vision quest programs for the public.
||Inaccurate and negative portrayal of Indian people in movies and TV.
||Efforts to create syncretistic religions by combining Native rituals
and beliefs with New Age and
spiritual paths. 3,4
Recognition of native tribes:
The Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL) is a non-profit organization,
which supports the needs of six Indian Tribes of Virginia: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Upper Mattaponi,
Nansemond and Rappahannock. "The Commonwealth of Virginia formally recognizes
eight tribes, whose ancestors and cultural connections can be traced directly to
groups documented to have been living in Virginia in 1607 at the time of initial
English colonization." However, although the U.S. federal government has
recognized hundreds of tribes in the U.S., not one is from present-day Virginia.
A major activity of VITAL is to seek this recognition. 5,6
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Ward Churchill, "A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the
Americas, 1492 to the Present," City Lights Books, (1998). Read reviews
and/or order this book
Ward Churchill et. al., "Agents of Repression: the FBI's Secret Wars Against
the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement." South End Press,
can order this book
Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, et al., "Declaration of war against
exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," at: http://puffin.creighton.edu/
"Responses to the Declaration: War against exploiters of Lakota
Spirituality," at: http://puffin.creighton.edu/
The Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL) has a home page
House Bill H.R.1294 at:
Senat Bill S.480 at:
Copyright © 1995 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2008-JAN-13
Author: B.A. Robinson