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Native American Spirituality

Development of Aboriginal culture.
Absorption of Native beliefs & practices.
Tribal recognition.

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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. 1 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. 2 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:

bulletMany Native families today have been devout Christians for generations.
bulletOthers, particularly in the Southwest have retained their aboriginal traditions more or less intact.
bulletMost follow a personal faith that combines traditional and Christian elements.
bulletPan Indianism is a recent and growing movement which encourages a return to traditional beliefs, and seeks to create a common Native religion.
bulletThe 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.

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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 horrendous desecration. 

In a "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," three traditional Lakota spiritual leaders condemned:

bullet"...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."
bulletHaving their precious Sacred Pipe sold openly at flea markets, New Age stores, etc.
bulletProfit-making groups holding sweatlodges, sundances, shaminism, and vision quest programs for the public.
bulletInaccurate and negative portrayal of Indian people in movies and TV.
bulletEfforts to create syncretistic religions by combining Native rituals and beliefs with New Age and Neopagan spiritual paths. 3,4

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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

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. 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
  2. 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, (1988). You can order this book
  3. Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, et al., "Declaration of war against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," at: http://puffin.creighton.edu/
  4. "Responses to the Declaration: War against exploiters of Lakota Spirituality," at: http://puffin.creighton.edu/
  5. The Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL) has a home page at: http://www.virginiaindians.homestead.com/
  6. House Bill H.R.1294 at: http://thomas.loc.gov
  7. Senat Bill S.480 at: http://thomas.loc.gov

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Copyright © 1995 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-JAN-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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