Beliefs of Native Americans,
the Arctic to the southwest
The traditional Inuit (Eskimo) culture is similar to those found in other
circumpolar regions: Northern Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries. Life has
been precarious; there are the double challenges of the cold, and the continual threat of
starvation. (The popular name for the Inuit, "Eskimo", is not used by the
Their religious belief is grounded in the belief that anua (souls) exist in all
people and animals. Individuals, families and the tribe must follow a complex system of
taboos to assure that animals will continue to make themselves available to the hunters.
Many rituals and ceremonies are performed before and after hunting expeditions to assure
An underwater Goddess Sedna or Takanaluk is in charge of the sea mammals.
She is part human and part fish. She observes how closely the tribe obeys the taboos and
releases her animals to the hunters accordingly. There is an corresponding array of
deities who release land mammals; these are Keepers or Masters, one for each
The Angakut or Shaman is the spiritual leader of each tribe. He is able to
interpret the causes of sickness or lack of hunting success; he can determine the
individual or family responsible and isolate the broken taboo. In a manner similar to
Shamans in may other cultures, he enters a trance with the aid of drum beating and
chanting. This allows his soul to leave his body and traverse great distances to determine
the causes of sickness and other community problems.
Eastern Subarctic, Eastern Woodlands, Plains and Southwest Cultures
Native religions in these areas share some similarities, and differ significantly from
Inuit culture described above. Tribes also differ greatly from each other. Spiritual
elements found in some (but not all) non-Inuit native religions are:
Deity: A common concept is that of a dual divinity:
a Creator who is responsible for the creation of the world and is recognized in
religious ritual and prayers
a mythical individual, a hero or trickster, who teaches culture, proper behavior and
provides sustenance to the tribe.
There are also spirits which control the weather, spirits which interact with humans,
and others who inhabit the underworld. Simultaneously the Creator and the spirits may be
perceived as a single spiritual force, as in the unity called Wakan-Tanka by the
Lakota and Dakota.
Creation: Individual tribes have differing stories of
Creation. One set of themes
found in some tribes describes that in the beginning, the world was populated by many
people. Most were subsequently transformed into animals. Natives thus feel a close bond
with animals because of their shared human ancestry. Dogs are excluded from this
relationship. This bond is shown in the frequent rituals in which animal behavior is
simulated. Each species has its master; for example, the deer have a master deer who is
larger than all the others. The master of humans is the Creator.
Emergence of the Tribe: This is a concept found extensively in the Southwest. The
universe is believed to consist of many dark, underground layers through which the humans
had to climb. They emerged into the present world through a small hole in the ground - the
world's navel. Other tribes believe that their ancestors have been present in North
America as far back as there were humans.
Sacred Texts: Many tribes have complex forms of writing. Other tribes have
preserved their spiritual beliefs as an oral tradition.
Afterlife: In general, Native religions have no precise belief about
death. Some believe in reincarnation, with a person being reborn either as a human or
animal after death. Others believe that humans return as ghosts, or that people go to an
other world. Others believe that nothing definitely can be known about one's fate after
this life. Combinations of belief are common.
Cosmology: Again, many tribes have unique concepts of the world and its place in
the universe. One theme found in some tribes understands the universe as being composed of
multiple layers. The natural world is a middle segment. These layers are thought to be
linked by the World Tree, which has its roots in the underground, has a trunk passing
through the natural world, and has its top in the sky world.
Shamans: Although the term "Shaman" has its origins in Siberia, it is
often used by anthropologists throughout the world to refer to Aboriginal healers. Spirits
may be encouraged to occupy the Shaman's body during public lodge ceremonies. Drum beating
and chanting aid this process. The spirits are then asked to depart and perform the needed
acts. Other times, Shamans enter into a trance and traverse the underworld or go great
distances in this world to seek lost possessions or healing.
Vision Quest: Young boys before or at puberty are encouraged to enter into a
period of fasting, meditation and physical challenge. He separates himself from the tribe and go to a wilderness area. The goal is to
receive a vision that will guide his development for the rest of his life. They also seek
to acquire a guardian spirit who will be close and supportive for their lifetime. Girls are not usually eligible for
Renewal Celebrations: The Sun Dance amongst the Plains Natives is perceived as a
replay of the original creation. Its name is a mistranslation of the Lakota sun gazing
dance. Other tribes use different names. It fulfilled many religious purposes: to give
thanks to the Creator, to pray for the renewal of the people and earth, to promote health,
etc. It also gave an opportunity for people to socialize and renew friendships with other
groups. A sweat lodge purifies the participants and readies them for lengthy fasting and
dancing. It was successfully suppressed in most tribes by the Governments of the US and
Canada. However, it survived elsewhere and is now being increasingly celebrated.
Sweat Lodge: This is structure which generates hot moist air, similar to a
Finnish sauna. It is used for rituals of purification, for spiritual renewal and of
healing, for education of the youth, etc. A sweat lodge may be a small structure made of a
frame of saplings, covered with skins, canvas or blanket. A depression is dug in the
center into which hot rocks are positioned. Water is thrown on the rocks to create steam.
A small flap opening is used to regulate the temperature. As many as a dozen people can be
accommodated in some lodges.
Hunting ceremonies: these involve the ritual treatment of a bear or other animal
after its killing during a successful hunt. The goal is to appease its spirit and convince
other animals to be willing to be killed in the future.
Prophets: The main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) trace their
development through a series of patriarchs and prophets. Native religions do not have
as many corresponding revered persons in their background. Some Native
prophets include Handsome Lake in the Iroquois Confederacy, Sweet
Medicine of the Cheyenne, and White Buffalo Woman of the Lakota & Dakota
Traditional housing: There were many variations across North America: conical
wigwams or tipis, long houses, and cliff dwellings. The shape of the structure often
represents a model of the cosmos.