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Profile on Native American Spirituality

Native American Spirituality
Created by Michael Doak
For the Religious Movements Homepage


The diversity of American Indian tribes precludes a comprehensive examination of their religions and their belief systems. Anthropologists have compiled a huge trove of information detailing practices and beliefs of many different groups; this information remains isolated from popular culture. While there is a proliferation of popularized versions of Native American spirituality, these are often not the products of the tribes or their members. The beliefs and practices of many groups are sectarian derivatives of other native groups, and there is also a significant infusion of Christianity, and more recently, New Age beliefs and practices permeating these traditional beliefs.

The origins of contemporary Native American religion, and that of their recent ancestors, can be traced back 30,000 to 60,000 years with the arrival of the first groups of people from northeast Asia. The religion of Native Americans has developed from the hunting taboos, animal ceremonialism, beliefs in spirits, and shamanism embraced by those early ancestors (Hultkrantz, 3, 12). Since these peoples settled in America slowly and in small groups over several thousand years, we still lack precise immigration knowledge.

Beyond the directly inherited traditional Native American religions, a wide body of modified sects abounds. The Native American Church claims a membership of 250,000, which would constitute the largest of the Native American religious organizations. Though the church traces the sacramental use of the peyote cactus back ten thousand years, the Native American Church was only founded in 1918. Well into the reservation era, this organization was achieved with the help of a Smithsonian Institute anthropologist. The church incorporates generic Native American religious rites, Christianity, and the use of the peyote plant. The modern peyote ritual is comprised of four parts: praying, singing, eating peyote, and quietly contemplating (Smith, 167-173; Anderson, 41).

The Native American Church, or Peyote Church, illustrates a trend of modifying and manipulating traditional Native American spirituality. The Native American Church incorporates Christianity, as well as moving away from tribal specific religion. Christianity has routinely penetrated Native American spirituality in the last century. And in the last few decades, New Age spirituality has continued the trend.

Native Americans, New Agers, and charlatans alike have radically augmented and revised the tenets of traditional Native American religions. “Crystal skull caretakers” sit beside Native American shamans and priests, and “Star Beings,” rather than buffalo, are pondered. Outraged Native Americans have entered this fray, castigating those they see exploiting traditional Native American spirituality. And they are answered in return.


The general characteristics and origins of Native American religion shed light upon the more contemporary sects. But the development of the numerous individual traditions, passed down orally, remains unclear. The sheer number of groups and the diversity of the nuances of belief complicates matters further.

The religions do share some common tendencies. Religion tends to be closely related to the natural world. The local terrain is elevated with supernatural meaning, and natural objects are imbued with sacred presences. Ceremonial rituals involving these supernatural-natural objects are meant to ensure communal and individual prosperity (Lamphere, 339). These common underlying features unite a diversity of contemporary Native American sects.

The original hunting knowledge brought with the first North American immigrants became influenced or usurped altogether by new horticultural religious influences. Animal ceremonialism, the quest for spiritual power, Male Supreme Being, annual ceremony of cosmic rejuvenation, few stationary cult places, shamanism, and life after death beyond the horizon or in the sky were tenets of hunting pattern religions. Rain and fertility ceremonies, priestly ritual, goddesses and gods, yearly round of fertility rites, permanent shrines and temples, medicine society ritualism, and life after death in the underworld or among the clouds characterized the new horticultural pattern religions (Hultkrantz, 14).

Ceremony plays a vital, essential role in Native American religions. Whereas western religions typically consider ceremony the servant of theology, Native American religions barely recognize the distinction between myth and ritual. Often the ritual proves to be established and secure while the myth is vague and unclear. Indian ceremonies grew up within local groups; some elements of Indian ceremonials have been traced back to the Old World. The ceremonies were adapted locally, using both traditional and borrowed elements, to suit local needs (Underhill, 4). These ceremonies often began as practical actions. Indians were eager to embrace ceremonies or portions of ceremonies that provided power to conquer the difficulties of life. As these practices developed, they were modified and imbued with additional meanings and purposes (Underhill, 7).

The medicine men and priests among the Indians were usually merely those men who thought more deeply and strenuously than the average men in the tribe. These thinkers tended to live among the more successful tribes. To think, one needed at least some time free from the chore of procuring food. These medicine men or shamans were in a different class than the other men of their tribe. This special status was not dependent on their hunting and fishing. Contact with other tribes enabled thinkers to build and expand their belief frameworks, so shamans were more prevalent in tribes that were accessible to outsiders.

As contemporary Native American religious flowerings are best understood by first examining the origins of Native American Spirituality, all of the contemporary sects are best comprehended in light of the traditional religions. As these differ from their New Age and Christian versions, each group is also unique compared to other traditional sects. These traditional sects are best understood as a conglomerate by investigating a few individual traditional Native American religions.

Some Native American Groups


The Lakota were the “typical” nomadic, equestrian Plains Indians who lived in tipis and hunted buffalo. They were notable, historically, for destroying Custer’s forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. One hundred thousand Lakota populated reservations as of 1984. Their religious system is dominated by cosmology and the appeasement of supernaturals to ensure successful buffalo hunts. The “Seven Sacred Rites” forms the basis of Lakota religion. These seven rites incude: The Sweat Lodge, The Vision Quest, Ghost Keeping, The Sun Dance , Making Relatives, Puberty Ceremony, and Throwing the Ball. The seven rites have endured in contemporary worship, excepting Throwing the Ball. A practice known as Yuwibi has become prominent in this century. Yuwipi unites concepts of buffalo hunting culture and contemporary reservation life (Powers, 434-436).


Six separate Apache tribes ranged over the American southwest. Their religion centered on the conception of a supernatural power that manifested itself in almost every facet of the Apache world. They believe that they can develop a healthy and cooperative relationship with this power. The power is believed to offer its services to the Apache through visionary experiences. In shamanistic ceremonies, the practitioner interacts with his particular power alone. But other rituals require a priest to officiate. Both shamanistic and priestly rituals are patterned. Four is the sacred number; songs and prayers occurred in quartets. The ceremonial circuit moves clockwise. And rites last four successive nights. The Apache perform life-cycle rites, including the rite for a child who takes his first steps and a girl’s puberty rite (Opler, 331 333).


The Navajo live primarily on the Navajo Nation, a reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico. As of the 1980s, their population was approximately 175,000. The Navajo origin myth explains their emergence onto the Earth from a series of underworlds. In the myth, the natural and supernatural intertwine. The Navajo believe in powerful Holy People, with whom the Navajo aim to live harmoniously. Anthropologists have identified twenty-four Navajo chant complexes, including the Blessingway . This chant, one of the central ceremonies of the faith, recounts the Navajo creation myth after the Emergence. Enemyway counteracts contact with non-Navajos and exorcises their ghosts (Lamphere, 337-339).


The Iroquois were comprised of five nations: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. They inhabited central New York State and claimed the Ohio Valley. Their federation of five tribes was the most complex of any Indian group. Their origin myth begins similarly to that of the Southeast with the Sky People who inhabit a disk world above the earth. One pregnant woman made the descent from the Sky People, propagating the earth. Women owned the homes and held ceremonial precedence. In their ceremonies, the Iroquois rid themselves of woman-fear. Honors to food spirits were paid regularly throughout the season, interspersed by other rites and dances (Underhill, 173-182).

Native American Spirituality and Christianity

The subject of Christianity has long been a touchy topic. To many Native Americans, as well as millions of Americans who came from all over the world, Christianity is associated with great tragedy and injustice to the indigenous peoples of North America. The Europeans saw the indigenous peoples as barbaric and savage, their spiritual practices as pagan. Those who came to “Christianize the Indians” also sought to supress indigenous spirituality. Today, the arrival of Europeans to the Americas with the sword and the cross has become an indelible symbol of shame.

An important casuality results from focusing on our collective shame. In focusing on this master image, we have ignored the details. We lack fundamental understanding of how Christianity impacted Native American spirituality and vice versa. As Gill notes,

“[w]e have been far too narrow-minded in appreciating the important influence of Christianity on Native American cultures and religions, preferring to set the acceptance of Christianity as synonymous with the loss of native tradition (1988:149).”

To be sure, some Christian missionaries and many ethnographers have had enormous insights into the nature of Native American spirituality, but this knowledge base has largely escaped our collective consciousness. In truth, just as with every culture that has conquered a people and imposed its religion on the conquered, the indigenous religions of the Americas have made their mark on the faith of the conquers. We need to better understand this phenomenon.

The failure of the typical white American to understand how profoundly our cultural values have been influenced by indigenous belief in the harmony of all life on Mother Earth has resulted in a diminution of understanding of ourselves. Our receptiveness today to the necessity of creating technology that is in harmony with the natural environment is possible because of the nourishing these values have achieved through the influence of Native Americans. On the other hand, Native Americans who view Christianity as synonymous with “religion” have similarly experienced at least some diminution of their own spirituality.

Perhaps the most overlooked dimension of Native American spirituality is the fact that many Native Americans did become Christians. Further, there is considerable evidence to indicate that Christianity preached by Native Americans for Native Americans is a vibrant development today in indigenous communities.

Understandably, this development is troubling to many Native Americans. Students and scholars alike should recognize that this response is not very different from reactions to other new religions on the spiritual landscape. Our goal should be to understand how this phenomenon may impact the communities of Native Americans.

Several Native American Christian groups now have a presence on the Internet. This presence helps us identify and begin to know something about these groups. We have included a set of links at the end of the links section of this page. Annotations and additional groups will be added later.

Links to Native American Religion Web Sites

Many web pages on Native American Spirituality seem to have a short half life. We would appreciate your advising us of good Native American Spirituality pages that are not linked from this site. And, as always, we are grateful for notes advising us of broken links so we can try to track down a new location, or remove the dead link from this page.

Native American Spirituality
This Native American section of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance homepage is a good starting point of reference. In a short space, the page defines key concepts and explains general trends.

First Nations
This is an expansive site on and by Native Americans. It is a valuable visit for many reasons including bibliographies of Native American Nations (a work in progress). Spirituality is notemphasized per se, but an essay by Myke Johnson entitled “When Spiritual Teaching Turns Into Cultural Theft” is an insightful read.

Index of Native American Resources on the Internet
This is essentially a page of links, but it is an extraordinarily valuable resource. Hundreds of links are organized for reasonable access to materials. The site, developed and maintained by Karen M. Strom does not have a special category on “spirituality” or “religion.” Look for these materials under “culture” and “history.”

This is a large web site providing many kinds of resources for indigenous cultures around the world. From the navigation bar on the front page, click on “search this site” and enter either spirituality or for access to lots of resources.

The Symbolic Role of Animals in the Plains Indian Sun Dance
An article by Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, an anthropologist and veterinarian at Tufts University, comprises the entirety of this site. In the article, Ms. Lawrence investigates animal symbolism in the major communal ceremony of the buffalo-hunting Plains Indians.

Native Religions in Newfoundland and Labrador
Barely beyond our geographic interest, Atlantic Canada has a rich history of Native American religions which are explicated on this page.

New Age Spirituality
This section of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance outlines basic New Age concepts and terms.

Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality
The Lakota censure those they see exploiting traditional Lakota faith.

Responses to War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality
The “exploiters” respond to the Lakota Declaration of War.

Walking Stick Foundation
The Walking Stick Foundation is a cooperative Jewish and Native American venture in New Mexico dedicated to the recovery and preservation of indigenous spirituality. This page describes their activities.

Native American Christian Pages

Eagles Wings Ministry
First Nation Institute
International Reconciliation Coalition
Tribe of Christ
Wiconi International
World Christian Gatheringof Indigenous People

Significant Native American Web Pages

There are many excellent Native American web pages that do not explicitly focus on the issue of religion or spirituality but are, nonetheless, informative to those who wish to grasp the broader context of Native American spirituality. We identify and provide links to a number of these here:Native American Sites
This simply designed page, created and maintained by Lisa Mitten, social science and linguistic librarian at the University of Pittsburg, is simply one of the finest gateways to Native America resources on the Internet. You’ll find links to individual nations, language information, educational institutions, indigenous publications and media resources, arts, businesses, and a list of powwows across North America.

Internet School Library Media Center: Native American Page
This is another very rich set of resources for accessing Internet and print resources, created and maintained by Inez L. Ramsey, Professor Emeritus in Library Science, James Madison University.

Internet Law Library: Indian Nations and Tribes
This site provides extensive access to treaties, tribal constitutions and other legal resources. A must resource for students of Native American legal matters.

US GenWeb Archives Washington Indian Treaties
“The US GenWeb Archives were established to provide a permanent, centralized repository for all genealogical and historical data collected by the US GenWeb Project.” When the site was last visited, we found the full text of thirteen treaties dating from 1854 to 1883.

Native American Rights Fund

The American Indian Heritage Foundation
This is the official home page of The American Indian Heritage Foundation, a division of the National Heritage Foundation. Established in 1982, the AIHF seeks “to provide relief services to Indian people nationwide and to build bridges of understanding and friendship between Indian and non-Indian people.” A well designed page with access to many resources.

Native American Indian Resources
Links to over 300 web pages covering a wide array of topics including spirituality. See, for example, coverage of Lakota knowledge of the stars .

Native American Nations
Links to scores of Indian Nation groups created and maintained by Lisa Mitten, a librarian at the University of Pittsburgh.

Federally Recognized American Indian Tribes
A complete listing of tribes recognized by the Federal government. Links to many pages.

WWW Virtual Library – American Indians
Index of Native American Resources on the Internet. A very substantial listing of Native American Indians broken down into many subjects.

Links to Native American web sites broken down by broad categories, including religion and mythology.

Access to Webrings

Native American Information Resource Server This pages seeks to provide a comprehensive directory of resources for the study of Native Americans. The University of Pittsburgh page is a better resource, but this one presents some kinds of information we have not found elsewhere. See, for example, a long list of video resources with abstracts and comments.

Native American History Archive
Designed to provide web resources for students from K-12. The page is not without merit, but students who learn about Native Americans from this site will be made aware of the role of spirituality in their history.

Indian Sun This is an attractive commercial page that offers lots of Native American art objects. Lots of contemporary art is presented in thumbnail size but can be enlarged for viewing. The site also includes several brief articles and links to select sites.

Tlingit National Anthem-Alaskan Natives Online
The most comprehensive collection of resources on Native American Cultures in Alaska. The site also includes access to other resouces that are not readily available.


Albanse, Catherine L., 1990. Nature Religion in America: From the Algonquin Indians to the New Age .Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, Edward F., 1980. Peyote: The Divine Cactus . Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Collins, John James, 1991. Native American Religions: A Geographical Survey . Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

Driver, Harold E., 1969. Indians of North America . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Philip, 1965. Cultures of the North Pacific Coast . Scranton: Chandler Publishing Company.

Eggan, Fred, ed., 1970. Social Anthropology of North American Tribes . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Congressional Quarterly, 1996. “From Peyote to Religious Freedom,” CQ Researcher , (25 October), 942-943.Gill, Sam D., 1994. “Native Americans and Their Religions,” in Jacob Neusner, ed., World Religions in America: An Introduction . Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press. 11-32.

Gill, Sam D., 1988. “Native American Religions,” in Lippy, Charles H. and Peter W. Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience. Vol I. . New York: Scribner’s Sons. 137-152.

Grim, John A., 1999. “Rituals Amont Native North Americans.” in Stephen D. Glazier, (ed.) Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Praeger. pp. 229-255.

Grimes, Ron, 1996. “This May Be a Feud, But It Is Not a War: An Electronic, Interdisciplinary Dialogue on Teaching Native Religions.” The American Indian Quarterly . 20:3 (433-450). For a discussion of the issues raised in this article, see following electronic posting on Teaching Native American Religions

Heyrman, Christine, 1999. “Nativ e American Religion.” On line paper written for Teacher Serve , The National Humanities Center’s Interactive Curriculum Enrichment Service for High School Teachers.

Hultkrantz, Ake, 1987. Native Religions of North America . San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Kelley, Karla Bonsack and Harris Francis, 1994. Navajo Sacred Places . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Lamphere, Louis, 1987. “Navajo Religion,” in Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion . New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 337-340.

Loftin, John D., 1991. Religion and Hopi Life in the Twentieth Century . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Mooney, James, 1996. The Ghost Dance . North Dighton, MA: JG Press. This classic investigation of the messianic “ghost dance” movement of the West and the Plains Native Americans was originally published in the late 19th century.

Opler, Morris Edward, 1987. “Apache Religion,” in Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion . New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 331-333.

Oswalt, Wendell H., 1966. This Land Was Theirs: A Study of the North American Indian. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Powers, William K., 1987. “Lakota Religion,” in Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion .New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 434-436.

Ryan, John Barry, 1996. “Listening to Native Americans: Making Peace with the Past for the Future,” Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture 31:1 (Winter), pp. 24-36

Smith, Huston and Reuben Snake, eds., 1996. One Nation Under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church . Sante Fe: Clear Light Publishers.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed., 1989. Native American Religions: North America . New York: Macmillan.

Sullivan, Lawrence E. ed., 2000. Native Religions and Cultures of North America: Anthpology of the Sacred. New York: Continuum. 249 pp.

Underhill, Ruth M., 1965. Red Man’s Religion . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Versluis, Arthur. 1994. Native American Traditions . Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books Ltd. (previously published in 1993 as The Elements of Native American Traditions) Volume reviewed by Jordan S. Gruber.

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