Native American Religions: An Overview

September 30, 1995
History 408

There are more than 300 known Native American tribes living on the North American continent. Each with their own unique world view, belief system, rituals and ceremonies. The Indians of the great Pacific Northwest are no different. These indian’s traditional beliefs are seen within ancient mythology and stories. These stories teach certain attitudes, values and they speak of creation and why things are the way they are. Throughout the daily activities of the indians they used objects they felt were sacred representations of their beliefs. Their spiritual lives intermingled with the daily rounds. This essay attempts to place some of these practices into context, but by no means is it an exhaustive source for all Pacific Northwest Indian religious traditions (or within the nation-for that matter), it is just a smattering of ideals, objects, rituals and positions they saw fit to include in their spiritual teachings.

Indian spiritual beliefs are best described in the mythology which detail the world view of a particular tribe. For the most part these stories were recited orally, as they didn’t have a written language yet (Gill 45). It was the storyteller’s function to relate the stories and keep the traditions alive and fresh in the hearts of the people. Sometimes as illustrated in Write It on Your Heart, indian mythology recorded important human events (such as the white man’s infringement onto their territories) and they acted like a catalog in recording everyday activities. For the most part, these myths were told as creation allegories that told people how the world was created and why things were the way they were. The characters of these creation myths told of the times before the coming of man and had characters who took the form of animals with human characteristics.

The most common was Coyote, a figure represented in indian literature throughout all of North America. Coyote is a trickster figure, neither good or bad- he just is. Usually Coyote is seen in stories teaching taboos, or creation myths. Gill describes the trickster motif as “the human desire to be free of rules, to be unbound by time, space, or society” (26). Along with Coyote are several other figures each representing a trait or a position that a tribe holds of value. Cosminsky’s thesis of Wasco-Wishram mythology cites some other important anthromorphized characters (39). These include: Eagle who “is always brave and strong ,” Weasel who is “woman crazy, foolish, jealous and illustrates how a younger brother should not act,” and Salmon who is mostly equated with eagle as a chief (39, 44).

Native American mythology is important to the Native Americans for a variety of reasons. First, mythology is a vehicle of expression which allows the cultures to understand the connections within life and the meanings behind them (Gill 43-44). Second, and most importantly, mythology defines a culture’s perceptions of the world and reality, and the meaning behind the actions and symbols represented throughout daily life (50). By repeating the myth orally a storyteller guarantees the remembrance of essential elements within the story and a tradition (48). Since the vocal presence is always about, it guarantees the continuation and survival of the beliefs and traditions from one generation to the next.

The second aspect of all native american religions is the use of objects both sacred and common. Each of these items represent a certain pattern of symbolism unique to each culture. Gill states that, “it’s not the symbols in isolation (that are important)…it is rather what is done with them it is the action they perform” which contains meaning (66). This is an important point to remember when discussing religious items; for each item can symbolize something,but, to the indians it’s the function a item has that gives the object a spiritual quality.

Some objects are given personal value, such “medicine” bundles containing items that have special meaning to the wearer. These items vary in meaning from tribe to tribe and person to person, although Gill points out that some bundles may contain similar items with similar meanings and purposes throughout different tribes. It’s ” in the power they generate, in the significance they evoke, in the awe and respect that they command that the symbolic powers of these sacred medicine bundles must be understood and appreciated” (68).

Among the Kwakiutl, masks are important religious objects. Commonly masks are used to hide or disguise reality or a person. However the Kwakiutl see their reality as “identified with a grid of relationships described in primordial times…” to each “belongs a name…Another way of designating the standing places that constitute reality is by crests, which in their highest form are masks” (72). To the Kwakiutl, masks symbolize their reality, where a person can only participate through wearing a mask (73). As Gill states the masks’ symbolism can’t be deciphered because the meaning that’s attributed to them is inseparable from what they show, the manifestation of the “deepest reality.” It is also in the religious ceremonies that objects becomes sacred.

Ritual and ceremony are fundamental aspects of Native American religions. Once again rituals and ceremonies are unique to each tribe and region. Many of these rituals and ceremonies are common throughout the North American continent but for simplicity’s sake only two are discussed herein. These are the sweat lodge rituals and vision quests. For the Pacific Northwest Indians, sweating in a sweat lodge is an important event which both men and women partake in. Mourning Dove’s autobiography and Hunn’s ethnography of the Columbia River peoples describe the ritual involved in sweating. Usually people do it to purify and cleanse themselves of unnecessary spirits or energy, such as that brought by sickness. It was, also, a necessary preparation for hunting parties as a sign of respect for the spirits (Hunn 268). Hunn also points out that the sweat lodge also serves as an important reminder that the daily routine is equated with worship (268).

The other common ritual that all Native religions seem to partake in, within some form or another is the idea of the vision quest. The vision quest is a personal journey that a child, at the onset of puberty goes through. He searches in the wilderness (without food and water) to seek from nature a spirit guardian-guide that will be with him for the rest of his life. Hunn states that the vision quest gives a person “the unique talents that distinguished an individual” from one another (Hunn 237). Both Mourning Dove and Hunn also agree that it wasn’t unusual for everyone to be successful in receiving a spirit guardian and sometimes it took several quests to find a worthy spirit. In some cases, such as Mourning Dove’s, a child never receives one. In general a spirit guide acts as a helper to the person who has the totem. It follows the person throughout their life helping whenever needed. As pointed out in Mourning Dove’s autobiography, sometimes finding a strong spirit guide was all that was required to become a shaman (37). However, most major ceremonies are unique to a particular tribe.

The Kwakiutl tribe has a curious ritual ceremony described in Gill’s book, Native American Religions. During the winter season, they hold a feast called Hamastsa whose purpose is to rescue a boy from the “Man Eater,” who was earlier caught and consumed (Gill 124).The Man Eater is representative of death and he is seen as a source of life (127). The men dance to lure the boy back into a lodge where “corpses, skulls, and worms are the ever-present symbols of death” (124). This is seen as a revival process for the boy’s humanity and must be done to save him. A pole is then erected, and this is followed by the reappearance of the “deranged youth.” He as well as the other members of the society then proceed to eat items symbolizing flesh from a human corpse. This also represents the devouring of the youth. Then he is brought back to indian society and life with “seawater and eagle-down feathers” signifying life and wealth (125).

This ceremony, also known the Devourer Society, pertain’s to the Kwakiutl’s belief in the relationships between man and animal as life sustaining (125). “Eating of the animal flesh,” he begins, “causes the animals to become one with human beings but in human form” (126). However, in the Hamastsa ceremony this belief is reversed and it is the human flesh that must be consumed in order for them to gain their “primordial identity of human and animal in animal form” (126). This ceremony also shows the concept of reciprocity that all indians believe in. During the summer the Kwakiutl kill animals for food and continued survival, but in the winter “it is the human beings who descend into darkness and death, thus restoring the animal spirits” (126).

Along the Columbia River an ancient spirit guardian watches over the dead and protects the living from sickness. This figure’s name is Tsagaiglalal, or “She Who Watches.” Her appearance over the cemeteries fashions some native groups as a death cult, however this isn’t the case. As the white settlers moved into indian territory they brought more than just trade items and religious ideals. They brought foreign disease which threatened to wipe out the entire populations of some of the tribes. Traditional shamans couldn’t figure why it was happening so they and the survivors of the tribes erected Tsagaiglalal as a protector of the dead, so they don’t come back to haunt the living (notes from Keyser’s lecture). Thus began the entrance of the whiteman influence on the Native American culture and religions.

This essay discusses some of the main ideals and rituals that Native Americans participated in before the coming of the Whiteman and his concept of a God. Although the white missionaries did their best to eradicate the Native American’s sense of religion, many rituals and beliefs are still performed, practiced, and preserved. Storytellers still relate to listeners the tales of the old days, before the coming of the whiteman, when Coyote ran in the hearts of his peoples. Sweat lodges and the concepts of sweating oneself is still practiced all over the continent as well as the Kwakiutl Potlatches. On reservations it is also common to see indian shamanism working with western medicine to treat people’s illnesses. What they future holds for these people and their religions is unknown but to be sure they will fuse it with the knowledge of the traditional ways.

Works Cited
Cosminsky, S. An Analysis of Wasco-Wishram Mythology. Diss. Washington State University, 1964. Pullman: 1964.

Gill, S. D. Native American Religions, An Introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1982.

Hunn, E.S. with James Selam Nch’i- Wa’na. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.

Mourning Dove Mourning Dove, A Salishan Autobiography. Ed. J. Miller. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Robinson, H. Write It on Your Heart. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks Publications, 1989.