Native American religion

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Bear Butte, in South Dakota, is a sacred site for over 30 Plains tribes. Bear Butte Scan 0001.jpg
Bear Butte, in South Dakota, is a sacred site for over 30 Plains tribes.

Native American religions are the spiritual practices of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This article focuses on Native North Americans. Traditional Native American ceremonial ways can vary widely and are based on the differing histories and beliefs of individual tribes, clans, and bands. Early European explorers describe individual Native American tribes and even small bands as each having their own religious practices. Theology may be monotheistic, polytheistic, henotheistic, animistic, shamanistic, pantheistic or any combination thereof, among others. Traditional beliefs are usually passed down in the forms of oral histories, stories, allegories, and principles, and rely on face to face teaching in one's family and community.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas Pre-Columbian inhabitants of North, Central and South America and their descendants

The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian peoples of North, Central and South America and their descendants.

In the United States, an American Indian tribe, Native American tribe, Alaska Native village, tribal nation, or similar concept is any extant or historical clan, tribe, band, nation, or other group or community of Native Americans in the United States. Modern forms of these entities are often associated with land or territory of an Indian reservation. "Federally recognized Indian tribe" is a legal term of art in United States law with a specific meaning.

Monotheism is the belief in one god. A narrower definition of monotheism is the belief in the existence of only one god that created the world, is all-powerful and intervenes in the world.



From the 1600s, European Catholic and Protestant denominations sent missionaries to convert the tribes to Christianity. Some of these conversions occurred through government and Christian church cooperative efforts that forcibly removed Native American children from their families into a Christian/state government-operated system of American Indian boarding schools (aka The Residential Schools) where Native children were taught European Christian beliefs, the values of mainstream white culture, and the English language. This forcible conversion and suppression of Indigenous languages and cultures continued through the 1970s. [1] [2] [3]

American Indian boarding schools Residential schools established to assimilate Native American children into a white American society

Native American boarding schools, also known as Indian Residential Schools were established in the United States during the late 19th and mid 20th centuries with a primary objective of assimilating Native American children and youth into Euro-American culture, while at the same time providing a basic education in Euro-American subject matters. These boarding schools were first established by Christian missionaries of various denominations, who often started schools on reservations, especially in the lightly populated areas of the West. The government paid religious orders to provide basic education to Native American children on reservations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the last residential schools closing as late as 1973. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) founded additional boarding schools based on the assimilation model of the off-reservation Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

As part of the US government's suppression of traditional Indigenous religions, most ceremonial ways were banned for over 80 years by a series of US Federal laws that banned traditional sweat lodge and sun dance ceremonies, among others. [4] This government persecution and prosecution continued until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). [5]

Sweat lodge hut made of natural materials, used by indigenous peoples for a purification ceremony

A sweat lodge is a low profile hut, typically dome-shaped or oblong, and made with natural materials. The structure is the lodge, and the ceremony performed within the structure may be called a purification ceremony or simply a sweat. Traditionally the structure is simple, constructed of saplings covered with blankets and sometimes animal skins. Originally, it was only used by some of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, notably the Plains Indians, but with the rise of pan-Indianism, numerous nations that did not originally have the sweat lodge ceremony have adopted it. This has been controversial.

American Indian Religious Freedom Act United States Law protecting Native Americans religious practices

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1996, is a United States federal law, enacted by joint resolution of the Congress in 1978. Prior to the act, many aspects of Native American religions and sacred ceremonies had been prohibited by law.

Some non-Native anthropologists estimate membership in traditional Native American religions in the 21st century to be about 9000 people. [6] [7] Since Native Americans practicing traditional ceremonies do not usually have public organizations or membership rolls, these "members" estimates are likely substantially lower than the actual numbers of people who participate in traditional ceremonies. Native American spiritual leaders also note that these academic estimates substantially underestimate the numbers of participants because a century of US Federal government persecution and prosecutions of traditional ceremonies caused believers to practice their religions in secrecy. Many adherents of traditional spiritual ways also attend Christian services, at least some of the time, which can also affect statistics. Since the 80 years of those prior legal persecutions ended with AIRFA, some sacred sites in the United States are now protected areas under law. [8]

Protected area location which receives protection because of its recognised natural, ecological or cultural landscape values

Protected areas or conservation areas are locations which receive protection because of their recognized natural, ecological or cultural values. There are several kinds of protected areas, which vary by level of protection depending on the enabling laws of each country or the regulations of the international organizations involved.

Major Native American religions

Earth Lodge Religion

The Earth Lodge Religion was founded in northern California and southern Oregon tribes such as the Wintun. It spread to tribes such as the Achomawi, Shasta, and Siletz, to name a few. It was also known as the "Warm House Dance" among the Pomo. It predicted occurrences similar to those predicted by the Ghost Dance, such as the return of ancestors or the world's end. The Earth Lodge Religion impacted the later religious practice, the Dream Dance, belonging to the Klamath and the Modoc. [9]


The Wintun are members of several related Native American peoples of Northern California, including the Wintu (northern), Nomlaki (central), and Patwin (southern). Their range is from approximately present-day Lake Shasta to San Francisco Bay, along the western side of the Sacramento River to the Coast Range. Each of these tribes speak one of the Wintuan languages. Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that the Wintun people probably entered the California area around 500 AD from what is now southern Oregon, introducing bow and arrow technology to the region.

Achomawi Native American tribe in Northern California

Achomawi, are the northerly nine tribes of the Pit River tribe of Native Americans who live in what is now northeastern California in the United States. These nine autonomous bands of the Pit River Indians historically spoke various dialects of one common language, and the other two bands spoke dialects of a related language, called Atsugewi. The name "Achomawi" means river people and the band historically inhabited the Fall River Valley and the Pit River from the south end of Big Valley Mountains, westerly to Pit River Falls.

Pomo indigenous people of California

The Pomo are an indigenous people of California. The historic Pomo territory in Northern California was large, bordered by the Pacific Coast to the west, extending inland to Clear Lake, and mainly between Cleone and Duncans Point. One small group, the Northeastern Pomo of the Stonyford vicinity of Colusa County, was separated from the core Pomo area by lands inhabited by Yuki and Wintuan speakers.

Ghost Dance

1891 Sioux Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance movement influenced many Native American communities. Ghost dance.jpg
1891 Sioux Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance movement influenced many Native American communities.

The Ghost Dance movement of the late 1800s was a religious revitalization movement in the Western United States. Initially founded as a local ceremony in Nevada, by the Paiute prophet Wodziwob, the movement did not gain widespread popularity until 1889–1890, when the Ghost Dance Religion was founded by Wovoka (Jack Wilson), who was also Northern Paiute. The Ghost Dance was created in a time of genocide, to save the lives of the Native Americans by enabling them to survive the current and coming catastrophes, by calling the dead to fight on their behalf, and to help them drive the colonists out of their lands. [10]

Wodziwob was a Paiute prophet and medicine man who is believed to have led the first Ghost Dance ceremonies, in what is now Nevada, sometime around 1869.

Wovoka 19th and 20th-century founder of the Ghost Dance movement

Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson, was the Paiute religious leader who founded a second episode of the Ghost Dance movement. Wovoka means "cutter" or "wood cutter" in the Northern Paiute language.

In December 1888, Wovoka, who was thought to be the son of the medicine man Tavibo (Numu-tibo'o), fell sick with a fever during an eclipse of the sun, which occurred on January 1, 1889. Upon his recovery, he claimed that he had visited the spirit world and the Supreme Being and predicted that the world would soon end, then be restored to a pure state in the presence of the Messiah. All Native Americans would inherit this world, including those who were already dead, in order to live eternally without suffering. In order to reach this reality, Wovoka stated that all Native Americans should live honestly, and shun the ways of whites (especially the consumption of alcohol). He called for meditation, prayer, singing, and dancing as an alternative to mourning the dead, for they would soon resurrect. Wovoka's followers saw him as a form of the messiah and he became known as the "Red Man's Christ."

Tavibo had participated in the Ghost Dance of 1870 and had a similar vision of the Great Spirit of Earth removing all white men, and then of an earthquake removing all human beings. Tavibo's vision concluded that Native Americans would return to live in a restored environment and that only believers in his revelations would be resurrected.

This religion spread to many tribes on reservations in the West, including the Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota). In fact, some bands of Lakota and Dakota were so desperate for hope during this period of forced relocation and genocide that, after making a pilgrimage to the Nevada Ghost Dance in 1889–1890, they became more militant in their resistance to the white colonists. Each Nation that adopted the Ghost Dance way provided their own understanding to the ceremony, which included the prediction that the white people would disappear, die, or be driven back across the sea. A Ghost Dance gathering at Wounded Knee in December 1890 was invaded by the Seventh Cavalry, who massacred unarmed Lakota and Dakota people, primarily women, children and the elderly. [11]

The earliest Ghost Dance heavily influenced religions such as the Earth Lodge, Bole-Maru Religion, and the Dream Dance. The Caddo Nation and several other communities still practices the Ghost Dance today, though usually in secret. [12]

Indian Shaker Religion

Also known as Tschida, the Indian Shaker Religion was influenced by the Waashat Religion and founded by John Slocum, a Squaxin Island member. The name comes from the shaking and twitching motions used by the participants to brush off their sins. The religion combines Christianity with traditional Indian teachings. This religion is still practiced today in the Indian Shaker Church. [9]

Longhouse Religion

This replica of a Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) longhouse represents where the traditional practices take place. Iroquois longhouse.jpg
This replica of a Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) longhouse represents where the traditional practices take place.

The Longhouse Religion is the popular name of the religious movement known as The Code of Handsome Lake or Gaihwi:io ("Good Message"), founded in 1799 by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake (Sganyodaiyoˀ). [13] This movement combines and reinterprets elements of traditional Iroquois religious beliefs with elements adopted from Christianity, primarily from the Quakers. Gaihwi:io currently has about 5,000 practicing members. Originally the Gaihwi:io was known as the "new religion" in opposition to the prevailing animistic beliefs, but has since become known as the "old religion" in opposition to Christianity.


Mesoamerican symbol widely used by the Mexicas as a representation of Ometeotl. Maya calendar (Hunab-Ku).svg
Mesoamerican symbol widely used by the Mexicas as a representation of Ometeotl.

Mexicayoal (Nahuatl word meaning "Essence of the Mexican", "Mexicanity"; Spanish: Mexicanidad; see -yotl ) is a movement reviving the indigenous religion, philosophy and traditions of ancient Mexico (Aztec religion and Aztec philosophy) amongst the Mexican people. [14]

The movement came to light in the 1950s, led by Mexico City intellectuals, but has grown significantly on a grassroots level only in more recent times, also spreading to the Chicanos of North America. [15] Their rituals involve the mitotiliztli. [16] The followers, called Mexicatl (singular) and Mexicah (plural), or simply Mexica , are mostly urban and suburban people. [15]

The Mexicayotl movement started in the 1950s with the founding of the group Nueva Mexicanidad by Antonio Velasco Piña. In the same years, Rodolfo Nieva López founded the Movimiento Confederado Restaurador de la Cultura del Anáhuac, [17] the co-founder of which was Francisco Jimenez Sanchez who in later decades became a spiritual leader of the Mexicayotl movement, endowed with the honorific Tlacaelel . He had a deep influence in shaping the movement, founding the In Kaltonal ("House of the Sun", also called Native Mexican Church) in the 1970s. [18]

From the 1970s onwards Mexcayotl has grown developing in a web of local worship and community groups (called calpulli or kalpulli) [15] and spreading to the Mexican Americans or Chicanos in the United States. It has also developed strong ties with Mexican national identity movements and Chicano nationalism. [19] Sanchez's Native Mexican Church (which is a confederation of calpullis) was officially recognized by the government of Mexico in 2007. [20]

Native American Church

Peyote's illegal status in the United States prevents non-Natives from participating in peyote ceremonies. Flowering peyote cactus.jpg
Peyote's illegal status in the United States prevents non-Natives from participating in peyote ceremonies.

The Peyote Religion legally termed and more properly known as the Native American Church has also been called the "Peyote Road" or the "Peyote Way", is a religious tradition involving the ceremonial and sacred use of Lophophora williamsii (peyote). [21] Use of peyote for religious purposes is thousands of years old and some have thought it to have originated within one of the following tribes: the Carrizo, the Lipan Apache, the Mescalero Apache, the Tonkawa, the Karankawa, or the Caddo, with the Plains Cree, Carrizo, and the Lipan Apache being the three most likely sources. In Mexico the Huichol, Tepehuán, and other Native Mexicans use peyote. [22] Since then, despite several efforts to make peyote ceremonies illegal, ceremonial peyote use has spread from the Mexico area to Oklahoma and other western parts of the United States. [23] Notable Native American Church (NAC) members include Quannah Parker, the founder of the NAC, and Big Moon of the Kiowa tribe.

Waashat Religion

The Waashat Religion is also called the Washani Religion, Longhouse Religion, Seven Drum Religion, Sunday Dance Religion, Prophet Dance, and Dreamer Faith. The Wanapam Indian Smohalla (c. 1815–1895) used wáashat rituals to build the religion in the Pacific Northwest. Smohalla claimed that visions came to him through dreams and that he had visited the spirit world and had been sent back to teach his people. The name waasaní spoke to what the religion was about; it meant both dancing and worship. [24] He led a return to the original way of life before white influences and established ceremonial music and dancing. Smohalla's speaking was called Yuyunipitqana for "Shouting Mountain". [9]

The Dreamer Faith, and its elements of dancing, foreshadowed the later Ghost Dances of the plains peoples. [24] [24] It was a backtoourheritage religion. [24] Believers thought that white people would disappear and nature would return to the way it was before they came. [24] To achieve this, the Natives must do the things required by the spirits, like a Weyekin. [24] What the spirits wanted was to throw off violent ways, cast off white culture, and not buy, sell or disrespect the Earth. [24] They must also dance the Prophet Dance (wáashat). [24]

The religion combined elements of Christianity with Native beliefs, but it rejected white-American culture. [24] This made it difficult to assimilate or control the tribes by the United States. [24] The U.S. was trying to convert the Plains tribes from hunter-gatherers to farmers, in the European-American tradition. [24] They wanted to remake the Natives but found a problem with those who followed the Dreamer Cult: "Their model of a man is an Indian ...They aspire to be Indian and nothing else." [24]

Prophets of the movement included Smohalla (of the Wanapam people), Kotiakan (of the Yakama nation) and Homli (of the Walla Walla). [24] Their messages were carried along the Columbia River to other communities. [24] It is unclear exactly how it started or when Christianity influenced the earlier form, but it is thought to have something to do with the arrival of non-Indians or an epidemic and a prophet with an apocalyptic vision. The Waashat Dance involves seven drummers, a salmon feast, use of eagle and swan feathers and a sacred song sung every seventh day. [9]


Sun Dance

The sun dance is a religious ceremony practiced by a number of Native American and First Nations Peoples, primarily those of the Plains Nations. Each tribe that has some type of sun dance ceremony has their own distinct practices and ceremonial protocols. In many cases, the ceremony is held in a private and is not open to the public. Most details of the ceremony are kept from public knowledge out of great respect for, and the desire for protection of, the traditional ways. Many of the ceremonies have featured in common, such as specific dances and songs passed down through many generations, the use of traditional drums, the sacred pipe, praying, fasting and, in some cases, the piercing of the skin.

In Canada, the Plains Cree call this ceremony the Thirst Dance; the Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwe) call it the Rain Dance; and the Blackfoot (Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani) call it the Medicine Dance. It is also practiced by the Canadian Dakota and Nakoda, and the Dene.

Religious leaders

Leaders in Native religions include Popé, who led the Pueblo revolt in 1675, Quautlatas, who inspired the Tepehuan Revolt against the Spanish in 1616, Neolin, Tenskwatawa, Kenekuk, Smohalla, John Slocum, Wovoka, Black Elk and many others.

Tenskwatawa, by George Catlin. Ten-squat-a-way.jpg
Tenskwatawa, by George Catlin.

From time to time important religious leaders organized revivals. In Indiana in 1805, Tenskwatawa (called the Shawnee Prophet by Americans) led a religious revival following a smallpox epidemic and a series of witch-hunts. His beliefs were based on the earlier teachings of the Lenape prophets, Scattamek and Neolin, who predicted a coming apocalypse that would destroy the European-American settlers. [25] Tenskwatawa urged the tribes to reject the ways of the Americans: to give up firearms, liquor, American style clothing, to pay traders only half the value of their debts, and to refrain from ceding any more lands to the United States. The revival led to warfare led by his brother Tecumseh against the white settlers. [26]

Congressional legislation affecting Native American religion

Sign for a Native American church PeyoteWayCleanHwy.jpg
Sign for a Native American church

American Indian Religious Freedom Act

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act is a United States Federal Law and a joint resolution of Congress that provides protection for tribal culture and traditional religious rights such as access to sacred sites, freedom to worship through traditional ceremony, and use and possession of sacred objects for American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians. It was passed on August 11, 1978.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), Pub.L. 101-601, 104 Stat. 3048, is a United States federal law passed on 16 November 1990 requiring federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding[1] to return Native American cultural items and human remains to their respective peoples. Cultural items include funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (also known as RFRA), is a 1993 United States federal law aimed at preventing laws that substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion. It was held unconstitutional as applied to the states in the City of Boerne v. Flores decision in 1997, which ruled that the RFRA is not a proper exercise of Congress's enforcement power. However, it continues to be applied to the federal government - for instance, in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal - because Congress has broad authority to carve out exemptions from federal laws and regulations that it itself has authorized. In response to City of Boerne v. Flores, some individual states passed State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that apply to state governments and local municipalities.

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 61st session at UN Headquarters in New York City on 13 September 2007. Article 31, in particular, emphasizes that Indigenous Peoples have the right to their cultural heritage, including ceremonial knowledge, as protected intellectual property.

See also


  1. Hall, Anna (12-16-2013) "Time for Acknowledgement: Christian-Run Native American Boarding Schools Left Legacy of Destruction" in Sojourners
  2. Smith, Andrea (March 26, 2007) "Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools Archived 2013-02-14 at WebCite " in Amnesty International Magazine
  3. Boxer, Andrew (2009) "Native Americans and Federal Government" in History Review
  4. Rhodes, John (January 1991) "An American Tradition: The Religious Persecution Of Native Americans." Montana Law Review Volume 52, Issue 1, Winter 1991
  5. Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469 (Aug. 11, 1978)
  6. James T. Richardson (2004). Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe. Springer. p. 543.
  7. "NJJN" (PDF). Retrieved May 21, 2014.
  8. United States (2013). Indian sacred sites: balancing protection issues with federal management. America in the 21st century: political and economic issues. Christopher N. Griffiths (ed.). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. ISBN   1628082844.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Waldman 230
  10. Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee. New York: Dover Publications; 1896
  11. Waldman 230–231
  12. Cross, Phil. "Caddo Songs and Dances" Archived 2010-08-24 at the Wayback Machine . Caddo Legacy from Caddo People. Retrieved 27 Nov 2012.
  13. Waldman, Carl. (2009). Atlas of the North American Indian. P. 229. Checkmark Books. New York. ISBN   978-0-8160-6859-3.
  14. Yolotl González Torres. The Revival of Mexican Religions: The Impact of Nativism. Numen - International Review for the History of Religions. Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1996; published by: BRILL), pp. 1-31
  15. 1 2 3 Susanna E. Rostas. Mexicanidad: The Resurgence of the Indian in Popular Mexican Nationalism. University of Cambridge, 1997.
  16. Jennie Marie Luna. Danza Azteca: Indigenous Identity, Spirituality, Activism and Performance. San Jose State University, Department of Mexican American Studies. 2011
  17. Lauro Eduardo Ayala Serrano. Tiempo Indígena: la construcción de imaginarios prehispánicos.
  18. Tlacaelel Francisco Jimenez Sanchez biography . In Kaltonal, 2005.
  19. Zotero Citlalcoatl. AMOXTLI YAOXOCHIMEH.
  20. Religión prehispánica renace en el Siglo 21 . Vanguardia, 2008.
  21. Waldman 231
  22. Stewart, Omer C. Peyote Religion: A History. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman and London, 1987. P. 47
  23. Stewart, Omer C. 327
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Andrew H. Fisher. "American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation". Archived from the original on February 25, 2015. Retrieved January 4, 2012.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  25. Adam Jortner, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier (2011)
  26. Rachel Buff, "Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa: Myth, Historiography and Popular Memory." Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques (1995): 277-299.

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