Foundations of the Sacred Introduction to American Indian Religious Traditions
According to American Indian traditions, everything that the Creator made, whether animate or not, has a spirit. • Therefore, all things are related and all things are sacred.
There is no simple entity called “the Native religion” • It is not entirely appropriate to speak of American Indian “religions” or “belief systems” because these terms often imply a formally-structured spiritual life conducted alongside, but distinct from, everyday secular existence. • Threads of ordinary life and spirituality are so tightly interwoven that the sacred and the secular are indistinguishable.
Native religions are primarily land-based • The sacred life of each Indian Nation is unique and intimately linked to its own particular environment. • The land plays a primary function in the ability of the people to perform ceremony and ritual.
Nature and Spirit • According to many American Indian traditions, nature and spirit are inseparable and mutually dependent: spirit resides in all things and all things are a part of nature.
Hunting & Gathering Animal ceremonialism Personal quest for spiritual power Annual world renewal events Few stationary worship locations Healers Agriculture Rain and fertility ceremonialism Guided ritual through an emissary Annual fertility rites and events Many permanent worship locations Healers and healing societies Anthropological Classifications
Creation Stories • The cosmic beginning is not focused on the creation of the world, but rather the emergence of human beings into it. • Often there are mythic twins, or the Creator and the culture hero, who are responsible for the making of the world and the place of human beings and animals within it. • Culture heroes are also trickster figures, such as Coyote and Raven, and are important in mythology, but do not figure prominently in ritual.
Commonalities in tribal religious tradition: • 1. A similar worldview. • 2. A shared notion of cosmic harmony. • 3. Emphasis on experiencing directly, powers and visions. • 4. A common view of the cycle of life and death.
A similar worldview… • Most tribes consider that human existence was designed by the Creator at the time of the “first beginning”. • Mythology records that all beings were more or less human but a change took place that turned many primeval beings into animals and birds. • Only those who today are human beings retained their forms. • Because of this relationship there is a close affinity between peoples and animals, they are brothers, and it is the people’s task to respect and be in harmony with the animals. • The close kinship between humans and animals is reflected in the tendency to imitate animals in dress, actions, and thought. • The feather-lined shirts, feather ornaments for dancing, and the feather plumes in the hair are all measures to instill the capabilities of bird in the human being. • Feathers manifest spiritual essence, particularly of beings on high.
A similar worldview…continued • The bond between animals and humans is also expressed in ritual activities. • Plains Indian dances in which men imitate the movements of buffaloes or wear their horns and skins are a supplication of desires and expectations. • Such rituals reflect veneration for the active powers of the universe; it is a prayer. • There is a dividing line between what belongs to the ordinary or natural world and what belongs to the supernatural or spirit world.
A similar worldview, continued • Some natural phenomena and cultural objects are so saturated with supernatural strength that they are set aside from all other things – they are sacred and can therefore be dangerous. • Anyone who inappropriately touches or interacts with sacred items or places runs the risk of becoming sick or paralyzed, or even dying. • That person will bring misery and misfortune not only to himself, family and kin, but to the whole community.
A similar worldview, continued • The Native perspective is that the spiritual reveals the true nature of the ordinary world around us. • Nature, the world, and the universe are concepts that flow into each other in Indian consciousness.
A shared notion of cosmic harmony • There are sacred directions, colors and associations identified by all tribes. • The spirits of nature are sought for revelation and power.
A shared notion of cosmic harmony, continued • The Creator has given a measure of its own spirit to all things created; therefore that spirit essence is present in all things animate and inanimate. • There is an over-riding message of an interweaving of participation and cooperation between humans, animals, and the plant world in a mutual effort to reciprocate the life process.
Emphasis on experiencing directly, dreams and visions • Spiritual power has come to people in their dreams or in visions they have received in isolated places in the wilderness. • The vision quest is the most characteristic feature of North American Native religions. • The vision quest provides an opportunity for direct contact with the supernatural. • Sometimes revelations come in spontaneous dreams rather than quests.
Emphasis on experiencing directly, dreams and visions, continued • Purification and preparation often involve cleansing rituals such as sweatloodge, and the use of materials to enable the seeker to hear, see, and speak in truth: • Tobacco • Sweetgrass • Sage • Cedar
A common view of the cycle of life and death • Time is not linear, but is cyclical in form. • Western time concepts include a beginning and an end, Native concepts indicate that time is an eternally recurring cycle of events and years. • Some Native languages lack terms for the past and the future – everything is resting in the present. • Mythical events thought to have happened long ago may repeat themselves in present ritual occurrences
A common view of the cycle of life and death, continued • Cyclical time applies not only to the macrocosmos, the world, and the year’s rhythm, but also to the microcosmos of the human being. • Each person makes a cycle of time from birth to death, and rituals mark the important changes of life: birth ceremonies, puberty rituals, initiation rites, and death rituals are only some. • The cyclical concept includes the thought that death is not an end, but a beginning of new life.