Prior to the incursion of Europeans, Natives in North America organized themselves into distinct self-governing units that functioned with an independence and sovereignty that was recognized both within the tribe and by outside groups.
It is often estimated that there were more than 500 Native nations at the time of European contact, and as independent communities there was a remarkable variety to the beliefs and customs from tribe to tribe. There are, however, certain commonalities and patterns in languages, cultures, and beliefs across these 500 nations.
Native Americans predominantly had creation stories telling of their arrival from the underworld into the physical world. Typically, this was a hero story for the tribe, telling of the first man’s (or first woman’s) adventures and trials in winning the way for all of humans to live in the current physical world.
Male and female principles were very important to Native people. The underworld was typically a female realm, and whether this community was first under the earth or under water, it was associated with being within Mother Earth.
The journey into the current world was often long and difficult and often involved a migration either up from the underworld or over land to arrive at the tribal homeland. And always, the community thought of themselves as the First, or True, People.
Native American tribes in North America closely integrated their spiritual practices with their community conduct, their cultural practices, and their decision making. Indians often believed in a strong tie between humans, the other living things in the world, and the elements in the world.
The powers and forces of the spiritual realm were ever present in every day existence, and the laws of the spiritual world were just as important to the events of life as the laws of the physical world.
Most North American tribes were egalitarian, with little social stratification, and their spiritual beliefs reflected this. Humankind was recognized as a distinct type of being, but the other entities in the world all had spirits and were generally considered as being on equal footing spiritually with humans; there was no "spiritual hierarchy" to creation.
This extended not just to the mammals but to birds, reptiles, fish, and often to stones, water, and the landscape. The fact that these other entities had spirits did not preclude hunting or harvesting them for food or using them for tools or shelter; it was considered that each entity had a purpose within creation and that using these other entities or harvesting them was within the purpose of creation.
But it was important to acknowledge the spirit of these other entities and recognize their place in creation. For example, the tribes of the Algonquin language group in the Northeastern woodlands of North America referred to the animals as their "brothers".
When hunting and killing an animal, it was important to offer a prayer of apology and thanks to the brother animal for taking its spirit and to explain to the brother spirit that its life was given up so that the human tribe could continue on its path in the world.
Frequently, a spirit guide would be identified for the individual, such as an animal like the bear, the eagle, or the sturgeon, or a force of nature such as the thunders, and the attributes of this spirit would serve as a guide to an individual throughout their adult life. Many tribes organized themselves into clans associated with specific animals, and the clan families would serve specific roles in the life and decision making of the tribe.
For example, the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy to the south of the St. Lawrence River divided their communities into nine clans, including the Turtle, Wolf, Heron, Hawk, Snipe, Beaver, Deer, Eel, and Bear. Clans were quite widespread throughout the tribes of North America and often were respected across tribal boundaries.
Connection with The Natural World
This belief in the spirit within living creatures carried to the plant world as well, and the cultivated food plants of the Native Americans were particularly important. Corn was significant throughout the southern half of North America.
The pueblo-dwelling tribes of the Southwest cultivated strains of corn that were adapted to the marginal semidesert climate, and the tribes had ceremonies to honor the spirit of the corn, to mark the times of year for planting, rainfall, and harvest, and to give thanks for the continuing cycle that led to the annual harvest and to the production of a new seed bank to begin the cycle again. The Iroquois tribes revered corn along with beans and squash as the Three Sisters.
Their agricultural practice combined the three plants into symbiotic garden plots that minimized weeding and maximized production. Similar to the Pueblo people, the Iroquois honored the growing cycle and the spirits of the Three Sisters in their ceremonies.
Many plants were used for spiritual purposes as well. In ceremonies smoking was considered a way to offer prayers to the spirit world. Smoking pipes have been found in burial sites and village sites dating back thousands of years and range from very simple and humble clay pipes to elaborate carved artworks of pipestone and other precious materials. Various plants were used for smoking mixtures, with tobacco being used almost universally throughout the continent.
Other plants were eaten, used in teas, or burned as incense for spiritual purposes. For instance, the Algonquin people in the Great Lakes considered sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco the four primary spiritual plants, and their use was common among many other tribes across North America.
Healing and Spirituality
Healing and spirituality were closely linked. Many plants were used for their medicinal and healing effects on the body. But many of the Native healing practices aimed at the spiritual problems as well as the physical. The Navajo in the Southwest speak of the Navajo Way, an outlook of having one’s life and physical body in harmony with the community, the physical world, and the spiritual world.
Many illnesses are considered to be a manifestation of actions or desires in one’s life that are in conflict with the physical and spiritual order of the universe, and healing these illnesses is a matter of restoring the person to balance with the rest of creation.
This notion of balance and a cyclical order to the spiritual and natural worlds is widespread. The Sioux of the Great Plains speak of existence as the Sacred Hoop, delineated by the four cardinal directions. Tribes across the continent revere this concept of the Circle and the Four Directions.
Rather than viewing time and existence as a linear march of event following event, Native people looked at existence as cycles: the cycle of the year and seasons, and the cycle of birth to death leading to rebirth. The archaeological, geologic, and genetic records point to the First Americans migrating from Siberia into North America sometime between 25,000 to 11,000 years ago.
These people then spread throughout the American continents, adapted to changes in climate and the varied American landscape, and arrived at their wide variety of cultural and cosmological worldviews prior to contact with the European colonists.
Hunting and Agrarian Treditions
In studying Native American spiritual practices, modern anthropologists trace these Native beliefs back to two major traditions. The first is referred to as the Northern Hunting tradition, linked to the big-game hunters of the ice age migration from Siberia.
The spirits of the animals and the cycles of the hunt are the focus of worship, with the cult of Bear worship being particularly common. Shamans, individuals within the community who are considered to have gained great power and wisdom carry out ceremonies and healing rituals.
The younger tradition is the Southern Agrarian tradition, believed to have spread northward from Central America, traveling with the introduction of corn and organized agriculture. The Southern Agrarian tradition links the power of creation and rejuvenation with plant life and the growing seasons, with Corn Mother becoming a central force in the cycles of the world.
Priesthoods and cults directed the ceremonial practices in agricultural communities, particularly among the city-states of southern North America. Aspects of these two traditions mingled among the tribes over the centuries, with most tribes retaining portions of the old hunting tradition while incorporating elements of the newer agrarian tradition.
Both traditions indicate a people closely linked to nature and to the other living entities of the world. The force of life, spoken of by some tribes as the fundamental power of movement in the universe, was seen to be present in all things and was to be respected and acknowledged, particularly in the most central living things that give up their life-force so that humans could eat and live, whether that sacrifice was recognized in the corn plant or the bear.
All other life and movement in the world, whether it was the hopping of the rabbit, the push of the seedling from the ground, the movement of the wind, or the turning of the Great Circle of Life itself, all related back to this central power, and by acknowledging the spirit in the Bear or the Corn Mother, the community acknowledged the presence of the spirit within itself and the community’s own place in creation.