What is Native Spirituality?

Ron Marr

When one mentions native spirituality, he is generally referring to Native American spirituality. This is quite different from religions such as Christianity, as no single set of beliefs or dogma exists. It is not a religion as such, but more a way of life that integrates widely varying sets of beliefs into most every aspect of a follower’s existence.

The Native American Church was founded in 1918.
The Native American Church was founded in 1918.

According to the vast majority of anthropologists, Native Americans first inhabited the North American continent between 30,000–60,000 years ago. It is believed that many of them walked across the land mass now submerged in the Bering Strait. As the populations spread out and tribes formed, a large number of individual belief systems developed. While virtually all are different, most are related to each other by commonalities often found amongst nomadic hunters and gatherers.

A respect for the Earth is one common aspect of Native American spiritual practice.
A respect for the Earth is one common aspect of Native American spiritual practice.

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For instance, native spirituality focused largely on the natural world; objects, animals, and even geographical places located within a tribe’s home region were given supernatural meaning. Shamanism was very common, and almost all native spiritual practices relied heavily on rituals, ceremonies, the concept of good and evil spirits, hunting, and cultural taboos. Other shared tendencies of native spirituality sometimes included a primary deity that created the Earth, and an adversary or trickster who plagued man to a greater or lesser degree. Such an adversarial relationship is also common to non-native beliefs, as in the Christian theology of a supreme God and an evil Satan.

No single set of dogma exists for Native American spirituality.
No single set of dogma exists for Native American spirituality.

Due to disease and the near-genocidal practices that were visited upon Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries, matters of spirituality were frequently diluted or rendered extinct. Christianity was often forcibly imposed upon the Native American tribes, with the result being that many now carry beliefs that are a hybrid. In those times, performing missionary work amongst the indigenous peoples was seen as a high calling. Converting the Native Americans from what were viewed as pagan ways was of the utmost priority to many.

In the late 20th and early 21st century those, who espoused New Age beliefs attempted to take on some native spiritual beliefs. Many aspects of the New Age versions of native spirituality arise more from fiction and hearsay than they do from the actual rites and practices of any tribe. Fictionalization of native beliefs was almost inevitable, since many tribes relied on oral tradition and now have no records of early rituals.

There is an actual native religion, though it is of 20th Century creation. The Native American Church was founded in 1918 and boasts of approximately 300,000 members. The church beliefs include numerous generic rites and ceremonies, Christian ideas, and ingestion of the hallucinogenic peyote plant. Native spirituality can thus broadly be viewed as an extremely diverse set of beliefs and rituals revolving around a certain reverence for nature.

Dancing played a role in Native American spirituality.
Dancing played a role in Native American spirituality.

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