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Native American Path

Native American Religions ~ The Spirit World ~ Native Americans lived in a world of spirits who made their presence known primarily through natural phenomena. Most Native Americans believed in a Great Mystery or Great Spirit that underlays the complexity of all existence, as well as in many other spiritual powers that influenced the whole of life. At times of crisis, Native Americans turned to powerful spirits to acknowledge their dependence on these spirits and to seek help. Such crises included drought and disease, the suspicion of witchcraft, and the failure to track and kill game. Each tribal group conceived of the spirit world in its own particular way, and there were variations of belief and ritual practice within each community. ~ Gods ~ In no sense did the indigenous peoples of North America profess monotheism, or belief in the existence of one god only. Moreover, even a supreme being could be conceptualized in more than one way. Among the Sioux, Wakan Tanka (Great Mystery) was pictured both as a single entity and as an assemblage of deities—including Sun, Winds, Earth, and Rock. In practice, many Native Americans interacted less with a supreme being than with various subordinate powers believed to be useful in particular circumstances. For example, although the Iroquois worshiped orenda (the unified spiritual power innate in all things), their prayers were addressed to individual spirits with control over weather, war, health, and the growth of plants and creatures. The Ojibwa believed in Kitche Manitou (Great Spirit) but developed personal relations with guardian spirits who appeared to individuals in visions and dreams. The Hopi referred to Masau as their chief god, yet their ritual life focused on scores of kachinas, the spirits of ancestors and the forces of the environment that made fertility possible. The Navajo venerated the Sun and the Changing Woman, a figure who personified creative power, but there were also hundreds of monsters, Holy People (creators and cultural heroes), and other forces to be evoked or exorcised in blessings and curative chants. ~ Guardian Spirits ~ Because Native Americans believed that supernatural powers were personal beings, they sought to establish relationships with benevolent guardian spirits. Such relationships existed across the North American continent, although they were not prominent in the Southwest. Most of the hunting and gathering peoples of North America hoped to enter intimate relationships with spirits and to win these spirits as their protectors. They also hoped to avoid spirits thought to be dangerous, harmful, or evil. Sometimes, as in the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest, guardians were handed down within families from one generation to the next. More often, as in the cultures of the Eastern woodlands, youths sought the guardians' pity and protection by means of lengthy fasts. Guardian spirits became like family members to individual Native Americans, assuring them health, long life, success in economic pursuits, and help in times of crisis. The Native Americans, in turn, were responsible to their guardians, providing them with tobacco and other offerings, singing their praises, and upholding their honor. Thus, whereas supreme beings seemed distant to daily concerns, guardian spirits took an immediate interest in an individual's welfare. ~ Ghosts ~ In the worldview of most of the indigenous peoples of North America, there were also spiritual beings to be avoided. Native Americans of the Southwest in particular, such as the Navajo and Apache, dreaded contact with ghosts, who were believed to resent the living. These peoples disposed of the bodies of deceased relatives immediately and attempted to distance themselves from the spirits of the dead, avoiding their burial sites, never mentioning their names, and even abandoning the dwellings in which they had died. If a person were responsible for a death—for example, among the Papago of the Southwest, the death of an enemy warrior—it was necessary to adopt the dead person, keep his scalp, and appease his spirit continually with gifts and kind words. ~Medicine ~ In a world filled with both helpful and harmful forces, Native Americans tried to locate repositories of spiritual power. Uncanny phenomena such as geysers, trees struck by lightning, and deposits of rare minerals, as well as dangerous locales such as waterfalls and whirlpools, became sites of pilgrimage where indigenous peoples hoped to collect spiritual power. They gathered herbs and pollen, oddly shaped stones, and horns, bones, teeth, feathers, and other body parts of animals and placed them in medicine bundles, collections of objects believed to heal disease and to ward off ghosts, witches, foes, and destructive spirits. Most Native Americans kept these medicine bundles for personal, household, and community protection. ~Ritual ~ Native Americans engaged in a great variety of rituals. As a person passed through the stages of the life cycle—obtaining a name after birth, seeking a guardian spirit at puberty, setting off at death for the journey to the afterlife—rituals marked the passages. One of the basic elements of Native American ritual life was the sweat lodge—a purification ritual that originated in the polar regions—in which water was poured over heated stones to create a hot vapor bath. The rites, or ceremonial acts, of the sweat lodge were believed to wash away both moral and physical impurities. Sweat lodges were used for teaching, praying, and singing, often in preparation for other ceremonies. ~Prayer ~ Native Americans used gestures and words to communicate in prayer with the spiritual sources of life. Prayers were offered for a wide range of needs, including health, agricultural bounty, and success in the hunt. Prayers could take a variety of forms: songs and dances, as well as such acts as the sprinkling of corn meal, could function as prayers. Verbal prayers included expressions of thanksgiving, requests or pleas, and coercive formulas. There were cultural variations as well. For example, whereas Iroquois prayers emphasized an attitude of thanksgiving toward all things, Navajo prayers were calculated to exorcise evil and to erect a barrier of blessings against harm. ~ Offerings~ In order to make their prayers effective, Native Americans made offerings to the spirits. The most common offering was of native tobacco, either smoked in pipes, burned in fires, or deposited ceremonially. An Ojibwa, for example, having killed a bear, placed tobacco in the animal's nose to appease its spirit. An Ojibwa might also toss tobacco on the rapids as a prayer to ensure safe passage by canoe. When gathering herbs, indigenous peoples placed tobacco in the earth as an offering of appreciation. Such gifts were thought to seal and renew relations with the sources of life. ~Ceremonies ~ The cycle of the year was punctuated with ceremonial observances of prayer and thanksgiving. Such observances took place at critical points in the agricultural or hunting season—for example, upon the return of the first salmon from the ocean to the rivers; at the times of planting, ripening, and harvest; upon the appearance of sap in the maple trees; or at the summer and winter solstices. In some cases, as in the cultures of the Pacific Northwest, a whole season was devoted to ritual. Spirits were welcomed into the villages with song and dance, and the people shared their food and wealth with one another in elaborate feasts.