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.
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.
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. This government persecution and prosecution continued until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA).
Some non-Native anthropologists estimate membership in traditional Native American religions in the 21st century to be about 9000 people. 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.
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.
"Ghost Dance" is a very general term that encompasses different religious revitalization movements in the Western United States. In 1870, a Ghost Dance was founded by the Paiute prophet Wodziwob, and in 1889–1890, a Ghost Dance Religion was founded by Wovoka (Jack Wilson), who was also a Northern Paiute. The Ghost Dance was meant to serve as a connection with traditional ways of life and to honor the dead while predicting their resurrection.
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 aboriginal 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 wartime that they strengthened their militancy after making a pilgrimage to Nevada in 1889–1890. They provided their own understanding to the Ghost Dance which included the prediction that the white people would disappear. A Ghost Dance gathering at Wounded Knee in December 1890 was invaded by the Seventh Cavalry, who massacred unarmed Lakota and Dakota people.
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.
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). 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.
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.
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. Their rituals involve the mitotiliztli. The followers, called Mexicatl (singular) and Mexicah (plural), or simply Mexica, are mostly urban and suburban people.
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, 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.
From the 1970s onwards Mexcayotl has grown developing in a web of local worship and community groups (called calpulli or kalpulli) 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. Sanchez's Native Mexican Church (which is a confederation of calpullis) was officially recognized by the government of Mexico in 2007.
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). 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. 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. Notable Native American Church (NAC) members include Quannah Parker, the founder of the NAC, and Big Moon of the Kiowa tribe.
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. 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".
The Dreamer Faith, and its elements of dancing, foreshadowed the later Ghost Dances of the plains peoples. It was a back–to–our–heritage religion. Believers thought that white people would disappear and nature would return to the way it was before they came. To achieve this, the Natives must do the things required by the spirits, like a Weyekin. What the spirits wanted was to throw off violent ways, cast off white culture, and not buy, sell or disrespect the Earth. They must also dance the Prophet Dance (wáashat).
The religion combined elements of Christianity with Native beliefs, but it rejected white-American culture. This made it difficult to assimilate or control the tribes by the United States. The U.S. was trying to convert the Plains tribes from hunter-gatherers to farmers, in the European-American tradition. 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."
Prophets of the movement included Smohalla (of the Wanapam people), Kotiakan (of the Yakama nation) and Homli (of the Walla Walla). Their messages were carried along the Columbia River to other communities. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Anishinaabe traditional beliefs cover the traditional belief system of the Anishinaabeg peoples, consisting of the Algonquin/Nipissing, Ojibwa/Chippewa/Saulteaux/Mississaugas, Odawa, Potawatomi and Oji-Cree, located primarily in the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada.Bandolier bag
A bandolier bag is a Native American bag with a wide strap, often ornately decorated with beadwork, presented to represent honors given to a worthy man. Though bandolier bags are closely associated with the Anishinaabeg, they are not exclusively found among them as many bandolier bags have identifiable stylistic tribal and regional differences. A bandolier bag may be worn either across the shoulder to the side or in front like an apron. In the Anishinaabe language, "bandolier bag(s)" is aazhooningwa'igan(ag), literally meaning "worn across the shoulder".Bandolier bags are often incorrectly called medicine bags.Catlinite
Catlinite (also called pipestone) is a type of argillite (metamorphosed mudstone), usually brownish-red in color, which occurs in a matrix of Sioux Quartzite. Because it is fine-grained and easily worked, it is prized by Native Americans, primarily those of the Plains nations for use in making ceremonial pipes such as chanunpas. Pipestone quarries are located and preserved in Pipestone National Monument outside Pipestone, Minnesota, in Pipestone County, Minnesota, and at the Pipestone River in Ontario, Canada.Eagle feather law
The eagle feather law provides many exceptions to federal wildlife laws regarding eagles and other migratory birds to enable Native Americans to continue their traditional spiritual and cultural practices.
Under the current language of the eagle feather law, individuals of certifiable American Indian ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers. Unauthorized persons found with an eagle or its parts in their possession can be fined up to $250,000.Earth/fertility cult
The Earth/fertility Mississippian cult was associated with earthen platform mounds.The act of rebuilding the mounds, of adding additional layers of earth over burials, served as a symbol of renewal, which renewed the earthwork as much as human life. The earthen platform served as the earth, a symbolism which endured into historic times. There are historically documented connections between additions to platforms mounds and the communal "Green Corn Ceremony", which celebrated the new harvest and the fertility of the earth. The quadrilateral, flat-topped design of many platform mounds may represent the Southeastern American Indian belief that the earth was a flat surface oriented towards four quarters of the world.Ghost sickness
Ghost sickness is a cultural belief among some traditional indigenous peoples in North America, notably the Navajo, and some Muscogee and Plains cultures, as well as among Polynesian peoples. People who are preoccupied and/or consumed by the deceased are believed to suffer from ghost sickness. Reported symptoms can include general weakness, loss of appetite, suffocation feelings, recurring nightmares, and a pervasive feeling of terror. The sickness is attributed to ghosts or, occasionally, to witches or witchcraft.Green Corn Ceremony
The Green Corn Ceremony (Busk) is an annual ceremony practiced among various Native American peoples associated with the beginning of the yearly corn harvest. Busk is a term given to the ceremony by white traders, the word being a corruption of the Creek word puskita for "a fast". These ceremonies have been documented ethnographically throughout the North American Eastern Woodlands and Southeastern tribes. Historically, it involved a first fruits rite in which the community would sacrifice the first of the green corn to ensure the rest of the crop would be successful. These Green Corn festivals were practiced widely throughout southern North America by many tribes evidenced in the Mississippian people and throughout the Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere. Green Corn festivals are still held today by many different Southeastern Woodland tribes. The Green Corn Ceremony typically occurs in late July–August, determined locally by the ripening of the corn crops. The ceremony is marked with dancing, feasting, fasting and religious observations.Kinnikinnick
Kinnikinnick is a Native American and First Nations herbal smoking mixture, made from a traditional combination of leaves or barks. Recipes for the mixture vary, as do the uses, from social, to spiritual to medicinal.Kuksu (religion)
Kuksu, also called the Kuksu Cult, was a religion in Northern California practiced by members within several Indigenous peoples of California before and during contact with the arriving European settlers. The religious belief system was held by several tribes in Central California and Northern California, from the Sacramento Valley west to the Pacific Ocean.
The practice of Kuksu religion included elaborate narrative ceremonial dances and specific regalia. The men of the tribe practiced rituals to ensure good health, bountiful harvests, hunts, fertility, and good weather. Ceremonies included an annual mourning ceremony, rites of passage, and intervention with the spirit world. A male secret society met in underground dance rooms and danced in disguises at the public dances.Kuksu has been identified archaeologically by the discovery of underground dance rooms and wooden dance drums.Longhouse Religion
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). 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.
Prior to the adoption of the single-family dwelling, Iroquois lived in large, extended-family homes also known as longhouses which also served as meeting places, town halls, theaters, and sites for religious ceremonies. Gaihwi:io keeps the longhouses for ceremonial purposes, and the movement was therefore termed the "Longhouse Religion."Medicine bag
A medicine bag is usually a small pouch, worn by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that contains sacred items. A personal medicine bag may contain objects that symbolize personal well-being and tribal identity. Traditionally, medicine bags are worn under the clothing. Their contents are private, and often of a personal and religious nature.Native American Church
The Native American Church (NAC), also known as Peyotism and Peyote Religion, is a Native American religion that teaches a combination of traditional Native American beliefs and Christianity, with sacramental use of the entheogen peyote. The religion originated in the U.S. State of Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century after peyote was introduced to the southern Great Plains from Mexico. Today it is the most widespread indigenous religion among Native Americans in the United States (except Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians), Canada (specifically First Nations people in Saskatchewan and Alberta), and Mexico, with an estimated 250,000 adherents as of the late twentieth century.Pomo religion
The indigenous religion of the Pomo people, Native Americans from Northwestern California, centered on belief in the powerful entities of the 'Kunula', a Coyote, and 'Guksu', a spirit healer from the south.Rainmaking (ritual)
Rainmaking is a weather modification ritual that attempts to invoke rain.
Among the best known examples of weather modification rituals are North American rain dances, historically performed by many Native American tribes, particularly in the Southwestern United States. Some of these weather modification rituals are still implemented today.Sacred bundle
A sacred bundle or a medicine bundle is a wrapped collection of sacred items, held by a designated carrier, used in Indigenous American ceremonial cultures.
According to Patricia Deveraux, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Alberta, "These are holy bundles given to us by the Creator to hold our people together... They're the same as the relics from the Catholic Church. They are a demonstration of the holy spirit. They can heal people."Thunderbird (mythology)
The thunderbird is a legendary creature in certain North American indigenous peoples' history and culture. It is considered a supernatural being of power and strength. It is especially important, and frequently depicted, in the art, songs and oral histories of many Pacific Northwest Coast cultures, but is also found in various forms among some peoples of the American Southwest, East Coast of the United States, Great Lakes, and Great Plains.Totem
A totem (Ojibwe doodem) is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe.
While the term totem is derived from the North American Ojibwe language, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide. However, the traditional people of those cultures have words for their guardian spirits in their own languages, and do not call these spirits or symbols "totems".
Contemporary neoshamanic, New Age, and mythopoetic men's movements not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion have been known to use "totem" terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide, however this is generally seen by the originating cultures as cultural misappropriation.Underwater panther
An underwater panther, called Mishipeshu or Mishibijiw in Ojibwe (IPA: [mɪʃɪbɪʑɪw]), is one of the most important of several mythological water beings among many indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands and Great Lakes region, particularly among the Anishinaabe.
Mishipeshu translates into "the Great Lynx". It has the head and paws of a giant cat but is covered in scales and has dagger-like spikes running along its back and tail. Mishipeshu calls Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior his home and is a powerful creature in the mythological traditions of some Native American tribes, particularly Anishinaabe tribes, the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi, of the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States. In addition to the Anishinaabeg, Innu also have Mishibizhiw stories.To the Algonquins, the underwater panther was the most powerful underworld being. The Ojibwe traditionally held them to be masters of all water creatures, including snakes. Some versions of the Nanabozho creation legend refers to whole communities of water lynx.Some archaeologists believe that underwater panthers were major components of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of the Mississippian culture in the prehistoric American Southeast.Wyandot religion
The Wyandot (sometimes formerly referred to as the Huron) are a First Nations/Native American people originally from Ontario, Canada, and surrounding areas.
The shamans of a Wyandot tribe were called Arendiwane (or Arendi wane, Orendi wane).
According to Wyandot mythology, Iosheka created the first man and woman and taught them many skills, including all their religious ceremonies and rituals, the ability to fight evil spirits, healing, and the use of the sacrament of tobacco.