Native American religion

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Native American religions are the spiritual practices of Native Americans in North America. Historically these religions are extremely diverse. Some are unique to an individual Native American tribe, while others are practiced by a wide range of tribes, mostly notably, the pan-Indian Native American Church. Since the 19th century most Native Americans have been Christians. The membership of Native American religions in the 21st century comprises about 9000 people.[1]

Bear Butte, in South Dakota, is a sacred site for over 30 Plains tribes.

Major Native American religions[edit]


Europeans brought their Christian religion to the Americas.[2] Missionaries from different Christian sects established missions and religious schools among Native peoples. According to Jacob Neusner, Native American Christianity is often "fundamentalist in theology, conservative in their practice, and often revivalistic and evangelical."[3]

Christianity was seen by government officials as a tool in cultural assimilation;[4] many Native American Christians developed a syncretic combination of their traditional belief systems and Christianity, as with Native American Church. For example, St. David Pendleton Oakerhater (Cheyenne), who was canonized as an Episcopal saint but was a Sun Dancer as well. According to James Treat, Native American Christians "have constructed and maintained their ... religious identities with a variety of considerations in mind.... Many native Christians accomplish this identification without abandoning or rejecting native religious traditions."[4]

Longhouse Religion[edit]

This replica of an Iroquois longhouse represents where the traditional practices of the Native religion took place.

The Longhouse Religion, founded in 1776 by Seneca Handsome Lake, revitalized Native American religion among the Iroquois. The doctrine of the Longhouse Religion, also called the Handsome Lake Religion is the Gaiwiio, or "Good Word".[5] Gaiwiio combined elements of Christianity with long-standing Iroquois beliefs. The Longhouse Religion is still practiced by the Iroquois today.

Waashat Religion[edit]

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.[6] 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".[7]

The Dreamer Faith, and its elements of dancing, foreshadowed the later Ghost Dances of the plains peoples.[6][6] It was a back–to–our–heritage religion.[6] Believers thought that white people would disappear and nature would return to the way it was before they came.[6] To achieve this, the natives must do the things required by the spirits, like a Weyekin.[6] What the spirits wanted was to throw off violent ways, cast off white culture, and not buy, sell or disrespect the Earth.[6] They must also dance, the Prophet Dance (wáashat).[6]

The religion combined elements of Christianity with native beliefs, but it rejected white-American culture.[6] This made it difficult to assimilate or control the tribes by the United States.[6] The U.S. was trying to convert the tribes from nomads to farmers, in the European-American tradition.[6] 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."[6]

Prophets of the movement included Smohalla (of the Wanapam people), Kotiakan (of the Yakama nation) and Homli (of the Walla Walla).[6] Their messages were carried along the Columbia River to other communities.[6] 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.[7]

Indian Shaker Religion[edit]

Also known as Tschadam, the Indian Shaker Religion was influenced by the Waashat Religion and was 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 combined Christianity with traditional Indian teachings. This religion is still practiced today in the Indian Shaker Church.[7]

Drum Religion[edit]

The Drum Religion, also known as the "Big Drum", "Drum Dance", or "Dream Dance", originated around 1890 among the Santee Dakota (or Eastern Dakota). It spread through the Western Great Lakes region to other Native American tribes such as the Objiwe (Chippewa), Meskwaki (Fox), Kickapoo, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ho-chunk (Winnebago) and others. It was a religious revitalization movement created to encourage a sense of unity of Native peoples through rituals. These rituals included the playing and keeping sacred drums and the passing of sacred knowledge from tribe to tribe.[7]

Earth Lodge Religion[edit]

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.[7]

Ghost Dances[edit]

1891 Sioux Ghost Dance. Ghost Dances influenced many native American religions.

The "Ghost Dance" is a very general term that encompasses different religious revitalization movements in the Western United States. In 1870, and 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 earliest Ghost Dance heavily influenced religions such as the Earth Lodge, Bole-Maru Religion, and the Dream Dance. The "Ghost Dances" practiced were meant to serve as a connection with "precontact ways of life and honored the dead while predicting their resurrection.[7]

In December 1888, Wovoka (Jack Wilson) of the Northern Paiute (Numu), 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 made the claim that he had visited the spirit world and the Supreme Being and made the prediction 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".

His supposed father, 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, namely the Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux (Dakota, Lakota, Nakota). In fact, some bands of Lakota and Dakota were so desperate during wartime for hope that they strengthened their militancy after making a pilgrimage to Nevada in 1889–1890. They provided their own interpretation of the Gospel to their people which emphasized the elimination of white people. A Ghost Dance gathering in December 1890 actually led to the massacre of Lakota and Dakota, who believed their Ghost Dance shirts could stop bullets, at Wounded Knee.[8] The Caddo Nation still practices the Ghost Dance today.[9]

Peyote Religion[edit]

Peyote's illegal status in the United States prevents many non-Indians from participating in peyote ceremonies and becoming members of specific tribal religions.

The Peyote Religion, also called the "Peyote Cult", "Peyote Road", and the "Peyote Way", is a religious movement involving the ritual use of the Lophophora williamsii plant (peyote).[10] Use of peyote for religious purposes is thought to have originated within one of the following tribes: the Carrizo, the Lipan Apache, the Mescalero Apache, the Tonkawa, the Karankawa, and the Caddo, with the Carrizo and the Lipan Apache being the two most likely sources.[11] Since then, despite several efforts to make peyotism illegal, ritual peyote use has spread from the Mexico area to Oklahoma and other western parts of the United States.[12] Notable peyotists include Quannah Parker, the founder of the Native American Church, and Big Moon of the Kiowa tribe.

Bole-Maru Religion[edit]

The Bole-Maru Religion was a religious revitalization movement of the Maidu, Pomo, Wintun, and other tribes of north-central California in the 19th century. Bole is a Wintun word (a Penutian language), maru is a Pomo word (a Hokan language); both refer to the dreams of medicine people. They both draw on traditional as well as Christian beliefs and ethical guidelines, with revelations from dreams playing a central role. Some of the dances of this religion were the Bole or Maru dance, the Bole-Hesi Dance, and the Ball Dance. In these dances, dancers wore large headdresses.

Dream Dance[edit]

The Dream Dance, a religious revitalization movement of the Klamath and Modoc, evolved out of the Ghost Dance and Earth Lodge Religion. It involved the power of dreams and visions of the dead. Unlike the Klamath and Modoc religions the Dream Dance did not predict an apocalypse and return of the dead. The religion was only practiced a short time in Oregon in the early 20th century. One of the founders was the Modoc medicine people commonly known as Alissa Laham.

Feather Religion[edit]

The Feather Religion was a revitalization movement of the Pacific Northwest. It drew on elements of both the earlier Indian Shaker Religion and the Waashat Religion. The religion was founded in 1904 by Jake Hunt a Klickitat medicine people. It is also referred to as the Feather Dance or the Spinning Religion. Sacred eagle feathers were used in ceremonies, one of which involved ritual spinning, hence the name Waskliki for "Spinning Religion".


Mesoamerican symbol widely used by the Mexicas as a representation of Ometeotl.

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.[13]

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 Mexicans of North America.[14] Their rituals involve the mitotiliztli.[15] The followers, called Mexicatl (singular) and Mexicah (plural), or simply Mexica, are mostly urban and sub-urban dwellers.[14]

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,[16] 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.[17]

From the 1970s onwards Mexcayotl has grown developing in a web of local worship and community groups (called calpulli or kalpulli)[14] 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.[18] Sanchez's Native Mexican Church (which is a confederation of calpullis) was officially recognised by the government of Mexico in 2007.[19]


Sun Dance[edit]

The Sun Dance (or Sundance) is a religious ceremony practiced by a number of Native American and First Nations peoples, primarily those of the Plains Nations. Each tribe has its own distinct practices and ceremonial protocols. Many of the ceremonies have features in common, such as specific dances and songs passed down through many generations, the use of traditional drums, the sacred pipe, tobacco offerings, praying, fasting and, in some cases, the piercing of skin on the chest or back for the men and arms for the women.

In Canada, the Plains Cree call this ceremony the Thirst Dance; the Saulteaux (Plains Objibwa) call it the Rain Dance; and the Blackfoot (Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani) call it the Medicine Dance. It was also practiced by the Canadian Dakota and Nakoda, and the Dene.

Religious leaders[edit]

Prophets in native religions include Popé, who led the Pueblo revolt in 1675, Neolin, Tenskwatawa, Kenekuk, Smohalla, John Slocum, Wovoka, Black Elk and many others.

Congressional legislation affecting Native American religion[edit]

American Indian Religious Freedom Act[edit]

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.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act[edit]

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[1] 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.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act[edit]

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was a congressional reaction to Supreme Court cases that limited the religious freedom of individuals by placing an unnecessary burden on their exercise of religion. The law provided for relief from government burdens on religion with two exceptions. A burden can be placed on the exercise of religion if a compelling government interest is pursued in the least restrictive way possible.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James T. Richardson (2004). Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe. Springer. p. 543. 
  2. ^ Kee, Howard Clark, et al. Christianity: A Social and Cultural History. 2nd Ed. Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 1998. P. 388.
  3. ^ Neusner, Jacob, ed. World Religions in America: An Introduction. Westminster. John Knox Press: Louisville, 2003. P. 18.
  4. ^ a b Ellis, Clyde. "American Indian and Christianity". Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  5. ^ Waldman, Carl. (2009). Atlas of the North American Indian. P. 229. Checkmark Books. New York. ISBN 978-0-8160-6859-3.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Andrew H. Fisher. "American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation". Retrieved 2012-01-04. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Waldman 230
  8. ^ Waldman 230–231
  9. ^ Cross, Phil. "Caddo Songs and Dances". Caddo Legacy from Caddo People. Retrieved 27 Nov 2012.
  10. ^ Waldman 231
  11. ^ Stewart, Omer C. Peyote Religion: A History. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman and London, 1987. P. 47
  12. ^ Stewart, Omer C. 327
  13. ^ Yolotl González Torres. The Revival of Mexican Religions: The Impact of Nativism. Numen - International Review for the History of Religions. Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1996; published by: BRILL), pp. 1-31
  14. ^ a b c Susanna E. Rostas. Mexicanidad: The Resurgence of the Indian in Popular Mexican Nationalism. University of Cambridge, 1997.
  15. ^ Jennie Marie Luna. Danza Azteca: Indigenous Identity, Spirituality, Activism and Performance. San Jose State University, Department of Mexican American Studies. 2011
  16. ^ Lauro Eduardo Ayala Serrano. Tiempo Indígena: la construcción de imaginarios prehispánicos.
  17. ^ Tlacaelel Francisco Jimenez Sanchez biography. In Kaltonal, 2005.
  18. ^ Zotero Citlalcoatl. AMOXTLI YAOXOCHIMEH.
  19. ^ Religión prehispánica renace en el siglo 21. Vanguardia, 2008.


External links[edit]