It is difficult to sort the current popular understanding of the term Native
American Spirituality from the reality of the practices of the original
Native peoples. When we use those words nowadays, the images that come to mind
are of sweat lodges, dreamcatchers, and a general belief in the sacred nature
of the Earth. However, the truth is much more complicated, and the spirituality
of First Nations peoples is as varied as they were.
Its impossible to speak of a single Native spirituality as
a monolithic system. The peoples of the Americas were divided into over 1500
different cultures from the tip of South America to the Arctic Circle, with
a similar number of languages being spoken. These groups existed in a huge variety
of natural environments and in a myriad of social structures; their religious
practices were as varied, and there were few common elements.
One of those common elements was the close association of God and the divine
spirit with the Earth. This is something that the Natives held in common with
indigenous cultures all over the world; when survival and continuation of a
culture depends on an intimate relationship with the natural environment, a
corresponding sense of the sacred nature of the environment is almost assured.
Most cultures had some sense of sacred space, associating the features of the
local landscape, plants, and animals with spiritual beings that had to be taken
into account while hunting, food gathering, etc. Indeed, most cultures did not
separate the two hunting and killing a deer, for instance, involved appeasing
the spirit of the deer both prior to and after its death, so small rituals and
prayers that had to be performed while hunting were common.
The variety of other religious practice among the Native peoples was, and is,
huge. It encompasses everything from the elaborate sacred calendars and ritual
sacrifices of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas to the sacred dances and ceremonies
of the Pueblo peoples, from the False Face societies of the Iroquois ( which
used masks to represent the spirits of trees and animals) to the Sun Dances
of the Lakota, the chants and sand paintings of the Southwestern Navajo, and
the contemporary use of the hallucinatory drug peyote in the rituals of the
Native American Church.
The Plains tribes of North America (the Lakota, the Blackfoot, the Comanche,
the Cheyenne, the Crow, etc.) have contributed much to the current popular image
of Native Spirituality. The sweat lodge where people undergo exposure
to hot steam, speaking of their problems, and chanting in an effort to connect
to the entire universe as it is commonly practiced usually follows Lakota
customary practice, although sweat lodges are found in many cultures. The dreamcatcher
a hoop of leather-wrapped wood with a spider web of intricate weaving
inside is a Northern Plains item that isnt found in many other
places. The dreamcatcher were originally conceived as a way of stopping bad
dreams and influences from reaching children, but in its modern conception is
sometimes seen as a tool for holding on to good dreams and influences
a good example of how Native Spirituality has shifted as it has been popularized.
While many people feel that the addition of Native spiritual practices add
greatly to their understanding and centering practice, many Natives themselves
are uncomfortable with what they see as the commercialization of their cultural
heritages, and with the misperceptions that are attached to them. Still, enough
people derive spiritual healing from even these representations that it seems
difficult to believe they will go away anytime soon.
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