It was from the time of the Stone Age and until the meeting with Europeans, the original settlers in North America lived mainly as hunters and gatherers. During the earliest times, i.e. the Stone Age, the North
American settlers had the same culture as did other people living in the north. However, after some time, ecological changes led to cultural changes as well, when around 20,000 years ago, groups of people moved to lower areas of North America and settled there. These groups started sharing distinct cultures which were in line with their environment and surroundings. As culture evolved and ways of life changed, the traditional religious practices were still followed. The different Native American communities all had their own separate worldview, distinct myths, conducted its own rituals, and acted according to its basic values.
When the religious beliefs of North American settlers were being documented, a number of key observations were made: these natives were very interested in the cycles of nature; they believed that all beings were alive; they thought they could control cosmic powers, they relied a lot on shamans who were religious specialists and they believed that religion and economics could be looked at in the same light. (“The Pages of Shades – Native Americans”)
Native American religion is very unlike conventional religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam in the sense that it has no single founder. It is not a story of people with a strong religious background. It is not ancient and adaptable to today’s contemporary times. Precisely speaking, there is not even a single religious expression which is the same for all the 250 prominent Native American communities present today. These people have no idea how their ancestors practiced religion in historic times. War ravage and destruction broke the chain, and today, Native Americans who want to know their religious background often have to resort to anthropologists for information (Native American Religion, 2004).
In this paper, we attempt to look at some facets of Native American religion as could be found through various sources. Special emphasis is laid on the role of women in Native American society and its religious practices.
Union with the Spirit:
Traditional Native Americans drew no boundary between the non-spiritual and the spiritual. For them, every act was sacred and had connection with Spirit. If for example, hunters are hunting down animals, this is a form of dialogue that the hunter is carrying out with the spirit of the animal. Similarly, agriculture is a means of revering the spirits of the plants and the fruitfulness of the earth. Hence, every act is an act of spirituality, with every act being given the status of a spiritual ritual.
This can be explained by the fact that Native Americans considered that the world of spirit and the world of physical appearances closely exist, and connect at many points, having very little distance between them. For them, whatever happens in this world has an impact on the spirit world and vice versa. The Hopi community practices rituals like the Niman Kachina, where men adorn wooden likenesses of the spirit-kachinas and play out their return to their homeland, causing the land to bask in the good fortune and rain they bring with them. For these dancers, performing dance rituals like the above are ways to walk in both worlds at the same time.
Dance is very similar to everyday life in the sense that the sacred and the non-spiritual frequently overlap. There is no distinction. Religion and life are believed to be one thing. The hunter who apologizes to the spirit of the deer he just hunted, the Southeastern peoples ‘going to water’ are all ways to climb the line between the two worlds. For the Native Americans, any act they do can become a variation of a spirit dance between the person and the object acted upon (Ruvolo, 2004; Native American Religion, 2004).
Sacred Stories and History:
Whenever the religious stories of these people are read, it is observed that there is mention of two kinds of time: one is a time before time when things are not as they are here, and the other is historical time, which is about the same as modern life. In mythic time, there is no boundary between the spirit and physical worlds. There is regular spiritual interaction with humans who are visited by spirits daily. These spirits can both help as well as harm. Humans who wanted to explore their spirituality more are called shamans and they frequently visit spirit realms. A number of stories are part of this time, such as the Native American creation stories, migration narratives, and stories of the heroes in Native American culture.
Story telling is a common activity for Native Americans for whom it dissolves boundaries and removes distances. When they enact these stories time and again, they become a way to overlap the spiritual and non-spiritual world. When they smoke the Lakota pipe, they believe that the spirit of its giver (White Buffalo Calf Woman) has joined them, and engulfed them in a connection with nature. The Iroquois people believe that the ritual of wearing a mask with the likeness of the Great Defender is beneficial for healing the sick, and brings the healing power of the humpbacked one into the sickroom.
Female figures have a strong presence in Native American narratives which often become the basis for rituals as ones mentioned above. There exist stories in which women are the key actors in the creation of the earth and the people. These female figures come to the world, albeit in different forms, with the purpose of inventing the life that the people will live, and these stories include women as main players in the formation of the people. The creation of the people has a well-defined relationship with native women.
The Native Americans of the Southwest and the Plains are instructed by female powers on how to live properly, how to co-exist peacefully and how to treat nature. How the people are supposed to behave in sacred rituals and ceremonies as according to ancient mythology is also explained by powerful female figures. Characters like the White Buffalo Woman (who gifted the Lakota with the sacred pipe standing for the essence of life) are common. The White Buffalo Woman is an especially revered religious personality as she instructed the people on how they should treat all human beings with respect (Native American Spirituality, 2004).
The female figures might be present in the stories and rituals as powerful figures, but this power has been incorporated in the daily lives of the Native American people. This is in the form of the women’s capacity of childbearing. In native societies, the woman’s ability to bear children is considered the source from which woman derives her ultimate power. Since women had a key role in the creation of people, this is mirrored by her ability today to being life into this world. Men might seek power from rituals and ceremonies, women do not have to strive so, and their power is their key role in sustaining generations. This is a way in which the Native American society is similar to other nations: woman is considered child bearer, nurturer and food producer in many cultures (Bales, 1996).
Experience in Native American Religion:
The Native American religion greatly valued the personal experience with the Spirit. A practice called the vision quest was the most common form of such individual experiences. In some cultures, the priest was the ultimate authority on religion and provided guidance, often even serving as intermediaries between people and Spirit in major religious festivals. Visions were usually not something that ordinary people referred to. Shamans were usually the people who embarked mostly on vision quests, but in all, societies where priest were given lesser importance, individual encounters with Spirit were highly emphasized.
The vision quest was a basically a planned search for a vision within oneself. People in the pre-Columbian Native America and even to some extent in the Southwest and Southeast practiced this. At its fundamental, a person would stand alone in the wilderness. He would fast for a number of days and seek some spiritual power or his own vision for life. In a lot of societies, this ritual was considered compulsory for a youth on his way to adulthood. Boys usually went on these quests, however, some societies allowed girls to as well. This quest was also considered crucial for young men training to be warriors as it was believed that unless the men had spirit guardians, they would not survive many battles.
The unification of people was also a key element of Native American rituals. The community would bond together in common religious experience through these. For example, the Iroquois peoples of the Eastern Woodlands would hold community ceremonies in the spring and fall of every year. In these ceremonies, the leaders would be the wooden-masked impersonators of the spirit who prevents disease from disrupting people’s lives, and this ceremony would serve to drive all disease away. The Green corn ceremony is also worth pointing out as in these rituals, people purified themselves, cleaned their houses, fasted and prayed, and burnt the first ears of green corn in the fire. This served to seek the Spirit’s blessing for a healthy harvest (Native American Religion, 2004; Awiakta, 1993).
Role of Women:
Native American societies did not simply make their women serve them as homemakers and child bearers. Rather, they served as diplomats, politicians and arbiters. However, when these societies had an encounter with the Europeans, a lot of things changed. The Europeans generally did not pay much attention to native women and did not consider them to have a role in social and public life. They also projected their opposition to native beliefs and culture by excluding women from arbitration or council meetings. Land was considered by the natives to be of equal value as the use derived fro it but when land had to be transferred, women’s input had to be sought otherwise the transaction was not believed to be ethical. Hence, upon European contact, when land became a commodity, the Europeans generally disregarded native women and their roles and status in native society. Europeans changed gender roles as well with the transference of ownership of land. Europeans and Euro-Americans disregarded women’s participation in their own societies and further displaced the importance of their roles as successful cultivators and cultural mediators (Velasco, 1997).
As the U.S government tried to integrate the Native Americans with the contemporary American culture, the native men were given smaller pieces of land and expected to continue their agricultural activities. This was a situation of drastic change for native men. The duties that had become second nature for them like hunting and participating in warfare were no longer expected of them by society. This mirrored a pronounced change in gender roles and relations, as they became more aligned to those of white society. While both genders had to get used to changes, the women could still carry on doing what they had been doing all their lives. The men became engrossed in agriculture, and the women continued basket making, pottery, homemaking and childbearing within the range of their expertise (Underhill, 1979).
During the late twentieth century, the Native American women have undergone the most changes in terms of their gender roles and status within society. They have become involved in numerous movements to reclaim landscape and cultural artifacts for all Native Americans. For example, the campaign to remove the word, “squaw,” from the names of national places is such a movement. ‘Squaw’ is a disparaging designation for an Indian woman. The leaders of this campaign are targeting areas such as the Squaw Valley in California, Squaw Peak in Arizona, Squaw Lake Village in Minnesota and more than 1,000 other sites. Other campaigns which these women have taken on include ones at Big Mountain and Black Mesa in Arizona. Women like the Hopi and Navajo Grandmothers are protesting against the removal of the people from their homelands, as they believe that this removal will result in the devastation of subsistence patterns the peoples of the Southwest have been following for centuries (Allen, 1991; Eargle, 1986).