Native North American Religions & Traditions

Instructor: Amy C. Evans

Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.

Native North American religions and traditions are the subjects of this lesson. Because there are so many Native American tribes we will explore a sampling of this diverse group of people to get an idea of what their faith traditions were, and for some still are, like.

Introducing Native North American Religions and Traditions

What role does religion or spiritual beliefs play in your life, if any? It is a personal question, I know, and that is what we have to consider when discussing other faith traditions. Religion is a very personal and intimate subject for many cultures. In this lesson, we will explore a handful of Native North American cultures to get a snapshot of their diverse belief systems.

Aztec (Mexico)

When someone talks about the Aztecs, what first comes to your mind? For many people, their first thought is human sacrifice. But what was the purpose of this practice? Human sacrifice was a vital part of the Aztec belief system for a number of reasons. The Aztecs were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods, and some gods required human sacrifice before they would grant a request, such as a good rainy season. Human sacrifices were also committed to as an act of thankfulness to a god.

Important gods in the Aztec pantheon included Huitzilopochtli, the primary god who was a sun god, Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility, and Quetzalcoatl, a god of wisdom. Human sacrifice to the god Huitzilopochtli was especially important because the Aztecs believed that Huitzilopochtli needed human blood to give him the energy to continue his journey and role in giving light to the world. Without this energy, Huitzilopochtli would fail and the world would be engulfed by darkness and destroyed.

Aztec Sun god Huitzilopochtli
The Aztec religion and Sun god Huitzilopochtli

Inuit (Alaska, Canada, and Greenland)

The Inuit is the name of a people who are often referred to as Eskimos. The name Eskimo is considered by many to be disrespectful. The Inuit are traditionally animists, and believe that everything has a spirit, including objects, not just humans and animals. The most important of the spirits is Sedna, a goddess of the sea. Inuits have shamans, holy people, that are able to communicate with the spiritual world. To aid in their communication shamans will often wear carved animal masks in their rituals.

It is important to the Inuits that the spirits are kept happy, otherwise, misfortune and disaster may befall the people. Drums made from walruses and caribou and singing and dancing play a vital role in ceremonies involving special occasions such as the birth of a child or the transition into adulthood.

The Inuit also believe that when a person dies they are transported into the aurora borealis where they join their ancestors in dance.

The Inuit believe that their ancestors are dancing in the aurora borealis
North American Inuit believe aurora borealis is their dancing ancestors

Lakota (Great Plains)

The Lakota, who are sometimes referred to as the Sioux, were originally plains Indians. The Lakota believe in Wakan tanka, a being that exists at the center of the Great Mystery. The Great Mystery is part of Lakota cosmology and includes not only all life but the entire universe.

The Lakota practice, as part of their religion, what they call the Seven Sacred Rites. Here are several examples of those rites.

  • The Sun Dance: The purpose of the ceremony is self-sacrifice for the community and/or for personal reasons. For example, the ritual may be practiced to beseech Wakan tanka to help give the community strength.
  • Vision Quest: During a vision quest, the practitioner is guided by a holy man and isolated from the village. The person fasts, prays, and seeks knowledge or help from the spirit world.
  • Renewal of Life: This is a ritual for the healing of body, mind, and spirit. It involves entering a sweat lodge, which is a small, heated enclosed space that represents the womb. Water is poured over heated rocks which then create steam while the participant(s) pray.

Cherokee (Southeast)

The Cherokee believe that you cannot separate your spirit from everyday life; the spirit is involved in everything you do. In the Cherokee belief system, the universe is divided into three parts: the Upper World, the This World, and the Underworld.

This World is the world in which human beings live in and it acts as an intermediary between the Upper World (the past, symbolized by fire) and the Under World (future, symbolized by water). In This World humans are no different from animals or plants; all are equal and are expected to live in balance together with creation. All creation has spiritual power, including rocks, rivers, and mountains.

The Cherokee believe that the world was created by beings from the Upper World. The Cherokee view the world and the universe in terms of kinship. For example, humans are the Sun's grandchildren. The Cherokee also have deities. Examples of deities include Selu, who created corn and Asgaya Gigagei, who can take female or male forms and is a healer.

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