Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most important sacred celebrations of the Cherokee is the Green Corn Ceremony which honors Selu. No one eats the new corn until the Green Corn Ceremony is complete. The ceremony includes purification and everything is cleaned and trash removed. The people are also expected to forgive others so that life is in balance.
The Hopi people
The Hopi people are animists and also believe in ancestral spirits called kachinas which can take animal forms or other incarnations of the natural world. Kachinas are protectors of the Hopi, as well as intermediaries between the Hopi and the Creator. They are supernatural beings that are also represented in costumes and masks during ceremonies, and as dolls given to female children to help them learn about the different spirits. Males are thought to already possess this understanding. The Hopi are deeply tied to the Earth and their creation stories tell them that they emerged from a hole in the Under World into the Fourth World. The first three worlds had been destroyed by fire, ice, and floods.
Hopis are very private when it comes to their religious ceremonies. We do know that some ceremonies take place in kivas which are subterranean chambers dug into the ground and accessed from a small opening at the top. Kivas are doorways to the Under World from which the Hopi emerged. The ladder that is used to enter and exit the kiva is considered to be a bridge between the Under World and the Fourth World. The most important of their ceremonies is called Soyal and it occurs in the wintertime during the winter solstice. The celebrations during Soyal are believed to have an effect on the coming year.
We learned in this lesson that the Aztec committed human sacrifice to their sun god, Huitzilopochtli to keep the Earth from destruction. The Inuit believe that the spirits of their dead join their ancestors dancing in the aurora borealis. The Lakota have Seven Sacred Rites and a being who is at the center of the universe called Wakan tanka. The Cherokee believe that we live in This World and the Hopi believe that we are living in the Fourth World and that there are supernatural beings called kachinas and that kivas are a doorway to the Under World.
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