In no native American language is there a term which could translate as 'religion'; but in every language there is a term for 'tradition', which embraces religion. Religion is seen as an integral aspect of the tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next. This adherence to tradition suggests that the native American religions changed very little from the time when human beings first came to North America tens of thousands of years ago, until Europeans began to arrive in significant numbers a few hundred years ago.
The native American traditions are oral, without any sacred writings in which beliefs are encapsulated and rituals prescribed. But as white settlers began to encroach their lands, several native American chiefs and preachers felt impelled to articulate their faith to the white commanders and governors - and their speeches were transcribed by white witnesses. These speeches provide the most direct insight into native American religion; and they are striking in their combination of simplicity and profundity.
By the middle of the nineteenth century a growing number of white Americans became anxious that American native traditions would soon die out; and there was an urgent effort to record native American customs, rituals, social structures, and ideas. It was soon discovered that the primary means of conveying ideas, including religious ones, was the folktale. Thus hundreds of folktales from every tribe were written down. Paradoxically these records are now being used by native Americans themselves as guides to the renewal of their culture and religion.
The central feature of native American religion lies in the attitude to nature. All living beings - all animals and birds, insects and fish, all trees and plants - are regarded as sacred; indeed, the natural order as a whole is equated with the divine order. The majority of native American people live by hunting. But this is not seen as an exploitation of nature, or as an assertion of human superiority over animals; rather it is regarded as human participation in the divine order. There are many folktales that warn of the dangers of excessive hunting; and when the white settlers hunted the buffalo virtually to extinction in the late nineteenth century, there was not only alarm amongst native Americans at the loss of a vital source of food, but deep moral and spiritual outrage.
The sense of the sacred extends to the earth itself. Since humanity is one species amongst many, it cannot own any land; all land belongs to God, to be shared by all the living beings that inhabit it. At the same time people are spiritually attached to the land where they were born, and where their ancestors are buried. Thus there was further outrage at the white settlers laying exclusive claim to ranches and farms - and incomprehension at white people's willingness to abandon the land of their own birth, and seek wealth hundreds and even thousands of miles away.
Attachment to land extends beyond life into eternity. At death the body is absorbed by the soil, while the spirit continues to roam the forests and fields. And the living look to the dead for both guidance and comfort.
Just as native Americans identify the natural order with the divine order, so they identify symbols with reality. In particular, rituals are seen as effective means of attaining that which they represent. The war-dances prior to combat help to ensure victory; the ceremonies prior to hunting, in which the dancers imitate the sounds and movements of their prey, help to ensure success; and the healing ceremonies actually cure the sick.
Similarly words are understood as containing that which they express. So when a person speaks of a certain animal or tree, that animal or tree is spiritually present in the sound of its name and when a story is told, the events of the story are being re-enacted in the life of the speaker and hearers. Thus native Americans generally use words with great care, and their speech is typically slow and ponderous.
The same fusion of symbol and reality is found in native American art. If animals and trees are painted on flattened bark, then those animals and trees become present - and the bark and the pigments are treated as sacred objects. If figures are carved onto rocks, then the figures in a spiritual sense mes to life - and the rock is treated as holy.
Time is regarded as cyclical. Each generation sees itself as repeating the life of the previous generation, without seeking to change or improve its situation - just as each year repeats the seasons of the previous year. And when the native Americans finally accepted the dominance of the white settlers, they saw this as part of the natural cycle in which each tribe and race enjoys an occasional - but passing - period of power.
We have been taught to believe in progress: that each generation can and should enjoy a better life than the previous generation; and that we personally, through the course of our careers, should move from a lower position in a society to a higher one. We have also been taught that progress is achieved primarily through science and technology, by which humanity achieves greater and greater mastery of nature.
The native Americans challenge us to question that faith. They teach us to regard ourselves as part of the natural order, not as masters of it. They warn us that, if we behave as masters of nature, we shall destroy it. And they tell us to look to the past for guidance as to how to live now and in the future.
They also challenge our attitude to the place in which we live. We may expect to move several times in the course of our lives, and to die a great distance from where we were born. The native Americans urge us to cherish the particular place in which we find ourselves - to regard it as gift from God - and therefore to move only with the greatest reluctance.
Source: An excerpt from the Book on "366 Readings from World Religions" by Robert Van De Weyer.