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Seeking Native American Spirituality: Read This First!
Judging from the email I get, there are a lot of people out there trying to learn about traditional Native American religion and spirituality
these days. Many of them are trying to do this on the Internet.
Now, there is a lot of garbage and misinformation on the Internet no matter what subject you're talking about,
but American Indian religion and spirituality has got to have the worst signal-noise ratio of any of them.
The 'information' out there about American Indian religions ranges from inaccurate school projects
by seven-year-olds, to deeply biased generalizations about the 'heathens' written 300 years ago, to hucksters
pretending to be Native American shamans to scam money off of people, to useful and interesting information
about actual American Indian religious traditions past and present. Sorting through these sites can be a nightmare.
I wish you a lot of luck with it. Before you start, let me give you a few words of experience.
There are two reasons to be looking for information on Native American religions. The first, and easier to
address, is educational. Either because you're a student who's been assigned to or just out of intellectual
and cultural curiosity, you would like to learn more about how American Indians, or a particular tribe of
American Indians, view the world. If that's you, then your main problem is going to be identifying the
authentic and trustworthy sources. Indians are happy to talk about their beliefs and spiritual practices, both
historically and in the modern day. Unfortunately, so are plenty of ill-informed non-Indians (or people of
Indian descent) who think they know a lot more than they do. And so are those unscrupulous souls willing
to pretend they're something they're not in hopes of making a buck or getting a little attention.
My best recommendation is to get a Native American book out of the library as well as looking on the Internet, since
any quack shaman can put up a website but it's a lot harder to publish a book. I also suggest ignoring
and avoiding information about American Indian spirituality presented by anyone:
If you're trying to learn about American Indian religion because you want to become a part of it, though, you
not only face that problem, but another, much deeper one as well: American Indian spirituality is not
evangelistic. It is private and entirely cultural. You cannot convert to 'Native American' any more
than you can convert to African-American or Korean or any other cultural identity you would need to be raised in
to understand. (In fact, many Indians--myself included--are Christians in addition to
our traditional tribal beliefs, just like many African-American and Korean people are Christian in addition to
having an ethnicity of their own.) The only way
to 'join' a Native American spiritual tradition is to become a member of the cultural group, and it's impossible
to do that over the Internet. No one who truly believed in American Indian spirituality would ever offer to
tutor total strangers in religious matters online, much less charge anyone money for such a thing. So, by
definition, the people who make these offers are those who either don't really believe in
Native American spirituality, or don't know very much about it. Is that really who you want to be listening to?
- 1. Offering anything religious for sale. Money is never accepted by authentic holy people in exchange
for Indian religious ceremonies like sweat lodges or sun dances, nor for religious items like medicine bags
or smudged items. (They might sell arts and crafts, of course. Use your common sense--a devout Catholic might sell
you a hand-carved crucifix to hang on your wall, for example, but he wouldn't sell communion wafers over the Internet
or charge you admission to bring you to his church! Selling dreamcatchers or fetish carvings online is one thing, but
don't believe information provided by anyone who is trying to charge people for smudging or blessing anything, offering
healing prayers, or letting people take part in a sweat lodge or dance. They are not authentic sources of information.)
2. Inviting you into their religion on their webpage. Authentic Indians may seek to educate
strangers online, but actually adopting an outsider as part of their culture is only done face-to-face and after knowing
the person for some time.
3. Claiming to be American Indian shamans , talking about tarot cards and Wiccan/pagan things, or talking about
crystals and New Age things. I've got nothing against shamanism, paganism, or the New Age, but a cow is not a
horse: none of these things are traditionally Native American.
Shamanism is an indigenous Siberian mystic tradition,
Wicca is a religion based on ancient European
traditions, Tarot readings are an Indo-European divination
method, and the New Age is a syncretic belief system
invented, as its name suggests, in the modern era. None of them have anything to do with authentic Indian traditions,
and anyone who thinks they do is likely to be wrong about anything else he claims about Native American religions
as well. Wiccans and New Agers don't have any more knowledge about actual American Indian beliefs than you do.
4. Identifying only as 'Native American' or 'American Indian' (an authentic person
would list their actual tribal affiliation). Be a little wary, too, of people trying to speak with
authority who identify as "mixed-blood" or "of Indian descent" or having a "Cherokee ancestor." There
are certainly some mixed-blood people who were raised in their tribe's culture, but many more were not. A person
who has rediscovered his Indian heritage as an adult is a seeker, not a teacher. He is not qualified to speak
authoritatively about Native American religion or culture, for he wasn't raised that way and doesn't have any
more knowledge about it than anyone else learning about it second-hand--including you.
On our site, we have generally given people the benefit of the doubt with our links, including websites unless
we are sure there is a reason not to. Regarding Native American religion and spirituality, however, we have
decided to err on the side of caution instead. Anyone who is looking for a new religion or seeking spiritual truth
is a needy individual and I will not contribute to their being used by irresponsible people. If you are reading this page
because you are a person in need of religious and spiritual guidance, I urge you strongly to seek out some
religions that are evangelistic rather than cultural (one of the many Christian churches, Buddhism, Baha'i; there
are many choices) and talk to spiritual leaders there until you find one that can help you. Falling under the
influence of a false 'shaman' will only hurt you spiritually.
Since I have put this page up, I have received many anguished emails saying "But my grandmother was
part Cherokee... are you telling me to just forget that part of myself? How can I honor my Native ancestors if
you won't share your religion with me?" The answer is simple: honor them the way they would
want to be honored. Don't pay some new-age guru $250 to perform fake "Native American" rituals
that would have offended your ancestors, go physically to their tribe and re-connect with their other descendants.
It will be hard work convincing the people there that you are genuine but if you go with humility and patience
you will eventually be accepted, and that is the ONLY way you will ever become part of the spiritual tradition
you desire. There is no shortcut to that. Native spirituality belongs only to the cultural group, and anyone
who tells you otherwise is trying to make some money off of you and/or to take a power trip at your expense.
You've been warned. Good luck, with whatever it is you're looking for. You're probably going to need it.
Useful Links on Native American Religions:
Since each tribe
has a unique cultural and religious tradition, it is difficult to generalize about native beliefs. You can look through
our list of Native American tribes for some good
information and links about individual cultures. Here are a few good links about Native American religion in general:
Native American Religions:
Essay by an Osage writer about the religious traditions of Indian communities.
This is the best overview of native spirituality I've seen on the Internet.
Native American Spirituality:
Generic overview of American Indian religious beliefs and related issues.
Very simple and it might be good for kids doing homework.
Native American Religion in Early America:
Here's an article covering the basics about indigenous religion in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Some good strategies for teaching and learning about religious history here.
Traditional Native Concepts of Death:
This is a good essay accurately comparing Native American religious beliefs about death
and the afterlife in several different tribes.
Native American Legends:
Online collection of American Indian myths and oral history.
Themes in Native American Mythology:
Webpages comparing traditional stories about particular animals, elements, and moral values
in different American Indian tribes.
Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality:
The Sioux peoples have the worst problem of all the tribes
with non-natives exploiting their spiritual beliefs. Read how they feel about it.
Selling American Indian Spirituality:
Article by a Sioux woman about the exploitation of Native American traditions.
Promotion of Native American Human Rights:
This is the website of an organization working to defend American Indian religious
and cultural freedom, including protecting sacred lands, artifacts, and gravesites.
Tengerism: Siberian Shamanism:
Website of an indigenous Buryat shaman from Siberia. If you are interested in actual
(non-American Indian) shamanism, this seems like a good place to learn.
Native American Spirituality Books:
Here are several genuine and worthwhile books on Native American religions:
God is Red: A Native View of Religion:
Book by respected Lakota author Vine Deloria, Jr. comparing Christianity and
native religion. It's a controversial book, requires critical thinking skills. I recommend it for adult readers.
Encyclopedia of Native American Religions:
This is really the book you want if you're trying to write an essay
about Native American beliefs,
or just curious about world religions. Lots of accurate information here.
Native Religions and Cultures of North America:
Collection of in-depth anthropological essays on a dozen different
Native American religions and societies.
The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life:
An interesting book on Native American spirituality by three
Indian women from different tribal traditions.
South and Meso-American Native Spirituality:
An overview of Indian religions in countries other than the US and Canada.
Native and Christian:
A series of essays by Native Americans on their experiences blending Christianity and Indian spirituality.
American Indian Myths and Legends:
Well-attributed collection of many diverse traditional stories of Native America.
Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies:
Book by a Karuk elder about the meanings of animals and other natural symbols in Native American spirituality.
The Way of a Good Life Wisdom Sits in Places The Wintu and Their Neighbors:
Good books about the Native American worldview in three different tribes (Anishinabe, Apache, and Wintu.)
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