Religion of the Native American (Red Indian)

No particular religion or religious tradition is hegemonic among Native Americans in the United States. Most self-identifying and federally recognized Native Americans claim adherence to some form of Christianity, some of these being cultural and religious syntheses unique to the particular tribe. Traditional Native American spiritual rites and ceremonies are maintained by many Americans of both Native and non-Native identity. These spiritualities may accompany adherence to another faith, or can represent a person’s primary religious identity. While much Native American spiritualism exists in a tribal-cultural continuum, and as such cannot be easily separated from tribal identity itself, certain other more clearly-defined movements have arisen within “Trad” Native American practitioners, these being identifiable as “religions” in the clinical sense. The Midewiwin Lodge is a traditional medicine society inspired by the oral traditions and prophesies of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and related tribes. Traditional practices include the burning of sacred herbs (tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, etc.), the sweatlodge, fasting (paramount in “vision quests”), singing and drumming, and the smoking of natural tobacco in a pipe. A practitioner of Native American spiritualities and religions may incorporate all, some or none of these into their personal or tribal rituals.

Another significant religious body among Native peoples is known as the Native American Church. It is a syncretistic church incorporating elements of native spiritual practice from a number of different tribes as well as symbolic elements from Christianity. Its main rite is the peyote ceremony. Prior to 1890, traditional religious beliefs included Wakan Tanka. In the American Southwest, especially New Mexico, a syncretism between the Catholicism brought by Spanish missionaries and the native religion is common; the religious drums, chants, and dances of the Pueblo people are regularly part of Masses at Santa Fe’s Saint Francis Cathedral. Native American-Catholic syncretism is also found elsewhere in the United States. (e.g., the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda, New York and the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York).

Native Americans are the only known ethnic group in the United States requiring a federal permit to practice their religion. The eagle feather law stipulates that only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers for religious or spiritual use. Native Americans and non-Native Americans frequently contest the value and validity of the eagle feather law, charging that the law is laden with discriminatory racial preferences and infringes on tribal sovereignty. The law does not allow Native Americans to give eagle feathers to non-Native Americans, a common modern and traditional practice. Many non-Native Americans have been adopted into Native American families, made tribal members and given eagle feathers.

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