All human groups have some type of religious beliefs. Archaeologists say that the first evidence of religion is 40,000 years
old. Virtually all religious beliefs are a matter of faith. Western scientific explanations are a rather new concept.
Our beliefs, and the rituals that express those beliefs, help us interpret our environment; regulate behavior; explain the
world; categorize and explain events; answer the “how” and “why” questions; provide reassurance in bad times through rituals,
prayers, and actions; give us a rationalization for social customs,
morals, and value systems; and promote group solidarity.
II. Common Themes in American Indian Beliefs
Almost all Indians believed in some type of supernatural force. It was impersonal and ran throughout nature. If a person
had the right knowledge and equipment, this energy could be tapped.
Indians also believed in a variety of spirits. There were the spirits of the trees, lakes, and other aspects of nature. The
world around them was alive with spirits that were generally superior to people. These spirits could help or hinder an
individual’s life, so measures were taken to appease the spirits. This might take the form of ritually decorated clothing and
weapons, prayers, and/or ceremonies. Although some misfortunes, like a broken leg from a fall, had an obvious source, but
Indians believed that some ills of the body and mind were caused either by failing to follow a prescribed ritual, being tormented
by angry spirits, or through the magic of a conjurer. Daily life involved an effort to maintain harmony in the world. Efforts were
made to keep the spirits happy.
Indian people made sacrifices to the spirits, the sky, the four directions, the stars, the wind, thunder, the mountains, guardian
spirits, and the ancestors. Tobacco was probably the most common item sacrificed. It might be smoked in the four
directions, given as a gift, or tossed into the fire. Bits of food were also tossed into the fire.
Numerous ceremonies were held in native America. Hunters would have ceremonies for success in the hunt. Those
involved in agriculture would have ceremonies to insure a bountiful harvest. Major ceremonies were held for the purpose of
giving thanks. Others involved preparation for war or athletic events. Some were rites of passage into adulthood.
The Hopi believed in spirits known as Katchinas. Men would dress in elaborate outfits to live among the people for six
months, from the winter solstice to the summer solstice, to make sure that the people performed all the ceremonies that would
force the sun to go back north and allow the crops to grow. As a form of social control, the Katchinas would also visit the
children of the town to ask if they had been good during the year. Terrified children would seek protection from their parents,
learning how to behave and how to trust their parents.
Among many of the Plains tribes, the sun dance was an important ritual that took place usually in the summer when all bands
of the tribe gathered together. The Indians never took the bounty of nature for granted. Without proper ceremonies, the
buffalo spirits would withhold themselves from the hunters, plants would
wither and die, and the people would slowly starve.
III. Clash of Cultures
Christopher Columbus, so often inaccurately credited with discovering a new world, actually discovered another old one.
In his first encounters with the people he called, “los Indios,” (people of a darker race), Columbus described them as people
who “never refuse anything which they possess, if it be asked of them; on the contrary, they invite anyone to share it, and
display as much love as they would give their hearts…” After determining their peaceful nature, Columbus said, “And as soon
as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island, which I found, I took by force some of them.” He said that with such a gentle
nature, they could be overtaken by 50 armed men. “Christendom will do good business with these Indians, especially Spain,
whose subjects they must become.”
The Spaniards, after arriving among a group of Indians, whether that be in the islands with Columbus or in the American
Southwest with Coronado, read aloud what has become known as “The Requirement.” Here’s one version:
"I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey
his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war
everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the church and to his majesty. I will
take your women and children and make them slaves… The deaths and injuries you will receive from here on will be your own
fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me."
The English had their own views of Indians. To the English, everything in the world or beyond had its ranking. For
example, each occupation had its ranking (baker before butcher); among the heavenly bodies, the sun was highest; among
flowers, the rose; among animals, the lion; and among colors, white. Naturally the darker skinned Indians were lower on the
scale than the “white” English.
The English wore lots of clothing and looked down on the Indians who did not. The English settlers also had many fairy
tales, such as Hansel and Gretal, where trouble lurked in the forests. Since the Indians lived in the forests, they were feared.
Add to that the Old Testament story of the Children of Israel wandering 40 years in the wilderness and the New Testament
story of Jesus being tempted by Satan, where else, but in the wilderness.
The English believed that the commandment in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the earth was
intended solely for white Christians. If you believe God is on
your side, what will you allow to stop you?
IV. Early Cherokee Beliefs
The Cherokee universe consists of a stone sky vault. The earth is a disk suspended below the vault by ropes at each of the
cardinal points. This disk is floating on a body of water. Outside the sky vault is the upper world (structure, stability, order,
and past times). The sun, moon, and stars are in the upper world. The creatures up there are larger and more powerful than
their counterparts on the earth. They can do things, manifest themselves in ways the ones down here can not. They speak
Cherokee and interact with each other.
The lower world is filled with spirits, monsters, cannibals, and ghosts. It represents chaos and the future. The seasons in
the lower world are the opposite of what we have here. Put your hand into the water of a spring in summer and the water
feels cold. In the winter, the water will seem warmer.
The people are of this world, between the upper and lower worlds. Balance and harmony must be maintained. When
order is lost, bad things happen. Failure to maintain balance causes chaos in this world, which can lead to chaos in the worlds
above and below. This world could come to an end.
Fire and water were closely associated. Fire possessed a divine nature. The Creator had sent it to the earth via lightning.
Any tree that had been struck by lightning had a divine power to it. Rain was the essence of divine light. Sacrifices were
made to the fire and to water. “Going to water” was a daily purification ritual. At death, prayers were made to the water and
the fire. The fire in the town’s council house was kept burning all year long. That is until the new year was celebrated. At
that point, all fires in town were extinguished and re-lit from the
The world around the Cherokee people was filled with spirits of all kinds. Some would be called upon by a conjurer in
times of illness to chase away the spirits that had caused the illness. It was the animals that brought disease into the world in the
first place because hunters were needlessly killing too many of them. A successful hunter offers a prayer and leaves a gift
before taking home his deer. Otherwise the deer spirit follows him home and gives him arthritis. The plants agreed to offer
themselves as cures. For every disease, there is a cure if we
can find it. There are those who still follow these old ways.
V. Cherokees and Christianity
The Cherokee people, as pointed out earlier, believed in an upper world that was a place of perfection. They also believed
in a lower world of chaos below this world. These beliefs parallel Christianity’s Heaven and Hell. Kanati was the first man,
created after animals had been placed on earth. Selu was the first woman to be created. This order of creation parallels that
of the book of Genesis in the Bible.
“Going to water,” was a daily ritual for the Cherokee. This was a time for physical and spiritual renewal. Christian
missionaries encouraged baptism for the remission of sins, something similar to what the Cherokee were already doing.
It is curious that the Cherokees claim to have had two primary prayers to offer during this time of “going to water.” The
first prayer asked that the water wash away any impurities that separate the individual from communing with the Creator. The
second prayer was that all impurities separating the people from each other be washed away. These two prayers are very
similar to what Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible said were the two most important commandments.
By the time of the Trail of Tears, the removal of the Cherokee from their homeland to Indian Territory, many Cherokees
had accepted Christianity. The Bible had been translated into the Cherokee language by that time. Popular Christian hymns
were sung in Cherokee around the evening campfires. Today the majority of Eastern Band Cherokees belong to the
Southern Baptist denomination.
VI. Contemporary Aspects of American Indian Beliefs
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 acknowledges that Indian tribes have the right to
determine the disposition of human remains and cultural items discovered on tribal or federal property. Museums that receive
federal funding were required to inventory their holdings and make that information known to the appropriate tribal
representatives, who then could ask for the return of any cultural item or remains on display or in storage.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 promises that the federal government will abide by the U.S.
Constitution and not interfere with traditional Indian religious practices. Eagle feathers can be used. Some ceremonies, such
as the sun dance, that were once banned are now allowed.
The Native American Church teaches a doctrine similar to Christianity. These doctrines include brotherly love, obedience
to parents, fidelity to spouse, and avoidance of alcohol. One thing that makes it different from other forms of Christianity is its
use of peyote, a cactus native to the Southwest. Members say that the use of peyote allows a person to commune with God
and the spirits and to receive spiritual power and healing. Federal law exempts members of the Native American Church from
what would otherwise be the illegal possession and distribution of a
November 21, 1987
To the Tribal Councils and Traditional Spiritual Leaders of the Indian and Eskimo peoples of the Pacific Northwest:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This is a formal apology on behalf of our churches for their long-standing participation in the destruction of traditional Native American spiritual practices. We call upon our people for recognition of and respect for your traditional ways of life and for protection of your sacred places and ceremonial objects…
The spiritual power of the land and the ancient wisdom of your indigenous religions can be, we believe, great gifts to the Christian churches...
May the God of Abraham and Sarah, and the Spirit who lives in both the cedar and Salmon People be honored and celebrated.” (Presbyterian, Baptist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, etc.)
“Trouble no man about his religion – respect him in his views
and demand that he respect yours.” (Shawnee)