Native American Beliefs

How spiritual beliefs of Native Americans are similar to those of mainstream religions.

50 The Review of Religions – December 2006 DIVINITY AND TRINITY – A SCRIPTURAL COMPARISON This research has reinforced the truth of the Holy Qur’an, for statements made over 1400 years ago in clear words are now finding favour with Christian scholars. The emphatic state- ments of the post-Nicean Church, that so many thousands have been killed for questioning, are increasingly being shown to be incorrect by the Biblical experts and scholars themselves. This reflects an increasing awareness of the fact that the 1400 year old Qur’anic statements appear to tell us more about the real meaning of the Biblical Jesus(as). REFERENCES i Sheehan, Thomas, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God became Christianity, Random House, USA, 1986 ii Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus, The Penguin Group, England, 1993, p.244-245 iii Spong, John Shelby, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperColins Publishers limited, New York, 1999, p.112 iv Hicks, John, Myth of God Incarnate, SCM Press Limited, London, 1993, p.ix v Ibid., p.145 vi Tabor, Dr James, The Jesus Dynasty, HarperColins Publishers limited, London, 2006 p.287 51The Review of Religions – December 2006 Native Americans prefer to be known as First Nations or aboriginal rather than as Indians. These people were thought to have migrated over the iced Baring Straits to the Americas over 10,000 years ago, and are believed to be genetically linked to the Mongols of Indo- China. More recent evidence suggests the same migratory origins, but that the migration took place earlier (suggestions are around 12,500 years ago) and by boat to the Pacific coastline of North and South America rather than via the Baring Straits. In recent times, Native Americans have become integrated into Canadian and US mainstream society (more so in Canada than in the USA) although they still have their own reservations (tracts of land that originally belonged to their tribes). Three hundred years ago, the situation was different, with hundreds of diverse tribes across the continent who had their own regions, customs, traditions and history, and variations of religious belief and practice. Many of the tribal names still survive to this day such as Cherokee, Sioux, Blackfoot, Ottawa, Apache and Iriquois. There was no single nation of Native Americans, but rather a collection of tribes that co-existed. This article examines their spiritual beliefs on subjects such as Creation, the Creator and worship. They also had a strong sense of their co- existence with the nature around them and the preservation of the ecosystem in which they participated. Creation and Earth The natives of Canada respected nature and the Earth, which they understood to be creations of the Great Spirit, and as a result, they always tried to live in harmony with nature. The Pueblo Zuni tribe of the south- west North American desert had a tradition of how their deity Awonawilona created the heavens and the earth and then the first man, Poshaiyangkyo. The two lesser Native American Beliefs By Fazal Ahmad – London, UK 52 The Review of Religions – December 2006 NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS forms of nature that sprang up were the Earth Mother known as Awitelin Tsta, and the Sky Father, known as Apoyan Tachi. (See Gordon, p.66) Their neighbours, the Hopi (name meaning Peace) tribe had a tradition about four different ages of creation, each destroyed and superceded by a new age just as we see in other traditions such as Hinduism. Creation was initiated by Taiowa. The Earth Mother he created gave birth to the races of man. In other words, they believed in a Creator that had made the earth and all of their provisions for them, and then made man to settle on the earth. Tribes as far north as the Inuit of Alaska, and those that travelled further south, all had a deep respect for nature and their position in the ecosystem. They believed that their creator was Igaluk, the moon god, while Sedna, the one-eyed sea goddess controlled population by drowning men. It was only the Inuit Shaman (see later) that could mollify Sedna and Map of First Nations tribes across North America 53The Review of Religions – December 2006 NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS prevent storms from ravaging their coastline. The Inuit are very careful not to disturb the balance of nature around them. The Cheyenne tribe based in North-West America held nature in respect as we see from the words of one of their songs: The earth produces herbs. The herbs cause us to live. They cause long life. They cause us to be happy. (Cheyenne song) Similarly, there is an Okanagan Creation tradition: Thus all living beings came from the earth. When we look around, we see part of our (Earth) Mother everywhere. (Okanagan Creation) And the Sioux of central North America respected their wildlife as illustrated by the following prayer: Behold this Buffalo, O Grandfather, which you have given us. He is the chief of all four-leggeds upon our Sacred Mother. From him the people live and with him they walk the sacred path. (Sioux prayer) So you start to get a sense that the tribes understood their position within the ecosystem, and recognised that for the sake of their long-term survival, they needed to live in harmony with the animals, flora and fauna around them. Modern green politics has a lot to learn from them. The Micmac people of Nova Scotia, north-east Canada believe that Gluscap created man and the provisions while his brother Malsum fought him, and set up plants, animals and conditions to make man’s life hazardous and difficult. This Micmac concept echoes beliefs about good and evil, with Malsum playing a role similar to that of Satan in the Abrahamic faiths. Similarly, the Navaho describe a hero of light called Nayenezgani (slayer of alien gods) and his counterpart, the evil Tobadzistsini. (Gordon, p.279-280, 485) Creek and related tribes of the south- east North America have a myth about their Creator Esaugetuh Emissee (Jordan, p.45) who breathes life into the primordial waters creating land. Then from the mud clay, he fashions the first humans. So there is a diversity of beliefs 54 The Review of Religions – December 2006 NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS about creation, good and evil. It is hard to show a single theme out of the traditions about creation, but certainly, their views show a historical understanding of creation, and of competing forces of good and evil. Great Spirit The First Nations tribes were largely hunters, and had little contact with each other. However, they did seem to share a common culture. They believed in the Great Spirit in the sky, the creator of the world. Although the creator was called Wakan Tanka by the Sioux, Manitou by the Algokin, and many other names, but His characteristics as the creator were common. The following Blackfoot tribal prayer captures their concept of Mother Earth and the Father Spirit: Mother Earth, have pity on us and give us food to eat! Father, the Sun, bless all our children and may our paths be straight! (Blackfoot prayer) There are also beliefs about a dangerous underworld far away. Some tribes describe the under- world as being across a river or ocean, again to signify that it is far away. Its evil connotations seem similar to our concept of Hell. As with many ancient cultures without written traditions, it is easy to mistake their views as being based upon polytheism. In most native American beliefs, there is a single main creator Spirit, and then hierarchies amongst the created, some of whom seem to take on superhuman or supernatural traits. Shamanism The concept of Shamans or Witch Doctors was quite wide-spread among the North American tribes. The term originates from Siberia and Mongolia from where many of the tribes are thought to have emigrated tens of thousands of years ago, and literally means ‘he who knows’. The Shamans (sometimes referred to as witch doctors) were thought to have a special link to the spirit world, and as these people held their ancestors in high regard, such a link carried significant social status with it. There are strange tales of Shaman being able to control the forces of nature and cure people, but actually their function was spiritual. 55The Review of Religions – December 2006 NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS Often, the initiation rites for a Shaman were quite severe and brutal in order to determine whether the Shaman was of the right status, and to give him experiences to strengthen his ties with the spirit world. Some examples that we have include the Apache shaman candidates who would jump off a cliff, and those that survived were thought to have gained spiritual knowledge through their near-death expe-riences. Again, in the Sioux sundance, braves would have heavy needles fed through their chest and tied to buffalo skins. They would then dance, and the ritual would heighten their spiritual senses. Whilst these seem crude, actually we are aware of people going through near-death experiences who have sensed their spirit leaving their body, or even had experiences where they have seen themselves on the operating table whilst sensing that their spirit was about to leave the body. The First Nations tribes would have been aware of such experiences, and this had led over centuries to the concept of the Shaman. Totem Poles The tribes of the West coast often built Totem Poles. The term Totem comes from their term referring to their ancestors, so for example the Cree called their kin ototema, while the Ojibwa referred to them as ototeman. The Totem poles provided a link from the tribe to their ancestors, and animals that were associated to their tribes, and these collectively reminded them of their heritage, but also provided them protection according to their beliefs. On the poles, they would carve people and animals to symbolise their beliefs, traditions and values, stories and adventures, accomplishments and significant members. They would raise a totem in honour of a deceased but high profile clan Totem Poles in Vancouver 56 The Review of Religions – December 2006 NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS member of the tribe, or to commemorate a significant event. Some African tribes, also put up a smaller statue to commemorate their ancestors. So this appears to be a global phenomenon. Moral Code The First Nations seem to have a strong sense of community, family, ancestors and tradition. Many of the tribes use animal forms to convey messages about good and bad qualities. For example, the Coyote, a wild dog of North America (smilar to the Fox) is shown to be selfish, greedy, sly and a trickster. The Owl on the other hand, represented wisdom and divination. In this way, tribes can convey messages about desirable and undesirable moral qualities. The Huron tribe claim that they had a prophet called Deganawidah in the 16th century who united the Five Iroquois Nations (Seneca, Mohawk, Oneidas, Onondagas and Cayugas) located in modern New York state, and then taught a moral code to the tribes. (Gordon p.327). Deganawidah, whose name means ‘two river currents that flow together’ is claimed by some to have been born to a virgin mother, although this has probably been influenced by the Christianity of the settlers who interviewed the natives to extract this story. It is likely that the mention of virgin birth was meant to convey that he was considered their prophet of a similar stature to Jesus(as). Whatever his origins, he is known to have advocated peace among the hostile tribes, and encouraged them to come together into the confederation. He is also claimed to have eradicated past practices such as cannibalism. He was assisted in his mission by his disciple Hiawatha who originated from the Mohawk tribes. Canadian First Nations face masks 57The Review of Religions – December 2006 NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS There are also oral traditions passed down that capture some of the moral teachings and understanding of family responsibilities amongst some of the tribes as shown by the following two traditions: Do not abuse your wife. Women are sacred. If you make your wife suffer, you will die in a short time. (Winnebago Father Precepts) My dear sisters the women, you have had a hard life to live in this world, yet without you this world would not be what it is. Wakan Tanka intends that you should bear much sorrow – comfort others in time of sorrow. By your hands the family moves. (Sioux tradition) So although there is no single written tradition and common moral code, there were several facets that were common such as respect for elders and family roles, and this would have gone hand in hand with their respect for the earth and nature. Life after Death Many tribes believed that there is an evil underworld, although the link between bad behaviour and Hell is not so obvious. Indeed, many tribes have beliefs related to reincarnation. Perhaps their fascination for ancestors is confused by analysts as a belief in reincarnation, and maybe what they are referring to is actually a rebirth in the next life, in a different world, and not a rebirth in this world. According to the Sioux, after death, those members of the tribe that live good lives will be able to make their way to a better place, while those that are sinful will not be able to due to the weight of their sins. (Jordan, p.54) There is a story of the Chinook tribe in which a Blue Jay takes his dead wife to be reborn in the Spirit People’s village (Jordan p.228). So here, clearly the rebirth is in a different place, among the Spirit People. The Chinook have another story of the Thunderers adventures in the Land of the Spirit People to illustrate that the Spirit Land is not as frightening as people may think. Concepts of the soul and spirit are more confused. There are very few clear concepts, and even in journeys to the underworld or Spirit Lands, there is no mention of a soul leaving its physical body. However, there 58 The Review of Religions – December 2006 NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS are tales such as the Sacred Bundle myth of the Pawnee tribe where a soul moves between creatures. According to the myth, a hunter marries a cow which has turned into a woman. She then leaves, and years later he identifies her as a different buffalo. Again, it is not clear what concept this myth is trying to illustrate beyond the fact that animals also have spirits, although it is not dissimilar to concepts of reincarnation from Asia. Prophecies of the Latter Days It is easy to assume that these tribes have simple beliefs, not as intricate as our own. Yet the Hopi tribe have a very elaborate mythology about the different ages of man. They describe four ages of man, the first three destroyed by floods and other calamities such as fire. The Hopi survived the Great Flood and were given Stone Tablets (called Toponi) by the Great Spirit. They made a Covenant with the Spirit never to turn away from him. The fourth and current age is expected to culminate in a war when the old countries, the first to receive the light of knowledge (perhaps pointers to the Middle East) will descend into warfare and a ‘Gourd of Ashes’ will fall to boil the ocean and burn the lands.(Gordon p.339). Thank-fully, their story continues beyond this great war to a new safer and more enlightened dawn. In this account of the Hopi, two things stand out. First, the reference to the Great Flood chimes with so many other traditions across the world about the flood. Secondly, the description of the great war clearly alludes to some form of atomic warfare. 59The Review of Religions – December 2006 Responsible Debt Despite the ease with which we can obtain debt and assume that it will be written-off if we do not repay, we must not forget our moral obligations as responsible citizens. 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