Various religions of the indigenous people of the North American continent still exist, though many have been marred by incorporation and assimilation into Anglo-European traditions. Even in those cases and especially where they remain culturally distinct, aboriginal religions resemble many other tribal and nature-oriented religions in their animist perception of reality, their emphasis on a balance to existence, and the strong familial ties that hold their communities together.
In The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life members of the Navajo nation describe aboriginal traditions in a holistic, phenomenological reading. Throughout the general similarities among the various tribes is the notion that there exist unseen powers. Native Americans have developed many different ways of worshipping these powers and incorporating them into their lives. For example, the Hopi act out sacred connections between themselves and the unseen powers by performing Kachina dances which involve masks, costumes, and various body movements (8-9). The unseen powers can be thought of as an animist concept, where life is animated and made sacred by the unseen. The Sioux call this wakan, and this mysterious power can be found in almost anything that appears to act toward humans, from thunderstorms to stones to plants and animals.
Animist concepts such as these are found in most indigenous religions worldwide, and are the result of the natural tendency of humans to anthropomorphize their world. It is a type of functional truth, “truth” being a nexus of relationships that one way or another is shown or evidenced to exist. While every tribe and every culture has its own set of customs and assumptions about the world, they are all functional in that, regardless of whether there is any empirical evidence for them, they work as a bond for the people and a reason for that tribe or culture to live in balance with its environment. This concept cannot be understated, for it can be argued that this type of truth claim can be more useful to a given society than an empirical claim. Western empiricism informed Western culture that the world, with its animals, plants, minerals, etc. was a collection of resources meant for exploitation. Animals were automatons without any level of consciousness, and everything else was just matter waiting to be converted into something useful. This was the cultural norm and was backed up by truth claims supported by science. In fact it has taken science hundreds of years to come to the conclusions that most tribal societies already hold sans science – that the earth is a web of interdependence, self-regulating and seeking balance. For tribal societies, this knowledge probably developed through the ages with special help from enlightened people who could connect stories to personal and collective experiences and attribute these experiences to the sacred.
In most tribes certain individuals make it their vocation to understand and interact with the great mysteries and unseen, animating forces. They are meant to speak for the tribe to the forces and make journeys to the liminal planes of the mind and body, to gain knowledge that is often sacred and therefore secret. Pragmatically, these people, called shamans by many, help order the world for the rest of the tribe. They use their knowledge to create stories and to interpret events that pertain to the past, present, and future of the tribe.
Often shamans gain their knowledge through dreams, visions, and hallucinations brought about by the use of psychoactive compounds. They see into the depths of existence, the mind, across great distances, and into the minds of animals and plants. In this way they communicate with other creatures and make truth claims about the order and nature of existence.
One of the most important aspects of the shaman’s life is that s/he is a healer. Considering the previously mentioned concept of functional truth, the shaman may be aware, as many tribal societies are, of herbs or methods that actually do heal the body. On the other hand, many ailments that affect human beings are psychosomatic, in which case they are brought on by a certain psychological complex and can be reversed by a psychological complex. The shaman can wisely ascertain what is at the root of the person’s problem and prescribe a solution. They also have chance on their side, for the majority of human illnesses resolve without any treatment. Therefore any treatment will “cure” the disease; the patient feels better, and the shaman’s position and power within the tribe are reinforced. This is not to say that the shaman is in any way willfully deceptive. Rather, s/he has an important role to fill in the tribe, and medicine is just a part of that role.
A central duty of the shaman is to promote and maintain balance both within the tribe and with the tribe’s various and complicated relationships with the natural world. They “learned through first-hand experience the laws of natural, ecological relationships and about the mysteries at the heart of knowledge” (96). The shaman communicates with animal, plant, and elemental spirits in order to learn these laws. Evidently, these people are more intuitive and self-reflexive than ordinary members of the tribe, which is how they gain their “power” and garner respect. Since balance is such an important concept to Native Americans, disease and misfortune are very often attributed to imbalances or wrongful acts that create imbalances. The shaman employs his/her methods of knowledge, the functional truths, to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease and misfortune.
Balance is then central to the cosmology and everyday lives of Native Americans. Another concept that is central to the tribe is the family. In fact, since tribes are typically groups of relatives, the familial bonds are probably the most important part of tribal life. Beginning at birth, a child is immersed in traditional rituals and blessings meant to ensure long life and cement family bonds. The Zuni of northwest New Mexico take a newborn out to meet the rising sun eight days after birth. The relatives put corn meal in the infants hand and sprinkle the corn meal as an offering to the sun. Then the paternal grandmother says a prayer of blessing for the child.
Conversely, those who have lived long lives and are old are respected, as age implies wisdom. They are given special privileges to give advice to the younger members and are often key figures in rituals. There are ceremonies for puberty in for both girls and boys, marriage ceremonies, sacred days and events, and all these are meant to maintain familial bonds and to promote balance within and without the tribe.
The idea of maintaining balance and familial bonds is obvious in its utility, and the ritualization of these concepts comes from several factors. One previously mentioned reason is the animist nature of human thought. As all cosmological and everyday occurrences involving people are perceived as purposeful and determinate, communication must be established between the individual and the tribe and between the tribe and the sacred. The ritual is commonly explained as having come from the instruction of an animal or deity and is therefore not up for debate. This is the phenomenological explanation. Another way to explain ritual, borrowed from anthropology, is a mix of the animist perception and functionality. In the most basic sense, rituals work to bond the tribe together and prevent latent violence and violent tendencies from translating into action. There is a tension even among the tribe itself concerning food, water, hierarchy, and sexual resources. Rituals may diffuse the tension through repetitive acts. When it comes to sexual resources, it is interesting to point out how in most tribes, and in Western society, there is often a social structure of separation between the sexes. It is a duality of the fraternity and the sorority.
The fraternity, in hunter-gatherer societies like Native Americans, is exclusively male. This is not about an inferiority of women or even about some perceived superiority of male hunters. It has more to do with preventing sexual tension during a hunt, tension that may render the hunt useless. So the males bond to each other in the absence of females for the purpose of protecting the cohesion necessary for a complicated and coordinated hunt. The females have a similar structure, though not arising from the need to stifle competition, but more for the purpose of promoting collective, creative construction.
These two structures are just part of the many complicated relationships that are necessary for the maintenance of a tribe. They are the natural responses of people living off the land, and join with the nexus of rituals as a means for keeping the tribe happy and in balance with the rest of their world. The tribe can continue to exist as its members are born, grow, pass on their knowledge to new members, and die. These responses promote a cyclical cosmology that is common among Native Americans and other indigenous peoples.