Native American Religions

There were many different Native American tribes. They each had their own beliefs. Some tribes had beliefs in common, but there were also many differences. Many Native American religious beliefs were passed down orally, rather than being written down. This also makes studying Native American religions more difficult.

Ghost dance

Many native religions were centered on nature. Many tribes believed that all living things—humans, plants, animals, and even the rivers and wind—were all connected. They believed that these elements of nature were sacred. Many of their religious beliefs involved the origins of things in the natural world, or even the world itself.

When most people think of religion, they usually think of a god, or a creator of some kind. Native American religions do not always include such a god. Many tribes seem to have developed an idea of a group of gods. The Sioux have a term—wakan tanka—which means something like “greatest sacred ones.”

The Europeans who encountered Native Americans did not understand their beliefs. Since there was no priest or holy book, many Europeans dismissed their rituals and beliefs. They did not see them as a religion. However, there are a number of things that native beliefs have in common with any other religion. For example, native religions included prayer. Sometimes prayer was for protection from one’s enemies or healing from sickness.

Although Native American religion did not include someone who served exactly the same purpose as a priest or minister, they did have religious leaders. In Native American societies, this person was known as a shaman, or medicine man. A shaman, it was believed, could communicate with the gods. They played an important part in rituals and ceremonies. Because of their ability to communicate with the gods, they were especially respected in native society.

Many native tribes believed that it was possible to anger the gods. When this happened, the gods could take revenge by making a person sick or giving their enemies special powers. To keep from angering the gods, Native Americans might use certain charms. These could be things that were worn on the body, or they could be objects believed to have magical powers, such as a prayer stick. They might also use incantations and spells. Some tribes even used human sacrifice as a way of keeping the gods happy! Fortunately, human sacrifice was something that happened rarely!

As with any other religion, native religions had prophets. Prophets often experienced visions or claimed to communicate with the spirits of dead warriors and leaders. Sometimes, prophets introduced new ceremonies and rituals that were meant to give participants special powers. One of the most famous of these was the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance was a ritual that became widespread among the Plains Indians in the late 1800s. It was believed that people who performed the Ghost Dance became invincible!

Things to Remember:

  • Europeans did not see the similarities between their religion and that of Native Americans. That caused them to have little respect for native religions. For Native Americans, however, their religions were very important.
  • There was a wide range of religious rituals and practices among the different tribes.
  • Shaman, or medicine men, had special powers and were very respected among the tribes.