Native American Index
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We often refer to Native American religion or spirituality in the singular, but there is a fundamental diversity concerning Native American religious traditions. In the United States, there are more than five hundred recognized different tribes, speaking more than two hundred different indigenous languages, party to nearly four hundred different treaties, and courted by missionaries of each branch of Christianity. With traditional ways of life lived on a variety of landscapes, riverscapes, and seascapes, stereotypical images of buffalo-chasing nomads of the Plains cannot suffice to represent the people of Acoma, still raising corn and still occupying their mesa-top pueblo in what only relatively recently has come to be called New Mexico, for more than a thousand years; or the Tlingit people of what is now Southeast Alaska whose world was transformed by Raven, and whose lives revolve around the sea and the salmon.
Perhaps it is ironic that it is their shared history of dispossession, colonization, and Christian missions that is most obviously common among different Native peoples. If “Indian” was a misnomer owing to European explorers’ geographical wishful thinking, so too in a sense is “Native American,”a term that elides the differences among peoples of “North America” into an identity apparently shared by none at the time the continents they shared were named for a European explorer. But the labels deployed by explorers and colonizers became an organizing tool for the resistance of the colonized. As distinctive Native people came to see their stock rise and fall together under “Indian Policy,” they resourcefully added that Native or Indian identity, including many of its symbolic and religious emblems, to their own tribal identities. A number of prophets arose with compelling visions through which the sacred called peoples practicing different religions and speaking different languages into new identities at once religious and civil. Prophetic new religious movements, adoption and adaptation of Christian affiliation, and revitalized commitments to tribal specific ceremonial complexes and belief systems alike marked religious responses to colonialism and Christian missions. And religion was at the heart of negotiating these changes. “More than colonialism pushed,” Joel Martin has memorably written, “the sacred pulled Native people into new religious worlds.”(Martin)
Despite centuries of hostile and assimilative policies often designed to dismantle the structures of indigenous communities, language, and belief systems, the late twentieth century marked a period of remarkable revitalization and renewal of Native traditions. Built on centuries of resistance as well as strategic accommodations, Native communities from the 1960s on have vigorously pressed their claims to religious self-determination.
In all their diversity, people from different Native nations hasten to point out that their respective languages include no word for “religion”, and maintain an emphatic distinction between ways of life in which economy, politics, medicine, art, agriculture, etc., are ideally integrated into a spiritually-informed whole. As Native communities try to continue their traditions in the context of a modern American society that conceives of these as discrete segments of human thought and activity, it has not been easy for Native communities to accomplish this kind of integration. Nor has it been easy to to persuade others of, for example, the spiritual importance of what could be construed as an economic activity, such as fishing or whaling.
Traversing the diversity of Native North American peoples, too, is the primacy of oral tradition. Although a range of writing systems obtained existed prior to contact with Europeans, and although a variety of writing systems emerged from the crucible of that contact, notably the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoyah and, later, the phonetic transcription of indigenous languages by linguists, Native communities have maintained living traditions with remarkable care through orality. At first glance, from the point of view of a profoundly literate tradition, this might seem little to brag about, but the structure of orality enables a kind of fluidity of continuity and change that has clearly enabled Native traditions to sustain, and even enlarge, themselves in spite of European American efforts to eradicate their languages, cultures, and traditions. In this colonizing context, because oral traditions can function to ensure that knowledge is shared with those deemed worthy of it, orality has proved to be a particular resource to Native elders and their communities, especially with regard to maintaining proper protocols around sacred knowledge.
So a commitment to orality can be said to have underwritten artful survival amid the pressures of colonization. It has also rendered Native traditions particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Although Native communities continue to privilege the kinds of knowledge kept in lineages of oral tradition, courts have only haltingly recognized the evidentiary value of oral traditions. Because the communal knowledge of oral traditions is not well served by the protections of intellectual property in western law, corporations and their shareholders have profited from indigenous knowledge, especially ethnobotanical and pharmacological knowledge with few encumbrances or legal contracts.
Orality has also rendered Native traditions vulnerable to erosion. Today, in a trend that linguists point out is global, Native American languages in particular are to an alarming degree endangered languages. In danger of being lost are entire ways of perceiving the world, from which we can learn to live more sustainable, balanced, lives in an ecocidal age.
In this latter respect of being not only economically land-based but culturally land-oriented, Native religious traditions also demonstrate a consistency across their fundamental diversity. In God is Red,Vine Deloria, Jr. famously argued that Native religious traditions are oriented fundamentally in space, and thus difficult to understand in religious terms belonging properly tothe time-oriented traditions of Christianity and Judaism. Such a worldview is ensconced in the idioms, if not structures, of many spoken Native languages, but living well on particular landscapes has not come naturally to Native peoples, as romanticized images of noble savages born to move silently through the woods would suggest. For Native peoples, living in balance with particular landscapes has been the fruit of hard work as well as a product of worldview, a matter of ethical living in worlds where non human life has moral standing and disciplined attention to ritual protocol. Still, even though certain places on landscapes have been sacred in the customary sense of being wholly distinct from the profane and its activity, many places sacred to Native peoples have been sources of material as well as spiritual sustenance. As with sacred places, so too with many sacred practices of living on landscapes. In the reckoning of Native peoples, pursuits like harvesting wild rice, spearing fish or hunting certain animals can be at once religious and economic in ways that have been difficult for Western courts to acknowledge. Places and practices have often had both sacred and instrumental value. Thus, certain cultural freedoms are to be seen in the same manner as religious freedoms. And thus, it has not been easy for Native peoples who have no word for “religion” to find comparable protections for religious freedom, and it is to that troubled history we now turn.