Within the study of world religions it has been a bit rare to find scholarly or more serious consideration of the American Indian view of God; however in this day and age of spiritual turmoil, it may serve a valuable purpose to acknowledge the indigenous people’s view of God. Sadly in the past, and to some extent within the present, many scholars who viewed “primitive” religions from the outside – in, could not investigate the roots or sources of such religions without bias or prejudice stemming from the scholar’s own set of religious or non-religious parameters.
Suspension of such deeply embedded bias or prejudice stemming from one’s own set of religious or non-religious experience is not easily accomplished. Most people tend to rely on reference points or recognizable foundation stones as aids in formulating their suppositions and in assessing their judgments with regard to the beliefs and philosophy inherent within any foreign religion, regardless of whether or not such a religion or set of religious beliefs are considered primitive.
Without investigating the roots or sources of any religion, or fundamental belief system in the absence of bias or prejudice stemming from one’s own set of religious or non-religious parameters it is hard to claim a clear understanding of the subject of study. The evidence for this fills the pages of many texts, and a prime example is the clash of cultures at the time of European exploration and colonization of the New World.
Despite attempts at friendship and understanding between the two diverse cultures, the often repeated and eventual outcome, was usually a surface level assessment and ultimate judgment of the primitive and “pagan” beliefs and savage rituals. Accompanying the deeply ingrained prejudice, was the ultimate rejection of any value inherent within the Native American religious tradition or overall culture. Sometimes the best of intentions go sour, as bigotry and prejudice pervade human history.
The general experience of American Indians was similar in some ways to the Native Americans of the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, although the various Protestant denominations experienced and observed the Indians a bit differently than the Catholics. Nevertheless, despite the rejection and despite the attempts of the dominant European culture to wipe out the native religions, many persist to this day. However, if one holds on to a simple American Indian admonition, it is easier to understand the indigenous religions:
“Never judge a person without walking a mile in his moccasins.”
In general, many American Indian cultures observed a belief in a Creator or “Great Spirit” although such understanding could vary from one native nation or tribe to the next. Of course, not all American Indian peoples held in the same religious, or spiritual perceptions, nor did they practice the same religious rituals. Another difficulty in comprehending American Indian religion is that there is no single, or definitive, American Indian philosophy, religion, or perception regarding a primary God or Supreme Being. Currently, there are around 800 or more unique tribal nations that remain of the original inhabitants, or “First Nations” of North America.
With so many diverse tribes, it must be noted that different cultures developed different traditions that were passed down through the generations. Different languages were used in transmitting the various creation stories, the ethical or moral teachings embedded in religious teachings, and the very religious rituals woven into the variety of indigenous traditions. The ways of life and customs developed in a specific way to each unique tribe, and while some beliefs and rituals were retained only within certain geographic regions, some spread to other Indian communities or tribes, and were shared and new practices were adapted. Many of the ancient ways or traditions became altered or transformed over time as a necessity of survival in a changing world.
Another irony inherent in the study of American Indian religions is that some tribes have no word for “religion” in their vocabulary. It does not translate well because to many of the native people, their comprehension of religious life was simply their way of life. For some native peoples like the Dine,’ known now as the Navajo, there is no distinction between religion and life. In days long past, and for many today, the Navajo their religious beliefs have been entwined within their lives. For the encroaching European religious culture, religion was not as pervasively integrated into the everyday life of all of the people .
Getting a handle on this difference between the European religious culture, and the religion woven within the daily life of the American Indian is not easy, since many who try to grasp the significance descend from that European culture. However, it is not impossible because some Native Americans have tried to bridge that gap and share a bit of their culture and their sacred beliefs. One American Indian who is remembered for being such a bridge in his time was a Santee Sioux Indian named Ohiye S’a who was born in 1858 into the Sioux or Dakota nation.
Ohiye S’a, whose English name is Charles Eastman, eventually became the first American Indian certified as a European-style doctor after graduating from Boston University in 1889. He also was one of the very first American Indians who wrote American history from the perspective of a native son. Unfortunately, for him to share the sacred traditions was not easy, since he found resistance from his own people who did not want to share it with their white oppressors. However, from his writings much can be learned about the Sioux culture and his people’s regard for a “Creator” or “Great Spirit.” He explained: “Our religion is an attitude of mind, not a dogma… All of us are created children of God, and all stand erect, conscious of our divinity. Our faith cannot be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any who are unwilling to receive it…”
As Ohiye S’a grew up, his witness to the turmoil and struggle between his people and the U.S. Government, as well as those who represented the white race, definitely shaped his perspective, and although he became a Christian, he essentially retained much of the wisdom he inherited from his people and he eventually wrote of it. In 1911, he published one of his many books that is entitled, The Soul of an Indian: an Interpretation. In this book, he explained more deeply an account of the Sioux people’s dilemma with respect to their religious beliefs, or perception of God:
There was undoubtedly much in primitive Christianity to appeal to the Indians, and Jesus’ hard sayings to the rich were entirely comprehensible to us… Strange as it may seem, it is true in our secret soul we despised the good men who came to convert and enlighten us! To our mind, the professionalism of the pulpit, the paid exhorter, the moneyed church, was an unspiritual and unedifying thing…
Long before I ever heard of Christ or saw a white man, I had learned the essence of morality.
With the help of dear Nature herself, my grandmother taught me things simple but of mighty import.
I knew God. I perceived what goodness is. I saw and loved what is truly beautiful. Civilization has not taught me anything better!
As a child, I understood how to give. I have forgotten that grace since I became civilized. I lived the natural life, whereas I now live the artificial…
Ohiye S’a went on to tread within the white man’s world, ultimately receiving his medical degree from Boston University. Indeed, he straddled both worlds, and in dealing with the differences between his people and those who represented the white race, non-Indians could spend some time in his moccasins, or others who bothered to become a bridge. In this way, serious students can gain a more insightful understanding of a Native perspective religion and a more valuable perception of an indigenous view of God.