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History

Native American religion and values

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Native Americans in the 19th century were very religious people - but their spiritual beliefs were quite different from those of the new settlers on the Great Plains.

Native American religion - the spirits

Although early European settlers in America decided that Native Americans had no religion, the opposite was true. In fact Native Americans were very religious.

Whenever the hunter came across a beautiful scene ... he paused for a moment in worship.

Native American belief

Although many Native Americans believed in a great spirit - called Wakan Tanka - their religion was animistic [Animistic: Describes anyone of anything associated with animism - a belief that there are living souls in trees, stones, stars, etc. ]. It was based on the desire to appease 'the spirits', which they did in a variety of ways.

  • When a young man came of age, he would take part in a ceremony which involved fasting, self-harm, going into a trance and seeing an animal that was a spirit friend.
  • One of these ceremonies - the Sun Dance - featured a structure with a central pole signifying the sun, from which the young men hung themselves by their nipples.
  • Native Americans believed that spirits caused the harsh weather of the Plains, as well as illness. They thought that 'medicine men' could speak to these spirits, and ask for their help.
  • They performed the Mandan Buffalo Dance, which they thought would bring buffalo to them.
Cree Indians performing a Sun dance

1886 engraving showing Cree Indians performing a Sun (or Thirst) Dance

Native Americans were true lovers of nature. They believed that humankind ought to live in a way to fit in with nature. They especially loved the land, which they called their 'mother'. As the Sioux chief, Luther Standing Bear, said:

Man's heart away from Nature becomes hard.

Luther Standing Bear

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