Just as there is no single American Indian “language” and “culture,” so there is no single American Indian “religion.” There once existed a diversity of Native peoples whose 2 million descendants today represent the heirs of many languages, cultures, and religious practices that still define Indian country. This world of experience included sacred ritual practices that Native peoples regarded as an essential part of secular, everyday life. Such practices were part and parcel of what it meant to be human within the varied cultures that differed from one another.
Time has altered the cultural context that sustained traditions of the past, and most contemporary Indians live very much like non-Indians. However, Native peoples still refer to a “traditional religion,” even though there was no religion, per se, that was common to all groups (nor did the word “religion” exist within the hundreds of Indian languages that were once spoken). As a field of study, Indian religion is a broad topic with a vast literature of mixed quality. It is also a contentious topic that often pits Indians against non-Indians who involve themselves in some way with the subject.
This overview focuses on religious practices that have prehistoric roots and that have continued, with modification, up to the present. It will also cite people who have been influential in the field, controversies that have arisen, and works that have been significant. The subject has drawn inquiry since anthropology's birth and will no doubt continue to do so regardless of the heated debates that periodically emerge.
Community, Spatiality, and Nature
Some have argued that individualism was a leitmotif of American Indian religious practice. This position was based on the continent-wide practices of fasting and vision questing, wherein one sought supernatural power. These practices assured participants that their hunting and war exploits would be successful. Achieving these goals meant that prestige and an elevated social standing would accrue to one who exhibited such questionably devout behavior that was so laden with self-interest.
Although persuasive, this argument has been challenged by those who say that all behaviors were community-based. That is, power was sought in order to be the best possible member of a village or camp. After all, a person's existence depended upon the network of kith and kin that composed the social universe. Thus, one sought to make as profound a contribution as possible to the community's continued survival.
A middle position to these contrasting approaches was suggested in the mid 20th century by the “culture and personality” school of anthropology. It detected patterns of behavior that tended to vary from one group to the next, with each group revealing a prominent trait within these patterns. Harold Driver's The Americas on the Eve of Discovery illustrates this approach. In the tradition of Ruth Benedict (a prominent theorist), his book describes the “self-effacing Zuni,”“the self-assertive Nootka,” and “proud Pigeon.”
Native life is also concerned with spatiality. This involves conducting rituals and orienting village configurations in a manner that makes most accessible the sacred power suffusing all creation. The camp ...