As a student of Native American mythology, I enjoy understanding that which shaped Native American beliefs. While this varies somewhat from tribe to tribe and even from clan to clan, there are certain similarities within each.
A basic belief of nearly every tribe was that man and nature needed to function as one. To separate the two and allow one dominance over the other was considered a sure-fire path to destruction.
Native America as a whole were very spiritual. It believed that everything was connected within the great circle of life. Many of its people held fast to the concept that there was a time when man and animals spoke the same language and could communicate with one another.
It was not until man sought to hold himself above his animal brothers that these two types cultures and their corresponding languages split apart. Even then, Native Americans believed in the basic pattern of life. They ebbed and flowed with the seasons, often moving to one area of the land for winter and another for summer.
They planted by the cycles of nature to make certain that crops could be harvested in some form all year around. They also followed the patterns of the game they used to clothe and feed their families.
In the beginning, Native Americans did not take killing lightly. They saw the hunting of animals as a necessity but they also honored those creatures for giving up their lives so that they might survive.
For that reason, they always sought “a clean kill”; one that assured the animals in question did not suffer needlessly. No animal was killed merely for pleasure or sport.
Much like us today, Native Americans looked at life as a journey of discovery. They were often anxious to move beyond their current existence in order to explore where they were meant to go.
Many tribes practiced a form of “vision quest” or right of passage between childhood and adulthood. Through it, young braves could gain a sense of their past; a better understand of their present and a vision of their future.
Most tribes held tight to a belief in a higher power or supreme being. Such a deity was often referred to as “The Great Spirit” by many or “Earth Mother.” Either way, the concept was basically the same. Native Americans believed there was something beyond them — a creator — in charge of their fate.
Some; however, believed in multiple gods that had power over the different aspects of human life. Some thought these spirits would transform themselves into animals in order to visit earth and watch over their children.
The Navajo believed in deities of this type. They included the Changing Woman, sometimes referred to as the Spider Woman, who was credited with weaving the tapestry of life itself. (Note: See my story entitled “Navajo Myth of the Changing Woman” for more information.) She was believed to be the counterbalance to the Sun God.
The Blackfeet people believed in a benevolent spirit known as Apistotookii – the Creator. They also believed in a counterbalance to him in Napi – the Trickster.
Many Hopis believed in Tawa, the Sun God and Creator. Other clans of the Hopi held that Spider Woman (Note: see my story entitled “The Native American Myth of the Spider Woman” for more information.) was responsible for the creation of the world and its people.
As with deity belief, the concept of the afterlife varied greatly among the various cultures. For example, the Inuit believed that heaven dwelt above ground; even above the skies that man can see. Through its bottom layer filtered the rays of the sun and the rain and snow. But there, in heaven, the light was always perfect and the weather was always calm and serene.
The Chiricahua believed the dead were taken into the ground through trap doors. These were hidden in the tall grass and lush forestry; unseen by the naked eye.
The Cherokee believed there were seven levels of heaven with the supreme being living in the first level. Much like Christians they believed that “good” people went to heaven – a place of light and goodness – while “bad” people went to a place of darkness and torture.
The Cheyenne believed that at the advent of the world, death did not exist. It wasn’t until the earth became too filled with human beings that the people sought a solution to the lack of space and resources. Coyote, a wise counsel to the Cheyenne people, is supposedly the one who invented the entire concept of death itself.
Ceremony, dance and ritual were very much a part of all Native American religion. Many used these as a way to celebrate the gifts of the gods while others used them to appease angry gods. All prayed, in their own way, to their deities in hopes of garnering favor.
Because animals were always an important part of Native American beliefs, they were often incorporated into their religions. Bears, beavers, coyotes and birds were among the most popular animal spirits.
Stay tuned for my next article on Native American Mythology to see how animals were intertwined in Native American everyday life.