Native American religion: a persistent way of life

August 30, 2010

For two weeks in late September I will be bicycling through America’s desert plateau country—Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon, through Monument Valley, along the rim of Canyon de Chelly, and back to Albuquerque—1,000 miles through some of our country’s most amazing terrain.

One of the most interesting aspects of this journey is that it travels through long-established, highly resistant, and internally coherent Native American communities. Evidence points to continuous occupation of the Hopi pueblo of Oraibi since 1100 B.C.E. (a century before King David occupied Jerusalem), and the Zuni pueblo may be even older. Even leisurely journeys through this country offer only limited opportunities to learn first hand about the religious culture that helps to sustain these enduring communities. Since I will be doing a rigorous tour sponsored by PacTour with long days in the saddle and a tight schedule, it will be even more difficult to learn first hand. The trip does encourage me to renew my reading about Native American religion—a subject interesting in its own right and useful because it helps me understand my own Christian faith a little better.

Ake Hultkrantz (1920-2006), a Swedish scholar and “renowned expert on Native North American Religions,” has provided an overview of this complex subject. Because I read this slender book (144 pages) a long time ago, it has been necessary to read it a second time, adding a new set of underlinings to those I made in red ink twenty years ago.

In his introduction Hultkrantz offers several generalizations that help us understand dynamic factors in all religions, the ancient ones of North America and the contemporary Christianity with its equally ancient origins in the desert lands east of the Mediterranean Sea. The sacred authority of religions lies in an ancient past but all religions are affected by new experiences of the sacred by people who are devoted to the old stories and ideas. “The balance between faithfulness to tradition and openness to new experience,” Hultkrantz observes, “is what constitutes the religious life” (15).

What may be the most important structural difference between the ancient religions of North America and those with roots in the Middle East is that those of the old world had founders and have been handed down as literary traditions, whereas those of the new world “were handed down by tribes as oral traditions.” The result is that they “have not been so dogmatically bound by what was handed down from the past” and are “quite charismatic and innovative, modifying and even replacing older traditions with new revelations. Probably no other cultures have given visions such importance in daily religious life as those of native North America” (16).

While acknowledging the widespread variation among these religions, Hultkrantz claims that “four prominent features in North American Indian religions are a similar worldview, a shared notion of cosmic harmony, emphasis on experiencing directly powers and visions, and a common view of the cycle of life and death.” He then summarizes these elements in a concise paragraph:

“North American Indians have worldviews that in many respects are remarkably similar, particularly in the way they perceive the interrelationship of humans and animals. Many North American Indians also share a notion of cosmic harmony, in which humans, animals, plants, all of nature, and even supernatural figures cooperate to bring about a balanced and harmonious universe.

“North American Indian traditions emphasize a direct experience of spiritual power through dreams and visions; as we have already seen, the sacredness and prestige of these striking revelations often results in the modification of previous traditional elements. Native Americans have a common view of time as a recurring cycle; they are interested mainly in how this cycle affects people in this life and have only a vague notion of another existence after death” (20-21).

Hultkrantz makes one more distinction that is important in understanding Native American religion. Noting the close relationship between religiously shaped culture and economic system that sustains physical culture, he identifies “two kinds of religious orientation in Native American traditions, a hunting pattern and a horticultural pattern” (38). The major part of the book is then devoted to a description of these two types. He uses the Wind River Shoshoni (among whom he had done extensive field research) as an example of the hunting pattern. My interest in this chapter rests, in part, because an Episcopal mission on this reservation served as the model for the Yakama Christian Mission founded in 1921. (I called attention to my book on the mission to the people of the Yakama Nation in a column earlier this summer.)

Hultkrantz’s illustration of the agricultural pattern is the religion of the Zuni, which brings me back to the focus of this column. My forthcoming Grand Canyon Tour will take me through the corner of the ancient homeland of the people who “are famous for having constructed the most complex ritual organization of aboriginal North America” (87). That’s where I will take up the topic next time. While I’m at it, I expect to bring feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle into the conversation, for she too discusses how religion is connected to the economic and political systems in which people live.


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