This entry is going to discuss how Native Americans made sense of themselves and their world prior to contact – or, a Native American “worldview,” if you will. But to do that, I have to discuss two HUGE caveats up front.
First, while the manner in which Native Americans understood themselves and their world differed in very significant ways from the Europeans they would encounter … this does NOT mean that we can speak of a uniform Native American worldview applicable to all indigenous communities in North America.
You might think of it as trying to describe monotheism. On the one hand, we can speak of a monotheistic worldview that differs in important ways from a non-monotheistic one. In other words, most monotheists share general characteristics that separate how they understand themselves and their world from how polytheists, atheists, etc, do these things. And yet, if we start diving too deep into individual monotheistic traditions in our quest for commonalities, we are going to find significant differences rather quickly. Despite some general characteristics they share, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity still have major differences—as do other monotheistic traditions.
Similarly, we’ll talk about general characteristics true of most Native American peoples, but that doesn’t mean that ceremonies, beliefs, etc, in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, the Great Plains, or the Eastern Woodlands are basically the same. In short, there is a very real limit to how far we can push these generalizations when trying to understand how a particular indigenous community understood itself and its world prior to contact.
The second caveat is this: contact had a significant impact on how Native Americans understood themselves and their world. Occasionally, the consequences of contact caused Native Americans to abandon traditional beliefs. Sometimes, contact even led to new beliefs and rituals. For example, the reintroduction of the horse to North American will profoundly shape the practices of tribes living on the Great Plains. Most often, however, Native Americans adapted existing beliefs in response to new ideas, new circumstances, and new challenges. Certainly the history of Christianity – especially of Anglicanism – contains such stories of adaptation, as well.
The ramifications for this second caveat is that Native American nations today – and individuals within those nations – embrace a variety of ways of understanding the world and themselves. Some still practice what we might call traditional ways. Others have come to understand their Indianness through other practices not available to their ancestors until after contact. Some individuals have even created a sort of pan-Indian spirituality by exploring the practices of multiple indigenous nations. All of this means, then, the statement “Well, Native Americans believe …” is even less useful now as anything other than the most broad of generalizations than it was prior to contact.
Despite these caveats, however, we can still speak intelligently about a Native American worldview in a general sense before contact. I think you will find that these generalization are still true for many Native Americans today, whether they practice traditional ways, or not.
First, there is no distinction between the “sacred” and the “secular” as there is in Western thought. In other words, the spiritual and the physical worlds occupy the same space. What we might call “religion” is really a set of ideas and practices that permeate everyday life, rather than a separate aspect of Native American culture.
Second, there is a much more intimate relationship with land and wildlife. Part of an indigenous community’s identity means dwelling on land given to that community by the spirit world. Thus, the ceremonial life of a group is very much tied to sacred sites within their surrounding geography (This is one of the reasons why removal is such a brutal tragedy for Native American groups, as we’ll examine much later in the series). Furthermore, human beings and animals are not always distinct and hierarchical categories, as in much of western thinking.
Third, a community works together to affect the world through properly done ritual with the ultimate goal being a well-ordered world. This includes harmonious relationships between the sexes, a properly functioning society, living in balance within nature, and a proper relationship between all aspects of creation (e.g. humans, animals, and the land).
As we will see in future entries, each of these general aspects of a Native American worldview will be challenged by the chaos and crises that accompany the arrival of Europeans—especially as traditional rituals seem unable to stem the tide of disease, military defeats, etc, that accompany contact. Before we get to contact, though, we have some work to do on the other side of the Atlantic first …