3) Concepts of Religion
To the Indigenous People, religion was not about holding the right beliefs and the recitation of creeds, but about understanding life and how one was supposed to live. Their religion had an intimate connection with the world around them. They did not rely upon the fear of hellfire or of divine retribution to convince people that they should be religious. They worshipped to show thankfulness for life and its blessings and because it was an important and integral part of their lives.
Of the over 300 languages spoken in pre-contact North America, none included a word for “religion”. Because one’s spirituality was not seen as something separate, there was no thought given to putting a label on it. Consciousness of, and reverence for, the “Sacred” was a constant and important element of culture. Native Americans “lived” their religion. A few Whites, who made the effort to understand, recognized this fact.
“The most surprising fact relating to the North American Indians, which until lately had not been realized, is that they habitually lived in and by religion to a degree comparable with that of the old Israelites under the theocracy. This was sometimes ignored and sometimes denied by many of the early missionaries and explorers. The aboriginal religion was not the missionaries’ religion and therefore was not recognized to have an existence or was pronounced to be satanic.”
Garrick Mallery – Smithsonian authority on Native Americans, in
The Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1893 p 461.
The missionary and the Native American each had great difficulties understanding the other’s religion.
“When severely rebuked by a missionary for working on Sunday, the Native American was puzzled, as he thought he was merely trying to care for his family. The missionary explained that it was the Lord’s Day and no one was supposed to labor on the Sabbath. At last the concept dawned on the Native American. He replied “Oh, I see, your God only comes one day a week. My God is with me every day and all the time.”
Seton, "GOSPEL OF THE RED MAN", p 74
(Note the congruence of the Native’s observation with that of Jesus in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”)
The People saw no point in setting aside one day of the week as holy. To them, every day was God’s day.
Native Americans initially had a hard time accepting the white man’s religion, largely because of the glaring inconsistencies between what they heard preached and what they saw practiced, but also because of the prevalent attitude of superiority and utter contempt shown by the White Man
toward all other religions and beliefs.
Vine Deloria Jr., a seminary graduate, attorney, author and member of the Sioux Nation, likens the Native Americans’ propensity to live their religion to the culture of the Midwestern Amish:
“Perhaps the closest approach that any Christian community has made to the type of behavior described by countless observers of Indian religion is that of the Amish communities of the Midwest. That the Amish can make their religion work indicates not so much the validity of their religion but that they have created a specific community that relates land, community and religion into one integrated whole”
Vine Deloria Jr. "GOD IS RED", p 201
Spirituality was all pervasive and straight forward to the Native American. Creeds were virtually non-existent in Native religions. What one did was considered much more important than what one believed. Indigenous People believed that one’s religion was personal. Each person must find his or her spiritual path. No one has the right to impose his religion upon another. How one understands and chooses to honor the Great Mystery is between that person and the Creator.