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Religious Studies: Native American

Religion 101


“The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. ” (Chief Joseph)


What is a "Native American religion"?

The European colonization of the Americas brought great strife to the indigenous tribes living in modern-day North and South America. However, contrary to popular belief, Native spiritual traditions have persisted to this day and are often times well-documented by the hard-won resilience of tribal elders passing down beliefs and praxis to younger members. Native American traditions vary widely among tribes, and cannot all be looped under one umbrella so easily. However, Native American traditions do typically share a reverence for nature and land (especially the land on which one lives), connection to ancestors, and a shared history of struggle to keep oral traditions alive.

Ancestral Veneration: Remembrance, worship of, and rituals dedicated to ancestors

Animism: (see "Religious Studies Theory" for a definition)

Environmentalism: Sacred Sites & guardianship of the natural environment

Respect for Elders: General adherence to the wisdom of older members of the group.

The Creation Story: Turtle Island (Earth)

Terms & Definitions

 "Native American children were forced to enter boarding schools and thereafter taught Eurocentric values and religious beliefs within Christianity. They received a civilized makeover, having been coerced to look, dress, and behave like Euro-Americans. They were banned from speaking their tradition's language and were beaten if caught doing so. Some Native American children took such spiritual education and viewed it as survival and were able to motivate and enrich their Native American communities after their schooling; others ignored their Euro-American education and returned to their Native American villages’ ways of life."

Delevante, P. N. (2020). Native American children, religion and spirituality. In D. Cook (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood Studies. Sage UK.

"[R]efers to those peoples with pre-existing sovereignty who were living together as a community prior to contact with settler populations, most often – though not exclusively – Europeans."

Varying tribe-to-tribe and region-to-region, a Pow-wow typically refers to a Native American tradition of feasting, singing, dancing, and celebrating (typically a celebration of the tribe's culture).

Pow-wow Regalia: "Powwow regalia is a powerful mode of self-expression that blends historical and modern dress. Worn with responsibility and pride, the clothing represents community traditions and personal tastes. A dancer’s powwow outfit is a collection of items that reflect their lives, interests, and family background. Many wear garments that are family heirlooms or gifts crafted by family members."

"Traditional religious and ceremonial practices of Native Americans are often inseparably bound to specific areas of land. Many of these sacred places are located on what is now public land and Western concepts of resource development, such as logging, mining and tourism, may conflict with the integrity of these sacred places."

"A social group composed chiefly of numerous families, clans, or generations having a shared ancestry and language."

Federally Recognized Tribe: an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


Largest Native American & Alaskan Native Tribes:

Native American:

  1. Navajo Nation: 315,086

  2. Cherokee: 214,940

  3. Lumbee Tribe: 69,454

Alaska Native:

  1. Yup’ik: 9,026

  2. Tlingit: 7,792

  3. Inupiat: 5,674

Indigenous Groups in South America (non-exhaustive)

  • Andean
  • Araucanian
  • Aymara
  • Ge
  • Guarani
  • Mapuche
  • Pijao
  • Siriono
  • Quechua
  • Warao
  • Wichi
  • Yanomami


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