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date: 21 March 2018

Native American Religions

Summary and Keywords

Native American religious traditions encompass a diverse array of beliefs, practices, and features of material culture and society that reflect and shape individual experiences and communal life among Indigenous communities in what is today the United States. While Native American religious traditions have long been the subject of scholarly inquiry, a field of study dedicated specifically to this topic only emerged in the mid-20th century. Because historical sources describing Native religions often wove ethnocentric biases or anti-Indian sentiments into descriptions of Native beliefs and practices, present-day inquiry requires critically reflexive interpretation of primary sources and attention to insiders’ perspectives. Today, scholarship on Native American religions draws on numerous methodological approaches to explore key features of these traditions, including ceremonies, stories, philosophies, art, and social institutions. While these features vary greatly by religious community, practitioners of Native religions often emphasize the significance of land and the environment, their cultural heritage, and relationships between humans and non-human entities, spirits, and ancestors.

Many practitioners of Native American religions would resist the notion that a “religious” or “spiritual” realm can be separated from “secular” aspects of society or culture; thus, in addition to focusing on constitutive features of the religious beliefs and practices themselves, an understanding of Native American religions requires attention to broader social and cultural issues, including politics, law, health, and education. Furthermore, just as Native traditions were dynamic prior to the 15th century, they have been shaped by contact with non-Native religions and cultures since the first instances of European colonization. The historical conditions of European and Euro-American settler colonialism and encounter between Native and non-Native communities necessitate attention to issues such as Christian missionization and the ensuing Indigenous responses to Christianity, U.S. federal Indian policy, legal battles over Native American religious freedom and self-determination, and the place of Native religions in mainstream U.S. culture. While these themes and issues illuminate some shared features of Native American religions, the unique histories and characteristics of specific communities necessarily subvert efforts to articulate a simple, comprehensive definition of “Native American religion.” And, while knowledge of the past is essential for understanding Native American religions, a historical focus in itself is insufficient if it ignores the ongoing presence of Native American religious expression. Practitioners of Native American religions today emphasize religious continuity as well as creativity and change, blending long-standing historical traditions with more recently established religious innovations.

Keywords: American religions, Indigenous religions, missionization, colonialism, religion and culture, land, story, ceremony

Terminological, Methodological, and Theoretical Issues

As a broad category, “Native American religion” may refer to a religious tradition originating among and practiced by the first human inhabitants of the Americas and their descendants. Native American religions fall within the broader category of “Indigenous religions,” which refer to religious practices originating among Indigenous communities throughout the world. While the descriptor “indigenous” denotes something that originated in a particular place, the category of “Indigenous”—a proper noun, as applied to specific communities and cultures—has developed a broader, though not uncontested, set of meanings.1 This category is foremost a political designation that describes communities and cultures that have been subjected to—and prevailed in spite of—historical and ongoing imperialism and colonialism, eras in which members of an outside community sought to conquer, drive out, govern and/or extract resources from the original or earlier inhabitants of a specific place.2 Within the context of the academic study of religion, “Native American religions” often refer to those traditions that originated among Native communities; however, many Native Americans practice Christianity or blended traditions.

A key feature of Native American religions is their diversity. While Native Americans today comprise approximately 2 percent of the total U.S. population, there are hundreds of distinct Native religious traditions in what is today the United States.3 The diversity and dynamism of Native American religions reflect the significant number of American Indian tribal nations that exist as sovereign cultural and political entities. As of January 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Indian affairs officially recognizes 567 tribal nations, which hold the right to self-govern.4 Approximately 60 additional tribes have state recognition but not federal recognition; many more are unrecognized by U.S. federal or state governments.5 In the 15th century, the population in the Americas was as high as 112 million people or more, representing hundreds of linguistic and cultural groups.6 Prior to European and American colonization, Native American religions and cultures varied according to their specific regions and histories, with unique origin stories, social structures, forms of subsistence and economic trade, and features of material culture. Today, numerous Native American religious traditions are practiced throughout the United States. Practitioners may reside in areas nearby or far from their ancestral homes, in cities and towns, and on reservations. Native religions include individual practices, community-wide ceremonies, and large, intertribal gatherings. Some practices are place-based and very specific, such as ceremonies by Native peoples in the Northwest to honor salmon, while other practices are more widespread, such as ceremonies to aid in the interpretation of dreams or visions that are found in a number of communities. Even as Native American religions have faced attacks from Europeans and Euro-Americans from the first instances of contact through the present day, many long-established traditions persist. In the Southeast, for example, Creeks have for centuries participated in versions of a green corn ceremony, which honors this life-giving food. In addition to engaging in long-standing traditions, various new forms of Native religious thought and practice have developed over the past five centuries. For example, a new Lakota tradition, Wiping the Tears or Washigila, arose late in 20th-century South Dakota after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, in order to commemorate the community members’ lives cut short by colonial violence.7 Thus, the already vast array of Native religions continues to broaden as communities respond to new situations.

Perceptions about religion have changed over time, as well, and encounters between Native Americans and non-Natives have spurred ongoing conversations about the nature of religion. Scholars within the field of religious studies do not agree on any single or straightforward definitions for the categories of “religious” and “non-religious,” or “sacred” and “secular.”8 Questions about the nature of religion are especially pertinent in the context of Native American religions, where many communities may not have a separate category for the term “religion.”9 Many Native languages do have terms that refer to important spirits, mysteries, spiritual goals, and complex features of life and being. For the Lakota, wakan refers to the sacred mystery, or the animating force of the universe.10 Among the Diné (Navajo), hózhó refers to a state of goodness, beauty, or “harmonious outcomes.”11 Bimaadiziwin is an Anishinaabe term that refers to a system of values associated with “the good life.”12 Importantly, these terms refer to features that are interwoven into, and not separate from, everyday aspects of life. Examining emic concepts and terms from the original Native languages yields insight into religious communities’ conceptions of space, being, and the nature of reality.

Today, approaching the study of Native American religions with an eye to insider perspectives is especially important, as historical scholarship often judged Indigenous religions in relation to European traditions. Many of the earliest Europeans and Euro-Americans to document aspects of Native religions were missionaries or agents of colonial governments who expressly sought to manage Native culture or convert individuals to Christianity.13 As the academic study of religion developed in the late 19th century, scholars contrasted so-called world religions or great religions with what they termed “primitive religions” or “ethnic religions.”14 European and Euro-American scholars’ dedication to theories of cultural evolution negatively affected how they gathered data as well as their analyses of primary source material,; and secondary scholarship by these authors suggested Native practices were illogical, undeveloped, or irrational. In this era, non-Native scholars of religion drew on an array of terms to describe these practices, such as “primitive,” “savage,” “primal,” and “heathen.” These terms reflected theological and social ideologies that held Euro-American civilization to be superior to Native American societies and worldviews.15 In an effort to move to less pejorative terminology, some scholars over the course of the 20th century adopted terms such as “local,” “small-scale,” but even the phrase “primal religion” has long persisted as a descriptor for Indigenous religions.16 In the present era, when a scholar seeks to better understand and describe a particular Native religious tradition, emic terms may be most useful or accurate. Indeed, much recent scholarship, by Native and non-Native scholars who attend closely to Indigenous perspectives, is devoted to understanding and articulating emic theories and practices. For broader or comparative studies, the terms “American Indian religion” or “Native American religion” are frequently used when discussing Indigenous religions in the United States. In sociological research, studies sometimes use terms such as “local” or “folk” religions in an effort to include many Indigenous religions, including Native North American traditions, in a single comparative category.17 Scholars and students of Native American religions should use care when choosing terminology and remain attentive to the ways that discredited racialized notions, common in historical scholarship, may unintentionally persist in more recent discussions of Native American religions.

Key Themes in Native American Religious Traditions

Despite the diversity of Native traditions, a few key themes and features serve as solid starting points for better understanding specific traditions and their place in wider society. Foremost is the theme of land. Land, space, place, nature, and the environment have long been significant for Native American cultures, and features of the natural world figure prominently in Native religious beliefs and practices. As the natural environments that are home to Native communities differ—from disparate landscapes, geological features, and climates to unique forms of flora and fauna—so too does the character of Native religious engagement with nature vary from community to community. Water plays a significant role for the Hopi of the Southwest as well as the Chumash of California, but the nature of each communities’ access to and relationship with sources of water necessarily differ.18

For many practitioners of Native American religions, nature and the environment have never simply represented a community’s physical surroundings. Rather, features of the natural world are extensions of a community, even relatives. Early theorists of religion described Indigenous religions as “animist,” meaning that religious practitioners believed in a multitude of deities that inhabited natural features, such as rivers, plants, and animals. Historically this term had negative connotations, and non-Natives viewed animism as an unsophisticated system to explain wonders of the natural world. However, scholars and practitioners have recently reclaimed this term to describe the ways that Native communities relate to entities present in the natural world as “other-than-human persons.”19 Many Native religious rituals pay tribute to the ways that particular communities rely on certain animals, plants, and other natural elements for survival. Bison have been essential to Lakota societies since the 18th century, and annual rituals and dances honor this animal as a relative.20 For the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region, who have long cultivated wild rice, this crop is not only a source of food, but is considered an ancestor.21 These understandings of the relationality and kinship between humans and non-humans emphasize respect and balance. In addition to individual spirits and entities, some communities place particular emphasis on a creator spirit, often in the form of a maternal figure, Mother Earth. Some scholars have questioned the longevity of widespread belief in a single creator spirit, suggesting monotheistic ideas from Christianity may have influenced the development of this idea.22 Despite this claim, the significance of nature, the environment, and a variety of spirits who animate the landscape has been compellingly documented in historical and contemporary scholarship on Native American religions.23 While noting this significant aspect of Native religions, scholars should be wary of romantic notions of a simplistic “ecological Indian” that is spiritually in tune with nature, as it can perpetuate stereotypical and racialized assumptions. Native communities have at times found themselves at odds with non-Native environmental groups over different opinions about environmental issues, such as mining in the Southwest or fishing rights in the Great Lakes area.24 That being said, many practitioners in the present day honor creator spirits, regard the environment as sacred, observe spiritual qualities in features of the natural world, and draw on religion and spirituality in efforts to protect the environment and land.

Another key theme that can illuminate facets of Native American religions is story. For many communities, stories are passed down over generations as a way of maintaining and sharing important cultural knowledge. At times, characterizations of American Indian religions as “oral traditions” have had negative connotations, suggesting that these traditions are less sophisticated than those that draw on written sacred texts.25 However, this assumption overlooks the potency of oral histories and the practices of storytelling, song, and dance, which all convey important knowledge. Furthermore, this assumption overlooks the ways that Native American communities have shared long ideas through material forms such as drawings, winter counts, and wampum.26 In addition, some communities—notably the Cherokee—have developed sophisticated systems for written language.27

The term “story” itself may be limited in adequately conveying the broad array of information conveyed through this form, including history, genealogy, ethics, morals, and information about the natural world. Stories narrate the origin and emergence of Native nations, describe features of spirits, reveal insights about the nature of the world, and offer guidance in difficult situations. Creation stories are common features within Native American religions. These stories help to explain the ways in which the world was formed and the process through which different nations arrived in their ancestral homelands. A Blackfeet legend describes their ancestor’s origins from a body of water, while Zuni creation stories recount their emergence out of a dark underground world. Reflecting the natural world, some tales explain features of the environment or describe how particular animals have unique characteristics. Some stories focus on key spirits who played key roles in a community’s history, including those who brought humans into existence. Members of many nations tell stories of trickster figures, whose (mis)adventures offer lessons.28 Contemporary Native American authors, many of whom touch on religious or spiritual themes, extend storytelling in new directions.29 For many communities, stories in Indigenous languages can most accurately convey cultural knowledge. For example, language, story, and place are all connected for the Western Apache, whose names for specific places directly correspond to stories that took place there.30 Those interested in Native stories should be aware of instances in which outsiders’ focus on storytelling can serve to de-politicize the aims of particular Native nations and erase cultural difference.31 With this in mind, scholars should consider the ways that storytelling is a form of cultural sovereignty that extends and preserves significant forms of cultural and religious knowledge.32

Cultural stories are significant in their own right, and they also offer context and direction for ceremony, another key feature of American Indian religions. There are a multitude of different forms of ceremonialism among American Indian communities, which, like stories, vary according to society and region. These ceremonies include individual practices as well as group practices. Some specific rituals are performed for individuals who have reached a particular age or a milestone, including birth, puberty, marriage, or death. For example, the girls’ puberty ceremony is significant for young Apache women who are transitioning to adulthood.33 Some specific ceremonies, such as healing practices, occur and are performed when a member of the community has a particular need, such as the Lakota yuwipi ceremony.34 Group rituals are also significant. Many occur at specific times of the year, such as first food ceremonies among the Nez Perce, which are held when particular foods are ready to be harvested.35 In addition to accomplishing specific tasks for which they are meant, ritual practices help to reinforce individual participants’ roles and character, demonstrate and celebrate group identity, and define an individual’s relationship to their larger community.

Missionization and Indigenous Responses to Christianity

The themes of land, story, language, and ritual are each useful when seeking to understand specific Native religions before and after the first instances of Euro-American colonialism. Scholarship on Native religions also considers changes in Native religiosity since the 15th century, including religious exchange between Natives and non-Natives, Christian missionization, Indigenous responses to Christianity, and new Native religions that have developed post-European contact. The earliest encounters between Europeans and Indigenous nations occurred during the first major era of Western imperialism beginning in the 15th century, as Europeans explored lands throughout the Americas in search of resources and trade routes. While leaders of initial expeditions sought economic gain, mission activity came to be closely tied to these expeditions. Christian religious leaders played a major role in European exploration, empire, and colonization. Missionaries to American Indians had different approaches and goals, and their interactions with varying Indigenous communities had different levels of lasting effects. Indigenous responses to European missionary endeavors likewise varied. Some Native communities responded by totally rejecting European and American religion and culture; this was the case in 1680, when members of Pueblo communities revolted against Spanish missionaries. Others have converted to Christianity, such as Native people in the Northeast who moved into British “praying towns.” Many Native responses have fallen somewhere between these two extremes, with communities strategically considering and adopting features of Euro-American religion and culture in ways that best allow them to adapt to new situations while preserving key features of their cultures and traditions.36

Christian missionary strategies often paralleled each specific European nation’s imperial aims. The Spanish were the first Europeans that actively sought to missionize to Native Americans in the present-day United States. Over the course of the 16th century, Spanish priests and explorers established missions in southwestern, southeastern, and western regions of the present-day United States. Many Spanish missionary systems drew on brutal force and threats of violence, using an encomienda system that was built on the enslavement of Native American people. The French, like the Spanish, were interested in resources that the New World might provide, and missionization strategies paralleled the strategies that traders used. In the Great Lakes area, for example, French trappers and traders lived among Indigenous community members. They often tried to learn as much as possible about Indigenous communities, learned Native languages, and often married into Indigenous communities. French Catholic priests likewise sought to learn languages and live among Native communities. In addition to gaining economic resources, British colonists in the 17th century intended to establish permanent colonies, which displaced Native communities. A noteworthy British missionary tactic found in the New England area, the development of Native American “praying towns,” required Native people to convert to Christianity and adopt features of British society.37 American missionary endeavors built upon British efforts, with the goals of completely transforming all aspects of Native societies. Missionaries acted on behalf of the U.S. federal government to Christianize and “civilize” Native communities. One notorious American tactic was the use of church- and state-sponsored boarding school programs, which removed Native children from their families in an effort to re-acculturate them to Euro-American culture and society.38 Despite their different approaches, Euro-American missionaries often sought to re-fashion different aspects of Indigenous social and communal life, from religious practices to social practices, forms of subsistence, economic practices, and gender roles.

Native American responses to Christianity have varied along a continuum from rejection to acceptance. Many communities have adopted facets of Christian thought and practice, incorporating these elements into their own traditions. Missionization and conversion raise important questions about the relationship between religion and culture, which for Native communities are closely intertwined. In some cases, Christian missionization greatly harmed communities as Euro-American religious leaders advocated for the dissolution of Native lifeways.39 In other cases, the adoption of Christianity has helped American Indian communities to increase their sovereignty. For example, throughout the Great Lakes region, women played important leadership roles. In the face of Euro-American challenges to Native women’s authority, the adoption of Catholicism helped to strengthen women’s leadership roles and kinship networks throughout the region.40 This stands in contrast to more forcible instances of missionization, such as the forced conversion of Native children at American boarding schools. Native adoption of facets of Christianity must be interpreted in light of the colonial power that missionaries have exerted over Native communities as well as Native spiritual agency. While keeping power dynamics in mind, scholars must also heed ways in which the strategic acceptance of aspects of Christianity have helped Indigenous communities to develop their networks, extend political power, and preserve resources.

Revitalization Movements, New Religions, Pan-Indian Traditions, and Contemporary Issues

In addition to community-specific practices, and Indigenous Christianities, another key category of Native American religious traditions are the revitalization movements, new religions, and pan-Indian traditions that have developed as a way for communities to redefine and re-articulate their communities’ identity, values, and relationships. These traditions have originated throughout North America; they include movements such as the Indian Shaker movement in the Northwest Coast region; the Longhouse Tradition of the Eastern Woodlands; the Ghost Dance of the Plateau and Plains regions; and the Peyote Church, which originated in the Southwest. Many gained new followers and spread beyond their region of origin. While some of these new movements have adopted aspects of Christianity, they have each built upon established historical practices rooted in prior Native religious traditions. In addition, many directly or indirectly responded to Euro-American empire and settler colonialism.

Scholars began focusing attention on these new Native religious movements in the 1950s. Anthony F. C. Wallace, a scholar of Seneca religion and culture, identified a number of types of new movements: “nativistic movements,” which seek to emphasize the features original to a particular tradition; “millenarian movements,” which anticipate apocalyptic changes in culture and society; and “messianic traditions,” which emphasize the significant visions and insight of one individual.41 A number of new Native traditions have included a variety of elements that fall within these categories. While some scholars have emphasized the externally imposed challenges that have spurred Native communities to develop these traditions, later scholars have sought to emphasize the internal cultural logics that contributed to the rise of these traditions.

A number of new religious traditions developed around the teachings of a prophet, a member of the community who received a vision, message, or set of teachings via a profound religious experience. In some cases, these prophets attracted a great number of followers and inspired intertribal collaborations, systematic cultural change, and anticolonial military activity. One example from the Great Lakes region is Neolin, a Lenape (Delaware) prophet who was active in what is now Ohio. Neolin received a message from a spiritual entity, the “Master of Life,” in 1761. The Master of Life was upset by the presence of European settlers and dissatisfied by Native communities’ adoption of features of European culture and society. Neolin urged his followers to reject aspects of British culture. Many adopted this message, including Odawa leader Pontiac, who led attacks on Euro-American settlers in the 1760s. A significant leader from the Eastern Woodlands region was Handsome Lake (Sganyodaiyo, 1735–1810), the Seneca prophet to the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people. Handsome Lake witnessed hardships that his community endured due to Euro-American colonialism, and after recovering from an alcohol-related sickness, he experienced a vision. Thereafter he began to preach what would become known as “Handsome Lake’s Code,” or the “Longhouse Religion.” Ultimately, while it included some features similar to Christian ideals—such as admonishments against sinful behaviors—Handsome Lake and his followers used his code to preserve and reinvigorate significant aspects of their culture and societies. Other significant Native prophets include Kennekuk (1790–1852), a Kickapoo prophet from the Plains region; Tenskwatata, the Shawnee Prophet (1775–1836) who united followers in the Greatlakes and Woodlands regions; and Wovoka (1856–1932), the Paiute leader from the Plateau region who inspired the Ghost Dance religion.42 This tradition became one of the most well-known new Native religious movements when the U.S. military massacred a group of Ghost Dancers near Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.43

Since the late 19th century, additional forms of pan-Indian and intertribal Native religious ceremonialism have developed. These include pow wows, ceremonial gatherings of members of one or more trial nations that became popular in the 20th century. A main feature of pow wows is the dancing competitions, in which men, women, and children compete in a number of categories, including the Round Dance, Gourd Dance, Hoop Dance, and Fancy Dance. Music is provided by drumming circles. Pow wows include ritual aspects and prayers, but they may be seen more as cultural than religious events. They also serve economic and social functions, allowing communities to meet, gather, and reinforce culture and community ties.44 Another significant new religious movement of note is the Native American Church, which emerged in the late 19th century. Native American leaders adopted the use of peyote in Mexico in the late 19th century, bringing the practice to Native communities in the Southeast. A new form of religion developed out of this practice, fusing features of Indigenous and Christian traditions. Practitioners use peyote for healing and ceremonial purposes, but have faced setbacks due to the classification of peyote as a controlled substance.45 These new religious developments blend long-standing traditions with new practices, reflecting creative responses to new situations.

Beyond these significant new traditions, additional important issues include issues of sovereignty and self-determination; legal debates over Native American religious freedom; spiritual and cultural appropriation; gender, sexuality, and two-spirit identity; mental and physical health and well-being; economics; and arts, music, and popular culture. An examination of contemporary Native religious life reveals challenges that Native religions still face as well as the continued growth and expansion Native religions and spirituality within contemporary life. Native religions continue to play a central role in Indigenous responses to ongoing imperialism and colonialism, and as an important source of cultural values and identities.46

Review of the Literature

James Mooney’s study The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux outbreak of 189047 was one of the first “modern” ethnographic studies of Native American religions. In addition to Mooney, who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology, the anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1887) rejected cultural evolutionary themes and advanced scholarship that considered Native religions on their own terms. In the early to mid-20th century, the work of scholars such as A. Irving Hallowell (1892–1974), Joseph Epes Brown (1920–2000), and Ake Hultzkranz (1920–2006) increased interest in Native religions among scholars of religion more broadly. Important scholarship emerged during the Red Power movement in the 1970s, most notably Vine Deloria, Jr.’s God is Red,48 which advocated for the Native reclamation of narratives on Indigenous religious history. The development of postcolonial studies and formation of Native and Indigenous studies as a field has since advanced these aims. Texts focusing on missionization and colonialism include David Stannard’s American Holocaust and George “Tink” Tinker’s Missionary Conquest.49 Works on Native American encounters with Christianity include James Treat’s Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada; Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George Tinker’s A Native American Theology; and Angela Tarango’s Choosing the Jesus Way.50 Scholarship focusing on revitalization movements and Native American prophets include Anthony F. C. Wallace’s The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca; Gregory Dowd’s A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815; Alfred A. Cave’s Prophets of the Great Spirit; Gregory E. Smoak’s Ghost Dances and Identity; and Rani-Henrik Andersson’s The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890.51 On contemporary issues, see James Treat’s Around the Sacred Fire; Greg Johnson’s Sacred Claims; Suzanne Owen’s The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality; and Dennis Kelley’s Tradition, Performance, and Religion in Native America.52

Further Reading

Andersson, Rani-Henrik. The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Cave, Alfred A. Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Crawford, Suzanne J., and Dennis Kelley, eds. American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia, 3 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.Find this resource:

Crawford-O’Brien, Suzanne. Coming Full Circle: Spirituality and Wellness among Native Communities in the Pacific Northwest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Deloria, Vine Jr. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2003 (1972).Find this resource:

Dowd, Gregory. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Fisher, Linford. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Johnson, Greg. Sacred Claims: Repatriation and Living Tradition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Hultzkranz, Ake. The Religions of the American Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Hultzkranz, Ake. The Study of American Indian Religions. New York: Scholars Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Irwin, Lee, ed. Native American Spirituality: A Critical Reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Kelley, Dennis. Tradition, Performance, and Religion in Native America: Ancestral Ways, Modern Selves. New York: Routledge, 2014.Find this resource:

Kidwell, Clara Sue, Homer Noley, and George Tinker. A Native American Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.Find this resource:

Kimmerer, Robin. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013.Find this resource:

Leavelle, Tracy. The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Martin, Joel. The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Martin, Joel, and Mark Nicholas, eds. Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.Find this resource:

McNally, Michael. Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and Native Culture in Motion. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1896.Find this resource:

Morrison, Kenneth. The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian-French Religious Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Niezen, Ronald. Spirit Wars: Native North American Religions in an Age of Nation Building. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Owen, Suzanne. The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.Find this resource:

Pesantubbee, Michelene. Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2d ed. London: Zed Books, 2012.Find this resource:

Smoak, Gregory E. Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Stannard, David American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Sullivan, Lawrence, ed. Native Religions and Cultures of North America: Anthropology of the Sacred. New York: Continuum, 2000.Find this resource:

Tarango, Angela. Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Tinker, George. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Treat, James. Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.Find this resource:

Waters, Ann, ed. American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.Find this resource:

Weaver, Jace, ed. Defending Mother Earth: Native American Perspectives on Environmental Justice. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996.Find this resource:

Weaver, Jace. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) See Christopher Hartney and David J. Tower, eds., Religious Categories and the Construction of the Indigenous (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016).

(2.) The United Nations’ Indigenous Peoples Division sponsors discussions and publications related to the global Indigenous rights movement.

(5.) National Conference of State Legislatures, “Federal and State Recognized Tribes” (October 2016).

(6.) For discussions about scholars’ attempts to determine accurate pre-Columbian population figures, and the politics of this statistical data, see David Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 261–268.

(7.) Essays in Lawrence E. Sullivan, ed., Native Religions and Cultures of North America: Anthropology of the Sacred (New York: Continuum, 2000), describe historical and contemporary practices among Apache, Creek, Crow, Lakota, Navajo, Tlingit, and other communities, emphasizing historical traditions, adaptations, and new religious innovations that nonetheless reflect earlier practices.

(8.) See the Social Science Research Council’s Immanent Frame for a series of pieces on Indigeneity and secularity.

(9.) Jace Weaver, That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), vii–viii.

(10.) Raymond DeMallie, “Lakota Ritual and Belief in the Nineteenth Century,” in Sioux Indian Religion: Tradition and Innovation, eds. DeMallie and Douglas Parks (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 29.

(11.) Vincent Werito, “Understanding Hózhó to Achieve Critical Consciousness: A Contemporary Diné Account of the Philosophical Principles of Hózhó,” in Diné Perspectives: Revitalizing and Reclaiming Navajo Thought, ed. Lloyd Lance Lee (Tucson: University of Arizona Press), 26.

(12.) Lawrence Gross, Anishinaabe Ways of Knowing and Being (London: Routledge, 2014), 156.

(13.) Ronald Niezen, Spirit Wars: Native North American Religions in an Age of Nation Building (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

(14.) See, for example, James F. Clarke’s 1971 Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology (New York: Osgoode, 1871).

(15.) Sarah Dees, “An Equation of Language and Spirit: Comparative Philology and the Study of American Indian Religions,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 27 (2015): 195–219.

(16.) See, for example, Huston Smith’s writings on world religions. Smith, The World’s Religions, 50th Anniversary Edition (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

(17.) Pew Forum’s “Religious Landscape Study,” a survey of American religious thought, included “Native American Religions” under the heading of “other faiths.” In another study, the Global Religious Futures Project, study authors use the category of “folk religions,” which they describe as including Native American religions.

(18.) In Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places (New York: Penguin, 2006), Peter Nabokov describes religious practices that connect numerous Native American nations to the places that are significant for each community.

(19.) Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

(20.) Winona LaDuke, “Return of Buffalo Nation: For Native Peoples of the Plains, Visions of a Buffalo Commons,” Native Americas 15, no. 4 (Akwe: kon Press): 10.

(21.) Thomas Venum, Jr., Wild Rice and the Ojibwe People (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988).

(22.) Sam Gill’s controversial Mother Earth: An American Story (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) extends this idea.

(23.) Jace Weaver, ed., Defending Mother Earth: Native American Perspectives on Environmental Justice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996).

(24.) Michael Harkin and David Rich Lewis, eds. Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

(25.) Dees, “An Equation of Language and Spirit.”

(26.) Angela M. Haas, “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 2, no. 19 (2007): 77–100.

(27.) Ellen Cushman, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011).

(28.) Joseph Epes Brown, Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9–21.

(29.) Jace Weaver, Other Words: American Indian Literature, Law, and Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001).

(30.) Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991).

(31.) Craig Womack, “Politicizing HIV Prevention in Indian Country,” Native American Religious Identity: Unforgotten Gods, ed. Jace Weaver (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 199.

(32.) Lawrence Gross, “Cultural Sovereignty and Native American Hermeneutics in the Interpretation of the Sacred Stories of the Anishinaabe,” Wicazo Sa Review 18, no. 2 (2003): 124–127.

(33.) Inés Talamantez, “In the Space between Earth and Sky: Contemporary Mescalero Apache Ceremonialism,” in Native Religions and Cultures of North America: Anthropology of the Sacred, ed. Lawrence Sullivan (New York: Continuum), 142–159.

(34.) William K. Powers: Yuwipi: Vision and Experience in Oglala Ritual (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).

(35.) Christina Gish Hill, “Precolonial Foodways,” in The Routledge History of American Foodways, eds. Michael D. Wise and Jennifer Jensen Wallach (New York: Routledge, 2016), 9–22.

(36.) Joel Martin and Mark Nicholas, eds. Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

(37.) Henry Warner Bowden, American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

(38.) Margaret J. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

(39.) George Tinker, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Minneapolis: Ausburg Fortress, 1993).

(40.) Susan Sleeper Smith, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

(41.) Anthony F. C. Wallace, “Revitalization Movements: Some Theoretical Considerations for their Comparative Study,” American Anthropologist 58, no. 2 (1956): 264–281.

(42.) Alfred A. Cave, Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006); and Gregory E. Smoak, Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

(43.) Rani-Henrik Andersson, The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

(44.) Clyde Ellis, A Dancing People: Powwow Culture on the Southern Plains (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).

(45.) Omer C. Stewart, Peyote Religion: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987); and Joseph Calabrese, A Different Medicine: Postcolonial Healing in the Native American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(46.) See Dennis Kelley, Tradition, Performance, and Religion in Native America: Ancestral Ways, Modern Selves (New York: Routledge, 2014), for a discussion of contemporary Native American religious life.

(47.) James Mooney, The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892–3 Annual Report, 2 vols., 1896.

(48.) Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, CO: North American Press, 1994).

(49.) David Stannard, American Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); and George “Tink” Tinker, Missionary Conquest (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

(50.) James Treat’s Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada (New York: Routledge, 1996); Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George Tinker, A Native American Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001); and Angela Tarango, Choosing the Jesus Way (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

(51.) Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Vintage Books, 1972); Gregory Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Alfred A. Cave, Prophets of the Great Spirit (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006); Gregory E. Smoak, Ghost Dances and Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); and Andersson, The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890.

(52.) James Treat, Around the Sacred Fire (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Greg Johnson, Sacred Claims (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007); Suzanne Owen, The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011); and Dennis Kelley, Tradition, Performance, and Religion in Native America (New York: Routledge, 2014).