Indigenous Religions

© Steve And Donna O’Meara/National Geographic/Getty Images

First Encounter

As it is for most visitors, your first stop in Hawai`i is crowded Waikiki, on the island of O`ahu. *

After four days of swimming, sightseeing, and viewing the sunsets, you fly to Maui for a few

days, and then on to the much less populated island of Hawai`i—called the Big Island by local

residents. From the airport in Hilo, you begin to drive upcountry, toward the little town of

Volcano. The area around Hilo, on the rainy side of the island, resembles the tropical paradise of

fantasy: the leaves of the trees are bright lime-colored flames, and the yards of the houses are

planted with vanda orchids and fragrant white-flowered plumeria trees.

* Note: The ‘okina (glottal stop mark) is used throughout this book in the spelling of certain

Hawaiian words. It is indicated by a backward apostrophe.

As you drive inland and upward, lawns and homes yield to fields of beige grass and clusters of

dark brown rock. Banyan trees give way to small, silver-leaved `ohi`a lehua bushes, as delicate

as their red flowers. Now you are closer to the volcanoes that are still producing the island. The

land here is raw and relatively new. You check into the old lava-rock hotel near the volcanic

crater and look forward to settling in for the night. After supper you listen to ukulele music in

front of the big fireplace in the lobby and watch a man and two women perform a slow hula for

the guests.

The next morning, after a good sleep, you walk out to the rim of the crater. You are a bit startled

by the steam rising through cracks and holes in the rock. You hike down a trail that leads to a

bed of old lava, passing yellow ginger and tiny wild purple orchids on the way. The lava in the

crater at this spot is dry; it crunches underfoot. Here and there you see stones wrapped in the

broad leaves of the ti plant and wonder why they’re there.

On the way back up the trail, you fall in step with a woman who explains that she was raised on

the Big Island but now lives on another island. She is here just for a few days, to visit the

volcano area and to see old friends. She tells you about Pele, the goddess of fire, whose place of

veneration is the volcano. “When I was young I learned that Pele came from the island of Kaua`i

to Maui, where she lived in Haleakala Crater before she moved to this island. Nowadays, people

here are mostly Buddhist or Christian, but they still respect Pele. I know a man who says Pele

once appeared to him. He told me she had long hair and was surrounded by fire. Other people

have seen her on the road. Pele gets a lot of offerings—mostly ti leaves and food. But when the

lava is flowing toward Hilo, people also bring out pork and gin,” the woman says with a laugh,

“and my friends tell me that the offerings work.”

The lava, she explains, is active now at the other end of a series of craters, closer to the ocean.

She suggests that you drive to the lava flow before dark and adds, “Be sure to have good walking

shoes, as well as a flashlight in case it gets dark before you go back to your car. And don’t take

any lava rock away with you. They say it brings bad luck, you know.”

In midafternoon, you drive down the curving black asphalt road, past old lava flows, to the

highway near the ocean. You stop and park near the cars of other lava watchers and then begin

hiking with a few people across the fresh lava, toward the ocean. About half a mile in, you

encounter yellow caution strips and overhear an officer warning one man to stop. “Farther on it’s

just too dangerous. It looks solid on top, but you can slip through the crust.” You and the others

crowd up next to the barriers and see steam rising on the right up ahead. Through the rising

steam you glimpse a bright orange band of molten lava underneath the dry crust as the lava falls

into the ocean.

Sunset comes quickly, and even more people arrive, some with blankets around their shoulders.

As darkness falls, the flowing lava becomes more visible, and the steam takes on a reddish glow.

“Look over there,” someone says. In the distance a bright stream of orange lava slides down a

hill, a slow-motion waterfall of fire. You watch at least an hour as the sky becomes completely

dark. Now the only light comes from the flowing lava and a few flashlights. It is, you think, like

being present at the time of creation: this land is being born.

The next morning in the lobby you see the Hawaiian woman again. “Well, did you see Pele last

night?” she asks, smiling. You smile back. For the rest of your stay you wonder about Pele,

about what else might remain of native Hawaiian religion. Isn’t hula, you ask as you think back

over what you’ve read, an expression of Hawaiian beliefs? Why do people make offerings of ti

leaves? How much of the ancient religion lives on?

Discovering Indigenous Religions

The practice of native religions takes place throughout the world. Among the Ainu of far

northern Japan, the Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada, the aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Maori of

New Zealand, and the many indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas, religious teachings

have been passed on primarily by word of mouth rather than through written texts. In some areas,

the ancient religious ways of traditional peoples may not be easily apparent, but certain

characteristics live on in local stories and customs.

There is no agreement on how to speak of these ancient religious ways. Various terms include

traditional, aboriginal, indigenous, tribal, nonliterate, primal, native, oral, and basic. Each term

is inadequate. For example, although the word native is used frequently in the Americas, that

term in Africa—with memories of colonial offices of native affairs—can be offensive. The

words oral and nonliterate describe correctly the fact that most indigenous religions were spread

without written texts. But there have been exceptions: the Mayans and Aztecs, for example, had

writing systems, and even many native religions without writing systems have had their sacred

stories and beliefs written down by scholars at some point. The distinction between oral religions

and others is also blurred by the fact that religions that have written texts are also, to a large

degree, transmitted orally—for example, through preaching, teaching, and chanting. The term

traditional would be suitable, except that all religions but the very newest have many traditional

elements. Some terms, such as primal and basic, may be viewed as derogatory (like the older

term primitive religions). The word indigenous has the advantage of being neutral in tone;

however, it means the same thing as native, except that it comes from Greek rather than Latin.

There is no easy solution. Although indigenous comes closest to capturing these ancient

religions, we will use several of the preceding terms interchangeably throughout the text.

Indigenous religions are found in every climate, from the tropical rain forest to the arctic tundra,

and some are far older than today’s dominant religions. Because most of them developed in

isolation from each other, there are major differences in their stories of creation and origin, in

their beliefs about the afterlife, in their marriage and funeral customs, and so on. In fact, there is

as much variation among indigenous religions as there is, for example, between Buddhism and

Christianity. In North America, for instance, there are several hundred Native American nations

and more than fifty Native American language groups. The variety among indigenous religious

traditions is stunning, and each religion deserves in-depth study. But because of the limitations of

space, this book must focus on shared elements; regrettably, we can barely touch on the many

differences. (You can complement your study of basic patterns by making your own study of a

native religion, especially one practiced now or in the past by the indigenous peoples of the area

in which you live.)

Past Obstacles to the Appreciation of Indigenous Religions

Up until the early part of the twentieth century, scholars focused more on religions that had

produced written texts than on those that expressed themselves through orally transmitted stories,

histories, and rituals. This lack of attention to oral religions may have been due in part to the

relative ease of studying religions with written records. Religions with written records don’t

necessarily require travel or physically arduous research. Moreover, when scholars have

mastered reading the necessary languages, they can study, translate, and teach the original

writings either at home or to students anywhere.

There has also been a bias toward text-based religions because of a misconception that they are

complex and that oral religions are simple. Greater research into oral religions, however, has

dispelled such notions of simplicity. Consider, for example, the sandpaintings of the Navajo

people and the ceremonies of which the paintings are a part. “In these ceremonies, which are

very complicated and intricate, sandpaintings are made and prayers recited. Sand-paintings are

impermanent paintings made of dried pulverized materials that depict the Holy People [gods]

and serve as a temporary altar. Over 800 forms of sandpaintings exist, each connected to a

specific chant and ceremony.” 1

Indigenous religions have, of course, created much that is permanent, and sometimes even

monumental. We have only to think of the Mayan pyramids in Yucatán and the great city of

Teotihuacán, near Mexico City. But native religions often express themselves in ways that have

less permanence: dance, masks, wood sculpture, paintings that utilize mineral and plant dyes,

tattoo, body painting, and memorized story and chant. Perhaps we have to begin to see these

transitory expressions of religious art as being equal in stature to more permanent sacred writings

and artistic creations. In speaking of African art, one scholar has called it the “indigenous

language of African belief and thought,” even saying that African art “provides a kind of

scripture of African religion.” 2 We also have to see that indigenous religions have sometimes

blended with more dominant religions. For example, elements of Mayan religion live on in the

Catholicism of Mexico and Guatemala, and elements of belief in nature gods live on in the

Buddhism of Myanmar (Burma). This blending has made the existence of indigenous religions

less obvious, but sometimes it has also made their continued existence possible.

The Modern Recovery of Indigenous Religions

We know about native religious traditions through the efforts of scholars from a number of

disciplines, particularly anthropology. One pioneer was Franz Boas (1858–1942), a professor at

Columbia University and curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Other notable contributors to this field include Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), Raymond

Firth (1901–2002), Mary Douglas (1921–2007), and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (mentioned in

Chapter 1).

These masked dancers in Papua New Guinea celebrate spirits of their ancestors.

© Fulvio Roiter/Corbis

The ecological movement has also made our study of indigenous religions more pressing.

Environmentalist David Suzuki argues that we must look to native peoples and religions for

insightful lessons in the relationship between human beings and nature. In his introduction to the

book Wisdom of the Elders, he writes that the earth is rapidly moving toward what he calls

“ecocrisis.” He quotes the ecologist Paul Ehrlich in saying that solutions will have to be “quasi-

religious.” Suzuki argues that “our problem is inherent in the way we perceive our relationship

with the rest of Nature and our role in the grand scheme of things. Harvard biologist E. O.

Wilson proposes that we foster biophilia, a love of life. He once told me, ‘We must rediscover

our kin, the other animals and plants with whom we share this planet.’” 3

Some of this interest derives, of course, from a sometimes romanticized view of native peoples

and their relationship with nature. We should recognize that some native peoples, such as the

Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, have viewed nature as dangerously violent, and others have

seriously damaged their natural environment. Despite such cases, one finds in many indigenous

religions extraordinary sensitivity to the natural elements.

The development of photography and sound recording has helped the recovery of native

religious traditions. Photography captures native styles of life and allows them to be seen with a

certain immediacy. Ethnomusicology involves the recording of chants and the sounds of musical

instruments that might otherwise be lost. Gladys Reichard, a specialist who pioneered the study

of the ritual life of the Navajo (Diné), has written that chanters in the Navajo religion need to

memorize an “incalculable” number—that is, thousands—of songs. 4 The fact that listeners can

replay such recordings has no doubt added to the appreciation of this music.

Artists in many cultures, trying to go beyond their own limited artistic traditions, have found

inspiration in native wood sculpture, masks, drums, and textile design. Pablo Picasso (1881–

1973), for example, often spoke of the strong influence that African religious masks had on his

work. By the early 1900s, West African masks had found their way to Paris and the artists there.

A scholar describes the effect of one African work on several artists who were close friends.

“One piece… is a mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905. He records that

[André] Derain was ‘speechless’ and ‘stunned’ when he saw it, bought it from Vlaminck and in

turn showed it to Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it.” 5 French artist Paul

Gauguin moved to Tahiti and the Marquesas to find and paint what he hoped was a fundamental

form of religion there, and some of his paintings allude to native Tahitian religious belief. 6

Gauguin thereby hoped to go beyond the limited views of his European background. The work of

such artists as Picasso and Gauguin helped to open eyes to the beauty produced by indigenous


In this old photo, we see women in Okinawa undergoing priestly initiation.

© Hitoshi Maeshiro/EPA/Newscom

Of course, the religious art of native peoples needs no authentication from outsiders. And

outsiders present a problem: they tend to treat native religious objects as purely secular works of

art, while people within an indigenous religious tradition do not make such a distinction.

Indigenous religions exist generally within holistic cultures, in which every object and act may

have religious meaning. Art, music, religion, and social behavior within such cultures can be so

inseparable that it is hard to say what is distinctly religious and what is not. Although we can

find a similar attitude among very pious practitioners of the dominant world religions, for whom

every act is religious, people in modern, industrial cultures commonly see the secular and

religious realms as separate.

All our histories, traditions, codes were passed from one generation to another by word of mouth.

Our memories must be kept clear and accurate, our observation must be keen, our self-control


Thomas Wildcat Alford, Shawnee 7

Fortunately, the bias that once judged native religions to be “primitive” manifestations of the

religious spirit—as opposed to the literate, so-called higher religions—is disappearing. It is an

inescapable fact that the span of written religions is relatively brief—barely five thousand

years—yet scientists now hold that human beings have lived on earth for at least a million (and

possibly two or three million) years. Although we do not know how long human beings have

been manifesting religious behavior, we believe it goes back as long as human beings have been

capable of abstract thought.

Studying Indigenous Religions: Learning from Patterns

The study of indigenous religious traditions presents its own specific challenges. Happily, oral

traditions are being written down, translated, and published. Yet our understanding of these

religions depends not only on written records but also on field study by anthropologists,

ethnomusicologists, and others.

It would be ideal if we could study and experience each native religion separately; barring that,

however, one workable approach is to consider them collectively as “sacred paths” that share

common elements. Thus, in this chapter we will concentrate on finding patterns in native

religions—while keeping in mind that beyond the patterns there is enormous variety. The

patterns we identify in indigenous religions will also enrich our encounter with other religions in

later chapters. Three key patterns we will consider are the human relationship with nature, the

framing of sacred time and space, and the respect for origins, gods, and ancestors.

Human Relationships with the Natural World

Most indigenous religions have sprung from tribal cultures of small numbers, whose survival has

required a cautious and respectful relationship with nature. In the worldview of these religions,

human beings are very much a part of nature. People look to nature itself (sometimes interpreted

through traditional lore) for guidance and meaning.

Some native religions see everything in the universe as being alive, a concept known as animism

(which we discussed briefly in Chapter 1). The life force (Latin: anima) is present in everything

and is especially apparent in living things—trees, plants, birds, animals, and human beings—and

in the motion of water, the sun, the moon, clouds, and wind. But life force can also be present in

apparently static mountains, rocks, and soil. Other native religions, while more theistic, see

powerful spirits in nature, which temporarily inhabit natural objects and manifest themselves


In an animistic worldview, everything can be seen as part of the same reality. There may be no

clear boundaries between the natural and supernatural and between the human and nonhuman.

Everything has both its visible ordinary reality and a deeper, invisible sacred reality. Four Oglala

Sioux shamans, when asked about what was wakan (“holy,” “mysterious”), said, “Every object

in the world has a spirit and that spirit is wakan. Thus the spirit[s] of the tree or things of that

kind, while not like the spirit of man, are also wakan.” 8 To say that nature is full of spirits can be

a way of affirming the presence of both a universal life force and an essential, underlying


Among many peoples, particular objects—a specific rock, tree, or river—are thought of as being

animated by an individual spirit that lives within. And in some native traditions, we find deities

that care about and influence a whole category of reality, such as the earth, water, or air. Among

the Yoruba of Africa, storms are the work of the deity Shangó, a legendary king with great

powers who climbed to heaven (see Chapter 11). The Igbo (Ibo) pray to Ala, an earth-mother

deity, for fertility of the earth. Women also pray to her for children, and men pray to her to

increase their crops. In the Ashanti religion, Ta Yao is the god of metal. The work of blacksmiths

and mechanics is under his charge. 9

Deeper Insights: Australian Aboriginal Religion

Aboriginal people came to Australia from Asia, probably via a land bridge, about forty thousand

to sixty thousand years ago. From the north of the continent they spread throughout Australia,

eventually evolving into many groups and languages. At the time of the first European contact,

there were several hundred Aboriginal languages. Now there are fewer than a hundred, and some

of these are close to extinction. Although Christianity is currently the majority religion of

Australian Aboriginal people, indigenous religions are still alive and are becoming increasingly


No single Aboriginal religion exists, but there are many similarities among them. Perhaps the

best known is belief in the Dreamtime—an early creative period when legendary gods and

ancestors created the mountains, rivers, and other features of the earth. Another is belief in the

Rainbow Serpent, a divine figure of power that appears in the rainbow and in water and that

shaped the rivers and mountains. (The Rainbow Serpent has many indigenous names.) The early

creative figures have a prominent place in Aboriginal art and music, which tell their stories.

Because the Aboriginal peoples were nomadic, they did not create great temples. And because of

the generally warm climate, the peoples did not need intricate clothing. But the Australian

Aboriginal peoples told complex stories of their origins that linked elements of nature with the

gods. As the people experienced everyday life, they recalled their stories of the gods and

ancestors. Dreams also made it possible to be in contact with the gods and ancestors.

Aboriginal art presents many figures from the Dreamtime—particularly the Rainbow Serpent,

the lizard, and the kangaroo. These are presented along with dots, geometric figures, circles, and

swirls in strong, stylized forms. In the last fifty years, Aboriginal carving, painting, and music

have grown in popularity both within and outside the Aboriginal communities. They appear in

public places and are now also influencing other religions in Australia.

Aboriginal artist Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula is joined by another artist as he paints in Australia’s

Central Desert.

© Frans Lanting/National Geographic Stock

In a world that is animated by spirits, human beings must treat all things with care. If a spirit is

injured or insulted, it can retaliate. Human beings must therefore show that they respect nature,

especially the animals and plants that they kill to eat. Human beings must understand the

existence and ways of the spirit world so that they can avoid harm and incur blessings. (We will

revisit this spirit world later, when we discuss trance states and the spiritual specialist, the


Native American religions are noted for their reverential attitude toward the natural world;

human beings and animals are often pictured as coming into existence together, and the sun,

moon, trees, and animals are all considered kin. Hehaka Sapa, or Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux,

although he had become a Christian, explained the sense of relationship to nature that he had

experienced when he was growing up among his people in South Dakota. In his autobiography,

which he dictated in 1930, he points out that his community, which traditionally lived in tipis

(circular tents made of animal skins and poles), arranges itself in a circle—as does all nature,

which is constantly making circles, just like the sun, the moon, and the whirlwind.

Native American religions often express the kinship bond between human beings and animals in

ritual. (To a lesser extent, some other religions do this, as well.) Åke Hultkrantz, a Swedish

scholar, clarifies with an example the meaning of many dances that imitate animals. “Plains

Indian dances in which men imitate the movements of buffaloes… are not, as earlier research

took for granted, magic rituals to multiply the animals. They are rather acts of supplication in

which Indians, by imitating the wild, express their desires and expectations. Such a ritual tells us

the Indian’s veneration for the active powers of the universe: it is a prayer.” 10

Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.

Black Elk, Oglala Sioux 11

In many Native American religious traditions, there is little distinction between the human and

animal worlds; rather, there is a sense of kinship. To exploit nature mindlessly is even thought to

be as sacrilegious as harming one’s own mother. As Smohalla of the Nez Perce people said,

“You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast? Then when I

die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.” 12

Native religions also frequently embrace an ethic of restraint and conservation concerning

nature’s resources. One is expected to take only what one needs and to use all the parts of an

animal or plant. In traditional Hawai`i, for example, fishing in certain areas would be temporarily

forbidden (kapu, or taboo) in order to allow the fish population to be replenished. Of course, the

ideal is never universally maintained, and even native peoples have sometimes been unaware of

the destructive effects of their actions. Consider, for example, the devastation of the beaver by

native peoples in North America who sold the pelts to European traders, or the cutting of most

sandalwood trees by native Hawaiians for sale in China. Given examples like these, it is clear

that native peoples who did not live in harmony with nature could not long survive.

It is difficult, perhaps, for urban human beings today to experience fully the intimate connection

with the rest of nature that has been a common aspect of native religions. The predominant

contemporary view sees human beings as fundamentally different from other animals. Perhaps

this tendency is a result of our modern culture, which emphasizes the skills of writing and

reading. We also have little connection with the origins of our food, and we live and work

indoors. Electric light diminishes our awareness of day and night and obstructs the light of the

moon and stars. Except for insects, rodents, and the most common birds, we seldom see wildlife

firsthand. Traffic noise drowns out the sounds of wind, rain, and birdsong.

In contrast, consider the sense of kinship with animals found, for example, among the Haida

people of the Pacific Northwest: “the Haida refer to whales and ravens as their ‘brothers’ and

‘sisters’ and to fish and trees as the finned and tree people.” 13

Another example of contrast is apparent in the way the BaMbuti, forest dwellers of central

Africa, perceive their forest. Outsiders might find the darkness and thick foliage frightening. But,

as one anthropologist has written, for the people who live within it and love it, the forest “is their

world…. They know how to distinguish the innocent-looking itaba vine from the many others it

resembles so closely, and they know how to follow it until it leads them to a cache of nutritious,

sweet-tasting roots. They know the tiny sounds that tell where the bees have hidden their honey;

they recognize the kind of weather that brings a multitude of different kinds of mushrooms

springing to the surface…. They know the secret language that is denied all outsiders and without

which life in the forest is an impossibility.” 14

Sacred Time and Sacred Space

Our everyday lives go on in ordinary time, which we see as moving forward into the future.

Sacred time, however, is “the time of eternity.” Among the Koyukon people of the Arctic it is

called “distant time,” and it is the holy ancient past in which the gods lived and worked. 15

Among Australian Aborigines it is often called Dreamtime, and it is the subject of much of their

highly esteemed art.

Sacred time is cyclical, returning to its origins for renewal. By recalling and ritually reliving the

deeds of the gods and ancestors, we enter into the sacred time in which they live. Indigenous

religions even tend to structure daily lives in ways that conform to mythic events in sacred time;

this creates a sense of holiness in everyday life.

A woman sits quietly in Ireland’s Drombeg Stone Circle, where particular stones are aligned

with the setting sun on the winter solstice.

© Thomas Hilgers

Like ordinary time, ordinary space exists in the everyday. Sacred space, however, is the doorway

through which the “other world” of gods and ancestors can contact us and we can contact them.

Sacred space is associated with the center of the entire universe, where power and holiness are

strongest and where we can go to renew our own strength.

In native religions, sacred space may encompass a great mountain, a volcano, a valley, a lake, a

forest, a single large tree, or some other striking natural site. For Black Elk and his people, after

the Lakota had moved west, it was Harney Peak in South Dakota. In Australian Aboriginal

religion, Uluru (Ayers Rock) has served as this sacred center. In Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro and

other high mountains have been considered sacred spaces.

Sacred space can also be constructed, often in a symbolic shape such as a circle or square, and

defined by a special building or by a boundary made of rope or rocks, such as Stonehenge in

England. It can even be an open area among trees or buildings, such as the great open space

between the temples of Teotihuacán, near Mexico City.

Respect for Origins, Gods, and Ancestors

Origins Most indigenous religions have cosmic tales of their origins that are regularly recited or

enacted through ritual and dance. Some tell how the world originated from a supernatural realm.

According to other emergence stories, the earth rose out of previous earths or from earlier, more

chaotic material forms. Often the land and creatures emerged from watery depths. In a Hopi

creation story, the earth, before it took shape, was mist.

Deeper Insights: Religion of The Pueblo Peoples

One of the great sights of the world is the group of multistoried buildings hidden high up in the

cliffs at Mesa Verde, Colorado. Inhabited for more than seven hundred years, the now-empty

buildings give an unparalleled view into the life of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples (also called

Hisatsinom and Anasazi). Visitors can walk down from the top of the cliff, via narrow stone

paths and stairs, to visit some of the houses and to experience the plazas that were once used for

ceremonial dance. Visitors can then climb down a wooden ladder to enter a kiva, a dark and

womb-like ritual chamber beneath the surface. There they can see the sipapu, the hole in the

floor that is a symbol of the emergence of human beings into this world. The kiva and sipapu

show how thoroughly oriented to the earth the religion practiced here was.

Similar cliff dwellings may be seen at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and at Bandelier National

Monument in New Mexico. In New Mexico one may also visit the great spiritual center of Chaco

Canyon, once a flourishing city. Tens of thousands of pilgrims would come here regularly, and

as many as forty thousand would be present at the time of the twice-yearly solstices. This site is

sacred to the Pueblo peoples even today.

The religious life of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples is not fully known, but some evidence comes

from traces of ancient roads and from archeology, petroglyphs, and paintings. Some of their

buildings were oriented to coincide with the solstices and equinoxes. The presence of kivas

suggests that ceremony took place there, and in some of the kivas the remains of wall paintings

have been found. Remaining petroglyphs show elements from nature, including stars and the

moon, and in the period from about 1200 to 1250 CE there was a profuse growth of the cult and

imagery of kachinas—benevolent guardian spirits who are believed to appear among the people

on ceremonial occasions (and whom we will discuss in a moment). *

* Note: This text uses the time designations BCE (“before the Common Era”) and CE (“of the

Common Era”) in place of the Christianity-centered abbreviations BC (“before Christ”) and AD

(anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”).

The kiva at Chaco is an important ancestral site for the Pueblo peoples.

© Thomas Hilgers

When the large settlements, such as the one at Mesa Verde, were abandoned, their people moved

to villages—primarily in modern-day northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico—but

they took with them their religious beliefs, images, and ritual, especially the cult of the kachinas.

The traditional style of multistoried buildings continued, as well, suggesting to the Spanish

colonizers the name by which the peoples are still commonly known: pueblo (Spanish:


The Pueblo peoples share many features of their architecture, governance, and religious practice,

but there are also great differences among them in all these areas. Each of the more than two

dozen pueblos governs itself independently, and multiple languages are spoken: Keresan,

Zunian, three Tanoan dialects (Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa), and Hopi. The independence of each

pueblo may have actually been to its advantage, helping each unique culture to survive. Despite

the pressures to change, the Pueblo peoples have kept their identities intact—particularly through

fidelity to their religious beliefs and practices.

Each pueblo has its own religious traditions. Here we will touch on just a few. The stories of

human origins differ among the peoples and clans, but many tell of human emergence from a

lower world, of assistance from supernatural beings in learning to live, of help from animals, and

of wanderings before final settlement. Among the seven Keresan-speaking pueblos, for example,

the story of origin tells of how people moved upward through four different-colored worlds.

Standing in an eagle’s nest on top of a tree, with the help of a woodpecker and a badger, they

made a hole large enough to climb up into this world.

Religious symbolism is complex. Among the Zía, for example, four is a sacred number. It

symbolizes the four seasons, four directions, and four stages of life (infancy, youth, adulthood,

and old age). It is used in many designs found in Zía art. (The state flag of New Mexico, which

shows a crosslike symbol made of four lines in each of the four directions, is based on a Zía


Figure 2.1 The Pueblo peoples and other Native American tribes of the American Southwest.

Some of the Pueblo peoples, influenced by Christianity, are monotheists, but many retain a belief

in the traditional deities, and they sense no disharmony. The Great Spirit, they believe, can take

many forms. Among the Hopis, for example, more than thirty gods are recognized. Perhaps the

most important are Tawa, the sun god, prayed to each morning; Mu-yao, the moon god,

imagined as an old man; Sotuqnangu, god of the sky, who sends clouds and lightning; and

Kokyang Wuuti, called Spider Woman in English, who is thought of as a loving grandmother.

Among all the Pueblo peoples there is a belief in guardian spirits, who play a role something like

angels and patron saints. These are the kachinas. They are not gods but rather the spirits of

ancestors, birds, animals, plants, and other beings. They are believed to have once lived among

the people and then to have retreated to their own world; but they return yearly. Human beings

represent them when dressed in specific masks and costumes.

One of the most complex systems of belief in guardian spirits is found among the Hopis, whose

traditional religion has been least affected by other cultures. From February through the summer,

dancers represent the spirits, and more than two hundred different masked figures appear in the

dances. In the Hopi language they are called katsinam (singular: katsina). Bird and animal spirits

are based on many birds and animals, including the deer, badger, sheep, cow, horse,

hummingbird, and eagle; and nature spirits express the rain cloud, rainbow, moon, and fertile

earth. Some figures show human characteristics, such as warriors, corn-grinding maidens,

guards, clowns, and children. There is also a wide variety of ogrelike figures. Each has a name,

special costume, and specific mask. The Zuñi recognize similar guardian spirits, whom they call


The Hopi and the Zuñi are also well known for their painted representations of these spirits,

called tithu (singular: tihu). (Outsiders know the figurines as “kachina dolls.”) They are re-

creations in miniature of the masked kachina figures that dance in the villages. The tithu were

originally created to be given as gifts from the masked dancers to girls in the villages—a form of

religious teaching through images. But they have become collectors’ items, cherished by


Visitors who have the privilege of observing Pueblo ceremonies come away with a renewed

appreciation for the variety of religious paths and a sense of amazement at the persistence

through the centuries of such beautiful, ancient ways.

Stories of the origin of a tribe may be connected with its story of the earth’s creation. Among the

Ácoma Pueblo, there is a story of two sisters who lived entirely underground. Eventually they

climbed up the roots of a tree and into the sunlight through a hole in the ground, to become the

first human beings on earth. One became mother of the Pueblo. 16

Gods Native religions frequently speak of a High God who is superior to all other deities and is

considered to be wise, ancient, and benevolent. The Inuit speak of a Great Spirit living in the sky

who is female and to whom all human spirits eventually return. In a few African religions, too,

the High God is female, neuter, or androgynous; and in some religions there are two

complementary High Gods, characterized as male/female, brother/sister, or bad/good. The

BaKuta of central Africa speak of the twins Nzambi-above and Nzambi-below, although in their

myths the lower twin disappears and Nzambi-above becomes the High God. 17

In some African religions, stories of the High God, who is almost always the creator of the

world, offer some explanation for the ills of the world or the distance between human beings and

the divine. Many African religions tell how the High God created the world and then left it—

sometimes out of dismay at human beings or simply for lack of interest. “Many people of central

and southern Africa say that God (Mulungu) lived on earth at first, but men began to kill his

servants and set fire to the bush, and so God retired to heaven on one of those giant spiders’ webs

that seem to hang from the sky in morning mists. In Burundi, however, it is said that having

made good children God created a cripple, and its parents were so angry that they tried to kill

God and he went away.” 18

The High God in African religions, however, is not always remote.

The Diola, for example, believe in direct, prophetic revelation from the High God, and the Igbo

and Shona have oracles from the supreme being. While monotheism is common in African

religions, it can express itself in many ways.

As part of indigenous New Year’s festivities in northern Thailand, elders in front of an ancestral

altar receive homage from family members.

© Thomas Hilgers

Although indigenous religions often revere a High God, altars and imagery dedicated to a High

God are not common. Large temples, temple ritual, and priesthoods have been found in a few

cultures, such as in Mexico and western Africa, but these elements are rare. Instead, in their

prayer, ritual, and art many native religions tend to focus on lesser deities, especially those

associated with the forces of nature. More commonly, ceremonies in indigenous religions are

performed at small-scale shrines or meeting places. Sometimes the religious ceremonies occur

indoors, such as in a sweat lodge or kiva (a submerged meeting hall). At other times they occur

outdoors, at a riverbank, beside a rock formation, or in a grove of trees.

These kachina figures represent the spirits of ancestors.

© Kevin Fleming/Corbis

Ancestors Many indigenous religions make little distinction between a god and an ancestor. Both

are important, because living people must work with both for success in life. Spirits of ancestors

must be treated well out of love for them, but also out of respect for their power. Some native

religions, such as that of the Navajo, distance themselves from the spirits of the dead, fearing

them. But more commonly the dead are venerated. In African religions, ancestor spirits are

commonly thought to bring health, wealth, and children if they are pleased, and disease and

childlessness if they are not. The way to appease angry ancestors is through ritual, sometimes

including sacrifice. The ancestors often are thought to live in an afterlife that is a state of

existence much like earthly life. Belief in reincarnation is found sometimes, as in native Tahitian

religion and in many African religions, from the Diola of Senegal to the BaKongo of the Congo

region. In traditional Hawaiian religion, it was believed that the spirits of the dead went to an

underworld, while the spirits of cultural heroes ascended into the sky.

Sacred Practices in Indigenous Religions

In native societies, everyday religious activity and practice are significant because their primary

purpose is often to place individuals, families, and groups in “right relationships” with gods,

ancestors, other human beings, and nature. Rituals are the basic way in which human beings

ensure they are living in harmony with each other and with nature. Rituals are frequently devoted

to major aspects of human life: key events in the life cycle, rules concerning certain kinds of

behavior, sacrifice, and access to the spirit world. In addition, artifacts such as masks and statues

are an essential part of specific rituals.

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the

symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to

interpret your own religion in terms of facts—but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the


Joseph Campbell 19

Life-Cycle Ceremonies

In indigenous societies, the human journey through life is aided and marked by rites of passage.

In addition to being important to the individual, these rites also help hold the society together by

renewing bonds and admitting new members to the community.

Rites of passage mark an important life event, such as the birth of a child. In some native

religions, a woman about to give birth goes off by herself to bear her child at a sacred site or in a

house built for that purpose. Birth is considered a powerful time for the mother and child, and the

blood associated with it is believed to have dangerous power.

After the birth, the newborn is often celebrated with a public event that may occur immediately

or anytime from a week to a year after the actual birth. In some parts of Africa, babies do not

become members of the community until they receive their names in a special public ceremony

that is accompanied by song, dance, and a meal. A name is chosen carefully because of the

influence it is thought to have on the child’s future.

Special rituals also mark a person’s entry into adulthood. They may include a period of

instruction in sex, adult responsibilities, and tribal history and belief. They often involve an

initiation ritual that may be experienced in seclusion or in the company of other initiates. Rites

can include a symbolic death—painful and frightening—meant to turn a boy into a man. Across

Africa, circumcision for boys in their early teens is a common rite for entering adulthood.

In western Africa, initiation societies oversee coming-of-age rituals. “The Poro [a secret

initiation society] is for boys, controlled by a hierarchy of elders, different in each village, which

meets in a sacred grove where the clan founder was buried. The purpose of the initiation is the

rebirth of the youths, who are said to be swallowed by the Poro spirit at the beginning and

returned to their parents as reborn at the end of the initiation.” 20

A parallel initiation society

exists for girls, who receive sexual instruction and training in the skills necessary for marriage.

Some indigenous peoples of western Canada erect totem poles, often in front of their houses, to

honor ancestors. Images on the totem pole are related to the ancestor’s life story.

© Thomas Hilgers

A girl’s first menstrual period may also be marked publicly. For example, among the Apache, a

four-day ceremony marks a girl’s menarche (first menstruation). During the ceremony, which is

elaborate, the girl performs a dance, receives a massage from her female sponsor, kneels to

receive the rays of the sun, and circles repeatedly around a ceremonial cane.

In Native American religions, a common ritual of early maturity is the “vision quest,” or “dream

quest,” which may involve prolonged fasting and some kind of preliminary cleansing, such as

washing or undergoing a sweat bath. Details of the construction of the sweat lodge and the

attendant ritual can include cutting willow branches, during which tobacco might be offered;

gathering sticks, rocks, moss, and sweet grass; making an altar and heating a stone; rubbing

smoke over the body; marking the ground; and saying appropriate prayers at each stage.

For years before the vision quest, the young person may receive training to prepare for the

experience. Commonly, a tribal religious specialist will create a sacred space by ritually marking

the four directions of the compass and the center. The sacred space, set apart from the

community, should be a place of natural beauty.

An Ojibwe practitioner explains uses of the sweat lodge and fire pit to visitors during the


© Thomas Hilgers

The seeker remains in the sacred space until a vision, or dream, comes. Although the vision quest

is often a part of the coming-of-age ceremonies for males, among some peoples it is also

employed for females. The vision quest may be used at other times, too—particularly when the

individual or the group must make an important life decision.

In indigenous societies, as in many other cultures, marriage is a ritual that not only publicly

affirms and stabilizes a union but also cements economic arrangements and, through the

ceremony, ensures fertility. In both Africa and North America, however, marriage in tribal

cultures often has been a practical arrangement. Among Native American peoples, marriage has

frequently been celebrated simply as a social contract that is worked out by the families.

Monogamy has been the norm, but divorce is acceptable when a marriage is not successful. In

indigenous African religions, marriage is sometimes marked by rituals to unite the two lineages

and transfer the power of fertility; but often its religious aspect “is not distinctive. It is regarded

as the normal sequel to rites of adolescence, whose purpose was to prepare for this state.” 21

There, when I was young, the spirits took me in my vision to the center of the earth and showed

me all the good things in the sacred hoop of the world.

Black Elk, speaking of his vision quest at age nine. 22

As the final passing from this life, death is accompanied by rituals that serve to comfort close

relatives, assist the spirit of the dead person in moving on, and protect the living from bad

influences that could come from an unhappy spirit. Because the spirit of the dead person may be

sad to leave the family circle, it must be helped to make its trip to the spirit world. Relatives and

friends assist by placing clothing, food, money, and favorite objects with the body. In the case of

a chief or other notable person, the body may be embalmed or mummified for public display

until a large funeral can be arranged. In the past, great African chiefs have had wives, children,

and servants buried alongside them. Among Native American tribes, the sacrifice of relatives and

attendants to accompany a dead leader has also occurred. For example, after the death of the

Natchez leader Tattooed Serpent in 1725, two of his wives and six others, after preparation by

fasting, were strangled as a part of the funeral ritual. 23

In Native American religions, bodies of

the dead are usually buried, but sometimes they are placed on platforms or in trees.

Deeper Insights: The Igbo: An Indigenous Religion in Transition

Today, at least six million Igbo (or Ibo, pronounced ee`-bo) live in western Africa, mostly in the

nation of Nigeria. While there are some variations among tribes, traditional Igbo people worship

the goddess of the earth (Ala) and various spirits (alusi), such as the spirit of the river, the spirit

of the yam, and the spirit of the hearth. Many Igbo worship a High God (Chukwu, or Chineke),

conceived of as the creator. They also venerate the souls of ancestors, who are believed to have

power over the lives of their descendants. The Igbo believe that each person has a unique spirit

(chi), which plays a major role in determining the person’s fate.

Within Igbo religion, special rituals mark significant life events. Daily ritual takes place in the

home at a central shrine with wooden images of ancestors. These images receive regular

offerings of food, drink, and sometimes the blood of sacrificial animals. Religious rites mark the

naming of children, marriage, planting, and harvest. The most important and complex rituals

occur at funerals, when the Igbo believe they must help the deceased enter the spirit world

contentedly. For these ceremonies, the Igbo have developed elaborate masks for use in religious

dances and masquerades.

Christian missionaries began to work among the Igbo in the mid-nineteenth century. Throughout

the British colonization of Nigeria in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the Church of

England, also known as the Anglican Church, sent many missionaries to the region. Catholic

missionaries, who arrived after 1880, were also successful with conversions. As a result,

Christian belief and practice have strongly influenced Igbo religion. Sometimes Christianity has

displaced traditional beliefs and practices. But more commonly, in varied forms of religious

syncretism (blending), the two religions have mixed and sometimes even produced new

independent religions.

Many parallels between traditional Igbo faith and Christianity assisted the mixing of the two

religions. The High God of the Igbo resembles the Creator Father God of Christianity. Igbo

spirits of nature resemble Christian angels, and souls of Igbo ancestors intercede on behalf of the

living, as do Christian saints. Igbo belief in an individual’s spirit resembles Christian belief in the


Although Christianity prohibits traditional Igbo polygamy, other elements of older practice

remain. Igbo who worship at Christian churches on Sunday may visit traditional priests and

shrines during the week in order to seek the advice and help of the spirits. And the souls of

ancestors continue to receive veneration. Masquerades are used even for celebrating Christmas, a

major national holiday in Nigeria.

What has happened among the Igbo is quite typical of what has happened throughout sub-

Saharan Africa. Christianity is becoming the dominant religion, but its flavor is African.

Dancers are chosen by their villages to perform in masks at the annual Ibo yam festival, called

Onwa Asato.

Igbo masked dancers performing during the Onwa Asaa festival, Ugwuoba village, Nigeria.

Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959. EEPA EECL 3768. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives,

National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Rituals and Celebrations: The Vision Quest

Among the Ojibwe, who live in the northern plains and Great Lakes area of North America,

fasting was often expected of children as preparation for a great fast upon reaching puberty. Girls

were expected to make a special fast at menarche, but boys were expected, in addition, to

undertake a vision quest. Frequently, religious instruction and purification were an introduction.

Then the Ojibwe boy “was led deep into the forest, where a lofty red pine tree was selected. In

this tree, a platform of woven sticks covered with moss was placed upon a high branch as a bed

upon which the youth was to conduct the fast. Perhaps a canopy of branches would be prepared

to shelter him from the wind and rain. Left alone in this place, the youth was strictly warned not

to take any kind of nourishment or drink. He was to lie quietly day and night on this platform in

a patient vigil for his vision.” 24

He might be checked secretly by elders and would be allowed to

go home if he could not continue, but he would have to return the following year. “When visions

rewarded the fast, they commonly took the form of a journey into the world of the spirits, a

spiritual journey on a cosmic scale. During this journey the visionary was shown the path upon

which his life should proceed. He was associated with one or more spirit beings who would serve

as his guardians and protectors throughout his life.” 25

The boy would also gather, or later be

given, physical symbols of his guardian spirits, which he would keep for the rest of his life to

remind him of his quest and the spirits’ protection.

Taboo and Sacrifice

A taboo is a rule that forbids specific behavior with regard to certain objects, people, animals,

days, or phases of life. Taboos represent a codification of the social and religious order. In our

language, taboo means, often negatively, something that is prohibited. This is essentially the

viewpoint of an outsider. From inside native religions, a taboo is often better seen as a way of

protecting the individual and of safeguarding the natural order of things.

Taboos frequently relate to sex and birth. Blood, too, is always an element of mysterious

power—both helpful and dangerous. For example, in some but not all groups, menstruating

women are expected to remain separate from everyone else, because menstrual blood is

considered powerful and dangerous. In contrast, a few cultures (such as the Apache) hail a girl’s

menarche as a time when she has power to heal illness.

Probably because of the blood involved during childbirth, a woman in some native cultures must

remain alone or in the company of women only during the birth—not even the woman’s husband

may be present. In traditional Hawai`i, for example, women of high rank gave birth in isolation,

at the site of special large stones used only for this purpose. Indigenous societies also frequently

forbid a husband from resuming sexual relations with his wife for some time after childbirth—

this period can even last until the child is weaned.

Like birth, death is also surrounded by taboos concerning the spirit of the dead person, who may

seek to reward or take revenge on the living because of the way he or she was treated in life. The

afterlife can be a shadowy, uncertain realm that the departing spirit is reluctant to enter,

especially if the spirit is leaving a happy family circle. Proper rituals must be performed,

accompanied by public mourning, to avoid angering the dead person’s spirit.

A number of taboos regulate other social behavior. One common taboo relates to rank: people of

high position, such as chiefs, nobility, priests, and shamans, must be treated with extraordinary

care because of their special powers; taboos protect them from insult or inappropriate action. In

traditional Hawaiian culture, for example, the shadow of a commoner could not fall on a member

of the nobility. In a strongly hierarchical native culture, such as in many African groups, the

health of the people and the fertility of the land are believed to depend on the health of the sacred

king. To maintain his health, the king is protected by taboos—particularly regarding the people

with whom he may associate. Because of these taboos and the fear his role inspires, the sacred

king may live a life quite separate from his subjects.

Foods and food sources in many cultures are governed by taboos. Among some African peoples,

commoners have been forbidden to touch or eat the food of a king. In traditional Hawai`i,

women were forbidden to eat certain foods.

Do not kill or injure your neighbor, for it is not him that you injure. Do not wrong or hate your

neighbor, for it is not him that you wrong, you wrong yourself. Moneto, the Grandmother, the

Supreme Being, loves him also as she loves you.

Shawnee rules 26

Antisocial actions may also be subject to taboo. In Native American religions, taboos and rules

encourage a sense of harmony with other members of one’s people. Strong taboos against

adultery and stealing within the tribal unit, for example, are enforced by shame, warnings,

shunning, and expulsion, often administered by a tribal council. Nevertheless, although harmony

is important, warfare against another people has at times been considered justified.

The person or group must atone, often through sacrifice, when a taboo has been broken or a spirit

must be placated. The usual offering is food and drink. A libation (the act of pouring a bit of

drink on the ground as an offering) may be made or a portion of a meal set aside for a spirit. An

animal may be sacrificed and its blood poured out on the ground or on an altar as an offering of

the life force to the deity. Sacrificial animals ordinarily are food animals, such as chickens, pigs,

and goats. 27

After the sacrifice, all the participants (including ancestral and nature spirits) may

eat the cooked animal—thus pleasing the spirits by feeding them and including them in the meal.

Although it has been rare, human sacrifice (and sometimes cannibalism) has occurred in some

native cultures. The sacrifice of human beings was practiced (at least for a time) for specific

purposes in Aztec religion, Hawaiian religion, and among tribal peoples of New Guinea; it was

much less common among native peoples of North America and Africa.

Before leaving the topic of taboos, it might be good to note that taboos exist plentifully in every

society, including our own. Many are associated with sex, marriage, and parenthood. In modern

societies, for example, taboos exist against polygamy, incest, and marriage between close

relations. Such taboos may seem “natural” to the society that enforces them but “unusual” to

outsiders. Taboos are not inherently valid across groups and societies; they are culturally


Deeper Insights: Traditional Hawaiian Religion

The essentials of traditional Polynesian culture and religion were brought to Hawai`i by settlers

who came over the sea from islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. Because of the great

navigational skills of the Polynesians, their culture spread widely.

Before contact with westerners, the Polynesian people of Hawai’i had a well-developed belief

system, made of many strands. Their belief system spoke of a primeval darkness (po), in the

midst of which a separation had occurred, forming the sky and the earth. In the space between

the two, all the varied forms of life emerged. (This emergence is beautifully detailed in the

Kumulipo, the most elaborate of the Hawaiian chants of creation.) The primal deities of sky and

earth were Wakea and his female consort Papa. But the Hawaiian religion also spoke of

thousands of other deities (akua) who were descendants of the earliest gods.

Of the thousands of deities that eventually were said to exist, several dozen were commonly

invoked, and the greatest deities had priesthoods dedicated to their worship. Among the most

important were Ku and Lono, gods who were in many ways complementary. Ku, with several

manifestations, was a god of vigorous action. He was the patron, for example, of digging, bird

catching, and fishing. In a darker aspect he was also patron of war.

The second god, Lono, was a god of peace, associated with rain, fertility, love, and the arts.

Although a large part of the year was dedicated to Ku, the winter period was a time of truce,

under the protection of Lono. During this time the temples dedicated to Ku were temporarily

closed. The four-month period dedicated to Lono began when the Pleiades first appeared above

the horizon in the night sky—something that happened between late October and late November.

This period was called Makahiki (literally, “eye movement”), a term that referred to the

appearance and movement of the stars. The time was given over to religious services, dance,

sports contests, and leisure. During Makahiki, priests of Lono collected offerings in his name. To

announce the presence of Lono, his priests bore around each island a white banner made of kapa

(bark cloth). It was attached to a long pole that had at its top the face of Lono or his birdlike


Two other gods of importance were Kane and Kanaloa, traveling companions or brothers who

came together from their homeland of Kahiki to the Hawaiian islands. The two were said to have

introduced and planted all of the bananas in Hawai`i. 28

Kane was protector of the water but was

seen in many other aspects of nature—particularly in thunder and the rainbow. Houses often had

a shrine to Kane, the heart of which was a phallic stone at which Kane received daily prayer.

Kanaloa was associated with the sky and the ocean—particularly with ocean fishponds, marine

life, the tides, and sailing.

These major gods (with the possible exception of Kanaloa) had their own temples. In the lunar

calendar followed by the Hawaiians, ten days in each lunar month were sacred to one of these

four gods, and most work was forbidden on those days. 29

Fishing and the planting and

harvesting of food plants were regulated by this calendar.

The goddess Pele was also a major subject of devotion. She was worshiped as a goddess of fire,

active in volcanoes. Pele was so important that she also had her own priests and, later,

priestesses. Other popular goddesses included Pele’s younger sister Hi`iaka, of whom Pele was

sometimes jealous; Hina, goddess associated with the moon; and Laka, the patron of hula.

Just as deities had many aspects, they could also manifest themselves in varied shapes (kinolau,

“multiple selves”). Pele, for example, might show herself as a girl, a white dog, a volcano, fire,

or an old woman with long hair. (The ethnobotanist Isabella Abbott recounted a characteristic

tale told her by her father. He said that once he gave an old lady a ride in his truck and offered

her a cigarette. Before he had a chance to light her cigarette, however, it had lit by itself, and the

old lady was smoking it. Then suddenly she disappeared.)

Deceased ancestors were, and are, also thought of as having elements of divinity. Known as

‘aumakua, they act as powerful family guardians. Like the gods, they might appear in varied

forms—the best-known shapes being those of animals such as sharks, dogs, owls, turtles, and

giant lizards (mo`o).

A traditional heiau usually had a wooden platform (lele) on which worshipers left offerings.

© Thomas Hilgers

Places of worship varied in size—from enormous stone temples to small wayside shrines,

temporary altars, and the site of sacred objects in the home. Many temples and shrines were used

for specific purposes, such as treating the sick or requesting good fishing, rain, or an increase of

crops. The design of temples, called heiau, was derived from that of temples in Tahiti and the

Marquesas, and seems to have become more elaborate over time. The heiau generally were

outdoor stone platforms, often enclosed by walls. In the heiau, images of the deities (ki`i) were

set up, food offerings were placed on wooden platforms, and priests performed carefully

memorized chants.

A complex system of classification came to exist in all traditional Hawaiian society, and religion

provided the taboos (kapu). Underpinning the entire social system was a notion of spiritual

power, called mana. Nobles, who were considered to be representatives of the gods, were

believed to have the greatest mana; but their mana had to be protected. Commoners, for example,

had to crouch or prostrate themselves when close to nobles.

In 1819, King Kamehameha the Great, who had unified the islands, died. In the same year, his

son King Kamehameha II ate with women, an act that represented a clear and public rejection of

the old system of prohibitions. (This act was influenced by several decades of Western contact.)

Many heiau were destroyed and allowed to fall into ruin, most images of the gods were burned,

and the religious priesthoods officially ended. The following year, Protestant Christian

missionaries arrived from Boston, and Christianity stepped into the vacuum.

Traditional religion, however, did not entirely die out. Elements of it remain alive even today.

Among the clearest are widespread reverence for Pele, veneration of ancestors, and belief in

guardian spirits. There have also been theoretical attempts at integrating the traditional native

polytheism with monotheism, by saying that the many traditional deities are angels or are just

aspects of the one God. 30

The revival in recent decades of hula, Hawaiian language, and traditional arts has brought about

a new interest in ceremonies of the traditional religion. A good number of heiau have been

repaired and even rebuilt, including several large ones on Maui and the Big Island of Hawai`i.

Some traditional religious services have been conducted at the reconstructed heiau, and there

may be further attempts to restore traditional religious practices. 31

Although hula is often thought of as entertainment, much of it tells the stories of Hawaiian gods

and goddesses.

© Thomas Hilgers

Shamanism, Trance, and Spiritual Powers

As we have seen, native religions take for granted that a powerful and influential but invisible

spirit world exists and that human beings can access it. A shaman acts as an intermediary

between the visible, ordinary world and the spirit world. The shaman can contact this realm,

receive visions of it, and transmit messages from it, often to help or heal others. As one

commentator remarks, “The shaman lies at the very heart of some cultures, while living in the

shadowy fringes of others. Nevertheless, a common thread seems to connect all shamans across

the planet. An awakening to other orders of reality, the experience of ecstasy, and an opening up

of visionary realms form the essence of the shamanic mission.” 32

Sometimes the spirits speak

through the shaman, who knows entry points to their world. The spirits may be reached in

dreams or trances by climbing a sacred tree, descending through a cave into the underworld,

flying through the air, or following a sacred map.

I enter the earth. I go in at a place like a place where people drink water. I travel a long way, very

far. When I emerge, I am already climbing threads [up into the sky]. I climb one and leave it,

then I climb another one…. You come in small to God’s place. You do what you have to do

there…. [Then] you enter, enter the earth, and you return to enter the skin of your body.

Bushman trance dancer 33

The shaman understands the primordial unity of things and experiences a shared identity with

animals and the rest of nature. Thus the shaman can interpret the language of animals, charm

them, and draw on their powers. The shaman gains the powers of animals and the rest of nature

by wearing items taken from important animals, such as deer antlers, lion skins, and eagle


Deeper Insights: ISAAC Tens Becomes a Shaman

Isaac Tens, a shaman of the Gitksan people of northwest Canada, spoke to an interviewer in 1920

about how he had become a shaman. On a snowy day at dusk, when he was gathering firewood,

he heard a loud noise, and an owl appeared to him. “The owl took hold of me, caught my face,

and tried to lift me up. I lost consciousness. As soon as I came back to my senses I realized that I

had fallen into the snow. My head was coated with ice, and some blood was running out of my

mouth.” 34

Isaac went home, but he fell into a trance. He woke up to find medicine men working

to heal him. One told him that it was now time for him, too, to become a halaait (medicine man).

Isaac refused. Later, at a fishing hole, he had another fainting spell and fell into a trance again.

He was carried home. When he woke up, he was trembling. “My body was quivering. While I

remained in this state, I began to sing. A chant was coming out of me without my being able to

do anything to stop it. Many things appeared to me presently: huge birds and other animals. They

were calling me.” 35

Soon Isaac began to treat others.

Part of becoming a shaman involves having one or more encounters with the spirit realm in the

form of a psychological death and rebirth. A person may have experienced some great loss—of

sight, of a child, or of something equally precious. He or she may have had a mental breakdown,

been terribly sick, or suffered a serious accident and come close to dying. Upon recovering from

such an extreme experience, this person can have new powers of insight and healing, which can

lead to becoming a shaman. Those who have experienced vivid dreams and visions that are

thought to be manifestations of the spirit world are also sometimes trained as shamans.

The shaman often blends the roles of priest, oracle, psychologist, and doctor. A common English

term for the shaman is medicine man, yet it stresses only the therapeutic role and obscures the

fact that shamans are both female and male. In Korean and Japanese native religious paths, in

fact, shamans are frequently female.

The shamanic trance state that brings visions, both to the shaman and to others, can be induced in

several ways: weakening the visual boundaries (for example, by sitting in the darkness of a cave

or hut for prolonged periods), fasting, experiencing sensory deprivation, making regular

rhythmic sounds (such as drumming, rattling, bell ringing, and chanting), and dancing in a

repetitive way, especially in circles. The ingestion of natural substances is also common; peyote

cactus, datura, cannabis (marijuana), coca, opium, and the mushroom Amanita muscaria have all

been used to induce trance states, both by the shaman alone and sometimes by participants in a


Some Native American peoples have used a calumet—a long sacred pipe—for smoking a special

kind of tobacco that is far stronger than commercial cigarette tobacco; it is so strong, in fact, that

it can have a hallucinatory effect. The bowl of the pipe is usually made of clay but sometimes of

bone, ivory, wood, or metal, and the stem is made of wood. Many pipes are also made of stone.

(A red stone, popular among Plains Indians and Eastern Woodlands Indians for this purpose, was

quarried in Pipestone, Minnesota.) The calumet is an object that gives protection to the person

who carries it. The pipe is smoked as part of a shared ceremony that establishes strong bonds

among all the participants, and oaths sworn at these ceremonies have the greatest solemnity.

Rituals involving the use of peyote have developed primarily within the past two centuries in

some native North American tribes. 36

The practice seems to have moved north from Mexico,

where peyote grows easily and has long been used for religious purposes. When the fruit of the

peyote cactus is eaten, it elicits a psychedelic experience that lasts six or more hours and

produces a forgetfulness of the self and a sense of oneness with all of nature. Ceremonies

commonly begin in the early evening and last until dawn.

Among North American tribes, the rituals involving peyote are often mixed with Christian

elements. For example, a member of the Native American Church described his preparation for

the ceremony: “First we set up an altar—a Mexican rug and on it a Lakota Bible in our own

language. We use only the revelations of St. John in our meetings. It’s… full of visions, nature,

earth, stars…. Across the Bible we put an eagle feather—it stands for the Great Spirit…. On the

left is a rawhide bag with cedar dust to sprinkle on the fire. That’s our incense.” 37

The blending

of elements, he says, is intentional, because it illustrates that, at their core, all religions are the

same. It is interesting to note that although the ordinary use of peyote is illegal, its religious use

by the Native American Church has been legally upheld.

In native African religions and their Caribbean offshoots, powerful but invisible spiritual forces

are believed to be able to do either great good or tremendous evil. Diviners and healers direct

these powers through incantations, figurines, and potions in what is sometimes called

sympathetic magic. Magic in the hands of certain individuals can be used, as one commentator

remarks, “for harmful ends, and then people experience it as bad or evil magic. Or they may use

it for ends which are helpful to society, and then it is considered as good magic or ‘medicine.’

These mystical forces of the universe are neither evil nor good in themselves, they are just like

other natural things at [our] disposal.” 38

Spiritual powers and trance states are believed to make it possible to look into the past and

future, a process called divination (from the Latin divus, “god,” and divinare, “to foretell”).

Looking into the past is thought to help determine the causes of illness and other misfortune,

while looking into the future can guide an individual to act wisely. It is a common belief in

African religions that an individual has a predetermined future that can be discovered through


The general worldview common to native religions allows for a number of specialized religious

roles. A diviner looks for causes of sickness, depression, death, and other difficulties. A healer

works with a person afflicted with physical or mental illness to find a cure. A rainmaker ends

drought. Malevolent sorcerers manipulate objects to cause damage; they may bury an object in

the victim’s path or take fingernails, hair, clothes, or other possessions of the victim and then

burn or damage them in order to cause harm. Witches need only use their spiritual powers.

“Another belief is that the spirit of the witches leaves them at night and goes to eat away the

victim, thus causing him to weaken and eventually die. It is believed, too, that a witch can cause

harm by looking at a person, wishing him harm or speaking to him words intended to inflict

harm on him.” 39

Of course, the powers of these sorcerers and witches are also employed for good

ends as well.

The powwow provides opportunities for Indian nations to share their dances and to pass age-old

stories to new generations.

© Thomas Hilgers

Artifacts and Artistic Expression in Indigenous Religions

The masks, drums, statues, rattles, and other objects that are important in native religions were

once seen as curiosities to be collected and housed in anthropological museums. Today,

however, we view them differently; we realize that we must respect both their importance to the

cultures that produced them and their inherent artistic value. The arts of native religions are not

created by “artists” as “art” but as functional objects to be used in particular settings and special

ways. Navajo sand-paintings, for example, are often photographed and reproduced in books as

though they were permanent works of art. In fact, when used by a healer, they are temporary

creations that are made and then destroyed as a part of the ritual. And unlike art in most

industrialized cultures, sacred objects and images in native religions are not separate endeavors

but an essential part of the religious expression itself. Although modern secular culture does not

usually think of dance or tattoo or body painting as religious expression, in many native religions

these art forms all fulfill that role.

This Aztec stone calendar shows how religious deities and beliefs were incorporated into

complex artifacts.

© PBNJ Productions/Blend Images/Corbis

In religions that do not rely on the written word, artistic expressions take on unique significance

because they are filled with meaning and remind practitioners of the specifics of the oral

tradition. Statues and paintings, of course, are common in a great many religions, both oral and

written. Dance, which takes on particular importance in native religions, incorporates religious

objects such as carved and painted masks, headdresses, costumes, ornaments, and musical

instruments. In native Hawaiian religion, hula kahiko (ancient hula) is danced in conjunction

with chanting to honor the gods. Instruments for marking rhythm and lei (wreaths of flowers or

other plants worn around the head, wrists, and ankles), when used in hula, are considered

religious objects.

Chants, too, are essential, for they repeat the sacred words and re-create the stories of the

religious traditions. To be used properly in religious ceremonies, they must be memorized

carefully. Chanters must not only have prodigious memories and be able to recall thousands of

chants; they must also be able to create special variations on traditional chants and oral texts for

individual occasions.

Masks play a significant role in native religions, especially when used in dance. When a dancer

is wearing a mask and any accompanying costume, the spirit is not merely represented by the

masked dancer. The dancer actually becomes the spirit, embodied on earth, with the spirit’s

powers. Among the BaPunu in Africa, for example, dancers not only wear masks but also walk

on stilts—the overall effect must be intense. Particularly complex masks have been produced in

the Pacific Northwest by such tribes as the Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakiutl

(Kwakwaka`wakw). 40

Some of their masks, especially those depicting animal spirits, have

movable parts that make them even more powerful for those who wear and see them.

Besides masks and statues, other forms of wood carving can manifest religious inspiration.

Perhaps the most famous of all wood carvings is the carved pole, commonly called a totem pole,

found in the Pacific Northwest. The totem pole usually depicts several totems, stacked one upon

the other. A totem is an animal figure—such as the bear, beaver, thunderbird, owl, raven, and

eagle—that is revered for both its symbolic meaning and its clan symbolism. The totem animals

may be memorials to ancestors or may represent badges of kinship groups, with specialized

meaning for the individual or the family responsible for the totem pole. 41

Some totem poles are a

part of the structure of a traditional wooden house or lodge. Others—apparently a later

development—are raised to stand alone, frequently to mark an important event.

Other important art forms that can have religious meaning are weaving, beading, and basketry.

These creations may seem to have less obvious religious significance, but the imagery used is

frequently of religious derivation, particularly figures from tribal myths, nature deities, and

guardian birds and animals.

Feathers and featherwork also feature prominently in many native religions because of their

powerful association with flight and contact with the world above and beyond our own. Richard

W. Hill, in an essay on the religious meaning of feathers, remarks that “some cultures associate

certain birds with spiritual or protective powers. Birds are believed to have delivered songs,

dances, rituals, and sacred messages to human-kind. Feathers worn in the hair blow in the wind

and evoke birds in flight. For followers of the Ghost Dance religion of the late nineteenth

century, birds became important symbols of rebirth.” 42

Feathers are worn in the hair, made into

headdresses, and attached to clothing. In Native American cultures, they are also attached to

horse harnesses, dolls, pipes, and baskets.

The symbols that appear in myths and in dreams are the basic vocabulary of native religious art.

Common symbols include a great mountain located at the center of the universe, the tree of life,

the sun and moon, fire, rain, lightning, a bird or wings, death’s head and skeleton, a cross, and a

circle. These images, however, often appear in unusual forms; for example, lightning may be

represented by a zigzag, the sun may appear like a swastika, and the tree of life may look like a

ladder. Colors are universally used with symbolic meaning, although the exact meaning differs

from culture to culture.

Personal Experience: Gods in Hawai`i

On the southernmost island of the Hawaiian Islands lies Pu`uhonua `o Honaunau (“place of

refuge”). It was once a sanctuary for Hawaiians who had done something that was kapu (taboo,

forbidden). They could be purified and escape punishment if they could reach this place, or one

of its sister sanctuaries, by water or land.

Seeking refuge from the frenzy of life in Honolulu, I fly to the Kona airport and drive my rental

car down the Big Island’s southwest coast to Pu`uhonua `o Honaunau, now run by the United

States National Park Service. After a short walk toward the shore, I see the tall, long stone wall

of the sanctuary. Closer to the ocean are its heiau (temples), made of large, nearly black lava

rock. Most dramatic to my outsider’s eyes are the tall carved wooden images (in Hawaiian,

called ki`i, and in English, commonly called tikis) that once no doubt beckoned to the refugee

who sought out this place at the ocean’s edge. The offering platform and thatched houses near

the ki`i have been restored so that I can see what it might have been like when this was a sacred

site within traditional Hawaiian religion. Because King Kamehameha II dissolved the official

kapu system in 1819, it is no longer a place for seeking sanctuary—at least officially.

The ki`i at Pu`uhonua `o Honaunau mark this place of refuge as sacred ground.

© Thomas Hilgers

Even on this sunny day, the stone wall, the tall images, and the stark landscape speak not of the

“peace and comfort” we may typically associate with a refuge but rather of power, law, and

awesome majesty. The ground is hard, black lava rock and white coral, and except for the

coconut trees here and there amid the few structures, there is little green vegetation. Ocean

waves lap at the shore, but an almost eerie quiet reigns.

Late afternoon: I’m the only person here. It is not hard for me to imagine being a native who has

fled from home and now awaits a priestly blessing in order to be made safe for returning home. I

sense that the Hawaiian religion drew its power from the land, from this very place. The rocks

that make up the heiau are petrifications of fire, water, air, and earth. This is not the tour

director’s tropical fantasyland. Nor, I realize, is it a place of living religious practice. But that

doesn’t matter to me today. What I sense in the land is still alive.

As I drive back up the hill toward the main road, I see a small directional sign that says Painted

Church. Ready for an experience of contrast, I follow its arrow and soon arrive at Saint

Benedict’s Catholic Church—a tiny, white wooden structure that has elements of Gothic style. A

sign near the door says that its interior was painted a century ago by a Belgian missionary priest.

The church sits on a grassy hillside, with a small cemetery spreading out below. I ascend the

wooden stairs of the church and walk in.

The interior is “tropical Gothic.” Ten small windows have pointed Gothic arches. The wooden

pillars look like candy canes, painted with red and white swirls; their tops turn into palm trees,

with fronds like painted feathers on the pastel sky of the ceiling. Behind the altar is a mural of

Gothic arches, stretching back into an imaginary distance, creating the pretense of a European

cathedral. On one side-wall, Saint Francis experiences a vision of Jesus on the cross. In another

painting, Jesus is being tempted by Satan. The other wall shows a man on his deathbed, his face

bathed in heavenly light. A cross of execution, the pains of death—these are not pleasant

experiences, but they are softened by the way they are depicted here.

The walls of Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church were painted by a missionary to suggest the

grandeur (and perhaps superiority) of the missionary’s religion.

© Thomas Hilgers

Back outside, from the top of the stairs, I see the shining ocean below and can even see, at the

edge of the ocean, the Hawaiian place of refuge that I had visited not long before. This little

church, charming as it appears, presents old familiar themes: a High God, a sacrificial victim, an

offering of blood, a restoration of justice. The themes may not be obvious, but they are there.

This, I reflect, is the religion that replaced the native Hawaiian religion; the cycle of replacement

evident here is typical, I think, of what has happened to so many other native religious traditions.

Does it make all that much difference how religions die and rise? I am deep in thought as I pass a

stone grotto enclosing a statue of Mary and then walk past the resident priest’s small house.

From inside come the sounds of a baseball game and a roaring crowd. “Strike two!” a voice

shouts. Passing a flowerbed of honeysuckle, and preparing to return to big-city life, I get in my

car and drive away.

Indigenous Religions Today

Native religions show many signs of vitality. Some indigenous religions are spreading and even

adapting themselves to urban life. For example, religions of the Yoruba tradition are practiced

not only in western Africa, their place of origin, but also in Brazil and the Caribbean, and they

are growing in cities of North America (see Chapter 11). Awareness of indigenous religions is

also becoming widespread, and respect for them is taking many shapes. In some countries (such

as Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru) we can see a growth in governmental protection of the rights of

indigenous peoples. Native peoples themselves are often taking political action to preserve their

cultures. In many places (such as Hawai`i, New Zealand, and North America) a renaissance of

native cultures is under way. Sometimes this involves primarily cultural elements, but where the

indigenous religions are still practiced, those religions are increasingly cherished and protected.

In some places, however, indigenous religions appear fragile. There are four principal threats to

their existence: the global spread of popular culture, loss of natural environments, loss of

traditional languages, and conversion to other religions.

Television, radio, films, airplanes, and the Internet are carrying modern urban culture to all

corners of the earth. (American television reruns that are broadcast in Mali are just one example.)

Change is also evident in the realm of clothing. Traditional regional clothing began to disappear

a century ago, as western styles became the standard. Western business wear is now worn in all

the world’s cities, and informal clothing—baseball caps and T-shirts—is seen everywhere. Some

cultures are trying to hold on to their traditional clothing, especially for formal occasions. (This

is common in Korea, the Philippines, and Japan.) Architecture, too, is becoming standardized, as

the “international style”—with its plate glass, aluminum, and concrete—takes the place of

traditional styles. As modern urban culture spreads across the earth, it tends to dominate

everyone’s worldview. It would be hard to convince today’s young people to undergo the

deprivation of a vision quest, when all they need to visit other worlds is a television, a computer,

or an airplane ticket. But everywhere we go, we find hamburgers, pizza, rap, rock, and jeans.

(Some even believe that popular culture is becoming a religion of its own, displacing all others.)

Another great threat to indigenous religions is their loss of traditional lands and natural

environment. Because so much personal and group meaning comes from the natural

environment, its degradation or loss can be devastating to a native people’s identity. Logging

interests are a problem almost universally, but especially in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Brazil,

Alaska, and western Canada. Much of northern Thailand, where many native peoples live, has

already been badly deforested, and the logging companies are now beginning the same process in

Myanmar, another home of indigenous peoples. Fights are intense over conservation, land

ownership, and governmental protection. Luckily, there have been gains (such as in New

Zealand and Australia) where aboriginal rights to land have been recognized.

A third threat is the loss of native languages. It has been estimated that of the approximately six

thousand languages that are spoken in the world today, in a hundred years only three thousand

will remain. A comparison of Native American languages once spoken and still in use illustrates

well how many languages and dialects have already been lost. In the United States and Canada,

only about 500,000 indigenous people still speak their native languages. A single example of this

phenomenon is the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka`wakw) of British Columbia. Although their population

has been rising and is now as high as 5,000, only about 250 people speak the native language.

Clearly, the loss of a native language endangers the continued transmission of a religion that

expresses itself in that language.

Contemporary Issues: Halloween: “Just Good Fun” or Folk Religion?

Many of us think of native religions as having little connection to our everyday life. Yet

elements of them persist in modern culture. Their oral nature is apparent when we see how the

manner of practice is taught—not in books of instruction, but by word of mouth and by example.

Halloween is an excellent example of this, but other festivals also invite examination.

 Halloween means the evening before All Hallows (All Saints) Day, which falls on

November 1. Although Halloween gets its name from Christianity, the celebration is, in

fact, a continuation of Samhain (pronounced sa’-win), the New Year’s festival celebrated

in pre-Christian England and Ireland. There is a strong theme of death and rebirth, as

winter comes on and the old year disappears. It was believed that spirits of ancestors

roamed free at this time and needed to be fed and placated. We see this underlying the

practice of children going door to door, receiving food. We also see it in the many

Halloween costumes that suggest death (skeletons) and communication with the spirit

world (angels, devils, and religious figures).

 Although Christmas has a Christian name and purpose, the origins of this festival, too,

are pre-Christian. It began as a festival of the winter solstice, when the days are the

coldest and shortest in the northern hemisphere. People compensated by celebrating a

holiday of extra light, warmth, and abundance. The lighted Christmas tree and the

evergreen wreaths and decorations have nothing to do with the story of Jesus’ birth;

rather, they are clear symbols of fertility and life, which the celebrants hope will persist

through a cold winter. The giving of presents is related to this idea of abundance, and the

Christian Saint Nicholas has been transformed over the past two hundred years into the

grandfatherly Santa Claus. Like a shaman or wizard, Santa Claus flies through the air,

carried by his magical reindeer, dispensing presents from his overflowing bag to children

all around the earth.

 Easter’s Christian meaning is mixed with elements that derive from the Jewish Passover,

but underlying this tradition are symbols of fertility and new life—eggs, flowers, and

rabbits. (The name Easter comes from an Old English term for a spring festival in honor

of Eastre, goddess of the dawn.) Easter has maintained a close tie to nature in that it is

always celebrated at the time of a full moon.

The costumes of these trick-or-treaters are not unlike those used in some ceremonies of

indigenous religions.

© BananaStock/PunchStock RF

We can see in these examples of contemporary folk religion the “universal language” of religious

symbols. It is the same language, whether found in folk religion, native religions, or the other

religions that we will take up in the chapters ahead.

Contemporary Issues: The Green Movement: A New Global Indigenous Religion?

All indigenous religions honor nature in some way. These religions sometimes associate natural

forces such as wind, rain, volcanoes, and earthquakes with invisible spirits living beyond the

earth. Other traditions see these forces as residing more visibly in mountains, trees, rivers, the

moon, and the sun. Whatever form it is conceived as, nature commands respect, and people are

expected to show their respect by working harmoniously with their environment.

In contrast with indigenous religions, major religions have traditionally shown limited concern

for nature. However, this is changing. Today, many major religions have begun to display a new

sensitivity to the earth. The Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, speaks frequently of the

need to show compassion and respect for all living things—not just for human beings. The first

Catholic pope elected in this century, Benedict XVI, labeled acts that harm the environment as

“sinful.” The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, is called “the Green

Patriarch” for his interest in ecology. Increasingly, presidents and prime ministers, whatever their

religions, as well as ordinary citizens, are making calls to protect the environment, participating

in what has become a worldwide Green Movement.

The first phase of the Green Movement in the United States came more than a hundred years

ago, when the federal government began to create national parks. People had become aware that

the treasures of the scenic natural world needed protection. The second phase began fifty years

ago, with the publication of books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which warned about the

dangers of pesticides. Works like Carson’s gave scientific underpinning to growing ecological

concern. The third phase is now under way, as environmentalism gains popular support around

the world. Individuals, schools, businesses, and governments deliberately “move from gray to

green.” Part of the world’s energy now comes from sunshine, wind, ocean waves, and plants.

Construction materials for buildings now include bamboo, reused brick, and recycled wood. A

common watchword is sustainability, and a well-known mantra is “reduce, reuse, recycle.” After

decades of being considered a fringe movement of flaky “tree- huggers,” environmentalism is

entering the mainstream. Industries that were once opposed to environmental needs are

beginning to realize the commercial benefits of “going green,” and they are at last using their

enormous power to make real change.

Indigenous peoples are now also becoming an explicit and vocal part of the Green Movement.

For example, in Brazil the Yanomamö (Yanomami) have demonstrated in Brasilia to protect

their native lands from roads and mining. In Kenya, Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) was called

“Tree Mother of Africa” because

A fourth threat is the spread of proselytizing religions, particularly Christianity and Islam. In the

Pacific, native cultures are undergoing a revival, but few elements of the native religions of those

cultures remain unchanged from their earlier forms. Christianity, brought since the nineteenth

century by missionaries (particularly Methodist, Catholic, and, more recently, Mormon), has

replaced some beliefs and reshaped others. Christianity has spread widely in sub-Saharan Africa

over the past hundred years, creating both mainstream Western denominations and independent

African churches. As a result, there are now more black members of the Anglican Church than

there are white members. Islam has also gained many converts in Africa. of her work as founder

of the Green Belt Movement, which has planted more than 40 million trees. For her efforts, she

was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Those who espouse the Green Movement most likely don’t see themselves as embracing a

religion, but the movement has many hallmarks of religion. Its statements of political principles

form a list of commandments and virtues, which include not only sustainability and biodiversity

but also consensus, grass-roots democracy, and nonviolence. Its priests are the world’s scientists

and environmental experts, and its prophets are environmental activists. It promotes a way of

life, and it holds promise of rewards and punishments for all inhabitants of this earth.

Kenyan Green-Movement activist Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 “for her

contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.”

© Stephen Morrison/epa/Corbis

Whether or not the Green Movement comes to be seen as a world religion makes little

difference. If the multinational Green Movement can change human behavior for the good of all,

it will be accomplishing as much as many recognized religions. Somewhat ironically, the Green

Movement, by leading the world’s citizens back to a respect for nature, is also leading people to

a new appreciation of the indigenous religions that are built on such respect.

Despite the threats to their existence, indigenous religions continue to thrive in several forms

throughout the world. In their purest form, they live on in those pockets where modern influence

has penetrated the least, such as in Borneo and the Amazon River basin. They may also coexist,

sometimes in diluted form, alongside other religions. In Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, for example,

shamanism exists side by side with Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions. (Because the

shamans there are often female, their native religious practices allow them roles that are not open

to them in the adopted religions.) Indigenous religions have also intermixed with mainstream

religions. In the Caribbean, the gods of African religions have sometimes been combined with

forms of French and Spanish Catholicism in the religions of Voodoo and Santería (see Chapter

11). In Central America, people who are otherwise practicing Catholics also worship deities of

earlier native religions. We see similar types of synthesis in Mexico and the southwestern United


In North America, in the Pacific, and in Africa, people have continued or are attempting to

restore the practices of their ancestral ways. In New Zealand, for example, Maori culture is

experiencing a revival in canoe building, tattooing, dance, and wood sculpture. This attempt at

revival is complicated by debates over such issues as land ownership and the introduction of

Maori language into schools and public life. In Hawai`i, a renaissance of Hawaiian culture,

language, and hula necessarily means retelling the stories of the gods and goddesses of Hawaiian

mythology. Some schools now teach all their lessons in Hawaiian, and hula schools are

flourishing. Citizens of many native nations in North America are instructing their young in

traditional dance and other religious practices. Nevertheless, how to deal with a traditional belief

in deities in the face of some dominant monotheistic religions presents intriguing questions. One

result, as in the Native American Church, is that beliefs and practices now often incorporate both

oral and text-based traditions.

Interest in indigenous religions is a potential restorative for cultures that have moved quickly

from their traditional rural homes to homes in the city. In native traditions, we see religion before

it was compartmentalized. These holistic traditions make us aware of the religious dimensions

that can be found in our own everyday life, and they expand our sensitivity to nature. Their

remembrance of the sacred past makes holy the present and the future.

Reading: The Kumulipo *

* from The Kumulipo. Martha Warren Beckwith, editor and translator. Copyright 1951,

University of Chicago Press. Used with permission.

This is the most famous of Hawaiian chants. Combining both a genealogy and a description of

the creation of nature, it was recited for Captain James Cook when he arrived in Hawai`i in

1789. It is in two parts—the first dedicated to the creative darkness and the second to the light.

Here—given in both Hawaiian and a classic English translation—the chant begins.

Ka Wa Akahi


O ke au i kahuli wela ka honua

At the time when the earth became hot

O ke au i kahuli lole ka lani

At the time when the heavens turned about

O ke au i kuka`iaka ka la

At the time when the sun was darkened

E ho`omalamalama i ka malama

To cause the moon to shine

O ke au o Makali`i ka po

The time of the rise of the Pleiades

O ka walewale ho`okumu honua ia

The slime, this was the source of the earth

O ke kumu o ka lipo, i lipo ai

The source of the darkness that made darkness

O ke kumu o ka Po, i po ai

The source of the night that made night

O ka lipolipo, o ka lipolipo

The intense darkness, the deep darkness

O ka lipo o ka la, o ka lipo o ka po

Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night

Po wale ho—`i

Nothing but night

Hanau ka po

The night gave birth

Hanau Kumulipo i ka po, he kane

Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male

Hanau Po`ele i ka po, he wahine

Born was Po`ele in the night, a female 43

Test Yourself

1. Although there is no agreement on how to speak of ancient religious ways, they are often

inadequately referred to as traditional, aboriginal, indigenous, tribal,____________, primal,

native, oral, and basic.

1. holistic 2. shamanistic 3. nonliterate 4. wakan

2. Indigenous religions exist generally within _________________ cultures, in which every

object and act may have religious meaning.

1. holistic 2. sacred 3. symbolic 4. sacrificial

3. In many Native American religious traditions, there is little distinction between the human

and animal worlds. These native religions see everything in the universe as being alive, a

concept known as_________

1. taboo 2. sacredness 3. origins 4. animism

4. Sacred time is “the time of _________________” Among the Koyukon people of the Arctic,

it is called “distant time,” and it is the holy ancient past in which gods lived and worked.

Among Australian Aborigines it is often called Dream-time, and it is the subject of much of

their highly esteemed art.

1. eternity 2. ceremonies 3. life cycles 4. gods

5. __________________ is the doorway through which the “other world” of gods and

ancestors can contact us and we can contact them. It is associated with the center of the

universe and can be constructed, often in a symbolic shape such as a circle or square.

1. Dualism 2. Sacred space 3. Ceremony 4. Eternity

6. Most indigenous religions have cosmic tales of their ____________. They frequently speak

of a High God and make little distinction between a god and an ancestor.

1. life cycle 2. ceremonies 3. taboos 4. origins

7. In native societies, everyday religious activity and practice are significant, because their

primary purpose is often to place individuals, families, and groups in “right

_________________” with gods, ancestors, other human beings, and nature.

1. origins 2. relationships 3. ceremonies 4. taboos

8. Special rituals mark a person’s entry into adulthood. In Native American religions, a

common ritual of early maturity is the “vision quest,” or “___________________”

1. dream quest 2. trance 3. sacred time 4. symbolic death

9. A _________________ is a rule that forbids specific behavior with regard to certain objects,

people, animals, days, or phases of life.

1. sacrifice 2. totem 3. taboo 4. divination

10. A(n) ___________________ acts as an intermediary between the visible, ordinary world

and the spirit world.

1. god 2. artist 3. totem 4. shaman

11. Think of a major problem facing twenty-first century Western society. How might a

holistic perspective typical of indigenous religions help in dealing with this problem?

12. Imagine you are assigned a research paper on one of the following topics in indigenous

religions: life-cycle ceremonies, taboos, or shamanism. Based on what you have read in

this chapter, which one would you most want to investigate and why? What challenges do

you think you would encounter while researching this topic?



Abbott, Isabella Aiona. La`au Hawai`i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants. Honolulu: Bishop

Museum Press, 1992. A demonstration by a Hawaiian botanist of the holistic nature of traditional

religion. Abbott specifically discusses the use of plants in religious ceremony and hula.

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor, 1989. An exploration, through the

framework of a personal struggle between father and son, of the breakdown of traditional Igbo

beliefs under British colonial rule.

Cowan, James. Aborigine Dreaming. Wellingborough, UK: Thorsons, 2002. An exploration of

the spiritual beliefs of the Australian Aborigines.

Fitzhugh, William, and Chisato Dubreuil, eds. Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Seattle:

University of Washington Press, 2001. A well-illustrated collection of essays on Ainu history,

religion, and culture.

Grim, John, ed. Indigenous Traditions and Ecology. Cambridge, MA: Center for the Study of

World Religions, 2001. Essays on environmental elements in indigenous religions.

Harvey, Graham, ed. Indigenous Religions: A Companion. New York: Continuum, 2000. A

collection of essays by many scholars regarding mana, taboo, sacrifice, and other beliefs and

practices of indigenous religions.

———.Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. Articles and extracts that examine

shamanism, exploring issues of gender, initiation, hallucinogenic consciousness, and political


Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Ceremonies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. An insider’s

description of the important traditional ceremonies of his people, including the naming

ceremony, marriage ceremony, and funeral ritual.

Marcos, Sylvia, ed. Women and Indigenous Religions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

Essays on the roles of indigenous women regarding ritual, kinship, and related topics.

Pijoan, Teresa. Pueblo Indian Wisdom. Santa Fe: Sun-stone Press, 2000. A collection of the

legends of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico.

Ray, Benjamin. African Religions. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. A

presentation of the most important native African religions, with additional information on

Christianity and Islam in Africa.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 2006. A novel that shows how an

emotionally and spiritually wounded Native American veteran, facing a grim future, is healed by

a traditional ceremony arranged by the elders of his tribe.

Vitebsky, Piers. The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul; Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to

the Amazon. London: Duncan Baird, 2001. A colorfully illustrated exploration of the history and

practice of shamanism around the world.


Dancing in Moccasins: Keeping Native American Traditions Alive. (Films Media Group.) An

examination of how contemporary Native Americans keep their traditions alive.

Earl’s Canoe: A Traditional Ojibwe Craft. (Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife Programs

and Cultural Heritage.) A documentary of Earl Nyholm, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, as he

builds a canoe according to traditional Ojibwe methods and explains his tribe’s beliefs

concerning the construction and use of canoes.

Healers of Ghana. (Films Media Group.) An exploration of the traditional medical practices of

the Bono people of central Ghana, which involve the use of herbs and spirit possession.

The Shaman’s Apprentice. (Miranda Productions.) A documentary, filmed in the rain forests of

Suriname, that shows efforts by Dr. Mark Plotkin to preserve the rain forest and the religious

practices of its people.

Walkabout. (Director Nicholas Roeg; Films Inc.) A classic film about two British children

abandoned in the Australian outback and rescued by a young Aborigine who is on a walkabout, a

sacred initiation intended to convey a boy into manhood.

Whalerider. (Director Niki Caro; Columbia Tristar.) An exploration of the conflict between

Maori tribal tradition and one girl’s determination to prove herself as a tribal leader.


The Baoule of the Ivory Coast. (Smithsonian Folkways.) Music from the Baoule tribe of Africa.

The Bora of the Pascoe River: Cape York Peninsula, Northeast Australia. (Smithsonian

Folkways.) Stories and songs of the Bora Aborigines.

Dogon Music of the Masks and the Funeral Rituals. (Inedit.) A collection of traditional ritual

music of the Dogon people of Mali.

The Rough Guide to Australian Aboriginal Music. (World Music Network.) An anthology of

music by various Aboriginal musicians.

Sacred Spirit: Chants and Dances of the Native Americans. (Virgin Records.) A compilation of

songs that spans the history and tradition of Native American ritual chant and music.

Uwolani. (Mountain Apple Company.) Twenty traditional Hawaiian chants, including creation

chants (ko`ihonua), name chants (mele inoa), chants to honor gods, and chants to recognize the

beauty of places, winds, and rains.

Yunupingu, Geoffrey. Gurrumul. (Skinnyfish/Dramatico.) Songs written and sung by a blind

Aboriginal man.


Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS): http://www.cwis.org. A Web site devoted to

challenges confronting indigenous peoples, research into indigenous topics, conflict resolution,

and related conferences.

The Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS): http://www.shamanism.org/. Information about a

foundation whose goal is to preserve and teach the religious beliefs of indigenous peoples.

Internet Sacred Text Archive: http://www.sacredtexts.com/index.htm. A large electronic archive

that contains sections devoted to the tales and folklore of indigenous religions in Africa,

Australia, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands.

United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII):

http://social.un.org/index/IndigenousPeoples.aspx. The official Web site of the U.N. advisory

body that addresses indigenous issues, including economic and social development, culture, the

environment, education, health, and human rights.

Key Terms


A long-stemmed sacred pipe used primarily by many native peoples of North America; it

is smoked as a token of peace.


A foretelling of the future or a look into the past; a discovery of the unknown by magical



Organic, integrated; indicating a complete system, greater than the sum of its parts; here,

refers to a culture whose various elements (art, music, social behavior) may all have

religious meaning.


The act of pouring a liquid on the ground as an offering to a god.


A human being who contacts and attempts to manipulate the power of spirits for the tribe

or group.

sympathetic magic

An attempt to influence the outcome of an event through an action that has an apparent

similarity to the desired result—for example, throwing water into the air to produce rain

or burning an enemy’s fingernail clippings to bring sickness to that enemy.


A strong social prohibition (Tongan: tabu; Hawaiian: kapu).


An animal (or image of an animal) that is considered to be related by blood to a family or

clan and is its guardian or symbol.

Religion Beyond the Classroom

Visit the Online Learning Center at www.mhhe.com/molloy6e for additional exercises and

features, including “Religion beyond the Classroom” and “For Fuller Understanding.”

Experiencing the Worlds Religions. Tradition, Challenge, and Change, Sixth Edition

Chapter 2: Indigenous Religions

ISBN: 9780078038273 Author: Michael Molloy

Copyright © McGraw-Hill Company (6)

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