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