Native American Practices
The Native American Church, which became institutionalized in the twentieth century, has accepted some of Christianity's beliefs and has spread from coast to coast. The church includes some 100,000 adherents from over fifty North American Indian tribes, including American Indians and Eskimos. In some instances, traditional languages have been incorporated into Christian worship. It has received government support, particularly in the establishment of Indian schools.
The church is also known as Peyote Religion. “Peyotism” is based on the use of mescal, which is obtained from peyote cactus; eating it produces hallucinogenic effects. The drug was originally used for medicinal purposes and (occasionally) during warfare for divination.
Peyotism was especially popular among the disenfranchised, culminating in 1918 in the Native American Church. This cult would combine such indigenous elements as drumming, singing, visions, and the use of the sacred pipe with Christian practices of healing, prayer, and the chewing and sacramental eating of the non-narcotic hallucinogenic buds of the peyote plant in Saturday all-night rites. The rites occurred around an earthen altar and sacred fire in a peyote house or tipi, followed by a communal breakfast on Sunday morning.
The church's ethics include brotherly love, family care and support, and the avoidance of alcohol. Peyote produces visions during trance states, which were part of a Ghost Dance. Songs were sung, and the person in the trance might have a vision of an eagle or crow guiding her to the world of the dead. Part of the Ghost Dance provided information about the traditional culture the individual sought to retrieve.
Aside from peyote's purported hallucinogenic powers was its ability to bring peace and healing. In addition, it was an antidote against alcoholism and provided visions of the Peyote Spirit, often understood as Jesus. The false labeling of peyote as a narcotic led to its banning by tribal councils, missionaries, and government. Peyote was used extensively throughout many of the tribes; in 1997, the Native American Church estimated that there were about 225,000 adherents.
The majority of Native American rituals revolved around the calendar and lunar and solar observations. Others were allied to the various subsistence needs; for example, hunting and harvesting. The Native American environment was symbolized by the ritual of the six directions: north, south, east, west, the zenith, and the nadir. The zenith was Grandfather (day). Sky is represented by Father Sun and the Thunderbirds. The nadir is Mother or Grandmother Earth. Grandmother Moon was female.
The Navajo live on the Navajo nation, a reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico. They believe in powerful holy people, with whom they can live harmoniously. Twenty-four Navajo chants have been identified. One of the central chants is the Navajo creation myth that recounts what happened after their emergence on earth.
Different tribes had different rituals; nevertheless, the principle throughout the majority of the tribes was closely tied to nature and existence. For instance, the spirits and power of mountains, springs, lakes, clouds, flora, and fauna were seen as sacred.
The sweat lodge, fasting, and the sun dance were all part of Native American rituals. A sweat lodge is a structure made from saplings and covered by animal skins that generates moist air, like a sauna. There is a depression dug in the center of the lodge where hot rocks are placed. Water is thrown over the rocks, creating steam. Sweat lodges vary in size; some can hold as many as a dozen people. The purpose is for purification or spiritual renewal.
The Sun Dance
Fasting rituals are self-explanatory, but the sun dance is spectacular. A religious ceremony that originated with the Plains Indians, most notably the Sioux, the Sun Dance was held once a year in the early summer to celebrate and reaffirm beliefs about the universe and the supernatural.
Sometimes the dance was performed by individual tribes; other times a group of them would come together. There were elaborate preparations, and once the Sun Dance was under way, it continued for several days and nights. Dancers didn't eat or drink during the dance and many ended up in a frenzy of exhaustion; some even indulged in self-torture and mutilation. In 1904, the U.S. government outlawed the Sun Dance. Some tribes have tried to revive the dance in its original form.
Birth, marriage, and death do not fit into a universal set of beliefs and rites. The various rites are meant to be indulged in by the relatives and the community. However, death is considered a transition, and many outcomes are possible following death. Some believe in reincarnation, others that humans return as ghosts, and others that the spirit goes to another world.