Vine Deloria, Jr.

Religious sentiment and experience are foremost among the characteristics which distinguish our species from the rest of the organic beings in the world. Over the course of humanity’s historical journey, religious experiences have formed the basis of social, political and economic institutions of both a formal and informal nature. American Indians, and many other tribal peoples, represent a long historical tradition in which religious experiences and knowledge, and the requirement of ceremonial participation, are spread more or less evenly throughout a small reasonably homogeneous society. Although American Indians participate in a large variety of religious traditions our concern here will be with that portion of the Indian nation that continues to follow traditional religious practices.

The United States Constitution guarantees, in the Bill of Rights, that the Federal government will not intervene in human social processes to establish a state religion nor will it place burdens upon the free exercise of religious duties and matters of conscience. As the population of a nation increases and its governing institutions are asked to perform more complex functions, innocuous religious behavior once specific to small groups of people becomes disruptive when practiced by increasingly larger groups. In making the proper accommodations to satisfy the followers of particular traditions, the exceptions in the rules which govern mass behavior begin to take on increasingly larger responsibilities. Accordingly, the contemporary social and political scene in the United States has created a great tension between practitioners of traditional American Indian tribal religions and some of the other institutional practices of mainstream society. Complex situations in which decisions regarding land use policies, construction of private and public facilities, and preservation of wildlife species and habitat are new areas of conflict which now affect traditional religious practices. We deal not so much with competition between religious traditions as with the areas in which some religious traditions and the secular arms of government meet, a situation not contemplated by the framers of the Constitution.

Two Supreme Court cases, Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (485 U.S. 439 1988) and Unemployment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1105 S. Ct. 1595 1990) and the recent amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (PL 103-344, 42 U.S.C. 1996a) have created a situation in which significant adjustments of Federal and constitutional law have been or will be produced. New understandings of traditional American Indian religions and an expanded philosophy of the Federal responsibility for protecting aspects of Native American traditions, already partially articulated in statutes such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, will require more sophisticated understandings, attitudes and activities from all state and Federal agencies in the very near future.

In order to understand the complexity of this change, it is necessary to distinguish some of the characteristics of the tribal religious traditions from concepts and behavior that are familiar to non-indigenous Americans. Attitudes originate in the expectations which our knowledge of a subject encourages us to anticipate and in the case of Native American religious traditions very little accurate information is known. Many stereotypes exist which place these few bits of knowledge in an unfavorable or exotic/esoteric light. A review of some of the more commonly identified characteristics of Native religions will enable us to understand the context within which religious experiences are occurring and producing behavior and activities that vary considerably from the expectations of the various groups of people whose religious traditions incorporate different perspectives.

English: Tipi for peyote ceremony
English: Tipi for peyote ceremony (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Religious Contexts

The Mysterious Presence

Native and tribal peoples experience and intuit beneath the plenitude of physical entities in the natural world, the presence of a mysterious, personal energy. One tribe may call this energy Orenda, another tribe may describe it as Puha, a third may refer to it as Manitou, and yet a fourth may refer to this presence as Skan, implying energy with but a hint of personality. In general these words indicate an apprehension of the basic life-force of the universe which flows through or is found in everything. Inherent in this concept is the idea of a guided mission or plan which directs the universe to proceed along certain lines. The task of our species is to become positively aligned with that direction and maintain a balance between the seen and unseen forces that constitute our world. Aside from the words describing the existence of this energetic presence, unlike western and world religions, there is little effort made by traditional practitioners to achieve a clear definition of the substance, the role, or the meaning of this presence. There is, in fact, extreme reluctance to pronounce the sacred name of this mysterious presence and consequently the language of allusion and indirect discourse are used when referring to this mystery. Many tribes have the same prohibition on speaking the sacred name that we see in the Old Testament tradition regarding the Hebrew God. Sacredness, in its first and deepest encounter, requires that a boundary of respect be drawn around our experience and/or knowledge of this personal energetic presence. At the very deepest levels of religious knowledge, Native people do not, and as a rule will not, speculate on the basic functions of ultimate reality. They simply accept it as a given.

Manifestations of the Mysterious Presence

In spite of the speculations of non-Indian scholars, and the sometimes compliant agreement of some Native spokespeople, Native peoples do have a keen sense of the historical process and of the passage of time. Consequently the cumulative historical experiences of each tribe have been distilled over millennia into a complex network of interrelated stories and scenarios in which the interactive experiences of these people with this mysterious power have taken concrete historical-event form. Most tribal traditions begin with the process of creation, continue with migration traditions in which the people move through a variety of worlds, through changing conditions within a particular world, or in pilgrimages across now-familiar landscapes to arrive at designated locations where they are instructed to live. A significant proportion of ceremonial activity enacts the primordial experience of creation or migration and is understood as the primary balancing of cosmic forces to ensure continued existence of the world as we know it.

During the course of the historical journey made by each American Indian tribe, events of major significance take place and various personalities emerge which represent the dominant expressions of this mysterious universal power for the life of any particular tribal people. These personalities are not “gods” in the sense that peoples from the western tradition describe their historical religious personalities but they are endowed with a sacredness which stands in direct contrast to secular activities and beliefs. These personalities are more generally described as “spirits” which is to say that while they have specific roles to play in the creation and continuation of the physical universe, and in the definition of meaning for human societies, they are also known by specific personality traits which in turn define their relationships with human beings and with each other.

Each and every entity that helps to constitute the natural world is believed to partake of the mysterious personal energy and to have parity with every other entity in the sense that all together share responsibility for the physical world and for the creation of meaning within its moving processes as seen in the passage of time. No entity in and of itself has value exceeding that of any other but the roles which various entities are asked to play may vary considerably in significance when understood from the human perspective. Given this cosmic parity, there is very little emphasis on “worshiping” these other entities. Rather the concentration is that of petitioning the spirit to assist the human in certain kinds of tasks and in certain kinds of situations. Ceremonial focus could be said to consist of petitions and thanksgivings for past assistance.

Understanding the Nature of Symbolism

In the western European religious tradition, in its American stepchild (American Christianity), and in some of the non-western world religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism we find a great complex of symbols which remind us of the basic features of religious story lines. Symbols “stand for” realities that we acknowledge as being important to our religious expression. While the symbol may invoke great emotional response in those who see it, there is a sense in which the symbol serves primarily as a communications device and does not, in and of itself, participate in the religious experience. In the western context, when we say that a symbol “represents” a certain religious reality, we intend to communicate the importance of remembering how that particular thing fits into the total scope of our religious understanding. But we intend to convey the meaning that the symbol “stands for” another, higher reality, and that the symbol is not, in and of itself, sacred. Hence we are generally speaking of a device for recalling important teachings.

The Native American and other tribal traditions do not use symbols in this sense. When a religious practitioner in an American Indian ritual or ceremony states that a rock represents the earth or a familiar mountain, the designation means that the earth or the mountain is actually present in the ceremony, present in the same way as if the entity had personally sent a representative to the ceremony with full instructions to participate in the proceedings. Insisting that the entity is actually present means that the ceremonial event is a real and integral part of the ongoing cosmic process. The event then has a historical content and is not simply an occasion when clarity of purpose or communication has been established. In a real sense it is a special kind of intervention in the cosmic process to give meaningful focus to future activities. When the Sioux could no longer use the buffalo in one of their ceremonies there was great debate over which of the new domestic animals brought by the white man could be safely used as a substitute for the bison. Similarities in morphology, function, personal characteristics, and ways of relating to human beings were discussed before it was agreed that the sheep could be used as a substitute for certain kinds of rituals. But some ceremonies have simply been abandoned because they were so animal or bird-specific that substitution could not be made. As an example, occasionally participants in an Eagle Dance will relate how they found themselves suddenly high in the sky circling the dance pavilion, actually experiencing what it means to be an eagle. Other times in Visions, the Eagle appears at first as a human being and then becomes transformed into an eagle. In these two instances we see the sacred dimension of being able to experience what other entities feel and understand about the world. People can feel what it is like to be a plant or animal and, we assume, these other creatures can know what it is like to be human.

READ  Chippewa Prophecies

Ritual Activity

The purpose of the physical universe, in its most pristine sense, is the coordinated participation of every entity in the activity of full realization of potential. In its purest form the Native American view of the universe is a ritual expression of possibilities and potential performed by various entities coordinated in fulfilling relationships. This expression depends on the awareness of every entity of its responsibility and the relationship of that role to the functions performed by others. The ceremony is a coming-together of the various entities and the merging of the various experiences of individual time to produce a ceremonial moment in which something new in the cosmos takes place.

Obviously, within the physical universe, it is extremely difficult to correlate the “times” of each entity to produce this moment of complete coordination. The world as we experience it, therefore, is a product of the activities of all entities as they attempt to correlate their personal times with the larger cosmic process. “Religion” as practiced and experienced within American Indian tribal communities is a series of rituals with various origin points in the past practiced in an effort to bring harmony and coordination to the present physical universe.

Unlike the Mass or the Passover which both commemorate past historical religious events and which believers understand as also occurring in a timeless setting beyond the reach of the corruption of temporal processes, Native American religious practitioners are seeking to introduce a sense of order into the chaotic physical present as a prelude to experiencing the universal moment of complete fulfillment. Consequently Native American rituals are designed to deal with immediate adjustments of the situation confronting human beings. What may appear to be the most insignificant ritual may actually have great significance in formulating the completeness of the whole. A healing ceremony, for instance, would adjust the health condition of the person receiving the healing, the spirits participating would be able to bring their healing powers into the physical universe, and the other entities, birds, plants, and animals, would experience joy and fulfillment in assisting in the corrective measures being taken.

Participation in ritual activity places on the practitioner a moral/ethical burden in which responsibility for the well-being of the other entities which assisted in the ceremony are assumed. Even when the ceremony requires the killing of a bird or animal or the complete destruction of the plant, it becomes the task of humans to ensure that the other entities have not made sacrifices of their lives in vain. In a real sense, for most Native American traditions, the human being acts as facilitator for a variety of other entities in creating the ceremonial or ritual moment and setting to generate the experience of cosmic completeness of all participating entities. Rituals which ensure the continuation or renewal of the world, or which express thanksgiving for the physical world as we know it can be said to be performed for the benefit of other creatures and only minimally for our species.

Kinds of Ritual Activities

The mysterious, personal energy which exists in all things gives each entity a basis for experiencing completeness through participatory rituals when individual identities are seen as physical expressions of the commonality of energetic life. That is to say, the other creatures of creation also find fulfillment in the rituals and their own species’ historical experiences are enhanced by their participation. Eagles become more powerful as their participation in rituals increases, and their relationships with other birds and animals becomes more significant. Rituals, therefore, are not restricted to human activity alone and some tribes describe the behavior of plants and animals as ritual practices in which completeness is found without human assistance. Divining the meaning of plant and animal rituals may sometimes produce imitative human behavior. The Plains Indians must certainly have copied the dance of the prairie chicken in some of their rituals although the event during which this incorporation was made is now unknown. Dances honoring the deer, bear, buffalo or other game animals may also have been transferred from wholly animal behavior to human ceremonial importance. Dances for animals in one sense are also suggestions for footwork and expression made by humans to their animal relatives.


The rituals and ceremonies in which we have an interest for the purposes of this report are those in which human beings, on behalf of other entities, ranging from the Sun, the planet Mother Earth, mountains and rivers, different species of plants and animals, and finally specific groups of people and particular individuals become the focal point and prime participants. The dominant purpose of these rituals and ceremonies are to bring order out of a chaotic situation.Therefore, in modern terms we see healing as the primary goal. Healing can be understood as the means by which adjustments are made in the physical universe so that all entities can function in a manner much closer to their innate Potential. Renewal ceremonies, such as the one described in Chapter Seven, conducted at Fort Hood, are healing activities on behalf of the human beings who participate and the medicine wheel which was originally constructed to serve that purpose.


Closely related to the healing activity is that of thanksgiving, which could be described almost as preventive healing in the sense that properly maintained sets of relationships do not create tensions and conflict. Thus ceremonies and dances are performed primarily to honor birds, fish, animals, and particular locations of Native American concern. These ceremonies are the means by which humans give thanks for their good fortune in having relationships with the rest of creation, the thanks being given to particular creatures or locations. The First Salmon ceremony of the Indian nations of the Pacific Northwest and some of the Southwestern United States eagle ceremonies are good examples of this kind of activity.

Vision Quests

Some people see a hierarchy of rituals present in some of the tribal traditions. Viewed cross-culturally, the Vision Quest is the most common way of producing the religious leaders of each successive generation. In a Vision Quest, a young person secludes himself or herself in order to receive a foreknowledge of their life’s religious vocation. This particular ritual is a sophisticated effort to discern the specific goals of the temporal processes which seem to direct Native American lives and to place the coming generation in synchronous relationship with them. This ritual is now being revived in a large number of tribes in an effort to reduce the juvenile delinquency problems. In general it consists of a four day fast, under the supervision of an elder, performed by an Indian boy or girl at the onset of puberty. In more precise terminology the Vision Quest is also done by traditional practitioners to maintain their relationship with higher spiritual powers and to ask for additional specific powers or to gain information on particular subjects.

The original goal of this research project was to locate sacred sites connected primarily with the Vision Quest ceremonies because these rituals, being primarily initiatory, were essential to the continuing process of providing medicine people and spiritual leaders for Native American communities. It was anticipated that conflicts between traditional spiritual practitioners and military installations might revolve about the question of access to sacred sites on military lands for Vision Quest purposes. As the number of probable sacred sites increased it began to appear that the Vision Quest problem might not be as severe as anticipated. The mass of materials began to dictate a much different arrangement of data and the inclusion of other kinds of sites which have the potential for becoming publicly acknowledged by religious leaders of Native American communities. The changing nature of Native American religious concerns now appears to be more aggressive in identifying and protecting locations that would not have been made public in the past. As more sacred sites become a part of Native American and non-Indian awareness, there is no question that Vision Quest activities will be seen as part of more sacred locations. However the sense of urgency with respect to the Vision Quest locations, inspired perhaps by the Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association problems with the government, is considerably less than anticipated. In actual practice, DoD base commanders can expect that requests for memorial and condolence ceremonies related to existing sites already known or burials uncovered during construction or use of installation lands will be the most numerous. It is highly unlikely that new use requests would be made by present-day practitioners. The resolution of the problem of the medicine wheel and cemetery at Fort Hood would be the exception not the rule in these cases.

READ  The Pipe Ceremony


The last kind of Native American ritual activity which may be encountered that might depend on access to a particular location deal with condolence, mourning, or memorial activities. In some of the tribal traditions these ceremonies greatly resemble similar kinds of services performed by the Christian priests and ministers and Jewish rabbis. Basically they help people deal with the loss of loved ones, commemorate members of the community who have been helpful or respected, and sometimes provide a direct linkage between generations of people separated by time and the passage of years. Some years ago a mixture of traditional Sioux spiritual leaders and Sioux priests and ministers cooperated to perform a memorial and reburial ceremony/service for the people’s remains found in the excavation of a village near the Big Bend of the Missouri. In practice we can anticipate that DoD base commanders will have more contact with these ceremonies than with the Vision Quest, World Renewal, or other ceremonies.

Rituals and Sacred Places

Of particular importance for this study, for DoD, and for the state and Federal agencies who will be dealing with the religious/cultural concerns and practices of Native Americans is the relationship of particular locations to the practice of traditional Native American religions. Tribal religions view the landscape as an integral part of religious experience because it is not only the locus for human experience but the earth itself is a living entity and manifests its relationship to all forms of life by sustaining them. Landscapes have interlocking sets of locations which are holy in and of themselves because they are the most specific means whereby the earth can relate to lesser entities.

Over the course of thousands of years, Native Americans have discerned the various sacred sites which have power; that is to say, manifest the energy and concern of the earth. Sometimes several tribes will have discovered the sacredness of a site and become aware of the proper ceremonies that must be performed there. Bear Butte and the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico are good examples of multi-tribal sacred sites. A number of mountains in southeastern Utah have the same status. Within traditional occupancy areas and along ancient migration routes are more locations that have a religious significance to particular Indian tribes. The knowledge of these locations has been passed down within certain families who performed ceremonies for many generations.

In contrast, western and some other world religions also have sacred places and shrines but these sites generally mark the location where historical religious events took place: Mt. Sinai, Mecca, Jerusalem, and other locations. Through ceremonial activities these religions set aside or consecrate locations that then take on significance for the followers and becomes the focus of ceremonial activities. These religions also have the practice of consecrating a location and establishing a shrine where practitioners can worship. The consecration then removes the location from the secular world and places it within the scope of continuing religious activities.

When dealing with public lands or lands controlled by Federal agencies, it is possible to provide non-Native American religious bodies with tracts of land which they can consecrate and use for religious purposes. The location can be almost anywhere of convenience. Native American religious traditions, however, can only use a specific location which is already known to be sacred. In use of geographic locations, therefore, the non-Native American religious bodies can accommodate almost any assignment and make use of it; Native American religious bodies must use particular locations or they cannot continue their ceremonial life.

Sacred Objects

Perceiving a living universe, manifested by the presence of the mysterious life energy in everything, tribal religious traditions understood objects used for religious purposes as possessing the mysterious power which made the universe function. Rituals almost always require the participation of the other creatures of the creation and consequently ritual practices require the collection of plants and animals, minerals and clays, stone, and some ceremonial form of setting these objects aside once they have been used ritually.

Objects used in rituals may have sacred significance for only a duration of time, while some ritual objects are thought to have existed since creation. As an example of time-limited objects, the Zuni make war gods of wood which have status and an active function within the Zuni ceremonial life but which, after a designated period of time, are then placed in special locations where they are returned to the natural world through the processes of decay and erosion.

The classification of objects as having ceremonial potency depends upon the designated practitioners of the respective tribal religious traditions and not upon use or misuse or possession by secular individuals. In terms of designation or classification of objects which might be found on United States military lands, the best course of action for DoD resource managers concerned about the treatment of those objects is to contact practitioners of the most probable Native religious tradition and seek their advice on how to handle the situation.

Sacredness within the traditional Indian religions does not depend upon a hierarchical arrangement of ceremonies or objects, but upon existing and possible future sets of relationships between living entities. Attempting to evaluate the relative importance of certain kinds of practices or materials from outside the religious context is difficult if not impossible. Forcing religious experiences into foreign interpretive frameworks does violence to the understanding of the factors that are actually involved. Misunderstandings and transfers of emphasis can lead to embarrassment and conflict that is unnecessary.

A great deal of Native American religious knowledge has been lost over the last century. Consequently many locations which would have invoked a sense of reverence long ago may not have the same status among practitioners of the religion today. The purpose of existing and contemplated Federal and state laws which seek to grant access to sacred sites or set aside locations of the gathering of ritual objects is in accord with the resurgence of many tribal traditions which have been illegally and immorally suppressed during the immediate past. These efforts are good faith attempts to reconcile the practices of traditional Native religions with the requirements of mass society and its institutions today.

In terms of the expectations which DoD base commanders can anticipate that relate to sacred objects, apart from personal goods which might be found in burials, the objects most important will be those natural substances that were or are used in ceremonies. Already several U.S. military installations have worked out arrangements with a tribal government allowing gathering of plants. While sacred objects are represented by a much wider variety of religious paraphernalia, such as prayer feathers and wands, strips of cloth, and designed figures made during ceremonies, concern, in general, should focus on the plants and minerals which are necessary for ritual use.


The context within which Native American religious expression is found and understood is that of a living universe which has, as its basic ground, mysterious personal energy that pervades and energizes everything. Although this great energy is to be found in every entity which humans encounter, it is the specific manifestations of this energy in historical events that particularizes the sacred into sets of powers and personalities with whom the tribal community has a relationship.

Traditionally many societies have reached the conclusion that a “High God” or solitary deity exist by reference to the orderliness of the natural world or through the demonstration by logical reasoning. This deity is intellectually and conceptually pleasing but we do not find it present in very many Native American religious traditions. Instead, we find vaguely defined beliefs inside vast and very complex ceremonial practices. Since the mysterious power can manifest itself in the historical moment without projecting a sense of absolute revelation, in the western European and American sense, there is no conflict among or between tribes as to the form and substance of ultimate reality.

The basic requirement of Native American ritual activities is that all creatures of creation be granted access to the ceremonies. The transformation of natural objects without specific instructions from the spirits was regarded as a violation of the integrity of the other entities. Therefore, use of natural objects usually conforms closely to their original state. A good example of this practice is in the treatment of peyote for religious purposes. The Native American Church does not alter the peyote button in any way, since that would be a violation of the spirit of the plant. Indian people regard the processing of the plants to find a chemical derivative as a dreadful act. With the exception of placing sacred objects at certain locations, traditional Native American people do not, as a rule, attempt to construct buildings such as churches and chapels at sacred sites. Everything in the physical world is believed to have its own integrity. The task of religious practitioners, therefore, is to create the minimum disruption of the site and cause the minimum disruption of the lives of other creatures while performing ceremonial functions on behalf of these entities.

Leave a Reply