Beginning in the 1960’s and 70’s, and continuing since then, there has been a growing interest in nature and the environment. The concern with nature is not only ecological and scientific, but also spiritual. A “return to nature” and a belief in an inherent spirituality in nature itself has become commonplace among many people. Many new religions stress the importance of nature (and sometimes nature worship) in their belief systems. These new religions often look back to more primitive, tribal religions for their inspiration. The belief systems of the First Nations of the American continent are a primary source for this purpose. As Jacob Needleman said many years ago in The New Religions: “In all this the American Indian stands as a paradigm. His way was a way in nature.”
The First Peoples of this hemisphere had varying mythologies and beliefs. Some stressed the predominance of one deity, e.g., the Cherokee. Some were overtly polytheistic. Most emphasized some type of preeminent deity, a Creator god, who made everything—including other gods and spirits. This chief deity was known by many different names. Many of them are rendered in English as the “Great Spirit,” or the “Great Power,” or the “Great Mystery.” The religion of these native peoples was largely animistic, seeing spirits in the objects and forces of nature. They believed there were gods or spirits in the sun, moon, wind, mountains, rivers, and so forth. They were also shamanistic in their practice. They credited certain individuals (sometimes called “Medicine Men”) as being gifted with the ability to contact and travel in the spirit realm. These shamans or medicine men were healers, visionaries and spiritual guides for the community at large.
The attraction of Native American religion is largely due to its emphasis on nature. Nature is not only alive with spiritual forces, but it is also a unity. Native religion is essentially monistic, seeing all of nature as being one reality. Humans are part of the whole, in union with the entire cosmic order. To revere and even worship nature and natural objects is a primary belief in this thinking. Note the following quote from the website of the Oklevueha Native American Church: “The fundamental premise of all indigenous spirituality is to honor and respect Grandmother Earth (Matriarchal), Grandfather Sky (Patriarchal) and all of their descendants.” Some older folks reading this will remember the commercial from decades ago of a Native American shedding tears after seeing the litter and pollution of U.S. roads and cities. It is this sentiment (and worldview) that makes Native American religion so attractive to so many.
One expression of native belief is the Native American Church (NAC). This is a spiritual movement that has its genesis in the American Southwest in the 1880’s. Essentially this was an effort of American Indians to the return to the beliefs and practices of their ancestors. The first Native American Church was officially organized in Oklahoma in 1918. Since then several other church bodies have been organized. What makes the Native American Church a “church” is that it has sought to syncretize native beliefs and the Christian faith. Basically they have come to accept their traditional belief in the Great Spirit, and the practices of their ancestors, but added to this a belief in Jesus Christ. They see Christ as the son of the Great Spirit. Several tribal peoples even refer to prophecies in their traditional mythology which refer to a savior coming from the Great Spirit to restore righteousness to the world.
However, it must be stressed that there is a great variety of belief about who Jesus is, and what His role in salvation actually is. There are some who come close to biblical Christianity in their position. Many others hardly mention Christ at all. Generally, the Native American Church is very open and tolerant in its views about religion. Most affirm that all religions are essentially the same and everyone worships the Great Mystery in one form or another. The need to believe in Christ as the only true way of salvation is largely ignored or rejected.
The Native American Church is also noted for its ritualistic practices. Traditional native ceremonies are incorporated into the worship services and beliefs of the NAC. This includes the use of the hallucinogenic peyote mushroom as a religious practice. They also smoke ceremonial pipes in a circle as a sacramental ritual. Chanting, drumming, and dancing are also common. Adherents of the NAC will also go on vision quests, seek spiritual enlightenment in sweat lodges, and pursue contact with their spirit guides (usually a totemic animal spirit). Such practices are obviously more pagan and occultic than Christian. These spiritual exercises are in direct contradiction to the many scriptures which prohibit God’s people from contacting spirits, practicing divination, and the like (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9-14).
The use of peyote is central to the NAC. They share peyote in communal meetings, where a person known as the “Roadman” guides the group through the ceremony. Traditionally the focus on peyote is more than just a ceremony or spiritual ritual. It is truly a worship experience. In native belief, the peyote is actually revered as a deity. The essence of the Great Spirit is found in the peyote. Some assert that even as Christians view the body of Christ as being present in Communion, so the Great Spirit is present in peyote. There are others who believe that the “Comforter” (Holy Spirit) promised by Christ is actually peyote. Whatever the individual belief, peyote use is basically a form of idolatry, revering a natural object as a god.
Summary of Beliefs
God: There is belief in one god, the Great Spirit. There also may be belief in many other gods and/or spirit beings. Generally these lesser deities are associated with the sun, moon, and other natural objects.
Jesus: The Native American Church has a belief in Jesus as the son of the Great Spirit. However, He is not usually viewed as the exclusive means of salvation. He is ignored or devalued in many groups.
Salvation: It varies from group to group. Most believe all religion is the same, thus salvation is open to everyone. Any form of salvation is basically rooted in human effort. Also, peyote is a gift from God, and connects man with God.
Human nature: Man is one with nature.
Sin: It is uncertain whether they believe in original sin, but seems unlikely.
Afterlife: Belief can vary greatly. Some believe in reincarnation. Most assert that death is the beginning of a new spiritual journey, for which certain rituals can prepare a person.
Scripture: The Bible has a place in some groups; it is ignored in others.
Truth: Relative to the group, or the individual.