July 13, 2001


Indian Spirituality

Two perspectives by most Americans on Indian Spirituality:

1. It was primitive, quaint, etc; tend to refer to them as heathens.

2. More liberal view: like Christianity. They believe in a Great Spirit which guides their lives, similar to angels, they have prophets, prophecies, marriages, codes of conduct, etc.

Neither view is entirely correct. Those with either view tend to use Christianity as a measuring rod against which Indian spirituality is judged. One has a tendency to use one’s own religion as the correct religion – it is quite ethnocentric.

Religion was a critical part of Indian/White relations, and a major point of the disruption between the two. Everything else could be resolved, but people tend not to relinquish their religious beliefs.

Europeans tried to convert the Indians, and claimed success; but there is no evidence of their complete conversion. Indian spirituality and Christianity are fundamentally different.

Indian religions varied somewhat, as do Methodists, Baptists, etc. But they had much in common with one another.

Question: Would the Spanish have been so anxious to enslave Indians, destroy their culture were it not for religion?

In once instance, a Spanish priest saw an Indian woman who was pregnant be put to death. As soon as he could, he cut her open and removed the unborn child from her womb and baptized it before it too died.

The Puritans also tried to convert them, take the Indian out of the Indians. One wonders, however, if religion was the prime motivating factor.

Basic Differences between Indian Spirituality and Christianity

A. Christians consider themselves separate from the world around them. They are taught that man is superior to all other life forms. Inanimate objects, rocks, dirt, etc. have no form of life, and are therefore not significant. Spirits (Angels) are separated from the living, and don’t live with humans; just intervene on occasion. All angels live in Heaven.

To the Indians, there is no separation. Man is not separated from nor is he superior to the plants, animals, air, dirt, etc. Everything in existence has a spirit within it, as part of creation itself. It is part of a great creative force, and is equal to human life in all respects.

The Indians also believed that everything was interdependent. Animals eat plants, people eat animals and some plants; the plants depend upon rain, soil, sun, people and animals die, and their decomposing bodies nourish the soil, which helps the plants to grow. Also, since people are dependent upon water, air, etc. for life itself, how can they claim mastery of it?

It is impossible to take one from this culture and expect him to accept Christianity. He will not be able to, even if he is willing to do so.

B. Truth. To Christians, the word of God is the truth, spoken in the Bible. It is a universal truth, at any time, and any place, for any people.

To the Indian, truth is not universal. Rather it derives from experience. If it is derived from one’s tribal experience, truth for one may not be truth for another.

The Indian can understand the wrongness of murder, or adultery from experience. As experiences change, truth itself may change. Say if one is detrimental to the tribe, he may be banished, or even killed for the benefit of the tribe. In this instance, it isn’t considered wrong to kill him; truth is somewhat relative under these circumstances. Christians learn it through instruction, such as the Ten Commandments. For Christians, it is a blanket prohibition against sin in any form.

Sharing is also learned from experience. When food is in short supply, one must share with others.

Indians acknowledge that conditions may change and truth itself may change. It is all based on experience, which is again a product of the environment in which they reside. It will vary depending upon geographic location. So, Indian spirituality is based on the land… the land on which one resides. Indian religion is spatial.

If Indians spoke of Holy Land, the Sioux considered the Black Hills holy. The Navajo the mountain valley of New Mexico, an area where they as people learned that which is true. The Christian tends to ignore experience, environmental and cultural factors as determining truth. This would always separate Indians from Christians.

Jews and Muslims think similarly to Christians. It appears to be typical of monotheistic religions.

C. Time. Christianity is time oriented. It is linear; has a beginning point and an end point, an Alpha and Omega. The Garden of Eden ended with the introduction of sin, the beginning of another linear concept which ends with the coming of Christ.

To the Indians, there is no concept of beginning or end. Time is unimportant. Truth derives from the land, the land changes, and so truth changes. It is an ever evolving process; all things follow a circular pattern, a circle of life, with no beginning, no end, one dies, and is replaced by another. Truth, and the universe, have always existed.

D. Good and Evil: Christians have sin introduced into the world; and the end point for the Christian is to achieve salvation. To the Indian, there is no sin, only good choices and bad choices. If one kills another, he has made a bad choice he has hurt others, but it is not sin, in the Christian sense of the word.

Indians had no concept of natural good and evil. Man was only man, not good or bad by nature. There was no eternal punishment for bad choices, just human repercussions.

E. Heaven and Hell. Indians had no concept of heaven and hell. When one dies, the creation within him returns to the creative force, and is reborn elsewhere. It is not reincarnation; just an energy force that is basically reassigned. The "happy hunting ground," etc. is all a Holly wood creation. It never existed in Indian culture.

The movie: The Lion King has some analogy to this kind of belief.

There were some few tribal groups that believed in a spirit world, with spirits that walked among men; but this was not universal.

Burial practices varied within groups. The Sioux put a body inside a hollow tree trunk and allowed it to decompose. The Cheyenne placed on a rack from 3 to 8 feet above the ground, and allowed it to decompose. The decomposed body parts would fall to the ground, and again re-enrich the earth

Both were a form of fertilizing the ground. Actual below ground burial was not common, but the idea was the same.

Often one’s prize horse, possessions, etc. were killed and buried with one. One is honored thereby, as no one is allowed to use them…almost like keeping a keepsake cabinet.

To Indians, creation was a continuing process that was always going on. The Navajo have three points of creation, the Hopi, four or five (see text). To Christians, creation has a beginning and ending point.

Some points accepted by the Indians:

1. Self Discipline. This makes it possible for one to live in harmony with all nature.

2. Man is insignificant. To Christians, man is most important part of creation; but to both, the universe continues without man.

3. Man continues relative to all Creation. He is a part of the great "tapestry of life." Not master of anything.

4. Equality. Indians considered all creation the same, and adopted persons into their community regardless of race. Blacks and whites were easily adopted and welcomed into Indian communities. (See Movie: A Man Called Horse.) Christians did not typically accept this type of reasoning. Race, division, etc. were used to designate the inequality of humans. There was no racial hierarchy in Indian spirituality.

5. Indian spirituality was also not gender based. Christianity is largely male oriented. To Indians, gender didn’t matter. Man could be blessed as easily as a woman.

6. Indians have no concept of personal salvation, as do Christians. They have no concept of good or bad, heaven or hell.

7. Evangelism is typical of the Christian faith. The objective is to convert others; therefore there are missionaries, revivals, etc. Examples of this were the Great Awakenings in American culture, community pressure to adopt the faith. There has been community enforcement of religious beliefs, blue laws, school prayers, moments of silence, prayers at graduations and athletic events, etc. There has also been the use of force: The Crusades and Inquisition are examples of this. Even the Cold war was couched in religious terms. "Under God" was added to the pledge of allegiance due to American fears of the atheistic nature of communism. Communism was presented as a godless society; not as an economic system. The world was divided between heaven and hell; good and evil; a Christian nation versus atheistic communism.

Many problems in Europe were the result of religion. Jews were routinely persecuted. Martin Luther even said they should be denied civil rights if they refused to convert, that way they might convert. If they didn’t leave, then they should be destroyed.

These were called Pogroms: destroying Jewish homes, communities, etc.

The idea of Witchcraft was also religiously based.

The Indians had no concept of "spreading the word," Truth was relative to where one was, in terms of the land, so why spread it around?


Sitting Bull originally refused to go the reservation. When he did, he was murdered there.

Indian spirituality was not a real "religion" because it was not organized as such. It had no holy book, and was basically common sense, good values. (One should not call them "moral" values, because the Indians had no concept of good and evil.)

The differences in religion made it inevitable that European culture would clash with, and eventually overcome Indian culture.

Good book on Indian Spirituality: God is Red: by Vine Doria.


First European Contact

When Columbus first arrived in the West Indies in 1492, his first impression of the Indians was incredibly positive. He praised them for their spirituality, and said that they were "in the eyes and arms of God."

REMEMBER: Columbus thought he was in a set of Islands off the coast of Cathay (China), NOT India. The phrase "Indian" comes from the Spanish In dios, from his idea that they were in the eyes and arms of God.

The Indians initially accepted the Europeans as equals; shared their food, lodging, and were quite peaceful and sharing. During the first decade, there was an incredibly positive description of Indians by the Europeans. They were described as living in a slightly improved version of the Garden of Eden.

Good Book: Land of Savagery; Land of Promise, by Ray Allen Billington.

Amerigo Vespucci described America as a "land without crime where neither king nor lord exist, and all live in harmony. Europeans thought they saw Indians in a "golden age." Columbus described them as "free of avarice."

Others had similarly glowing images. A Frenchman in 1580 described them as "innocent, glowingly happy, with no knowledge of numbers…"

Indians were not normally aggressive (with rare exceptions, possibly the Caribs); normally only became aggressive when provoked. Europeans marveled at their kindness and generosity.

The problem was, the Europeans were seeing them incorrectly; probably because of some longing on the part of the Europeans. They didn’t see the problems among the Indians that they saw in Europe, where there was religious warfare, poverty, the black plague, pollution, etc. Since they didn’t see that in Indian society, they basically saw that for which they longed, a society free of all these ills.

Also, they were struck with the opportunities on the islands. Europe was at this point in the Renaissance, which began in Italy, Columbus’ old stomping ground. It was a time of rapid and extensive development, and class distinction also, primarily based on wealth. The Indians represented equality and simplicity of life that the Europeans could only dream about.

No wonder they thought they were back in the Garden of Eden.

The Indians did not view the Europeans as "others," but as people similar to themselves. They had no reason to believe that the Europeans had different values. They saw them as physically similar; but also as curiously different. They had beards, their complexion and dress was different, but the Indians saw these as simple differences.

In a number of ways, the Indians saw the Europeans as superior to themselves:

· They had examples of technology that the Indians could not comprehend. Guns, cannon, large ships, tools, swords, etc. Columbus’ largest ship, the Santa Maria. Was only 90 ft. long, but to the Indians, this was humongous.

· Mastery of animals. The Indians had never seen a horse before, and were amazed that the Europeans were able to master them.