Indigenous/ Nature Traditions
(From Ellwood & McGraw, Many Peoples, Many Faiths,
and Juergensmeyer, Global Religions)
Jurgensmeyer refers to a “global diaspora” of native peoples across the globe. This caught my
attention because of our discussion a couple of weeks ago. Certainly there has been a broad scale
scattering of indigenous peoples because of conditions primarily brought about by the West. More about
that later. The spiritual heritage of indigenous peoples predates writing. It is rich in art, myth, ritual and
dance, and not as concerned with organizations and ideologies. Indigenous religions could be seen as the
forerunner or backdrop of all the world’s religions, though ironically the languages of most indigenous
peoples do not have any concept of religion in their vocabulary – religion cannot be separated out from
the whole of the people.
Today after centuries of colonization, missionary efforts and globalization, only remnants of
tribal, nonliterate society and religion survive. We can get only a glimpse of what it must have been like
through such peoples as the Maori of New Zealand or Native peoples in the Americas. Native or
indigenous spirituality has become quite popular in recent years among many non-native peoples;
certainly this is so in the U.S.
Ellwood and McGraw assume that at least the major themes of today’s tribal religions have some
continuity with those of prehistoric religion. On that basis we will examine some of these basic themes.
Before we do so, though, let me emphasize the point that problems exist with our terminology for tribal or
prehistoric religions: primitive, primal, archaic – these all seem pejorative. Animism – belief that
everything in nature has a soul or spirit, and shamanism (which we will explore later) allude to beliefs
and practices widespread in prehistoric and tribal religions, but they don’t necessarily define these
traditions. So, I, like Ellwood and McGraw, will speak of tribal and prehistoric religions, as well as using
the terms native and indigenous. It goes without saying that there exists tremendous variety in these rites,
cultures and gods. So again, we will be looking for common themes rather than making an attempt to
describe individual traditions in detail, except that later on Neal will lead us in a closer look at Ojibwa
Cosmic religion as used by Mircea Eliade, refers to a religious perspective that has little concept
of history or linear time. It finds sacredness in aspects of nature and human life – the seasons, stones,
trees, birth, death. The concept of cosmic religion is one way to introduce the prehistoric and tribal
spiritual worlds. Cosmic religion conveys the interplay between ordinary daily life and the extraordinary
experiences of the natural world full of gods, spirits and other worldly beings. In the rites of hunting and
archaic agriculture there is no sharp boundary between this world and an “Other” world. This world –
here and now – is fundamentally sacred, and alive with spirit. It is the ecstasies of shamans, common
figures in tribal and prehistoric religions, who travel in trance to heaven or the underworld to recover
strayed or stolen souls or to intercede with the gods. We’ll hear more about shamans in a few minutes.
Ritual also plays a vital role in indigenous religions, pointing to the fundamental sacredness of
nature and human beings’ part in it – its ultimate connection to cosmic reality. Motifs of cosmic religion
underlie all religions. Cosmic religions are full of the archetypal images that we see in our dreams,
visions and nightmares. Ellwood and McGraw remind us that there are countless concrete survivals from
the world of cosmic religion – from Christmas trees to Halloween ghosts and goblins to the Muslim
Mecca pilgrimage – that continue to flourish, albeit with changed meaning.
Ellwood and McGraw also remind us that the symbol systems of tribal peoples often convey as
much complex information and insight as pages of sacred or theological writing or even mathematical
equations. What stands out in the world of sacred religion are images – symbols, gestures, sacred art,
mythical figures. In the associated messages and stories we are reminded that spirit and matter are
intricately interwoven; that the invisible world becomes visible; that human life is only complete in its
relationships with everything else. If that doesn’t sound familiar to our own religious underpinnings,
perhaps we’ve got a lot to re-learn.
Very prominent among these images of myth and ritual are creation stories. Oftentimes, to
explain imperfections in the world, a god is portrayed as having made the world but seems to have little
concern for humankind except maybe to enforce moral law. Sometimes a myth like the Garden of Eden
story, accounts for the separation of humankind from its original close relationship with the creator. Such
separation introduces death into the world. Often there are high gods and lesser gods that play into the
story – sometimes in quite violent ways.
Ancestral spirits are another common theme in tribal and prehistoric religions. They are loved
and feared, for they stay with their families to mete out strength or punishment as appropriate. The
concept of soul as a separable, undying part of self, may go back as far as 350,000 years.
Certain tribal rites and beliefs can be traced back to archaic hunters and gatherers. Common daily
objects, like animals for the hunters and plants for the gatherers could be a symbol of or even container
for the presence of the Divine. Ellwood and McGraw note that this parallels the king as divine giver of
order for the ancient empire, or the psychological sense of selfhood in the salvation religions of individual
decision and experience.
Archaic hunters often believed in a divine master or mistress of animals that had control over
the forest and could open or close the forest to make game available or unavailable to hunters. Among
the Naskapi Indians of Labrador, the Caribou Man is said to live in a world of caribou hair as white as
snow and deep as mountains. These mountains comprise the immense house of the Caribou man, who is
surrounded by thousands of caribou several times normal size, some live, some ghosts. The animals pass
in and out of the Caribou Man’s paradise, shed their antlers, and the Caribou Man releases the caribou
into the ordinary world to be utilized by hunters. Those hunters strive to think like a caribou and share in
its life; they don’t take too much game and they respectfully use every part of an animal that is killed. In
that way the Caribou Man is encouraged to always give the game that is needed.
Recent archeological and anthropological evidence indicate that the main diet for prehistoric and
tribal groups consisted of plant foods and small animals, mostly gathered by women, rather than large
game hunted by the men. Women had high status in these gatherer/hunter societies that appear to have
been egalitarian and can be represented today by such societies as the Kung of the Kalahari Desert in
It is speculated that archaic farmers first came on the scene some 12,000 years ago in the
Neolithic Period. The subsequent spread of the practice of planting and harvesting seems to have
produced the most far-reaching religious changes of any transition in the history of religion. That deep
impact on economic systems and social and religious organization are still evident in many ways today.
Modern cities, for example, are an extension of the village of the first sedentary planters. Trade relations
and an extensive division of labor also resulted from this type economy.
Sedentary farmers were close to the cycle of the plant, which made the farmer very aware of
seasons and cycles around planting and harvest. Out of this came such festivals as May Day and
Halloween. The disturbance of natural ecology inherent to agriculture, had a down side. The Paleolithic
hunter-gatherer mind saw the human state as that of wanderers about the face of the earth following the
guidance of forest guardians. This attitude is well expressed in the words of a Native American who,
when urged by the U.S. government to take up farming on a reservation, refused, with these words
(Ellwood and McGraw, p. 47).
This quote hints of why many see the introduction of agriculture as a loss of innocence or “fall”
of humanity, haunted with a sense of guilt that agriculturist cultures have expressed in myth and rite.
Ellwood and McGraw note that the discovery of agriculture often seems to have been half-conscious; a
sort of unlocking of forbidden knowledge. This is reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian story of beginnings
in Adam and Eve and their taking of the forbidden tree of knowledge.
The introduction of agriculture resulted in the advancement of human living standards and culture
for some, but forced great numbers into peasant status as farm laborers; thus a more impoverished
lifestyle resulted for many.
Religious stories that have evolved from the agriculturist worldview often have an accentuated
sense of the principle of death from life – a preoccupation with ritual death, headhunting, and human and
animal sacrifice. The Jivaro of the upper Amazon, for example, would dance – a male who had taken and
shrunk a head, and two female relatives. He would hold the head out, and the women would hold onto
him as they danced. In the dance the power would flow form the head through the husband then through
his sister and his wife into the crops, thus increasing productivity. After this rite, the head was no longer
powerful and could be thrown away.
It’s interesting how Ellwood and McGraw describe the extensions and ramifications of archaic
agriculture (middle p. 50). It’s interesting that while many of the great goddesses of later antiquity – Isis,
Demeter, Ishtar – stem from agricultural communities that associated earth and plant with mother and
child making the spiritual power of the symbolic feminine vitally important, that these same societies
moved toward social conventions that proved much more limiting for women. In some of these societies
men seemed to imitate women’s mysteries in their rites, and yet they asserted masculine characteristics of
physical strength and warlike behavior. Megalithism came out of this development of agriculturist
societies – the erection of huge stone monuments like those at Stonehenge in Britain. The “Patriarchal
Revolution” also resulted – a tremendous assertion of male supremacy – the empires of Egypt,
Mesopotamia, India, China – and an accompanying suppression of female religious figures and authority
that continues to manifest today.
On an equally depressing note, is Juergensmeyer’s sad reminder of what the forces of
colonization and globalization have done to indigenous peoples all over the globe – many, of course, have
been exterminated or nearly so, traditional ways have been obscured by the dominant societies, land and
water rights of indigenous peoples have been taken away, and on and on. There are great efforts being
made to revitalize cultural and religious heritages of indigenous peoples. Hopefully it is not too late. I
will close with a story of creation from Surviving Through the Days: Translations of Native California
Stories and Songs.