Native Americans is a generic reference to people groups who lived in North and South America prior to the arrival of European explorers. Given the size of those two continents and their diverse landscapes, it is no surprise that Native American cultures varied drastically from group to group and from tribe to tribe. This means “Native American Religion” is an extremely broad category. The religious beliefs of modern Americans—and Asians, and Europeans, and Africans—span a wide range, and so do the spiritual traditions of Native Americans.
That being said, most Native American religions share a set of common features. Most important among these are a lack of distinction between the spiritual world and the natural world, the existence of some type of creative deity, and a general lack of objective, fixed principles. Few Native American religious ideas were considered absolutely unchangeable, and even fewer were codified in writing. As a result, historic spiritual beliefs in the Americas were diverse and extremely fluid.
One common feature of many Native American spiritual traditions is a uniform view of reality. Christianity often speaks of a physical world and a spiritual world. At least for the sake of comparison, such a distinction does not exist in most Native American religions. The “world” of spirits and deities is the same “world” as that of nature and man, and whatever differences or separations may exist are frequently bridged.
Most Native American religions include some kind of divine Creator. In many cases, this is a single deity, often referred to as the Great Spirit. In some cases, this is a group of gods or a collection of spirits. And, in others, this spirit is more of an impersonal force than an actual, personal being. Because of this broad variation, individual Native American religions can be categorized as theistic, deistic, henotheistic, polytheistic, or even pantheistic.
Native American religions are also typically devoid of objective rules or laws. This is not to suggest there are no moral principles in these spiritual traditions. However, such concepts are typically treated as guidelines or foundations and not as hard-and-fast regulations. Traditions vary from group to group, but Native American spirituality is typically much less rigid than systems such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.
Written texts comparable to works such as the Bible, the Qur'an, or the Vedas do not exist in Native American religious history. Instead, oral tradition and personal teaching are strongly emphasized in Native American religious practice. The motivation for this is extremely practical. From the Native American perspective, the only way to learn traditions is to participate in them; there is little use for written texts.
The combination of fluid tenets, a lack of written scriptures, and wide variety of belief caused European explorers to badly misunderstand the spiritual traditions of Native Americans. The assumption of most colonizers was that native religion was shallow, simple, and unimportant. While Native Americans are, by comparison, far more comfortable combining their spiritual beliefs with those of other religions, their traditions are as deeply held and are considered just as meaningful as those of any other culture.
A particularly interesting feature of Native American religion is the recurrence of myths regarding a catastrophic, worldwide flood. As is the case with spiritual traditions around the world, several versions of a flood story can be found in Native American myths:
• Hopi folk tales speak of Tawa, the Sun Spirit, destroying the existing world (called the Third World) in a flood; a few good people survived by riding in reed boats (compare Genesis 6:6–8).
• An Ottawa story claims that a man angered the sea god, triggering a flood that covered the world. This man was saved by a goddess riding in a boat with pairs of surviving animals (compare Genesis 6:20).
• According to the Chippewa, a particularly powerful man killed the evil Great Serpent, triggering a mountain-covering flood (compare Genesis 7:19). People survived by boarding rafts and floating until the waters had subsided (compare Genesis 8:1).
• Cheyenne legends say a medicine man stretched a white buffalo skin between mountains to protect the people from a wrathful divine rain. When the primary god saw this and stopped the rain, the skin shrank and became the rainbow (compare Genesis 9:12–13).
• Salish myths feature many people having nightmares of a massive flood (compare Genesis 6:13). Those who believed the dreams banded together to build a huge raft made of canoes (compare Genesis 6:14), and only they survived the flood. Those who ignored the dreams drowned (compare Genesis 7:22–23). Afterwards, these survivors began to quarrel and scattered across the earth into different tribes (compare Genesis 11:1–9).
These stories each echo aspects of the Bible’s description of the flood that destroyed the world of Noah’s time. The preservation of the basic story—seen in cultures across the world—is a point often brought up in discussions of mankind’s origins. If every human culture shares a common story, with several common details, there are good reasons to think that story has some basis in actual history.
Attempting to define Native American religion in any detail is futile. As with any other large collection of people groups, there are literally thousands of individual approaches to spirituality in Native American cultures. The concepts of fluidity, a unified spiritual and natural world, and a lack of written scriptures are shared across many of these traditions, but each is a completely independent worldview in and of itself.