Canadian Native Religion Essay, Research Paper
Native religion is one of a unique and mysterious nature. This may be due to the fact that its Native religion is very different from the Christian and other dominant religions in society today. The native people see sacredness in all that surrounds them and for it to be labeled as a belief is an incredible understatement. It is more than a belief; it is a lifestyle. This essay will examine the several different aspects of this lifestyle such as stories, objects, people and ceremonies. Each of these aspects contributes in it own way to the Native spiritual world. Many different tribes believe that they were created from some kind of creator. These stories can be extremely different with each tribe, the Ojibway, North Pacific and the Kansa are examples of tribes with different creators. The Ojibway people believe that the Great Spirit created a male and a female crane in the upper and lower world. This creator lowered them to earth where they were to make a home for themselves. The task was to find an appropriate place and when they did they would change to man and women. The cranes tried many places and none of them suited them. Finally, the cranes came to an outlet of Lake Superior which suited them quite fine. These cranes became the first parents of the Crane Clan of the Ojibway people. (Coffer, pg. 86,1978) A second example of a tribe’s view of the creation is the Haida of the North Pacific. The Haida believed that there was a time before the world changed. During that time all animals spoke the same language and had the same form, they only differed in what is known as “essence”. At some point in time the earth changed and the animals separated. This was known as the emergence of man. Each animal species became distinct but not separated from the natural world. This oneness and unity is the primary basic fact of all American Indian philosophy. Finally, the Kansa is the third tribe that will be used as an example of creative beliefs. The Kansa people believe that the Great Spirit created man and woman. They also believed that this creation was prior to the creation of the earth. They were placed on a small island where they were to stay. Quarreling occurred as children were born and generation after generation came about. Eventually the island became overpopulated and some people were put out to sea. The people prayed for a larger area and the Great Spirit answered their prayers. The Great Spirit sent down beavers, muskrats, and turtles to enlarge the island. Eventually trees grew and the leaves were used to make exotic birds. Deer, buffalo and other animals were created as well. In time the entire circle of the world was created and filled with life and beauty. (Coffer, pg.87, 1978) In the Native beliefs much of the objects in their culture focus around the shape of the circle. The circle is a very significant shape because it illustrates many things. For one example, it displays unity and togetherness. This togetherness is very evident in almost every aspect of Native culture. As well, there are some objects, which are not in the circle formation. Important objects such as the Medicine wheel, the Dream Catcher, the Teaching Wand, Sweet grass and the sweat lodge are examples that do not strictly follow the circle. To begin, the Medicine Wheel represents a very sacred aspect in Native spirituality. The Native people use it because of their strong belief in its powers. This object is wrapped in deer and moose hide and the round circle represents the circle of life. Traditionally, eagle feathers are attached to the sides of the frame. It should be noted that eagle feathers were in high demand because of their sacredness; therefore, other feathers may be used as well. The Medicine Wheel contains all aspects of life. The four colors of life and the four seasons are displayed in the form of lass beads. The four colors are red, white, black and yellow. The four seasons are found within the colored beads. The Dream Catcher is also a very significant component in the Native culture. This object was made out of red willow and formed in the circle shape, which illustrates togetherness. The Dream Catcher was traditionally used by the woodland Indians and hung in the lodges towards the east. The purpose of the Dream Catcher was to catch all dreams, both good and bad. The bad dreams would be caught in the webbing that was located in between the frame, and held there. Eventually, the dreams would be burned off when the first morning light occurred. The good dreams on the other hand, would find their way to the center of the Dream Catcher where a hole was located and filter into the eagle feathers where they would stay to be dreamed about at another time. (Waugh, Prithipaul, pg. 45,1977) A third sacred object, which was used during a variety of ceremonies, was the Teaching Wand. This object illustrated control and a sense of power. Traditionally, the Teaching Wand was used during ceremonies that involved teachings from the elders. This specific wand was constructed out of wood and was shaped like a star. All of the bearings; North, South, East and West were included with the top of the star representing the sky. The Teaching Wand in different ways was used to tell stories of the old ways and pass on the tribes history. (Waugh, Prithipaul, pg.167, 1977) A fourth object is sweet grass. This special form of grass was used on a regular basis during ceremonies and various acts of purification. Its primary use was to purify the person using it. This special grass had an aroma, which was very powerful in the spiritual sense. The aroma gave off a sensation of cleanliness and wholeness, which was considered necessary in Native ceremonies. The Sweet grass was considered a key component in Native ceremonies especially during prayer because it allowed the inner self to come out and view opportunities in a new frame of mind. This particular grass provided a peace of mind for the individual using it. (Hirshfelder, Molin, pg.31,1992) Finally, the last sacred object, which is in fact a building, is the Sweat lodge. This particular place is considered very sacred because it too contributed to the peace of mind and the act of purification. Prior to many ceremonies individuals will go into the sweat lodge for the purification. A sweat bath is considered to be one of the main ways by which ritual purification is achieved. As well, some ceremonies are conducted in the sweat lodge because the Natives insist on holding their ceremonies in a natural surrounding. Sweat lodges are used for a number of reasons: it is a religious rite to purify the body, treatment to cure ill health and a social function. The Sweat lodge is a canvassed covered framework, which holds a large quantity of heat. Initially, the heat is very uncomfortable, however, after some duration one does not notice it because he or she is in another frame of mind.(Hirschfelder,Molin, pg.33, 1992) As previously noted, the Native people are very spiritual people and therefore they participate in many ceremonies. Due to their traditional nature, many of the ceremonies are well planned and very specific. Ceremonies are conducted for a number of reasons whether it is to revel expression or honor a spirit. Many aspects are involved in ceremonies such as dancing, drumming, and singing. The singing, however, is more like cries and moans because these express more than we do. (Deloria, pg.16, 1994) They follow the well known saying “Actions speak louder than words.” The Natives are very emotional and express much of their feelings through ceremony. There are several types of ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, The Shaking Tent, The Scratching ceremony and the pipe ceremony to name a few.
Many ceremonies require an endurance of pain, which makes the act more special and meaningful due to the personal sacrifice. The Sun Dance is considered one of those particular ceremonies. “The Sun Dance is considered one of the best known and most spectacular religious ceremonies to Native North American.” As well, it is considered one of the most difficult to fulfill because it involves depriving oneself of liquid for the entire duration of the ceremony. This ceremony has also been given the name “The Thirsting Dance” for this reason. The Sun Dance serves many functions. It is held to pray for fertility and to protect the people from danger or illness. (Hirschfelder,Molin,pg 52, 1992) In regards to the Shaking Tent, this ceremony is performed because it is felt that the shaking tent can predict the future. An elder or Shaman positions himself inside the tent for a period of time. Eventually, the tent begins to shake. During this time it is said that a vision about the tribes future appears to the shaman. (Hirschfelder, Molin, pg.53,1992) Another ceremony that the Native people participate in is the Scratching Ceremony. This sacred ritual is believed to be beneficial to ones health. The upper arm, lower arm and the back of each four times. After the scratching has taken place the women and children rinse with water and are free to break their proclaimed fasts.(Hirshfelder, Molin, pg.71, 1992) Finally, the last sacred ceremony is called the Pipe ceremony. This involves strategic positioning of people that participate in the ceremony. Once again the ceremony is conducted in a circle formation which allows all of the wholeness of the individuals to unite. Each individual has a certain function as they do in every other ceremony. The Pipe ceremony involves a total of seven steps. The first is referred to as the “Calling” and this is when everyone who is participating in the ceremony is summoned together as a group. The second step is called “The Gathering” and this is when everyone places him or herself in the appropriate position. This is when the passing of the Sweet grass in a clockwise fashion happens for the purification of all of the participants. “Preparation”, the third step, now occurs. In the preparation stage many things occur. First, the alter is prepared by placing a skin or blanket at the western doorway of the circle. Traditionally, there is a fire burning in the western doorway as well. While the participants position themselves they will often remove their shoes or moccasins and other objects that may be foreign tot he spirits. Upon the blanket, a fan of eagle feathers is spread. These are used to quicken the fire and disperse the smoke from the burning Sweet grass to everyone. As well, an eagle bone whistle and a rattle usually out of bone, are laid upon the blanket. A four colored cloth, which are the four traditional colors, is placed in front of the fire. Also, a bowl of water, which symbolizes the mother earth’s blood, is included. After all of this preparation has occurred the fourth stage begins. This step is referred to as “The Teaching”. In this step a teaching wand may be used, however, it is not necessary. The people are taught, that during this ceremony the great forces of the Sun, the Moon, Thunder Beings and the Spirit world will all be invoked. As well, during this step a medicine wheel may assist the teaching. The fifth step then occurs and this is referred to as the “Invocation”. In this step, the eagle bone whistle is used to alert the heavens that a great gathering has begun. The six grandfathers are called upon using song. This song signifies that the moment of the “Pipe Prayer” has come which is the six step. In this period the people are invited to speak out in their own words and concerns that they may have brought to the gathering. Once everyone has spoken everyone puts his or her focus into offering of the tobacco. A hot coal or the burning Sweet grass ignites the pipe and it is passed from mouth to mouth. Once this portion has been completed, the attendant takes up the rattle or drum and begins to pray for everyone there while beating the drum. At this time a strong spiritual sense is felt and messages are given. A great love develops as hearts open up. Finally, the last step occurs the “Conclusion”. An elder is invited to give thanks for the water and food and everything is shared. (Eastman pg. 31, 1993) In addition to the actual ceremonies a very important act is practiced. This act is commonly known as smudging and is considered to be a very valuable part of the ceremony. Because it is so valuable to the Natives it should be dealt with separately from the ceremonies. Smudging usually occurs during all ceremonies because it too is an act of purifying oneself. All Natives participate in smudging; however, the items in which they smudge may differ. The items may range from Sweet grass, Tobacco, Cedar and Sage. Although the items are quite different, they are all considered sacred. This process gives the Natives a sense of well being and peace during the ceremony. (Eastman, pg.32, 1993) Along with the act of smudging, key people are involved in the ceremonies. Important people such as elders or Shaman play a key role in any ceremony. Shamans can be referred to as tribal specialists or medicine men. Shamans are individuals both men and women who directly experience the presence of spirits either due to illness, a dream, a vision, or some inborn sensitivity. These experiences give the shaman the direct sacred knowledge. As well, these special people are capable to engage in phenomenal things such as; foretelling the future, predicting game movements and curing illness. Due to this extrodinary power, people sometimes view Shamans as witches who may use their power to destroy rather then heal. Despite the negative stereotype that they may have, Shamans are key people in the Native ceremony. (Hirschfelder,Molin, pg.86, 1992) When examining Native spirituality it is evident that it is a lot more complex then meets the eye. It is not just a bunch of mumbo jumbo and smoking grass in a tee pee. There is a distinct and romantic quality to Native religion. From the Shaman you have a wise spiritual leader, a noble who is responsible for his or her tribe in a non political way. The fact that there is so much history in there stories of creation and sacred objects. Also every religion has many different ceremonies for worship but unlike many western religions there is no one in charge or preaching in the Native ceremony. Every man or women is an equal partner in the religious ceremony. It is impossible to get the full effect of a peoples spirituality from researching books, but I now know that I will stop and experience a POW Wow the next time I drive by one on Manitolin Island. I will certainly respect tobacco more now that I realize how sacred it is. I will try to understand Native spirituality more now.
Coffer W.E. Spirits of the Sacred Mountains, Litton Educ. Pub. Inc., Toronto: 1978. Deloria V. God is Red-A Native of Religion, Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado: 1994 Eastman C. The Soul of An Indian, The Classic Wisdom Collection, Toronto: 1993 Hirschfelder The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, Library of Congress,Molin A. New York: 1992