When Europeans began their incursions into North America they reported encounters with a savage, god-less native population that practiced no formal religion. In point of fact, Native American cultures embraced a religious philosophy as rich and deep as the Christian religion the European missionaries brought with them.
Old World religions were typically built around a formally-structured spiritual life conducted alongside, but distinct from, everyday life. In Native American societies everyday life and spiritual life were one and the same. The world was their temple, and even simple everyday acts had spiritual meaning.
It’s hard to generalize about a land where there were said to be as many tribes as there were stars in the sky. The sacred life of each Indian Nation was uniquely linked to its own environment. Local climates, landscapes, and the perceived spirits and beings that dwelt there shaped a community’s beliefs. But like European religions, there were some similar concepts.
Most traditions believed in a Creator and a Mother Earth. Everything the Creator made, animate or inanimate, had a spirit – therefore all things were sacred and related. Mother Earth provided for people and all other things put on it by the Creator, and their relationships were well-defined. Respect for the Earth and all on it was expected. Respect for past ancestors, who dwelt in spirit realms, was also required.
Some Nations saw the powers of the world as entities in the form of natural phenomena. The wind, rivers, and certain plants and animals, were viewed as relatives. Life was built around the rights and obligations due them. For others the powers were formless energies. There were also unique ways designed to conduct and control relationships with these mystic spirits. But everyone was obligated to respect and heed the spirits everyday just for being alive.
Good and evil were viewed in the light of whether or not obligations to the spirits were met. Failure was disrespect, and balance and harmony in the world suffered. A community’s survival was dependant on virtues that brought or restored the proper respect due to all things on the Earth and in the spirit world.