Native American Spirituality

Understanding Native American Spirituality

Many people every year find themselves being drawn to Native American spiritual practices. They use these practices either in conjunction with their current religious belief system or simply as an alternative spiritual path they can follow.

Last time we explored Christianity. This time we are taking a deeper look at the spiritual practices of the Native Americans.

Is Native American Spirituality the same as Shamanism?

The term shamanism, as is often used in New Age circles, usually refers to “core shamanism,” a series of techniques standard amongst almost all indigenous cultures worldwide. This absolutely will have much in common with Native American Spirituality. Some of those techniques are obviously part of their spiritual traditions.

Yet, it’s essential to understand Native American Spirituality is not Shamanism. Further, it’s necessary to understand that different tribes have different beliefs.

Religion is mainly a European word. In most tribes, there is no language equivalent to the word religion. Yet, that does not mean native people do not have various spiritual practices that they engage in. The fact is, however, that these practices are usually considered a normal part of living. Whereas most people “go to church” or “temple” to experience religion, Native Americans approach all of life as being part of the spiritual world.

To help understand Native American Spirituality a little better, let’s take a deeper look at it and some of its practices. Understand, however, that it is not within the scope of this article to dive into each individual tribe and everything a particular tribe believes. Instead, we will be looking at standard practices and beliefs amongst the majority of tribes as a whole.


The idea of kinship is perhaps the most central theme that can be traced through virtually all tribes. Kinship is more or less the idea that we are all related. It is not just about biological blood but about relationships in general.

These relationships specifically define how the people involved are supposed to act. Thus, you relate differently to your father than your mother. You also interact differently with your aunt, uncle, or grandparents than your parents. You connect to your elders very differently than your peers. Your relationship with your cousins is vastly different than your grandparents. You relate to your child differently than you do to your niece or grandchild. Etc.

When you understand the relationship, you know how to behave in the relationship. When you act as you are supposed to, the other individual involved can behave as they are intended to as well. In other words, there is an acceptable way to relate. When you connect as you are supposed to, others reciprocate the relationships as they are supposed to.

However, kinship includes not only our relationship with people, but also with animals, the natural world, and spirits. These non-people kinships are typically described as human relations to help us know how to interact and behave. Thus, you may have cousin snake, mother moon, grandma corn, sister lake,  brother fire, etc.

When we don’t relate to others (human, animal, nature, or spirit) as we are supposed to, or worse, are disrespectful to our relationships, this causes disharmony. Eventually, illness or bad things occur.

This idea of kinship serves to create structure within the family, tribe, and even the world as a whole.

A Central Spiritual Leader

It’s important to understand that in many tribes, there is a central or primary spiritual leader. Sometimes they are known as a shaman and sometimes a medicine man. Other times this person is called the herbalist or wise one. Regardless, this leader acts as a spiritual guide to the whole tribe, including both individuals and families. They are predominantly responsible for guiding and leading preteens and teens and performing various rituals for individuals and the tribe. This includes both initiation rituals and spiritual rituals such as vision quests.

In the Native American traditions, spiritual guidance is a consistent and ongoing process and one that ultimately places a great deal of emphasis on relationships and relating with others and the land around them.

Likewise, in native traditions, it is far more important to participate than to discuss theology. Your personal experience and connection with the sacred are as necessary, if not more so than the theological beliefs behind divinity.


The telling of stories is considered very sacred in many tribes.

Regardless of if storytelling is considered sacred or not, the passing down of myths and stories from elders to the tribe is usually seen as necessary.

These stories may be in the form of myths, history, or parables and may serve as a teaching tool or, in some cases, even a creation tool.

Some believe that the words you speak in a story become part of reality. The story thus helps to create reality. In other words, on these occasions, a story is told about what one wants to happen, not necessarily what is or has been.

In other instances, stories may be fun and light-hearted, meant to entertain. They can even be used to shame someone publically to help correct bad behavior.


Some tribes believe in animal ancestors and have a variety of mythological stories that can be told connected to the animal ancestor. These stories provide both moral lessons and give general spiritual insights about the big questions in life, such as how the world came to be, what happens after death, etc.

Other tribes believe that animals “adopt” people they feel a special connection and affinity toward. This may occur in the dream state, visions quests, or through being repeatedly exposed to the animal in the physical world.

Most tribes hold animal life to be sacred, and they go out of the way to respect animals and what those animals do for us and the world. There is a tendency to take care of and look after animals. Even children are taught to be very respectful and responsible for the animal kingdom.

Tobacco, Herbs, and Plants

Tobacco, herbs, and plants are typically seen as very important within tribes, as is the concept of being connected to nature itself. Much in the same way that respect and responsibility are felt towards animals. Likewise, these feelings also come with the natural world and all the things that make up the natural world. Most significantly, we are speaking here of herbs and plants.

Plants and herbs all have different properties associated with them. The cultivation and harvesting of these plants and herbs can be significant in some tribes, especially the spiritual leader. They can serve the purpose of being used to enhance healing and other important rituals. Again, however, it’s essential to mention the high degree of respect and responsibility towards these plants and herbs. So much so that some believe those who are not of the Native American heritage should not be using them. This, of course, is not true throughout all native people. Do understand that certain plants, especially sage, sweetgrass, cedar, mugwort, rosemary, and tobacco, are considered sacred in these cultures and are always handled with respect, reverence, and great care.

Speaking of Tobacco, it is worth mentioning that most tribes regard tobacco as sacred and a tradition handed down from generation to generation for a long time. It is used in prayer and rituals of healing and purification. It is also offered to the Great Spirit/Creator, the directions, and Mother Earth. Many believe that being around the scent helps one enter into sacred space and time and removes negativity.

The Circle and Directions

The circle can represent different things to different people, just as it can mean other things in different tribes. Typically, the ring represents unity and inclusion and is usually used for gatherings of all sizes. In addition, it can represent the circle/cycle of life, the turning of the seasons, birth and rebirth, and other cyclical ideas.

Likewise, in most tribes, the four cardinal directions are deemed essential. In some tribes, all directions are important and used in rituals.

  • East represents new beginnings, new life, birth, and the rising sun.
  • South represents the midday sun, passion, and the good things that life can bring.
  • West tends to represent the setting sun, adulthood, and hard work.
  • Finally, North is that place where the sun dares not go. It is symbolic of old age, death, and wisdom.

There can be other meanings in addition to or beside the ones offered here. Again, it’s going to depend upon the tribal tradition.

The combination of the circle and directions is sometimes referred to as the medicine wheel or sacred hoop. This medicine wheel tends to be an essential part of ceremonies and rituals. It is meant to help one align more closely with the spirit world and the forces of nature.

Dance and Song

Dancing and singing are traditional ways of practicing spirituality in most native traditions. This is one reason dance and song are also considered part of “core shamanism.”

Dances can represent many different things and can be used to honor deities and request help. Not all dances are sacred, but many are. Drumming and rattling (all of these are also used in core shamanism) are typically used to create a beat, and the dance then follows suit to that beat.

Songs can both express feelings and emotions and serve as a form of prayer.

Soul signing is the process of singing or vocalizing what the soul needs to sing. The words are typically more utterances and not actual worlds. They also have no set pattern or melody with which they may follow. Some think soul singing is highly healing.

These activities also help people within the tribe bond and get unified. They serve to create a communal focus. Thus you have songs and dances for various occasions, including play, war, death, hunting, and so forth.

Sweat Lodges

In many tribes, there are rituals for purification, healing, and cleansing that involve hot rocks giving off steam within an enclosed structure. This structure is termed the sweat lodge because, as you can guess, being inside induces a great deal of sweating.

The sweat lodge is intended to be an intense spiritual practice that involves prayer and healing, often led by the spiritual leader or a tribal elder. It can be a somewhat dangerous ceremony, and people have died from participating in it. The cause of death is typically dehydration and over-exposure to heat. Though it should be noted, most modern-day deaths have been linked to New Age practitioners who lead and perform the ceremony. NOT tribal elders/spiritual leaders.


While not all Native American spiritual practices are linked to core shamanism, some aspects of Native American spirituality can be found in core shamanism. Still, it would be wrong to say the two are the exact same thing. Instead, it would be wise to explore and discover more about these belief systems and to do so through contact or connection with someone who is actually part of a tribe. Context can play a significant role in what spiritual practices look like. Understand not all tribes will be open and welcoming to share their beliefs and practices. When that occurs, it’s important to be gracious and savor whatever information you can gain simply from being in the presence of the culture and people.


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