Indigenous Religions and their Sacred Reverence Toward Nature Kimberly Kitterman Barstow Community College Abstract Many indigenous religions and cultures viewed the earth with great respect and reverence. This can be seen through their kinship with the land, their belief in animism, their hunter/hunted relationship, and their origin stories. Indigenous Religions and their Sacred Reverence Toward Nature Most indigenous cultures had a profound respect for their environment.
They believed that their relationship with nature was very sacred, they believed the earth needed to be treated with dignity and reverence, they believed in harmony with their surroundings. Speaking of indigenous religions, Lewis (1995) wrote, They defined themselves by the land, by the sacred places that bounded and shaped their world. They recognized a unity in their physical and spiritual universes, the union of natural and supernatural. Their origin cycles, oral traditions, and cosmologies connected them with all animate and inanimate beings, past and present. p. 423) Molly wrote, “Environmentalist David Suzuki argues that we must look to native peoples and religions for insightful lessons in the relationship between human beings and nature. ” (2005, p. 39) Native religions had a much different view of the world than we had today, and that view can be seen in the way they lived, their religious ceremonies, and even in the things they take from nature. We should begin our discussion of indigenous religions by defining what one is.
The term indigenous refers to a culture that originated in a certain area. Indigenous can be used interchangeably with words such as native, oral, primal, tribal, traditional, and aboriginal. These cultures can be found anywhere in the world, in every climate and every type of environment. Different from global religions like Christianity and Islam, each of these religions were formed in isolation from everything else, causing huge variations in language, beliefs, customs, traditions, myths, and origin stories. (Molly, 2005)
In his book Experiencing the World’s Religions, Michael Molloy wrote, “Most indigenous religions have sprung from tribal cultures of small numbers, whose survival has required a cautious and respectful relationship with nature. In the worldview of these religions, human beings are very much a part of nature. ” (2005, p. 41) Many of these cultures view nature as a living breathing entity, and something that deserves respect and love. Many feel a kinship with nature, believing that we came from the environment and will someday return to the environment.
Some even believe the animals to be their brothers and sisters – that each living thing was created of the same substance and came from the same earth. The Mayan text Popol Vuh, Taylor (2005) wrote, tells of an origin story of an previous group: An origin myth in which an earlier race of humans were destroyed for the disregard they showed animals and inanimate objects cautions people to respect the natural world, while humans’ relationship of dependence on a Creator who is embodied in the unity of sky and Earth reinforces the sacredness of the world. (p. 34) This quote shows just how seriously the native cultures treated nature. Their respect was so great, that cautionary tales of what can happen if you don’t have that respect even became a part of their origin stories. A notable belief that is common among many tribal cultures is the belief of “animism. ” Molloy defined animism as coming from the Latin word anima meaning “life force” or “spirit. ” He continued that animism is a worldview common among indigenous religions that believes all of nature has a spirit, or is filled with spirits (2005, p. 41).
Forbes wrote that animism can also be known as “life-ism,” and “it is true that most or perhaps all Native Americans see the entire universe as being alive – that is, as having movement and an ability to act. ” (2001, p. 284) This belief of animism is a major contributing factor in indigenous religions sacred relationship with nature. Molly related an experience with four Oglala Sioux shamans: “When asked about what was wakan (“holy,” “mysterious”), said, ‘Every object in the world has a spirit and that spirit is wakan. Thus the spirit[s] of the tree or things of that kind, while not like the spirit of man, are also wakan. ” (2005, p. 41) Believing that each tree has a spirit, each animal is a brother or sister, each rock and hill has a life force would alter your perception of the world. Your feelings toward those things might be changed a bit, knowing that they have as much life in them as you do. Black Elk, a Native American, said, ” We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples. (Goffman, 2005) Whether a tribal culture believed in a Great Spirit, or Mother Earth, or felt that a certain tree held a powerful spirit, many of the native religions worshiped the earth and held it in a highly sacred regard. “To say that nature is full of spirits can be a way of affirming the presence of both a universal life force and an essential, underlying sacredness. ” (Molly, 2005, p. 41) Molloy continues: In a world that is animated by spirits, human beings must treat all things with care. If a spirit is injured or insulted, it can retaliate.
Human beings must therefore show that they respect nature, especially the animals and plants that they kill to eat. Human beings must understand the existence and ways of the spirit world so that they can avoid harm and incur blessings. (p. 42) The native cultures constantly walked a fine line of balance. Everything was done with care and consideration for their environment and the spirits that lived in the earth all around them. Upsetting that balance could cause great harm to them and their people, but maintaining the balance and pleasing the spirits could bring blessings to the people.
We can also see this respect even in the things the tribal cultures would take from the earth. Lewis (1995) related: Indians managed this world’s bounty and diversity based on years of accumulated wisdom–the trial and error of previous generations. They acknowledged the earth’s power and the reciprocal obligation between hunter and hunted. They acted to appease spirits who endowed the world. Native peoples celebrated the earth’s annual rebirth and offered thanks for her first fruits.
They ritually prepared the animals they killed, the agricultural fields they tended, and the vegetal and mineral materials they processed. (p. 423) Indigenous cultures sacred relationship with nature led to a contract of sorts with the earth. Most cultures would take only what they needed, and nothing else. They would also be certain to use every part of whatever was taken. If an animal was killed for food, they would eat everything edible, they would clean and tan the hide to use for clothing or shelter, they would find use for the bones in ceremonies or as weapons – nothing went to waste.
This attitude of “waste not, want not” was to show respect to the earth for providing the people with the things that they needed to live. Goffman (2005) wrote, “For Native Americans, the relationship between hunter and prey was not just a processing of material resources; many native hunters apologized to the animals they killed. After killing a bear, one chief, Wawatam, conducted a ceremony wherein he lamented the necessity of killing a ‘friend’. ” The culture took very seriously this responsibility to maintain balance and show respect to mother nature.
Molloy told of the native Hawaiian’s practice that, “fishing in certain areas would be temporarily forbidden (kapu, or taboo) in order to allow the fish population to be replenished. ” (2005, p. 42) Tribal people lived so much at one with the land that they knew it inside and out. They knew the patterns of the animals that lived on the land, and they knew what they could take without depleting the population, and when they needed to find sustenance from other sources to allow the earth to replenish itself.
Taylor (2005) explained the practice of the Itza’ Maya in the lowland Peten forest of Guatemala: The Itza’ Maya, who have lived in the Peten for centuries, plant more crops and tree species than do neighboring Q’eqchi’ Maya (who moved to the forest from the highlands) or non indigenous Ladinos. Itza’ also farm in ways that are less harmful to the soil and more productive, and show a more sophisticated understanding of forest ecology than do the other groups.
One factor in Itza’ agricultural and forestry practices is a belief that spirits act as intermediaries for particular forest species, and these must be cared for and respected, while the intimate local knowledge of the Itza’ – inextricably linked to their worldview and spiritual traditions – guides sustainable management and farming practices. (p. 835) The indigenous people that had lived in that area for centuries knew the land as well as someone might know a member of their family, showing the enormously sacred bond they had with their environment.
Stories like this one of the Itza’ Maya are more the rule than the exception – so many of the native cultures held the belief of a sacred earth that must be treated with respect, only taking what you need and nothing more. We can also observe the sacred nature of the relationship between nature and indigenous religion by reflecting on their various origin stories. Grim (1998) related this For the Dine/Navajo, the encounter with mystery is as evident as the wind which brought existence into being. One chanter described it this way:
Wind existed first, as a person, and when the Earth began its existence Wind took care of it. We started existing where Darknesses, lying on one another, occurred. Here, the one that had lain on top became Dawn, whitening across. What used to be lying on one another back then, this is Wind. It was Darkness. That is why when Darkness settles over you at night it breezes beautifully. It is this, it is a person, they say. From there where it dawns, when it dawns beautifully becoming white-streaked through the Dawn, it usually breezes.
Wind exists beautifully, they say. Back there in the underworlds, this was a person it seems. Here the beauty of primordial existence is remembered and felt in the experience of Wind. Taylor (2005) explained where the Maya believe they originated from: “For the Maya and other Meso American peoples, spiritual links to nature are clearly expressed in beliefs and traditions relating to maize. The first humans were made of corn, according to the Popol Vuh, and corn cultivation remains central to the lives or rural people throughout Mexico and Central America. ” (p. 34) Molloy wrote of the people of the Acoma Pueblo, who believed that two sisters lived in the earth, and eventually climbed out of their home in the ground through a hole. They became the first human beings on earth, and one of the sisters became the mother of the Pueblo. (2005) Each story of how the world and the people came to be is vastly different. Some believe that the earth was created by a High God, some think that the world took shape from the mist, some say that this world rose out of previous earths. (Molloy, 2005) No matter what the origin myth, each culture believed that the earth was created for them.
They could see the honor of being keepers of the earth and took the responsibility very seriously. So what can be learned from studying the relationship between the indigenous peoples and nature? From their origin stories, to their kinship with the land, to their respectful hunting attitude, to their belief that everything around us has just as much of a spirit as we do, we can witness their sacred relationship with the earth. The native peoples believed the earth to be sacred – a thing that must be cared for and respected or it would retaliate.
I believe that in the not so distant past, many humans have lost sight of the reverence with which we once looked at the environment, and that the earth has begun to retaliate. Though I may not believe that rocks have spirits, I do believe that the indigenous cultures were on to something with their respectful and sacred attitude toward nature. If we as a people can learn to adopt some of the same feelings toward the earth, the earth might give us back some of what has been lost to greed and destruction. References Forbes, J. D. (2001). Indigenous Americans: Spirituality and Ecos.
Daedalus, 130(4), 283-300. Retrieved from http://search. proquest. com/docview/210569466? accountid=2163 Goffman, E. (2005) God, humanity, and nature: Comparative religious views of the environment. Retrieved from: http://www. csa. com/discoveryguides/envrel/review. php Grim, J. A. (1998). Indigenous traditions and ecology. Earth Ethics, 10 (1). Lewis, D. R. (1995). Native Americans and the environment: A survey of twentieth-century issues. American Indian Quarterly, 19(3), 423-423. Retrieved from http://search. proquest. com/docview/216849866? accountid=2163 Molloy, M.