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Paths of Faith Native American Religions What are they? Why are they hard to understand? Cheryl Gaver cgaver@cogeco PowerPoint Presentation
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Paths of Faith Native American Religions What are they? Why are they hard to understand? Cheryl Gaver Problems Getting the Facts : 1 Problems Getting the Facts - 2 We cannot speak of a single “Native American” religion but of many religions Much has been lost

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Paths of FaithNative American ReligionsWhat are they?Why are they hard to understand?Cheryl

problems getting the facts 2
Problems Getting the Facts - 2

We cannot speak of a single “Native American” religion but of many religions

Much has been lost

80-95% of the Native population died as a result of contact with Europeans

Many of the Native Elders died without passing on their knowledge

Native traditions have changed over the centuries

Native traditions have, to some extent, blended Christianity into themselves

problems getting the facts 3
Problems Getting the Facts : 3

Some Native people refuse to tell us the facts

We stole their lands, their children

We destroyed their languages and their culture

Now we want to “learn” their traditions and worldviews?!!!

Some Native people tell us what they think we want to hear

Some Native people do not want to admit to anything “negative” in their traditions

problems of understanding
Problems of Understanding

Some Native people tell us about their traditions but we cannot understanding what they are saying

Historical sources had their own assumptions and own agendas that make it difficult for us to understand the Native perspective

example 1 case study
Example 1: Case Study

A Native man is arrested for murder.

He admits having committed the murder

During the course of the trial, the identity of the real murderer is discovered – the one on trial did not commit the murder

Why did he confess?

example 2 case study
Example 2 : Case Study

A young Native man has emotional problems and is in desperate need of help.

He refuses to go for counselling.


example 3 case study
Example 3: Case Study

A Native woman is raped

She identifies the man who did it and he is arrested

During the course of the trial, she stated what happened and was asked if she could identify the rapist

She said she could not

Why did she change her story?

example 4 tsimshian
Example 4 (Tsimshian)
  • Brian’s father died.
    • Brian and his uncle try to settle the estate
    • Brian’s sisters work to get a share of the inheritance
    • Brian’s comment: “Why are they involved? It’s none of their concern!”

circle society 1
Circle Society – 1

(Algonquin and Plain Nations)

Nature wants things to be round. … The tipi was a ring in which people sat in a circle and all the families in the village were in turn circles within a larger circle, part of the larger hoop which was the seven campfires of the Sioux, representing one nation. The nation was only a part of the universe, in itself circular and made of the earth, which is round, of the sun, which is round, of the stars, which are round. The moon, the horizon, the rainbow – circles within circles within circles, with no beginning and no end. (John Lame Deer, Lakota)

society in circle societes
Society in Circle Societes

Circle societies tend to be egalitarian, not hierarchical.

Specific roles exist for men, women, and children but these are somewhat flexible


Elders teach the younger ones through stories

Adults teach by example


The community maintains discipline through “peer pressure” – individuals learn what is not acceptable behaviour

the role of the chief
The Role of the Chief

He is not set apart from other people

He is someone of merit whom others respect and accept as chief

His authority depends on the respect with which he is held

He governs by consensus

Therefore, the chief MUST be able to speak well and rhetoric becomes very important

The more power he has, the more he gives to others

education among the dene
Education among the Dene
  • “Dene expect learning to occur through observation rather than instruction, an expectation consistent with the Dene view that true knowledge is personal knowledge …
  • Dene foster autonomy in one another’s lives to the greatest extent possible but they also ‘go far out of their way … to prevent others from undertaking activities that might them harm …’” (J.-G. Goulet: 27)
business and politics
Business and Politics

In the early days –

Before entering into trade agreements, it was important to establish a formal relationship – i.e., an alliance

You create alliances with an exchange of gifts

You recognize the other side as being a separate nation

You respect their independence

You promise friendship

Only then can you enter into trade agreements

toutes mes relations 4
Toutes mes relations - 4

Norval Morrisseau

all my relations 1
All My Relations - 1


People of human and non-human kind

People of a human kind




This shows the idea of circle relationships found in many communities but still reflects a Western sense of boundaries

all my relations 2
All My Relations – 2

This reflects more the fluidity and dynamic nature of relationships in many Aboriginal communities

all my relations 4
All My Relations – 4

When I was visiting the clergy school, an Elder and I went down to the shore after the service. There was a beaver swimming out in the water. The Elder called to the beaver. The beaver stopped in the middle of the bay – and then walked up the shoreline and came right to where we were standing.

[Rt. Hon. Rev. Michael Peers in Carlson 1991: 119].

all my relations 5
All My Relations – 5

All animals have power, because the Great Spirit dwells in all of them, even a tiny ant, a butterfly, a tree, a flower, a rock. The modern, white man’s way keeps that power from us, dilutes it. To come to nature, feel its power, let it help you, one needs time and patience for that. …

You have so little time for contemplation … it lessens a person’s life, all that grind, that hurrying and scurrying about. (John Lame Deer)

all my relations 6
All My Relations – 6

We find

Stories of animals who speak to humans

Stories of animals who change into human beings and of human beings who change into animals

Families who believe they are somehow associated with a particular animal

The belief that human beings are not supposed to dominate nature

all my relations 7
All My Relations – 7
  • Woman and Raven by Vernon Asp
  • Eagle Mask by Eugene Alfred
  • Mask by Walter Harris
all my relations 8
All My Relations – 8

Interchanges with the supernaturals are the bedrock of native spirituality. What are called “myths” in the white world, and thought of as primitive spiritual stories that articulate psychological realities, are in the native world the accounts of actual interchanges.” [Allen 1991: 6]

all my relations 9
All My Relations – 9

“Of all the teachings we receive this one is the most important: Nothing belongs to you of what there is of what you take, you must share(Chief Dan George)

religion 1
Religion – 1

Self / Religion


Private life







religion 2
Religion – 2

Distinctions do not exist between religious and secular (day-to-day) life

Distinctions do not exist between the physical world (our everyday world) and the world of dreams or spirits

The very concept of “supernatural” reflects a Western mentality. The “supernatural” does not exist because nothing is outside of nature and nature itself is sacred

how many faces
How many faces

algonkian religion maintaining balance
Algonkian Religion – Maintaining Balance

It is important to maintain a balance in the world – moral, emotional, physical …

Illnesses exist because people are not in balance




Shamans are those men and women who can discover how to recover one’s balance

religion the trickster 1
Religion – The Trickster – 1

Common to many cultures, if not all, is the mythological character known as Trickster. He abounds wherever there are boundaries created for, by or about "the other."

Most cultures go to great lengths to preserve their boundaries from all contingency. Canadian culture is no exception.

Barriers which exclude are like a red flag to a bull where Trickster is concerned.Source: Canadian Heritage(

religion the trickster 2
Religion – The Trickster – 2

Trickster speaks through the medium of imagination. In the mind of Trickster, the real thieves are those who lock the doors. Trickster does not want to be an excluded and resentful outsider. His goal is to change the terms, not to integrate quietly. It is also his goal to change the mind and raise consciousness by whatever means necessary, which could include thievery, overturning the tables, crashing the party or any number of "upsetting" disturbances. The word "goal" is used very loosely as Trickster is in search of loopholes so that he might escape with his friends from whatever cage they find themselves in (though with no actual goal in mind). Source: Canadian Heritage (

a world of symbols
A world of symbols

We Indians live in a world of symbols and images where the spiritual and the commonplace are one.

To the white man symbols are just words, spoken or written in a book. To us they are part of nature, part of ourselves – the earth, the sun, the wind and the rain, stones, trees, animals, even little insects like ants and grasshoppers.

We try to understand them – not with the head, but with the heart, and we need no more than a hint to give us the meaning. (John Lame Deer - Lakota)

understanding example 1
Understanding Example 1

A Native man is arrested for murder and confesses even though he did not commit the murder.


Because the policeman wanted him to

Because the policeman would have lost face if he was shown to be wrong

understanding example 2
Understanding Example 2

A young Native man has emotional problems and is in desperate need of help but refuses to go.


Because it is not fair to burden others with his problems

understanding example 3
Understanding Example 3

A Native woman is raped, identifies the rapist and testifies at his trial, then refuses to identify him at the trial.


Everyone now knows what he has done. Nothing more is needed

He has now heard how his actions hurt her. Nothing more is needed

understanding example 4 tsimshian
Understanding Example 4 (Tsimshian)
  • Brian’s father died. His sisters work to get a share of the inheritance. Brian does not understand why they are concerned.
  • Why?
    • His sisters are not related to their biological father
    • They are related to their mother’s brother
my relations or who is my mother a dene view
My Relations – or Who Is My Mother? (A Dene View)















a clash of worldviews cultures revisited 10
A Clash of Worldviews / Cultures : Revisited – 10
  • We are back to the question of what is reality?
    • Westerners tend to see reality in terms of what can be proven scientifically
      • Westerners also draw abstract truths or deductions that have little basis in reality – how often does a “real” circle exist?
    • Aboriginal peoples tend to see reality in terms of personal knowledge – firsthand experience
      • What is true must have a heritage behind it
      • What is true must be able to be experienced or seen
      • A circle has to take into account the mountains, the rivers, the crevasses you cross to make the circle