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Indigenous Religions

Indigenous Peoples

  • The word indigenous refers to anything that is native to a particular geographical region. This includes people, cultures, languages, or species of plants or animals.
  • The story of the last three centuries of indigenous peoples is one of survival and adaptation
  • And great diversity: there is no single “Native” culture, 
  • The term “indigenous” is a generalized reference to the thousands of smallscale societies who have distinct languages, kinship systems, mythologies, ancestral memories, and homelands comprising of about 400 million people, (6% of the global population)
  • E.g. just because someone is “native” doesn’t mean they are “traditional”
  • In some cases, even if one claims to be a Christian, they may also be involved in various forms of indigenous practice (with no apparent contradiction to themselves)

Indigenous Religions

  • Indigenous religions, rather than being formal institutions, tend to be an undefined part of everyday life.
  • Ritual practices and the cosmological ideas that undergird their society cannot be separated out as an institutionalized religion from their daily round of subsistence practices.
  • Many indigenous cultures do not even have a word for “religion.”
  • Rather the term, “lifeway,” emphasizes this holistic contextthe spirit and human world are part of the same world and in constant interaction .
  • In this sense, to analyze religion as a separate system of beliefs and ritual practices apart from subsistence, kinship, language, governance, and landscape is to misunderstand indigenous religion


  • Despite the inherent problems with “Indigenous Religions” as a category, there are some common concerns, characteristics, and themes which can be found in many of them:
    • The Natural world is the realm of the sacred humans are a part of that nature and often considered its steward
    • The world is infused with spirits/souls humans, animals, plants, the earth, deities, etc. (aka Animism)
      • Often the Supreme God is thought be removed from ordinary human affairs instead it is lesser deities (nature or ancestors, etc.) who are considered intermediaries and who they engage with
    • Concern for spontaneities of religious experience (e.g. vision quests, spirit possession, shamanism etc.)
    • Tends to have a cyclical understanding of time and the universe, rather than linear (e.g. Abrahamic traditions)
    • Initiation rites/rites of passage Life is a journey with stages of transition; marks important life stages, create social cohesion, and allows for bestowal of esoteric/clan knowledge
    • Emphasizes community over the individual
      • Ritual practices instill the collective memories of their people and their homeland they are intimately connected to the land, their ancestors and future generations
    • Emphasis on oral traditions rarely have written sacred texts
      • Indigenous wisdom, cultural values, and history, often learned through oral myths, storytelling, drama, art, dance/song, costumes, masks, ritual traditions, and sacred artifacts.

The Spirit World

  • In many indigenous religions, the creator or highest god is thought be removed from ordinary human affairs, a deus otiosus, a ”resting god”
    • Instead it is lesser deities, nature spirits, or ancestor spirits who they engage with
    • In some cases these spirits are the intermediaries between the highest God(s) and human beings
  • These ideas presuppose that there is a dualism between spirit/body that spirit can separate from body and live on
    • Archaeological evidence from ancient burial rites suggests that these ideas go back many, many thousands of years

Initiation Rites

  • For most indigenous cultures, life is a series of initiations, and through them the cultures’ most meaningful signs of status are bestowed, as well as the deepest mysteries of the ultimate meaning of human existence revealed 
    • Often represents a symbolic death and rebirth
    • Marks life stages (e.g. women’s first menstruation) and rites of passage
    • Reflect the interplay of spiritual forces in the affairs of human life and their ongoing exchange
    • Often used to bestow esoteric knowledge



  • Shamans: persons who inherently have, or receive, special powers for dealing with the spirit world
    • Mediates between the world of humans and the spirit world
    • Sometimes referred to as medicine men or women, witch doctors etc.
  • Term originally referred to practitioners in Siberia, considered the classic form of shamanism, although anthropologists found closely related phenomena in most parts of the world



  • The shaman gets their power from knowing the geography & dynamics of the spirit world, having undergone their own symbolic death usually during initiation and trance
    • Keepers of sacred knowledge myths, rituals, songs, secrets, secret languages, origins of tribe etc.
    • Can serve as guide of the souls of the dead (psychopomps), as healer and intercessor, counselor to the community, exorcist, diviner, fortune teller, and even an instantiation of the deities through possession
    • Shamanic tools drums or other rhythmic instruments, sacred words and songs, dance, trance states, and sometimes intoxicants
  • Has been argued that shamanism is the prototype of much of the religious world


Variations in Shamanism

  • 1. “SoulTraveling” Shaman the soul of the shaman visits the world of spirits
    • The shaman sings, plays instruments, dances, and falls in trance or other altered state of consciousness (ASC)
    • While in trance one of the shaman’s soul leaves the body and travels in other worlds with the help of certain spirits (divine/animal etc.)
    • The shamans is the ”rider” and the 
    • helping spirits he controls are the ”horses”
    • The shaman usually remember his travels in the trance state
  • 2. The “Possessed” Shaman a spirit visits the human world by the power of the shaman
    • The shaman may become a vessel or medium and get possessed themselves, acquiring the movements, voice, and behaviours of the spirit
    • Or they may converse with spirits through various means (divination)
    • Or they may cause someone else (usually a young child or elder) to become a vessel for the spirit, which the shaman then speaks with
    • Usually involves training which is required to “welcome” in the divinity and often various trance states or other ASC’s
    • The possessed person is the ”horse” of the spirit, ridden and controlled by the spirits
    • After the possession, the possessed often don’t remember what happened

Goals of Shamanic Flight or Possession

  • Healing physical/mental illness
  • To communicate with the spirit world divinities, nature spirits, ancestors, and other souls of the dead
  • To give omens/prophecies or to discover the origin/causes of some problem
  • To change the course of events (e.g. misfortune, weather, etc.)
  • To fight against another spirit or shaman
  • To lead the souls of the dead into the underworld
  • In essence: to solve problems and crisis for their community


How to be A Shaman

  • 1. By their own will/volition (very uncommon)
  • 2. Chosen by the clan (also very rare)
  • 3. Hereditary shamanism (somewhat common):  Knowledge, skills, and ability to get possessed are passed down from parent to child
  • 4. Due to the “call of the spirits” (most common)
    • “Shamanic sickness The chosen one experiences visions, voices, seizures, various dissociative experiences etc. which are generally harmful
    • Eventually they learn how to control their experience through initiation rites and various training practices
    • During, and through this experience, the initiate is said to be near the realm of the dead and learn the paths to the other worlds the sickness they go through is thus understood as a symbolic death and rebirth
    • “Being sick and curing himself of illness, he is able to cure others”

Types of Indigenous Religions

  • Scholars often distinguish between two types of indigenous religions:
    • 1. Religions indigenous to a particular region: practiced by tribes of people that have lived in the same region of the world for perhaps thousands of years.
    • 2. Syncretic Religions: blending or reconciling elements of two religions so as to make a “new” religionE.g. used as strategy by Christian missionaries to make their religion more familiar to indigenous peoples (e.g. Day of the Dead; Lady of Guadalupe)
    • At the same time used as a way to secretly practice indigenous beliefs under the surface of a Catholic veneer (Santeria, Candomble, Voodoo etc.)
      • These traditions blend Native American, Yoruban and Catholic traditions Catholic saints were often identified with various African deities known as Orishas

Survivals of Indigenous Religions

  • Has been argued that most “popular religions” are simply altered versions of an underlying indigenous religions incorporating bits and pieces of earlier faiths. For example:
    • Christmas remnants of preChristian religion still remain
    • Winter solstice: celebration of light during the darkest time of year originated with the Romans and their festival of Saturnalia
    • Christmas tree: a 17thcentury German invention, though the practice of bringing in trees at this time existed long before an ornamented evergreen tree symbolized passage through winter, the mystical center of the Earth, and access to the divine world
    • Santa Claus merged concepts of the cult of St. Nicholas (from Turkey) with the AngloSaxon sky god Woden, who had a long white beard and rode a horse through the heavens in midwinter
  • Halloween started some 2,000 years ago, when Celtic people celebrated the end of the harvest and the start of a new year in a ”pagan” festival called Samhain a time of communion with and honoring the souls of the dead

Day of the Dead

  • Mexican/MexicanAmerican Catholic commemoration of the dead Souls of the dead maintain relationship with the living as protective spirits who watch over their families in return for the care that the living show them (e.g. “feeding” and commemorating the dead)
    • Christian Roots: Rooted in Catholic Feast of All Saints and All Soul’s Day, both which have earlier roots with Samhain.
    • Aztec Roots: Aztecs celebrated their own “Great Feast of the Dead” known as Miccailhuitontli, which may go back over 3000 years to the Olmec civilization.
      • Was presided over by Mictlantecutli (Lord of the Land of the Fleshless), the god of death who rules over the dead in Mictlan, with his consort, Mictlancihuatl
    • The early Spaniards merged the ritual within the two Catholic holidays, in the hopes that Día de los Muertoswould disappear forever. Instead the traditional native holiday intermixed with the Catholic tradition and survived and more popular then ever.

Indigenous Agriculturalists

  • The advent of agricultural practices about 12,000 years ago produced the most farreaching religious changes of any transition in the history of religion leading to larger societies, greater trade and division of labor, a religious elite, and eventually the development of writing/sacred texts
  • For some, farming was seen as destructive practice, harming Mother Earth, while others strengthened or created new relationships with the Earth when farming methods were adopted
    • It was at this time where we see a widespread adoption of fertility Goddesses around the world
  • One of the most important principles that came to be emphasized at this time was the interconnectedness of life and death was recognized that death was needed in order to produce and sustain life
    • At death, a body dissolves into its constituent elements, which rejoin the cosmic totality, and at birth those elements are drawn out of the cosmos and recombined to create new life
    • Ritual sacrifice thus became central an ongoing exchange between the dead and the living

Patriarchal Revolution

  • Complexity of agricultural society became more hierarchical, leading to greater wealth, exploitation and oppression
  • In a reversal to the ascendancy of the Goddess, women’s lives began to become more restricted and subordinate to men
  • Continued development of agriculture marked significant and longranging reactions by men often trying to cut out women from the religious domain
  • This last “archaic” stage is called the “Patriarchal Revolution” and its effects are still dominant in many religions



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