History of religion

The Religion of the North American Indians

(Published in GralsWelt 33/2004).

The first European immigrants to North America were neither ethnologists nor religious scholars and accordingly only interested in the customs, traditions, myths and religious ideas of the Indians to the extent that it was useful for trading with Indians or (in the case of missionaries) for conversion.

Furthermore, until the 19th century, Europeans and Americans understood “religion” only as Christianity. Even with the recognition of the Jewish religion, Christian theologians had problems, Islam was vilified, and natural religions were dismissed as idolatry or the work of the devil.

"Brothers! Listen. You say that you are sent to teach us how to worship the Great Spirit in a way that please him; and if we do not accept the religion you whites teach us, we shall be unhappy in the life to come. You say you are right and we are lost. How do you know this is true? We learn that your religion is written down in a book. If it is meant for us as well as for you, why didn't the Great Spirit give it to us; and not just us, but why did he not give our ancestors the knowledge of this book and the means to properly understand it? We only know that you tell us about it. How should we know who to believe after we have been betrayed so often by the whites? "
(The Seneca Red jacket, ca. 1756-1830; 8, p. 45)

Not a good starting point for researching Indian religious ideas, which differed greatly from the ideas of Christians.

When the whites then began to take a more serious interest in the religious ideas of the Indians (actually only in the 19th century), Christian worldviews had already penetrated the Indian mythical world, and the original could hardly be separated from what was adopted from Christianity. In addition, there were language problems and the resulting misunderstandings that are inevitable when different cultures with different values meet.

In addition, in North America alone there were around 500 Indian tribes, hundreds of Indian languages, and correspondingly many forms of the transcendent world experience, so that one can hardly speak of the North American Indian religion in general terms. So one can only try to trace some basic ideas that were more or less shared by most of the indigenous peoples in North America.


For an Indian, all of nature was animated: rocks, plants, animals and people. He saw himself as part of nature, so he did not claim any special position. Accordingly, he endeavored to fit into the interplay of natural forces.

Time did not play a major role in Indian mythology - unlike in Christianity with its history of salvation.

In return, the Indian is closely connected with his country, with holy places, where the supernatural manifests itself anew every day and becomes a personal experience. These transcendent experiences of the individual are partially bound to a specific location and do not claim any universal validity. From the worship of the country arose - probably only under the influence of the whites - the image of "Mother Earth" (and "Father Heaven") that is widespread today and that can be historically proven for the first time in the speeches Tecumsehs (1768-1813) appears.

An impersonal spirit or force permeated all things, such as a sacred or divine essence. With the Sioux this force, known to all North American Indians, was called "Wakonda", with the Iroquois "Orenda" (3, p. 79); Both terms were translated as "God", although "Great Secret" comes closer to the Indian ideas. One recognizes the similarity of this “belief in force” (dynamism) with ancient teachings from Asia, which describe a “neutral main force” (1) acting everywhere as “Mana”, “Dharma” etc. (cf. 4, p. 19).


Indian myths tell of the origin of the world and of man, as well as of spirits - good and bad, big and small - that work everywhere in nature.

Man consisted of three parts: body, soul and "shadow" (sometimes incorrectly called "spirit"). The soul lived on after earth death. The shadow stayed near his burial place and took part in the existence of the living. This shadow seems to correspond to the "astral body" of today's esotericism.

Many tribes believed in rebirth, both of human and animal souls. It is not entirely clear whether the shadow dissolves and only the soul reincarnates, or whether the soul and shadow have to come together for a new incarnation.

But one must not expect an elaborate theology from an Indian religion, and it is not infrequently wiser to keep a lot of religious questions open and in abeyance than to fix uncertain opinions as truth.

At the top of the hierarchy of spirits was supposedly a “Creator God”, the “Great Good Spirit”, who had many names. This highest of the spirit beings is similar to the Christian God. Indian researchers suspect that Indian and Christian beliefs mixed here. In reports from the 17th century the word of the Algonquin language "Manitu" is translated both with "God" and with "Devil" (3, p.74). It was used more generally for ghosts or something special, admirable, also as a kind of universal force; only later did the Christian god find his Indian counterpart in the “Great Good Spirit”.

It is similar with the adversary: A ruler of the evil spirits, comparable to Lucifer, probably only came into being under Christian influence.
With the Shawanos, for example, it was "Megissowon" (7, p. 14), who with his entourage from "Anamaqkiu" (the demons of the deep) brought winter, storm and calamity over man and nature.

As the big one Tecumseh with the help of his brother (the Prophet Ten-squa-ta-wa, who had spent many years under border guards) formed a pan-Indian alliance and called for a fight against the land robbers, the whites became Megissowon's children who corrupt the Indians with fire water and drive them out of their land with lies, deceit and violence. (Cf. “Brief, succinct, curious” page 390 “An unbelievable announcement”).


The "medicine man" or the "medicine woman" (not a happy name for these "shamans") was part of ancient shamanistic traditions, which may date from a time before early immigrants came to America via the Behringstrasse.

To this day, shamans or magicians can be found in many regions, e.g. in Africa and Asia, as custodians of visionary traditions, as they were presumably to be found in all cultures in prehistoric times.

When classifying the medicine man among the shamans, however, the opinions of ethnologists are divided, and some limit shamanism to Eurasia. Because medicine man (or African magician) and shaman are alike in their outward appearances and behaviors, but the contents of their religions are different:

In Asia, “the spirits” force a chosen one to become a shaman through illness and the experience of ritual killing (cf.  "Shamans in Korea" under "Book Reviews"). The content of this shamanistic religion in the narrower sense is ancestor cult, contacts to natural beings and to unborn souls.

For a medicine man (at least among the Algonquins) this compulsory call by the spirits was missing, and the decisive element of his religion was "Manitu", the aforementioned universal force with which he should establish contact.

The Indian medicine man was a visionary, fortune teller, healer, guardian of myths and traditions. He should maintain contact with the "world of spirits" or the "Manitu", be clairvoyant and know where game was to be found, how the weather would develop, whether the tribe threatened dangers and how these could be averted.

In some, especially the sedentary tribes, there was also the hereditary priesthood in addition to the medicine man. Indians also knew the difference between priests and prophets:
"While man speaks to God through the priests, God speaks to man through the prophets" (3, p. 132).

When whites flooded the Indian land, neither the ancient myths nor the manitu nor the spirits of the deceased helped the medicine man. Indian healers were just as helpless as their Christian priestly colleagues in Europe were exposed to the great plague of the 14th century.


An Indian knew no separation between this and the hereafter. Dreams and visions should help him to make contact with the supernatural. Dream experiences were accordingly important for an Indian, and for some peoples dreams were considered revelations through which supernatural beings imparted vital knowledge (3, p. 115).

Such revelation dreams were also actively sought, eg through fasting or rituals, partly (eg with the Sioux) with Payote[i] helped to fall into a trance.

The following factual report is intended to show how seriously an Indian took his dreams:

The Chippewa Wawatam had a vision in 1758 in which he saw an Englishman whom he did not know and was commissioned to accept the strange white man like his own son. Three years later, Wawatam actually met this Englishman: it was the trader Alexander Henry. Wawatam took the astonished white man into his family like a child and saved his life several times during the Pontiac War. (2).


As in all ancient cultures, prayers and sacrifices were also used by Indians as communication channels to the supernatural. Some tribes had ritual formulas - comparable to our magic spells - some of which were secret and were inherited. Objects (e.g. mussel shells, gemstones), plants (especially tobacco), animals (dogs, parts of animals killed by the hunted victim) and people were sacrificed.

Like other primitive peoples, Indians had ceremonies for special periods of life. In growing up as an example, male adolescents had to gain visionary experiences through strict fasting and encounter their guardian spirit in the process. After that they were given a new name.

The calumet was found in almost all of North America[ii] ritual meaning (cf. "That was the wild west" part 1, under "History").

The magic of rain or fertility was important to arable farmers.

A ritual practiced by many tribes was the sun dance. It consists of days of dances around a ceremonial stake, without food or drink (sometimes with painful self-torture) until the dancers fall into a trance and hallucinate.

For Indians, death was the transition to another form of existence from which the departed could reincarnate as a person.

Some tribes, such as the Navaho, feared the soul of the deceased, buried the dead as quickly as possible and destroyed their property.

In the eastern woodland, the departed was allowed a longer period of time to break away from this world, and food and tobacco were brought to the grave. Only after one or more years was there a farewell party to finally separate the soul from this world.

The much-cited "Eternal Hunting Grounds" as the whereabouts of the deceased are hardly an original Indian idea. They probably spring from Christian influences.


“Around the middle of the 19th century, Ojibwa and Ottawa told the story of a Christian Indian who was turned away by Peter after his death at the gate to heaven because he was an Indian and who, as a Christian, blocked access to the eternal hunting grounds stayed. When he was forced to return to earth, he gave up his Christianity because he could not become white. " (3, p. 193).

The whole tragedy of the Indians lies in this fable of a declining culture: Torn out of the “Stone Age”, they were given no chance to adapt.

Indian peoples could not withstand the powerful invaders who destroyed their culture. Chiefs and medicine men alike had no advice and the spirits were silent.

There was no future for Indians: if they converted to Christianity or if they became farmers in order to live in peace, they were despised or even fought against by other Indians (like the Mohicans by the Iroquois), or driven out by white settlers and the army, murdered, exterminated (like the “Five Civilized Tribes”; cf. “Short, concise, curious” page 404 “A little-known genius”).

Last, as after Tecumsehs Death and the forced resettlement in reservations (mostly in barren landscapes unusable for whites), even the last attempts at liberation had been in vain, prophets appeared who, with irrational mixtures of Indian and Christian myths, promised a better future for an Indian in the 19th century, however, could only hope in the hereafter. "That was the wild west", part 6, under "History").

(1) Abd-ru-shin: “In the light of truth”, publisher of the Grail Message Foundation, Stuttgart.
(2) Eckert, Allan W .: "The Conquerors", Bantam, New York, 1981.
(3) Feest, Christian: "Beseelte Welten", Herder, Freiburg, 1998.
(4) Hagl, Siegfried: “Chaff and Wheat”, Gralsverlag, Purgstall, 2003.
(5) Hetmann, Frederik: “The earth is our mother”, Herder, Freiburg, 1998.
(6) La Farge, Oliver: “The great hunt”, Walter, Olten 1961.
(7) Steuben, Fritz: "Großer Häuptling Tecumseh", Franckh'sche Verlagshandlung, Stuttgart, 1966.
(8) Vanderwerth, WC: "Indian Oratory," University of Oklahoma, 1971.
[i] Payote (Payoti) is a small, prickly cactus with a psychedelic effect
[ii] The tobacco pipe used in rituals