Native-American religions refers to the sociocultural belief systems that make up the moral and ethical values of any of the different groups of indigenous peoples of North and South America. The religions of Native Americans, like of any people, provide the framework by which one sees the world and give meaning to life's basic preoccupations. In the Native-American culture, particularly, there is a strong inclination to mesh individual life with the greater cycles of nature and the higher powers believed responsible for creating and sustaining the world.
In Native-American culture, religious leadership falls upon the tribal leaders and shamans, the tribal practitioners of physical healing and spiritual mediation, often viewed as synonymous. The elderly hold a place of respect in Native-American culture and are assumed to be the repositories of wisdom by means of experience. Shamans are believed to be able to move through both the physical and spiritual planes, thus able to communicate with the spiritual forces that control the physical world. The knowledge gained from these "ecstatic" experiences enables shamans to heal the sick, communicate with the dead and guide the community through difficult situations.
The vast majority of the indigenous peoples of America are traditionally pantheistic, with a holistic, or undifferentiated, viewpoint of the sacred and the mundane. Thus, the majority of seasonal milestones and life cycle events (birth, death, harvests, hunting, etc.) are associated with the gods or spirits believed to be in control of them. For most, doubt or criticism is not inherent in the daily mode of operation, and objective analysis in the tradition of European skepticism and criticism is a foreign concept. Because religious views are more experiential and less doctrinal, even when faced with the nonliteral reality of the mythology and folklore, one is more likely to embrace the truth within the symbolism rather than discard the tradition altogether.
One commonality in the religion of various indigenous groups is the requirement of harmony within nature. In Native-American consciousness, man and animal are seen as compatible and kindred spirits, capable of spiritual interchanges. Dreams and dream states harbor messages from the spiritual world. Mountains can conceal a god. Another common feature is the sacredness of the land. As opposed to the view of land as dormant matter, the land itself is viewed as synonymous with the human spirit, possessing mind and heart, and should be respected as one would a fellow human being.
Intrinsic within various Native-American cultures are social and religious taboos that carry great weight within the community. For example, in some of the cultures of the Eastern Woodlands, children are not allowed to touch moles. The animals are believed to be "stigmatic," due to what is considered an "unnatural" life under the ground, and the act of touching is believed to allow spiritual essences to mingle. For this reason, also, it was considered taboo in many Native American cultures to touch or mingle with women during their menstruation.
The implantation of European civilization within North and South America brought Christianity to the indigenous population. From the European perspective, the religion of the indigenous peoples was often regarded as "ungodly" and the practitioners as "heathens." After complete annihilation was deemed impossible, evangelism and conversion of the Native American became the primary goal of the Christian missionary in the New World. In some areas, such as the converted Indian communities of Massachusetts, "praying towns" were established where complete conversion led to the complete restructure of Native-American life. Inhabitants adopted European social structure, clothing, mannerisms and language in the attempt to become "saved."
Although the praying towns did not last, many indigenous people began to read the Bible and pray to Jesus while attending Christian churches, as they incorporated the Christian framework with many significant beliefs from their tribal religion. Christianity as a religion has continued to grow within most of the Native-American population until today. By 1990, nearly two-thirds of Native-American high school seniors identified as Christians, and, of these, nearly half as Protestant with approximately 20 percent as Catholic.
Today, the traditions of the Native Americans vary from the Eastern Woodlands to the Plains and to the Southwest, incorporating many different religions: Ghost Dance, Earth Lodge, Dreamer, Drum and Shaker to name a few. In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to safeguard the religious rights of American Indians, Eskimos/Aleuts and Native Hawaiians. It provides for access to sacred grounds and sacred objects as well as the freedom to worship according to traditional ceremonial custom.