This essay describes themes common to the ancient religions of indigenous peoples in their native lands – belief systems that many did not realize had existed way before missionaries arrived. Indigenous peoples include the native Americans, Eskimos and the Australian Aborigines. It has been difficult for Westerners to fully research and understand those religions, in part because the traditional way of passing the knowledge down through the generations has been by storytelling or word of mouth. Thus, taking into account a reluctance to share that knowledge with outsiders, very little information existed for researchers. Those belief systems are often called Sacred Ways. The essay also discusses why those common themes are important.
Although these indigenous religions are separate and distinct, according to the source reading “Indigenous Sacred Ways” there are four recurring themes:
The first of such themes is the belief that all life forms in our universe are not only interrelated but are also interdependent. This particular theme is often represented or symbolized by the circle – a shape with no beginning or end, which could indicate the ever-repeating cycle of “birth, youth, maturity, death” or the seasons of the year, or even the “cyclical movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars”.
The second common theme is that one of these interdependent relationships is with the spirit world. In most of the indigenous religions there is a “Supreme Deity” or Creator, who exists in all living things including the grass, trees, the rivers, the mountains as well as in humans and all animals and birds. Each religion has its own name for this being, such as Wakan tanka (the Sioux people of America). Even though believed to be everywhere and in everything, the Creator always remains mysterious and unseen. Although mainly depicted as male, for some religions the deity is considered to be female, and for others neither one sex nor the other, especially where the native language has no distinct male and female pronouns.
A third important feature of these religions is the belief that all aspects of the tangible world are somehow spiritually related and connected. For example, believers consider that what we might view as inanimate objects (such as mountains) are living things to which they are related. By extension, in accordance with that belief, the term “family” encompasses all creation and – further – that we are merely caretakers of our planet, not its controllers, and that we must respect all living creatures, from the smallest insect to the largest whale.
The fourth common theme is the cultivation of a proper relationship with the spiritual powers. Because in some instances that power is believed to reside in a specific site, peoples expelled from the lands of their ancestors lose their links to the sacred place, which makes their forced departure even more difficult to bear. In some of the religions the sacred power is said to reside in special rituals, practices, or artifacts like stones or bones or the fur of specific animals The sacred power in many of the indigenous religions is said to be stronger in “specialist” and important individuals sometimes called shamans or medicine people. These people function as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual world.
These common themes are important, both to the indigenous peoples themselves, and to the world at large. For the peoples themselves, their beliefs reinforce their sense of family and community, and of being in harmony with the spirits and with the world and all its inhabitants. For the world at large, taking on board those values may be the way forward for ecological stability of our planet. As the source reading concludes: “Some indigenous people feel that their traditional sacred ways are not only valid, but actually essential for the future of the world”.
Indigenous Sacred Ways. (n.d.). Pearson Education. Retrieved from http://wps.prenhall.com/wps/media/objects/251/257787/im_ch02_1.pdf