Worshipper singing at the Indian Revival Center in LAWorshipper singing at the Indian Revival Center in LA


Throughout Indian Country there is a struggle going on over the spirits of Native Americans. On one side are traditional native religious observers, and on the other side Christians. This is a struggle that goes back to first contact between whites and Indians and that will probably continue well into the future.

One of the stated goals of the early European explorers was to convert "savage" Indians to Christianity and save their souls. The explorers were generally deeply religious people and they brought along missionaries. But history has shown that their noble intentions most often ended up with catastrophic consequences.

Yet as Mark Anthony Rolo notes in A Seat at the Drum, "Indians have deep spiritual traditions so it should come as no surprise that even as Christian missionaries were participating in the cultural genocide of the tribes, individual Indian families were drawn to the faith. And Christianity has been a very effective tool of assimilation in the cities."

In this video segment drawn from both programs, there are conflicting feelings about native spirituality and Christianity — often within the same person.

Click here to watch a video clip

Mark himself grew up Catholic and was a "born again" Christian until he was 30. He now feels the pull of his Ojibwe traditions. Spirituality matters because it is one of the resources that experts agree can help heal some of the health challenges facing Indians today.

Christian churches across the country are one of the main sponsors of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Christian charities pay for scholarships, health care programs, child care programs and, of course, church buildings. At least 11 denominations have national and multi-state philanthropy foundations for indigenous and ethnic people.

Christian ministers and missionaries have always preached that the Bible and faith offer answers to problems of poverty, stress, substance abuse, health challenges and the final disposition of an individual's soul.

Traditional Native American spiritual leaders, on the other hand, have always asserted that Indians would be better off helping each other. Most tribes in North America practiced ritualized "sharing" ceremonies where gifts were exchanged between families in the tribe. It was called the Potlatch in the Northwest, a Givaway on the Plains and a Giving ceremony in the Southwest.

Native American spiritual traditions vary greatly from tribe to tribe, but common themes occasionally crop up. Most tribes have a deity who created the world. Some tribes have another, a hero or a trickster, who teaches the people their culture, proper behavior and how to maintain their health. Many tribes share a reverence for the land. Many have creation stories that are tied to specific, identifiable features on the map. They generally believe they do not own the land, but care for it and derive their sustenance from it. There are many different notions about life after death. Many tribes have similar types of ceremonies — vision quests, renewal ceremonies, hunting rituals, crop dances and the sweat lodge.

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