So Sioux Me: What The Church Needs to Know from Native American Religion

There’s no doubt many Christian settlers and present-day European Americans have treated Native Americans harshly. I don’t wish to go into the politics of the long-standing tussles between the white man and the “red man.” I do believe, however, that the body of Christ can learn something from the original inhabitants of our continent. First, Native American religion can only be spoken of in broad terms, as many different belief systems exist among many tribes and tongues. Several general principles will guide us, however, as we look at what we can learn from their religious practices.

Native Americans have always de-emphasize organizational structure to emphasize nature and personal religious experience. In our terms, they prefer spiritual formation over institutions. Need I say more?

For Native Americans, every activity in life is spiritual. From cooking, to tree-chopping, to hunting, to menstruating (seriously!), the Native Americans see even the most mundane daily activities and occurences as connecting in some way with the spirit world or the Great Spirit. What would happen if Christians began seeing each daily activity through the lens of spirituality? This doesn’t simply mean making ethical decisions at work, though ethics are extremely important — it means seeing each moment as a gift from God (the “Great Spirit”) and each activity as an opportunity to serve Him. This principle could really make cleaning bathrooms interesting, huh?

Third, Christians can learn a lot from the Native American concept of the “Vision Quest.” As you may know, tribal adolescents are sent away from the tribe to live alone until they receive a vision, which is often accompanied by several days of wilderness survival and fasting. This activity is communal in the sense that each member of the tribe is concerned for the “spiritual maturing” of the adolescent person. What would this look like in our churches? Well, we wouldn’t send kids away when they are ready to be a disciple of Christ, but we would go to the ends of the earth to ensure that they grow spiritually. Spiritual formation would be at the core of our existence, which means holding baby Christians accountable for their lives and actions long after they make the “initial decision.” This kind of thing would have certainly occured in Native American tribes, as “vision-seeking” was at the core of their religious life.

Native American religions are remarkably free of a priesthood. Protestants say they believe in a “priesthood of all believers,” but in reality, a clergy-laity system is pretty firmly in place. The Native Americans believe that each person could connect equally with the spirit world, and prayers, dances, songs, and visions are all performed by every member of the tribe, according to each person’s need. This principle touches on several aspects of the Christian life: who can “do stuff” within the body, how we view leadership, and the constant communal strain toward connectedness to God through Christ.

The Native Americans also apparently have very little fear of death. We can learn from this principle daily as each of us walks a little closer to our final home, Heaven.

Finally, nearly all Native Americans treat both the spiritual and the physical when dealing with illness or disease. Medical doctors work by day, while medicine women and men perform traditional healing rituals. The church can learn greatly from this characteristic of our neighbors. We have a tendency to see everything through modern, Western eyes — headaches are cured with an Advil, schitzophrenia calls for a few visits to a shrink, etc. — you get the picture. I would assert that we live in a physical world that is NOT reality — the spiritual world is our reality as believers. Through this lens, we see the potential for and solution to spiritual oppression as much as we see common “psychological disorders.” We begin to see that we are, in fact, opposed in this spiritual war, and we begin to pray like it.

Many aspects of Native American culture and religion do not transplant well into our faith — the use of tobacco and peyote for connecting to the spirits wouldn’t go over real well at our Wednesday night prayer meetings. We can, however, see several characteristics that should peak the church’s interest at least a bit, for Native American practices are peaking the interest of many non-natives in our culture today for many of the same reasons.

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