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Chapter 2: Indigenous Religions

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Chapter Objectives
After reading this chapter, you will be able to do the following:
• Describe the three patterns shared by indigenous religions.
• Explain the view of reality held by indigenous religions.
• Describe the importance of ritual in the practice of indigenous religion.
• Discuss rite of passage ceremonies.
• Define the function of taboos.
• Describe the role of the shaman.
Chapter Summary
Indigenous religions are practiced by native peoples around the world. Their teachings have been conveyed primarily by word of mouth rather than through written texts. Though a tremendous variety exists in stories, beliefs, and practices among them, certain key patterns emerge.
Indigenous religions express strong relationships with nature. Human beings are embedded in a world of animals, plants, and a landscape where the life force, or the "spirits," is present in everything. The universe has a visible ordinary reality and a deeper, unseen sacred presence, yet all is part of the same reality with no clear boundaries between the natural and the supernatural. To avoid harm and incur blessings, human beings must treat all things with care. An ethic of restraint or conservation is shown in taking only what one needs and in using all the parts of an animal or a plant. Animals are often spoken of in terms of kinship, as brothers and sisters, or as another tribe or people.
The second pattern among indigenous religions is a concept of sacred time and space that supports a sense of identity. Participants enter into the sacred time in which live the ancestors and gods through ritually retelling their stories and deeds. By structuring daily life around the mythic events in sacred time, they create a sense of holiness in everyday life. The cyclical nature of sacred time is also seen in following the rhythm of the seasons to observe certain facets of life, such as planting, hunting, or relocating to another area. Sacred space is tied to significant features of the land where tribal peoples live, or it is constructed in symbolic shapes for the purpose of ceremonies. It is often related to the concept of the center, a portal through which the power of the gods and ancestors can be accessed.
The third related pattern shared by indigenous religions is respect for origins, gods, and ancestors. Origin stories describe how the world and the tribe came into being. While a High God is often acknowledged in oral religions, the primary focus is on gods or spirits most often associated with the forces of nature. Ancestors can exert a force over the present for good or ill, depending on how they are treated. They are regarded both with love and with respect for their power. Rituals are the basic means for creating harmony with the gods or spirits, ancestors, and nature. They are also a significant aid in making transitions between stages in the life cycle. Taboos help regulate social life and maintain religious order. When broken, they often require some sort of sacrifice. The shaman acts as an intermediary between the ordinary world and the spirit world. Utilizing trance states, shamans access the spirit world to gain powers of healing or insight to benefit the people. Finally, art objects or practices such as dance have a religious function and utilize the language of symbol.
Though many aspects of the modern world are threatening the practice of indigenous religions, some indigenous religions are experiencing a resurgence in their native cultures. Beyond their immediate sphere, they have influenced the ecological movement, along with music composers and artists around the world.
calumet
A long-stemmed sacred pipe used primarily by many native peoples of North America; it is smoked as a token of peace.
divination
A foretelling of the future or a discovery of the unknown by magical means.
holistic
Organic, integrated; indicating a complete system, greater than the sum of its parts; here, refers to a culture whose various elements may all have religious meaning.
libation
The act of pouring a liquid as an offering to a god.
shaman
A human being who contacts and attempts to manipulate the power of spirits for the tribe or group.
sympathetic magic
An attempt to influence the outcome of an event through an action that has apparent similarity to the desired result — for example, throwing water into the air to produce rain, or burning an enemy's fingernail clippings to bring sickness to that enemy.
taboo
A strong social prohibition.
totem
Animal (or image of animals) that is considered to be related by blood to a family or clan and is its guardian symbol.