Unified Theory of Native American Religion
Native American religion celebrates the process of life
The Native American religion is a singular thing. Ancestral Native American religion was not a hierarchy where there is a “progression of conceptual advances,” but, a heterarchy where according to Vin Deloria, Jr., it was “a present examination of community needs and values.”
In Deloria’s book God Is Red he explains in this edited version what that religion is: “The individual is enabled to relate to all phases of his life experience through tribal religions.” “One could say that the tribal religions created the tribal community, which in turn, made a place for every tribal individual.”
“Every factor of human experience is seen in a religious light as part of the meaning of life.” “Other living things are not regarded as insensitive species. Rather they are ‘peoples’ in the same manner as the various tribes of men are peoples.” “Recognition that the human being holds an important place in such a creation is tempered by the thought that he is dependent on everything in creation for his existence.”
“The awareness of the meaning of life comes from observing how the various living things appear to mesh to provide a whole tapestry.” This meshing is a key element to heterarchy, the organizational system the Ancestors utilized instead of a hierarchy. As I see it, the Christian religion is a hierarchy with God at the top. Native American religion is a heterarchy where all of creation has an integral role in the continuous process of life.
The Native American religion has roots in North America that are over 5,000 years old, it has been recognized by the five great world religions as the sixth great religion, yet depending on how you look at it, its essence has either been diluted or extended by a federal government ruling which allows non-Indians the right to create their very own version and call it the Native American Church. In other words, folks who are not Indigenous can, for various levels of payment, join and thereby take advantage of its (sometimes) psychedelic sacraments.
An early form of the Native American religion began over 5,000 years ago along the Ouachita River in present-day Louisiana. The archaeological site is called Watson Brake and contains eleven earthwork mounds. The tallest is 25 feet. They are all connected by a giant oval nearly 900 feet across. This monumental temple was created by fisher-hunter-gatherer people who were without the stabilizing foundation of agriculture. They came together periodically throughout the year to explore the unity between man and the sky, and to add to the temple.
After 500 years of coming together regularly on that spot, if it hadn’t been one before, it became a holy place of great respect and with regional renown and influence. Human lives, the shapes of families, the spiritual connections between land and the tribe, all were directed to building this monument to that sacredness. By sanctifying the place with earthworks they created the form for Native American religion to expand in other places which it did and in fact was doing until the European invasion.
The religion practiced at Watson Brake continued through time as witnessed through the periodic creation of mounds and earthworks as a focus of culture and religious expression in places and cultures we call Poverty Point, Adena, Hopewell and Cahokia.
Around 1,900 years after Watson Brake, the high religion broke out again at Poverty Point, the place of rings. Poverty Point, which is 3,400 years old (though at least one mound is a thousand years older than that) was constructed as a spiritual center which housed local inhabitants. About a dozen Watson Brakes could fit inside its outer ring. It was also one of the first major trading centers in the New World. Watson Brake shows no signs of foreign materials being imported to construct it but Poverty Point could not have existed without long distance trade. Even the stones the mounds were built with had to be imported. Poverty Point’s trade network reached from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Gulf Coast, from the Rocky Mountains to the eastern slope of the Appalachians. It successfully practiced trade and religion and carried on a peaceful society for over a thousand years.
Between the two high cultures of Watson Brake and Poverty Point would have been a time when the religion moved from the temple back among the people. An example in historical time was when Eastern Orthodox Christian priests were run out of the Hagia Sophia Temple in Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders who converted it to a Latin Catholic cathedral. The priests went out among the people and brought their religion with them where it was welcome and grew.
During those 1,900 years tribes would have been formed; languages were created, Caddo to Sioux to Iroquois and the many shapes and shades of Algonquian. Among this fundamental cultural forming they maintained a connection through their ceremonies to the old temple. The religion remains oriented to its primitive origins, themselves 15,000 years before Watson Brake.
As the Poverty Point culture faded up sprung the Adena culture in the Ohio Valley. Adena was a mound building culture which I see as a likely extension of the religious trade culture of Poverty Point. The religious practitioners of the Adena period swept over the Woodland tribes already living in the Ohio River Valley and seemed to have meshed with them in a nonviolent way. I like to think of the influencers among these Adena pilgrims who came into this new land as holy people with a defined religion, the one that began at Watson Brake and was enlivened with righteous trade culture at Poverty Point.
My working theory is after coming up from the south, these Adena pilgrims moved east across Indiana, Ohio, Northern Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania where they came upon a non-mound building, long distance trade affiliation known as the Meadowood Interaction Sphere. When the religion of Adena blended with the trade networks of Meadowood, Hopewell was formed. Hopewell then is an extension of that early religion which during the Hopewell period 2,000 years ago was already 3,500 years old.
After the Ohio Hopewell culture faded around 1,500 years ago, mound building moved west across the Mississippi. This was the period between Hopewell and the advent of the Mississippian mound building sphere 400 years later which itself was epitomized at Cahokia and Spiro. And if the European plunderers did not arrive in the New World mound building would be going on today somewhere in North America. That continuity is the backbone of the true North American religion. That it has been Christianized within the Native American Church system is a predictable outcome of so many years of Christian church influence. But the old ways have not died out. The healing ceremonies of Native American practitioners today whether with the help of peyote or spirit guides sustain in the moment the unique connection through their spiritual presence between the ancestors of this land and the current children of the Earth.
While Watson Brake and the Native American religion engendered there is older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt, it was not recognized as a genuine religion until comparatively recently. It happened at the Fifth Spiritual Summit held in New York City in 1975. Authorized representatives of the five great world religions acknowledged the Native American religion as one of them, the sixth great world religion.
The Spiritual Summit was sponsored by the ‘Foundation For Mind Research’ and ‘Temple of Understanding’ of Greenwich, Connecticut. Paul Horn played jazz flute as background music. Dignitaries included Princess Poon Diskul, president of World Fellowship of Buddhists, Cyprus’s UN Ambassador Xenon Rossides, Muhammed Zafrulla Khan, former president of the United Nations General Assembly, Robert G. Muller of UN Office of Inter-Agency Affairs and Jain spiritual leader Master Chitrabhanu.
While this was not a UN led summit, speakers from the five religions did talk to the UN General Assembly. The archives of the New York Times confirms the event in a story by Eleanor Blau dated October 21, 1975. The Summit was held near the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Iroquois shaman Mad Bear was one of the Indian holy men who were asked to represent their people. Doug Boyd’s book Mad Bear details the encounter.
When he heard this globally important spiritual get-together was planned, Snipe Clan Chief Beeman Logan contacted Mad Bear. “They say they want to acknowledge the Native America religion as the sixth major religion,” the Tuscarora Iroquois medicine man said. “The sacred way of the Native people of this hemisphere was a theology in its own right, as ancient and vast and major as any other. But it is indeed something other than any of these other five religions.”
While Mad Bear saw this recognition as a victory for all original people, to me the question still remains which Native American religion won this recognition. It depends on how you define Native American religion. As a shaman Mad Bear followed an older order than Christianity provides. Mad Bear’s religion is far older than Christianity. Yet Christianity is inherent in the religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.
The Native American Church of the United States was founded in 1917. It came about as a result of the government and organized religion doing their best to eradicate the soul of the Indian through methods like the Carlyle-style boarding schools. It utilizes elements of both Native and Christian rites and has about a quarter million members. It is open to non-Indians. This was a bone of contention among some members of the church. So in the those turbulent and fecund days of the late 1960s the Native American Church of North America was created. A stipulation to membership was at least one quarter Indigenous blood.
Sandor Iron Rope told journalist Karina Brown the Native American Church was founded “to protect our people.” In the 2016 Courthouse News Service story ‘Native American Church Uneasy With New Influences’ he says, “Calling ourselves a Native American Church in the beginning — we chose that name for a reason, and it was for protection. Back then we had no rights. In order to preserve our rights at that time we had to call it a church.”
The article’s title refers to the then burgeoning influence of a Native American church formed by a white man with disputable Indigenous roots. Founder of the Oklevueha Native American Church, James Warren ‘Flying Eagle’ Mooney reportedly claims he’s from the Oklevueha Seminole tribe, but the same report says the Seminole Nation has no knowledge of him. In addition, tribal officials say there is neither a Oklevueha branch nor any other branch of the Seminole. Flying Eagle also claims that his grandfather is James Mooney of Richmond, Indiana, who, he claims, assisted the founders of the first Native American Church, those same people who are doing their best to discredit or at least draw heavy lines of distinction between their Native American Churches and the Mooney Native American churches.
Mooney claims that there are 300 churches around the world who operate under the Okelevueha Native American Church umbrella. Among the sacraments allowed ONAC members are peyote, which they have in common with Indigenous Native American Churches, and marijuana, which the others overtly prohibit. Iron Rope, a full-blood Lakota, said, “I’ve traveled extensively amongst tribes and I’ve never sat in a Native American Church marijuana ceremony or even heard about one.”
ONAC sacraments also reportedly include ayahuasca and sexual healing. There is no native blood stipulation in ONAC membership. That’s what bothers the original Native American Churches and its many factions. That and ONAC membership costs money. A digital visit to their website shows prices ranging from free to $350.
Regarding the members who pay to pray, Iron Rope feels the Mooney branch members “can pray to whatever they want to. But trying to blend it all together is not our heritage. And it’s not the Native American Church.” “Anybody could just say they’re a Native American Church, but that doesn’t mean there’s an indigenous tradition, a teaching or foundation behind it,” said Sandor Iron Rope in the article.
In 2004 the State of Utah challenged James and Linda Mooney and their Oklevueha NAC, saying the federal protections granted the original Native American Church under the Religious Peyote Exemption was available only to members of federally recognized Native American tribes. The Utah Supreme Court found “because the text of the exemption is devoid of any reference to tribal status, we find no support for an interpretation limiting the exemption to tribal members.” And further, “On its face, the exemption applies to members of the Native American Church, without regard to tribal membership. The bona fide religious use of peyote cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting members of the Native American Church under state law.” Since the Oklevueha Native American Church does not require tribal membership, anyone may join, opening up this ancient ritual to everyone.
The recognition given the Native American religion 50 years ago at the Third Spiritual Summit must include both the shaman/medicine man religion and the Christian-based changes. It would not be the Native American Church exclusively but it would have included all the NACs at the time. The Mooney NACs are not strictly Native American, but they are a living homage to the real NACs. There must be a place for them in history because they are here today in growing numbers.
The Native American religion as shaman like Mad Bear practice it, dates back in time to the Beringian past 20,000 years ago when the people who are Native American began a unique branch of the human tree with their own DNA and their own religion, the Native American religion which believes not in a hierarchy where man is at the top but a natural heterarchy where the humans share an equal rank of importance to the other living things on Earth.
Of the way it worked, Deloria wrote, “They had no religious controversy within their communities because everyone shared a common historical experience, and cultural identity was not separated into religious, economic, sociological, political and military spheres.” The result seems to me to be something of a higher love or maybe it’s a lower love, which might be better.
George Catlin, who traveled extensively among the Indian tribes in the early 1800s, also affirmed this oneness of religion and its positive effects on Indian tribal life:
“I love a people who keep the commandments without ever having read or heard them preached from the pulpit. I love a people who never swear or take the name of God in vain. I love a people who love their neighbors as they love themselves. I love a people who worship God without a Bible. I love a people whose religion is all the same, and who are free from religious animosities.”
This shared common religious experience was given scientific verification in 2018 when Moreno-Mayar, et al identified a basal Ancestral Native American lineage. They called it Ancient Beringia and dated it to 20,000 years. ago. The people we call Indians became a unique line of humanity while they spent 10,000 years or more living together in Beringia waiting for the Wisconsin Glaciation to recede. They have a common religion because they are one people and have been for 30,000 years or more. Like Catlin said, they were and are “a people whose religion is all the same.” For those who hail from Beringia, the Native American religion is baked into your DNA.