In explaining Native American spirituality, the 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian, tells the story of an old Indian man who every morning of his adult life got up before dawn, painted his face, and prayed the sun up out of the ground. To understand American Indian spirituality, one must attempt to understand and, above all, respect the relationship between that old man and the creation.
There is no monolithic or all-encompassing definition or explanation of Native American spirituality. Prior to European contact in the present-day United States, there were more than 500 Indian nations; some were related, most were not; some shared the same concepts of spirituality, many did not. What is true of one Indian nation may have been totally unrecognized by another. For the most part, however, spirituality was a personal relationship that connected the individual's spirit to the creation, to the present world, to a sense of place, a relationship with other humans and the animals and for some, a gateway into another life after the present.
Creation came about in many different ways, at different times, and in different places for the ancestors of today's Native American Indian people. It is perhaps most telling that these creation histories have for the most part been called creation myths by the uninformed, carrying with those words the pejorative connotation that they are untrue or just a fanciful story to be told around a campfire or in a teepee somewhere on the Great Plains. For Native people these histories are their sacred truths of creation and are as historically informative and timeless as the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or any other creation history. In anthropological words, in most Western religions, creation reflects a concept of monogenesis, or one beginning in one place at one time. Native spirituality, however, comes from a polygenesis beginning, or many beginnings in many places at different times where life could be supported. Two examples follow.
Frank Fools Crow, a Lakota holy man and Ceremonial Chief of the Sioux, when asked where the Lakota came from, stooped down and picked up a handful of South Dakota dirt and stated, "We Indian people go way back to ancient times, when Great Grandfather, the Great Spirit, molded us from the ground and gave this land to us. He placed us here, and told us that it is our land. We are part of it and one in spirit with it. That is why we seek harmony with all creation. We share the same Creator and heritage." The Lakota creation as told by Fools Crow is perhaps the shortest and most direct. Other sacred truths of creation are longer and more complex.
The Cherokee people believe that before this world their ancestors lived in a sky world, which although beautiful and filled with all that they needed, became crowded over time. In search of a new home, they looked below their sky world and saw that all below was water. They asked the great buzzard (at a time when people could speak with animals and birds) to fly down below and see what he could see. The great buzzard returned from an extended flight and told them that all that existed was water, water as far as the eye could see. A plan was developed whereby the great buzzard would again fly below, this time with a water beetle on his back. When the great buzzard flew above the water, the water beetle was to dive into the water, swim below, and see if there was anything upon which to build a new world. The plan was set, and the water beetle did as told, coming up and reporting that he had been unable to find anything. Water beetle was requested to do this again, and on the third try he returned to the surface with a ball of mud in his pincher. He sat the mud upon the surface of the water, and it began to expand out on the surface forming a landmass. Pleased with the results, buzzard and beetle returned to the sky world.
After a period of time the great buzzard was asked to fly back down to the new surface and see if it was a good place for The People. The great buzzard returned from his flight stating that the land was large but soft and muddy. There were no plants and no animal life. Over a period of time the great buzzard made additional trips, each time reporting that things were improving. The land was firming up; trees and plants were beginning to grow. The great buzzard flew close to the ground, and as his wings went up, the mountains were formed; as his wings went down, the valleys were formed. Soon the new world would be ready for The People.
When the time finally arrived for the move to the below world, the Cherokee people got upon the back of the great buzzard and he transported them to the surface. As they approached they saw what a beautiful place the creator had provided. There was ample room for both "two-leggeds" and the "four-leggeds." The climate was favorable and crops would grow well. The people disembarked from upon the great buzzard and settled themselves into their sacred lands in parts of present-day Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas.
Even though the great majority of the Cherokee were removed from their sacred lands during the Removal Era of the 1830s and 1840s, they still retain a spiritual connection to the land that their ancestors were given and where many of them were buried. These truths of creation are only the beginning point in understanding Indian spirituality just as a child's birth is only the beginning point for his or her later life. Indian children were raised in a spiritual world where every place and every thing around them was interwoven and interconnected. Tribal elders and family members inculcated the spiritual into the daily rhythm of the child's life and instructed the child in the cycle of the world and his or her part and place in it. The child was taught that all things were spiritual and that spirits and or spirit power was present in most everything whether it be natural phenomenon such as wind, rain, thunder, steam, or in trees, rocks, sacred sites, and unexplained events. Animals too had spirits, and through rituals such as a vision quest, or perhaps as the result of a dream, a spirit helper or helpers could be attained to assist the child as he or she prepared for adult life. Additional spirit helpers might be added to a person's repertory as they became older, and these spirit helpers could be called upon in time of crisis or whenever needed.