Native American spirituality encompasses the diverse cultures and lifestyles of native peoples living in all parts of the western hemisphere. The diversity is connected to the main ways that tribes have survived physically. There are, then, hunting tribes, fishing tribes, and agriculture tribes, all with their unique and special traditions. Indeed, the diversity has created a variety of spiritual needs leading to there being a variety of ways that spiritual needs get expressed. For example, in tribes where hunting is essential, the emphasis is on animals being spiritual, while in agriculturally based tribes, the emphasis is on crops and the land having a sacred identity. However, in many ways, the similarities outweigh the differences; for throughout Native American societies, the core meaning of spirituality is essentially the same.
One of the main similarities has to do with spirituality being different from religion. In most Western cultures, the meaning of spirituality is tied to organized religion-not so for Native American peoples. For Native American peoples, spirituality is expressed in all aspects of life. Indeed, in many Native American languages, there is no word for religion. For Native Americans, as for other peoples, spirituality fulfills emotional needs and the need to provide meaning beyond that provided by science and practical reasoning. However, for Native Americans, spirituality, much like science, provides a way of understanding the world and how it operates.
Gaining self-understanding is also a spiritual need. For many Native Americans, spirituality defines who they are and what their relation is to the world. Each individual is seen in a spiritual context that is complex and contrary to how the individual is seen in most Western cultures. For Native Americans, humans have a special but not superior place in the world. That is, for Native Americans, no living thing has power or dominion over another. Different species, the human species included, form a web rather than a hierarchy. This web-of-life view is reflected in the role that animals play in Native American creation stories. For instance, in the Iroquois tradition, the world was created on the back of a turtle, and in the Ottawa tradition, men were created from the parts of dead animals. Native American animism also reflects the web-oflife view-as all living things are seen as being spirits or having consciousness. This view creates a special kind of reverence for life, and when adopting it, the world becomes a spiritual stage on which humans play but a limited role. One important example of this is the reverence accorded to the land. For many Native Americans, the land is alive and spiritual, and in some tribes, the sacred and personal status of the land is expressed by referring to the land as a mother. Native American spirituality also shapes the lifestyles and values of Native Americans. The role of the individual is that of maintaining the balance of life by fulfilling one's role, and one's role is both in the world at large as well as in one's community. For example, for Native Americans, it is essential to revere the land and respect life as well as to fulfill obligations to one's community. In Native American spirituality, life is a spiritual journey, and the growth of the individual is understood as spiritual growth. This growth is marked by rites of passage, so that for Native Americans, ceremonies play an integral part of their spiritual development. The "vision quest" is one such ceremony.
The vision quest is a time when youths go into isolation to fast and become aware of their spiritual connection to the earth. In some cases, the vision "question" is also to discover their spiritual guardian. Among the Sioux, the Navajo, and other tribes in the southwest, the sweat lodge ceremony also marks and promotes spiritual development. Steam heat is used to produce sweating, which, in turn, intensifies the experience of prayer and reflection. However, prayer and reflection occur not only in ceremonies but also in everyday behavior, including the telling of stories. For Native Americans, storytelling can be sacred acts-especially when stories are means of defining the community, its history, and its traditions. Native American spirituality is, then, a means for understanding Native American culture and what it means to be Native American.