Aboriginal People: Religion
First Nation, Métis and Inuit religions in Canada vary widely and consist of complex social and cultural customs for addressing the sacred and the supernatural.
First Nation, Métis and Inuit religions in Canada vary widely and consist of complex social and cultural customs for addressing the sacred and the supernatural. The influence of Christianity — through settlers, missionaries and government policy — significantly altered life for Aboriginal peoples. In some communities, this resulted in hybridized religious practices; while in others, European religion replaced traditional spiritual practices entirely. Though historically suppressed by colonial administrators and missionaries, especially from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, many contemporary Aboriginal communities have revived, or continue to practice, traditional spirituality.
There is no definitive and overarching “Aboriginal religion.” Traditional Aboriginal religions vary widely, as do the spiritual practices of contemporary Aboriginal peoples in Canada. This article attempts to discuss broadly similar themes and practices, but is by no means exhaustive or authoritative. Additionally, traditional ways of life are often intermingled with religion and spirituality. Activities such as hunting, clan membership, and other aspects of daily life may often be imbued with spiritual meaning. More specific information may be found through further reading, or the guidance of community elders.
Three main types of myths, features of which often occur in combination, are particularly important in the religious practices of Aboriginal peoples. These three types are creation myths, institutional myths and ritual myths.
Creation, Trickster, and Transformation Myths
Creation myths describe the origins of the cosmos and the interrelations of its elements. Among these stories is the Earth Diver myth. In this myth the Great Spirit or the Transformer dives, or orders animals to dive, into the primeval water to bring back mud, out of which he fashions Earth (Eastern Woodlands, Northern Plains). In some versions of the myth, Earth is formed on the back of a turtle; Turtle Island is a popular name used by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples for the land of North America.
In some stories, the Transformer appears as a human being with supernatural powers, who uses heroic feats to bring the world into its present form. One of those Transformers is Glooscap of the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Abenaki and Algonquian peoples. The Algonquian peoples of Ontario and Québec have two Transformers — one good, one evil. Glooscap formed the sun, moon, fish, animals, and humans, whereas his brother Malsum formed snakes, mountains, valleys and anything else he thought would make life difficult for humans.
Trickster myths frequently represent the Great Spirit or Transformer as a comical character who steals important things such as light, fire, water, food, and sometimes animals or people, The captives are then lost or set loose to create the world as it is now. The Trickster character in Aboriginal myths takes on a wide variety of forms. Trickster can be male or female, foolish or helpful, hero or troublemaker, half-human-half-spirit, old or young, a spirit, a human, or an animal, depending on the area and the specific group of Aboriginal peoples. In Canada, Trickster is Coyote (Mohawk); half-human-half-spirit beings (Cree, Ojibwa, and Blackfoot); a racoon (Abenaki); a spider (Sioux); and Raven (many groups, including the Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Inuit, and Nisga’a). Among various Native American groups, Trickster is also a badger, fox, hare, rabbit, coyote, bear, and blue jay.
Many myths tell the origin of the moon, the sun and the stars. In these myths, there is usually a tension between the heavenly bodies. For example, the cool moon by night is said to be necessary to counteract the burning of Earth and the killing of people by the heat of the sun. An Inuit myth tells of the sun and moon as a brother and sister who were originally together. The brother engaged in incest with his sister, so she chose to be eternally separated from him. Among many forms of myth about human origins around the world are those that tell of the Transformer changing various animals into people. Others tell of the origin of death.
Institutional and Ritual Myths
Institutional myths tell the origins of religious institutions such as the Sun Dance (Northern Plains, Siksika, Sioux), sacred Medicine Bundles (Siksika, Cree, Ojibwa, Haudenosaunee [Iroquois]), winter ceremonies (Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw) and the Green Corn Ceremony (Haudenosaunee). See also False Face Society.
Ritual myths, on the other hand, serve as detailed texts for the performance of institutions, ceremonies and rituals such as the Sun Dance, Green Corn Ceremony and the Ojibwa Midewiwin ritual. Fertility, birth, initiation and death rites are often clearly stipulated in mythology. Shamanic performances may also be described. Ceremonies are often preceded by stringent purification rites, such as sweat lodges or baths (common for Salish, Blackfoot and Eastern Woodlands peoples) fasting and sexual abstinence. Feasting is a common feature of such ceremonies.
Many important Culture Hero myths for the peoples of the Eastern Woodlands (Wendat, Ojibwa, Cree, Innu, Haudenosaunee, Odawa), Northwest Coast (Salish, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit) and Plateau areas (Nlaka'pamux, Syilx, Dakelh, Interior Salish) are reminiscent of the Greek myth of Orpheus. They tell of the Culture Hero or other prominent religious figure making a perilous journey to the realm of the dead to bring back a deceased loved one. These myths contain detailed characterizations of the land of the dead, and are important to an understanding of such diverse phenomena as the Plains Ghost Dance, concepts of the soul and many aspects of shamanism.
Great Spirit and Worldview
Among societies that have practised agriculture sometime in their history, many groups believe in a senior Great Spirit or Great Mystery (Wakan Tanka of the Dakota and Kitchi Manitou of the eastern Algonquians). In general, supernatural mystery or power is called Orenda by the Haudenosaunee, Wakan by the Dakota and Manitou by the Algonquian peoples, and is potentially beneficent, though it can be dangerous if treated carelessly or with disrespect. This mystery or power is a property of the spirits, but also belongs to the Transformer, Trickster, Culture Hero, or other spirit figures, as well as Shamans, prophets and ceremonial performers. The spirits of all living things are powerful and mysterious, as are many natural phenomena and ritually significant places. Ritual objects such as the calumet, rattles, drums, masks, medicine wheels, medicine bundles and ritual sanctuaries are filled with spiritual power.
Myths of the Star Husband, the Chain of Arrows or the Stretching Tree tell of contacts made between humans and the world beyond. Ceremonially, columns of smoke, central house posts or the central pole of the Sun Dance lodge represent such connections. Many groups tell of a primeval sea or world deluge. Northwest Coast peoples, such as the Kwakwaka’wakw, divide the year into two major seasons: the summer time and the winter time, in which most religious ceremonies take place. Agricultural societies such as the Haudenosaunee have more complex ceremonial calendars organized around the harvest times of various food plants, with a life-renewal ceremony usually held in midwinter.
A key concept among many societies is the notion of guardians. Among the Abenaki, for instance, Bear is considered one of six directional guardians (west), representing courage, physical strength and bravery. Among the Inuit, the sea goddess Sedna is the guardian of sea mammals and controls when stocks are available to be hunted. Shamans may visit Sedna and coax her into releasing the animals by righting previous wrongs, or presenting offerings.
Shamans are the most notable of the multiple religious figures present in traditional Aboriginal religion. They function as healers, prophets, diviners and custodians of religious mythology, and are often the officiants at religious ceremonies. In some societies, all these functions are performed by the same person; in others, shamans are specialists. Healing practitioners may belong to various orders, such as the Midewiwin or Great Medicine Society of the Ojibwa, while other groups had secret or closed societies (Kwakwaka’wakw, Siksika). Members of such societies were not necessarily shamans, but did practice religious ceremonies and rituals.
The Ojibwa Midewiwin was a closed society containing four (sometimes eight) orders of men and women who could be consulted at any time of sickness or communal misfortune. Shamans were coordinators of the Sun Dance, which was also a world-renewal ceremony. Shamanic societies played an important role in the Winter Ceremony of the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth and other Northwest Coast societies. Shamans were associated with powers generally thought to be beneficial to the community, but were believed in some cases to use their powers for sorcery. Shaman-prophets and diviners were concerned with predicting the outcome of the hunt, relocating lost objects and determining the root causes of communal discontent and ill will. Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa and other societies had diviners who made their prophecies (perhaps in trance states) in the dramatic Shaking Tent ceremony. Shamans in these societies were custodians of the sacred medicine bundles containing objects and materials endowed with great mystery and power. Innu shamans divined game trails by burning a caribou shoulder blade, then reading the cracks and fissures created by the fire.
Natural causes were recognized for many diseases, especially physically curable ones; others were commonly believed to be the result of intrusion into the body of objects placed there by sorcerers. The shaman-healer's treatment of such diseases was dictated by his guardian spirit, but usually consisted of the shaman ritually sucking the disease agent out of the body, brushing it off with a bird's wing, or drawing it out with dramatic gestures. Illness could also result from "spirit loss." The shaman-healer's action was then directed to recovering the patient's spirit (either the soul or guardian spirit power, or both) and reintroducing it to the body.
Guardian Spirit Quest
The Guardian Spirit Quest once occurred throughout most of the Aboriginal groups in Canada; it has undergone a revival in many communities, especially among the Coast Salish peoples. Males, especially at puberty but also at other times of life, make extended stays in remote areas while fasting, praying and purifying themselves by washing in streams and pools. The goal is to seek a vision of, or an actual encounter with, a guardian spirit — very frequently an animal, but possibly a mythological figure. Contact with a guardian spirit is believed to make an individual healthy, prosperous and successful, particularly in hunting and fishing.
The individual focus of the Guardian Spirit Quest is also present in the very common celebration of life events. Among these rituals are ceremonies at birth or the giving of a name, at puberty, marriage and death, all of which are normally accompanied by some solemnity. Life-event ceremonies, though individual, had some level of communal integration. For example, the 17th-century Wendat Feast of the Dead may have incorporated features of both seasonal and life-crisis rituals.
Contact with European religious systems — through settlers, missionaries, church- and government-sponsored residential schools, and direct and indirect government policy — brought some type of change to all Aboriginal religious forms.
In areas where sustained contact occurred relatively early—in the 16th and 17th centuries—many Aboriginal peoples were baptized into Catholicism by French missionaries. The Mi’kmaq, for instance, began their conversion to subjects of the Vatican after the conversion of Grand Chief Membertou in 1610. Mi’kmaq religion incorporates many traditional aspects in fusion with Christianity, even the flag for the Mi’kmaq Grand Council features a large cross.
The adaptability of Christianity to Aboriginal spirituality is evident in the Huron Carol — a Christmas carol purportedly written for the Wendat by Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf in the 17th century. The carol fuses Aboriginal imagery and mythology — including Kitchi Manitou — onto the Christian Nativity myth. Wise men bearing gifts become grand chiefs bearing pelts, and the manger becomes a lodge of birch bark. The stories of saints, and of Jesus, closely resembled the familiar Culture Heroes, and were readily adapted in many Aboriginal communities.
Intermarriage was a more literal merging of religious and spiritual traditions, and Métis religious practices typically combine traditional spirituality with either Protestant or Catholic customs. Some unique "syncretistic religions" combine traditional Aboriginal forms with European observances, such as the Shaker Religion of the Coast Salish area.
Adaptation was not always so smooth. While some peoples rejected early conversion attempts, generations of Aboriginal peoples in Canada suffered under destructive government policies such as residential schools and the outlawing of the potlatch and Sun Dance under the Indian Act in 1885. Some First Nation religions rejected European forms and turned to traditional spirituality to revive previous religious practices and beliefs (e.g., the Haudenosaunee Handsome Lake Religion). Other religious movements radically opposed European forms, such as the 19th-century Ghost Dance of the Dakota and other Plains Aboriginal communities. The divide between Christian and non-Christian Aboriginal peoples remains an issue of tension. In 2011, the Cree First Nation of Oujé-Bougoumou, headed by an all-Christian council, outlawed all expressions of Aboriginal spirituality, including sweat lodges, which prompted backlash and division within the community.
John W. Friesen, Aboriginal Spirituality and Biblical Theology: Closer Than You Think (2000); Michael B, Davies, Following the Great Spirit Exploring Aboriginal Belief Systems (2002); Laurence J. Kirmayer and Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Healing Traditions: The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (2009).