In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native American Religions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • South and Central American Traditions
  • North American Moundbuilders
  • The Pueblo Indians and Their Predecessors
  • Farmers of the East
  • Hunter-Gatherers
  • Religion and Revitalization
  • Religion and Trade

Atlantic History Native American Religions
David J. Silverman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0156


There are two different bodies of scholarship on American Indian religion, separated by academic discipline and period of focus. Archeologists and anthropologists make up the first group and train their attention on Indian life before the era of European colonization. For the most part, their data comes from archeological excavations supplemented by Indian oral histories, written accounts of Indian life from the post-Columbian era, and the comparison of different tribal societies. This scholarship tends to concentrate on centralized Indian societies, such as the Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, and Moundbuilders, because of the archeological mark those societies left. The second body of scholarship consists of historical explorations of Indian religious life under colonialism. Historians, literary scholars, and social and cultural anthropologists make up this field. Generally, their work focuses on Indians and European missionaries. Here, too, the sources drive the content. Historians rely upon written records to ply their trade, and missionaries had more to say about Indian religion, particularly Indian Christianity, than any other group of record keepers. Both of these scholarly camps have been shifting their emphasis in recent years. Some of the best recent work on Indian life before colonization has broadened its scope from the study of Indian material life to the interplay of religion and social and political hierarchy. Put another way, it has examined how Indians produced ideology—systems of belief, ritual, symbolism, and everyday behavior—that made social structures seem God-given or natural. Historical scholarship has changed, too. It was once common to question whether Indian conversion to Christianity was genuine, and to assume that missionaries were either altruistic or, in the case of scholarship after the late 1960s, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Today’s scholarship has little to do with these debates. For instance, increasing numbers of scholars of Indian Christianity avoid the term “conversion” because, they argue, it reflects the missionaries’ perspective and not the experience of Indians themselves. Instead, these scholars focus on how Native people “adopted” Christianity and used their own traditions to make it meaningful for themselves. They treat Indian evangelization of other Indians as well as colonial missionary work. Historians are also increasingly aware that many missionaries, despite their promotion of a colonial agenda that was ultimately hostile to Indian interests, often served as the best friends Indians had in an exploitative colonial regime. Some missionaries made genuine efforts to understand their charges, if only to undermine their beliefs.

General Overviews

It is commonplace for scholars of American Indian religions to emphasize the diversity of Indian beliefs and rituals. Nevertheless, Indians across space and time have shared certain religious elements, such as shamanism, the notion of spiritual guardianship, and belief that spiritual power courses through the world and the things in it. The same can be said of Indian responses to missionaries and of Indian Christianity in the colonial world: these developments contained both tremendous diversity and important similarities. The scholarly works included in this section analyze these broad trends. Earle 1991 presents theories on the economic and ideological bases of chiefly power that are applicable to a number of American Indian societies before and during the era of European colonization. Eliade 1964 introduces readers to shamanism, the most basic feature of American Indian religious life. Hulktrantz 1980 and Martin 2001 provide succinct, wide-ranging overviews of American Indian religion that address the most common problematics in the field. In a study of Indian ways of telling history, Nabakov 2002 illustrates how Indians often conceived of the human and sacred past as one in the same. Historical studies of American Indian religious change typically focus on Indian men’s reaction to missionaries. Yet Pointer 2007 reminds us that Indians influenced Euro-American Christianity, too, while St. Pierre and Long Soldier 1995 insists that we recognize the essential role of women in Indian religious life.

  • Earle, Timothy. Chiefdoms: Power, Economy, and Ideology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    A stunning anthropological exploration of how chiefs consolidate power by controlling the flow of long-distance trade and then employing foreign luxury goods to symbolize their connections to the sacred.

  • Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

    The classic anthropological introduction to shamanism, the most basic feature of American Indian religious life, connected to ritualism, healing, dream interpretation, divination, cursing, and more.

  • Hefner, Robert W., ed. Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520078352.001.0001

    A wide-ranging, theoretically sophisticated exploration of the conversion concept, particularly in mission contexts.

  • Hultkrantz, Åke. The Religions of the American Indians. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980.

    A broad yet compact overview of American Indian cosmology, ritualism, and symbolism. The essential introduction to the field. First published in 1967 as De Amerikanska Indianernas Religioner (Stockholm: Svenska Bokförlaget).

  • Martin, Joel W. The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A thoughtful and brief survey of American religious life across the centuries by one of the leading scholars in the field.

  • Nabakov, Peter. A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    An imaginative venture into the various American Indian ways of making the past meaningful, including sacred.

  • Pointer, Richard W. Encounters of the Spirit: Native Americans and European Colonial Religion. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2007.

    Offers the critical reminder that religious influences moved two ways in Indian-European encounters, and that Indians left an indelible mark on Euro-American Christianity.

  • St. Pierre, Mark, and Tilda Long Soldier. Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers: Medicine Women of the Plains. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

    Though based on field work among modern Indians rather than historical research, this study offers the critical reminder that women were (and are) an essential part of American Indian religious life. The Euro-American men who left the records on which historians rely rarely took notice of women’s roles.

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