When my wife and I began to explore her Native ancestry, without a doubt the aspect of Native American tradition and practice that I most carefully examined and cautiously participated in were the spiritual traditions. We both grew up in fundamental Protestant traditions and I hold a baccalaureate degree in Bible (I studied to be a church pastor). I did not want to do anything to compromise my Christian beliefs.
Nevertheless, having investigated and contemplated for over 20 years, I find that an open mind will see little difference between traditional Native spirituality and Judaeo-Christian spirituality, at least in the most general sense. And I find that that viewpoint is shared by others on both sides of the matter.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that both Nicholas Black Elk and Frank Fools Crow considered themselves Roman Catholic and saw no contrast between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila and the spirit helpers. I found myself in agreement with The Sacred Pipe: An Archetypal Theology and One Church, Many Tribes, and other books of a similar nature, written from the perspective of both traditions.
I have to admit that I found the Roman Catholic cosmology easier to correlate with Native American spirituality than that of my own Protestant traditions. There are more levels of spiritual assistance available in that model, allowing for better correlation between the two systems (Native American spirituality and the Judaeo-Christian tradition). To be honest, my fundamentalist Protestant tradition downplays angels and excludes saints (ascended heroes of the faith), leaving the Trinity as a monolith of the sacred, with even the Holy Spirit having an indeterminate role in the daily affairs of mortals.
I have not made an exhaustive study of the traditions and cosmologies of all Native nations, thus my perspective may not match every nation’s cosmology. The two traditions that I can address broadly with some degree of confidence are the Eastern Woodlands traditions and the Plains traditions; any others may diverge from the correlations made in this post.
Had the colonizers put down their White Man’s burden long enough to truly understand the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, it is my firm conviction that they would have discovered that the indigenous spiritual systems did not diverge too widely from their own, on the most basic levels. Indeed, it is my conviction that the Native spiritual systems I have studied bear a great deal of resemblance to the archaic Judaeo-Christian system.
First, the Native traditional spiritual systems which I have studied are monotheistic. There is one God, though He may be referred to as Creator, Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka, or some other name. There are myriad Spirit helpers that assist that one God, but none of them are accorded equality to Him.
It would not be correct to absolutely equate the Spirit helpers to angels and saints, but there are similarities that prompted me to co-opt them for that purpose. The four directions could be roughly analogous to the four archangels. The specialization of the spirit helpers is vaguely analogous to the patron saints. That’s where any correlation must stop, but it worked for me.
Likewise, the use of incense in Roman Catholic worship is analogous to smudging and offering prayers on tobacco smoke. The invocation of Mary as an intercessor could be seen as analogous to asking the various spirit helpers to join in prayers or carry them to the Creator.
None of this can be found in the Protestant fundamentalist traditions I was educated in. But I choose to remember that Protestantism arose from Roman Catholicism and discarded all those elements and practices, and that Old Testament Judaism (right up to the time of Christ) incorporated those elements and practices as well. Thus, I do not find them to be idolatrous but merely archaic.
A singular post does not afford the breadth to consider all of the elements of ceremony and practice. Perhaps subsequent posts can center on the pipe, the sweat lodge ceremony, and other specific elements of Native traditional spirituality. Suffice it to say for now that I have found no reason to view Native spiritual traditions as antithetical to Christian belief. An open mind can traverse freely between the two.