Afterlife Beliefs Among the Native American Cultures

For many Native Americans, the natural world abounded in spirit life.
... Thomas Northcut/Lifesize/Getty Images

In 1491, before Europeans came to what is now North America, there were an estimated 500 Native American tribes totaling 22 million people. Not all of these tribes had separate cultures, but their beliefs in the afterlife were as rich and varied as any we might find in cultures and religions in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Middle East.

1 Animating Forces

The Iroquois of America’s eastern woodlands believed in the existence of “Ha-wen-ne-yu” or “the Great Spirit,” which manifested itself through lesser spirits who controlled weather, hunting, and the affairs of the Iroquois generally. The Great Spirit sometimes took the shape of a man to change the course of human affairs. (Conversely, the Iroquois also believed in”Ha-ne-go-ate-geh,” the Evil Spirit who was the brother of the generally benign Great Spirit.) Monotheism among Native Americans was rare, however. The Algonquin tribes of the eastern United States and Canada, rivals of the Iroquois, postulated a shadowy afterlife where the spirits of dead men hunted dead animal spirits. The Dakota or Sioux of the Great Plains believed that the natural and supernatural mixed almost seamlessly in the natural world. Their version of the Great Spirit, the “Wakan Tanka,” was the mysterious animating force behind the universe. Spirits inhabited everything -- rocks, trees, animals, people -- and so in this sense nothing in the world was quite as it seemed.

2 Three Worlds

The Indians of the Southeastern United States, among them the Cherokee and the Alabama, had a more precisely envisioned idea of the spiritual world. The Cherokee believed that the earth was a flat disc -- the so-called Middle World -- that hung by four cords from a stone “sky arch,” a kind of inverted bowl of rock often represented in Cherokee shell gorgets. Above the arch was the Upper World inhabited by the spirits of dead humans and animals who could magically transform themselves and move into the Middle World in an attempt to help humans keep their lives in balance. However, beneath the Middle World was the Under World, a place of ghosts, monsters and killer witches, bad spirits that could make their way into the human world via springs or lakes and wreak havoc.

3 Coming Back To Life

Reincarnation was a large part of Native American afterlife belief, particularly among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest and the Inuit tribes of Canada and Alaska. Warren Jefferson, author of “Reincarnation Beliefs of North American Indians," writes that “reincarnation is a central aspect of tribal cosmologies in these societies." Reincarnation expresses the sense of familial continuity that is so important in tribal cultures. In Inuit culture, when a baby is born, older members of the family believe that baby is a relative who may have died not long before -- they sometimes call the baby “grandma” or “uncle” to express this feeling.

4 Christianity and Native American Religion

Because of their belief in the duality of good and evil -- a Great Spirit along with an Evil Spirit – the Iroquois took more readily to Christian theology than many Native American tribes. The Sioux, with their more mystical religious beliefs, had a harder time accepting Christianity, although eventually the Wakan Tanka, pre-European contact -- an entity that lacked physicality -- took on some aspects of the Christian God. Those Native American afterlife beliefs that were interdependent on an environment shrank as whites encroached; the beliefs then gradually began to die out.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.