Indigenous peoples, or those human populations whose identity, sustenance, and well being often are directly derived from their surrounding environment, often maintain a close and intricate relationship with the natural world that is vastly different than the views and perceptions held by members of industrial, modern societies. Through various spiritual practices and beliefs, cultures such as the pre-Christian Scandinavians, the Australian Aborigines, and the natives of the North American Pacific Northwest hold world-views in which humanity is closely linked with the natural world. Through an analysis of various indigenous culture’s spiritual beliefs and how they relate to a cultures natural environment, we can gain insight and appreciation for aspects of the human condition that directly relate to the natural world.
The spiritual beliefs of indigenous cultures often hold cosmologies, or views of reality, that perceive the concept of nature as a whole with various interconnected parts. Specifically, indigenous populations of the Arctic regions view the world as divided into three parts; the upper, middle, and lower worlds. The upper world is seen to be in the sky, the middle world is the earthly realm, and the lower world is below the surface of the soil and sea. The spirits and dead are said to reside in the upper and lower worlds, and life there is quite similar to that of the middle world. These realms are said to be utilized in shamanistic practice, and that a shaman can make contact with the different worlds, (Helskog 1999). This belief places humans on a nexus between the different aspects of the natural world, and blends the spiritual world with the physical.
The aboriginal populations of Australia have a cosmology concept that is quite different than this three-world system of the Arctic peoples, but essentially performs the same service. Their way of viewing reality is called ‘the Dreaming’, a concept in which nature, time, or history does not exist. People are not separate from the whole of creation, nor is their separation amongst anything in existence. In effect, “The Dreaming unites the self, the clan, the totem, the physical surroundings – all are indissolubly one,“ (Mol 1979). This is a world-view that unites humanity with the natural world, completely dismantling the borders between human and non-human life, uniting the spiritual world with the physical.
Besides maintaining cosmological frames as a way to relate to the natural world, natural forces are personified and revered. Amongst the indigenous Pacific North-west coast of North America, the natural world was compromised of spirits, and that every natural force had life, whether it was “the earth, rocks, trees, ferns, as well as birds and animals-even the hail which fell from the sky”, (Clark 1953). This concept, called animism, is one that was entrenched in the lives of the people of this region (as well as many other indigenous cultures), influencing the way they acted in reference to natural forces and places. For example, the Tlingit people of the pacific northwest call various spirits of the sun and sky the ‘Children of the Sun’, giving them anthropomorphic qualities and shaping masks in their image, (de Laguna 1987). Klamath Indians believed that the lake known as ‘Crater Lake’ was the result of a magnificent battle between the forces of the earth and sky, causing the mountain that was there to collapse and fill with water. The lake that was a result of this battle was shunned by the Klamath; only the spiritual leaders were allowed to see it, and any others who saw it risked death and disease, (Clark 1953).
The forces that were seen to pervade the natural world were used as a source of power for the populations of indigenous cultures, who used shamanistic and magical practices to communicate with these forces to provide aid for their people. A common way to communicate with the spiritual world is through the use of sacred areas, where spiritual forces were seen as most able to be contacted. “Spirits in other dimensions are ‘contacted’ by people in order to gain control over animals, resources, diseases, people, spirits, life or the spirits themselves initiate the contact,” (Helskog 1999). The Sami people of northern Scandinavia identified these sorts of areas with ‘seide stones’ – stones with unusual shapes, representing spirits, while the aboriginal Australians identified these sacred areas through the use of rock art, (Helskog 1999). Specifically, among the aboriginal Australians, the symbol known as the ‘Rainbow Serpent is depicted at natural sites where water is found. These areas were seen as places ‘liminal places’ in which the threshold between the physical and metaphysical worlds was found, (Helskog 1999).
Besides specific places having spiritual power, various animals and other life-forms are held to have significance among indigenous peoples. Among the Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest coast, creatures such as the bear, mosquito, otter, and devil-fish, are revered as shamanic spirits, and various masks are constructed to bestow their respective powers upon the wearer, (de Laguna 1987). Various other Pacific Northwest tribes say that either Raven or Coyote gave the gift of fire to humanity, and that twelve tribes were created out of a large beaver that was killed by the youngest of four wolf brothers. They also believe that “…the primeval beings are “animal people.” In a sacred myth of the Skagit Indians, Raven, Mink, and Coyote “planned everything with the Transformer, were in on all the arguments” they decided that there should be male and female in everything on the earth, that people should not live forever, that at death the body should go to the earth and the spirit to the spirit world,” (Clark 1953).
Amongst the Australian aborigines, the Rainbow Snake is whom healers and medicine-men receive their powers from. According to the aboriginal myths, quartz crystals, which are often used by these healers, were once vomited from the Rainbow Snake long ago, (Eliade 1967). In the belief of the indigenous northern Scandinavians, reindeer/elk, fish, and bird were seen as symbols for three parts of nature, those parts being land, sea, and sky, (Helskog 1999).
Indigenous peoples are also very connected to the seasons and weather. In Arctic societies, rituals involving the transition from winter to summer were performed when various signals of the coming of summer were observed, such as the awakening of bears from hibernation among the Sami, (Helskog 1999). Among several tribes of the Pacific Northwest, it was Coyote who arranged the seasons, and a being known as Thunder controlled the weather and had the ability to call forth lightning. Amongst other tribes, a being known as Thunderbird was known to bring storms. “The flapping of his wings caused the thunder; the pieces of flint which he threw or the flash of his eyes was the lightning,” (Clark 1953). Among the Tlingit, weather itself was something that the shaman was seen to have control over, being a mediator between the forces of nature and the tribe, (de Laguna 1987). Among indigenous cultures, weather and climate is something unavoidable, and various spiritual beliefs such as these allowed for adaptability and validation of its power.
Often, the spiritual beliefs of an indigenous culture allow for the moderated and respectful use of natural resources. Among the Chinook of the Pacific northwest, salmon were believed to be guided by spirits, who needed to be appeased in order to ensure the existence of the salmon run. Besides having myths to limit the amount of a salmon catch, at the beginning of each salmon season, the first salmon caught were placed back in the water with a specific sort of berry in its mouth, (Clark 1953). One might assume that this helped prevent the over-fishing of salmon, as well as allowing for a sustainable amount of fish for the next year.
This reverence for nature also manifested itself in the form totems, and other various animal symbols that were held by specific groups of people, or single individuals. Among various tribes of the Pacific Northwest, young people would fast and mediate in order to experience a spirit (often in the form of an animal) that told them their abilities that they would be gifted in their adult lives, often doing this at a places considered spiritually powerful, such as mountains.. Those who experienced this would often carry a symbol of their power animal with them throughout their life, (Clark 1953). Among the Australian aborigines, a similar system of animal totemism permeated the culture, with each individual, each tribe, and each group of ancestral descent having an animal symbol, (Mol 1979). These totemic symbols show that indigenous cultures held a respect for the life that existed around them.
I feel cultures native to a region develop spiritual systems and cultural practices that are environment oriented because of the close, consistent contact the people maintain with the natural world. These are peoples whose sustenance and resources are derived directly from the surrounding landscape, rather than a store or a distant faraway place. Just as those in our modern Western lifestyle derive their values and beliefs from a constant, steady source of information such as the media, it only makes sense that people would derive ideas from the things that they perceive nearly everyday.
Whether a people lived in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the icy realm of northern Scandinavia, or the arid bush of western Australia, they developed practices and views that allowed them to relate their human identities with the landbases on which they depended. The reverence and power indigenous peoples assign to the natural world is a direct result of the close contact that they maintain with the environment. By developing knowledge of an indigenous cultures views of nature, we can learn to hold the same respect for the environment as our own indigenous ancestors, and through this practice we can maintain a stronger contact with the planet that we developed with.
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