Indigenous Religious Institutions

September 1, 2021

Different Indigenous nations have their own religious institutions and sacred practices. Many Plains Indigenous peoples participate in the Sun Dance, while Coast Salish peoples typically engage in sacred winter ceremonies. The Haudenosaunee celebrate the Green Corn Ceremony, and some follow the False Face Society. Among the Ojibwe, the Midewiwin is a spiritual society and essential part of the Anishinaabe worldview. Medicine bundles, objects of ritual that are specific to the person carrying them, are common among the spiritual traditions of various Indigenous peoples, including the Siksika, Cree, and Ojibwe.

Institution stories tell about the origins of these cultural practices. Ritual tales, on the other hand, serve as detailed texts for the performance of institutions, ceremonies, and rituals. Fertility, birth, initiation, and death rites are often clearly stipulated in spiritual traditions. Shamanic performances may also be described. Such ceremonies are often preceded by stringent purification rites, such as sweat lodges or baths (common for Salish, Siksika, and Eastern Woodlands peoples), fasting, and sexual abstinence. Feasting is also a common feature of these ceremonies.

Many Indigenous peoples subscribe to the idea of a Creator, Great Spirit, or Great Mystery, a power or being that has created the world and everything in it. These beings are often described as good or well-intentioned, though dangerous if treated carelessly or with disrespect.

Great spiritual power is also found in the spirits of all living things, natural phenomena, and ritually significant places. In general, supernatural mystery or power is called Orenda by the Haudenosaunee, Wakan by the Dakota, and Manitou by the Algonquian peoples. This power is a property of the spirits, but also belongs to transformers, tricksters, culture heroes, or other spirit figures, as well as shamans, prophets, and ceremonial performers. Ritual objects such as the calumet, rattles, drums, masks, medicine wheels, medicine bundles, and ritual sanctuaries are filled with spiritual power.

Various Indigenous oral histories 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 nations tell of a primeval sea or great flood. Northwest Coast peoples, such as the Kwakwakawakw, divide the year into two major seasons: the summertime and the winter time, in which most religious ceremonies take place. Historically, agricultural societies, such as the Haudenosaunee, have 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.1

  1. 2021. Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2021].