“Indian religion is interwoven into your life. Everything, the way you live, the way you sleep. Indian religion is a way of life. To call it a “religion” is misleading. Everything is close to Mother Earth, in accordance to the way we are taught.”
Ron Barton, quoted in The Sacred.
Indian spirituality centers on a collection of beliefs shared by most tribes, with variations in details, rituals and ceremonies. Distinctions are often made, for example, between the Plains Indians of the Midwest, the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, and the Northern Woodland Tribes. Yet almost all tribes practice a modified monotheism — belief in the Great Spirit alongside an animistic belief in individual spirits residing in animals and forces of nature, none of which are seen as higher than the Great Spirit. As a result, Native American spirituality is nature-based, growing out of a strong sense of interrelation with the earth; shared communal ritual and sacred traditions are accompanied by the teaching of morals and ethics. This is especially true of North American Indians; Indians of Central and South America follow somewhat different belief systems. The Aztecs of Mexico, for example, who built much of their knowledge and belief on that of the Mayas and other Mezo-Americans (the Toltecs and Olmecs) worshiped over a hundred gods, ranked hierarchically and somewhat bureaucratically like the deities of ancient China.
Shamanism is one of the most widely shared components of Indian life. Shamans are spiritually gifted people who through a variety of means have acquired the ability to help others through trance and dream journeying. As in the ancient cultures of China, Tibet, and Northern Russia, North American shamans induce trance states in themselves to facilitate contacting the spirit world and to help heal the afflicted. Shamanic trances can be induced through a variety of techniques, including chanting or drumming, fasting, and in some cases the use of psychotropic substances, the mildest of which might be tobacco, but which can sometimes include entheogens such as peyote and ayahuasca. During these trance contacts, shamans may communicate with spirits of the dead or other spirits and learn what they need to know to help heal the body, mind, or soul of a patient, to locate game, or to predict the future. Because in many tribes almost all men, and some women, went on a vision quest and were said to have contacted the supernatural, sometimes the only difference between shamans and the rest of the tribe was the number or relative power of the spirit guides or helpers contacted by the shamans.
White anthropologists have often used the name “medicine man” (even though many were women) to indicate a mixture of shamanic and priestly capacities. In this context, priestly implies the use of rituals, songs, and verbal formulas learned from other priests in the manner of the brahmans of India. Although the term medicine man has acquired a derogatory overtone from countless bad Hollywood westerns, it does reflect that many tribal shamans were also knowledgeable in the use of hundreds of herbal remedies unknown to white explorers and settlers. The 16th-century French explorer Jacques Cartier, for example, had lost 25 of his men to scurvy when a band of Iroquois cured the rest by administering a decoction of pine bark and needles, a source of Vitamin C.