Native American religious practices and beliefs are among the most deeply rooted and complex of any belief system. Sacred religious practices of Native Americans were marginalized for many years because they lacked such things as written sacred texts and fixed doctrines common to many other groups. Although religious knowledge was unwritten, scholars now recognize these distinct and varied traditions to be complex and deeply imbedded culturally. Authentic written resources about American Indian and Alaska Native religious practices and beliefs should be recommended by individual tribes, if they exist.
With nearly 600 tribes in the United States, religious practices and beliefs are varied and considered proprietary to each nation. There is a diversity of religious beliefs and cultural practices among Native Americans rather than a single global religion, with traditions usually passed down as oral histories, stories, allegories and values reliant on face-to-face teaching within families and communities. Religious beliefs and cultural practices are not compartmentalized, but rather integrated into each tribe’s culture.
Physical religious structures and symbols can be either natural or man-made. Information about Native American religious practices is often privileged within a specific community. Journalists should recognize and be sensitive to this.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act can provide an overall legal context of the rights of Native Americans to practice their religion(s). Reach out to tribal governments, which will be able to identify individuals within the tribal community. However, do not assume that a tribal government speaks for the religious leadership of any tribe.
Do not use words and phrases that undermine or demean Native American religious practices or beliefs. The job of a journalist is to cover a story as authentically as possible, not to help unravel longstanding religious practices and beliefs.
Build relationships with local individuals to call on for guidance or to check facts. Many misconceptions surround Native American spiritual practices and it is up to the journalist to make sure they are fairly and accurately represented. Journalists who misinterpret local Native American religious practices or beliefs are informally ostracized, meaning word spreads throughout the community that the journalist cannot be trusted. The journalist will likely find that no one from the community is willing to talk.
While many native Americans continue to practice their cultural lifeways and religious beliefs, some Natives are active in Christian denominations. Census and other data show that this is more likely to be true among those living in urban areas. There also are Christian churches with majority Native American congregations. In some instances, traditional Native practices are incorporated into Christian worship services, although this is not always the case. Ask about practices with which you are not familiar.