The Basis of Indigenous Spirituality [Meeting Rivers Series - 48]

The Basis of Indigenous Spirituality

By Yangkahao Vashum*

The belief that God is everywhere and knows everything is the basis of
indigenous people's spirituality. Spirituality originates from the
Spirit of God. Spirituality for the indigenous people is a way of
living in the constant consciousness of the presence of God. It has to
do with the way they live, act, and relate with God, fellow human
being and the whole of God's creation.

Indigenous peoples' spirituality emphasizes on the wholeness of life
and interconnectedness of all. It is basically a spirituality of
relationship; our connectedness to one another and the whole of God's
creation and the spirit world. Tribal worldview makes no distinction
between what is the spiritual and physical, material and immaterial,
sacred and secular; heavenly and earthly, etc.

Honesty, sincerity, speaking the truth and dignity of labor are all
important spiritual values of the people. Hospitality, communitarian
spirit and respect for one another are the hallmarks of tribal people.
They practically lived out these values in their life.

Theirs is a spirituality that is centered on community, social justice
and peace. They lived and worked for maintaining balance and harmony
in the community as well as for the whole of creation.

Indigenous peoples' worldview can be described as the recognition of
the undifferentiated unity of all things, meaning, there is no
distinction drawn between the spiritual and physical, material and
immaterial, sacred and profane, and spiritual and earthly. Nor does
an indigenous worldview recognize any structure of hierarchy in
creation. They see the world and all its surroundings in holistic
perspective. While a Western worldview is essentially anthropocentric,
an indigenous worldview is creation-centered and is characterized by
understanding the interdependence and the interrelatedness of all
creation, including human beings. Therefore, indigenous peoples across
the world that I know believe that the whole of creation are our
relatives. The Lakota nation of American Indians has an expression
which describes beautifully all that concerns the Indigenous
worldview, "We are all related."

Leroy Little Bear observes that the indigenous "paradigm is comprised
of and includes ideas of constant motion and flux, existence
consisting of energy waves, interrelationships, all things being
animate, space/place, renewal, and all things being imbued with

As noted above, indigenous "peoples do not differentiate their world
of experience into two realms that oppose or complement each other.
They seem to maintain a consistent understanding of the unity of all
experience."2 Referring to Naga religious view, J. H. Thumra asserts
that "unlike many modern Christian belief in the dichotomy of the
'sacred' and the 'secular' or the 'spiritual' and the 'material', the
traditional Naga religion does not have such a dichotomy. For them
the 'sacred' and the 'secular' are one."3 In "An Emerging Asian
Theology: Tribal Theology," Wati Longchar makes a useful comparison
between dominant Christian worldview and traditional Tribal worldview
in which he underscores their differences.4 Indigenous peoples around
the world view reality in its wholeness and perceive life as one
single web and many smaller webs of relationships which is the
antithesis of the dominant Christian dualistic and individualistic
views. Further, their cultural and religious values are governed by
respect for one another and reciprocity is the norm for their
day-to-day interactions.

The well-being of all creation including that of human beings depends
upon preserving and restoring the harmonious interrelationships of all
creation. All living creatures including humans are meant to work
toward maintaining balance and harmony and these are to be seen as the
ultimate concern of all beings. Indigenous peoples do not believe in
the superiority of humans over against the rest of creation.

Indeed, indigenous people consider animals, other living creatures,
and all created as "'people' in the same manner as the various tribes
of human beings are people."5 Indigenous peoples claim they have
reciprocal relationships with all living things, which includes the
so-called "inanimate" objects such as rocks, plants, and other natural
forms.6 Everything is imbued with spirit so all is sacred for
Indigenous peoples. Because all creation is sacred the very land we
walk and till must be treated with respect and reverence. Therefore,
they treat life and creation with respect and reverence. One reason
land is sacred for Indigenous peoples is that it is the dwelling place
of the spirits; the ancestors have lived and worked the same land and
they take their final rest and their bones becomes the land.7

Indigenous worldview is further characterized by being spatially
oriented rather than temporally focused as is of the Euro-American
worldview. This worldview of spatiality essentially accentuates and
locates the all important life qualities of relationships among and
between human beings and the whole of creation. This understanding
extends and embraces the way Indigenous peoples view the world and
relate themselves to the spirits and God(s). In "Full Circle of
Liberation: An American Theology of Place," George E. Tinker argues
that the traditional Christian Euro-centric notion of God's action in
time, which incidentally, is also embraced by Black theologians and
Latin American theologians, is not how American Indians could
understand a relation to God. God acts in space and in place. Tinker
explains, "God reveals God's self in creation, in space or place, not
in time."8 For Tinker and other Indigenous thinkers, the traditional
linear thinking of temporality that is fundamental to the Western
intellectual tradition is quite alien to Indigenous peoples and is in
fact destructive to their livelihood.

Space-creation centered spirituality calls for critical reevaluation
of our ways of life, our Christian spirituality and our attitude
towards all God's creation. The ecological crisis which we are
confronted today is primarily a spiritual crisis. Looking from the
indigenous people's holistic view of life, there is no separation
between what is physical and spiritual, matter and spirit and
everything including human, spirits and the rest of creation are
interrelated and interconnected. For the indigenous people
spirituality is therefore a way of life; our living style, habit and
the way we conduct and relate with other fellow human beings and
creation are all integral part of their spirituality.


1 Leroy Little Bear, "Foreward", in Gregory Cajete, Native Science. x.

2 Deloria, Spirit and Reason. 354.

3 Jonathan H. Thumra, "The Naga Primal (Traditional) Religion and
Christianity: A Theological Reflection," in V. K. Nuh, ed. In Search
of Praxis Theology for the Nagas (New Delhi: Regency Publications,
2003), 54.

4 For a detailed comparison see A. Wati Longchar, An Emerging Asian
Theology: Tribal Theology: Issue, Method and Perspective (Jorhat:
Tribal Study Center, 2000), 64.

5 Vine Deloria, Jr, God is Red: A Native View of Religion. 2d
ed.(Golden: North American Press, 1992), 89.

6 Walking Buffalo articulates this truth: "Did you know that trees
talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they'll talk to you
if you listen. Trouble is, White people don't listen. They never
learned to listen to the Indians, so I don't I suppose they'll listen
to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees:
sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about
the Great Spirit." Quoted in Deloria. Ibid. 90.

7 M. Horam, Nagas Old Ways New Trends (Delhi: Cosmos Publications, 1988), 15f.

8 George E. Tinker, "The Full Circle of Liberation: An American
Theology of Place," in David G. Hallman, ed., Ecotheology: Voices from
South and North (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994), 221; Spirit and
Resistance, 91-92.

*Rev. Dr. Yangkahao Vashum is Associate Professor of Systematic
Theology and Tribal Theology at the Eastern Theological College,
Jorhat, Assam, India. He is also Dean of the Post-Graduate Studies of
the College. His email id:

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