For thousands of years, a diverse array of cultures around the world have included the idea of reincarnation in their spiritual belief systems. These cultures include the over 500 distinct tribes of Indigenous Peoples of North America. While they are often put into one cultural basket, the fact is that each Native American tribe is unique, with their own set of customs and beliefs. This is particularly true when it comes to their ideas about the cycle of life, the afterlife, and reincarnation. However, despite these distinctions, there are also some intriguing commonalities. In this post, we’ll look at the different ways that Native American tribes view reincarnation as well as some of the similarities.
Table of Contents
- What is reincarnation?
- Do Native Americans believe in reincarnation?
- Native American Beliefs About the Soul and Rebirth
- General Native American Views on Reincarnation
- Reincarnation Beliefs of the Arctic Tribes
- Reincarnation Among First Nation Tribes of Canada
- Reincarnation Beliefs of the Native Americans of New England
- Reincarnation and the Plains Tribes
- Reincarnation Beliefs of the Southwestern Tribes
- Human-to-Animal and Animal-to-Human Incarnations
- The Influence of Shamanism
- Impact of Christianity
What is reincarnation?
Reincarnation is generally defined by the idea that a soul is temporarily “housed” in a physical body that exists in the physical world. And when that body dies, the soul continues to exist. Then, after an undefined period of time, the soul “enters” another body to experience life again in the physical world. However, cultures around the world have varied views on this concept. This is also true of Native American societies.
Do Native Americans believe in reincarnation?
While the answer to the question: “Do Native Americans believe in reincarnation?” is a resounding “Yes!” – there are simply not enough thorough and distinct anthropological studies of the many tribes’ beliefs about this topic. What we do have, however, are first-hand stories from Native Americans as well as research from the few experts in this field. Thus, this article is merely a snapshot of some of the tribes and their views on this thought-provoking topic.
Native American Beliefs About the Soul and Rebirth
Before we get into more details about their general views on reincarnation, let’s first take a look at how tribes view the idea of a soul. Generally, Native Americans believe in a “free soul.” In essence, they believe that the soul is the carrier of human consciousness. Needless to say, this is very much in line with the views of many other cultures around the world.
Most Native Americans also believe that while the soul is part of the body, it’s also separate. For example, the soul is able to temporarily leave the body while the body sleeps. In addition, the soul can leave the body when a person is in a trance or on a vision quest. Furthermore, the soul can depart from the body permanently when the body dies. Once the soul has left the body, it moves through the spiritual world before it is reborn, or reincarnates.
Multiple Souls and Multiple Bodies
Some Native American tribes believe that one soul can incarnate into more than one body. And some believe it can incarnate in several. Thus, multiple people can share one soul. While others believe that one person can have two souls. Still others believe it’s possible to have up to five souls in one body. We’ll get into more details on these tribes later in this post.
There is also a general consensus among tribes that a soul’s purpose continues in different physical manifestations. However, some say there is a “waiting period” before a soul is born into a new body, while others say it happens immediately.
Some tribes hold more specific beliefs on which souls are able to reincarnate. For example, the Yuman, who are from the lower Colorado River Valley in the U.S., believe that only twins or people with deformities or disabilities can be reborn. They view those souls as “visitors” who will get the opportunity to be reborn and have a more normal life in the next one.
General Native American Views on Reincarnation
Most Native Americans tribes have strong beliefs about the existence of spirits, the afterlife, and reincarnation. Researcher and author Warren Jefferson wrote extensively on this topic in his book Reincarnation Beliefs of North American Indians. According to Jefferson, reincarnation is a central aspect of tribal cosmologies in these societies. And it’s possible that their beliefs stem from their profound connection to their ancestors and strong sense of family continuity.
Furthermore, Native American cultures are shamanistic. They believe certain people have the ability to transition back and forth between the physical and spiritual worlds. Inherent in this skill, or gift, is that the shaman can share messages from spirits with the tribe.
Among the many North American tribes, some have more complex views about and rituals for how souls reincarnate, which we’ll get into in more detail below. And some believe in animal-into-human and human-into-animal reincarnation, while others do not.
Still other tribes don’t believe in reincarnation at all, such as the Lenape and other Delaware tribes, the Western Shoshone, Goshute, Ute, Paiute, and Washoe.
Reincarnation Beliefs of the Arctic Tribes
Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic include the Inuit (of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska), the Caribou Inuit (more specifically northeastern Canada), the Tlingit and Haida (of Southeast Alaska), and others. One thing these northern tribes share is specific views on reincarnation and preparing souls for the afterlife.
As animists, the Inuit belief that all things in nature, alive or inanimate, contain a spirit. They believe that when someone or something dies, its spirit “passes over” and continues its existence in the spirit world.
The Inuit also believe that souls reincarnate within the same family. For instance, new babies born into the tribe are believed to be reincarnated from a family member who recently passed away. Hence, they will refer to the baby as “father”, “uncle”, or whomever they believe the baby was in their previous life.
The Caribou Inuit give tribal children over 15 ancestral names. This serves the dual purpose of protecting the child and extending the life of those who have already passed. While some might argue that naming is not the same thing as reincarnation, for the Caribou Inuit, names are not just names; they have deep spiritual associations.
Tlingit and Haida
The Tlingit and Haida of Alaska believe that burial methods have a strong impact on reincarnation. In addition, they believe that heat plays a vital role in the soul proceeding to the afterlife. Thus, cremation is typical in the funerary process.
The Tlingit and Haida burn the bodies of the dead until only their bones remain. They view the deceased’s bones as an important aspect of the person’s overall being. By this way of thinking, they also believe they must treat the bones of animals they hunt respectfully. Thus, they take great care to dispose of their bones properly to give the animal the chance to reincarnate.
The Great Bonfire
The Tlingit and Haida also believe that the soul of a cremated person settles near the warmth of a great bonfire in the afterlife. If the body of the person is not cremated, their soul will be left close to a drafty doorway where a cold wind blows. Furthermore, they believe the soul has different components. Its most physical aspect reincarnates as a newborn tribe member while its more spiritual aspect remains in the spirit world.
Reincarnation Among First Nation Tribes of Canada
The Gitxsan People of coastal British Columbia believe that one soul can be reincarnated into the bodies of several people at the same time. Thus, multiple people will share a soul. In addition, as reported by First Nations expert and educator Dr. Antonia MIlls, the Gitxsan say that babies are the incarnations of close relatives who have passed. For example, parents will say that they can tell their baby is the reincarnation of a grandparent or other relative because the baby resembles the relative in some way, such as a shared birthmark.
Those Made Again
The Dene Dháa First Nation of Northern Alberta, whose name translates to “Ordinary People”, also have specific views on reincarnation. Living in communities around the Bushe River, Meander River, and the community of Chateh, they believe that the soul has dual elements. While part of the soul resides in the afterlife, the other reincarnates into this world as a human. In this way, the Dene Dháa share similar views with the Tlingit and Haida. Furthermore, they refer to reincarnated people as “Those Made Again“.
Reincarnation Beliefs of the Native Americans of New England
The Algonquian tribes from New England view reincarnation as just one aspect of the afterlife. In other words, they believe in multiple souls or that a soul can exist in multiple places simultaneously. For example, the Narragansett People of Rhode Island say a person can have multiple souls – from two to five.
Traditionally, for the Algonquians, when a tribe member died, the other members would perform a Feast of the Dead ceremony. This occasion marked the setting of one soul free and onto its journey to reincarnate. The second soul would travel onward to a Village of the Dead where life would largely resemble the recent version in human form.
The Wyandot People (also called the Wendat or Huron) are an Iroquoian-speaking tribe who hail from the north shore of Lake Ontario. They believe that it’s especially important for the souls of young children who die to be given the chance to be reborn. Thus, they do their best to assist in the child soul’s reincarnation by carefully selecting a burial location. For example, traditionally, the tribe would bury the baby along a well-trodden pathway. Doing so would increase the chances that the baby’s soul would enter a passing woman’s womb and be born again.
Reincarnation and the Plains Tribes
Hailing from the great plains, which are flanked by the Mississippi River in the east, the Rocky Mountains in the west, Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south, the Plains tribes include the Arapahoe, Comanche, Crow, Sioux, and others. For these tribes, ideas about reincarnation are tied to the idea of “soul completion.” Specifically, if a person meets an untimely death or they stray too far from their destined life path, their soul cannot complete its journey on Earth. Thus, the soul must reincarnate until the journey is successfully completed.
The Sioux People of the Dakotas, like other Indigenous cultures around the world, are animists in they believe everything that is part of the natural world is infused with spirit. This includes humans, animals, plants, mineral, and even weather elements. They view the natural and supernatural worlds as intrinsically linked. Thus, the natural world is full of reincarnated spirits in the form of animals, rocks, plants, and people.
Reincarnation Beliefs of the Southwestern Tribes
The Southwestern tribes of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah all generally believe in the idea of reincarnation. However, there are some differences among each tribe’s beliefs.
Zuni and Mohave
The Zuni and Mohave, for example, believe that spirits reincarnate four times, which each carnation becoming more complex, or powerful. Specially, they believe a soul begins as an insect and then reincarnates into different animals. Lastly, the soul reincarnates as a human.
The Hopi and Eastern Religions
The Hopi are also firm believers reincarnation. In fact, their belief system carries an uncanny resemblance to Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. For example, the Hopi have a concept like karma, whereby actions in this life have consequences that will be felt in subsequent lifetimes. They also believe the body has energy centers, like chakras, as well as primal, core energy like kundalini.
Like the Inuit, the Apache (of Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico) put a strong emphasis on proper burial. They believe this is essential to help the soul be free so it can peacefully continue on to the afterlife. The Apache call the afterlife the Land of Ever Summer.
The Yuman People of the Lower Colorado River Valley have specific beliefs about reincarnation. As mentioned previously, according to their beliefs, twins and deformed or disabled people come to Earth as visitors. They are viewed as visiting from an adjunct village of the dead, which is located somewhere to the northwest. After they die, they don’t continue on to the greater land of the dead but to their village. However, they are given the opportunity to be born again into a new body.
Human-to-Animal and Animal-to-Human Incarnations
When it comes to the idea of whether animals can reincarnate into humans or humans into animals, some tribes have specific viewpoints. As mentioned earlier, the Zuni and Mohave view insect-to-animal-to-human reincarnation as the natural evolution of the soul.
Some tribes believe that humans can reincarnate into animals vs. the other way around. However, they often view this order of reincarnation as a punishment for living a corrupt life or being a bad person. For example, the Yurok People of Northern California believe that the souls of bad people are reincarnated into prey animals, such as rabbits, birds, and squirrels.
The Wintūns, another Northern California tribe, see things a little differently. They believe the souls of evildoers reincarnate into grizzly bears. Needless to say, the Wintūns see the grizzly as an ill-tempered and dangerous animal. In fact, they forgo grizzly bear meat for fear they’ll absorb some of the perceived negativity of the grizzly’s soul. Nevertheless, the Wintūns still view the act of reincarnation as the soul’s opportunity to evolve to something greater.
The Influence of Shamanism
While it’s a term used frequently in popular vernacular (both appropriately and inappropriately), shamanism, by some accounts, is the world’s oldest religion. A practice that is said to have originated in Siberia, shamanism (as mentioned earlier in this post) is the belief that special members of a tribe or community have the ability to transition seamlessly back and forth between the natural and supernatural worlds.
Shamans and shamanism exist in cultures around the world, particularly Indigenous ones. For instance, most Native American tribes have shamanistic practices, as do the Indigenous cultures of Siberia, South America, Indonesia, Oceania, and beyond.
Needless to say, shamans are the more sensitive members of a tribe or community. As they use their gifts to move between the realms, they discern vital information through their visions and metaphysical understandings. They then bring these insights in the form of messages, stories, and even songs to their people for wisdom, healing, and general guidance. Through their heightened sensitivity and training, they attune to the subtle energies around them and utilize these energies for the greater good of their people.
Shamans also use medicinal plants, such as psychoactive mushrooms, to facilitate vision quests and other spiritual trances. Thus, they are often called medicine men or medicine women.
Because shamans are in direct communication with spirits, or those who are in-between lives, they are the basis of many Native American philosophical ideas about the afterlife, souls, and reincarnation.
Impact of Christianity
The scale to which European explorers and settlers, including Christian missionaries, impacted Native American beliefs about the afterlife and reincarnation is impossible to measure. In fact, it’s even impossible to measure how organized Christian religion impacted Christians’ views about reincarnation.
Many Christian theologians, including students of Christian mysticism, argue that Jesus was well-versed in the idea of reincarnation and even taught it. They argue, however, that the organized church dissuaded Christians from a belief system that might cause them to think they didn’t need the church at all. For example, the idea that if they failed in this lifetime, they would have an opportunity to make up for it in the next, regardless of whether they went to church or talked a priest.
Christianity as an Organized Religion
The Christian beliefs influenced by European monarchs and organized religion in the New World were less focused on mysticism (a direct relationship with God) and more focused on a direct relationship with the church and its rules. So, the form of Christianity that most missionaries and others exposed Native Americans to from the 15th century-on did not teach reincarnation.
As happens whenever multiple cultures merge, some Native American tribes did incorporate Christian teachings into their own spiritual views. Still others did not. For example, the Iroquois tribes generally believed in a Great Spirit as well as an Evil Spirit. Thus, the idea of a singular almighty God and a Devil was not that far off the mark from their own views.
Conversely, the Sioux had a more mystical viewpoint, believing that all life was spiritually interconnected.
Thus, we can only assume that that range of Christian influence on Indigenous views on reincarnation is as varied as the tribes’ spiritual views to begin with.
The beliefs and spiritual practices of the Native American tribes of North America are intriguingly diverse. Yet the idea of reincarnation and honoring one’s ancestors is almost ubiquitous among them. When we put this into context with other world religions that also believe in the soul’s ability to be born again, the topic of reincarnation is one that any spiritual person should be curious about exploring.