Tomorrow is National Indigenous People’s Day in Canada. Of course, the history of how Indigenous peoples have been treated is a horrible story felt directly by many living today. We will not explore that history here – there are many places that do that well (including here and here). Instead, let’s take this opportunity to learn a little about the traditional spirituality of the Indigenous peoples of this land. 

A few disclaimers. First, I am not Indigenous. I will do my best to relate my grasp from academic works, from attending ceremonies, and from Indigenous storytellers and elders I have heard or read. Second, the practices, beliefs and stories of different Indigenous nations vary so we will talk only in generalities. And third, many Indigenous peoples today are Christian or secular but we will focus today on the traditional spirituality which has had a revival in recent decades. I hope you find the following helpful.

Photo credit: Montanabw,

Open Ever-Evolving Traditions

Indigenous traditions in Canada were not scriptural. Scriptures are often cherished but they create a “closed canon” that provides both a grounding or anchor while also somewhat limiting the options going forward. But oral traditions can evolve more organically. Instead of Biblical revelations given at one time to chosen prophets, visions and dreams have been considered natural, routine, and open to all.

These traditions have mastered the art of storytelling, and this continues today with many now in the form of written novels. Some of my favourites are from Richard Wagamese including the two below.

Indian Horse and Medicine Walk are two wonderful novels that explore Indigenous culture, trauma, and resilience. |

Non-Human Personhood

Indigenous peoples often encountered animals and sometimes plants, mountains, or rivers as persons. This view shifts the landscape from inert to alive and makes humans not masters of a world but kin with the wolves, the bluejay, and the sacred tree. This doesn’t mean everything is sacred (a pebble might just be a pebble), but it alters the relationship with nature and its inhabitants.

No Category of “Religion”

Many Westerners view religion as a specific category, separate from economics or health care. But Indigenous traditions are woven throughout life. Hunting (an economic activity) is also spiritual as one thanks the animal for sacrificing its life while the powers and teachings learned in visions often yield “medicine” to heal body and soul. The spirits permeate all of life and are not constrained to one aspect of existence.

Smudging uses plants like sage, sweetgrass, tobacco or others that are believed to carry powerful medicines. | Photo credit:

The Body as Spiritual Tool

Take this section with an extra grain of salt as it is more my observation than something I’ve read. I have been impressed by the way Indigenous peoples often use the body to effect spiritual transformation. There seems to be a real wisdom in understanding that a physical ordeal can, if mediated well, change us. If any of you read Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild (or saw the Reese Witherspoon movie adaption), that story shows how the physical ordeals of a massive and somewhat risky hiking trip helped cure a young woman of her struggles where sex, alcohol and drugs had failed. Indigenous practices often seem to get this – that physical strain can heal us.

For example, the sweat lodge induces intense heat and suffering but often helps heal participants and purge them of traumas or injuries they carry. The vision quest – where people often go without food, water, sleep and sometimes clothes – can also foster intense experiences, sometimes so transformative that the person acquires a new name. And the Sun Dance – where dancers sometimes pierced their chests with talons and danced for days tied to a central pole – was considered barbaric by many Europeans, but it showed a young man’s commitment to the community in a grueling test that, by its end, leaves that young man and his relationship to the community somewhat transformed or altered. Experiences can change us, and Indigenous practices profoundly understand this. 

The sweat lodge uses physical ordeal in the form of intense heat as a path to healing. | Photo credit:



Lastly, Indigenous peoples value the land. The land is sacred and often considered a mother that nourishes oneself, one’s kin, and the animals (who are also kin). Often creation stories are tied to the land and to the plants and animals local to the region. Many Indigenous peoples today live in large cities but, for many, the tie to the land remains.

Europeans attempted to wipe out Indigenous practices. Many people converted to Christianity where some continue to find solace and meaning, but others have kept to or rediscovered the traditions of their ancestors. I personally have heard numerous Indigenous people relating how they found healing in the practices and storytelling of their traditions as well as finding guidance on how to live. 

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    One Comment

    1. Kim Sheppard July 3, 2024 at 8:41 pm - Reply

      Thanks for these insights on native culture and spirituality. Our small DNA of native heritage was denied by our family. In the 50’s it was a disgrace to be Indian.

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