Like most of the ancient, indigenous peoples of the World, the belief system of the Native American peoples is “pagan” in practice. Native American beliefs were influenced by their methods of hunting for animals and growing crops and the patterns or cycles that these activities followed throughout the year and they lived their lives attuned to the cycles of Nature and of life and death.
As with tribal cultures throughout the World, in essence Native American Spirituality was (and is) a "religion" of a local “homeland”. Their spiritual beliefs form a connection and reverence for their “local” natural environment. Yet, even though the spiritual beliefs of the Native American peoples may share this basic common element, the individual tribal beliefs, the rituals and practices are drawn from often very different mythology and legends coming out of the variances found in the varied local natural environments. The differing climate, land, plants and animals all had a bearing on the development of the individual tribal spiritual experience.
The ritual ceremonies practiced by the Native American tribes were usually a systematic worship service intended to help secure some necessity for survival. These ceremonies were practiced as a way to try to guarantee a successful hunt or an abundant harvest or in some way to protect them from the ravages of Nature. The divine protector or provider whose intercession was sought became the “hero” or “god” of the tribe’s legends and myths, passed down through the oral traditions of their tribal storytellers, as part of the tribal or cultural memory of the people.
TheChinook people of the Pacific Northwest, because of what they found within their particular “homeland” might develop myths, legends and even deities surrounding the salmon, while the Seminole people of Florida might develop theirs around the alligator.
The Navajo people of the Southwestern desert would develop legends and stories perhaps centered on those spiritual beings who helped provide them with water in the hot summers, while the Abenaki people of the Northeast would center their myths and legends on those spirits who brought them fire in the freezing winter.
To make things even more complicated, many Native American tribes are made up of smaller groups or "Clans", united by actual or perceived kinship and descent and formed around a founding member or "ancestor". Often this ancestor is an animal which becomes the Clan Totem. The clan totemss are often the animals that inhabit the local area. (The wolf, bear, turtle, and deer are common clans of the Great Lakes area.) Some of the clans of the Six Nations are the turtle, bear, wolf and the heron and often within these clans there are smaller "sub-clans" represented by animals such as snapping turtles and painted turtles in the example of the Turtle Clan. The "spiritual powers" of the various totems give each clan its own duties and responsibilities within the tribe in accordance with the attributes of that totem. (As they had no written language the tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast Native Americans would carve these images into Totem Poles or Story Poles as a form of communication to convey the unique legends, stories and events of the tribe's past. Totem poles may also messages by those that carved them. These symbols may tell a story, not just of the tribe, but of a particular clan and even the standing of the carver himself within a tribe.)
Who you prayed to, told stories of and sang songs about, depended on where your tribe lived and what it needed to survive. As for how the Native American people did these things is often as misrepresented by todays practitioners of these rituals as the Native American peoples themselves have been misrepresented by Hollywood and pretty much for the same reason.
When the lie becomes more popular than the truth;
Sell the lie!
Since the publication of the books by Carlos Casteneda about the supposed Native American shaman “Don Juan Matus”, there has been no shortage of “plastic shamans” who claim to be able to sell the general public what they say is a genuine Native American spiritual experience.
To the general public, the term "Shaman" is one of the most well known “words” of the Native American language, even though the word Shaman has its origins in Siberia and is used by anthropologists as a generic term for any aboriginal holy person on an ecstatic spiritual journey.
Spirits are said to occupy the Native American Shaman's body during public ceremonies, while the Shaman enters into a trance and traverses the underworld or goes great distances in this world to seek lost possessions or healing. This description bears an uncanny similarity to that of Spiritualist mediums and these two "ceremonies" actually began being presented to the paying public at around the same time, from which you may draw you own conclusions.
Amongst the Native American people there was usually an individual, a specialized type of holy person who did practice, not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but through direct contact with the spirits themselves. These were the individuals who would communicate with the spirit world in order to know what animals to hunt, when to plant crops and, as in the case of the legendary Sitting Bull, when and how to make war.
Because trances were so important to the Native American people as a means of getting in touch with spiritual forces, one title “Pow-Wow”, (from the Algonquin word “pauwau”; meaning “one who has visions"), was accorded to those who fulfilled this role in the tribe. The word, whose spelling was eventually settled in English as “pow-wow”, was also used as the name for ceremonies and councils, because of the important role played by the pauwau in both. Though the nature of the shaman and the pauwau is similar, many Native Americans find the word “shaman” offensive, mainly because of how its commercialization is insulting to the sanctity of their traditional beliefs and practices.
In the end, if you wish to find out about Native American Spirituality and you set forth on your quest with a web search you will probably come away more misinformed and deceived than when you began. But perhaps, with a lot of diligence and a little discernment, you will be able to find amongst some tribes legends and myths, something that connects with you personally and that is what the spiritual journey is all about.