Santa Clara University


Indigenous Religion

1. Brief Introduction
2. Religion and Politics Sections
3. A Short Introductory Course
4. Other Resource Materials
5. Recent Articles

1. Brief Introduction:

These religions, variously called “native,” “indigenous,” “local,” and “ethnic,” would be the world’s sixth largest religious tradition if considered as a unit.  They are associated with mankind’s great, primarily southern, journey from Africa, first to Australia, then north through Central Asia, Siberia and across the Bering Straits to Latin America. These religions currently exist among the tribal peoples of Africa, India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Oceania, and Latin America. For most of these people, “religion” is not an original concept since what scholars call “religion” is the peoples’ ways of life. In Siberia, for example, shaman are merely designated as “those who know.” Pedersen (below) points to the difficulty of giving a synoptic account of these groups for three reasons: the great diversity of indigenous cultures; the state of evidence, biased toward non-indigenous sources; and the resulting strength of stereotypes, both negative and positive.

Because specific lands and a specific language are so closely related to the peoples’ way of life, globalization constitutes a greater threat to this type of religion than to any other. Hence, there is a natural affinity of such traditions for the modern ecological movement. Large hydroelectric dams, for example, threaten both groups. In addition to the comparison of similar elements within the indigenous traditions, one can also compare their responses to this communication and economic globalizations and their responses to melding with world religious traditions. Pentikäinen (below) focuses on the interaction between these religions and globalization. Mbiti also discusses the various types of indigenous religions formed in such interactions with more or less change, for example, the new creation of Umbanda versus Camdomblé already existing within the tribal context. Vodoo exists, says Mbiti, in total opposition to globalization. Since there is a particularly close connection between indigenous religions and environmental concerns, the reader might want to consult the entry on environmental issues also.

In terms of responses to the world traditions, a prime example is the interaction of Catholicism and indigenous religions in Latin America. The Spaniards destroyed temples, but build churches on the same holy spots, thus encouraging a hybrid of Iberian and native religious practices. Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Patroness of the Americas,” symbolizes this pro-indigenous form of Latin American Catholicism. When Mexico declared her independence from Spain, rebel troops fought under the banner of Guadalupe while the Spaniards fought under the banner of Our Lady of Remedios [Spanish shrine]. In Brazil, the relationships of African-derived religions like Macumba and Umbanda and Catholicism became even more complicated, with some faithful identifying Catholic saints like St. George with Ogum, the Candomblé god of war. Examples in other religions would be the influence of prior nature religion in Tibetan Buddhism and the blend of Hinduism and Buddhism with Sufi-influenced mysticism that characterizes much of kejawen, Javanese spiritual life in Indonesia. Indigenous religions are alive and well not only in their pure form but in many creative cultural combinations with world religious traditions. Of course, some reform movements within these religions, for example, Islamic Wahhabism, attack such practices.

Indigenous religions did not generally separate ethics from religious belief or practice, but later analysts have pointed to many ethical principles in the traditions. For example, Mbiti (p. 140) presents a contemporary American Indian “Ten Commandments” which begins with “1. Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.” Mbiti then analyses the general content of such codes. Theological ethicist Küng (p. 14-15) discusses the principles of the aborigine tjukurpa [eternal law comprising religion, ethics, rites, the whole way of life]. The aborigines did not have specific commandments, he says, but tjukurpa did encourage “a sense of reciprocity, justice and generosity (for example in the exchange of gifts).”

2. Religion and Politics Sections:

“Iberian Powers, Indigenous Religions, and the Latin American Polity,” (pp. 261-67)

3. A Short Introductory Course:

Küng begins his book with a chapter-length comparison of the indigenous religions of the Australia and Zimbabwe. Pentikäinen focuses on the interaction between these religions and globalization. Mbiti discusses the various types of indigenous religions formed in such interactions. Grim relates the concerns of the environment to Indigenous Religions

Küng, Hans, “Indigenous Religion” in Tracing the Way: Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions (New York: Continuum, 2002), 1-36.

Pentikäinen, Juha, “Local Religious Societies,” in Juergensmeyer, Mark, ed. The Global Religions: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 87-92.

Mbiti, John S. “’When the Bull Is in a Strange Country, It Does Not Bellow,’” Tribal Religions and Globalization,” in Max L. Stackhouse and Diane B. Obenchain, eds., God and Globalization: Christ and the Dominions of Civilization (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 2002), 139-72.

Grim, John A., “Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology,” in Barnhill, David Landis, and Gottlieb, Roger S., eds. Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2001).

4. Other Resource Materials:

Pedersen, Kusumita P., ““Environmental Ethics in Interreligious Perspective,” in Twiss, Sumner B. and Grelle, Bruce, eds. Explorations in Global Ethics: Comparative Religious Ethics and Interreligious Dialogue (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1996). Pedersen’s excellent summary on “Religious Traditions of Indigenous Peoples,” pp. 278-80.

United Religions Initiative  This organization, founded by William Swing, Episcopal Bishop of California, was fully constituted in 2000. It brings together thousands of members representing more 100 religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions. For a description of grassroots and indigenous orientation by its director, Episcopal priest Charles Gibbs, see “The United Religions Initiative at Work,” in Smoch, David R., ed. Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002), 115-26.

5. Recent Articles:

See countries and regions referred to above.

"Shamans' Spirits Crowd Air of Mongolian Capital," New York Times, July 21, 2009. Traditional and neo-traditional Mongolian shamans in Ulan Bator.

"On a Venezuelan Mountain, Adoration Meets a Blend of Traditions," New York Times, October 28, 2009. Combination of Catholic, African, and other traditions on Sorte Mountain. Devotees of Maria Lionza come each October, with changes in those channeled by other mediums. As many as thirty percent of the country, according to some anthropologists, take part in such rites.

List of other Religions

November 12, 2009.