People have been present in the Americas for at least 30,000 years. The population of pre-Columbian Americas is estimated to be around 60 million people. Imagine the diverse cultures, beliefs, and languages that were celebrated and taught for generations!
The Indigenous Peoples of North America had complex societies and systems of belief long before Europeans arrived in the “new world.” From these varied peoples, innumerable gods and goddesses came to be.
What do Native Americans Call their Gods?
Native American gods and goddesses are not deities that were universally worshiped by all tribes. Religion was far more localized and, from then, beliefs varied from person to person. Native American deities and beliefs were not homogenous.
The Indigenous peoples of the Americas have rich, distinct cultures that are impossible to clump into a single belief system. Lee Irwin in “Themes of Native American Spirituality” (1996) says it best:
“Native religions are remarkably diverse, grounded in specific languages, places, lifeway rites, and communal relationships, embedded in unique ethnic histories often overshadowed by…common, pervasive history of religious and political suppression” (312).
Different regions had different interpretations of gods and their values. Most Native American societies did practice polytheism, but the veneration of a singular god was also performed. As indigenous peoples hailing from different backgrounds and beliefs did regularly communicate with each other, there were also frequent exchanges of thought.
Do Native American Religions have Gods?
Many Native American cultures and religious beliefs highlighted the unity of nature – particularly animals – and man. Animism, the belief that everything has a soul or a spirit, was a dominant perspective of the natural world. Gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings often reflected this view.
As we review the major Native American gods and goddesses, remember that religious beliefs are varied and unique. While we will touch on select Native American peoples, some information has unfortunately been lost as a direct result of colonization, forced assimilation, and genocide. Furthermore, religious and spiritual beliefs are sacred. Most of the time they aren’t shared willy-nilly.
The Apache is one of the dominant tribes belonging to the American southwest. They are more inclined to identify themselves as N’de or Inde, meaning “the people.”
Historically, the Apache is composed of numerous different bands, including the Chiricahua, Mescalero, and the Jicarilla. While each band had its takes on Apache religion, they all shared a common language.
Apache gods (diyí) are described as natural forces in the world that can be called upon during certain ceremonies. Furthermore, not all Apache tribes have a creation myth.
The first on our list of major Apache gods is Ussen (Yusn). He existed before the creation of the Universe. The entity known as the Giver of Life is a creator god. This creator deity is identified by only a select number of Apache peoples.
Monster Slayer and Born For Water
The twin culture heroes, Monster Slayer and Born For Water, are celebrated for ridding the world of monstrous beings. With the monsters gone, the people of earth could finally settle down without fear.
Occasionally, Monster Slayer could be interpreted to be Born For Water’s uncle rather than a brother.
With their ancestral roots in the Great Lakes region of eastern North America the collective name “Blackfeet” – or, Siksikaitsitapi – denotes a number of linguistically related groups. Of these, members of the Siksika, the Kainai-Blood, and the northern and southern sections of the Peigan-Piikani are considered to be a part of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Of the Blackfeet, only elders were trusted to accurately tell their stories. Their experience and altogether wisdom were invaluable when reciting the tales of gods.
Never personified in the Blackfoot religion, Apistotoki (Ihtsipatapiyohpa) lacked a human form and any significant human traits. Although removed from direct mythology themselves, Apistotoki created the Sspommitapiiksi, the Sky Beings, and is hierarchically above the other deities.
Apistotoki is known as the Source of Life.
The Sky Beings
In the Blackfoot religion, the Sky Beings are the creations of the creator god, Apistotoki. They have a heavenly society above the clouds. Sky Beings are the personifications of celestial bodies.
Constellations and planets play a vital part in understanding Blackfeet heritage. The locations of celestial bodies could indicate a change in weather or warn of an incoming storm. More significantly, Makoyohsokoyi (the Milky Way) was determined to be a sacred pathway that the deceased took to travel onto their next lives.
The Sky Beings include the following deities:
- Natosi (the sun god)
- Komorkis (the moon goddess)
- Lipisowaahs (the morning-star)
- Miohpoisiks (The Bunched Stars)
Naapi and Kipitaakii
Naapi and Kipitaakii are more commonly known as Old Man and Old Woman. Naapi is a trickster god and cultural hero. He is married to Kipitaakii. Together, they would teach the Blackfeet a variety of skills and lessons.
Despite Naapi’s penchant for trickery, he is good-intentioned. He and Kipitaakii are viewed as benevolent beings. In one of the Blackfoot creation stories, Naapi created the earth out of mud. He also made men, women, all animals, and all plants.
Depending on the Blackfoot band, Naapi and Kipitaakii may or may not be closely associated with coyotes. In these cases, they may be referred to as Old Man Coyote and Old Woman Coyote.
The Cherokee is an indigenous people local to the Southeastern Woodlands of the United States. Today, the Cherokee Nation is composed of over 300,000 people.
As far as religious beliefs go, the Cherokee is mostly unified. Variation in song, story, and interpretation is slight when comparing the beliefs of different communities. They are traditionally spiritualistic, believing that the spiritual and physical worlds were as one.
Unetlanvhi is the Creator: the Great Spirit that knows and sees all. Generally, Unetlanvhi does not have a physical form. They additionally do not get personified in myths – at least, not frequently.
Also known to be the Water Beetle, Dayuni’si is one of the creator gods of Cherokee religious beliefs. Once, many years ago, the earth was completely flooded. Dayuni’si came down from the sky out of curiosity and, in the form of a beetle, dove into the water. She scooped mud up and upon bringing it to the surface the mud expanded.
From the mud carried by Dayuni’si the earth as we know it today was made.
The Aniyvdaqualosgi is a collection of storm spirits in the Cherokee religion. They are benevolent towards humans most of the time, though is capable of inflicting significant damage to those deserving of their ire.
Known also as the “Thunderers,” the Aniyvdaqualosgi frequently take on human forms.
The Ojibwe are a part of the Anishinaabe culture of the Great Lakes Region of the United States and Canada. Other tribes that are culturally (and linguistically) related to the Ojibwe are the Odawa, the Potawatomi, and other Algonquin peoples.
Religious beliefs and accompanying stories are passed down by way of oral tradition. For those tribal groups that were involved with Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society, religious beliefs were communicated through both birch bark scrolls (wiigwaasabak) and oral teachings.
Asibikaashi, the Spider Woman, is also known as Spider Grandmother. She is a repeating character in several Native American myths, especially amongst those ancestrally tied to the American Southwest.
Amongst the Ojibwe, Asibikaashi is a defensive entity. Her webs connect and safeguard the people. The use of dreamcatchers as protective charms amongst the Ojibwe originated from the myth of the Spider Woman.
Gitchi Manitou – within Anishinaabe tribal beliefs – was the god that created the Anishinaabe and other surrounding Algonquin tribes.
Wenabozho is a trickster spirit and a helper of the Ojibwe. He teaches them important skills and life lessons. Depending on the variation, Wenabozho is either the demi-god child of the West Wind or of the Sun. He would be affectionately called Nanabozho by his grandmother, the woman who raised him.
To highlight his trickery, Wenabozho is described as a shapeshifter. He prefers to shift into animals that are known for their cunning: rabbits, ravens, spiders, or coyotes.
In Ojibwe mythology, Chibiabos was a brother of Wenabozho. Most of the time, the pair were thought to be twin brothers. They were inseparable. When Chibiabos is murdered by water spirits, Wenabozho is devastated.
Eventually, Chibiabos becomes the Lord of the Dead. He is associated with wolves.
The Choctaw are Native Americans originally belonging to the southeastern United States, though today there is a significant population in Oklahoma as well. They, along with the others of the “Five Civilized Tribes” – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole – suffered horrifically during what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
It is suspected that the Choctaw may have primarily worshiped a solar deity, placing them above other gods.
Nanishta is considered to be one of the creator spirits of Native American mythology, thus making him a Great Spirit. In some variations of Choctaw creation myths, Nanishta created the first people – and other deities – out of the Nanih Waiya Mound.
Later interpretations conflate Nanishta with a solar deity, Hashtali.
Hashtali is a sun god that flies across the sky on a massive buzzard. He has an innate relationship with fire, being the sun and all. So strong were his ties to fire that when Uncta – a trickster spider god – gave man fire, the fire reported what was happening back to Hashtali.
According to the Choctaw, Hashtali is the father of all the stars in the sky.
Hvashi was the wife of Hashtali and the mother of Unknown Woman. She is a moon goddess that flew on the back of a giant owl.
On nights without a moon during the lunar cycle, Hvashi would spend the evenings in the company of her beloved husband.
In Choctaw religious beliefs, Unknown Woman (Ohoyochisba) is a corn goddess. She is described as a beautiful woman in all-white wearing fragrant blooms. The later myth suggests that she is the daughter of Nanishta, the Great Spirit, but she is actually the daughter of Hvashi and Hashtali.
Eskeilay ruled over a subterranean realm of pre-birth, where spirits lingered waiting to be born. She is known as the Mother of the Unliving.
It is thought that Esleilay rules over grasshoppers, ants, and locusts.
The Navajo people are currently the largest Native American tribe in North America, having claimed to surpass the Cherokee in official enrollment recently. As with the Apache, Navajo languages are descended from southern Athabascan, indicating a close relationship between the tribes.
The “talking god,” Yebitsai is thought to be the head of the Navajo deities. He doles out orders, gives advice, and is an all-around charismatic, confident leader. In myths, Yebitsai speaks through a variety of different animals when wanting to communicate with mortals.
Naestsan and Yadilyil
Naestsan, an earth goddess linked to the cultivation of food plants, is married to the sky god, Yadilyil. They are the parents of Estsanatlehi (the Changing Woman), Yolkaiestsan (the White-Shell Woman), and Coyote; moreover, they are thought to be the oldest deities in the pantheon.
It is believed that half of the year belongs to Naestsan while the other half belongs to Yadilyil.
The “sun-bearer,” Tsohanoai is the Navajo god of the sun, which acts as his shield. He is credited with the creation of a large hunting game.
In Navajo mythology, Tsohanoai is the husband of the goddess of seasons, Estsanatlehi. With her, he is the father of two children: the god of war and the god of fishing.
As Spider Mother, Naste Estsan is involved in many stories: whether she be the mother of monsters, or the mother of the evil god, Yeitso, who rules the monsters. She had taught Navajo women how to weave and has a penchant for mischief. In some tales, Naste Estsan is a boogeyman of sorts that steals and consumes misbehaving children.
The Puebloan religion has a great focus placed on kachina: benevolent spirits. The Pueblo native peoples include the Hopi, Zuni, and Keres. Within these tribes, over 400 kachinas are acknowledged. Religion as a whole emphasized life, death, and the roles of intermediary spirits.
Although we will not be able to cover all 400 of these spirits, we will touch on a handful of the most major. Most of the time, kachina are blessed, benevolent forces; evil spirits amongst them are uncommon.
Hahai-i Wuhti is alternatively known as Grandmother kachina. She is Mother Earth, and the wife of the Chief of all Kachinas, Eototo. Her spirit is a nourishing, maternal one that is uniquely vocal in ceremonies, unlike other kachinas.
Masauwu is an earth god as much as he was a stark spirit of death. He ruled over the Land of the Dead, overseeing the passage of the dead and other kachinas.
Since the Underworld was an opposite reflection of our world, Masauwu performed many normal actions backward. Beneath his hideous kachina mask, he was a handsome, decorated young man.
Of all the kachina (yes, all 400 plus), Kokopelli is possibly the most recognizable to the untrained eye. He is a fertility spirit with a distinct hunchback. He is the guardian of childbirth, a trickster god, and a master musician.
Shulawitsi is a young boy that wields a firebrand. Despite not being much to look at, this kachina watches over the Sun and burns fires. Shulawitsi’s responsibility is a large one for such a seemingly young child. He is known as the Little Fire God.
Sioux is a name that was given to the Nakota, Dakota, and Lakota people of the First Nations and Native American peoples. Today, over 120,000 people identify as Sioux across the United States and Canada. They are one of many indigenous groups that have resiliently survived a history soaked in attempted assimilation and genocide.
Inyan is the first being to have existed. He created a lover, the Earth spirit Maka, and humans.
With each creation, he became weaker and weaker, until Inyan hardened into a powerless shell of himself. His blood is thought to be the blue sky and the blue waters.
Anpao is the god of the dawn. Described as being a spirit that had two faces, he also can heal the sick. Anpao dances eternally with primordial darkness to keep the solar god, Wi (not to be mistaken with the lunar goddess, also called Wi), from burning the earth.
White Buffalo Calf Woman, called Ptesan-Wi, is a folk hero of the Sioux. She introduced them to the sacred pipe. On top of this, Ptesan-Wi taught the Sioux many skills and arts that are still cherished today.
Unk is personified contention; as such, she is the root cause of quarrels and disagreements. She was banished to deep waters for her troublemaking, but not before she gave birth to the storm monster, Iya.
Gods of The Iroquois Confederacy
The Iroquois Confederacy was originally established with five tribes of the First Nations and Native Americans: the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and the Seneca. Eventually, a sixth tribe was added.
In 1799, there was a religious movement amongst the Iroquois people called Longhouse religion founded by the Seneca prophet, Handsome Lake. Longhouse religion adopted aspects of Christianity into traditional religious beliefs.
Iosheka (Yosheka) is the entity that created the first humans. He is known to heal diseases, cure ailments, and ward off demons. Among his already impressive feats, he also taught the Iroquois a myriad of ceremonial rituals, even introducing tobacco.
Hahgwehdiyu and Hahgwehdaetgah
These twins were born from the goddess Ataensic. Ironically, these young men turned out to be opposites.
Hahgwehdiyu grew corn from his mother’s body and took it upon himself to create the world. He represented goodness, warmth, and light.
Hahgwehdaetgah, meanwhile, was an evil god. Some myths even attribute their mother’s death to Hahgwehgaetgah. He actively opposed Hahgwehdiyu every step of the way. Eventually, he was banished underground.
Better described as the Three Sisters, the Deohako are goddesses that preside over staple crops (corn, bean, and squash).
The Muscogee (Creek) is located primarily in the southeastern United States. The largest federally recognized Native American tribe in Oklahoma is the Muscogee Nation. People that speak the Muscogee language (the Alabama, Koasati, Hitchiti, and Natchez) are also enrolled in the Muscogee Nation.
It is thought that the Muscogee were largely monotheistic in practice, though other lesser deities did exist.
The major creator god of Muscogee Native Americans, Ibofanaga created the earth to keep the Upper and Under Worlds separate. He also made the Milky Way, which the souls of the deceased took to cross over into the afterlife.
Fayetu is the son of Uvce, the corn goddess, and her father, the sun god Hvuse. He was born as a blood clot that – after being kept in a pot for many days – turned into a young boy. When he came of marriageable age, his mother gifted him a headdress of blue jay feathers and a flute that summoned numerous animals. Coincidentally, Fayetu was a masterful hunter and became revered as a Muscogee hunting deity.
The Hiyouyulgee is a collection of four gods that had taught the Muscogee a plethora of survival skills. Afterward, they ascended into the clouds. Two brothers, Yahola and Hayu’ya, are the most popular of the four.
There is reason to believe that each of the four Hiyouyulgee represented a specific cardinal direction.
Gods of the Alaska Native Tribes
On March 30, 1867, the United States initiated the Alaska Purchase. By October of that year, Alaska – formerly Alyeska – was ratified as a U.S. territory until its statehood in 1959.
The Alaska Purchase would put an end to 125 years of Russian imperial presence in the region. However, before the Russian and American colonization of Alaska, it was the ancestral home to numerous diverse cultures; of which, 229 federally recognized tribes have emerged.
Both indigenous oral tradition and archaeological evidence have established that some areas of Alaska have been inhabited for well over 15,000 years. Meanwhile, anthropologists believe that Alaska Native tribes of today are descendants of individuals that passed through the Bering Strait from broader Asia. The mass migration would have occurred during the last Ice Age, or the Last Glacial Maximum when the Bering land bridge was present.
As is the case with Native American tribes of the United States Mainland, the Indigenous peoples of Alaska are culturally diverse.
The Inuit live throughout regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. There are approximately 150,000 Inuit in the world, with most of their population residing in Canada.
Traditional Inuit beliefs were tied to day-to-day routine, with souls and spirits playing a significant role. Additionally, fear defined much of the mythology that surrounds the Arctic regions due to the harsh, oftentimes unforgiving environment: famine, isolation, and hypothermia became personified beings. Thus, taboos were meant to be avoided at all cost…lest one offended the wrong god.
Sedna is the simultaneous mother and goddess of sea creatures. She rules over the Underworld for coastal Inuits that are awaiting reincarnation, Adlivun. In some variations of her myth, her parents (whose arms Sedna ate while still human) are her attendants.
Of all the Inuit deities, Sedna is the most famous. She is also known as the sea mother, Nerrivik.
Seqinek and Tarqeq
Seqinek and Tarqeq are sister and brother, each representing their respective celestial bodies (the sun and the moon).
The sun goddess Seqinek would carry a torch (the sun) as she ran, desperately avoiding her brother’s advances. Tarqeq had disguised himself as a lover of hers, and the two had an affair until Seqinek realized his true identity. Since then, she has been running from the affections of her brother. Of course, Tarqeq also had a torch (the moon), but it was partially blown out during the chase.e
The Tlingit and Haida tribes are united in the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA). Both cultures – as with most tribes ancestrally tied to the western reaches of North America – created totem poles. The Haida are particularly renowned craftsmen, implementing copper into their creations.
A totem pole’s appearance and its specific meaning can vary from culture to culture. While being considered sacred, a totem pole was never intended to be used in idol worship.
Yehl and Khanukh
Yehl and Khanukh are opposing forces of nature. They enforce the perspective of dualism that dominated much of early Tlingit culture.
In the Tlingit creation myth, Yehl is the creator of the world we know today; he is a shapeshifting trickster that takes the form of a raven. His theft of freshwater led to the creation of springs and wells.
When it comes to Khanukh, it happens that he is significantly older than Yehl. And, with age came power. He is thought to take the form of a wolf. Although not necessarily an evil god, Khanukh is greedy and serious. In all ways, he is the opposite of Yehl.
The Thunder, Chethl was thought to be a giant bird capable of swallowing a whale whole. He created thunder and lightning whenever he took flight. His sister was Ahgishanakhou, the Underground Woman.
Ahgishanakhou sits all on her lonesome, guarding the Northwestern world pillar beneath the ground. A piece written by Dorothea Moore for The San Francisco Sunday Call (1904) notes that Ahgishanakhou resided on Mount Edgecumbe – L’ux in the Tlingit language. Whenever the mountain smokes, it is thought that she is making her fire.
The Yup’ik are indigenous peoples belonging to various regions of Alaska and the Russian Far East. There are various branches of Yup’ik languages spoken today.
Although many Yup’ik practice Christianity today, there is a traditional belief in a cycle of life, where there is rebirth for those who die (including animals). Spiritual leaders in the community could communicate with different supernatural entities, from spirits to gods. Amulets, carved in the form of a certain animal, also hold immense cultural and spiritual significance for Yup’ik peoples.
Tulukaruq is the creator god of Yup’ik religious beliefs. He is humorous and fun-loving, acting as a kind protector of the Yup’ik. Usually, Tulukaruq takes the form of the raven. Since the raven is synonymous with this powerful deity, it is advised against eating raven eggs.
Generally, Negury’aq is thought to be the father of the Raven (Tulukaruq) and the husband of Spider Woman. In one myth, he unintentionally created earthquakes after banishing his sister-in-law beneath the earth for scratching him in the middle of a quarrel.