Spiritual Practices, Oral Tradition, Goods and Gifts

Questions to ask yourself:

What was life like before the arrival of the Europeans?

What you will be able to do:

Identify the individuals involved in spiritual practices

Explain the role of oral tradition in Indigenous societies.

Describe the sharing of goods and the role of gifts in Indigenous societies.

Engage by discussing images and videos:

What do you think the man at the left of the image was doing?

What role do you think this man had in his tribe?

In our society, does anyone have a similar role?




Click to open this section. Click other images to visit a series of related images of similar figures from different cultures. List other possible roles and their equivalents in modern society.

Spiritual Practices


To understand social, political and cultural structures in Indigenous communities during the pre-contact period (and to a large extent today), you need to step back and look at both how people lived, but also at what they believed. And you need to remember that a “belief” for many people is more than just religious texts or some priest or holy book’s dogma. What Indigenous people understood of the world was based on the natural world around them, and those understandings influenced how people lived, how they governed, how property and names were passed down, and how they related to each other and to different communities.

Circle of life, Animism, Balance.

The hunter and the hunted were both keys to survival. From the earliest times on earth, people have relied on animals for food, shelter and clothing. This reliance, this relationship, led to a profound respect for nature and all that it entailed. A key concept is the circle of life. “The circle shape represents the interconnectivity of all aspects of one’s being, including the connection with the natural world…” (Source).


At its heart Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada believed that all animals and all things in nature had a spirit. And thus, humans too were spiritual beings, and were connected in turn to the spirit in all things around them. A hunter might pray to the animal he sought to kill, and afterwards he might make offerings of thanks to the animal which now became his food. It was even believed that the animal had given itself up willingly, in order to sustain the larger group.


As such, most Indigenous groups did not overhunt but wanted instead to continue this balance in nature. “The aboriginal worldview demonstrates a balanced, healthy and sensitive way for people to coexist with everything on earth. In the aboriginal worldview acknowledgement and gratitude is given to the natural world. Humans are not superior to any part of nature; they are only a tiny piece of it.” (Video source)

Deer Hunter. Used by LEARN with permission from Z.S. Liang

©1999 - 2015 Liang Studio, All rights reserved. http://www.liangstudio.com/

Part of original painting Sky Woman by Ernest Smith 1936. Source: http://libcat.rmsc.org/aquabrowser/?q=sky+woman+ernest+smith

Shaman, Healers, Clan Mothers.

There were, however, those people in each society who had an even greater, and sometimes very specific, connection to the spirit world. Known as shaman or medicine keepers, these people could be both men and women. They were the “interpreters of dreams”. They would practice special rituals, permitting them to come into more direct contact with the spirits and through these connections acquire great power, in some groups possessing even greater than the chief.


One important function of these shaman or medicine keepers was, as the name also states, to heal the sick, or in a broader sense to care for the health of the people. They helped the tribe by predicting good hunting routes, and by giving guidance in times of misfortune. But they also helped heal illnesses that were either seen as naturally (and thus spiritually) caused, or that might have been caused by another sorcerer and thus could be removed through the same sorts of incantations or spells, or through more elaborate means, like “ritually sucking the disease agent out of the body, brushing it off with a bird’s wing or drawing it out with dramatic gestures.” (Source). These healers also possessed great practical knowledge, since they held vast knowledge of medicinal and herbal plants. (Source)


Women were also medicine keepers. And as time went on, and as individual shamanism waned and the so-called “medicine societies” became the norm, women could join these societies and even rise to the position of the leading medicine keeper. (Source) More often than not, it was women who made the tools and weapons out of animal bones, which were so necessary for survival. And so, “many Native American tribes believed that the women had more healing power and were able to soothe ill souls with their chants and connection to the spirit world” (Source)


In any and all of these cases, healing strategies and the stories and beliefs around them were passed down by those who knew them best. Elders played a key role. “Elders teach younger generations about spirituality and history. Many elders hold central positions in ceremonies and healing practices … Native people believe that experience holds great value and because elders have a wealth of experience their stories are a valuable resource for the tribe.” (Source)


Short texts on Spiritual Practices by Paul Rombough @ LEARN based on presentations from Matt Russell and other sources as indicated.

"Healers held vast knowledge of medicinal and herbal plants. Once the plants were in bloom these Healers would go about the forests in search of the desired plants needed to cure disease." Painting by ERNEST SMITH, 2008, via http://libcat.rmsc.org/

Learn the story of how Jigonsaseh, the first Clan Mother, helped Hiawatha bring an end to war and create America’s first democracy." See video at Native America | Haudenosaunee's Legendary Founding

Three Spoon-Lipped masks from Keppler. Kepller, J. 1941. via False Face Masks of the Iroquois: Form, meaning and academic interpretation

Explore Roles of Individuals


Read through and view those documents, images and webssites referring to individuals who were involved, directly or indirectly, in spiritual practices of Indigenous peoples.


List them or give them a title, and give an example person’s name if possible.


Describe their role by and how it supported a spiritual practice.

Indicate and explain which document illustrates their role as relates to the spiritual practice. (Connect facts)


The Role of Oral Tradition


Spiritual, traditional, practical, and personal; no matter what kind of knowledge and experience defines a society and a culture, it needs to be transmitted somehow from one generation to another, to be sustained, to grow, and to thrive. Indigenous societies in what is now North America, like many societies in the world, had an oral tradition for transmitting knowledge. But what does that look like? How does that work exactly? Here are a few representative examples:

Storytelling was one of the oldest traditions in Indigenous societies because there were likely storytellers during early migratory periods and even well before people had begun to occupy and settle any one area, long before the ways of life and objects and songs we associate with these cultures would have become fully established.


Storytelling was essential, especially in societies that did not use writing to transmit knowledge. And so the storytellers were teachers, historians, artists, and orators, and they transmitted a tribe’s culture to those members who came after them. They recounted true stories of events, but also fantastical stories of pure imagination usually created to teach values, morals, and understandings of right and wrong. Their stories explained things around them too, like what is thunder and lightning? Without scientists to explain things another way, the flashes of light in the sky were interpreted to come from an angry bird! In general terms, stories such as these were a means to pass down explanations of natural phenomena. (Source from video)

[Oral tradition was very important among Native peoples] © Création Bernard Duchesne via Oral tradition on Societies and Territories

1902 by E. Irving Couse, A. N. A.; The Historian; The Indian Artist is painting in sign language, on buckskin, the story of a battle with American Soldiers. at wikimedia.org under Public Domain.

Storytelling was practical and important. Sites for hunting, sites for rituals, the education in general of their people and their young ... Storytellers and stories all served to transmit valuable and necessary knowledge and to preserve culture and heritage. This was how young people learned to hunt and trap, and to make tools. This was how people were taught to bring up children. This was how agreements between tribes and different peoples were carried forward.


Sometimes the processes of oral tradition and pure storytelling were augmented through the use of specific objects. The wampum belt was an important example. These decorative belts were often made of shells and were also used for ceremonial purposes. Though sometimes associated with very specific events, their imagery was not always specifically presented. It was up to the person reading it to add their interpretation.


The wampum belts and the stories they carried along could be used for sealing important alliances and detailing agreements for peace. Though later they were sometimes used as a trade good and after the arrival of Europeans even as a form of currency, their role as an instrument of oral history was arguably their most important function.


Texts by Paul Rombough based on scripts by Matt Russell

Five unique Wabanaki Wampum Belts from the Penobscot. https://commons.wikimedia

Nicholas Vincent Tsawanhonhi, Principal Christian Chief and Captain of the Huron Indians established at La Jeune Lorette near Quebec. Library and Archives Canada / e010947402. Copyright: Expired. (See also McCord Museum).

"According to myth, it was from this flooded land that the creator, Crow, made the world we see today. And at the beginning of the world, the Gwitchin culture-hero, Ch'itahuukaii, the Traveller, and the Tutchone hero Soh Jhee or Asuya (Beaver Man), journeyed across the land to change the animals from giants and man-eaters to the familiar species of today." Source and image source: Beaver Shrinkage by Travis at https://www.flickr.com/ under by-nc/2.0/

Storytellers were also the preservers of spiritual beliefs and origin stories. “For the Haudenosaunee, the earth was created through the interplay of elements from the sky and waters. The different Iroquoian-speaking peoples tell slightly different versions of the creation story, which begins with Sky Woman falling from the sky.” (Source). In some cultures, pipes and other items were used by the storyteller, and these items also had stories of their own. “In ceremonial usage, the smoke is generally believed to carry prayers to the attention of the Creator or other powerful spirits. Lakota tradition tells that White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the c'anupa (Lakota sacred pipe) to the people, and instructed them in its symbolism and ceremonies.” (Source). "During times of storytelling, smoking the pipe was also an unspoken message for the people to listen and enjoy.” (Source)

Sky Woman. Photo by Daryl Mitchell at flickr.com under by-sa of installation by Shelley Niro, Skywoman (2001), First Peoples Hall, Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa

The Sharing of Goods and the Role of Gifts


Indigenous societies operated under what some ethnohistorians called The Law of Hospitality, especially as concerns relations with other groups and tribes. A reciprocity of kinds (or a back and forth exchange) occurred between visitors and guests, whereby you gave gifts to visitors, and vice versa, and the more that you gave the more respect you received from them.


Gift-giving had a ceremonial function. The process created prestige and status for different groups. It was also used to help broker and cement agreements or as part of the process in establishing formal alliances between competing or conflicting parties. The gifts acted as metaphors for words of agreement, representing the conditions and situation at the time. And in this way, they were also not everlasting, so that alliances had to be continuously renewed through additional ceremonies or the continued giving of gifts.

Text by Paul Rombough based on scripts by Matt Russell and other sources.

Explore and Investigate the Functioning of Indigenous Societies

Review key question “What was life like before the arrival of the Europeans?”

Examine documents and collect information related to oral traditions, how they functioned and the purpose they served.

Examine documents and collect information related to the process of gift-giving, how it functioned and the purpose it served.

Use related pair (s) of documents:

Explain how oral traditions were important to Indigenous societies and cultures.

Explain too how gift-giving worked, and why it was important.

This page is under construction.

Browse available curated document collections, strategies, and other resources below. Note that we are still in the process of confirming the use of certain images and finalizing our curation choices. As always, follow website links for more information and full-sized original media, and compare and be critical of all sources.

2018 version -- Origins to 1608 (#2) Indigenous peoples & Colonization (Spiritual practices, oral tradition, goods and gifts)