Prior to European contact, American Indian communities existed throughout North America. Federal policies led to voluntary and forced relocation from familiar territory to the current reservation system.
When the reservation system formed in the late 1800s, the U.S. government forced some bands and tribes to live together. In some instances, these groups could relate linguistically and culturally. In other cases, they may have been historical enemies.
On reservations where different American Indian groups were forced to co-exist, repercussions occurred that still can be experienced today in those communities. Historic rivalries, family or clan conflicts, and tribal politics may present challenges for an outsider unaware of local dynamics who is trying to interact with groups in the community.
While there is great diversity across and within tribes, there are within-region similarities based on adaptation to ecology, climate, and geography (including traditional foods), linguistic and cultural affiliations, and sharing of information for long periods of time.
Differences in cultural groups relate closely to regional differences and possibly distinguishable by their language or spiritual belief systems. They are also a result of the diversity of historic homelands across the nation and migration patterns of tribal groups.
Cultures developed by adaptation to their natural environment and the influence of trade and interaction with non-Indians and other American Indian groups.
Urban Indian communities exist in most major metropolitan areas. Members of a large number of different tribes and cultures represent these populations and have different degrees of traditional cultures and adaptations to Western culture norms. They form a sense of community through social interaction and activities, but are often “invisible,” geographically dispersed, and multiracial.
A strong respect for spirituality – whether traditional (prior to European contact), Christian (resulting from European contact), or a combination of both – is common among all American Indian communities and often contributes to a sense of group unity. Many American Indian communities have a strong church community and organized religion integrated within their culture.
American Indian cultures integrate traditional spirituality and practices into their day-to-day living. Traditional spirituality and organized religions are usually community-oriented, rather than individual-oriented.
Spirituality, worldview, and the meaning of life are very diverse concepts among regions, tribes, and individuals. Specific practices such as ceremonies, prayers, and religious protocols will vary among American Indian communities.
A blend of traditions, traditional spiritual practices, and mainstream faiths may coexist. It is best to inquire about an individual’s faith or beliefs instead of making assumptions, but be aware that many American Indian spiritual beliefs and practices are sacred and not shared publicly or with outsiders.
Until passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, many traditional American Indian practices were illegal and kept secret.
Social/health problems and their solutions are often seen as spiritually based and as part of a holistic worldview of balance between mind, body, spirit, and the environment.
It is a common practice to open and close meetings with a prayer or short ceremony. Elders are often asked to offer such opening and closing words and given a small gift as a sign of respect for sharing this offering.