The term 'Animism', or animist, is most commonly applied to hunter gatherer groups and tribes. The idealist teachings concerning the life force is a fundamental basis of animism. The term 'Animism' is derived from the Latin word "anima" meaning breath or soul. The belief of animism is probably one of the oldest beliefs of man, with its origins probably dating back to the Stone Age.
Animism and Animists - Animal Totems and their Meanings
Many Native American tribes hold the belief that each of their people have animal totems that are spirit guides who might appear in dreams, or Vision Quests, in the form of an animal. These Animal Totems, or spirit guides walk through life with the animists, teaching and guiding them, and in some instances protecting them. The Animal Totems adopted by many Native American tribes are detailed in Tribal Totems. Animal Totems also included supernatural creatures of mythology and legend, such as the Thunderbird, all of which had a special meanings, characteristics and significance. Also refer to Power Animals.
Animism and Animists - Fetishism
Fetishism is a subsidiary branch of animism that encompasses the doctrine that spirits or supernatural power embodied, attached or conveying influence through, certain animals or material objects. Certain animals are believed to empower a person or group with the associated trait of an animal. Fetishes were commonly used in Native American Religion and practices. In the belief of Fetishism the beaver represented the builder and keeper for family unity, the raven was the healer, the mountain lion was the warrior, and the wolf was the pathfinder. All Southwestern Native American tribes make, and use, fetishes.
Animism and Animists encompass all nature
Animism therefore holds the belief of life in all natural phenomena. To the Animist there is no distinction between the animate and the inanimate. Nature is all alive and every object is controlled by its own independent spirit. Spirits inhabit the sky, the stars, the sun, the moon, the rivers, the lakes, the mountains, the woods, the trees, the animals, the insects, the fish, the flowers, the grass and the birds.
Animism and Religious Beliefs
Groups, clans or families that practise Animism (Animists) believe that the animal totems, or spirit guides walk through life with them, teaching and guiding them and in some instances, protecting them. Their conviction in their beliefs involves rituals and ceremonies intended to celebrate and honor the animal totems. The belief and doctrine of Animism and Animists revolves around their ability to communicate with supernatural beings in respect of resolving immediate problems such as securing food, curing sickness and averting danger - refer to Spiritual Healing. Genuine worship of a supernatural being or totem spirit is hardly ever found. An example of this is that the Totem Poles of the Northwest American Indians were never worshipped, but they did inspire great respect.
Animism is encompassed in a range of beliefs
Animism is not a religion as such but is mixed with other beliefs that, taken as a whole have strong religious connotations. The idea and concept behind Animism, and the belief of Animists, is that people have a spiritual connection or kinship with creatures or objects in nature. The practice of Animism is very similar to Totemism (which was part of a range of beliefs of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians). Animism was part of a range of beliefs of the Native American Indians of North America that also included:
- Ritualism & Ceremonialism the use of ancient practises, rituals and ceremonies to further existing beliefs
- Shamanism - A range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world in which a religious leader, like a Shaman, enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community including sickness
- Totemism - Totemism was the the practice of having a natural object or animate being, such as as a bird or animal, as the emblem of a family, clan, or tribe. Totemism encompassed a system of tribal organization according to totems
- Fetishism - Fetishism is a subordinate branch of animism encompassing the doctrine of spirits embodied, attached or conveying influence through, certain animals or material objects
The concepts of Animism, Totemism, Ritualism, Fetishism and Shamanism should all be considered to gain a full understanding of the religious beliefs of the Native American tribes who practised Animism.