As with many topics of Native American or First Nations people, the incredible diversity between the hundreds of various tribes makes speaking about a subject somewhat tricky. However, of the hundreds of different cultures included in discussions of the indigenous peoples of American, there are many common elements. The spiritual or religious beliefs of most First Nations people had many similarities. The Sioux, for example, thought of the The Great Spirit as a conception of a universal spiritual force. Many tribes had spiritual beliefs and practices around a concept of a Spirit or Deity of creation; a powerful Being who took an interest in the concerns of men. There are countless portrayals of The Great Spirit anthropomorphized with a variety of animal symbols. The concept of the Great Spirit often is enmeshed with the role of nature for many American Indian peoples historically. Artists who create American Indian spirit paintings are feature elements of the subject or subjects’ spiritual beliefs, traditions, and symbolism.
The symbiosis between humanity, nature, and the spiritual is often a key artistic theme in Indian spirit paintings. Just as many First Nations people conceptualized The Great Spirit also known as The Great Mystery by some in the form of an animal, contemporary painters have adopted a similar approach to depicting the spiritual in a Native American painting. Wolves, various birds, buffalo, bears, horses, many of the animals that were part of the natural environment carried greater symbolic meaning. Some tribe-specific legends included creation stories about man being born from bears, for example, or from corn in another instance. The natural has great meaning beyond some kind of organic matter. More free-flowing paintings depict the symbiotic connection between man, animal, and spirit by combining these elements or setting the image of an animal connected in some way with the Native American subject of the painting. Painters who prefer a more realistic style may depict a spiritual ritual unfolding or create a scene featuring an Indian subject adorned in spiritually significant garb.
The religious beliefs and practices of North American indigenous people varied quite a bit from one group to another. The spiritual rituals from one tribe would be based on their own set of oral traditions, legends, and stories. When an artist depicts the subject of a Native American, or Native Americans engaged in a spiritual ritual, it could be anything from story-telling around a fire, to dances, to a ceremonial practice led by a holy man or medicine man. Paintings of such topics work to tell a story to the viewer. Most cultures have traditions and rituals around death, birth, rites of passage, and worship or prayer. To witness the beauty and diversity of how such practices were performed is an opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and consider the vastness of the human experience.