The Great Spirit

The Great Spirit has at times been conceptualized as an “anthropomorphic celestial deity,” a God of creation, history and eternity, who also takes a personal interest in world affairs and might regularly intervene in the lives of human beings. There have been, and may be, many different speakers for the Great Spirit, each of whom must be dedicated to the preservation of the Native American way of life. The Great Spirit, by way of the spiritual leaders, is looked to for spiritual and cultural guidance on both an individual and community level. Cultural variations among the different Native American Tribes who hold a belief in The Great Spirit have resulted in significantly different stories about this being or these beings, as well as different types of messages being delivered by those seen as prophets or spiritual leaders in these cultures. According to Lakota activist Russell Means, a better translation of Wakan Tanka is the Great Mystery. The Great Spirit, known as Wakan Tanka among the Sioux, Gitche Manitou in Algonquian, and in many Native American and First Nations cultures as the divine or the sacred, is the supreme being, God, or a conception of universal spiritual force.

See Native American religions

Great Spirit

Great Spirit

Wakan Tanka

Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka can be interpreted as the power or the sacredness that resides in everything, resembling some animistic and pantheistic beliefs. This term describes every creature and object as wakȟáŋ (“holy”) or having aspects that are wakȟáŋ. The element Tanka or Tȟáŋka corresponds to “Great” or “large”.

Prior to the Christianization of indigenous Americans by European settlers and missionaries, the Lakota used Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka to refer to an organization or group of sacred entities whose ways were considered mysterious and beyond human understanding. It was the elaboration on these beliefs that prompted scholarly debate suggesting that the term “Great Mystery” could be a more accurate translation of such a concept than “Great Spirit”. Activist Russell Means also promoted the translation “Great Mystery” and the view that Lakota spirituality is not originally monotheistic.

Chief Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939) of the Lakota Nation put it thusly:

From Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things – the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals – and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all things were kindred, and were brought together by the same Great Mystery.


Main article: Manitou

Manitou, akin to the Iroquois orenda, is perceived as the spiritual and fundamental life force by Algonquian peoples. It is believed by practitioners to be omnipresent; manifesting in all things, including organisms, the environment, and events both human-induced and otherwise. Manifestations of Manitou are also believed to be dualistic, and such contrasting instances are known as aashaa monetoo (“good spirit”) and otshee monetoo (“bad spirit”) respectively. According to legend, when the world was created, the Great Spirit, Aasha Monetoo, gave the land to the indigenous peoples, the Shawnee in particular.

Gitche Manitou

Main article: Gitche Manitou

The Anishinaabe culture, descended from the Algonquian-speaking Abenaki and Cree, inherited the Great Spirit tradition of their predecessors. Gitche manitou (also transliterated as Gichi-manidoo) is an Anishinaabe language word typically interpreted as Great Spirit, the Creator of all things and the Giver of Life, and is sometimes translated as the “Great Mystery”. Historically, Anishinaabe people believed in a variety of spirits, whose images were placed near doorways for protection.

According to Anishinaabe tradition, Michilimackinac, later named by European settlers as Mackinac Island, in Michigan, was the home of Gitche Manitou, and some Anishinaabeg tribes would make pilgrimages there for rituals devoted to the spirit.[14]

Other Anishinaabe names for such a figure, incorporated through the process of syncretism, are Gizhe-manidoo (“venerable Manidoo“), Wenizhishid-manidoo (“Fair Manidoo“) and Gichi-ojichaag (“Great Spirit”). While Gichi-manidoo and Gichi-ojichaag both mean “Great Spirit”, Gichi-manidoo carried the idea of the greater spiritual connectivity while Gichi-ojichaag carried the idea of individual soul’s connection to the Gichi-manidoo. Consequently, Christian missionaries often used the term Gichi-ojichaag to refer to the Christian idea of a Holy Spirit.

Prophets and spiritual leaders

Two of the most well known prophets’ prophecies took place in the early 1800s. The Shawnee Prophet occurred in 1824. Tenskwatawa, a religious and political leader of the Shawnee tribe, warned the Governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, that the children of the Shawnees tribe would carry the “sacred flame”. This flame would end the world as it was between the Native Americans and Whites. Once the destruction was complete, the Great Spirit would restructure and repopulate the world in the way it was believed that it should be.

Another well-known story happened in 1827 and involves William Clark and Kennekuk, a spiritual leader of the Kickapoo nation. This is known as the Kickapoo Prophet. Kennekuk informed Clark that he must be careful while exploring the land that is now Illinois. This warning was so that the relocation of Kennekuk’s tribe would be delayed. He proclaimed that the Great Spirit would give a sign when it was safe to continue traveling.

Other popular prophets include The Delaware Prophet and The Red Sticks Prophet.

Tribal-specific legends

Appeal to the Great Spirit, statue by Cyrus Dallin before the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Appeal to the Great Spirit, statue by Cyrus Dallin before the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Great Spirit is portrayed in most North American Indigenous cultures as a powerful force that guides the people in wisdom and survival. In the various Nations, The Great Spirit might be called Earthgrasper, Earthmaker, Gisha Munetoa, Gitchi Manido, or simply “The Creator”.

An Algonquin legend speaks of a Delaware Indian called Eroneniera that travels to meet The Great Spirit. Upon meeting, The Great Spirit tells Eroneniera that he is the “Maker of Heaven and Earth…because I love you…the land on which you are, I have made for you” (Schoolcraft.1856). The Great Spirit teaches him a prayer to share with his people that they should repeat it every morning and night. The stories of the Native American helped explain mysteries and abstract ideas. The stories also explained weather, animals, and land formations.

Chief Mononcue, of the Ohio Wendat a nation of Christianized tribes, spoke to a group of white Methodists in the 1820s. He pointed out that both Native Americans and the white men had been taught to do good. “The Great Spirit has taught you and us both one thing- that we should love one another and fear him. He has taught us by his Spirit and you white men by the Good Book, which is all one.” Mononcue tells the gathered crowd that the white men say that they love the tribes but they give them whiskey and this causes evil and that the white man cheats the Indian and treats him as if he is less than the white man. “Now, your Good Book forbids all this. Why not then, do what it tells you? Then Indians would do right too….Now, brothers, let us all do right; Then our Great Father will be pleased and make us happy in this world, and after death we shall all live together in his house above and always be happy” (Brehm. 2011.)

The Christian missionaries often used the similarities of the two beliefs to teach the tribes about Christianity.

The Story of the Sleeping Bear Dunes

According to a Chippewa legend a forest fire on the Wisconsin shoreline forced a mother bear and her two cubs into Lake Michigan. The cubs became tired and fell behind their mother and eventually drowned within sight of the shoreline. The mother made it to the shore and climbed to the top of a dune to look for her cubs, but they were gone. The mother waited there for days in hopes that her cubs would appear. The Great Spirit was moved by the mother’s devotion and commitment to find her cubs and covered the mother in a blanket of sand so she would have a final resting place and be able to reunite with her cubs. It is said that the mother is still lying in this spot today waiting for her cubs to appear. The Great Spirit also created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs had drowned. The two islands are known today as the North and South Manitou Islands. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are located on the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan in the city of Leelanau.

Story of the Strawberry and Blackberry

The Great Spirit created man and woman and they “lived in happiness for a time, but as husbands and wives have done ever since, they soon began to quarrel”. The story explains that the wife leaves the husband and sets off walking toward “the setting sun”. The Great Spirit sees that the man is unhappy and creates berries along her path; she ignores the huckleberries, cherries and blackberries along the way. Then The Great Spirit creates strawberries and the woman stops to gather some and the man is able to catch up to her, she shares them with him and they return home together. The berries are then named Odamin, meaning heart berry.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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