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Many Native American people traditionally believe in a spiritual realm that exists beyond the tangible world. Access to this spiritual world is gained through dreams, visions, and ceremonies. Many Native people also believe in a single creative force. The name for this spiritual force varies from one group to another: it is called orenda (Or-END-a) by the Iroquois, manitou (MAN-e-too) by the Algonquin, and wakan (wah-KON) by the Lakota.

Historically, Native Americans' lives were shaped by their spiritual beliefs. Most Native people believed that they were connected to every other element of creation. Each animal, tree, or rock had its own spirit through which an individual could establish contact with the spirit world. The survival and well-being of Native people was dependent on maintaining harmony with the earth. Many contemporary Native people continue to hold these traditional beliefs.

Although American Indian people engaged in warfare before European contact, as well as later in defense of their homelands, the image of the Native people as savage warriors has been grossly exaggerated. Native people who did engage in warfare were no more or less savage than other societies of the period. Although scalping has often been associated with Indian warfare, Europeans may have introduced it on this continent. Europeans certainly encouraged scalping, supplying metal scalping knives to replace flint or horn tools and offering bounties in the 18th century for the scalps of Indian men, women and children.

North American Indians did not have armies, but some Native cultures had military societies. Many Native people engaged in sporadic warfare with their neighbors for purposes of self-protection or acquiring resources, for revenge, but mainly for honor. In many societies, a man gained honor in battle. For example, among the Plains people, counting coup (to touch a living enemy and escape unharmed) was a more honorable act than to kill an enemy.

More about Native American History and Culture

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