We begin the Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year which is now being celebrated. Yet, very few people throughout the world would make a connection between the asian festival at the start of the new lunar year and religious beliefs of American Indians or Native Americans. However, there is a very fundamental link between religious beliefs of both peoples and it has more to do with spirit than with the fact that this is the year of the horse. The connection has to do with a perception, or an understanding of the spirit world. This connection is actually shared by more than these two general cultures, and it demonstrates a more universal appreciation or acceptance of the spirit of human beings once they die and are released from their physical existence on earth.
Actually, from the dawn of human history, limited records from ancient civilizations have provided indications of the various efforts that people made to gain greater understanding of the mysteries of the world, as well as the spiritual dimensions of life. Historic signposts in numerous cultures reveal an ongoing quest to overcome ignorance and to obtain much deeper knowledge of the self and to make sense of the aspect of life beyond definitive detection from the physical senses. In general, ancient peoples were more easily drawn to and faith and religious belief, while humanity in the present age is quite enamored with the discoveries and dimensions of science.
This early attraction to faith or religion is evidenced even today within some of the holiday celebrations that are deeply entrenched within the cultural traditions of different regions. Halloween is an example of remnants of religious traditions of the ancient Celtic peoples even pre-dating St. Patrick's efforts on the Emerald Isle. A clear example of this today is also seen in the Chinese New Year's festivities which last for several days, and the traditional celebrations are 15 days in length. Each day holds its own specific focus or tradtional significance during the overall celebration period.
For many religious Chinese or Asian people, the beginning of the new year's celebration involves going to a cemetery or to a gravesite of ancestors or loved ones, and offering prayers or offering one's respect for those who passed into the spiritual realm. In addition to families getting together in homes of relatives and feasting, there is a concept of the spiritual dimension of the celebration and the pervading understanding that there is a new beginning or arenewal at hand in the start to the new year. Another ceremony taking into consideration of the spiritual realm is the Lantern Festival, in which light is used to guide spirits to a proper place.
This spiritual aspect of the celebration of Chinese New Year is not readily apparent to westerners, but would be more appreciated and more comprehesible to American Indians or Native Americans as they are more accustomed to dealing with the world of spirit as a reality. Burial ceremonies, offerings of prayers to ancestors, honoring family ancestors, or paying one's respect to ancestors are easily undestood within the native community and although not in total alignment in understanding, there exists a common link between the two types of civilizations. A way of comprehending this commonality could stem from the belief of ancient Asians crossing the Bering land bridge to America.
What this belief reflects is an attitude of intelligent speculation or an educated guess of scientists from different disciplines. What is not known is where these pilgrims specifically originated, or what kind of people they were, why they came to the Americas, amd what they brought with them. Much of what we understand about these ancient people stems from scientific theories based upon physical evidence thus far compiled by researchers. Such little trace remains of these people it is surprising we even know of them at all, but most scholars agree that these wanderers were the earliest ancestors of more identifiable Native Americans such as the prehistoric pilgrims referred to as the Clovis peoples.
Sprouting from the ancient ones a prehistoric, Paleo-Indian culture known as the "Clovis" culture has been identified through archaeological evidence, and through radiocarbon dating, archaeologists' best estimates are that this culture existed in western North America around 13, 500 to 13,000 years ago. Scholars are uncertain about much regarding these prehistoric humans, but speculation attributes to them characteristics similar to their hunter-gatherer descendants. They were extremely aware of their inhospitable surroundings.
A focus on survival with real concerns about living and dying may have forced these people to value family and clan, possibly developing a primitive spirituality from necessity. Certainly, descendants of these ancient pilgrims were quite religious and sensitive to the environment. Survival would have depended greatly on the ability to adapt to the environment and to utilize whatever nature provided from lands they inhabited. A genuine need to tame the wilderness and carve some degree of regularity from uncertainty, forced such a prehistoric civilization to develop practical and proven methods of living in harmony with their environment. They were required to develop dependable practices that successfully worked to ensure survival.
Perhaps such practices were based upon trial and error, perhaps some based upon superstition, but many of the ways of the ancestors were passed on to their descendants. While hard evidence points to the existence of the humans determined to survive, one could also surmise that by facing life and death regularly, these Paleo-Indians developed more than just spear points to survive. Shared suffering over prolonged periods creates bonds between people that promotes genuine sharing. Most likely, these peoples shared a genuine respect for all life and became bound by a deeper dependence upon one another for survival.
These early peoples wrestled with the mystery of death and realms beyond life. It is possible that the roots of American Indian religions developed during this time. Or, if they did originate from Asia originally, they might have carried the sense of respect for their departed family or friends with them as they migrated. It is also possible that the notion of the spirit surviving after body dies is deeply rooted in many cultures as an aspect of being human. One very dramatic or extreme demonstration of an American Indian focus on those who have died is the development of the "Ghost Dance" in the late 1800s in the western part of the United States.
Actually this reference to the "Ghost Dance" is very general and can signify different religious revitalization efforts among the American Indians. It is believed to have originated among the Paiute people, and ultimately developed into a Ghost Dance Religion, which spread to many tribes of the various Plains Indians especially. The initial Ghost Dance was originally intended to honor the dead and predicted their resurrection. The later religion centered around the Ghost Dance also predicted that the world would end in that time, but it would eventually be restored to the Native Americans would inherit the restored world, including those who were dead who would be resurrected to live eternally without white men, and essentially without the grief brought by the white culture. But, that is another topic entirely.