Updated: Jan 21, 2022
The Great Spirit is the concept of a life force, a Supreme Being or god known more specifically as Wakan Tanka in Lakota, Gitche Manitou in Algonquian, and by other, specific names in a number Native American and First Nations cultures. While the concept is common to a number of indigenous cultures in the United States and Canada, it is not shared by all cultures, or necessarily interpreted in the same way. According to Lakota activist Russell Means, a more semantically accurate translation of Wakan Tanka is the Great Mystery.
Due to perceived similarities between the Great Spirit and the Christian concept of God, colonial European missionaries frequently used such existing beliefs as a means of introducing indigenous Americans to Christianity and encouraging conversion.
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.
Numerous individuals are held to have been “speakers” for the Great Spirit; persons believed to serve as an earthly mediator responsible for facilitating communication between humans and the supernatural more generally. Such a speaker is generally considered to have an obligation to preserve the spiritual traditions of their respective lineage. The Great Spirit is looked to by spiritual leaders for guidance by individuals as well as communities at large.
While belief in an entity or entities known as the Great Spirit exists across numerous indigenous American peoples, individual tribes often demonstrate varying degrees of cultural divergence. As such, a variety of stories, parables, fables, and messages exhibiting different, sometimes contradictory themes and plot elements have been attributed to the same figure by otherwise disparate cultures.
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 thus:
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.
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.
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.
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.