I’m reading God Is Red, by Vine Deloria, Jr., a well-known Native American scholar and author of several books about Native Americans and their beliefs.

Something I have just realized, from reading the above book, is one of the most significant differences between Western religious belief and Native American religious belief: Time and Space. In fact that is the title of chapter 4 of his book. The easiest way to understand the difference is to look at each group separately.

Since the first explorers came from Europe, our Western European ancestors were mostly Christians, with some other groups mixed in. Christianity started two thousand years ago and spread from the Middle East into Europe where it became the prominent religion. It didn’t matter what European country you were from, you could be Christian. And when the Europeans migrated to the New World, Christianity came with them. For those of us who grew up Christian, this seems as a natural course of events. This, according to Mr. Deloria, is the Time view of religion. No matter where you are or where you go, your religion is with you.

For American Indians, however, their land had the greatest meaning in their spiritual beliefs. All of their beliefs included the land as the place where they experienced their relationships with other life forms. Their spiritual experiences, through rituals and ceremonies, were associated with place. In some cases a place was set aside as sacred ground. This has never changed. American Indians still hold some locations as sacred, even though they may be forbidden to live there. Sacred places were where they could go to communicate with spirits; places their tribes had occupied for thousands of years. This is why they refused to move from their lands when settlers arrived. It was not just the issue of ownership. It was the also the importance of their spiritual beliefs.

This was the cause of much misunderstanding and conflict when Western Europeans arrived. As Mr. Deloria writes (pages 61 and 62), “When one group is concerned with the philosophical problem of space and the other with the philosophical problem of time, then the statements of either group do not make sense when transferred from one context to the other without the proper consideration of what is taking place.”