Sacred ground: what Native Americans believe.
--Chief Luther Standing Bear from My Indian Boyhood
As many modern indigenous people try to get in touch with their traditional ways, so many non-Native Americans are beginning to discover the social, spiritual, environmental, and educational contributions that Native Americans have made. As magic and mystery continue to be lost in a culture that becomes exceedingly objectified, computerized, specialized, and compartmentalized; as organized religion continues to lose its hold over many of its followers; as people continue to become disassociated from God, nature, community, and themselves; and as Native American prophecies about the destruction of the environment seem on the brink of becoming reality, Native American spirituality takes on added importance.
But what can non-Native American Christians learn from Native Americans? Is the spirituality of Native Americans that much different from the spirituality of Western Christians? Can indigenous people teach Westerners anything that they don't already know from the teachings of the church and the readings of scripture?
Part of the problem in Western culture is that it is riddled with dualities. Good versus evil, body versus spirit, sacred versus profane are some of the common distinctions that have dominated Western thought for centuries.
But for the early indigenous people of North America and many modern Native Americans there are no dualities. All of life is one. There is a unity to all creation. All of life is interconnected like the web of a spider--to hurt one living creature is to hurt all living creatures, and to pluck a flower is to trouble a star.
As Joseph Epes Brown points out in his book The Spiritual Legacy of the American Native American, there is no Native American word for religion because they do not view religion as a category divorced from society. Their entire world is a sacred place filled with wonder and awe. The mystery of God is everywhere--in the rising sun and beyond the early morning mist, on the vast plains and in the dense forests, under a star-filled sky and beneath the light of a constantly changing moon.
THE EARTH BREATHES LIFE
Although every Native American nation has a distinct spirituality, there are some common threads in all Native American spiritualities. Referring to the world as Grandmother Earth, most Native Americans look at their physical surroundings as a living being. All things are alive, and spirituality is sought through intimate communion with the natural world. Unlike many who look at the world as either a sophisticated machine or a commodity to be used and thrown away, traditional Native Americans experience the earth as a moving, breathing entity that is holy and life-giving. They share a notion of cosmic harmony, in which humans, animals, plants, and the physical earth cooperate with the supernatural to bring about a balanced and harmonious universe.
As Paula Gunn Allen emphasizes in The Sacred Hoop, "The notion that nature is somewhere over there while humanity is over here or that a great hierarchical ladder of being exists on which ground and trees occupy a very low rung, animals a slightly higher one, and man [never woman]--especially 'civilized' man--a very high one indeed is antithetical to tribal thought." And, she continues, "The American Native American sees all creatures as relatives [and in tribal systems relationships are central], as offspring of the Great Mystery, as co-creators, as children of the mother, and as necessary parts of an ordered, balanced, and living whole."
Animals are especially revered by traditional Native Americans. (Just as there was no sharp differentiation between divinity and humans for early Native Americans, so, too, there was no clear distinction between humans and animals.) Because animals were created before humans, animals are looked upon as guides and teachers of human beings, and in a sense are their superiors because animals frequently act in the role of agent for the Creator.
Crucial to understanding Native American spirituality is the realization that traditionally Native Americans view space as spherical and time as cyclical, while Westerners perceive space as linear and time as sequential. Western time has a beginning and an end, Native Americans understand time as an eternally recurring cycle of events and years.
As Native Americans communicate with the four directions, they travel around a circle and eventually come back to where they started, benefiting from the knowledge and feelings received on the journey. The process then begins anew like the day, the seasons, and the cycles of the moon.
That is why the circle is an especially powerful symbol for Native Americans. At the center of the circle is the human person. To lose sight of this sacred center is to lose sight of one's humanness. In his classic book Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt quotes Black Elk, the famous Sioux medicine man, who is lamenting the fact that his people must now live in square houses:
Everything the Power of the World does is
done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have
heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so
are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power,
whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for
theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun
comes forth and goes down again in a circle.
The moon does the same, and both are round.
Even the seasons form a great circle in their
changing, and always come back to where
they were. The life of a man is a circle from
childhood to childhood, and so it is in every-
thing where power moves. Our teepees were
round like the nest of birds, and these were
always set in a circle, the nation's hoop, a nest
for many nests, where the Great Spirit meant
for us to hatch our children.
Although differences exist between Native American and Western spirituality, there are many similarities.
"It's important to remember that Native and non-Native Christians worship the same God," says Father John Hascall, O.F.M., Cap., pastor of the Keweenaw Reservation and the West Central Diocese of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and an Ojibwa (Chippewa) medicine man and priest. "We can teach [non-Native Americans] to pray from the spirituality of the land based on the gospels, which can't change."
For Hascall and his Ojibwa people, spirituality is based on relationship with the family, which is strengthened through sacrifice. "When I take cedar and sage and use them in my ceremony, they're my family. They sacrifice themselves to help me to pray," he says. As Christ made every sin his own when he sacrificed himself on the cross, Hascall explains, the Ojibwa make sacrifices so that the entire family can benefit. The strengths of the family thus allow each person to deal with hardships that Native Americans have had to grapple with for thousands of years, he says.
Sacrifice manifests itself in such ceremonies as the sun dance, the main ritual of Plains Native Americans such as the Sioux, the cheyenne, and the Shoshone.
A sacred event offered each year in midsummer, the sun dance is a prayer of thanksgiving, petition, regeneration, and restoration. It has nothing to do with the worship of the sun as some critics have erroneously observed. A large, circular open-frame lodge is ritually constructed in imitation of the world's creation with a sacred cottonwood tree in the center that links sky and earth. There are four days of intense dancing, together with flesh offerings and piercings of some of the dancers' chest and back muscles with wooden skewers.
Although outsiders may cringe at these rites, Native Americans do not regard the piercings as self-inflicted torture but as the offering of one's self to the Creator--much like Christ on the cross. Many compare the sacrifices of the sun dance to the sacrifice of the Mass, which ritualistically repeats Christ's death on the cross. Just as all of humankind was saved by Christ's sacrificial act, so the larger community benefits from the rigors and sacrificial elements of the sun dance.
The traditional ritual of the vision quest also involves sacrifice. For three or four days, a person goes off to a secluded place to communicate with the spirits to gain direction and purpose in his or her life. Through fasting, praying, enduring the elements, and experiencing solitude, the person has an opportunity for direct contact with the supernatural.
During the vision quest, someone may experience a dream or vision from which he or she receives spiritual knowledge and power that can later be used to help the larger community. (Although Christians don't profess that Christ went on a vision quest per se, the gospels tell of Christ's fasting for 40 days and nights in the desert before he began his public life. From his desert experience, Christ was able to overcome the devil's temptations and to gain the strength necessary to begin his public ministry.)
Unlike the typical Western thought that views suffering as a problem that has to be explained and justified, traditional Native American thought sees hardship and pain as the normal part of the cycle of life. For Native Americans, life is best when things are difficult because people learn humility and dependence upon God. Most Native Americans believe that when life is too good, people become complacent, think too highly of themselves, and stop trying to improve.
Thus, traditional Native Americans rarely view death as a punishment or something to be feared. For them, it is a natural process that all living things must encounter to begin life anew.
As Old Testament Hebrews called their God Yahweh--often translated as "I am who I am"--tribes like the Lakota Sioux call God Wakan-Tanka--the "Great Mysterious" or the "Holiest of Everything." According to Sioux beliefs, Wakan-Tanka, Tunkashila--or Grandfather--and the spirit powers form a trinity similar to the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tunkashila is only slightly less "powerful" than Wakan-Tanka.
The creation myths of the Plains Native Americans are amazingly similar to the creation accounts found in Genesis. One Sioux creation myth parallels the Adam and Evestory. According to the Sioux, at one time people dwelled beneath the earth. Like Adam and Eve, who wanted to be like God by partaking from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Wazi, the chief of these underground people, and Kanka, his wife, wanted to obtain the power of the gods. A spirit by the name of Inktomi promised to give them the power if they would help him make humans look foolish.
Once Wazi and Kanka had this much-desired power they knew they would no longer need Inktomi, so they asked for the power first. Inktomi knew what was in their hearts and forced them to live in the world above where they and their descendants would live in shame, while Inktomi continued to make fools of humankind.
And flood stories are found in both the Old Testament and Sioux mythology. As creation was born anew in the story of Noah and the ark, the Sioux people, according to one version, were born from a great flood, which visited the Western Plains and drowned the original people there. A bald eagle flew by and a beautiful woman grabbed onto its feet. The eagle carried the woman to a great tree on a cliff above the water. Upon the cliff the woman gave birth to twins. And it was these twins who would eventually form the Sioux Nation.
THE TRUTH BE TOLD
"Because of their experiences, the Lakota people realize how short life is and how much suffering there is in life," comments Father David Shields, S.J., associate director of Family Life Ministries of the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota and coordinator of Red Cloud Volunteers. "There's a tendency today to romanticize Native Americans, but there's nothing romantic about life on the reservations. Native Americans are struggling with what it means to be Native American.
"The government continues to cut funding, while poverty and unemployment run rampant," says Shields. "Teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, and illiteracy continue to be major problems for Native Americans."
There's a difference between pre-reservation Native Americans and the Native Americans of today, Shields notes. Much of the traditional ways of the Lakota were lost when the U.S. government tried to wipe out Native American culture by banning Native American customs, religious rites, and language during the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Native Americans were regarded as less than human, and their spirituality was believed to originate from the devil. Native American children were told that their people were heathens who had murdered innocent, peace-loving European settlers.
"There are many parallels between Catholicism and the Lakota religion, but I was not made to see it," laments Geri Shangreaux, a Lakota Sioux, who is the dean of the Chicago campus of Native American Education Services (NAES), a school owned and run by U.S. Native Americans. "I was made to believe I had a horrible religion when in actuality I had a beautiful religion."
As a young girl, Shangreaux, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Pine Ridge, was sent to a Catholic school, where she was instilled with a feeling of shame for being a Native American. By blindly accepting the teachings of Catholicism, Shangreaux says, she was shocked to see her brother perform a Lakota ceremony, which she then thought was a pagan ritual.
It wasn't until the seventh grade that she began to question her Catholicism. An auto accident forced Shangreaux to recuperate at home, where she spent much time with her father. She admired his Lakotan sense of humor and enjoyed the conversations they had together. From her father she began to connect with her Native American heritage and continued to learn more about Native American traditions and the Lakota language.
No longer denying her identity as a Native American, Shangreaux started to attend as many powwows and Native American ceremonies as she could.
Although she was a B student in high school, her counselor tried to steer Shangreaux away from pursuing a career in nursing, suggesting that she would make an excellent nurse's aide instead. Convinced that she was being held back because she was a Native American, but equally determined to reach her goals, she earned a registered nursing degree when she was 24. She eventually moved to Chicago, where in addition to her administrative and teaching positions at NAES College, she continues to be involved with Native American health issues.
Phyillis White Eyes DeCory, director of Native Concerns for the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, knows the importance of taking pride in who you are. "My father always told me that I am Lakota and that I am special. I tell my children that they are Lakota, and that they are special, too," she says.
DeCory acknowledges, however, that her people have become modernized, Westernized, and Europeanized and that they do not have a true Lakota culture anymore. Recently DeCory heard a priest say, "We did wrong. We should have let you continue in your ways. You have beautiful traditions, and they were almost completely destroyed."
Appalled by what she sees happening on reservations, DeCory decries those who live in abandoned cars and chicken coops, who throw trash in their backyards, and who have stopped taking pride in themselves. In her opinion, there would be little or no alcoholism among Native Americans if they remained true to traditional ways.
While standing on the doorstep of the Eastern Navajo Reservation, Father Douglas McNeill says that "Native Americans are not easily coming to terms with their present situation. They were not allowed to develop as a people. They were separated from their land, forced onto reservations, and made dependent."
McNeill, director of St. Bonaventure Native American Missions and School in Thoreau, New Mexico, finds hope in young Native Americans who seek out and discover their Navajo heritages and learn about where they came from and where they are going.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, McNeill founded St. Bonaventure in 1974 in an area that has been compared to an emerging Third World country. Poverty is high; some people eat prairie dogs to keep from starving; and diseases like hepatitis and the bubonic plague are realities.
According to McNeill, spirituality is life for many Navajos, who see everything through faith, who trust in the higher power and a spirit world that looks out for them, and who view materialism as the antithesis of being spiritual.
"The Navajo live ecumenism," McNeill reveals. "They don't make distinctions the way we do. They say that we're all the same under God. It's been good for me to see that. If there's anything I have learned from the Navajos, it's that you should trust in God, get in tune with yourself and the earth, and respect the earth and its creatures. This is also the message of Christ."
Leon Watchman, a lay volunteer at St. Bonaventure, says that his spirituality not only changed his life but also saved it.
Born into a traditional Navajo family, Watchman, like many young Native Americans, became alienated from his heritage, neither understanding the traditional ways of his parents nor Christianity. Confused, lost, and rebellious, he turned to alcohol and drugs.
"I took my first drink when I was 3 years old," Watchman confesses. "It was like a pilot light going on. I liked alcohol so much, I started drinking more and more until I couldn't stop. I also did drugs. And then one day I killed two people while I was driving under the influence of alcohol. I ended up in prison, where I had plenty of time to think."
Admitting that it was God's grace that saved him, he asked himself many soul-searching questions, "whys" that he had avoided for a long time but now was forced to confront. He felt comfortable with Catholicism and began to sort out what he could take from his Navajo culture and what he could take from his faith as a Catholic to find meaning and hope in his life.
"As Native American people, we have a culture, which is a gift from God," Watchman reveals. "God made me a Navajo, and it's by being a Navajo I can grow and help others."
As a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, he says that he is walking the full circle, living the Ten commandments, and using Native American spirituality in Christian ways.
"As Native people, we have a direction. We meet the rising sun in the east, so that the first ray of light will be with us as we journey clockwise to the other directions, eventually coming to the east again," Watchman says.
As Native Americans pass from the old world of traditional ways to a new world of uncertainty, Watchman tells young Navajos that God can come into their lives and change them and really can make a difference. He uses his own life as an example.
Bob Sparapani, director of the outreach program at St. Bonaventure knows about alcoholism, even though he's not a Native American. Years of drinking broke up his marriage and tore apart his life. Finally coming to grips with his addiction, he applied for and got a position as school counselor at St. Bonaventure--a position he held for three years.
He describes his story at St. Bonaventure as a blessing, a whole new way of life that he believes came to him as a gift for remaining sober. Life here has kept him humble and close to the earth by working with people who have to deal daily with the basic realities of life.
Sparapani developed an interest in Native Americans in his first year of high school by reading as much as he could about the history and customs of North Americans. He came to see theirs as one of great beauty. It was the Native American respect for nature that attracted him the most.
Growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Sparapani contrasts the rain and greenery of his home state to the arid sunniness of New Mexico, which is filled with beautiful desert rocks and mesas that he finds conducive to developing his spirituality.
"For Navajos, life is a prayer. So much of their spirituality is integrated to their everyday life, but I have to admit that just when I think I understand their ways, I realize I only understand a small part. Navajo spirituality is complex, and Navajos only share so much of it with outsiders. They keep much of their sacred traditions to themselves because they believe if they reveal too much, their traditions will lose their power."
AT ODDS WITH WANNABES
With the recent surge of interest in Native Americanism, many Native Americans feel exploited by "wannabes," a reference to those non-Native Americans who flock to reservations and powwows because they want to be like Native Americans.
Native Americans feel caught between stereotypes. Whereas previously they were looked upon as either wild savages or lazy, shiftless drunks, they now are viewed by many as icons and mascots for the earth, who possess an ancient and secret knowledge that can bring people back to nature and God.
"There are many spiritual orphans today, people who have lost contact with the religion in their own culture," said the Rev. Steve Charleston, Episcopal bishop of Alaska, who is of Choctaw descent. "They do a lot of cultural strip-mining for any esoteric knowledge or symbol that can bring them a quick spiritual fix. In the process they have a distorted image of who Native people are. Native Americans are not some cardboard cutout, some wonderful cartoon of the mystical Native American on the Plain."
According to Charleston, Native Americans want to be regarded as people with strengths and weaknesses like any other group of people. They do not want to be falsely elevated or unduly denigrated. For Charleston, an understanding between the cultures can only exist when honest conversation takes place and when people take time to truly know each other.
But there's more at stake than stereotypes and fads. Many Native Americans believe that their sacred rites, places, and artifacts are in danger of being destroyed by those who are abusing Native American spirituality by getting involved in things they know nothing about.
Many Native Americans are especially disturbed by the New Age movement. Followers of the New Age movement are considered by some to be merely "experimenting" with other religions. They visit Native American shamans and participate in drumming ceremonies, sun dances, vision quests, sweat lodges, and rituals that include the smoking of the sacred pipe, among other practices.
Although more New Age followers would say they are sincere in their search for spirituality and in their use of Native American traditions--which they emphasize have helped many people--many Native Americans are appalled by what they believe to be a trivialization and desecration of their sacred ways.
Because some Native Americans spend an entire lifetime understanding and becoming worthy to perform their ceremonies that have been handed down through generations, they do not consider the current "quickie" imitations the highest form of flattery but an attempt to rob them of what is rightfully theirs.
Native American critics of the New Age movement accuse its proponents of using Native American traditions in ways that are based on false assumptions. Native Americans insist that their spirituality is not a utopia or a Camelot but a never-ending process that acknowledges life as difficult and frequently painful. If a person doesn't have spirit and feeling in one religious system, they maintain, he or she probably won't have it in another system.
According to their critics, New Age followers are under the impression that they are participating in a religious tradition, but they are really reacting to the novelty of the situation and not to the depth or to the work necessary for an authentic spirituality. Non-Native Americans who come to the reservation for a few days to play Native American and then return to the city aren't really learning anything or being changed in a positive way. Native Americans accuse these people of being "spiritual nomads," who flitter from one religion to another as an escape from the demands of making a commitment to one religious system.
"Many don't realize how hard being a Native American is," says Lakota Sioux Bob Braveheart, principal of Red Cloud Native American School in White Clay, Nebraska. "As Native Americans, we put a lot of work into our ceremonies. Non-Native Americans attend our sweat lodges and our sun dances and remark how impressive they are without realizing how much physical and emotional labor went into their preparation."
Native Americans are most outraged, however, by those who use Native American spirituality as a commodity to be bought and sold. For traditional Native Americans, spirituality does not have a price tag, and no true medicine men or women would charge for their services because they know their powers come directly from God.
Many Native Americans believe they have the problems they do as a result of unscrupulous Native Americans who have sold their religion for a profit, who are giving out wrong information, and who are exposing sacred traditions that shouldn't be exposed.
SHARING COMMON RITUALS
Groups such as the Anawim Center, an interfaith social-spiritual center and gathering place sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago for Native Americans, meet to wrestle with the diversity they are encountering. (Anawim is a Hebrew word that means the dispossessed are the closest to God.)
At one recent meeting, a man in his mid-30s fills a clay bowl with sage, lights it, fans the smoke, and passes the bowl to a small group of people standing around a table. One at a time, the men and women reverently wave the smoke toward themselves, as though they're washing their faces and tops of their heads with it.
They finish the ritual, smile at each other, and begin to eat supper. "Sage is an herb held sacred by most Indian people," says the man who lit the sage. "Its smoke is a way to purify the body."
They finish the ritual, smile at each other, and begin to eat supper. The pungent odor of the smoke lingers in the room as the man speaks and the people eat.
"Food holds a very special place for Indians," another man adds. He is tall, heavyset, dark-skinned with long, black hair. "Food is essential for life and a way to eat with our ancestors. We often hold feasts to celebrate who we are as a people."
Behind him are two bulletin boards filled with notices, announcements, and news items from various Native American organizations. A photo of Paul John Paul II, dressed in a brightly colored chasuble made by Native Americans, can be seen on a wall. At one end of the room hangs a multicolored geometric star; at the other end, a poster with the words: "We are children of many nations: Choctaw, Menominee, Lakota, Chippewa, Oneida, Winnebago, Arikara."
Near the poster hangs the painting of a beautiful blue cross with a circle around it. Clouds rest on top of the cross. A woman behind a miniature earth stands below the cross, which is decorated with rainbow colors and eagle feathers.
The people in the room are all members of Anawim Center. They are meeting at Anawim's office in Chicago's Uptown area to discuss a spiritual retreat they made together and to ponder Anawim's future.
"Theologically, I have no problems with the various types of people who participated at the retreat and the different forms of worship that were used," says the man who passed around the bowl of smoking sage before the meal. "I guess I'm still trying to work out my identity as a Cherokee and what that means for me."
One young woman, also a Cherokee, expresses the need for starting a women's group that would meet regularly to share common problems and concerns, while an older woman says she prefers meeting with a mixed group with the specific purpose of praying.
"We're all different," says another man. "We have different tribal traditions and customs, but we belong to a common circle. Fire, water, food, cedar, and sage are basic to all of us. We all live in the city, and we all try to communicate with the Creator in our own way. But the retreat brought us together and showed that we can be one."
According to James Yellowbank, who is active in Anawim and especially in social justice issues, such as Native American treaty rights, there are some 314 recognized Native American nations. Their beliefs and spiritual traditions are as diverse as their representative tribes, which arose from individual histories, languages, and lands.
"To say that all Indians are alike is like saying that all the different nationalities and religions in Europe are alike," Yellowbank points out.
Yellowbank, a Winnebago, came to Chicago from Wisconsin when he was 18. His parents died at an early age, and he was brought up in various correctional institutions for the young. Despite the hardships in his life, he feels at home in Chicago because his ancestors lived in the area before Europeans came and because Lake Michigan is a common focal point that pulls people together.
Although he is involved with Anawim, Yellowbank admits that he is not a religious person. "I have a walking religion, not a sitting religion," he says. "All I have to do is walk around and open my eyes to see what's happening and to appreciate how God plays a part. I don't have to go to church to do that."
Joseph Grant, pastoral associate of Anawim Center, indicates that his group tries to meet many needs. Begun in 1982 by a group of Chicago-area Native American elders, the center remains a place of prayer to a diverse Native American community. Anawim gives Catholic Native Americans a means to rediscover and practice the wisdom of their own cultural and spiritual heritage.
As a place of reconciliation, Anawim welcomes both traditional Native American and Christian prayer forms. Some of the services Anawim offers include a bimonthly Catholic Mass, interfaith prayer gatherings, a weekly children's values program, a teen-service group, an indigenous-rights network, various health and justice groups, and an information resource to non-Native Americans.
According to Grant, Anawim tries to take the Catholic experience and relate it to urban Native Americans. Native American spirituality is so closely tied with the land that the center helps indigenous people find a home in the city. People from more than 100 tribes participate in Anawim.
Grant first came to the center as a volunteer. After a year, he became Anawim's pastoral associate in 1991. Because of his experience among Amazonian Indians in Brazil, he created the Indigenous Rights Network, which tries to link the struggles and strategies of Native people in North, South, and Central America.
Although Grant speaks enthusiastically about Anawim, he voices concern about its future. "I'm not an Indian myself," he says in a Scottish accent, revealing his European roots. "And my wife, who is also involved with Anawim, is a non-Indian from Kentucky. As white people, we don't want to define what Anawim should be or what its goals and priorities are. The people in the group should be doing that."
Grant is in the process of finding a successor who can better address the center's needs as a spiritual gathering place for Native Americans. "It's important for Anawim to be autonomous," he says. "Native Americans are the best people to say what's right for Native Americans."
Despite the abuses associated with Native American spirituality, Native Americans have left a legacy for the peoples of the world. Respect for life, awe and wonder for God's creation, stewardship for the environment, appreciation for sacred time and sacred place, acknowledgment of the unity and interconnectedness of the earth and earth's creatures are values that Native Americans have practiced for thousands of years.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||includes bibliography; religion|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1994|
|Previous Article:||Can you see the good in suffering?|
|Next Article:||Touched by ashes.|