Native American Spirituality
Reverend Tom Capo
Preached on January 25, 2015
Evan T. Prichard, a descendant of the Algonquin people, founder of The Center for Algonquin Culture, and currently Professor of Native American history at Marist College, wrote in the introduction to his book, Native American Stories of the Sacred: “A religion—whatever its origin—is more than a spiritual path; it also invariably contains philosophy, numerous folk customs, and a wealth of stories or teaching tales. The spirituality of a given religion, including meditation practices and revealed teachings, arises out of the depths of the illuminated soul; the philosophy behind the spiritual message arises from the clarity of mind that a true religious experience produces; the traditions, folk customs, health practices, and artifacts that affect the physical body arise from the religious culture; and the wealth of stories, teaching tales, myths, and legends, not to mention the poetry and songs that each religion preserves come from the heart of the faithful. Each Native American subculture has all of these, so Native American spirituality in each of its forms could be compared with every world religion point for point.”
I found myself having some difficulty with this sermon. My great grandmother was full blood Cherokee; my grandfather never told us of his Native American roots because he feared persecution. And some of my ancestors were immigrants to the United States took advantage of and abused the Native American population. Non-natives moved Native Americans off their land; they killed them when they resisted; and they took their sacred objects. Immigrants educated Native American children in their ways, indoctrinating them into the Christian religion. Many Native American traditions and rituals, artifacts and stories were lost. What I wish to share with you is some of what has survived. The rituals and traditions and stories that have survived are being used within different Native American communities.
Several years ago I invited a friend of mine, a Native American, to speak at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Texas. I asked him to speak on his tribe and traditions. He had the classic reddish skin with a hooked nose and long black hair which he kept in a ponytail. He was dressed in a suit and tie that Sunday morning. He paused at the pulpit before he spoke. He looked dignified and regal. The he said that the stories and traditions from his tribe meant nothing to him anymore. He was wholly Westernized and attended a Presbyterian Church, but appreciated the benefits the government had given him—a scholarship to college and co-owning the land of his ancestors with the other members of his tribe (to do with as they chose). Then he quoted Curley, a Crow Indian Chief –the quote is from 1912 when the United States government took more of the Crow land: “The soil you see is not ordinary soil—it is the dust of the blood, the flesh, and bones of our ancestors. We fought and bled and died to keep other Indians from taking it, and we fought and bled and died helping the Whites. You will have to dig down through the surface before you find nature’s earth, as the upper portion is Crow. The land as it is, is my blood and my death; it is consecrated; and I do not want to give up any portion of it.” My friend then went on: “I have given up all that my ancestors left me—the traditions and stories. I gave it all up willingly to live in this world and to be successful in business. But I will not give up the land my people still live on because of the meaning the land had to my ancestors.”
Even though Native Americans from Alaska to Texas and from Hawaii to Maine had and have a very clear sense of spirit, none built any kind of edifice for their gods. None had written scripture. And they have no dogma or creed, other than “take care of mother earth and father sky.” Land, or real estate as we know it, is not something to buy or sell. Land is sacred. It is the holding place for the bones of their ancestors. It is the living and direct wellspring of their spirituality. Being bound to the land is necessary for their connection with all their past and all future generations. The land puts them in contact with creation. It is in the earth, air, sun, and water that they see the hand of the creator. It is for the land and its many creatures, they give thanks.
Don Coyhis, Mohican writer and consultant, wrote: “A long time ago the creator came to turtle island and said to the red people, ‘you will be keepers of Mother Earth. Among you I will give the wisdom about nature, about the interconnectedness of all things, about balance and about living in harmony. You red people will see the secrets of nature. You will live in hardship and the blessing of this is [that] you will stay close to the creator.’”
A few years ago, while I was on the Board of the Inter-religious Council of Linn County, I met and developed a friendship with another Native American. She had white skin and had to move around with the assistance of a wheelchair. She worked at a local University in the department of Student Affairs and had a steady job with a reasonable income and a nice home, but she said her job and success were not who she was. She frequently went to her tribal home; she practiced the rituals and traditions of her ancestors; she felt it was her sacred duty to represent the Native American, and her tribe, their priorities in the community. She attended government meetings so that the Native American voice would be heard. She spoke at inter-religious functions, so that the Native American spiritual traditions would not be forgotten. She kept the religion of her ancestors alive by being sure others did not forget them.
As you already know, I would guess, there were and are many belief systems among the Native Americans. As some of us say from time to time “god is too big for one religion,” the Great Spirit is also too big for one Native American view to dominate. But as Evan Pritchard writes there are some common beliefs across the many traditions—“the sacredness of the circle, the belief in the spirit world, the importance of ritual and making offerings, the importance of purification, of prayer, of healing, of honesty, of community, of seeking visions, … of communication with animals,” of the sacredness of nature, and the grace of gratefulness.
Within each of the different Native American nations, since there is no dogma or creed, the faith walk is organic, not cosmic. “It is oriented toward seeing the way things are rather than the way we think they should be; it does not assume that the universe is designed in a way that the mind can understand—hence the term Great Mystery.” The Native American ancestors seem to have understood the craving of the human mind to explain everything and to tie it all up in one neat package, right or wrong, and long ago decided to sabotage that possibility at every turn so that no one could create a neat unchanging religion (Prichard). Instead what was created was a way of life that nurtures deeply religious experiences. The Algonquin word for soul means “greater self,” in other words the soul is not a static thing; the soul is in process; the soul is continues to be revealed as the person deepens their connection with creation.
Prichard writes: “The simplest explanation I have ever heard of Native American theology is this: We human beings stand halfway between heaven and earth. Father Sky (Sun) is distant and wise, and keeps the stars and planets on their rightful paths. Mother Earth is always under our feet, always trying to keep us from getting sick with all her wonderful medicines and herbs, always loving us. And we are the baby—when we stand in sacred space and when we are in ceremony. We are part of all that is holy, part of a holy trinity.”
As I was preparing for this sermon, I came across a film titled Dakota 38 in the Native America Times (January 2011). The U.S.-Dakota War played out along several all-too-familiar themes of U.S. history: broken treaties and unfulfilled promises. The War started in August of 1862 and when it was over six weeks later, hundreds of Indians, settlers and soldiers were dead along the Minnesota River valley. In December 1862 federal policy and a newly formed State dictated the removal of the Dakota people from their lands and this led to the largest mass hanging in US history. “The shock waves of that mass execution still reverberate today among the Dakota people…”
In Spring, 2005, Jim Miller, a Vietnam veteran, enrolled member of Cheyenne River Nation, and a descendent of the Dakotas who were displaced after the event, dreamt of a series of horseback rides that would bring the Dakota people together, raise awareness of the significant impact still with the Dakota from the mass hanging and the surrounding events, and to bring reconciliation among all people of the region so that all could move forward and live in a good way.
As his dream became a reality, Jim recalls: “They blessed the horses at the beginning of the ride. Then at the end of each day, [they] would all circle up on the horses and someone would sing a prayer song.”
Dakota 38 co-director Sarah Weston, a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, said “The past is really, really traumatic, but we’re going to reach our hand out and say that we forgive. Because when you’re not in a forgiveness place, you’re linked to that person or that trauma for the rest of your life, all day long. And so by forgiving we’re no longer linked to that.”
The Native American people, after having much of their heritage brutally taken away, are reclaiming it, each in their own way. The story of Hiawatha, the Unifier, the beginning of which you heard earlier, ends with Hiawatha leaving and saying: “The elders begged Hiawatha to become the chief of the united tribes, but he told them: ‘This can never be, because I must leave you. Friends and brothers, choose the wisest women in your tribes to be the future clan mothers and peacemakers, let them turn any strife arising among you into friendship. Let your chiefs be wise enough to go to such women for advice when there are disputes. Now I have finished speaking. Farewell.’" With the diversity and unity of their religious tradition, many different tribes are joining together to help each other heal and to move forward in this rapidly changing landscape of the modern world. They are seeking out the wisdom of their elders, the stories they still tell; they are seeking to reclaim the foundation of their faith to be peacekeepers, healers, unifiers, spiritual leaders and powerful voices; and to re-affirm “the sacredness of the circle, the belief in the spirit world, the importance of ritual and making offerings, the importance of purification, of prayer, … of honesty, of community, of seeking visions … of communication with animals”, of the sacredness of nature and the land, and the grace gratefulness.
I offer this Maori blessing to our Native American brothers and sisters, and to all of you, as we continue on our life journey: “May the calm be widespread, may the sea be as the smooth surface of the greenstone, and may the rays of sunshine forever dance along your pathway.”