Tribal American Spirituality

By Roy Cook

Native American Spirituality is not the same for every tribe. Among all tribes in the Americas from, Tierra del Fuego, Middle America to the Aleutians to Nova Scotia, there is a strong sense that there is a Creator of all existence, as we know it. This is the Great Mystery, and there are ancient Grandfather Spirits and personifications of the Creator. The Great Mystery’, which gave freely of itself and expresses itself throughout the universe, in every human, animal, bird, fish, tree, waters and grain of sand. Every song is a prayer to this life force. Native American wisdom stories include all the types of stories found worldwide, such as stories of creation, and of heroic journeys. However, they are particularly rich in ‘trickster’ myths have long occupied places in the imaginations of generations of people. They have been portrayed as tricksters or culture heroes in various tales throughout many different cultures.

Notable examples are Coyote and Iktome or Heyokah, a contrary. Iktomi is said to be a spider but he can take any shape, including that of a human. When he is a human he is said to wear red, yellow and white paint, with black rings around his eyes. There is story that Iktomi would spread his web over the land. Today, this has been interpreted by some to mean the telephone network, and then the internet and World Wide Web. He gave language to the people. He is said to inspire today's modern inventions, such as the computer or robots.

The trickster is an ambiguous figure who demonstrates the qualities of early human development (both cultural and psychological) that make civilization possible, and yet which cause problems. The trickster stories are character lessons and expressions of other developed stages of life. Many deal with examples that are dominated by physical appetites. The primary lessons of the Heyokah trick us into revelations rather than giving us all the answers. Heyokah is needed when we refuse to allow ourselves alternatives. The view will always expand if we use the Medicine of laughter - nothing is beyond repair. We may need to use comedy to crack a smile so we can reclaim our sacred space. This Trickster is called Heyokah by the Plains Tribes and Koshari or clowns by the Hopi and Pueblo Indians. Many Tribes have Trickster teachers who dress in regalia for ceremony and wear regular clothing in daily life. Their jokes do not stop just because it is not a feast day. All Heyokahs operate by doing the opposite. The Heyokah purported wisdom, imparted to a seeker, could be the exact opposite of the answers the person would find for the self. The laughter surrounding the results could be a lesson for the entire community.

The Heyokah is known for creating lessons at the expense of another's seriousness. Laughter is the ultimate lesson that breaks the bonds that destroy balance in people. If the Heyokah is successful, all is taken in good fun, and the bonds of old habits, no longer helpful, are broken. The medicine ally of the Heyokah is Coyote. The Heyokah is a master at Coyote Medicine and can use the joking part of Coyote's nature to trick others into enlightened states of understanding. Occasionally the Coyote Medicine will backfire and zap the Heyokah. If this happens, the true Heyokah will take it in stride and laugh at the backfire, learning from the lesson along with others.

Remember that the Trickster is the perfect integration of all things wise and foolish, sacred and irreverent. When we ask for those lessons, we need to be prepared for adventure. We need to be willing to laugh and to have others laugh with us. We will have achieved the ultimate union of opposites when we learn to celebrate more than we mourn. The time has come to laugh and reclaim our right to find pleasure in the sacredness of being human.

Native American spirituality includes prayer and rituals that represent gratitude and appreciation for the gifts of the Creator. Native American Tribal spirituality is not the same as the religion of most people. Organized religious meetings are not a part of Native American spirituality. History shows that originally, Native American spirituality was more of a way of daily life. In trying to make a distinction or separation in the refinement of one’s connection to a higher power, and connection to the self and others around them, you’ll find that all religions are a way of life. To paraphrase something which may explain the spirituality of many Tribal nations very well is like asking Tribal people to explain God, is like asking a fish to explain the water in which it lives.

Spirituality is a gift from the Creator to the women and men of the Earth on how to live each day in our words, our thoughts and our actions. Wisdom teaches us that we are all related to everything in creation. Western Sin has been described as the condition of being estranged from God. To be tribally estranged from others and estranged from the creation is to live in the world as a stranger. Being a stranger is just the opposite of being related. With prayer and faith, estrangement is overcome.

History shows that Native American spirituality included many ceremonies and rituals that were practiced before contact with Europeans or Asians. History shows that in general, the non-Indian viewed Native American spirituality to be nothing more than a bunch of superstitions and heathen nonsense. The United States and Canadian governments and others practiced converting Tribal American, spirituality to European and Middle Eastern religions, by force. Tribal spiritual leaders who practiced Traditional Tribal Native American spirituality were sometimes subjected to a jail term of thirty years. Continuing oppression against Tribal spirituality regarding ritual items like feathers and ceremonial medicine is still under threat in this millennium!

Public televisions “God in America" had to find a way to shape the series. They chose to ignore Tribal spirituality. At best, it is mentioned, in the context of the Western Europeans for about 10 minutes, as they explore the notion of religion and public life. Mixing dramatic re-enactments with documentary-style interviews, the series covers the rocky 400-year mistake of the ‘new Eden and manifest destiny.’ This PBS series explores the relationship between religion and American public life, starting with the arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries to convert Native Americans. Tragically, Europeans did not understand the concept of respect and tried to force their religion exclusively. In contrast, Tribes accepted the European form and ritual with respect and were much more inclusive in their religious practice.

The PBS journey continues through the Puritan era, the American Revolution, revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries and the rise of Baptists, Methodists and Evangelicals. Mostly it's a lot of the Protestant and Christian denominations of the country. The PBS series states, "It's not an exploration of America's spirituality. It's really an inspection of religion and public life and that conflict throughout American history."

The characteristics that allowed Native People to live in harmony with the earth on the North American continent before the “contact” with Europeans were humility, respect, compassion and generosity. The qualities arise from, and are reinforced by, a consciousness of being in relationship with everyone and everything else in the creation. It is to understand oneself as being related to the creation and thus a relative. It is an understanding of deep wisdom.

Too often accounts of Tribal Warriors imply that Tribes were constantly ‘war-like’ and aggressive. Each warrior uses his aggression to protect and feed the people. He is content to count coup, striking an enemy with a stick, symbolically defeating him, an enemy today might be a relative tomorrow. When a true warrior yells "these are my people, and these are my lands" it is implicit that he is stating his responsibility toward these gifts. It may seem strange to people of European ancestry, whose feudal lords set the poor to massacring each other, that we Natives count coup, leaving the enemy alive. In this way, we avoided total war, and allowed for respect to develop for our enemies, nobilities, intent and his family's need for him. A true warrior is proud of his humanity, his capacity for reality based experience - showing up spiritually and his ability to make sacrifices for his people. This gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with ourselves and to see each other as we are. When we are children we are proud of our possessions, when we are older, we are proud of our beautiful skin and our nation, but when we are elders, we realize that it is only our humanity that we can be proud of – for this is the best result of prayer and sacrifice. Some of us pray for our enemies, and by that action, make two circles into one. If we are easy to humiliate, we cannot make a stand for our people, if we are humble, we can lose many battles and still be able to care for the people, and open our hearts and homes to new life.

If your journey brings you to us, be prepared to make inner relations with yourself and everything around you. You may find that, perhaps like your tribe, that not all of us are of one heart, but when we remember, we become part of a sacred goal. Our limitations are the same as the limitations of all people, selfishness, cold-heartedness, and easy justifications (coyote medicine).The integrity of a well initiated individual is evident by the unique gifts he brings to the circle. Each person is made up of experiences exclusive to the self, but a strong community can handle that without feeding the bad spirit of conformity. Be receptive to creation, and become generous by that action.

As I viewed the program I wondered how, when the Europeans made contact with the aboriginal peoples, they did not remember the deep spiritual characteristics of their own faith tradition. They did not bear in mind the “gifts of the spirit” and the “spiritual fruits” of their faith as taught in the Christian scriptures. If they had remembered perhaps the Native People might not have experienced the pain and suffering that they had to endure. The cycle of violence that characterized so much of the relationship between the Europeans and the Native People might have been avoided.

As humility, respect, compassion and generosity were a significant part of Native American spirituality, so it was a part of European spirituality as well. Humility begins when people of a faith realize that they fall short of living up to their own highest and best ideals.

For the People of the Book, for Christians, Jews and Muslims, this realization gives rise to the concept of sin. Sin is to fall short of living the life one ought to live. Sin leads Christians to turn to Jesus for salvation. Jews turn to Torah as a way out of the predicament of sin. Muslims turn to Allah and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in the Holy Quran as a light through sin’s darkness. As one becomes more and more conscious of one’s shortcomings, an attitude of humility sets in, and humility leads to a life characterized by respect, compassion and generosity. Humility is the first step out of the quagmire of sin.

Sin has been described as the condition of being estranged from God, estranged from others and estranged from the creation. Sin is to live in the world as a stranger. The sinful things we do are those things that promote and perpetuate the condition of being estranged. Being a stranger is just the opposite of being related.

These characteristics are not unlike the virtues that reside deep in the spiritual traditions of those who came to this land we call America. The Prophet Micah speaks to Jews and Christians alike when he says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Micah 6:8.)

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus, who embodies the nature and character of God for the Christian believer says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (NRSV Matthew 11:28 & 29).

God is presented to the Christian believer as one who is humble and as one whose humbleness is to be imitated. In the Shakir translation of the Quran, it says that, “the servants of the Beneficent Allah are they who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace” (Al-Furqan).

Estrangement has become a deeply emblematic characteristic of life in our world. We live as strangers to one another. As strangers, we do not trust one another, and thus we think the worst about others who might have a differing viewpoint than our own.

Abraham Lincoln, in accepting the Illinois Republican Party’s candidacy for the United States Senate, stated that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was paraphrasing Jesus and acknowledging the obvious: if we are estranged from one another we cannot survive.

The civil discourse in our nation today embodies a sense of division. We are strangers to one another. I wonder whether the popularity of the various social networking programs of the digital world isn’t an attempt to overcome estrangement? I wonder whether it only fools us into thinking that estrangement is overcome?

Many, non-tribal people are strangers to this hemisphere, the earth, its creatures and its lands and waters. Too often, their attitude to the creation is one of exploitation rather than that of being in a vital relationship with the earth, and thus related to the earth. We see the earth not for which the earth is in relationship to us, but for what we can take and use for our own purposes. We are not generous toward the earth. We do not walk humbly upon the earth surface. We do not live compassionately with the earth’s children. We do not look upon the earth with respect. We see only what we want to see. We need to treat the earth just as our Tribal ancestors treated this land and the earth’s native peoples so many years ago.

We need to keep in mind the virtues of our own sacred ways. It would truly be a wonder if we would begin to learn, and be inspired, to walk humbly, see respectfully, live compassionately and give of ourselves generously for the welfare of all, including the earth, with whom our lives depend.

If we would truly begin to live out of our deepest spiritual traditions we might find ourselves living as family, related to all creatures of our Mother Earth. We might even find ourselves to be related to one another. All my relations!