Spirituality and The Sacred
American Indian spiritual customs are as diverse as the hundreds of Nations they come from. It is not our intention here to zero in on specific spiritual practices, as those things are sacred, but rather to offer a bit of insight into some of the basic tenets of Native spirituality. For all the things we do not have in common from Nation to Nation (and there are plenty!), there are a handful of spiritual customs and world-views we do share collectively. Ultimately, our traditional ceremonies are guarded carefully and therefore, as stated above, no specifics will be offered here. What we will share are some of the generalities, with the hope being that understanding will come about how deeply sacred and powerful our ceremonies are, and why it is so important to respect and protect them.
The Sacred Hoop
In many Native cultures, from the Anishinabe to the Lakota, there is a symbol that resembles the one in this photo. There are, of course, differences in colors and some of the nuances of the teachings, but the basic principle is the same: there are seven sacred directions and each has a spiritual meaning for this life. There are the East, South, West and North winds, which speak of the four sacred seasons, elements, plants, animals and phases of a human life. Then there is Father Sky and Mother Earth, and lastly, the sacred center. There are many other lessons in the sacred hoop, which is also known as the medicine wheel. The basic purpose of this symbol is to teach honor, respect, balance and wisdom.
Most, if not all, Native cultures refer to the earth as Mother, and/or Grandmother. This is true not only of the Native peoples of the Americas, but indigenous cultures from around the world. We are always close to her, and she nurtures and feeds us. We came from her and will one day return to her. The spiritual concept of the earth as Mother is as ancient as indigenous cultures. Even the ancient Celts and Druids saw the earth as their mother. Mother Earth spirituality is the understanding that the earth is alive, and that the sacred elements are her vital organs. The trees of the giant, primeval forests are her lungs, the wetlands her liver, the waters her blood, the winds are her breath and the sacred seasons her heartbeat. Mother Earth is alive, and Native people have always known that, which is why our ancestors were so careful to treat her with respect and care for countless tens of thousands of years, and why our cultures today still fight to protect her from harm. We are bound to the earth. Whatever we do to her, we do to ourselves....
To First Nations people, the word 'medicine' does not mean a pill, it means a power that heals. 'Medicine' can be found in a plant, or a tea, or a sacred song. It can be experienced in ceremony, or in other, less tangible ways. As English is not the indigenous language of these lands, we have our own, more culturally accurate words for 'medicine'. In western culture, when you are physically ill, you go see the doctor. If you have spiritual issues, you go see a minister, rabbi, or religious leader of some kind. In most American Indian cultures, the medicine person addressed both the physical and the spiritual needs. Our ancestors understood that a person is only truly able to be healed when the whole person is treated. In our view, you cannot heal the body if the spirit is not healed. So that pill may take away the feeling of the pain, but it may not remove the source of it. And so powerful prayers, songs and ceremonies were always administered along with the powers of the plants. Before the age of European immigration to our lands, there were very few illnesses among Native communities, and the medicine people had a cure or a remedy for all of them.
Now this can be a touchy subject, and for good reason. For starters, our ceremonies are sacred, traditional and require years and years to learn and understand, and that has not always been respected. In fact, it has been disrespected more often than not. Secondly, the ancient spiritual practices of First Nations peoples were legally banned by the U.S. Government from the late 1800s until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. And yet, that Act is not a Law, therefore our Sacred Sites are still not protected even today. So there is plenty of reason for Native people to be guarded when it comes to our ceremonies. Here are some of the basics.... The spiritual ceremonies of Native cultures are as diverse and numerous as the cultures themselves. The sacred customs of the Pueblo, Chumash and Lenni-Lenape peoples are completely unique to each of them. There are, however, some common threads. Most Native American Ceremonies will share these tenets: a deep love and respect for Mother Earth; an understanding of the interconnection of all living things; a focus on humbling oneself in order to commune with the spirit world; and an intention to seek wisdom for the betterment of all living things. From the Sun Dance to the sweat lodge to the Potlatch, Native ceremonies are wonderfully complex and incredibly nuanced, and those who give them often spend decades learning before they ever lead one.