An Introduction to Native American Spirituality

November 19, 2012 - 10:10 am 45 Comments


An Introduction To Native American Spirituality

The Kailo Interfaith Community

November 18, 2012

The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

Much has been said about the plight of the Native Americans in this country. The ethical dirty laundry list is long, and there seems to be no real incentive to correct it governmentally or even socially because to rebalance the scales will require a deep adjustment to our standard of living so that the poor and destitute on government reservations are provided and cared for with respect and dignity.

These indignities, however, do not stop at the body, they are also of the soul… Our culture has done a wholesale hatchet job on the Native American way of life that includes their way of worship, celebration, healing and community. (Theft of the Spirit and scalping taught by whites!)

So today, as part of this introduction to the Native American way of spirituality, I will explore and try to explain some of the foundational ways that can lead to a greater appreciation of their faith, daily life, and principles of community.

As you know, Native Americans span the Americas, and are found at its extremes, and their culture is a part of every indigenous landscape. From the Inuits near the North Pole, to the native people who inhabit Teirra del Fuergo at the tip of South America.


The Native Americans have established their culture and their legacy for us to learn and to know. Instead of reinforcing the travesty of layering or imposing European and Anglo-Saxon religious and cultural ways on them, maybe this generation of North Americans can accept, respect, even cherish the insights their way of life has for us.

A brief geography: The two largest nations of Indian culture in the Northeast were the Algonquin and the Iroquois. Their tribal boundaries extended South to the Carolinas, West to Ohio, and North to Newfoundland. From the Algonquins, are derived many smaller tribes, and they are connected linguistically and ritually. The classic stories of James Fennimore Cooper, the immortal poem of Longfellow, Hiawatha, were accurate portrayals of Algonquin and Iroquois rituals and names. You can easily see, that the name of rivers, and other geographical places of our region still honor that heritage.

The most universal, cross-cultural trans-tribal way of worship that is found in Native American religion are found in the many forms of sacred dance. According to a particular theme, each dance or ritual would be tailored or designed so that the dance became the embodied vehicle that moves the dancer toward receiving guidance- whether that was for prayers for a good crop, a healing, to prepare for war, bury the dead, or to bless a child or a marriage. … Through sacred gesture and movement, they transformed their tribal homes into a holy dance hall- a place for lasting inspiration and community building. Compare that to the European heritage of a pious and passive worship style, and its negation of the body, and you can see the vast differences in belief & practice that has been so difficult to comprehend.

One of the most influential people who directed the worship life of the Indian peoples was the Shaman. Differing from priests who attended to the rituals exclusively, the Shaman was a blend of medicine man or woman, who as a mystic, spiritual advisor, and sainted one whose office was next only to the chief’s in importance. As a piece of comparative religion, the shaman occupies a similar place to the Jewish Tzaddick, the Sufi saint, the African witch doctor, and the Hindu must- someone who is slightly crazy for God; someone who maintains a separate reality; someone who appears foolish, naive, out of touch but in fact, they are responding to another more spiritual basis for their life other than what the general culture accepts.

According to Native Indian tradition, the shaman was the carrier of transformative power, and has the ability to change situations and conditions of health, fortune, and even environmental conditions. They were the interpreter of dreams, mystical symbols, and messages from the other world. Shamans were experientially self-selected -ordained by their childhood events or significant life experiences. Often, the future shaman is revealed by having an unusual birth, visions, seizures, having dramatic healing abilities, or had accurate prophetic dreams. If this continues into puberty, the elders selected these children and place them under the tutelage of experienced shamans who teach them how to control or harness their special gifts. Then they are then initiated and instructed into how to attain altered states, deeper connections to nature, and to gain sacred access to the inner realms of the body and soul….

Other than my own uninvited childhood shamanic experiences, my experiences with shamanism come by way of a Bolivian mystic and the Amazon basin. He taught me about the need to validate another kind of reasoning- our intuitive, gut, and empathetic attunements or our human connections to all other forms of life: human, animal, plants, and to come to know that even the poisonous in nature will respond positively! (mosquitos and gnats; Appasanka… Sophia…)

Personal experiences  during Sweat Lodge; pipe ceremonies; Soul retrievals…

If one had to choose a one word definition for Native American religion, it would have to be life…. It was practiced and understood through agriculture as a natural teacher; the seasons of life and cycles instructed when to do what and in what way would be best for the whole tribe. Life, in all of its daily rhythms, was to be highly regarded and deeply revered. It was celebrated throughout all its rich and diverse textures, layers, colors, patterns, warps and weave.

When I lived in Arizona, I witnessed how the Navaho and Hopi displayed their faith in their rugs and blankets. Life and spirit was infused and displayed in every act and this connection compromises the whole of life, and it is the Spirit that gives life its meaning. Separation of life into distinct parts, routines, or creating the secular, and the selfish apart from what is holy is to isolate the value and diminish the importance of one’s religious life. In Native American religion this division was unknown.

The various names given to God among the Indians reveals another insightful consideration for us. It depicts their understanding and their intimacy with the Divine and the inspired aspects of life. Among the Algonquin, the name given to God was Orenda; for the Iroquois, it was Mantious; Among the Sioux, it was Tanka or more commonly, Tankshiela. These words share a universal definition: Cosmic Grandfather.

According to the Delaware Indians,” It is the great Spirit that dwells above the clouds, and is over all; His eyes are the Sun, his breathe is the wind, and his mind is beyond knowing.” According to the various traditions, this Grandfather is accompanied by the earth and all of its life forms called the Great Grandmother, Nokomis, or Mother Nature. Together, in harmony and balance, they rule the worlds above, and below, the worlds within and without.

As I read much of the available literature about Indian spirituality, there is a panoply of Native American spirits which constitute an extended family that included everything that lives on earth. Their names for various natural phenomena became part of their relational Theology: The majestic Thunderbird in prayer became Brother Thunder Spirit, the rushing, rippling river became Sister Flowing Stream, and so on… Much like how St. Francis regarded nature, the Native Americans befriended and adopted themselves into the entire family of life.

In an attempt to authentically explain the Native American folk soul, I will read a few words from the great Lakota Sioux holy man, waskaska wokan, Black Elk. Recorded and translated in 1932, his words represent generations of wisdom derived from the vision quest and the insights he received during his lifetime:


“[My life is the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it all; a vision of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart, of a people’s dream that died in the bloody snow at Wounded Knee….

But if the vision is true and mighty, it might come real yet, for such visions are of the spirit and only in the darkness of the human mind and heart are they ever lost.

I will now make a pipe offering… I offer that the four winds are but one power, and I will send forth its smoke and my voice:

Heya Hey, Heya, Hey, Heya Hey!

I am a Lakota Sioux of the Ogalla band. My father, and my father’s father and his father’s father all share my name. I am the fourth Black Elk. We have all been medicine men, cousins to Crazy Horse’s clan. When I was 13, I learned what all the fighting was about…Up, by the river’s fork, the white men found a yellow metal which they worship and it makes them crazy. They wanted to build a road to the river, but my people did not want a road because it would scare the bison away… The whites say they only want a little of the land, but my people knew better… And now, and now…

Look around, you can see what has happened!

A Lakota holy man dreamed about what would happen to us, all of us… That a strange race would come, and weave a web around us, put us out of our villages, onto little gray square houses, on barren land, where we would starve physically and spiritually. He died of sorrow soon after his dream- Sometimes dreams are wiser than the waking self. …

Later, I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and all round below me was the sacred hoop of the world…. I saw more than I could say, or tell, for I was now seeing in the sacred manner, all the things of the Spirit… That all must learn to live together, like one being.

And I saw the hoop of my people as being just one hoop of the many; and from the center of all the hoops, grows a sacred tree, whose branches connected and sheltered all of us as children of 1 mother, and 1 father, and I saw this as holy.

… When the singing stopped, I walked quickly toward my home in the distance. When I got there my father and mother were bending over a sick boy, who was me. Then I sat up, and I was sad. My father and mother did not seem to know that I had gone far away.

Later, I was ready to dance in the sacred manner… I thought of all my ancestors who have left us now, and I could not hold back my tears… I cried with my whole heart.” As I began to dance, I remembered the sacred tree in my vision. I had been shown all the beauty of the creation, living in a grand circle of peace.

Maybe, this is the land of my vision where all my people go… Then as the whole group began to dance, some fell down, some wailed, some lay dead in a vision… I danced with my eyes closed and feelings arose from my legs and were in my heart now…

But there was no fear… Just a growing sense of hope and happiness. I had experienced another vision. The spotted eagle was dancing above me, and I could hear his song. From out of my people’s pain, may we all learn to live….]”

Invitation to the chant and the dance…..

Heya Hey Hey, Heya, Hey Hay, Hey Ho Nah, Heya Hey, Hey….

Song and dance of the Eagle…..

Wearing my long wing feathers as I fly 3X;

I circle around, I circle around, the boundaries of the earth….

Opening Words:

Grandmother Earth, Hear me! The 2 leggeds, the 4 leggeds, the winged, and all that lives and moves upon you, are Your children. Within the Council of all Beings, we shall be as relatives, just as everything that lives is related to you,

oh Mother…. Ah Ho….

The is an old Cherokee teaching that comes down to us as a dialogue between a young boy and his grandfather that concerns our motives and intentions in life. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he said to the little boy. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is an evil wolf- he is hot with anger, envy, greed, and filled with pride and selfishness.

The other wolf is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, filled with humility, kindness,  faith and truth.

This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every person, too. The grandson thought about this for a moment, and then he asked his grandfather this question: “Which wolf will win?” The Cherokee elder replied simply,

” The one that you feed.”

Body Prayer/Meditation:

The one that you feed… While that message is clear enough- what you give your attention, love, and energy to is what will most likely grow in power and importance in your life, there is a similar Native American teaching that speaks to this personal imperative to watch over our feelings, and to become aware of what ideas, emotions, and actions we will allow to grow within us…  “Does it grow corn for us in our hearts?”  does the idea or the feeling, the attitude or the desire one has or that one wants to plant and grow, will it grow in a way that nourishes and nurtures yourself and others? Will those feelings you have bear fruit? What will you allow to grow within your heart and what will be the result of letting it grow?

Please sit, lie, or stand comfortably… Stretch out of make yourself quiet and receptive… Breath as slowly and as deeply as you can…

So i ask you now to reflect on an attitude, outlook, feeling or relationship your currently hold tightly as it has a certain meaning for you…

Now see that feeling or relationship as a seed… Visualize how you, the planter, will care for that seed and guide its growth through your feelings and actions… Place on the fertile soil of your heart… Plant the seed… Take six silent long breaths… Water the seed… 6 breaths… See the seed emerge from the unseen depths of your being, see how the young plant takes shape, has color…. six breaths… Watch as it grows strong with your resolve and attention, see how it will be formed by your thoughts and the feelings you give to it… Now that it is full grown, look at it completely… Look at the roots, the stalk, the leaves, and see if it has or will soon have fruit or food…       We are farmers of the heart, Gardeners of the soul…

Reading: On Being An American The Rev. Matthew Fox, Ph.D.

To be an American, does not mean wrapping one’s up tightly in red, white, and blue in order to accept the paranoia of our empire building across the West. Rather, to be an American means that I listen with my heart to the history of this land, and the legacy of its people.

It means that I can make common song and dance into common prayer and worship, with all those who have preceded me on this holy ground we call Mother Earth. It means that I willingly take responsibility to give birth and rebirth to the genius and the silence that has come out of the pain and suffering of the Native American spirit. Together, we will forge a new vision of a world worth living for, for our descendants, seven generations from now. Mother Earth will not survive without this kind of bonding, interaction, this kind of new reality. The Indian soul that lives in all of us must be called forth again. On spite of genocide, it still lives. Their wisdom will not go away, and that is the American version of the Gospel, or the Good News!

Adapted from a statement found in Creation Magazine          January 1987

Reflection:  Dialogue on Life and Death

There is a story from the Iroquois that comes down to us as a conversation between a young boy and his grandfather about the deathlessness of life.

It was a sunlight November day, crisp with the gusts of wind that would swirl the leaves that had fallen, scattering them all across the forest floor. Seeing the activity of the leaf and wind, and then looking up at the tall oaks and strong maples now bare, the little boy asked his wise old grandfather, ” Why do the leaves have to fall?  His grandfather answered him in this way:

“When the leaves fall, Mother Earth rests. The world of the Grandmother goes to sleep, resting until spring returns again. The leaves remind us of nature’s bounty and beauty, and they speak to us of God- the Creator/Father Spirit and his infinite care for us. The leaves are also food for Mother Earth- when the leaves fall and die, they turn into good, rich soil for us to plant our corn and beans in come next spring. We are reminded that nature teaches that there is no death, just change. The seasons are to be accepted as part of our great grandfather’s plan. We need not mourn the leaves or the people who fall and die and are no more. There is no fear, when the heart learns to accept and understand. Our understanding comes when we learn to see, not with our eyes, but with our hearts. Then we can better appreciate what Mother Earth offers us, and out of our gratitude, we learn how to practice rightful living, give respect, and offer love.


Elder’s Meditation of the Day – November 4

“The honor of the people lies in the moccasin tracks of the woman. Walk the good road…. Be dutiful, respectful, gentle and modest my daughter… Be strong with the warm, strong heart of the earth. No people goes down until their women are weak and dishonored, or dead upon the ground. Be strong and sing the strength of the Great Powers within you, all around you.”

–Village Wise Man, SIOUX

The Elders say the Native American women will lead the healing among the tribes. We need to especially pray for our women, and ask the Creator to bless them and give them strength. Inside them are the powers of love and strength given by the Moon and the Earth. When everyone else gives up, it is the women who sings the songs of strength. She is the backbone of the people. So, to our women we say, sing your songs of strength; pray for your special powers; keep our people strong; be respectful, gentle and modest.

Oh, Great One, bless our women. Make them strong today.

Closing Words:

From the Pawnee tribe and popularized in modern song:

” May the long time Sun shine upon you, All love surround you,

and the pure light within you, guide your way on”…. Ah Ho….

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