“Learning from Native Americans”
Chapel Talk --- Thursday, October 25, 2007
Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb (Department of Sociology and Anthropology)
Hymn: #837 “Many and Great, O God” (Wakantanka Taku Nitawa) (words by Joseph Renville, whose mother was Dakota and who translated the entire Bible into the Dakota language in the 1800’s; set to a Dakota tune)
Just a professorial aside before I really begin: you may have noticed that the hymn we just sang has the word wakantanka, the Dakota word for God or Great Spirit. Wakan is the word for spirit or sacred or holy; tanka is the word for big or great, which we also see in place words like Minnetonka—minne means water or waters, so Lake Minnetonka is the lake of great waters, a very big lake. And we see the word minne in other places: Minnesota, Minnehaha Falls, Minneapolis (a Dakota/Greek combination!). It is all a reminder that we are still, in at least one sense, living in what Native Americans call “Indian Country.” We are reminded, though we don’t always remember.
I want to share some memories with you. We are in the Hopi Indian village of Walpi, perhaps the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States. The stone houses sit on one of the high mesas in northern Arizona, and the earth falls away steeply on all sides, surrounded by Hopi cornfields planted and tended by hand each year with heirloom seeds saved from last year’s crop. People are gathering for the Niman or “home” ceremony—mostly Hopi people, but also outsiders. It is a sacred occasion, to be respected; I have locked my camera in the trunk of my car to avoid temptation, as well as the possibility of confiscation—Hopi rules apply here, and this is neither a spectacle nor a performance to be captured on film. Soon the kachinas will arrive, to dance and sing at the end of this harvest season, before returning to their homes in the San Francisco Peaks for another year. It is an exciting time, a moving time, for all of us, both local and visitor.
Another time: we are at a Ute wedding. Weddings are always a sweet occasion to me, and I’m happy to be present. The young couple has chosen to have a ceremony in keeping with what they understand Indian values to call for. On a table in the clearing, there is a pile of goods and gifts, a familiar sight in an unfamiliar setting. But they are not gifts for the bride and groom. Instead, it is the gifts the couple has prepared to share with all of us who have come. They feel it is the right way to begin their life together—to honor those who have come to witness and support their promises, rather than to acquire the goods they could use to start their household together.
It is like the giveaway ceremonies I have seen many times, like the one at a summer powwow when a Crow family, having gathered blankets and utensils and rifles and even horses for a year, stands behind the daughter who has graduated from Stanford University that spring, and watches as she hands a gift to each person called up to receive it and a handshake—people who are family friends, relatives, community members, teachers, and others who have been important. The young woman, lovely in her beaded deerskin dress, is honored by sharing rather than receiving.
And this, too, is like a funeral I was told about, when an old widow gave all of her husband’s possessions—even his saddles, horses, and hunting rifles--to his friends, and then everything in her house—appliances, furniture, clothing—to those who’d gathered to honor her husband. He was the kind of man who would have given all he had to those who needed it. (Later, people brought the widow replacements for what she had given away, sustaining her, and weaving her back into the community.)
And another memory: we are at the summer ceremony to honor those young Apache women who have come of age that year, who have had their first menstruation. Hundreds of people from the reservation are camped at the ceremonial grounds, kids are running all over the place, and traditional foods—hunted and gathered as well as bought—are cooked and offered to all who come, including guests like ourselves. It is the time when the girls become like Changing Woman in Apache stories, doing the prescribed ceremonial dancing for several days with little sleep, supported by family, godparents, and a best friend who is always at their side, tired and sleepy yet also full of power to bless and heal, laying on hands for those who need it, overflowing with the life they can now create, soon to be the women without whom the Apache know they would vanish from the earth.
And another time: we’re sitting in the hot sun at the edge of the plaza at Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico, on the annual Catholic saint’s day. Hundreds of dancers have come into the open area, chanting old songs to rattles and drums that I find beautiful and moving--women and men, young and old. They dance with care and intention, as well as stamina. Their Navajo neighbors speak of “walking in beauty,” and that phrase seems apt here too. On other days, the dancers may drive their pickups to work in Albuquerque, or tend their fields, or go to school, or make pottery and silverwork to sell to tourists--but today they are doing something of particular and enduring meaning and importance. And the chile stews, tamales, and breads cooked in outdoor ovens are generously shared and delicious.
When I think about what I’ve learned during my sojourns and visits in “Indian Country,” in Montana, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, some lessons seem more apparent than others. One is simply that there is no one “Indian culture” or “Indian religion,” but instead many different cultures, traditions, and religious paths. Generalizations seem necessary to make in a very short chapel talk, yet always risk the possibility of falling into stereotypes.
Another lesson is that these cultures and traditions are still living—sometimes embattled, sometimes reinterpreted, sometimes recreated, sometimes living more in memory than in practice—yet still expressing something meaningful about what being Cheyenne or Ute or Pueblo or Apache is, has been, could yet be. It is common in many Native American understandings that religious belief and practice can be revealed in dreams and visions, even today—though the wisdom and experience of the elders may be needed to separate a revelation with power from one that makes the elders laugh. It is possible among Indian people to create new traditions that are still both real and Indian, something new for Christians like me who had gotten the impression that all the important religious stuff happened long ago to someone else.
Other lessons are less obvious. What is someone who is an outsider, a non-Indian like I am, to make of Native American cultures, particularly Indian spirituality and religious traditions? I am reluctant to presume I can really understand another’s life or tradition, even though the attempt is part of my calling as a sociologist. I am reluctant to think I can interpret another’s culture or faith to others, even though that is part of my calling as a teacher. And these undertakings are made more perilous when I am reminded that “my people”—Scandinavian-Americans, white people, Christians—have been part of the society whose practices have too often taken the livelihoods, the lands, the languages, and even the lives of Native Americans. My people have sought to misunderstand what we have done together to Native Americans, gaining advantage by misrepresenting them to ourselves, so genuine insights seem difficult and, almost, too late. As the well-known Lakota theologian and author Vine Deloria, Jr., famously wrote, “Custer Died for Your Sins.”
In some ways it is a wonder that so many aspects of Native American traditions—languages, agricultural practices, values, and religious practices—have survived at all. In the 1880’s U.S. government policy was to assimilate Indian tribes and nations into the larger American society. Indian children were taken, often forcibly, from their families and sent far away to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their own ceremonies. The government allocated each reservation to missionaries from a particular Christian background—Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and others. (Our hymn today comes to us from that time.) The fact that most Indian Christians on reservations today identity with one denomination rather than another dates to that policy.
Today the relationship between Christianity and Indian faiths and ceremonies is complex: many Indian people practice both, believing that the Creator gave each people their own path to what is wakan, rather than that only one religion must be true and others false, forcing a choice. New religious practices like the peyote road arose that incorporated aspects of both Christian and native ceremony. The processional cross at a Catholic Indian mission I visited has a Cheyenne Sundancer as the figure of Christ on the cross, someone willing to endure great pain because of his great courage and love for his people.
Some Indian people have found real attraction in the Christian message, especially in the person of Jesus: Jesus as a man who suffers to save his people, Jesus as a seeker of truth through what Indians would call his vision quests, Jesus as someone who loves the poor and oppressed rather than the rich and powerful, Jesus as a master storyteller, Jesus as a medicine man who combines physical and spiritual healing, Jesus as one who gives hope to those without hope, Jesus as one who sets the table for all, a table where people are to find extravagant welcome. Yet the coercion to become Christian, and the prohibition on Indian ways, was an injustice that stranded many people between the Indian and white roads to God. It was not until 1978 that the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Religious Freedom Act, once again granting permission to Native Americans to practice their traditional religions freely.
I wish I could conclude by neatly summarizing what I’ve learned from Indian people, especially about religious belief and practice. It would be easy to romanticize native religion, and it’s often tempting for us white folks, privileged enough to get away with it, to borrow or appropriate those bits and pieces of Indian religion we particularly like, or to assume “they” really believe just what “we” do, just with another name. And Indian religion has been part of a whole way of life, rarely even seen as “religion” apart from life, so it’s hard to know what I can learn that would be meaningful in my own very different culture.
But I also don’t want to imagine Indian traditions are so “Other” that I cannot learn from them—indeed, I experience the paradox that my own faith is deepened by my experience with another. I’ve been moved both by non-Christian Indian people who acted more Christian than people who are Christian in name, but also by the faith and practice of Indian people who are Christian when they have had so many reasons not to be, and who see and hear in Christianity depths that my comfort leads me to overlook. [It can remind me of my time during the Civil Rights Movement, when hearing rural Black preachers whose ancestors were originally taught Christianity in the hope it would make them more docile slaves; they had a different message than those of the pastor at my church back home, who asked Black kids from the children’s home next door to stop coming to church because it upset white people in the congregation.]
It’s often the particulars that I remember, more than generalizations I come up with to try to summarize what I’ve learned. I see the young couple, giving what little they have to the cloud of witnesses who have gathered to celebrate their marriage, and I think I hear a whisper: “go and do likewise.” An elder tells the Hopi prophecy, that the purpose given his people is to wait high up on their mesas, until the white people have finally made their world unlivable by war and pollution and greed, and then come down to teach those of us who have survived how to live the way human beings were meant to. The tribal council on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation decides not to sell the tribe’s immense reserves of coal to the energy corporations, in spite of widespread poverty, because of the irreversible harm they feel it may do to their culture and land; they are unwilling to sell their children’s birthright, or be content to leave their children a legacy of debt and global warming as I fear my generation has for you. The older Cheyenne women with whom I’m out gathering edible plants and herbs leave small tokens and gifts among the plants as they receive the gifts the land offers them, to give respect and thanks to the living spirits they believe inhabit all of the Creation; they have a spiritual ecology that seems more real than my more scientific one. The prayers I hear in the intense heat and darkness of the sweatlodge are for others, for each other; no one prays for himself.
The Dakota people of this area, and their cousins the Lakota, end their prayers with the phrase mitakwyasin, or “all my relatives.” They mean to pray in the name of and for all of Creation, all that has a spirit, the animal brothers and plant sisters, the four-leggeds and winged-ones and water people, even the rocks and trees. It is a good place to end. Mitakwyasin.