My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

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My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby SDP on Thu Feb 12, 2009 12:23 am

Inéz Hernández-Ávila, an associate professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, wrote:

Many, if not most, non-Native Americans seem to feel an entitlement regarding Native American ceremonial and cultural traditions, artifacts, and gravesites, including ancestral bones, that can only be understood in the context of the original entitlement the first colonizers felt toward this land by “right of conquest” and soon after, “Manifest Destiny.” This entitlement assumes the right to take what is indigenous, with complete disregard for Native peoples, in a manner in which the perpetrators would not think of doing so easily with other traditions… Imagine people wanting to find out what it “feels like” to take part in the Catholic ceremony of the Eucharist, or to wear a priest’s garments, or the dress and hairstyle of the Orthodox Jews, because it seems “cool.”

This raised an unexpected reaction for me.

The picture that struck me wasn’t about this attitude the Europeans brought with them when settling America. Their entitlement to the land has indeed carried down to our modern day and affects our culture in many ways. I was right with Inéz on that part of the quote.

What jumped into my thoughts, however, came from her peculiar statement that this modern sense of ownership relating to Native American spirituality “can only be understood” in this context.

As I read this, the exact opposite realization hit me.

Immediately, I thought about all of the many spiritual groups I have visited and studied with. It struck me how widespread this desire is to adopt traditional clothing, take on spiritual names from other cultures, and the longing to feel a part of previous eras when spirituality was prominent.

I’ve seen Americans dress in the sacred garments of Druids to participate in ancient ceremonies. Haven’t you seen the trappings of the Masonic Lodge, famous for borrowing symbols, clothing and rituals from Egyptian and other cultures? Sufi groups have invited me to their whirling dervish ceremony, with its black and white dress, while other groups led the practice of chanting and dances, some chants dating back a thousand years.

Contrary to what Inéz said, I don’t find it hard to imagine people wanting to feel a part of exotic religious and cultural traditions, even to the point of changing their whole life. There seems to be a hunger for this, especially these days with such a void of tradition in our modern life.

We find the same thing when people convert to other religions. It is common to take on appearances and hairstyles, language and rituals, far different from their own. Some people find in this connection to another time something that moves them beyond their own lives. It aligns them to something larger and historic. It also becomes their path and their life.

Of course, what Inéz is getting at is not the desire to just learn and participate in traditional Native American spirituality. The problem comes from those who create whole new teachings, while presenting them as if they were traditional. Historical accuracy is abandoned. The ritual practices become mere fictions that provoke the imagination. This is the problem Inéz is writing about – losing the purity of the practices.

However, this is far from just a Native American spirituality problem. There are so many examples of this that it opens up a fascinating realization.

Take, for example, Joseph Smith’s teaching of Mormonism, which gave the people of his time a new connection to the biblical era. Smith’s story of discovering tablets from one of the lost tribes of Israel gave the Mormons freedom to adopt and remake the Old and New Testament heritage into a new story. If we look at it like this, we can see how The Book of Mormon became for them, emotionally, a religious sequel to The Bible, which allowed them to take that heritage on as their life. Their march West to find their promised land became an historical experience.

Of course, Christianity itself adopted – in fact some say they stole – Jewish heritage wholesale and claimed it as theirs. Later, Islam introduced another act to this play, rewriting the story of Jewish and Christian prophets again, including who Jesus was. All of these groups made the new teaching their own, and they felt fully justified in ownership of their new religion, while asserting a genuine connection to ancient traditions.

I spent some time amongst a few American Indian medicine men and women, with generations of teachings in their family line. Their sentiment was similar to what Inéz wrote. Most of them found the practices that are carried out under the name of Native American spirituality hilarious, and I enjoyed hearing their jokes about what they had seen.

But this is nothing new. Sufi teachers 800 years ago wrote treaties about the foolishness of those who look no deeper than appearances. The Mulla Nasrudin stories are filled with examples of the fools we often make of ourselves in our search for meaning.

We find similar observations from Kabir, the 15th century Hindu poet/weaver, Apollonius of Tyana, the Greek philosopher and contemporary of Jesus Christ, and Jalal-uddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet, to name a few. All made similar statements.

If you think about it, there is even a similar reaction amongst modern day scientists, who cringe at the way scientific terms are taken and used by some new age teachers to bring an aura of legitimacy to their teachings by referring to recent scientific discoveries. Academics fight against this same kind of fictionalization. Historical accuracy for them is the key determining factor on authenticity. There is a problem with all of this, however: It makes the shape of a religion more important than its substance.

The teachers I sited above came to the opposite conclusion about the meaning and lesson of this whole issue, compared to what the academics of today are telling us. The fundamental issue is not the loss of authentic practices due to careless or perhaps imaginary recreations of valid traditions, as so many scholars complain. The real trouble comes from the way that spirituality becomes so intermixed with tradition and ritual that the two become inextricably tied together.

When people become so attached to the structure of a teaching that they depend on its form for their spiritual connection, then any threat to that religion endangers their lifeline. Spirituality that becomes bottled up in an object, ritual or sacred place can now be lost, if that form is altered. This is why we see so many battles over which practice is right, who has the rights to holy lands, and which teaching is authentic or valid. They are fighting to protect their spiritual sustenance.

Rumi said: After drinking the wine, destroy the cup. The shape of a cup doesn’t matter. It is the spiritual ecstasy of the wine that infuses us with life. Kabir refused to take sides in the religious battle between Hindus and Muslims, saying that unless they could get beyond their own traditions they would not know truth. Apollonius of Tyana inspired countless religious groups to give up animal sacrifices, which were still common in his time. He did this by showing that spirituality must never be left to rote rules and practices, but we must personally and directly be involved in its realization.

All three of these men were honored in their day by people across widely different religious ways of life, because they had transcended tradition. They taught the path of direct and personal spiritual experience to those who were interested.

I have another bone to pick over this issue of ownership, when it comes to Native American spirituality. It is a personal one.

I grew up in the countryside of New England and would often explore the woods for miles around our house. I felt the presence of those who had walked the land before me. This wasn’t just a matter of imagination. It was something I sensed long before I even thought about it. It showed me a connection with nature that wasn’t something I picked up from books. It became a part of my day dreams and night dreams. It was as if there was wisdom in the trees, the pathways, the way things grew and this was something understood and known by those who lived there long before.

I don’t believe this came from my parents, who both grew up as children of European immigrants. I certainly never heard them talk about it. However, I was recently talking about my early experiences with my sister and she said that she had the same sensations while walking in the woods around our home. We never talked about this before, but our feelings were almost identical.

In other words, I can understand why others might feel such a strong connection with the Native American teachings. We might not be connected by blood, but I believe the spirit of countless tribes who have lived upon this land for thousands of years have left a subtle record and this touches us and teaches us.

Those friends of the forest were therefore also my fathers and mothers. I grew up in their midst. I lived in their shadows. They were my teachers. Why wouldn’t I be allowed to call them my own?
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Re: My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby Vidyanet on Thu Feb 12, 2009 8:28 am

Doug,

What a great topic you introduced! Especially the adoption of traditions from the past by new movements that seem to personalize those same traditions, making them a part of their own history and religion.

By the way, a part of the American form of government was inspired by the "five nations" up around where you lived, if the story is true.

Anyhow, I wanted to make a quick remark about some of your examples. Not for what they mentioned, but for what they didn't mention. You wrote:

Take, for example, Joseph Smith’s teaching of Mormonism, which gave the people of his time a new connection to the biblical era. Smith’s story of discovering tablets from one of the lost tribes of Israel gave the Mormons freedom to adopt and remake the Old and New Testament heritage into a new story. If we look at it like this, we can see how The Book of Mormon became for them, emotionally, a religious sequel to The Bible, which allowed them to take that heritage on as their life. Their march West to find their promised land became an historical experience.

Of course, Christianity itself adopted – in fact some say they stole – Jewish heritage wholesale and claimed it as theirs. Later, Islam introduced another act to this play, rewriting the story of Jewish and Christian prophets again, including who Jesus was. All of these groups made the new teaching their own, and they felt fully justified in ownership of their new religion, while asserting a genuine connection to ancient traditions.


I believe the borrowing goes back farther than "Christianity". The "Jews" brought a host of learned traditions and stories with them, when they returned from Babylonian captivity. Elements from foreign lands entered "Jewish" religion, too. There are many facets to the "give and take", in my opinion.

Sometimes borrowing amounts to a people picking up what they lost, or what they abandoned generations ago. This is, perhaps, another facet about "borrowing" that I would like to introduce. It's as if to say that borrowing can go "both ways". A people could sacrifice their own cultural heritage in favor of something perceived to be new and better. What seems "new" to them, however, could very well turn out to be something they (as a people) sacrificed ages ago, or forgot. It might only be what is coming back to them by another agency, by those who preserved knowledge, or who didn't forget. Borrowing" is dynamic, I believe. In some ways like the way genes are used by living species. Including that often misunderstood "junk" DNA. Perhaps the "back and forth", or "give and take" is more like a circle ("Cirle of Life"?) than a pendulum. I don't know.

Here is another example of borrowing going the other way (which could seem more like surrender). Sometimes loss of tradition enters a community by force, as with conversion by a foreign invader, even while native people's do partially manage to personalize the "new" religion. Examples of this are found with Christianity and Catholicism, practiced in foreign lands, where native elements "come to the surface" where they could not be totally removed.

Add the concept of "universal principles", or "universal knowledge" existing independent from differnt forms of "clothing" (symbols) used to dress it, and I think what is "central" to any person and culture is probably something
that was "with them" all along. Like plants waiting for the proper seasons (conditions) in which to grow, or like the miracle ingredients inside a placebo :)

In spite of conversions, repressions, wars and changing religions ... perhaps there IS something which remains
alive all the while. Like a forest that continually manages to renew itself. By itself! And from itself!

After I read the topic here, this was something I saw "coming up in my own yard", so to speak. I wonder if it's been growing somewhere else, too (some of these ideas)? Or, what else might come out of this topic?

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Re: My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby Doug Marman on Sat Feb 14, 2009 2:06 pm

Vidyanet,

What a wonderful response. I love what you added and the way you expanded the topic.

Yes, it is as if these things we call religions are perhaps one giant creeping vine that has sent off runners in a thousand directions. But when we trace this plant to its origins, it brings us back to our Self.

Borrowing does seem to be an important part of it all. Perhaps we recognize it best when we first hear it from another, before we can see that this was something we knew all along. It is not something we are learning new, but remembering.

Borrowing is also our way of trying something on, like a new coat. If we don't get attached to the form of it, we can experience the borrowing and trying out as the unfolding of our own individual spiritual path.

I think we also first come to deeply understand a new state of consciousness after seeing it in another, or catching it from another.

What is interesting about all of this is that our modern culture values creativity so highly that it promotes an extreme focus on originality - which seem to devalue borrowing. While this might make some sense in the field of art and literature, it seems strangely at odds in the fields of religion and spirituality.

When it comes to the meaning of life, originality is not so important. Borrowing helps a lot more, and may in fact be indispensable.

I think you are right, that we are just scratching the surface. Where can this dialogue go from here?

Thanks.

Doug.
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Re: My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby Vidyanet on Sat Feb 14, 2009 11:14 pm

Doug,

After reading your post, what caught my attention were the words "Native" and "Teachers" in the title.

I didn't want to add more to this thread, but instead wait for others to share first. But - judging by the number of people posting here over the past months - I decided go ahead and dialogue anyhow.

How this is related and where it might go I don't know, but after looking at your tile again I started to reflect on a Native American story I read not very long ago. Particulary one about something called a "Condolence Ceremony".

Well, I spent a lot of time searching the Net looking at stories about "The Peacemaker", etc. and disappointed by
all the different versions of the story. Finally I found one that seemed to penetrate the mythology a bit and gave a lot of history I didn't know about before.

The only mention I found - with rergard for something like "condolence" - was near the end of the article where it mentioned the “Book of the Condoling Council”. Here is a quote:

This book, sometimes called the “Book of the Condoling Council,” might properly enough be styled an Iroquois Veda. It comprises the speeches, songs and other ceremonies, which, from the earliest period of the confederacy, have composed the proceedings of their council when a deceased chief is lamented and his successor is installed in office.


http://www.markshep.com/nonviolence/Hiawatha.html

Up to this point - from what little I have read about a "condolence ceremony", etc. - this appears to be a way for remembering the past. Not only the chiefs, but the lessons, the teachings and the history of the people.

I also enjoyed contemplating the story (it's a long one) and imagining what it must have taken, what it must have been like for so many people to become united again. I say "again" because apparently, according to the author, the people were like one tribe in the beginning. That was my impression.

Perhaps this is the theme I wanted to touch on. The idea of unity in the beginning, followed by divisions, followed by unity again. I think this ties in with the title "My Native American Teachers" somehow. At least, the way I'm looking at it for now.

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Re: My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby Doug Marman on Sun Mar 22, 2009 12:57 pm

Vidyanet,

I enjoyed the story of Hiawatha and the way he brought peace to the five nations of the Iriquois. I hadn't heard that story before.

Growing up in New England, I was not far from where these people lived hundreds of years ago. So, I guess in spirit that would make them my forefathers. I certainly felt their influence.

It is interesting how a teaching is passed along from generation to generation, often outside of any words, but by the deeds and visions of how to live.

It was also interesting how the true story of Hiawatha had to be extracted by myths and confusions that accumulated over the centuries. We can see how wrong stories can get by looking at what many academics have written about Paul Twitchell.

One thing that differs from our modern day, compared to the days of Hiawatha, is that we have developed a culture that has gone to the extreme in intellectual development. If you compare the way the Iriquois government worked, you can see that titles and rank had little effect. It came down to practical advice and the inner authority from which true leaders spoke. They were the ones that everyone listened to.

Today, however, our leaders and authorities largely speak from theory and ideas, rather than personal experience. A learned person today is often one who has widely read and studied, while the wise Hiawatha was obviously a person who's calming presence and personal wisdom had as much to do with the lasting impact of the confederation he helped to create as the vision itself.

Thanks for adding another interesting discussion.

Doug.
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Re: My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby TobeyL on Sat Apr 18, 2009 5:35 pm

To reflect on ownership of "tradition", I'd like to share something I still find remarkable. A few years ago I visited a Mexican village much of whose population were natives of ancient stock for whom Spanish was still a second and difficult language. Around the area were hills covered with forest and what, when hiking, reminded me of African savanna. One attraction, known mainly only to natives and my resident guide, from an Eckist family from the area, was a sort of grotto said to be the birthplace of Quetzacoatl. But what struck me so remarkably was the sense of belonging I felt of these natives to their land, to its rocks, hills, the feeling of oneness I perceived between its essence and theirs. They made my identification with "America" and American culture feel by comparison like that of transient. The basis of my American heritage is well established by Western standards. I have an ancestor who got off the boat at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633, gave a sermon whose points were taken down to become the "fundamentals" of the Constitution of Connecticut and, it's said, though I haven't researched, a model for the United States Constitution about 140 years later. My relative security as "an American American," useful in political arguments, seemed superficial when compared with roots I observed in the denizens of souvenir stands in Tepoztlán, Mexico.

Another point I think of whenever traditions and their history is discussed is the dichotomy between personal revelation and group-think. I think the individual arrives at a point in spiritual unfoldment where the utility of others, be they close associates, intimates even, or the characters of mythologies -- and I think all history is really mythology to some degree -- others and their ideas become mirrors of the Self. It is the Self that is real and the Self that seeks validation of Its reality by seeking legitimacy in the mythologies proffered up by the world around. The discussion that prompted this post seems to stem from the tension experienced when one sees comfortable traditions potentially cheapened by the would-be embrace of others more needy still for the potential validation tradition might provide.

What I think so struck me about the Mexican natives was the apparent absolute security of the Beingness of the Self, so secure that even learning Spanish, the prevailing official language for some centuries, was to them hardly worth the effort except for trading crafts with tourists.

Oh, I also have fond memories of Saturday afternoons, roaming the woods of New England as a boy. Yes, one feels a connection there too. In my case it used to manifest as fantasies of surprise meetings in the woods with Souls to whom I felt more connected than to my then current family or most friends. I was later to have that fantasy of recognition realized when I became a member of Eckankar and understood the fantasy's origin. There is much more to us all than culture admits.

Tobey Llop
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Re: My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby Doug Marman on Mon May 04, 2009 11:08 pm

Tobey,

I thoroughly enjoyed your post and thoughts. I finally had a chance to read what you wrote. Thankfully, Melodie pointed out that there was a post that I may have missed.

Since, I too grew up in Connecticut, we must have walked forests that weren't too far apart.

I know exactly what you mean about the connectedness that some people have to their land and their country. We can find this amongst many areas of the world, although it has mostly disappeared from the US. They practice their religion at a much different level than many people realize.

I've come to the conclusion that people largely live in very different states of consciousness, and do not understand each other because they judge each other from their own worldview. I've always appreciated what I learned from Paul Twitchell - the importance of meeting each person and each culture from their own perspective and state of consciousness, and the ability to move from one to the other.

I can enjoy the point of view where the land, the culture, our family are who you are. There is something very grounding in that experience, as you say. But I also realize that this is just a state of consciousness and not who I really am. It is just a level of experience, and with it comes a way of seeing life. But Soul also needs freedom to see from other states and points of view, that seem just as real once we are in them.

So, I think some of this struggle that happens between those who feel they own a tradition and those who want to take it and see it from their own level - this is really about states of consciousness and how difficult it is for people to understand and see others who live in different levels of perception.

In other words, I think there are a large number of people who need to take on other beliefs and other worldviews in order to see that they as Soul are something greater than any state of consciousness. However, there are others whose whole life is invested in their beliefs, their people and their land. The lesson they are learning is how to find truth in that one place where they are, not anywhere else. This is where their spirituality is and their growth, so it is the right place for them and their truth.

All of this leads me to realize how important it is to me to understand others, but I know that others may not understand me. I often feel that I really have no home in this world. It is a very strange planet to me. But I do enjoy the people and seeing things as they see them, and sharing for a moment the reality of this place.

Well, I think I ended up going in a slightly different direction than your words started, but what you said inspired me.

Thanks for the thoughts.

Doug.
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Re: My Native American Teachers - by Doug Marman

Postby rfpickett on Fri Nov 20, 2009 4:46 pm

Spot on!

Raised Baptist, and 20% Native American by Blood.

. . . in fact the Baptists have made a religion out of cup breaking.

rfp
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