My Native American Teachers

Petroglyph Rock by Susan H.

By Doug Marman

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 Ancient Egypt 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.

Petroglyph by Jason Cheever

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 in 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 treatises 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 said the same thing.

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 cited 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 spirituality is 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 right to holy lands, and which teaching is authentic or valid. They are fighting to protect their spiritual life-line.

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 abandon 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. 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.

Petroglyph by Jason Cheever

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 these early experiences of mine with my sister, and she said that she had the same sensations while walking in the woods around our home. We had never talked about it 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?