As the season of Thanksgiving comes to us once again, we think of Pilgrims escaping persecution in Europe for their faith and establishing colonies in the New World.
We also have been given images of American Indians helping the newcomers who struggled to make a living off the land. In addition to new kinds of food, and the celebration that marked that first autumn in Plymouth, the Indians had spiritual lessons to teach. Not all of these have taken hold as deeply as the celebration of Thanksgiving dinner. It might be well to review some things the Pilgrims could have learned from the native American people.
To the American Indian, even the rocks are alive, for everything in nature has life. One can communicate with animals, vegetables and minerals, yet worship One God. American Indians do not worship the spirits they believe live in nature, but do make their appeal to them.
When the Gaan, Katchina, or other representatives of the spirit world “return” to celebrate in tribal festivals, they are not idols but manifestations of God’s presence. The dance itself is a form of prayer. To participate in the ceremonies with these representatives is to have communion with God, not unlike Christians receiving the material elements of Holy Communion, speaking of the Presence of the Holy Spirit or experiencing the communion of saints.
European Americans need not shrink from traditional native religion, thinking it is idolatrous or polytheistic. It has much in common with Christian worship, and we find a number of concepts and practices in Amerind (American Indian) culture that are also found in the teachings of the Bible. In fact several basic teachings of Jesus are practices in native cultures that Christians need to recover.
Walking Buffalo, a Stony Indian from Canada, said, “We were on pretty good terms with the Great Spirit, creator and ruler of all. You Whites assumed we were savages. You didn’t understand our prayers. You didn’t try to understand. When we sang our praises to the sun or moon or wind you said we were worshipping idols. Without understanding, you condemned us as lost souls just because our form of worship was different from yours.”
He continued, “We saw the Great Spirit’s work in almost everything: sun, moon, trees, wind, and mountains. Sometimes we approached him through these things. Was that so bad? I think we have a true belief in the supreme being, a stronger faith than that of most Whites who have called us pagans.”
Something went astray in the Christian church several hundred years into its history. The Greek philosophy overwhelmed Hebrew thought, and Europeans developed a culture that was often in conflict with the Way of Life set forth in the Old and New Testaments.
Through the centuries spiritually minded people of European heritage have felt torn by this conflict. This conflict has surfaced in terms of ecological responsibility versus exploitation, in terms of the general welfare versus rugged individualism, and in terms of sacrificial living versus hedonism. Amerinds can teach those of European heritage several profoundly important lessons on how to live in The Way.
Here are several echoes of New Testament teachings drawn from traditional Indian religion, each of which Euro-Americans need to recover.
This is an area in which Christians of European heritage struggle with an inner conflict. We have been taught to exploit nature and other people for our own economic gain, yet the Bible says we are to be caregivers and loving managers of the fruit of the Earth and of our fellow human beings.
Once a young chief of the Cayuse tribe in Oregon Territory spoke at a treaty hearing and said, “I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? … The ground says, ‘It is the Great Spirit that placed me here. The Great Spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed them right. The Great Spirit appointed the roots to feed the Indians. The water says the same thing. The Great Spirit directs me, ‘Feed the Indians well.’ The grass says the same thing, ‘Feed the Indians well…’ The ground says, ‘It was from me man was made.’ The Great Spirit, in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm.”
A Blackfeet Indian expressed it this way: “Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. It will not even perish by the flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us. You can count your money and burn it within the nod of a buffalo’s head, but only the Great Spirit can count the grains of sand and the blades of grass of these plains. As a present to you, we now give you anything we have that you can take with you; but the land, never.”
American Indians understand their place on Earth is to fit in with nature, not exploit it. When taking what they need from the fruit of Earth, they always give thanks.
(To be continued.)