Native Americans have a strong belief in a moral universe, a spiritually developing, evolving universe, bearing the attributes of cosmic order endowed by the Creator. The American Indian’s love and care for the land is not like the goals of mainstream culture where places are set aside for public recreation or escape. Wild nature is an integral part of this moral universe and world view, symbolized as a circle of life in traditions of the sacred hoop, or the medicine wheel.
American Indian lore teaches the greater value of a personally discovered religion, one that is not controlled and directed by institutionalized priesthoods. As Minnesota Dakota native, Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), recalled, “the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration. It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker,” (from his book, The Soul of the Indian).
There are public ceremonies of spiritual significance, not just closed private ones such as the “vision quest,” which I will refer to later. At a memorial ceremony or social gathering, singers with hand drums may open the event with a song that sounds fierce and war-like to a white audience. Native people have a different view of the warrior spirit, one that is unrelated to wars of revenge, reprisal or competition for land and resources. The American Indian “warrior” is an ideal, associated with protection of the poor and weak, and also the support and defense of their women. After the song, a sweet prayer might be recited for the animals and the earth, accompanied by what is called a “smudging ceremony.” For example, a woman leading the prayer might proceed in a circle around the room followed by another person carrying an abalone shell that contains burning sage. Each recipient in the “smudging circle” is invited to be part of the process; wafting gestures of the hands are made to spread the sage smoke over their faces and bodies (if desired). This ritual is a form of purification, consecration and prayer.
“Oh, Great Spirit, we come to you with love and gratitude for all living things. We now pray especially for our relatives of the wilderness—the four-legged, the winged, those that live in the water, and those that crawl upon the land. Bless them that they might continue to live in freedom and enjoy their right to be wild. Fill our hearts with tolerance, appreciation and respect for all living things so that we all might live together in harmony and peace.”
In Ojibwe, and other cultures of the Algonkin language group, Manitou, “Great Mystery,” represents a creative energy beyond the physical realm that pervades all things. It took on more personal qualities and became “Gichi-Manitou,” the Great Spirit, known as “Wakan Tanka” in the Lakota language. Some say this change to “Great Spirit” took place after native peoples’ encounter with Christianity, but however or whenever it happened it shows the breadth and adaptability of their concept of God.
Other important American Indian ceremonies are the Sun Dance and the Sweat Lodge. Even in an “urban Indian” territory such as mine, in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a pastor of Native heritage at one of our local Christian churches who offers “sweats” (Sweat Lodge ceremonies) to anyone who wishes to have the experience. It is an endurance and purification ceremony using heated rocks and steam to prepare a person for closer contact with the Spirit, or perhaps the reception of a spirit guide.
Ceremonies or social gatherings of the people usually end with another small “prayer” to the relatives, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” (muh-ta-kee aw-sin), as it originated with the Lakota Nation. It is spoken to invite and acknowledge that “we are all related,” and is used in all California native communities like an “Amen,” as a closure to other prayers. To most people today, a relative means specifically a blood relation or other ancestor in the family lineage. But native people were once taught that an animal being could be a relative. Some of this teaching remains.
“In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals; for Tuawa, the One Above, did not speak directly to man. He sent Animals to tell man that he showed himself through the beasts, and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and the moon, man should learn....for all things speak of Tuawa.” (Chief Letakos-Lesa of the Pawnee Tribe).
In the ritual of the vision quest (often associated with the grander ceremony of the Sun Dance), a young person who has come of age may seek to connect with a spirit guide. This ritual is now important to people of all ages. It could happen that the “quester” will receive as a guardian an ally from the animal world. The idea that a spirit guide or guardian is available to each of us has lost influence in Christianity where it was part of the contemplative tradition; but it has always been an integral part of American Indian teachings.
In modern times, especially for urban Indians, more and more of the American Indian religious experience involves blending traditional wisdom and ceremonies with the teachings of Jesus. Many have converted to Christianity.
Besides learning and experiencing the great beauty of native spirituality, there is also the power of our prophecies and philosophy to discover. The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) were guided by a prophetic tradition of the Seven Fires (seven prophecies) that most agree describes an era beginning about 1,000 years ago. It even foretells history yet to be made. This tradition is maintained by other tribes as well, such as the Cherokee and Lakota.
Ancient stories describe the “First Fire” as the beginning of a migration from the east coast to the Great Lakes region. The times of the first encounter with Europeans are described in the “Fourth Fire,” followed by the dark period when elders lost the respect of the younger generations known as the “Fifth Fire.” This was a pivotal time because the sacred fire was extinguished, guns were acquired from Europeans, and alcoholism began to contaminate the tribes.
We witnessed the fulfillment of the Fifth Fire in the Debassige family, my ancestors, when my Great Grandma Marie lost the admiration of her rebellious daughter Cassie—or Catherine. My grandmother Catherine, although half-Indian, was known to dislike life on the island (where there are many First Nation Reserves). At age fourteen, she left Manitoulin Island eventually arriving in a city to learn secretarial skills.
Finally comes the story of the Seventh fire when the new people, “oshkibimadizeeg,” will retrace their steps back to the elders, who they will ask to guide them on their journey. In this era, traditions will be rekindled, and a new nation born. All races, but especially whites and Native Peoples, begin to rebuild this nation of good will together. Perhaps we will witness the beginnings of the Seventh Fire in our time. Many Indian people are hoping this is true.
Ojibwe oral tradition goes on to say that the Seventh fire “will light the eighth and final fire, an eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood.” Perhaps the lighting of the Eighth Fire will also happen in our time, or if not, the hope that it will be kindled.
In my community outreach work, I bring to the foreground this future prophesied in the spiritual traditions of Native Peoples because of so much animosity and resentment that persists. As wise Indian elders have taught us, it is time to let go of anger and pain from the past, to learn and practice forgiveness, if we are to realize the promise of the Seventh and Eighth Fires.