Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions

Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions

Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions

Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions

Synopsis

Teaching Spirits offers a thematic approach to Native American religious traditions. Through years of living with and learning about Native traditions across the continent, Joseph Epes Brown learned firsthand of the great diversity of the North American Indian cultures. Yet within this great multiplicity, he also noticed certain common themes that resonate within many Native traditions. These themes include a shared sense of time as cyclical rather than linear, a belief that landscapes are inhabited by spirits, a rich oral tradition, visual arts that emphasize the process of creation, a reciprocal relationship with the natural world, and the rituals that tie these themes together. Brown illustrates each of these themes with in-depth explorations of specific native cultures including Lakota, Navajo, Apache, Koyukon, and Ojibwe.
Brown was one of the first scholars to recognize that Native religions-rather than being relics of the past-are vital traditions that tribal members shape and adapt to meet both timeless and contemporary needs. Teaching Spirits reflects this view, using examples from the present as well as the past. For instance, when writing about Plains rituals, he describes not only building an impromptu sweat lodge in a Denver hotel room with Black Elk in the 1940s, but also the struggles of present-day Crow tribal members to balance Sun Dances and vision quests with nine-to-five jobs.
In this groundbreaking work, Brown suggests that Native American traditions demonstrate how all components of a culture can be interconnected-how the presence of the sacred can permeate all lifeways to such a degree that what we call religion is integrated into all of life's activities. Throughout the book, Brown draws on his extensive personal experience with Black Elk, who came to symbolize for many the richness of the imperiled native cultures. This volume brings to life the themes that resonate at the heart of Native American religious traditions.

Excerpt

I am a Chippewa - CREE from the Rocky Boy Reservation. I am fortytwo years old. My dad, John Gilbert Meyers, was born in 1932 and pretty much was raised traditional. He raised us eleven kids with the old traditional style of living, of showing respect, of not being too boastful, of taking things real slow, and of respecting the things that we don’t understand.

Meeting Joe was a really good experience for me. It was during the seventies when Indian people, especially my generation, were going through what you would call an identity crisis. Many of us were pushed off the reservations to seek better education and higher learning, but there was a sacrifice we had to make for this. The sacrifice, which I made partially to be in a place of higher learning, was to put aside our traditional upbringing and our traditional beliefs. We had to become aggressive and boisterous, become like the non-Indian who runs the system. We had been led to believe ever since kindergarten that the old ways were done for, that they had no meaning, no monetary or economic value. All the way up until graduation from high school, we were told that the traditional way wasn’t of any consequence and that we were something that had to be turned around and remade. That had a tremendous effect on our self-esteem; that’s where our identity crisis began.

When I first met Joe, I felt like I was going down a wrong road. I was kind of like a fake, a carbon copy. I guess I was shooting for that ultimate goal of being a WASP. That was unrealistic, but that was what my dad and other people wanted for us. They didn’t really want . . .

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