Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Sacred Ground: What Native Americans Believe

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Sacred Ground: What Native Americans Believe

Article excerpt

Life for the Indian is one of harmony with Nature and the things which surround him. The Indian tried to fit in with Nature and to understand, not to conquer and to rule. We were rewarded by learning much that the white man will never know. Life was a glorious thing, for great contentment comes with the feeling of friendship and kinship with the living things about you. The white man seems to look upon all animal life as enemies, while we looked upon them as friends and benefactors. They were one with the Great Mystery and so were we. We could feel the peace and power of the Great Mystery in the soft grass under our feet and in the blue sky above us. All this made deep feeling within us, and the wise men thought much about it, and this is how we got our religion.

--Chief Luther Standing Bear from My Indian Boyhood

As many modern indigenous people try to get in touch with their traditional ways, so many non-Native Americans are beginning to discover the social, spiritual, environmental, and educational contributions that Native Americans have made. As magic and mystery continue to be lost in a culture that becomes exceedingly objectified, computerized, specialized, and compartmentalized; as organized religion continues to lose its hold over many of its followers; as people continue to become disassociated from God, nature, community, and themselves; and as Native American prophecies about the destruction of the environment seem on the brink of becoming reality, Native American spirituality takes on added importance.

But what can non-Native American Christians learn from Native Americans? Is the spirituality of Native Americans that much different from the spirituality of Western Christians? Can indigenous people teach Westerners anything that they don't already know from the teachings of the church and the readings of scripture?

Part of the problem in Western culture is that it is riddled with dualities. Good versus evil, body versus spirit, sacred versus profane are some of the common distinctions that have dominated Western thought for centuries.

But for the early indigenous people of North America and many modern Native Americans there are no dualities. All of life is one. There is a unity to all creation. All of life is interconnected like the web of a spider--to hurt one living creature is to hurt all living creatures, and to pluck a flower is to trouble a star.

As Joseph Epes Brown points out in his book The Spiritual Legacy of the American Native American, there is no Native American word for religion because they do not view religion as a category divorced from society. Their entire world is a sacred place filled with wonder and awe. The mystery of God is everywhere--in the rising sun and beyond the early morning mist, on the vast plains and in the dense forests, under a star-filled sky and beneath the light of a constantly changing moon.


Although every Native American nation has a distinct spirituality, there are some common threads in all Native American spiritualities. Referring to the world as Grandmother Earth, most Native Americans look at their physical surroundings as a living being. All things are alive, and spirituality is sought through intimate communion with the natural world. Unlike many who look at the world as either a sophisticated machine or a commodity to be used and thrown away, traditional Native Americans experience the earth as a moving, breathing entity that is holy and life-giving. They share a notion of cosmic harmony, in which humans, animals, plants, and the physical earth cooperate with the supernatural to bring about a balanced and harmonious universe.

As Paula Gunn Allen emphasizes in The Sacred Hoop, "The notion that nature is somewhere over there while humanity is over here or that a great hierarchical ladder of being exists on which ground and trees occupy a very low rung, animals a slightly higher one, and man [never woman]--especially 'civilized' man--a very high one indeed is antithetical to tribal thought. …

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