With the recent deaths occurring in an Arizona sweat lodge, three so far, many Indigenous Americans are rabidly repeating the mantras “That’s what you get when you mess with things you have no right to mess with”, “Non-natives have no right to participate, let alone conduct sacred native ceremonies” and “The spirits are clearly expressing their disapproval, when will non-natives learn?”
These are sad, angry and fear filled sentiments with which I do not agree. They weigh in my heart as I hear my relations repeat them at family events, powwows and even sacred gatherings. I have shared my feelings before pertaining to the separatist attitudes my relations have regarding our spirituality. Yet, further understanding compels me to revisit the issue and clarify, albeit to myself, this particular concern. Although I still do not agree with the segregationist views, I do believe my relations have some very good points and real reasons for concern. However, I suggest pause and deliberation lest our fears overcome and misguide us. By clarifying to ourselves exactly what it is that is really important, we can better express our concerns to others without sounding like rabid, bigoted hypocrites.
This is important because no one listens to rabid, bigoted hypocrites except other rabid, bigoted hypocrites and you end up preaching to the choir.
The common indigenous attitude of non-natives not having the right to worship and commune with the Great Mystery via sacred indigenous ceremony based on their ethnic or cultural background is, in my humble opinion, a bunch of bunk. The racist view that only those of red skin can walk the Red Road completely debases the prayer Mitakuye Oyasin- All My Relations. This Lakota prayer, which has been adopted by other Native groups cross-culturally, as well as the Sacred Pipe and even the Medicine Wheel (which is found cross-culturally), symbolizes the universe and encompasses all of creation: humans, the Flying People, the Four Legged, the Tall People, creepy crawlie creatures, swimming beings and even things usually considered inanimate, like stones and mountains. It also includes the unknown and the unknowable: our solar system, our galaxy, our universe out to infinity as well as our cells, atoms, quarks and in to infinity. Our ancestors knew thousands of years ago what physics is teaching us today: that we are all made out of the same stuff, we are all intimately connected and the separation and variety we pick up with our senses is just a perception. This truth was made into a prayer to remind us, then and now: that we are all embraced by the wings of the Great Spirit. That we are all children of the Creator, as different or as separated as we may perceive ourselves to be one from the other; Mitakuye Oyasin- We are All Related.
Our desired outcome regarding our religious beliefs and spiritual ceremonies is to have them respected. For this they need to be understood. To help non-natives, and even natives with non-native world views understand, we need to be clear in our expression and focused on the point. Yet our uncontrolled emotions and righteous indignation, paired with undisciplined minds and mouths, our post-colonial damage and adoption of ancient european imperialistic attitudes and thought patterns, muddy the waters of communication. We argue tangents, while leaving the bigger picture untouched and unheard. Our personal and spiritual wounding is getting in the way of our expression and we’re not accomplishing our ultimate goals.
Instead we have native cousins that rush to picket a non-native ceremony of one type or another. We have those who spew venom at fair skinned, blue eyed holy people. We find others who pretend tolerance by allowing non-natives to be present in sacred ceremony in exchange for their silence and non-participation. All this is doing is perpetuating a separatist agenda. How sad is it to know that there are native groups who feel blessed by the presence of a bird flying above, insect noises or a mangy mutt walking into a ceremonial circle, while simultaneously refusing entry to a white, black or yellow brother on the basis of the color of their skin or their cultural background. This discrepancy corrupts the very essence of Mitakuye Oyasin, and leads one to question the spiritual sincerity of those involved.
Real reasons to fear
On the other hand, this bitterness, this anger that my relations carry in their hearts wasn’t born in a vacuum, it has good reason to be. Anyone with enough interest in our shared history will find how our indigenous cultures have been under attack since the arrival of the Europeans. For centuries our peoples and ways of life have been devalued, our governance and social systems deemed ignorant and labeled “primitive”, “crude”, “barbaric”; we natives have been abused and misused and under a constant genocidal attack. Focusing on the physical: lands were stolen, misappropriated via tricks and false agreements. Whole villages were “relocated” in ways that assured the deaths of most of the people; adjacent tribes were stuffed into useless lots of land without regards to the fact that they were not the same people, had different ways and languages, and some might have even been at war against each other! Yet the general attitude was, and has been, one of indifference and insensitivity. “They are all Indian so they must all be the same. They will either learn to deal with each other or kill each other off”; in which case, they’d be fulfilling the conqueror’s agenda- extermination.
To this end, some of us have even been written out of history…
Everyone studies how “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” but very seldom are the people who found Columbus wandering around the Caribbean, mentioned by name. The poem I am quoting, 1492, which is used in schools to mis-educate children on this part of history, states it was the “Arawakan natives” that found him, but this is not true. “Arawak” is the name of a language family, not a People. English is a Germanic Indo-European language and those who speak it can be American, British, Australian and so on. The people who met Columbus were Taino, not Arawaks. Columbus and his crew aren’t known as Latin Indo-European, they are known by name, yet the Taino are not. This demonstrates succinctly the devaluation of the original people of the Americas which started with the Latin Indo-European and continues to be perpetuated today by the Germanic Indo-European.
Some would say that this is ancient history, that we Indians were conquered and we should deal with it. The same ignorance that says this, fails to realize that many of us are still living this ancient war, a war that is being perpetuated by an abusive Nation.
During the Indian termination era (1940’s-1960’s) there were whole tribes that were just written off the books. In one fell swoop, these people went from federally recognized Native Americans to non-federally recognized, and any support or agreements that were made with that tribe were invalidated. Most importantly, the lands allocated to them as federally recognized Indians were appropriated, stolen, pillaged, and sold to private and public interests… the money pocketed and the people discarded.
Many of those tribes affected by these termination policies are still presently seeking federal recognition and fulfillment of treaties and agreements that were made while they were federally recognized Nations. These folks have spent 30, 40, 50 years jumping through federal hoops to get re-certified as “authentic American Indians”. To this day, treaties are still ignored, people are being forcefully removed from reservation lands and others are having their lands raped and poisoned to the point where the people who live there are dying of cancer and other chemically induced diseases ala Hinkley, CA. (Hint: remember Erin Brockovich?)
Our “Brockovich” was Anna Mae Aquash, and she was murdered. Funny thing is that when the body was found there were a couple of federal agents who knew her present, and yet she was interred as a Jane Doe. It’s just one of those things that make you go “hmmmm”.
One of the first things many non-natives will focus on when these things are mentioned, is the “entitlements” natives are supposedly getting in exchange for their lands and pain and suffering. These folks talk of the federal money Indians are “getting” via programs and scholarships as if there were a hemorrhage of cash flowing into the reservations and people can just walk by and grab a couple of hundreds whenever they feel like it. All the while they ignore that many of these programs are decorative and have no funding, and those that do cannot be used because the people cannot afford to use them; or they require such a degree of proof of “qualifying” indigineity that they are impossible to attain. Few bother to learn that the “homes” provided by the government are substandard, some of them don’t even have windows; or how many of our cousins have to choose between paying for food or paying for heat in these same substandard homes. Our cousins are living in third world countries right in our own back yards, yet folks choose to ignore all this and look at what’s being “taken” from them.
Others will focus on the few tribes who have made the best of a bad situation and have come out on top, mainly those few tribes who have casinos, and thus a profitable income of which the states/governments want a piece of. Few bother to learn that not all reservations have a casino, and the profits of these gambling establishments come back to the people themselves in one way or another. It doesn’t belong to the American government. Nothing is being “taken” when folks are voluntarily going to these establishments and spending their money… Yet again, folks choose to ignore all this and pretend to be victims of “native cunning”.
Don’t be fooled- warfare is alive and well right here in the United States of America, and it’s against our very own.
Although compressed and incomplete, these reasons are more than enough to fuel anger and resentment. But sadly, it doesn’t end with thievery, genocide, abuse, lies, pillaging and rape but goes even further…
How far can Genocide go?
We indigenous people of the Americas, are round pegs who have been forced into a square worldview for the past 500+ years, and it is not working!
Since the very beginning of the European invasion, the original inhabitants of the Americas have been forced to abandon our social, political and religious systems and adopt the values of the conquering people. Our civilization, our philosophies, our way of being in the world was deemed incorrect, wrong, “primitive”, and violently replaced. To this day there are some who still believe that indigenous peoples of the Americas had/have no civilization, no religion and no philosophy! They even believe that European civilization saved us from extinction! What is incredibly incongruent, is that many of these same people also believe that we have to change our present social, political, environmental and religious interactions and become a more “sustainable” society. In other words, that our present civilization and value system is not working; a civilization and value system based on those of the European interlopers. Yet the very idea of a sustainable society: giving back, taking only what is needed and living in balance, is not a new thing. It has been part and parcel of “primitive” indigenous societies all over the planet!
The indigenous civilizations met by European invaders worldwide were in existence and thriving for thousands of years before their meeting. And it’s interesting that ideas of independence, living in Utopian societies and the blooming of new ideas and philosophies happened during and after first contact with these so called “primitives”, when they were exposed to different worldviews and perspectives… Upon meeting “primitives” the Europeans bloomed, yet indigenous people worldwide were suppressed for the purposes of annihilation.
Refocusing on the Americas, the first trespassers, the Spanish, were driven by greed. In their quest for riches, collecting souls for the christian god was an afterthought. The moment gold came into play, the native were forced into slavery and were required to meet a certain daily quota of gold or suffer the consequences. The Taino social life was not valued so the conquerors made slaves of all- including the nobility- again, by force. Speaking the Taino language was punishable by death. The religious life of the Taino was not valued nor respected, so they were given the european god, also by force. Our ancestors had to comply or face the consequences and these consequences were not just a simple beating; people were hung, hands were chopped off, eyes were plucked out, children impaled on swords or smashed against walls and rocks in plain view of their mothers, people burned alive, savaged by the conqueror’s hunting dogs… This was the value system of the Spanish at the time and these actions were done all throughout the lands they conquered.
To this day many of our people in the Caribbean, Central and South America are still ashamed to be identified as Indian. The term is used as a put down, an insult.
Those people who were conquered by the other Europeans, fared no better. Those who were kept as scouts and “allies” were lied to, used, and made into drunks and whores. Those who were not, were hunted like animals; their scalps and body parts sold and used as decoration, their skins used as leggings and chaps, women’s breasts and vulvas used as bags and coin purses. The “allies” were eventually rounded up into zoos and all promises of equality, freedoms and remuneration went out the window.
Thereabouts in the 1940’s the United Nations was created and the Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. The US was a founding member of this organization and yet, it continued its genocidal assault upon the indigenous people within their political borders. Children were forcefully removed from their families and villages, and sent to governmental “Indian Schools” where they were tortured out of their “indianess”. Indian women of child-bearing ages, even those who had just reached puberty and had never had sex, were covertly sterilized. These women had their tubes tied or their ovaries removed without informed consent, and if they did mention anything they were lied to. Told that the process was reversible and could be undone. In Boriken, aka Puerto Rico, women were being used as guinea pigs for the birth control pill. To this day women are still suffering the effects of those experimental trials, an experiment they never knew they were participating in! All this happened under U.S. government approval, and sometimes even law, until the 1970’s and 80’s.
This is not ancient history.
Those Europeans that were escaping religious persecution, arrived to these lands only to inflict their own brand of religious persecution upon the people they met here. Sacred items and places were desecrated and ceremony was outlawed. Despite the fact that this Nation, the United States of America, was founded under the premise of religious freedom, it was only the other day (1978) that Native American Indians, the original inhabitants of these lands, were afforded that same right- over two hundred years after the founding of this country, and the US is only 230+ years old.
The “religious freedom” we have been granted today, is limited, since the only ones who can have and use certain sacred items and participate in certain ceremonies, are those natives who are federally recognized. This law that “protects” Native American religious “freedom” excludes the Native Americans that lost recognition in the 40’s-60’s, those that have never been federally recognized for one reason or another, and those Native Americans that happen to live outside the political borders of the US. That’s a LOT of Indians. At this point in time, you need a huge amount of hands to count how many of our cousins are in prison just because they were doing sacred ceremony and the federal government happened to be in the area. This goes to show how the persecution of Native American indigenous religions has never abated, regardless of the laws proclaimed- how it lives on even today. This is the religious freedom we natives are afforded.
The Europeans: British, Spanish, French or Portuguese, all did the same thing to the people of Turtle Island. They severed all ties to what supported our identity, what informed us of who we are and what our place was in the Circle of Life. The beliefs of who we are as Human Beings, our very worldview, has always been centered around our spiritual life; we are one with creation, not above it, as the invader’s religion teaches. The deadly viruses of beliefs injected into society by the conquering people, live on to this day. We fight against the common belief that we are dying out or nonexistent, that we are supposed to go the way of the dinosaur. Some scholars will say we are delusional in believing that we are still Indians because our blood has been mixed with other ethnic groups, as if that were the source of a persons identity. We have cousins in prison for participating in sacred ceremony. We have adults and elders who have been damaged by the BIA school systems, soldiers suffering from PTSD, not only the warriors who have fought on behalf of the US, but those who have been fighting on behalf of the people of Turtle Island, and have no access to the help they need. Our healing ways are hard to come by due to banning and the “conquerors” medicines only patch, they don’t heal. We have women of childbearing age who cannot have children due to forced sterilization, so they don’t have future generations and live daily with the bitterness of what hass been stolen from them. We have cousins all across the Americas: the US, Canada, Central and South America, that are being murdered just because they are Indians; because they are in the way of “progress” and corporations want their lands. These companies are getting those lands via terrorist tactics and the governments turn a blind eye… At times, it’s even the very governments that are funding these actions!
What started 500 years ago with the Latin Indo-european, continues today; not just in Canada, Australia, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, etc. but on our very lands of “opportunity”, The United States of America.
It could very well be that our sacred ceremonies and rituals are viewed by some as a last, untouched link to our ancestry, to where we come from, to who we are and have always been. Knowing how our society at large consumes ideas, tries on cultures and religions and then disrespectfully discards them as garbage or worse- makes them illegal or immoral- makes many of us leery to share those things that are sacred to us. How many people didn’t protest the movie The Exorcist because of a scene defiling the cross? Or felt offended at Sinead O’Conner’s protests against the national anthem and the catholic church? And how many weren’t offended by Maddona’s defiling most every symbol of the christian faith? These offenses have been mere blips compared to the continuous attempts at undermining and obliterating, not only our religion, but our very existence.
So, needless to say, there are good reasons for resentments when non-natives want to enter our sacred circles.
Where to go from here?
I wish I could say I have all the answers, but I sure as hell don’t. All the contrary, one answer only seems to create additional questions that when answered only creates more questions… And in the end, I’m damaged, too. I am human, and I share the feelings of righteous indignation, offense and rage. I feel cheated, victimized and abused. I suffer the post colonial traumatization that has been inherited by all my indigenous cousins.
However, I’ve come to a point where I want to heal, I need to heal. The damage that I inflict on others over this issue, the ideas I poison my child’s head with in regards to this, only perpetuates the anger and the wounding. It does no good to anyone to peel off the scab and muck around in the damage. But like any festering wound, I agree that it needs to be lanced, debrided and maybe even packed for a while… Healing is desperately needed.
If I could, I would take away the pain suffered by both the oppressor and the oppressed and give to all my relations the gifts of self-love and self-respect. But these are gifts that cannot be bestowed on another; we can only do the work that belongs to us. One of the things I have learned so far is that all the healing another does on our behalf is nothing if we aren’t willing to make some deep commitment to ourselves; to rise to the challenge of healing and changing our minds, our thoughts and above all, our reactive patterns- our behavior… We have seen what forced assimilation to another’s thought patterns have wrought; any change will have to come from our own heart, and it’s a lot of work!
Personally, I believe that everyone wants to be happy, that most of us are doing our best with what we have. I also believe that looking at ourselves honestly, seeing our faults and what we need to work on is a difficult endeavor at best, and takes a lot more courage than many of us are capable of at times. It’s a lot easier to see another’s faults than it is to see our own. And because we aren’t taught to be kind to ourselves, when we do look at our behavior, we use that information to brutalize ourselves. So, instead of looking within and giving ourselves room to grow, most of the time we are running away, projecting on others or sublimating those things we consider “bad” in ourselves. No one wants to be a “bad” person, and most of the time we don’t recognize that we aren’t really, we are just imperfect.
I’m working on compassion, for both myself and for others. I am looking at my habits, my thought patterns and my behavior. I am recognizing the beauty that lives in me, as well as the monsters that lurk within; they are both there and they serve their purpose, sometimes only too well. I am recognizing that I have a choice in how I want to see the world and how I want to act in it. I am coming to a place where I can get a glimps of understanding of many of the mottos, slogans and quotes from elders, wise people and even self-help gurus.
The world is my mirror. We are all related. The circle has no beginning and no end. I will need to be the change I wish to see in the world. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that…
I am working on being a vessel for that love.
It’s not a matter of pretending evil doesn’t and hasn’t happened, it’s a matter of seeing the truth I am living today first. It’s not a matter of blindly adopting a slogan, it’s knowing what part I play in the big picture and doing something about it. It’s observing my own automatic behaviors and then aligning them with those higher ideals, attitudes and ethics that I claim to believe in and want to see manifested in the world. It’s thinking about the truth I reflect in my words and comparing it to the truth I reflect in my actions and coming to a decision that will bring me to wholeness instead of living a split identity: that which I believe myself to be and that which I reflect in my behavior.
It’s a matter of praying Mitakuye Oyasin on a daily basis and then having the courage to actually live it.
(c) A. Nanu Pagan, December 2009