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Other Ways of Knowing

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Primal and Indigenous Spirituality

Other Ways of Knowing
Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Though I have no family ties to indigenous religions, I have great respect for their wisdom. I was honored to serve as a deacon at Acoma Pueblo many years ago and I continue to learn about the Pueblo, Diné (Navajo), and Apache peoples here in New Mexico. But I only know enough to know that I don’t know much at all! Indigenous spirituality is not intended for non-Native use or understanding. When we try to interpret or apply these teachings in our own context, we run the risk of “drastic adaptation” and “severe reinterpretation to fit our conceptions of reality.” [1]

I also don’t want to romanticize Native spirituality. As in every religion, there are times, places, and people who “get it”—the mystery of divine/human union—more than others. There are different stages and states of consciousness, and all are part of the journey. We are accustomed to identifying stages of development as lower and higher. To some extent that may be true, but Western models of development usually focus on the rational mind, which offers one way of knowing reality. In fact, there are many other ways of perceiving and expressing human experience. We shouldn’t dismiss unfamiliar modalities as immature, superstitious, or silly just because we haven’t exercised those sensory muscles.

Barbara Holmes, one of our CONSPIRE 2018 teachers, writes:

I am grateful that terms such as primitive and preliterate are no longer acceptable descriptions of indigenous cultures. . . . [These are problematic words] used to preserve imperialistic presumptions about people and their cultures. This is particularly true since [as Graham Harvey writes] “indigenous religions are the majority of the world’s religions.” [2]

Most Native American tribes depend on oral teaching and story-telling more than written language. This very lack of codification allows the oral traditions easier access to nondual consciousness and embodied forms of knowing. Religious historian and Methodist minister Huston Smith (1919-2016) wrote that:

[Orality guards against the loss of] the capacity to sense the sacred through nonverbal channels. Because writing can grapple with meanings explicitly, sacred texts tend to gravitate to positions of such eminence as to be considered the preeminent if not exclusive channel of revelation. This eclipses other means of divine disclosure. Oral traditions do not fall into this trap. The invisibility of their texts, which is to say their myths, leaves their eyes free to scan for other sacred portents, virgin nature and sacred art being the prime examples. [3]

That really makes sense to me, even though I also know it is open to abuse, just as the three “religions of the book” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have always been open to abuse in the hands of immature people. Still, one of the nondual gifts of Native traditions is their openness to inspiration and wisdom from community, ancestors, dance, drumming, nature, beauty, and signs and symbols that speak deeply to the unconscious. Because they are not tied to one sacred text, they are freer to discover and honor the sacred everywhere.

[1] William C. Sturtevant, Preface to Native North American Spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands: Sacred Myths, Dreams, Visions, Speeches, Healing Formulas, Rituals, and Ceremonials, ed. Elisabeth Tooker (Paulist Press: 1979), xv.

[2] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 32-33. See also Graham Harvey, Indigenous Religions: A Companion (Continuum: 2000), 3, 7-12.

[3] Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (Harper Collins: 1986), 370.

Image Credit: National Powwow Grass Dancers (detail), 2007, Smithsonian Institute creator, photographer Cynthia Frankenburg, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Looking for beauty all around us is a contemplative practice, an exercise in opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to the divine image. In indigenous traditions, such opening practices often take the form of dance, drumming, song, and trance, embodied forms that Western, and particularly Euro-centric, Christianity has neglected. —Richard Rohr
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