Two weeks ago I spent an entire week in a conference for a government program serving Native American tribes. Recent legislation has allowed me to work more closely with this tribal program but I find the timing more than coincidental.
At the beginning of each conference day and before each shared meal, an elder or a spiritual leader gave a blessing. I was deeply moved by one blessing in particular. We were in a conference session on culture – specifically, how tribal culture affects the implementation of this government program and those who benefit from it. This particular blessing was reserved until the end of the session. I’ll say more about it in a bit.
During the session I, an outsider, was able to listen to members of many different tribes, mainly in California, discuss what makes them who they are: their values, customs, beliefs, traditions and practices. I listened to discussions about how natives growing up in urban settings experience finding their way back to the tribe and the cultural traditions, learning their language, finding their place. There was a discussion about the influence Native American culture has had on the culture at large. In that discussion, I got an answer to a question I’ve wondered about for a long time – why I can’t find much written about Native American spirituality that is particularly helpful. The answer is that their spirituality is regarded as so sacred that it is only passed down within the tribe to those who are entrusted with the responsibility of not teaching it to anyone who may use it with less than pure intentions. It is an oral tradition, passed down at the feet of the elders who are highly regarded and respected for their wisdom — it is not written in books.
The blessing after that session went something like this:
Great-grandmother, great-grandfather and all the ancestors upon whose shoulders we stand, it is your collective wisdom that has brought us to this place, to this time, to this day in this room. We carry with us the wisdom of the ages that propels us forward and calls us home. Be with us as each of us goes about our tasks to serve our families-our tribes, to preserve our traditions, to learn to live in two worlds at once. Help each one in the room today who is in the process of finding his way home.
Just hearing him call upon his ancestors and acknowledge them as still quite present and involved in their lives sent chills down my spine. I’ll try to explain why as I go along.
I think “collective consciousness” is too much of a buzz word right now to fully express what I felt but, for lack of better words, I’ll use those. I felt a tremendous sense of single-mindedness that was rooted in something good, pure and timeless. I felt like root vegetables. I felt like something ran deep and anchored these people – both like they were a part of something, and that this something was part of them, a part of their very selves that they could not avoid. I felt like there was truth all in the room – if not mine, someone’s, and it was real. I believed the spiritual leader who said that he couldn’t agree immediately when asked to come and participate – that he needed time to ponder what he was to say because if he had nothing to say, there was no point in speaking. I believed the sign that came to him, an eagle feather. In his tradition, the person speaking to a group holds an eagle feather and as long as they hold the feather, they are required to speak truth. I believed that this eagle feather coming to him while he sat in the mountains contemplating his decision was indeed his sign to come. And I felt grieved.
I felt the weight of history. I felt the bleeding severed ties to my anchors. I felt lost and robbed. I felt distant and flighty. I felt like the disembodied feather floating around, landing for a while and floating away again. My people are a tribe in Africa – somewhere, with traditions and stories and a spirituality that explains their connection to All That Is. My people are a tribe in America – somewhere, with a secret understanding of All That Is that has been passed down from our ancestors. My people are among the faeries on the Emerald Isle -somewhere, with stories and encounters and interactions with a world we can not see. I come from spiritual peoples-but history has robbed me. All I have ever heard, my entire life, is the tradition of those who oppressed my peoples, on three different continents. I was raised with the tradition of a people who used their spirituality, rather their religion, as a sanction to enslave and oppress.
I felt cheated. I felt like I was handed a processed cheese food instead of the self-sustaining wisdom to produce my own real cheese.
I grew up in a faith that says that connecting with (cavorting with) the spirit world was the devil’s work. I find that so strange though when I read the accounts of Jesus’s conception and birth. Everyone was talking to helpers from the other side – and no one thought it strange. My peoples are three cultures with deep roots in spiritual places I am starting to feel fine exploring. I want to sit with elders in my tribes and ask them about the way of understanding oneself as a spiritual being having a human experience. I want to hear from those who believe that life after leaving the body is more than going to heaven or hell based on your behavior, or your proper baptism, or belief in the right savior. I want know the wisdom of nature – what is right under my nose that can heal what baffles modern scientists? I want to understand what it means that I felt the presence of all those ancestors the leader called upon that day for guidance. But who do I ask?
I can probably narrow my Native American ancestors down to two possible tribes. I have no clue about where my African ancestors are from. I have never heard anything at all about my Irish family beyond my grandfather that gives any hope of finding a connection.
Who are your people? I was dumbfounded at that question when asked. The asker was completely sincere. It was her way of showing that I mattered. Who are my people? To know the answer, I can only imagine, would sustain that rooted feeling – that sense of root vegetables that I had in that room that day.