Spiritual Life Lessons from Native American Sisters
This blog is part of a series on World Religions. I am teaching a class on World Religions at Salve Regina University, here in Newport, RI, and have been asked to teach the same course – minus the papers and exams – at my church and at a nearby assisted living facility. Most classes on World Religions fail to include Native American spirituality, but my own spiritual life has been so positively and deeply influenced by Native American spirituality that I could never conceive of teaching a World Religions class without including Native American spirituality. The tricky thing is that most of the major World Religions have a sacred book or text (The Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras for Hinduism; the Bible for Jews and Christians; the Koran for Muslims, etc), but Native American spirituality, on the other hand, is still largely an oral tradition, with stories passed down orally from generation to generation.
In my own life, I was blessed to know two Native American women, who graciously shared their stories and their life experiences with me, perhaps not realizing the deep and lasting effect they would have on my life. I wish to dedicate this blog to these two women: Nighthawk Flying, and Sister Jose Hobday. I met them both around the same time in my life, when I was a young mother of three, in my early thirties. That was over twenty years ago.
Nighthawk Flying was the first of these two women whom I met. I was serving as a Chaplain at Calumet Lutheran Camp and Conference Center in West Ossipee, New Hampshire. (Ironically, “Calumet” is a Native American word that means “peace pipe.”) Nighthawk Flying, at that time a young woman about my age, was also on the staff at Camp Calumet that summer. She was teaching environmental studies. We were instantly drawn to one another in spiritual friendship. She taught the young people that all of life is connected, that life is a web. She taught them that we are to treat every part of God’s creation as sacred, every creature, every brook and tree, every rock and flower, all are sacred. All reveal God’s presence to us. All should be treated with reverence. Whatever we do to one part of the web of life, effects the whole. We cannot separate ourselves from the rest of God’s creation. An avid outdoor enthusiast, who always saw God’s presence most powerfully in nature, I felt that she spoke to the deepest part of me. I approached life as a Christian, she as a Native American, yet we both viewed life through the same lens: the Great Spirit infuses all creation, and all creation is to be treated with honor and reverence. All creation teaches us lessons; all creation is our sister, our brother, our mother, our father.
As it turns out, she spent part of her time living in Rhode Island, so we continued our friendship, meeting at Pow Wows, having dinner at my home, sharing, spirit to spirit. She told me the Native American story of the Dream Catcher, of the of Spider Woman, of the Buffalo Woman. She gifted me with beautiful beaded earrings she had made. One of the stories she shared with us at Calumet, my children and I incorporated into our family life. It is the “talking stick.” I have used this with youth groups and adult groups as well. Nighthawk gave me a talking stick she had made, decorated with feathers, beads, and strips of leather. For Native Americans, and also for me as a contemplative, Silence is of utmost importance. I am often dismayed by the incessant noise of our culture. When I go to visit elders from my parish in nursing homes, I am shocked to see how many people have the television blaring all day long, to “keep them company,” they tell me. I always politely ask them if I can turn the television off while we visit. When I drive, 90 percent of the time I drive in silence, even if my drive is hours long. As one spiritual newsletter I subscribe to puts it: “In the Silence, we hear God speak.” (Friends of Silence)
I also become dismayed when, in small group settings, one person hogs the conversation. I am surprised that people are often oblivious to the signals the rest of the group is giving them, such as shifting their bodies, yawning, even rolling their eyes or sighing aloud, revealing that the conversation hog should be silent and let others have an opportunity to speak. I remember being part of a group of women, where a girl in high school blabbed on and on from her short lived experience, while women her grandmothers’ age were left with no opportunity to speak. I longed to hear the wisdom of our elders! I do not understand why some people feel the need to fill the silence with noise.
The talking stick helps with this. The group sits in a circle, with the talking stick placed in the center. When one wishes to speak, one takes and holds the talking stick, and considers one’s words carefully, speaking only what is necessary. No one is allowed to speak except the one with the talking stick. When one has finished speaking, one places the talking stick back in the center of the circle. The talking stick helps one to truly think about the power of words, and about speaking only those words which are essential.
I met Sister Jose Hobday shortly after I met Nighthawk Flying. I was at the Center for Creation Centered Spirituality (ICCS) at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. One of the founders of ICCS was Matthew Fox. I went to ICCS for a number of years, taking Creation Spirituality courses. I took courses on Native American Spirituality with Sister Jose Hobday. She died just a few years ago, but lives on in my spirit, and in a daily spiritual practice I learned from her. Her book, “Stories of Awe and Abundance,” tells many of the stories of her life which I had the privilege of hearing her tell personally. Sr. Jose was a Lakota, who had become a Franciscan nun. As we know Saint Francis honors God in all creation, as do Native Americans. I learned so many things from Sister Jose, but perhaps the most important thing was daily prayers, which I have been doing now for over twenty years, each and every morning, outside in my backyard, or wherever I may be. Over the years, in my own teaching and retreat ministry, I have taught these prayers to thousands of people. I always give credit to the great woman, Sister Jose Hobday, who shared these prayers with me. Since everyone asks if I can write them down, I have done so, below.
This day, may you see the Great Spirit in all you encounter,
and may you reflect the Great Spirit to all you encounter.
Linda Forsberg, Copyright October 15, 2015
P.S. Over the years, I am sad to say that Nighthawk Flying and I lost touch. In recent days I have tried to locate her, but to no avail. If anyone knows where she is, please ask her to contact me. Thank you.
Photos: Ghost Ranch, NM; Linda and Sylvie; the outdoor chapel at Camp Calumet, West Ossipee, NH; Ghost Ranch; Linda doing morning prayers, Nova Scotia; Casa del Sol, Ghost Ranch, NM; Linda in the Grand Canyon