Native American Spirituality and the Disenfranchised
When my children were young, I worked hard to instill in them the belief that when they grew up, they could do anything, be anything. I especially wanted my daughters to know that, although in my day women could not always follow their dream and be who they felt called to be, they were blessed to live in a time when women here in the United States can become whatever they truly desire to be. I literally tried to drill this into their hearts, minds, and souls. So when my daughter Victoria was about six, she looked up at me with her dark brown eyes one day and proclaimed, “When I grow up, I want to be a Native American!”
Although we still chuckle about that, the more I research and study other spiritual traditions, the more I can say that if I were not a Christian, if I had to choose a spiritual tradition other than my own, I too would be a Native American! I say this for many and various reasons, but most of all because of the way Native Americans treat the “Anawim,” a Hebrew word signifying “the disenfranchised, those who cry out to God for justice.”
Being an outdoor person, whose earliest childhood experience of God was through nature, I am drawn to the way Native Americans see the Great Spirit in all that is. My earliest childhood memory is from when I was just a toddler, and sat in my sandbox in my backyard. I was aware of Someone far greater than I am, who came to me through the breeze that rustled the trees and caressed my face, the blue sky and clouds that danced above me, the trees, the birds and insects, and my mother, who watched me protectively from the kitchen window, as she washed dishes, and prepared our dinner. As a slightly older child, daily I would ride my bicycle to a small nearby park called Elm Circle, where I would hoist my skinny young body up into the branches of “my tree.” From my perch I could see far beyond, to the city aptly named Providence, and felt held, rocked in the arms of its branches. There in my tree I poured out my young soul, the joys and exaltations of my day, my struggles and griefs. Only later, in my thirties, did my spiritual director help me to realize that my tree was my early experience of God. Forever, one of my deepest spiritual connections is with trees. Only very recently did I come to realize that trees in many spiritual traditions, including my own Judeo-Christian tradition, represent the feminine aspect of God.
But the more I study alternative histories, as opposed to the white, educated,male, European history I learned in my formal education, the deeper my appreciation for our Native sisters and brothers, and the deeper my lament for what we did to them, nearly wiping out one of the most spiritually advanced and egalitarian cultures. I highly recommend you all read Howard Zinn’s, The Peoples History of the United States, which focuses on the history of non-whites, women, or those we could call the “anawim.”
For a course I am teaching at Salve Regina University, as well as at my church, and a nearby senior living facility, I am focusing specifically on how each of the major world religions treats the anawim, specifically the poor, women, and LBGTQ persons. In my opinion, Native American spirituality gets the “prize,” alongside Jesus, for the fullest inclusion and complete equality of the anawim, which is why I love Jesus, and why I also love Native American spirituality and have incorporated it into my daily spiritual practice (see Native American Prayers in last week’ blog).
In terms of how they treated the poor, Native Americans lived by a radical egalitarianism. Because of their deep reverence for the earth and all of its abundance and blessings, they lived one of the simplest, and most environmentally conscious lifestyles I have ever known from all of my study and research. Native American culture is communal in the deepest sense of that word. When one truly honors the sacred nature of all that is, how could one not share the resources of the community with all? There were therefore no “poor” members of a tribe. Resources were shared equally among all. Those whom our modern United States culture dishonors and neglects – our elders, those who are challenged in some way, LBGTQ persons – Native culture reveres and honors for their unique wisdom.
Women from ancient times experienced more equality in Native cultures than women today experience in many parts of the world. But for me the most remarkable discovery is that from ancient times Native Americans had a unique understanding of gender and LBGTQ persons. Rather than hold to the idea of two genders, as most cultures do, Native Americans held a belief in four genders: what they called masculine men, feminine men, masculine women, and feminine women. Imagine understanding this construct without looking at “feminine” or “masculine” in any kind of a derogatory way. In fact the middle two genders, men who exhibited a high degree of feminine characteristics, or women who exhibited a high degree of masculine characteristics, were highly revered, because it was believed that they had a fuller, more expansive perspective, incorporating “two spirits.: the feminine and the masculine.” “Two Spirit” persons often wore the clothing of the opposite gender, and participated in the activities of the opposite gender, and often served as healers or spiritual leaders of the community. From ancient times marriages happened between people of any of these four genders.
How tragic that when Europeans arrived, Two Spirit persons were persecuted, rather than revered and held in high esteem.How tragic that today we aspire to a truly egalitarian or “equalist” * world (a word created by my friend Steph Smith and me, see earlier blog “I Am an Equalist”), but the one ancient culture that lived this egalitarian and equalist ideal, we persecuted and decimated. For this we must lament, and beg forgiveness.
It is time to learn from our Native American sisters and brothers. Perhaps, when we as the human species grow up, we can all aspire to be like Native Americans!
This day, may we see the sacred in all we encounter,
and may we reflect the sacred to all we encounter.
Linda Forsberg, Copyright October 22, 2015
Photos: Juliana and victoria as children; Tree, Hilo, Hawaii; Tree, Redwood National Park; Ted at Chaco Canyon, NM, one of the most ancient Native American sacred sites; Chaco Canyon; Linda at Chaco Canyon; Linda at Chaco Canyon
*Check our the film: www.twospirits.org. I show this film to my classes; also check out the book, “Two Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality,” Edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang