Category Archives: Indigenous Religion

First People of the Americas

The more we learn about Indigenous People of the Americas the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. It is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.

As David Hurst Thomas explained,

“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people.  For forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”

The more we learn about these varied groups of peoples who populated  America (and by that I mean North, South, and Central America) and the more we learn about them the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. But it is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.

As David Hurst Thomas explained,

“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people.  From forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”

Scientists are not in complete agreement about how these first Americans arrived in the western hemisphere. They do agree on how or exactly when they came from the “Old World,” but the most common theory, for which there is significant evidence, is that they crossed from Asia on foot when the sea levels were much lower than they are today because so much water was captured by the incredibly massive continental ice sheets that covered North America. Some have speculated that they came by boats from Asia. Both theories are incredibly interesting.

As Thomas said, “We do not know when they left their ancient homelands, what conditions they experienced along the way, or even why they first came to America.”

Yet we do know that these people were not savages. Only ignorant prejudice would make anyone think that. As Thomas said,

“Without doubt, the first Americans arrived as fully developed human beings. They were definitely not “primordial” or “primitive,” not stooped and shambling, had no heavily ridged brows. They walked upright and looked much the way American Indians look today. They brought with them an Ice Age patrimony, including many basic human skills: fire making, flintknapping, and effective ways to feed, shelter and clothe themselves. As early immigrants, they lived in close-knit kin groups, enjoyed social interactions, and shared beliefs about magic and the supernatural. They spoke a fully human language. As they dispersed throughout the Western Hemisphere they lived in diverse and sometimes unstable environments. But they continued, to feed their families and to safeguard their new homeland. Over the generations, the first American ancestors confronted and solved colossal challenges.”

In time they developed advanced cultures. After a long while on the continent they spoke more than 2,000 languages. Later migrants who came after the first Americans, brought with them new languages, new cultures, that were well adapted to the environments in which they were inhabiting. It will be a consistent theme of this blog that the philosophies of these people were intimately connected to the environment in which they arose. That close connection has formed their ideas and made them so resilient.

Though these people inhabited the Western Hemisphere for a 1,000 generations before Christopher Columbus “discovered” them, a mere 25 generations have succeeded them since that time. The time in which this hemisphere has been occupied by Native Americans  was the time in which the hemisphere has been shared with the European invaders. I don’t call them discoverers.

During this time, As Thomas said,  “native Americans domesticated dozens of kinds of plant foods. They charted their farming cycles through complicated cosmologies  involving solar calendars, astronomical observations, prayerful rites, and celebrations. Indian people learned to use wild plants for healing, strengthening, and restoring health. Native American architecture matched anything Columbus had seen in his travels.”

Since their first arrival the Native American population increased dramatically. As Thomas said, “The native Americans modified their traditions and ideas to suit changing conditions. They crafted efficient, down-to-earth solutions to the unforeseeable. Their struggle for survival—the countless individual agreements and compromises, solutions and inventions—gave rise to the thousands of American Indian traditions and beliefs that so amazed the European explorers.”

The story of these peoples is, I submit, deeply interesting and worth some attention.  I hope some people stay along with me for the ride as we exploring these incredible people and their incredible history.

Chumash Indigenous People of the West Coast

 

As Robbie Robertson said in the television series Native America, which he narrated, “Sky watching, the 6 directions, and a search for people’s place in the world. These ideas are found throughout the Americas. They are part of a foundational belief system shared between distant and diverse cultures. Where does this common belief come from? The Chumash, an Indigenous nation of the southern west coast of the United States, may have an answer. Their ancestors were the first coastal settlers of what is now Southern California.”

First of all, they were great paddlers of the Pacific Ocean, the largest ecosystem on the planet. Alan Salazar a member of the Chumash/Tataviam First Nation knows that his ancestors were much better paddlers and navigators than he will ever be. Their ancestors travelled the ocean in a flat-bottomed canoe. Reginald Pagaling, another member of that nation, understands this too.  “Water is life. It is such a great teacher of respect. It’s a great teacher of power. It’s a great teacher of calmness.” Similar beliefs were found in other Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.

“Long ago water taught the Chumash a lesson they still practice. The best time to paddle is at night.” That was a very important lesson, but it was not intuitive. The ocean is of course much calmer at night. Even though its dark and you can hardly see the paddler ahead of you, that is the best time to paddle a canoe on the ocean. They would feel the paddle hit the water and come out. As Robertson said, “Far at sea in dark of night the Chumash look to the stars to guide them. Just as their ancestors did.” They used the Milky Way as a means to chart their way across the islands of the South Pacific. To me that seems impossible. But they did it.

They built canoes that could travel great distances across the forbidding Pacific Ocean. “Their mastery of the stars and seafaring enabled the very first Americans to move quickly down the coast and across the continents. Can the way America was settled explain why Native Americans share so many core beliefs?

Beringia is defined today as the land and maritime area that is bounded on the west by the Lena River in Russia, on the east by the Mackenzie River in Canada, on the north  by 72 degree latitude in the Chukchi Sea and on the south by the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Chukchi Sea, Bering Sea and Bering Strait are all part of Beringia. Basically what separates Asia from North America.

Part of Beringia is international waters, part is in Russia, part in the Untied States and part in Canada. At one time it formed a land bridge between Asia (Russia) and the western hemisphere and it is believed that humans used it to walk from Asia to North America when the sea levels were much lower than they are now because of the immense amount of water taken up by the massive continental Ice sheets during the last Ice Age. Today a few parts of it are visible as islands.

As Robertson said, New DNA evidence suggests that all Native Americans are descended from one people. They lived together for 25,000 years stuck behind a wall of Ice in area called Beringia. Perhaps here for thousands of years people observed cycles of the earth, sun, and stars and plant the seeds for a world view that will be shared across the Americas. Can these ideas really have been developed so far back in time? If so they may be expressed in the earliest art found here that dates back 13,000 years to the very beginnings of Native America.”

Spirit of the Plains

 

The iniskim or “buffalo stone” played an important role in the spiritual life of Plains People. They used stones that often contained fossils with a spiral shell for thousands of years. According to legend, a woman was trying to find food for her family and her band during a time of famine when an iniskim talked to her about how to use prayers and ceremonies to find buffalo and bring them to the people to hunt. As a result Blackfoot children, whose tribe lived on the Plains of North America, wore iniskim necklaces, while warriors wore them woven into their hair, and shamans carried them in bundles. Often the dead were buried with them to provide sustenance after death.

Another important spiritual instrument was the medicine wheel. I have seen at least one in Saskatchewan. I believe it was at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an internationally-acclaimed historic site just north of Saskatoon where my sister and brother-in-law took me a few years ago. For millennia medicine wheels  have been a part of Indigenous spiritual life among people of the plains. These stone structures were usually centred on a pile of rocks (cairn) often located on a prominent hill. Spokes of the wheel radiated outwards.

For the Indigenous People of the plains the circle and the number 4 had spiritual significance.  The circle had no beginning and no end. They also said that people hunt the buffalo for survival and then return it to the earth to nourish the grass, which then fed the new buffalo. This made the circle complete. As I said about the Anishinabe, the number 4 is also sacred to the Indigenous People of the plains.

At the visitor centre in Wanuskewin Heritage Park the number 4 is prominently on display in the four-pointed roof of the visitor centre, which can be seen from a distance. The roof represents four directions, four peoples, four seasons and four times of life.

A famous medicine wheel was built at Majorville about 5,000 years ago. 40 tonnes of rock were used to bu ild it.  The medicine wheel was frequently utilized  when Europeans first made contact with the Indigenous People on the plains.  At the centre of that wheel was soil 9 metres in diameter and 1.6 metres high surrounded by an oval ring of stones about 29 metres by 26 metres. It contained 26 to 28 spokes.

The main spiritual ceremony of Plains people was the Sun Dance. I found it interesting that it was usually led by a woman. Women were allowed to be leaders on the Plains at a time when the Christian religion by and large, relegated women to a secondary role. Who thinks the Europeans were the civilized ones? A woman usually decides when the dance was to be held. Often it was held in order to allow a woman who had a male relative or husband in danger. She vowed publicly that if this person were spared she would sponsor a Sun Dance.

The Sun Dance was later outlawed by Canadians who did not appreciate any competition from native spirituality for the religion they wanted to impose. That of course was Christianity.

Peter Nabokov in his book Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-1992,reported an anonymous Blackfoot response:

 

“We know that there is nothing injurious to our people in the Sun-dance…It has been our custom, during many years, to assemble once every summer for this festival…We fast and pray, that we may be able to lead good lives and to act more kindly to each other.

I do not understand why the white men desire to put an end to our religious ceremonials. What harm can they do to our people? If they deprive us of our religion, we will have nothing left, for we know of no other that can take its place.”

The abolition the Sun Dance  was finally removed from the Indian Act in 1951 when I was 3 years old.  It took Canada that long to become civilized!

 

Anishinabe/Ojibwa Spirituality

 

My daughter-in-law Debbi is part Anishinabe. I have learned a lot from her and her sister Kelsey. Kelsey is a teacher of Ojibwa culture and history. I have learned a lot from them , though not nearly enough.

Kelsey taught me that like so many Indigenous Peoples, Anishinabe (Ojibwa) people pay particular attention to directions.  This reminded me a lot of the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Central America. Paying attention to the 4 directions helps orient them to the world around them and ground them in a place—a sacred place. This too is a recurring theme among many Indigenous nations. They often believe that their beliefs and spirituality arise naturally from their home place. I really like that idea. Wallace Stegner, a fantastic writer believed the same thing.

Kelsey taught me that the number 4 is sacred in their culture.  I also learned from my friend Carl Smith of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation that the Ojibway people have 4 fundamental interrelated concepts—Respect, purpose, balance and interconnection.

Kelsey also explained to me the importance of the Sweat Lodge. As the Canadian Encyclopedia explains it, “Sweat lodges are heated, dome-shaped structures used by Indigenous peoples during certain purification rites and as a way to promote healthy living.”

Inside the structures intense heat is generated usually from pouring water onto heated rock. That is done specifically to promote sweating because Anishinabe believe this will help to expel toxins and negative energy that creates imbalance and disorder in life. They believe it can help to cleanse the soul, mind, and body. This process may take several hours, but there is no set procedure that must be followed.

The Sweat Lodge is considered a sacred place compared often to a Mother’s womb. In fact that is what it is shaped like. The entrance to the Sweat Lodge usually faces east to symbolize a new day. In order to enter one must bend low to encourage humility. More religious people should practice humility. No let me correct that. More people should practice humility, including, me. Then one can exit the Sweat Lodge  reborn. Many people can gain deep spiritual experiences from the engagement with the lodge. It is hoped that one exits reborn. A new person. this is sort of like the Christian concept of being born again.

The person who operates the sweat lodge is often called the keeper. Often that person is an elder or healer. Usually no charges are incurred for the experience, though people are encouraged, but not required, to offer a gift of something like cloth or tobacco. Gift giving itself is often an important spiritual experience for people. This too is a recurring theme among Indigenous people. Sometimes tobacco is exchanged for advice.

The purpose of the sweat lodge is not to generate revenue, but to heal and cleanse body and soul. Non-trained operators are discouraged because it can be dangerous. In 2009 three  sweat lodge participants in a New Age “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, Arizona died.

Sweat Lodges were strongly discouraged by European settlers of Canada as part of their efforts to suppress Indigenous spirituality in favor of their own Christian belief system. It was part of that wholly unjustified sense of superiority again.

One of the things I liked best about the Sweat Lodge ceremony was that anyone could participate. No particular beliefs are required. No particular beliefs about whom or what one is worshipping is a pre-requisite either. Anyone who is respectful can participate.  I believe that is how all religions should operate.

I hope to learn much more about Anishinabe culture from my new family.

Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco

 

Time was important to the people at Chaco. Again, this is not that different from the Maya who were obsessed with time. It is was extremely useful to the people of Chaco to determine when they should gather seeds and plant crops. They also used it to decide when certain ceremonies should happen.  As Robbie Robertson, the narrator of Native America said, “At the very center of Chaco, builders built a sacred space to unify time and place. Pueblo Bonito. It is the largest of the city’s 12 great houses with over 800 rooms and 30 ceremonial kivas.”

G.B. Cornucopia, a Park Ranger at the Chaco Culture National Park, said the structure could be interpreted as a large storage facility or a ceremonial center or as a clock! “To GB Cornucopia Pueblo Bonito and the sky are intricately linked The Great House is aligned to the 6 directions. One wall runs east-west and another north-south. Each day as the sun gets higher in the sky its shadow creeps closer to the north-south wall.” As Cornucopia pointed out, at solar noon when the sun is at its highest point in the sky is directly on the wall.

Pueblo Bonito is a clock that tracks the sun during the day. It’s also a calendar that tracks it during the year. Every day the sun sets on a different place on the horizon. The solar year starts out on the winter solstice when it sets in the south. On the summer solstice it sets in the north the two days half way in between are called equinoxes. And today on the fall equinox the suns lines up with the east-west wall. The north wall tracks the day; the west wall tracks the year. Built to the 6 directions Pueblo Bonito unites place and time.”

People naturally tell time by their relationship with the sky. Most of us have forgotten this because we have innumerable devices that tell us what the time. Devices such as watches, computers, and smart phones. Before the ages of these devices people would look at markers on the horizon and the place of the sun in relationship to those markers and they could tell the time and the season.

Native American people like those who lived at Chaco, looked at the sky to tell them when to plant and when to harvest. They also looked at the sky to determine when their various ceremonies ought to take place. This gave it spiritual significance. “Their city is the physical embodiment of their world view. It is a way of living that is both scientific understanding of the cycles of the earth, sun, and the stars and a spiritual quest to find their place within it.” In my view that is what religion is all about. It is a means of healing the alienation we feel towards the world, and replacing that feeling with a feeling of connection to the world. That is what finding our place within that world means. It tells us how we are connected and that we are not alienated or severed from that world.

It is of great interest to me that this belief is found in so many different spiritual belief systems. So many belief systems fundamentally seem to have the same beliefs. I think that shows how we are all one.

 

Pueblo Traditions

I am still exploring what the Americas are like before Europeans arrived. Until fairly recently we did not know much about those societies. Partly that was because by and large the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (North and South) often did not keep written records.  And partly that was because the Europeans and their descendants believed they had nothing useful to learn from Indigenous People. This is part of what I have called the original sin. This attitude had a profound effect on subsequent relations between the Europeans and their descendants and the Indigenous people. Attitudes of superiority stood in the way of learning of Indigenous people and as I am trying to show, there was much of value to be learned from the Indigenous people. They had lived in the Americas for thousands of years and had gain vast important knowledge about how to live there. had Europeans not been so blinded by feelings of superiority things could have been very different.

There are about 20 tribes of Pueblo people in the American southwest. They include, among others, the Zuni and Hopi in Arizona . Pueblo people share many (but not all) religious beliefs but have different languages. Most modern Pueblo tribes trace their ancestry to the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the American Southwest.

Pueblo traditions are different from some Christian traditions. Their traditions tell the Pueblo people that they must honor Mother Earth by taking care of her. Would you not take care of your ultimate reference? In the film series Native Americaa a Hopi woman who was not shown, recounted in Hopi the following myth (and I use this word carefully not to reference something that is not true, but rather something that is important, very important):

 

“Massaw told us this world is a gift to us

And we must care for this place

He said, ‘To find your home you must find the center place,’

So we made a covenant to walk to the world’s farthest corners

To learn the earth with our feet

And to become one with this new world

And to find our center place”

 

In the origin story of the Pueblo people they were given a sacred quest after they emerged from the earth. They were told to find the center place. Some went clockwise and some counter clockwise. They built an image in the rock to show where they were. It was a spiral around a center spot. “Finding the right place–the center place–lies at the heart of Pueblo belief. It is more than a physical location. It is about living in balance with the natural world.”

For example, as Robbie Robertson said in the television series,  “The search for the center place is built right in to the kivas.  Every kiva is aligned to the 4 compass directions.” Of course there are 2 more sacred directions, namely up and down. When the people climb out of a ladder in a kiva it is symbolic of their journey where they emerged from the earth. The Hopi believe the 6 directions give the Kivas great power.

I believe that this belief played an important role in life of ancient people in the America southwest (and elsewhere). At the same time, the fact that it was largely ignored by Europeans when they arrived was also important. Things could have been different.

Decline of Hohokam

 

The remnants of the Great House at Casa Grande

For reasons that are subject to debate, during the period of 1400 to 1500 A.D. large community centers  of the Hohokam were abandoned, as were many canals. The people did not die out, they moved instead to smaller villages. They adapted to some changed conditions in other words. What really interests me is why this occurred. It is one of the genuine mysteries of North American archaeology. I believe it has continuing important significance for our modern societies. There are lessons for us to learn here. Will we learn them?

When Spanish missionaries arrived at the end of the 17thcentury they found only an empty shell of the once flourishing village of Casa Grande (as the Spanish called it). Over the next two centuries, many visitors visited the site and damaged it over and over again.  In the late 1800s scientists pressed for its formal protection and in 1892 Casa Grande Ruins National Monument became America’s first archaeological reserve. To this day, the Great House keeps the secrets of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert within its protected walls.

At one time 2,000 people lived in Casa Grande and it had the most extensive canal system in North America, if not the world. It required an amazing amount of human labor and engineering to create the Great House, the remnants of which we saw in the park.

The main building material was caliche (cu-LEE-chee), a concrete like mixture of sand, clay, and calcium carbonate (limestone). It took 3,000 tons of caliche to build the Great House.

Caliche mud (water was added to the caliche) was layered to form walls that were about 4 ft. thick at the base, tapering toward the top. Hundreds of juniper, and fir trees were carried or floated down the Gila River to the village. Timbers were anchored in the wall for ceiling and floor supports.

Caliche is found as hard pan in most areas at depths of 6 inches to 2 feet. It is hard like concrete. I often saw it on my hikes in San Tan Mountain Regional Park, about 10minutes from where we lived for the winter.  It can be softened in water, however, and that is why the ancestral people created mud with the addition of water to the caliche. That was stacked on to the buildings and then allowed to dry to a very hard material.

How civilized were the Hohokam? There is no evidence that the ancestral people invented the wheel. Since they had no draft animals, and since usually the rivers did not flow to their agricultural lands, they had to carry all of their building materials.

Since 3,000 tons (6 million pounds) of materials were needed for the construction of the Great House, that meant that 100,000 bags each with about 60 pounds of mud had to be carried up to the Great House.

The Great House consisted of a 4-storey structure on a mound of about 4 feet. The mound was used for the same reason that judges sit on a high bench and preachers stand above the congregation at their pulpit. It is a sign of prestige to be high up. The Administrators of the region likely wanted to be seen to possess authority. The first floor of the Great House consisted of a mound or platform. It was there solely for purposes of building it up so it looked more impressive.

The second floor contained 5 rooms as did the 3rdfloor. The 4thfloor consisted of just one room.  As a result timbers from the mountain trees had to be brought in by hand. It is likely that the ancestral people subcontracted the job by trading for such materials. 640 logs were needed for the Great House construction. The timbers came from about 50-75 miles away. Arduous hauling was needed to get them to the site.

The roof was made by spreading saguaro ribs across the beams with reeds covering them, and then topped with a final layer of caliche mud. Despite centuries of weathering and neglect the Great House remnants still stand testifying to the nature of the society of Ancestral People. In recent years the canopy was built to protect the Great House. The doors of the Great House were quite small, not because the people were so small, but to keep out warm air.

Like so many Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Hohokam were careful to align their structures with celestial bodies. They did that, I think, to connect to the large world “out there.” The Great House at Case Grande was carefully aligned with the sun. But that was not all. In fact 17 different astronomical observations could be made from the house.  First of all, the house was carefully aligned between North and South.

There was also a round hole “window” that once each year lined up perfectly with the sun on the day of the summer solstice. Another rectangular hole carefully marked the spring and fall equinoxes. As well one square window lined up with the Lunar Standstill that occurred every 18.6 years. No one is sure exactly why these alignments were produced, but they do show the sophisticated knowledge of astronomy that the Ancestral People had.

These odd alignments are all part of the mystery about the purpose behind the Great House.  It took an astonishing amount of human labor to create the house, but it was abandoned within about 75 years, even though the Ancestral People inhabited the area for more than 1,000 years. According to Rose Houk,

“Modern archeologists have observed such an alignment of the sun through a “window” in an upper room of Casa Grande, marking the summer solstice. They have suggested that the “great house” may have been used as an astronomical observatory, one of several ideas about this enigmatic, imposing structure that stands out in the desert of central Arizona. Others have seen the four-story building as a fort, a granary, or a silo.  Whatever the truth, the Casa Grande’s significance was recognized early on when it became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892.”

A steel and concrete canopy was built in 1932 to protect the Great House from the elements.

As I mentioned the great puzzle is why were these magnificent structures and elaborate towns abandoned in favor of smaller communities after about 1450 A.D.?  Some have speculated that some catastrophe caused the people to leave. There is evidence that the area experienced significant floods between 1300 and 1450.  Those were followed by intense periods of drought.

Archeologists use multiple kinds of evidence to answer such questions, or at least shed some light on the questions posed. As a result they have been studying salt discharge on the Salt and Gila rivers, as well as the increasing soil salinity, diseases, and evidence of malnutrition. It is likely that environmental conditions changed and the Hohokam people do what all smart people do, they adapted to changed conditions. That is how people survive.

The evidence does show that the extreme flooding deepened the Gila River Channel making it more difficult for canals to carry water to fields where water levels were low. Part of the canal system was abandoned while other parts were extended miles upstream to maintain proper water flows. Around 1350 A.D., the time of the Great House, a combination of factors may have triggered a breakdown of Hohokam society and undermined their leadership.

It is probable that as a result of all of these factors, the survivors of the floods and droughts abandoned large sites like Casa Grande in favor of smaller settlements along the Gila River. Today’s O’odham people (as they are now called) believe that they are the descendants of the Hohokam people. As a result, Hohokam society never disappeared it just adapted and changed to a lifestyle that was better suited to the changed conditions. This change was likely to one more similar to their ancestors. They changed to a simpler life. Perhaps that is what we will be compelled to do.Yet as so often is the case the abandonment was likely triggered at least in part by environmental factors. Often people over do it and the land can no longer sustain the people. This has happened countless times in the Americas. To me it looks like it is happening again, but this time on a much grander scale. Large parts of the world and vast numbers of species are being degraded by human activities. This lesson seems so hard for Homo sapiens to grasp. Why is that?

Pueblo People of American Southwest

 

There are many beautiful places in the American Southwest. It is easy to feel connected to them.

One of the things I learned from the television series Native America, was that the Pueblo people of the American southwest were doing the same thing as the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest thousands of miles away. As Robbie Robertson the narrators said, “The Pueblo people seek the same thing: to find their place in the world. They discover it in America’s Southwest.” Many times living out there, I thought I found it too. This is my place too. Maybe not my only place, but certainly my place.

The Hopi have a very complex religion with a rich mythological tradition. Just as it is with so many other religious groups, including Christians, it is not easy to find any customs or beliefs that all Hopi accept. Each village or mesa may have slightly different versions of their central myths. Some also suspect that stories told to outsiders are not genuine but merely told to tell curious people something, while holding the real versions close to themselves. Hopi people are often reluctant to share their sacred doctrines. Hopi are also often syncretic. They are willing to adopt sacred practices or beliefs from others when they find them helpful. For example if a practice helps bring rain why not use it?

Many Hopi creation stories revolve around Tawa, the sun spirit. Contemporary Hopi continue to petition Tawa for blessings for their newborn children. Tawas is the creator who formed the “First World” and its original inhabitants.

They also have interesting accounts of Masauwu or Skeleton Man who was the Spirit of Death and Master of the Upper World, or Fourth World  so that people who escaped the wickedness of the Third World could be safe in the Fourth World. Sometimes Masauwu was described as wearing a hideous mask. At other time Masauwu was described as handsome.

Maize or corn is central to Hopi subsistence and also religion. It is a central bond among people. In essence Hopi often see corn as physical sustenance, spiritual renewal, ceremonial objects and instruments of prayers. Often corn is seen as the Great Mother. In a literal sense this actually true. People who take in corn convert it into their own flesh inside their bodies.

The Hopi found their center in the American Southwest. It was the end of their migrations. They believe they are doing what Masauwu told them to do–connect to the world. Be a part of it. Indivisible from it.  This is a theme I shall return to over and over again as I discuss Indigenous religious experiences or doctrines. By finding the center place Hopi believe they have honoured the commitment they made when they entered the world.

Along the way on their spiritual journey Native Americans created Chaco, balanced between the underworld and the heavens. They found 6 directions aligned to the movement of the sun and stars all aligned to the cosmos. This is another central concept of many Indigenous religious beliefs and practices. That was why Chaco drew people from thousands of miles away. Visitors brought hallowed objects like turquoise stones, tropical bird feather, seashells, and chocolate.

In the television series, Patricia Crown said, “Both cacao and scarlet macaws are tropical species that were brought from a great distance into Pueblo Bonito. There’s no question that there was this very large area of shared beliefs in ritual activities.” Chaco was a place where people came from vast distances to share with each other what they had learned. What could be more holy than that? “People share knowledge and beliefs based on thousands of years of observing their world. They have ceremonies to influence the very forces of nature that are still practiced today.”  Hopi traditions say that Chaco was a special place to study the forces of nature. “It grows out of a deep connection with the earth, planted in time immemorial, developed over tens of thousands of years and shared across 2 continents by the pioneering people who created this world. They are Native Americans. Their teachings remain as relevant today as ever.”

Zuni

 

Jim Enote is an elder of the Ashiwi Nation, a Pueblo group in what is now New Mexico and Northern Arizona known as the Zuni. He says that when his people come to water they lift it and splash themselves with it and then they throw it in the direction of Zuni to encourage rain. They have a name for this very large area in Northern Arizona. They call it the place of emergence.  It includes what we now call the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon. I visited large parts of the area on a number of occasions. It is incredibly beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful on earth.

 

I don’t know the exact boundaries of Zuni territory but I believe these photos are from in or near their historical territory.

Monument Valley is in my opinion one of the most beautiful places on earth and I am surprised how few people who winter in Arizona never visit it or haven’t even heard of it.

 

In that region the Zuni produced petroglyphs that have been there for more than a thousand years. To the Zuni this is not just art; it is history. One of them shows a row of sheep descending to the water. It is an ancient lesson. To find water follow the animals.

Jim and the Zuni have been using ancient petroglyphs, images from pottery, and from tapestries, and have considered their thoughts and prayers and together with all that have been making unique maps based on these images. Those maps are unlike any other maps in the world. “Not limited by lines or topography, they depict cultural landscapes and living memories.” Jim Enote put it this way,  in the documentary series Native America that I watched this past winter, “The Zuni maps represent the world without defined boundaries.”

Many people are familiar with maps that contain streets and roads. But there is another way. The Zuni have found one of those other ways. As Enote said, “When they see Zuni hand painted maps, they realize there is a different way of looking at the world.” Isn’t that what travel and education are all about, finding different ways of looking at the world? Isn’t this why we converse with people of different cultures? Is this not what the world of ideas is all about? This is why I watch television shows like this one.

This different way of looking at the world is shared across North America. It is a reverence for place. Sacred caves, underground sanctuaries, grand canyons, real physical connections to earth. Its why many call it Mother Earth.

People like Enote when they visit a place like the Grand Canyon, with its steep walls of red rock, like those I saw at Canyon de Chelly, or Monument Valley, both in the same area, get the feeling that they are in a womb. They are inside Mother Earth. That is a deep and powerful connection! Enote said, in front of an incredible film of Horseshoe Canyon where I stood 2 years, “This is the place we came from so the river is like an umbilical cord. It’s all part of the Mother. The Mother is where we begin. Its our ultimate reference point.” Now that is a real connection to the physical earth.

I took this photo of Horseshoe Canyon getting as close to the edge as a person who is deathly afraid of heights could get. When he said that, I could not help but recollect the words of Paul Tillich that profound German theologian who defined God as our ultimate concern.

Connection between Hopi and Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest

I am still thinking about civilization and whether or Europeans who arrived in the Americas had a monopoly on it, as many of them thought, and as many of their descendants still think.

A few years ago some good friends of ours lived on a Hopi Reservation for about a year. They invited us down to visit but I am sorry to say we did not go.  That was a big mistake. We could have learned a lot. The Hopi, like so many Indigenous peoples of North America have a lot to teach us. Chris and I went on our own a couple of years ago, but frankly learned very little.

I did learn a bit about Hopi culture from watching a television series this winter on PBS called Native America.

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned how Chaco in northern New Mexico was connected with the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest. Now I want to mention that the Hopi, many of whom now live in Northern Arizona, make pilgrimages to Chaco in northern New Mexico because they want to maintain their connection to places like Yupköyvi (Chaco in the Hopi language). As a result, there may be a connection to the ancient ceremonies of the Hopi back in Chaco and they are in turn connected too with the Amazon Rainforest To the Indigenous people, the Americas was a small world.

Chaco was built in northeast New Mexico between 900 and 1150 and it covered an area roughly the size of modern San Francisco. That is a pretty big city. And of course at that time people had no buses to get around as they do in San Francisco.

There were 12 great houses in the center of Chaco. They were 5 stories high and contained up to 800 rooms. “These were the biggest buildings in what will be the United States until the 1800s.” They also built cave like gathering places throughout the city. At one time they were covered but those roofs have long since collapsed. They are called kivas. The Hopis still use them in Arizona for special ceremonies conducted by men and women.

1,000-year old Kivasare very important to the Hopi. The rituals inside kivas centered on rainmaking, healing, hunting, all to ensure the continuation of life.” All of these were vitally important to the Hopi people. They often smoked pipes as part of the ceremonies. Like Indigenous people of the Canadian prairies, smoking, to the Hopis is a form of prayer. They meditate while smoking. They pray for rain, long life and abundance. Not that different from Christian prayers when you think of it. People pray to get stuff. But Leigh Kuwandwisiwma, a Hopi, said it is more than that. “We pray to the environment,” he says. And they are part of that environment. “We take the time to contemplate the power around us, the bird world, the reptilian world, the animal world, the insect world, are all part of who we are the Hopi People,” he says. It is a very different attitude to nature.

To Pueblo people of the American Southwest and Hopi people some of their modern corn is also sacred. It is their life-blood. Offering it to earth is a sacred offering. As the smoke carries prayers to the winds Leigh sprinkled cornmeal into the fire and it rose as part of the smoke. “It is a ritual that connects the Hopi to their origin story.”

Many North American Native people believe that they emerged from the earth. I accept these stories with respect. I do not accept them as literal reports of what happened, any more than I accept the story of Noah’s ark carrying two of all species on earth in his ark as a literal rendering of what happened. For example, I don’t think there were 2 blue whales on that ark, or 2 mammoths or 2 tigers. The story of Noah’s ark, like the creation stories of North American Native people are important however. They speak a profound truth. It is just not a literal truth. Sometimes those stories are difficult to interpret.  That does not mean we should discard them. That just means we should work harder to interpret them.

“Many Native American people share a belief that they emerged from the earth. Hopi and ‘Pueblo traditions say that the place of emergence is beneath America’s best known natural wonder, the Grand Canyon. 5 million people visit each year, they come to connect with its natural beauty, but Pueblo people have an even deeper connection. This is their birth place.”

I like that story. Imagine emerging from the Grand Canyon. That would be pretty spectacular. It certainly does not seem any less civilized than the creation story in the Bible.