Category Archives: Indigenous Religion

Spiritual Violence Runs Deep

 

One of the things that fascinates me and attracts me to Indigenous spirituality is its deep connection to the land of North America. The connection to the land is felt intimately and profoundly. Europeans who came to this continent and often, as the Eagles said in their memorable song, ‘The Last Resort’, “raped the land,” did not understand that deep connection.  It was  completely foreign to them. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) Report, commented on this as follows,:

“Land, language, culture, and identity are inseparable from spirituality; all are necessary elements of a whole way of being, of living on the land as Indigenous peoples.”

Because of this deep connection between Indigenous spirituality and the land, the twin attacks by Europeans against both native land and native spirituality amplified the harm and the hurt them all the more. One residential school survivor, Anishinaabe Elder Fred Kelly eloquently described this to the TRC as follows:

 

“To take territorial lands away from a people whose very spirit is so intrinsically connected to Mother Earth actually dispossesses them of their very soul and being; it was to destroy whole Indigenous nations. Weakened by disease and separated from their traditional foods and medicines, First Nations peoples had no defence against further government encroachment on their lives.  Yet they continued to abide by the terms of the treaties trusting in the honour of the Crown to no avail. They were mortally wounded in mind, body, heart, and spirit that turned them into the walking dead.  Recovery would take time, and fortunately they took their sacred traditions underground to be practiced in secret until the day of revival that would surely come…I am happy that my ancestors saw fit to bring their sacred beliefs underground when they were banned and persecuted. Because of them and the Creator, my people are alive and in them I have found answers.”

 

Spiritual violence runs deep. This spiritual violence affected many of the surviving children immeasurably. Many told the TRC how they experienced confusion and fear as a result of their traditional beliefs being stripped away from them. Many of the survivors later saw the huge contradictions between Christian professed beliefs and the way they were actually treated by the so-called Christians. This confused them further as adults. Children who returned from schools to their homes were further confused when their parents clung to the old spiritual ways that had served them so well but, which the youth had been taught to reject. Many indigenous children lost respect for their parents and elders who failed to follow the new “better” religion. Recently I read how one indigenous person learned to hate her parents. Generations often had trouble communicating with each other, particularly when young children started to lose the language of their birth because it was prohibited in the schools where they spent so much time. As the TRC said,

“Survivors who wanted to learn the spiritual teachings of their ancestors were criticized and sometimes ostracized by their own family members who were Christians, and by the church. Survivors and their relatives reported that the tensions led to family breakdown—such is the dept of this spiritual conflict. The cumulative impact of the residential schools was to deny First Nations, Inuit, and Métis their spiritual birthright and heritage.”

 

Because of their historic role in the dismemberment of First Nation families and communities, Christians churches should be at the forefront of reconciliation.  some of them are. Some of those churches have apologized for their actions. That is good, but it is not enough. They should now be leading the reconciliation efforts with actions.

 

Predatory Religion

 

The Christian churches and their missionaries played very important roles in the campaign to ban indigenous spiritual practices and replace them with Christian ones. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) described the process this way:

“The Christian Churches not only provided the moral justification for the colonization of other peoples’ lands, but they also dispatched missionaries to the colonized nations in order to convert ‘the heathen.’  From the fifteenth century on, the Indigenous peoples of the world were the objects of a strategy of spiritual and cultural conquest that had its origins in Europe.  While they often worked in isolation and under difficult conditions, missionaries were representatives of worldwide organizations that enjoyed the backing of influential individuals in some of the most powerful nations of the world, and which to amass considerable experience transforming different cultures. Residential schools figured prominently in missionary work, not only in Canada, but also around the world.”

 

As a result I do not think it is an exaggeration to describe these religious organizations as predatory.  That is precisely what they were—predatory religions. Their prey was indigenous people around the world.  The TRC explained their workings as follows:

“Christian missionaries played a complex, but central role in the European colonial project. Their presence helped justify the extension of empires, since they were visibly spreading the word of God to the heathen. If their efforts were unsuccessful, the missionaries might conclude that those who refused the Christian message could not expect the protection of the Christian church or the law, thus clearing the way for their destruction. Although the missionaries often attempted to soften the impact of imperialism, they were also committed to making the greatest changes in the culture and psychology of colonized. They might, for example, seek to have traders give fair prices and to have governments officials  provide relief in times of need, but they also worked to undermine relationships to the land, language, religion, family, educational practices, morality, and social customs.”

 

The missionaries disparaged indigenous spirituality with complete contempt. Later I intend to show how mistaken they were. The people of the New World had a new religion that the people from the old world could not fathom because it was so foreign to their assumptions. They also saw such spirituality as a competitor. They believed that the goal of cultural transformation could not be obtained without stamping out all indigenous religion and culture. As a result it is hardly surprising that they worked tirelessly to separate children from their parents, families, and communities. In the circumstances I think the word “predatory” is entirely justified.

As Blaise Pascal so well put it:  “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Coping with Abundance

 

As anyone who has ever been there knows, the western part of North America is a very special place. It was also special to the original inhabitants.  This summer we drove through a small part of it. In 2001 we visited the more northerly part of British Columbia. Both are beautiful and interesting.

The shoreline that extends from Alaska in the north to northern California is actually slowly sinking into the ocean and this has created thousands of islands, channels, and fiords. It is warmed by the Japanese current that flows southward from Alaska, making the climate much more temperate than its location would suggest. This also helps to assure plentiful rainfall. And rainfall brings abundance.

One way that this area was special to Indigenous people was the abundance of food that could be obtained and the mild climate that made living relatively easy. This allowed for more permanent sites than were often found on the plains or elsewhere. That was how they coped with abundance.

Through millennia a distinctive Northwest Coast culture has developed and much of that has a direct relationship in which the Indigenous People there grew and flourished.

I was surprised to learn that the archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest people who lived there were very similar to the people in the interior. A hunting tradition developed at least 10,000 years ago. Many Indigenous People say they have been there for longer than that. They enjoyed elk, deer, antelope, beavers, rabbits, and rodents as prey. Gradually they learned to hunt river mussels and most importantly salmon.

Ass David Hurst Thomas explained,

“Northwest Coast people considered salmon to be a race of eternal beings who lived in underwater houses during the winter.  In the spring they took on their fish form and swam up the rivers in huge numbers, bestowing themselves upon humans for food. The first salmon caught each year was placed on an altar, facing upstream, and prayers were said. After each villager sampled the roasted flesh, the intact skeleton was returned to the river, and it swam back to the underwater world of the salmon people. One day, this skeleton would return as a whole fish.”

Major villages were often located at the shoreline on beaches that were convenient for landing large canoes. They also had some smaller encampments. In the north the houses were square. In the south, such as near Whistler, the houses were long and narrow and occupied by several families. As Hurst Thomas said, “Large wooden houses like these have been constructed here for more than three thousand years, suggesting the development of an extended family organization.”

The more I learn about Indigenous people, the more I realize they were amazing.

Spirituality of Skwxú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Nation and Liĺwat7úl) Nation

 

At the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) which Chris and I visited in Whistler B.C., we learned that the Indigenous People of the west coast, the  Skwxú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Nation and Liĺwat7úl  Nation believe they are the land. That is about as close as a connection between land and people that we can get. It is what I see as the essence of the aboriginal attitude to nature. It is very different from the attitude of most Non-Indigenous people. It is my belief that we have a lot to learn from such people.

Josh, our Lil’wat interpreter at the Cultural Centre, explained that the two nations who created the centre at one time shared a village in their joint territory before it was destroyed by volcanic forces. The nations have learned to share rather than fight over it. As a result they recognize each other as family. Again, we have a lot to learn from these people.

They also believe that they learn through stories that teach their values of generosity, humility, and compassion. Frankly this reminded me of one of my favorite passages in the Bible, namely Micah 6:8, where the prophet said, “He has told you, man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” I don’t think religion gets any more profound than this. Or consider when the Prophet Isaiah said, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, abolish oppression, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  I think such words get at the essential good things about spirituality. The best of religions are invariably complementary, not antagonistic. In fact, I would say, they are fundamentally the same!

Cedar often plays an important role in the ceremonial and spiritual life of many West Coast Indigenous peoples. They even have a creation story about cedar. It is that important to them. As explained by Alice Huang,

“According to the story, there once lived a good man who always gave away his belongings and food to others. The Creator recognized the man’s kindness, and declared that once the man dies, a Red Cedar tree will grow where he is buried, and the tree will continue to help the people. The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island have a similar origin story for Yellow Cedar. According to their stories, Yellow Cedar trees were transformed from three young women running up a mountain. Therefore, Yellow Cedar trees are found on the slopes of subalpine mountains, and contain soft inner bark, like that of woman’s hair.”

In addition to everyday use, which I described in my previous post to this blog, cedar is used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Families often commissioned a carver to create cedar figures for a potlatch, usually as a welcoming gesture to the guests. Ceremonial dancers’ regalia might include head rings, neck rings, wristlets braided from cedar, as well as cedar masks. I will have more to say about potlatches later in this blog, but for now, we must realize that they were a means for individuals or communities  to demonstrate their generosity. Generosity was the sign of greatness to West Coast aboriginal people. It had spiritual value. It was so important that some leaders actually impoverished themselves to demonstrate their generosity. The exact opposite of the attitude of the current American President.

Given the importance of cedar in everyday life, it is clear that cedar also plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs and practices of coastal First Nations. These beliefs recognize that the cedar tree has its own life and spirit. According to Alice Huang, “Coast Salish and Tlingit shamans often had cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” to protect them.”

The Coast Salish is a group of ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples of the west coast of North America that live in parts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. They are a large loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. The territory claimed by various nations within the group include the northern limit of the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait), on the inside of Vancouver Island including most of the southern part of Vancouver Island, and most of the lower mainland of what is now called British Columbia and much of Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula in what is now called the United States. Major cities now included in this territory are Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle.

Cedar was also widely valued for its healing abilities. Yellow Cedar bark, which has anti-inflammatory properties, was frequently applied as a dressing for wounds, as a tourniquet, or to ward off evil. Many beliefs and taboos are also associated with the cedar tree. For example, a person who killed a tree through improper harvesting would be cursed by other cedar trees. Similarly, some believed a pregnant woman should not braid baskets, lest the umbilical cord would twist around the baby’s neck. As the cedar is a long-lived tree, some Coast Salish groups ensured a long life for their infants by placing the afterbirth in the stump of a large cedar.

As a plant that has ensured the survival of people for thousands of years, cedar has become a powerful symbol of strength and revitalization. The deep respect for cedar is part of a rich tradition that spans thousands of years and continues to be culturally, spiritually, and economically important.

Canoes, often built of cedar,  were considered living beings. They had to be blessed before being launched. That was believed to breathe life into the canoe. That is in fact the meaning of spiritual: breathing life. The canoe was considered by the Indigenous people to be a gift from the forest. It allowed them to move through their land and connect to it. Similarly, the Indigenous people considered the bear, and other animals, their kin.

All of this spirituality is part and parcel of the belief of many Indigenous peoples in this region that all of them were deeply connected to the land (environment really) in which they were located and to all life in it and even non-life such as rocks. That is the basis of their spirituality and I would submit the spirituality of all of us.

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.