By Jay Price, Professor of History at Wichita State University, St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS
A number of years ago, I attended the ordination of an individual who had ties to the Lakota tradition. Their ordination took place in St John’s and Bishop Smalley was there at the ceremony that included a blending of Episcopal and Native American traditions, starting with a processional that consisted of Lakota drumming. Now, Native American drumming is intended to evoke the heartbeat of Mother Earth. It is not the “ONE, two, three, four” of Indian drums in the westerns. It is a “bum BUM, bum BUM” like a heartbeat. One moves to this drumming with a bounce to the beat. Most of the processional party quickly embrace the spirit of the beat and bopped as they moved up towards the altar. Not Bishop Smalley, however. Apparently, bishops don’t bop. Bishops glide. You could see poor Bishop Smalley struggling to maintain Anglican decorum throughout. Turning to face the congregation, he had a deer in headlights look with a “please let this be over soon” expression on his face.
For all his anxiety, though, Bishop Smalley was a good sport about it all, a marked difference from attitudes a century earlier, when Native American and tribal beliefs worldwide were seen as pagan and heathen, the antithesis of Christianity. Back then, indigenous beliefs were to be discarded in a time when Christian, Protestant, and Civilized were terms used interchangeably. Children at boarding schools were punished if they tried to maintain their traditions. Today, at least in more progressive corners of the Anglican world, indigenous beliefs are now seen as a source to enrich Anglican practice rather than be a threat to it. It is in this vein that we see, for example, Maori imagery shaping the New Zealand book of Common Prayer.
This week our Lord’s Prayer and our Adult forum explore a spiritual framework based in Native American traditions (see below). At its best, exploring Native spiritual concepts can make us rethink how to relate, for example, to the natural environment. When the natural world consists of our relatives, our relationship to features like animals and plants and weather can become more intimate.
First Nations Version of the Lord’s Prayer: O Great Spirit, our Father from above, your name as sacred and holy. Bring your good road to us, where the beauty of your ways in the spirit-world above is reflected in the earth below. Provide for us day by day–the elk, the buffalo, and the salmon. The corn, the squash, and the wild rice. All the good things we need for each day. Release us from the things we have done wrong in the same way we release others for the things done wrong to us. And guide us away from the things that tempt us to stray from your good road. Amen.
Now, adopting Native American imagery and themes can be complicated and even awkward. After all, a lot of Native American “features” can be stereotyped and cartoonish. Take the sense of the dreamcatcher that comes from Ojibwe tradition but is intertwined with a deep, complex sense of rituals and beliefs and is not, as the Indigenous Foundation web site has cautioned, “The appropriation of dreamcatchers is believed to have begun in the 1970s, where a watered down version of the purpose of the dreamcatchers was ‘’they are hung to catch bad dreams.’” Worse, peoples who have lost so much, who have had so much taken from them, now have to experience their beliefs and ceremonies being copied and recreated without their permission to make white people feel more “spiritual.”
However, understanding Native American belief systems can help us get a better window into our own backgrounds. All of us descend from tribal peoples who functioned in ways not that different from the people we call Native Americans, or Indigenous, or First Nations. In many ways, tribal ways are the human default setting, regardless whether those peoples were Celt, Slav, Roman, Bengali, Malay, Korean, Yoruba, Arab, or yes, Hebrew
We tend to think of the ancient Hebrews and their Jewish descendants as somehow different and distinct from their tribal, “pagan” neighbors on account of their monotheism and their traditions that set the stage for Christianity and Islam. We forget that ancient Hebrews, however, functioned as a tribal people. The more we understand tribal worldviews, the better equipped we are to perhaps put the Old Testament into some context.
At its heart, a tribal worldview usually functions with the extended family and the clan, not the individual, as the primary unit of society. One’s identity was connected to family and ancestry, not one’s own deeds or actions. So, when Jesus says
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
this is more than not being on the holiday invite list or getting written out of the will…it was about possibly severing one’s ties to one’s ancestors, one’s extended family, one’s identity…rejecting tribe in favor of being, in effect, a member of a new tribe, one in which Jesus functions in many ways as sacred ancestor.
Another hallmark of tribal societies is that one’s clan usually traced their place in the world back to ancestors of long ago. In Native American beliefs, each clan often had sacred animals, certain ceremonial roles, and presumed characteristics because of these ancestors. In addition, there is a sense that the qualities…or faults…of an ancestor live on in their descendants. This is why one of Abraham’s sons, Levi, became the origin of the Levites as the religious leaders. Similarly, the descendants of Benjamin were the bad boys of the ancient Hebrew world. Look it up: whenever the Benjaminites showed up in the story, something bad was about to happen. We have elements of that today. A person from the Daughters of the American Revolution may sense a quality of patriotism from an ancestor that has persisted over the generations into their family.
If we see Jesus as the ancestor of a tribe of adoptees, statements of Paul make more sense such as:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
There is a sense of the tribal here, a sense that what the sacred ancestor did shapes our identity as well, just as what Levi did shaped the role of temple priests.
Beyond personality characteristics, accounts of tribal founders like Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob explained how and why certain groups related to one another. Today’s Old Testament account about Hagar and Ismael explained who Hebrews and Egyptians of antiquity did not get along yet had similar cultural traditions. The account noted that
“But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. …God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
The account, however, was more than just a spat between stepbrothers: it was about why Hebrews and Egyptians, two rival peoples in the Mediterranean were at odds with each other. It set the stage for what was to come..including the enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus. By the way, the story continued into later times but the distinction became Jew and Arab, not Hebrew and Egyptian. Muslim Arabs talk about how it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was almost sacrificed and they see Ismail as their ancestor.
Today we know that the cultural differences between these groups were complicated and evolved over time. They were the result of thousands of families and thousands of generations, not the actions of two women trying to protect their sons’ lineages. However, in a tribal view, such accounts made sense. Tribal peoples across the world would have understood the role of these stories played within and between groups.
Native American author Vine Deloria in his book Evolution, Creaton and Other Modern Myths tells the story of a group of Lakota elders who learned about evolution in the 1910s. After hearing about the latest understanding of human origins, the elders went away to discuss it and came back saying that the accounts of evolution seemed “accurate but inadequate.” By this they meant that they could not derive any meanings or lessons from them about how we should live or an explanation about how groups today have come to be. Without a moral to teach, a story was useless.
Therefore, looking at how these accounts reflect the society of the time can help us better appreciate the society that created them and for whom they were intended. Those of us who are members of the Tribe of Jesus might want to reflect more about how our tribal affiliation shapes us today. So when we talk about tribe and the stories from these cultures, we would do well to remember that we are perhaps closer to their world than we might like to admit…even if you glide rather than bop to Lakota drumming.