of the Native Americans
Native American Religion
Sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco encompass the four sacred plants.
Burning these is a sign of deep spirituality in Native practices. Cedar
and sage are burned to drive out negative forces when prayer is
offered. Sweetgrass, which signifies kindness, is burned to invite good
spirits to enter. Participants also use these purification rituals to
smudge regalia, drums and other articles before taking part in a
pow-wow. Tobacco is considered the most sacred of plants.
Rattles are shaken to call up the spirit of life when someone is sick.
The Elder also uses a rattle to summon the spirits governing the four
directions to help participants who are seeking spiritual and physical
cleansing to start a “new” life during a sweat lodge ceremony.
Very sacred objects, drums represent the heartbeat of the nation, the
pulse of the universe. Different sizes are used depending on the
Pipes are used during both private and group ceremonies, the prayer
itself being wafted through the smoke of the burning plant material.
Feathers are the connection to the "air" forces; air being one of the
four elements. The remaining three elements are water, fire, and earth.
A healer can incorporate the use of feathers in different ways. The
feather is useful in cleaning auras. Different types of feathers are
used depending on the need of the client.
Used mainly for communal prayer purposes, the Sweat Lodge may also
provide necessary ceremonial settings for spiritual healing,
purification, as well as fasting. Most fasts require a sweat ceremony
before and after the event.
Prescribed by an Elder, plant material can also be worn in a medicine
pouch by a person seeking the mercy and protection of the spirits of
the Four Directions.
The symbol of the circle holds a place of special importance in Native
beliefs. For the Native American, whose culture is traditional rather
than literate, the significance of the circle has always been expressed
in ritual practice and in art. The lives of men and women, as
individual expressions of the Power of the World move in and are
nourished by an uninterrupted circular/spiral motion. This circle is
often referred to as the Medicine Wheel. Human beings live, breathe and
move, giving additional impetus to the circular movement, provided they
live harmoniously, according to the circle’s vibratory movement. Every
seeker has a chance to eventually discover a harmonious way of living
with their environment according to these precepts.
of Spirit & Connection:
A major difference between Native-American and conventional medicine
concerns the role of spirit and connection. Although spirituality has
been a key component of healing through most of mankind’s history,
modern medicine eschews it, embracing a mechanistic view of the body
fixable pursuant to physical laws of science.
In contrast, Native-American medicine considers spirit, whose
life-force manifestation in humans is called, ni by the Lakota and
nilch’i by the Navajo, an inseparable element of healing. Not only is
the patient’s spirit important but the spirit of the healer, the
patient’s family, community, and environment, and the medicine, itself.
More importantly, healing must take in account the dynamics between
these spiritual forces as a part of the universal spirit.
Instead of modern medicine’s view of separation that focuses on fixing
unique body parts in distinct individuals separate from each other and
the environment, Native Americans believe we are all synergistically
part of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts; healing must
be consider within this context. Specifically, we are all connected at
some level to each other, Mother Earth (i.e., nature), Father Sky, and
all of life through the Creator (Iroquois), Great Spirit (Lakota),
Great Mystery (Ojibway), or Maker of All Things Above (Crow).
This sense of wholeness and connection is implied by the concluding
phrase of healing prayers and chants “All my Relations,” which
dedicates these invocations to all physical and spiritual relations
that are a part of the Great Spirit. To metaphorically describe our
universal connection, the Lakota use the phrase mitakuye oyasin – “We
are all related,” while Southwest pueblo tribes, who consider corn as a
life symbol, state “We are all kernels on the same corncob.”
In Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (2000), Dr. Gregory
Cajete uses modern science’s chaos theory to support the
Native-American concept of connection. Sometimes called the “butterfly
effect,” this theory postulates that a butterfly’s wing flap may
initiate a disturbance that ultimately leads to a hurricane or another
phenomenon across the world. Whether it is this flap, a prayer for
healing, or one’s stand against oppression, chaos theory, as well as
Native American philosophy, implies that everything is related and has
an influence no matter how small.
Moreover, we all have “butterfly power” to create from the inherent
chaos of our universe, which Cajete describes as “not simply a
collection of objects, but rather a dynamic, ever-flowing river of
creation inseparable from our own perceptions.”
Although you cannot appreciate Native-American medicine without its
spiritual dynamics, surprisingly, the practice of Native-American
spirituality was banned in the land of religious freedom until the 1978
passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. For example, in
Coyote Medicine: Lessons from Native American Healing (1997), Dr. Lewis
Mehl-Madrona tells how he risked jail for attending an early 1970’s
Because of this ban, which forbid congregating and keeping sacred
objects, much of Native-American healing was driven underground or to
extinction. It is the equivalent of telling physicians they can’t
practice medicine if they do surgeries or prescribe drugs. Since the
prohibition’s lifting, however, world-wide interest in Native-American
wisdom has soared, in part, because it is perceived as an antidote to
modern society’s soul-depleting and environment-damaging aspects.
The idea of wholeness is paramount in understanding Native-American
perception of disability. Unlike many cultures that shun people with
disabilities, Native Americans honor and respect them. They believe
that a person weak in body is often blessed by the Creator as being
especially strong in mind and spirit. By reducing our emphasis on the
physical, which promotes our view of separation from our fellow man and
all that is, a greater sense of connection with the whole is created,
the ultimate source of strength.
Overall, in treating physical disability, Native-American healers
emphasize quality of life, getting more in touch with and
honoring inherent gifts, adjusting one’s mindset, and
learning new tools. By so doing, the individual’s humanity is optimized.
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