Message 38, “Toward a New Thanksgiving: Native-American Spirituality”

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Jon Stewart, our great TV comedian and social commentator, once related that, “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast………..and then I killed them and took their land!”

I love how in that one statement Stewart perfectly punctures the prevailing Norman Rockwell vision of our upcoming November holiday.  It is said that with time, unpleasant truths become fuzzy and are forgotten.  I believe that is the case with Thanksgiving.  The myth of brave Pilgrims who had come to North America for religious freedom, built a colonial city named Plymouth, struggled mightily through hard work to build a thriving city and then sat down to a feast where they gave thanks to God for their new found prosperity, … one such false piece of history.   The truth is much less heroic.  The Pilgrims were persecuted in England as rogue religious people who threatened the state Church and its orthodoxy.  They fled to the Netherlands and lived there for twelve years where they freely practiced their faith.  The decision to depart for the New World and risk everything was not because of religious persecution in Amsterdam however.  Because the Pilgrims were so anti-social and so dogmatic in their own beliefs, they could not assimilate into Dutch society.  They were not forced to leave.  They left by their own choice even though they had full rights and privileges.

And this inability to compromise and adapt came with them to the New World.  Instead of seeking to learn the ways of a new land and a new climate, the Pilgrims steadfastly insisted on using European agricultural methods and crops.  After landing in the fall of 1620, the new colony suffered through a starvation winter.  Out of an original 102 colonists, by the first Thanksgiving the following year there were only 52 surviving.  Ninety percent of the food at that first feast was provided by the locals – the native-Americans.  Indeed, had not a Native-American named Squanto, who knew English having spent time in England after being kidnapped by English fur traders, had he not encouraged the Pilgrims to plant corn instead of barley and then taught them crop rotation and proper fertilization techniques, it is likely Plymouth colony would never have celebrated that first Thanksgiving or any more for that matter.  The Wampanoag tribe ethic towards the Pilgrims is one found in nearly all Native-American cultures – to give freely and to help others without holding back and that by giving, one earns respect while insuring there will be enough for all.

Many of the European ethics brought to the Americas, on the other hand, were of conquest, forced conversion and greed.  Two years after being saved from starvation, the Pilgrim governor, Mather the Elder, publicly gave thanks to God for destroying the heathen savages to make way for the growth of Plymouth colony.  Within less than twenty years after the Pilgrims arrived, the local Wampanoag tribe, which selflessly assisted the Pilgrims, was virtually wiped out by new diseases brought to the New World by the colonists.

The intent of my message series over the next three Sundays is not to offer a sobering history lesson into the sins of our ancestors.  Instead, I hope to frame Thanksgiving in a new and hopeful light – to look at Native-American and Pilgrim spirituality in ways that offer inspiration and insight to us today.  My goal is to try and find a new way to think about giving thanks and the idea of Thanksgiving itself.

Indeed, the moral imagination of Native-Americans is one that echoes loudly for us.  It is not based on some theological construct of a supernatural Being showering good things on those who worship and give their lives to Him or Her.  Instead, it is rooted in the most basic of our human impulses – to be at one with creation, to honor and revere its beauty, to give and share with others and to build a culture founded on the well-being of all people and all creatures.

I have said several times that religion is the construct of flawed humans seeking to impose their own beliefs, rules and practices about faith on others.  Spirituality, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of religion.  It is not man created but instead a natural force we seek to understand.  It is communal in nature.  It is open, free and not concerned with established doctrine but with the emotional and physical well-being of all humanity and, indeed, all creation.  It finds transcendence and inspiration from multiple sources and it is not afraid to be ever evolving or find new ways of thinking and reflection.  As a Native-American leader named Walkingfox puts it, “Spirituality is not religion to American Natives.  Religion is not a Native concept, it is a non-Native word, with implications of things that often end badly, like Holy wars in the name of individual Gods and so on. Native people do not ask what religion another Native is, because they already know the answer. To Native people, spirituality is about the Sacred Mystery, period~”

In that regard, Native-American spirituality offers, as Marsha has just beautifully explained to us, a new way to think about our upcoming holiday and how we lead our lives.  Of primary importance to Native-Americans is that they see their spirituality as infused in all aspects of life.  Their ceremonies are designed not so much as rituals but as practices designed to continually unite them with the universe as a whole.  From eating to sleeping to working and to pleasure, Native-Americans have countless prayers and ceremonies to remember, honor and unite themselves to great and transcendent powers.

While it is impossible to speak of Native-American spirituality as one single monolith since there are hundreds of variations, tribes share with one another common views about creation and life.  They find a duality between humans and the universe with each inextricably linked.  In their understanding of other life forms, plants and animals have human spirits within them since we are all a part of the same source.  And we, ourselves, have plant and animal spirits within us.  Toward that end, in Native American traditions when they harvest grain, or eat a plant, or hunt and consume a deer – these are all ways that life nurtures and benefits itself.  For them, these are sacred acts.  To the American Native, humans are a part of the animal and plant kingdom and they are a part of us.  But it is not mindless consumption that Native-Americans practice.  Before any meal, before any hunt and before any harvest of a crop, Native-Americans not only give thanks for the nourishment about to be obtained, but they pray to, honor and bless the ancestral spirits that inhabit their food.  It is a way to exalt nature and to further the interests of all creation.

This spirituality finds a web of life pattern where all creatures and all humans are inextricably linked and coexist together – each to the benefit of the whole.

I have often spoken of a moral imagination within humanity – that conflict and competition between people are zero sum games since nobody wins in the long term – and that cooperation and unity are the ways to individual and collective prosperity.  Native-Americans have taken that to a new level – all creation must cooperate in the survival of each other.  Humanity and nature are not distinct entities competing against the other.  Animals, plants and humans – in Native-American beliefs – co-exist and each offers their work, their lives and their physical selves so that all will prosper and live.  This is the ultimate form of moral imagination that I believe can speak to us.  Such Native-American spirituality defies traditional religions like Christianity where man is the focus of the created universe.  Those religions say we are destined, by a theistic god, to dominate and control the universe because we are the special reason for God’s creation.  Instead, universal moral imagination says that humans are but a minor piece within creation and that our purpose is to work for the survival and benefit of all things – our environment, fellow creatures and the plant kingdom.

This ideal is expressed in a Native-American belief called the Sacred Hoop.  Bear Heart, a Native-American writer, wrote in his book The Wind is My Mother, “Our old teaching is that the universe is in harmony as long as we keep the Sacred Hoop intact.   The Sacred Hoop is the circle of life—the Four Directions, the Earth, and everything that lives on the Earth.   It includes not only the two-leggeds, but also the four-leggeds, the wingeds, those that live in the waters, those that crawl on the earth, and the plant life.   Everything is part of the Sacred Hoop and everything is related.   Our existence is so intertwined that our survival depends upon maintaining a balanced relationship with everything within the Sacred Hoop.”

Whatever our personal choices and beliefs are about all created life, I believe we can find merit in Native-American traditions.  This deep respect and reverence for all life forms extends to how they view the individual in relation to family, clan, tribe, nation and world.  Existence, as I frequently mentioned in my last two monthly series, is not about us as individuals.  It is about the whole community. The compelling cry in every American Native action, as noted in a book entitled God is Red, is, “That the people might live!” This is so even for the well-known vision quest ceremonies Marsha mentioned.  One seeks insights during vision quests through fasting and prayer in order to self-actualize, and thus go out and do more for the community.  This speaks to our spiritual selves here at the Gathering.  We seek growth and worship not for our congregation or as individuals.  We exist to serve the wider realm of our community and earth.

And we give to others with that same understanding.  At that first Thanksgiving, Squanto and his chief were invited by the Pilgrims to bring their families over for a small meal of celebration.  Not knowing that family, for the natives, meant virtually an entire tribe, over a hundred Natives showed up.  And the Pilgrims did not have nearly enough food.  So the Native Americans proceeded to raid their own storehouses of food – saved for the upcoming winter – to provide most of the meal to their hosts.  This was in keeping with the Native-American ideal to share, to live communally and to practice a belief that by giving away even meager assets, there will still be sufficient resources for all.  Indeed, the individual was accountable to the tribe and community, not the other way around.  Once again, the ethic was that we live and exist not for our own benefit.  We live and exist so that the whole – the wider community – will prosper.  As I say too often to count, our purpose in life is not to sit and wait for a perfect afterlife.  It is to build heaven – to make life better for all creation – here and now.

Many tribes and Native-Americans have been accused of being Marxist in their ideology.  Such is hardly the case.  But Native-American spirituality says that land and natural resources cannot be individually owned since these were not originally given to them by the Great Spirit.  Land, water, the sun and all things within them were given to all life forms to use prudently, without waste and with deep respect.  Such things belong to nobody since they were originally meant for universal use.  Native Americans differ strongly from Europeans in that view of nature.  The land, its creatures and its resources are holy.  An abstract, supernatural God that we cannot see, feel or touch is not what is Divine.  Indeed, in direct contrast to Paul’s words in the Bible, it is the creature and the created land that we worship for those alone contain the great mystery of existence, beauty and immortality.

European-American concepts of land ownership, taking down trees, damming up rivers and slaughtering thousands of buffalo just for their hides were not only foreign to the Natives, such practices were non-spiritual and, indeed, sinful.

It is an ironic note that the Pilgrims would later claim the local Wampanoag tribe had given them the land on which Plymouth was located.  Such was not the case.  The natives had merely permitted use of land the tribe had previously cleared and farmed as a way of sharing with people in need.

Of final importance for us in understanding Native-American spirituality is their reverence for children and the qualities they possess.  Children were worshipped by most tribes for they represented to them the mystery of creation.  And, as even the Bible says Jesus noted, children possess, according to Native-Americans, a unique sense of humility, wonder and curiosity about the world.  Once again from his book The Wind is My Mother, Bear Heart tells an ancient Native-American story about a baby girl just born.  Her four-year-old brother asks the parents, “Can I be alone with her for just a little while?” The parents said, “Not right now, but a little later you can.” The next day he asked again, so the parents finally agreed and soon after hid near the baby’s crib to listen and watch.  Then the four-year-old went up to the crib and said to his baby sister, “Tell me about the Great Spirit. I’m beginning to forget.” Native Americans, according to Bear Heart, say that children came here to teach us—to teach us how to be humble and to teach us how to be giving and forgiving.

For many of us here today, we live our lives insulated in bubbles of our own making.  We live, work and move about in man-made cocoons that are climate controlled and far removed from the natural world.  Our spirituality is too often superficial and something we only think about on Sundays.  As much as we desire a world of giving and sharing and concern for all creation, we also spend too much time focused on ourselves – our own well-being, health and financial condition.  I plead guilty to all of those accusations and yet, in a few short weeks, I too will sit down and claim a weak thanksgiving for my life, my family and my friends.  My awareness of spiritual forces all around me is too often numbed to their reality, as my mind is occupied with insignificant matters – work, bills, and the mundane activities of life.  I will drive by a small park without noticing the trees or fail to really hear the sounds of birds as I walk into my home.  I live in a bubble that isolates me from physical, emotional and spiritual connection with life itself.   I am isolated from the mysteries of my own existence, from the wondrous forces of nature, from fellow creatures and from the grand design of the cosmos.  Spirituality, in the end, is not something I live and breathe every moment of my life.

And I know for myself and for many of you, the times when we escape from our bubbles and return to the natural world – these are truly spiritual moments.  I have hiked by myself far back into the wilderness of Arizona’s red rock areas, into Colorado’s mountain vastness and through the forests of nearby Red River Gorge.  I’ve glided through coral reefs, biked along our local bike paths and walked early in the morning along an empty beach.  When I hear nothing but my own breathing, the breeze through the trees, the water swirling around me or the occasional bird, the symphony of those sounds rivals anything I might hear in church or at Music Hall.  We find in those moments a sense that while we are alone and insignificant, we are also a part of the great and powerful forces that create mountains and rivers and forests.  At those times, I become a fully spiritual person sensing the Divine mysteries all around me.

That is the spirituality of the Native-American – a daily awareness of interconnection within the web of life and within the web of human communities.  I want to find that place of humility, of total giving of self and resources to the larger community and of respect and honor for fellow creatures as they are a part of me and I am a part of them.  This transcendence into the Great Mystery is actually reality itself.  We might never turn back to the high civilization of Native-Americans who every moment lived in balance with one another and with the universe as a whole.  But, may we, even in very small ways, acknowledge Native-American wisdom and seek the same…today, tomorrow and in our upcoming Thanksgiving.