There is much in the news these days—as well there should be—not only about slavery and atrocities committed against black humans and on the response of Black Lives Matter and its effort to wake people up to the suffering in history. 

Memorial at the Vancouver Gallery of Art to 215 children whose bodies were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The memorial continues to grow, with 1000 children’s graves found at former schools elsewhere in Canada, and thousands more projected. Photo by Edna Winti on Flickr.

But also there is much news these days about the horrors of the indigenous stories and boarding schools in particular into which native children were thrown with the intention of cutting them off from their families and culture and religion and language.

In this context of truth-telling—which is the only way to healing and new beginnings—it seems appropriate to meditate on the gifts of the indigenous wisdom (as we considered previously some of the spiritual gifts of the African and African American culture).  What did the slave master miss out on—what damage was done his or her soul in carrying on the work of slavery?  How much was religion distorted and abused in the process and even up to today?

So too we can ask: What have the conquerors of indigenous cultures lost out on by replacing an earth-based and creation-based religion with one that leads with human redemption instead of cosmic wonder and gratitude at existence? 

“Frodo’s 15th Birthday: Video Gamers” Photo by DarkDwarf on Flickr.

One result, as we noted yesterday, is a deep sadness and a deep loneliness.  Empty souls need filling with drugs, drink, bad religion, power trips, addictions, it would seem if we take a good look around us.

Let us turn to more wisdom from indigenous peoples therefore. Their story is not just about suffering; it is also about wisdom.  The healing medicine for all of us may be found in the “return of the repressed” and oppressed in our midst. 

Let us consider teachings of Black Elk who was a shaman in his own right and a cousin to Crazy Horse.  He fought against white soldiers in the battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee.

“How Indigenous Hoop Dancers See the World” – Mvskoke Creek/Seneca brothers Lumhe and Samsoche Sampson (The Sampson Brothers) at TedX Minneapolis

Black Elk talks often about the “sacred hoop,” which is the universe, but which is also found everywhere in nature as well as in the human community itself. He says:

I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle. . . . But anywhere is the center of the world.

He teaches:

There can be no power in a square. You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. . . . The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle.*

*John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (NY: Washington Square Press, 1959), pp. 43, 164f.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, chapter 11, “Indigenous Wisdom and Shamanism,” pp. 214f.

Banner Image: Protest message for indigenous rights added to a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) installation marking the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada. As the 155th anniversary passed on July 1, 2021, indigenous nations and allies urge Canadians to make Canada Day an occasion of reflection and remembrance rather than celebration. Photo by Can Pac Swire on Flickr.

“The birds’ religion is the same religion as ours”—how surprising a statement is that?  How important is the circle in your religion, in your view of the world?

Recommended Reading

Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time

While Matthew Fox recognizes that Meister Eckhart has influenced thinkers throughout history, he also wants to introduce Eckhart to today’s activists addressing contemporary crises. Toward that end, Fox creates dialogues between Eckhart and Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Heschel, Black Elk, Karl Marx, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Anita Roddick, Lily Yeh, M.C. Richards, and many others.
“Matthew Fox is perhaps the greatest writer on Meister Eckhart that has ever existed. (He) has successfully bridged a gap between Eckhart as a shamanistic personality and Eckhart as a post-modern mentor to the Inter-faith movement, to reveal just how cosmic Eckhart really is, and how remarkably relevant to today’s religious crisis! ” — Steven Herrmann, Author of Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward


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7 thoughts on “Indigenous Spirituality, continued”

  1. Avatar
    David Joseph Jackson

    I don’t always watch the videos on these DM’s, but I encourage everyone to watch the indigenous hoop dance video.

  2. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    I remember once having to sit through a worship team leaders teaching of hierarchy within her version of the Christian religion, which she demonstrated using a triangle stating that those in leadership positions were specially anointed, more so than the others, with the Holy Spirit… and therefore the others must without question follow this supposedly specially anointed one… which she tried to back-up with scripture. After squirming in my seat, at the end of her teaching I approached her and the pastors, offering my understanding of the gospel, reiterating the image of the circle, stating that the Trinity of Divine Love was the center and that we were all the spokes of a much larger circle, each one anointed with the same Holy Spirit, the same essence and presence of the Divine Love of the Trinity incarnate in each one, and that each one has something to contribute to the greater whole, no one more so than another. I also mentioned that a triangle on its own simply cannot move, that it remains stagnate… unlike the circle which moves freely. Needless to say, this woman’s leadership style of hierarchy and the oppression and suppression that came along with it, blew apart the worship team and several members left that church, including myself. The circle is the most unifying universal sacred metaphoric image of reality. I learnt this most profoundly through my 10 year apprenticeship in indigenous spirituality, through the wheels and keys of knowledge that they shared and taught me… which I am grateful to have received. One of the things they taught me was the circle of the Eight Great Powers, which is the circle of the world’s religions/spiritual paths.. as all leading to one circle in the center. This teaching was very eccumenical, and part of our apprenticeship involved walking in at least three of these different pathways during ones experience of life. We were taught that each great power had wheels and keys of knowledge to be shared with the whole, and that they all led to the Great Mystery, the Great Spirit that is at the center of it all. When you allow yourself to walk this wheel, this circle, you discover universal truths that unite all… within the beauty of diversity.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, what you share is enlightening… I’m guessing if we were to ask of cultural anthropologists and religious historians what is the most pervasive symbol of religion, I just bet you the circle–the sun, the moon–would be the most pervasive spiritual symbol…

  3. Avatar

    I have been rereading Thomas Cahill’s THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS (1998). It seems serendipitous that Cahill’s opening epigraph is a quote from Black Elk: “Everything an Indian does is in a circle…..” Lumhe and Samsoche’s Hoop Dance is an inspiring manifestation of Elk’s vision.
    As a Canadian who lives very close to an Indian reservation in Ontario and has family in Vancouver I am particularly moved by Matthew’s inclusion of the memorial for Indigenous children at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Fittingly, the final paragraph in the Afterword of Cahill’s book is Dostoevsky’s warning that the suffering of the world’s children is “the greatest proof against the existence of God”. In spite of centuries of prophetic warnings about the consequences of our failure to embody communal/cosmic justice grounded in truth and love we are now being scolded by the young for contaminating their natural world.

  4. Avatar

    Soul carnage is a perfect and poetic description of what we have done to our brothers and sisters and to our environment.

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