Living Spirituality

Aug 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 6-2: Spirituality, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

Every issue of Tribal College has, in some way, touched the sub­ject of spirituality. When we talk about language, the arts, eco­nomic development or medicine, for example, we are ultimately building a deeper understanding of Indian spirituality because it is through these and all other disciplines that it is inevitably expressed.

Spiritual belief is not a separate compartment of American Indian culture; it is imbedded in life. Evidence of its influence is there­fore unavoidable, yet it remains dif­ficult to isolate and examine. It is not conducive to study under a microscope: Separated from its active expression, its vitality is easi­ly missed.

Gerald Houseman describes this problem succinctly in his book, Turtle Island Alphabet. He writes, “As a symbol of things Native American, religion is both the most common— the mother symbol, if you will—and the most ambiguous. In Navajo, for example, there is no separate word for religion; it exists, as is does in most other tribes, in the heart of life as it is being lived.”

Of course, all American Indian cultures have ceremonies and occa­sions for the expression of spiritual beliefs. But to view these events or the physical artifacts used—such as pipes or costumes—as the sum of Indian religion is to acknowledge only one aspect of how spirituality is expressed.

Instead, the daily tasks of life also define and reinforce spiritual belief. Joseph Epes Brown, author of The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, describes this “as a quality of culture wherein action and contem­plation are interrelated and inte­grated.” He uses the historical hunter as an example:

A hunter, for example, is not just participating in a purely mechanical subsistence activity, but is engaged in a complex of meditative acts, all of which—whether preparatory prayer and purification, pursuit of the quarry, or the sacramental manner by which the animal is slain and subsequently treated—are infused with the sacred. Black Elk [in Epes’ book, The Sacred Pipe] described the act of hunting as being—not representing—life’s quest for ultimate truth.

The integration of spirituality is also reflected in tribally controlled organizations, including the tribal colleges. Working deliberately to reflect traditional culture, these institutions all, at some level, rein­force spiritual values. But like the hunter, these values are embedded within everyday activities and are more subtly expressed.

Indeed, a visitor to a tribal college might easily miss spirituality’s power­ful influence during a short stay. While most colleges offer at least one course in traditional philosophy and sponsor traditional ceremonies, spirituality exists as far more than an academic discipline to be studied. It is also expressed in the mission of the institution and, even less tangi­bly, the mood created by those who work and study on campus.

It is important to note, however, that while tribal colleges reflect the values of traditional spirituality, they are not analogous to sectarian colleges and universities. Unlike religious institutions in America, which help sustain a particular faith within an officially secular state, tribal colleges are more like public institutions working to strengthen cultures that are built on a founda­tion of spirituality. Its influence is felt within the colleges because it is felt within the cultures.

In this way, traditional spirituality is not formally sanctioned as the reli­gion of the institutions and there are no requirements that students and staff conform to its tenets. Christian denominations, for example, have a strong and respected presence in many communities and accommoda­tion to different beliefs has long been the norm within Indian communities.

This philosophy contrasts sharply with almost all previous attempts to educate American Indians. While tribal college leaders believe that higher education should respect cultural values— including spirituality—most non- Indian colleges and universities believed their job was to introduce Indians to Western civilization. And because Christianity was, in their view, a necessary ingredient in civilization, it became a necessary ingredient in Indian education. Accommodation with traditional religious practices was impossible because they were believed to hin­der adoption of western civilization and, for some, were evidence of the Devil’s influence.

The first colleges founded in the American colonies—Harvard, Dartmouth, William and Mary, and others—were all expected to educate Indians so that they might, as one early administrator phrased it, “not only learn a civil way of life, but be brought to a knowledge of religion and become instruments in the con­version of their countrymen.”1

Conversion was, in fact, often viewed as the only compelling rea­son to educate Indians. According to historian Bobby Wright, “the English operated under the misguid­ed and culturally arrogant notion that education was an expedient means to Indian conversion.2

These early efforts were unqualified failures. Few Indians enrolled and even fewer completed their studies. Many died of illness or returned to their homes, leaving the colleges, and Christianity, behind. One early historian noted the trend, lamenting the loss of souls more than the loss of scholars: “Those of them that have escaped well, and have been taught to read and write, have for the most part returned to their home, some with and some without baptism, where they follow their own savage customs and hea­thenish rites.”3

However, as decades passed, educa­tion and Christianity remained firmly intertwined for American Indians. Continuing to believe that the func­tion of higher learning was to turn Indians away from their own culture and beliefs, Christianity remain an essential part of the curriculum.

As failures grew, so did the frustration of missionaries, educators and government officials. Some wondered if Indians were even capable of comprehending religion. From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, they were declared to be “without religion” (by a Franciscan friar) and even without the capacity to comprehend the abstract or make moral deci­sions (by an Army officer at the turn of the century).

From the first years of contact, there were individuals who appreci­ated, at different levels, the true richness of Indian spirituality. But even today caricatures predominate. At best, Native Americans are asso­ciated with little more than posi­tive, if simplistic, notions about liv­ing in harmony with nature. At worst, Indian spirituality conjures images of rain dances, magic and superstitious fears.

Spirituality as a vital, actively felt force in Indian life remains almost as hidden today as it did four cen­turies ago.

This ignorance is lamented by Joseph Epes Brown:

These original Americans have had, and fortunately still do have, great riches in human and spiritual resources. Yet these riches are either being swept aside and forgotten, or are being consciously and actively destroyed by a civilization that is out of balance precisely because it has lost those values …By ignoring or denying the spiritual legacy left to us by the Indians we have contributed to their impoverishment and we have cut ourselves off from the pos­sibility of an enrichment we desper­ately need.

In this issue, then, we have cho­sen to not examine the doctrines of Indian spirituality. Instead, we fea­ture the lives of individuals who, in their work and daily routine, embody the values of traditional spirituality. In addition, we look at how some of the tribal colleges are working to actively support spiritu­ality on their campuses and within their communities. The work of these individuals and institutions illustrate the idea of contemplation through action and offers proof not only of Native spirituality’s continu­ing relevance, but centrality.

Paul Boyer is editor of Tribal College.


1. Alice C. Fletcher, Indian Education and Civilization: A Report Prepared in Answer to Senate Resolution of February 23, 1885 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1888), 32-33.

2. Bobby Wright, The Broken Covenant: American Indian Missions in the Colonial Era (Chapter from a manuscript to be published by Tribal College Press, 1989), 2.

3. Wright, The Broken Covenant, 14.


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