A free day in Washington, DC. There’s so much to see there. It was a tossup between the two new museums, one dedicated to African Americans and one to Native Americans. I chose the latter, since I had been to a Native wedding the previous weekend and had been thinking about cultures and spiritual traditions and my lack thereof. Maybe I could learn something here.
And I hit the food-for-thought jackpot. There was an entire exhibit about Native American cosmologies—worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe. It would take an encyclopedia to do justice to Native American cosmologies, so I apologize in advance for what I am about to get wrong or leave out.
I watched a 15-minute introductory video which made the point that the term “American Indian” encompasses hundreds of tribes from Bolivia to Alaska and from Seattle to Florida and that they all have their own traditions and customs. The video showed a guy doing something most people would associate with Native Americans—drumming in a pow wow or carving a totem or some such (I can’t remember) and he said, “This isn’t something we do for fun—this is the way it is.”
I’ve been to pow wows so I think I know what he meant. A non-Native could come away from a pow wow thinking, “Well that seemed like a nice excuse to dance and socialize and I’m glad they let me observe but it seemed kind of cheesy and repetitive and I don’t need to go again.” Whereas for Natives who take it seriously, the regalia and music and dancing have significance way beyond their outward appearance.
The cosmology exhibit featured eight tribes. An impression I’ve always had about Indian spirituality is that it’s nature based. Having been raised in a Catholic milieu, I can’t think of anything related to the natural world in Catholicism.
Judaism, the world religion with which I’ve always identified, has a few nature-focused holidays. Sukkot requires us to build a temporary dwelling outdoors and eat in it every day for 10 days to remind ourselves of the 40 years we spent wandering in the desert. Tu B’Shvat is the New Year of Trees and we … plant trees. We throw bread on the water (a river or lake) during the High Holidays to symbolize casting away our sins. But these are once-a-year holidays. We used to sacrifice bulls under the full moon but thankfully discarded that tradition.
The natural world was the starting point all of the tribal cosmologies. Basically, each worldview started with some kind of geographic division: the four compass directions or, in the case of the Mapuche, six dimensions including the water below and Father God above. Each natural sphere is associated with values or animals or human traits.
The values overlapped but weren’t exactly the same from tribe to tribe. The Lakota Souix and Anishinabe are tribes that inhabit Minnesota and vast areas beyond. Lakota values corresponding to the four compass points are generosity, wisdom, respect, and fortitude. Anishinabe values also include wisdom, respect, and fortitude—plus love, courage, honesty, humility, and truth—but not generosity. The Maya value wisdom, honesty, integrity, faithfulness, authority, and spiritual leadership. The Yu’pik value respect, loyalty, and authority.
These are Yu’pik elders consulted on the exhibit.
In Judaism, I would say justice is the primary value. I thought maybe the Lakota value of truth was close to this but for them “truth” is about things that are eternal, like the sun and the moon—things that never change. Courage was the closest to justice; in the case of Natives it means moral strength to do the right thing.
I won’t get into the forms of worship—if that’s the correct word—but it does seem true that Native practices—at least the eight tribes represented here—really did spring from and revolve around nature.
Some tribes had worldviews that included an afterlife; some didn’t even have a future tense. One of the afterlives was described as “a place where you go when you die to dance forever.” I’m sure that sounds great to some people but not to me. I’m a horrible dancer.