Corina Roberts

Spirits In The Material World: Native Americans Today

August, 2006

The Silence of Indigenous Peoples

Pagan Pages has been seeking to include a column dealing with Native Americans for some time. There are a few likely reasons it has taken some time to find an author willing to share appropriate information with the readership. In this first piece of what will be a monthly column devoted to understanding the indigenous peoples of the Americas, I wanted to address why Indian people often fall silent in a venue such as this.

I also want to tell you a little bit about myself. I was not born on a reservation. I was not raised by wolves. My first and most life-altering spiritual awakening happened in a store. Some of the first native people I attracted into my life were definitely not on a spiritual path, regardless of what they said or did. The sweat lodge ceremony is not for wimps. There were no Cherokee princesses in the days of your great grandmother.

My heritage, in this order, is German/Russian/Scottish/Welsh/Cherokee and probably Osage. Tribal people will understand why it’s important to make that clear within the first three paragraphs; everyone else will hopefully understand by the end of the column. There are no enrolled tribal members that I know of in my genealogical records, which stretch back to the late 1700’s.

Because I have been taught to respect cultural ways, I will not be writing about things that I shouldn’t. While it makes for great story-telling to relate certain spiritual experiences or embellish the details of ceremonies, what you really learn from these is very little. What I wish to accomplish in the first few segments of this column is to orient you to the reality of the native experience. Then, armed with practical knowledge, we can explore spiritual issues from a grounded, solid place.

When you understand the relationship of living things to each other, when you comprehend your own place in the complex web of life, then you can enjoy and understand your own spiritual experiences, and have a deeper appreciation for the experiences of others.

Many times I’ve heard people say they want to learn more about Native American people, but they can’t find anyone to teach them. Odd, it seems, that native people wouldn’t want to be more forthcoming in sharing their cultures with others. Wouldn’t that seem the best way to preserve them?

There are some very good reasons that American Indians are selective with whom they share their cultural truths. One of the primary reasons for this silence is little known and even less understood to the rest of the world. In native societies, a person earns the right and the approval of their elders and tribal leaders to be a spokesperson for their people.

It’s a rather foreign concept to those of us who were raised with the right to free speech. Shouldn’t everyone, regardless of their station in life, be able to say what they feel? Isn’t it rather backward to be so selective about who can say what?

At first glance, it might seem so. But on further investigation, the reasoning becomes more obvious. Many tribal people’s history goes back well beyond recorded history, and indigenous cultures are, by and large, oral cultures.

Origin stories as well as the rituals of daily life are passed down from elders to the young; they are kept alive and pure by the learning of the student from the teacher. Therefore, before a tribal person is ready to be a speaker on behalf of their people, they must first be a student. A student who can learn, memorize and retell the stories of their people.

To be a student, one must have teachers, and to have tribal teachers, one must be raised in and around their tribal community. This dramatically narrows the number of eligible spokespersons in today’s world. Several hundred years of brutal and dedicated oppression by dominant societies have reduced the size of tribal communities, and have obliterated much of the knowledge that was an integral part of those tribal systems.

There are other factors to consider as well. There were well over five hundred different tribes in the United States alone. Some were completely obliterated and exist now only in obscure historical accounts, mostly written by anthropologists. The knowledge those people maintained has effectively been lost. Of the nations that remain intact, they have done so by carefully protecting and preserving what is most sacred and vital to their cultures.

These cultures may be grouped as one category – American Indians, Native Americans, Indigenous peoples of the western Hemisphere; but this is a superficial grouping which gives us no more than a general geographic location in which to place those cultures. There are some similarities that all indigenous cultures share, like respect for Mother Earth, but the more one learns, the more they will realize that each nation is different from the next in important ways.

This lends another layer of difficulty to the task of finding someone to teach you about native cultures. Most Indian people will not pose as an authority on any culture but their own, not for lack of knowledge, but out of respect. They, after all, probably don’t have the right to speak on behalf of any culture other than, perhaps, their own, and if they have been raised with some traditional sensibility, will not be willing to divulge too much of what they do know.

One of the most important reasons native people are often silent has to do with the abuse of the knowledge they have shared. In their hunger to gain some level of spiritual accomplishment, and in pursuit of financial gain, many non-native people have adopted portions of native ceremonies for their own personal benefit.

You can buy a kit to make your own sweat lodge on the internet. You can read any number of books written by non-Indians about the spiritual paths of natives. A whole host of “adopted” non-Indian people have successfully published book after book about their spiritual adventures with native elders. Some purport that they have become shamans and medicine people themselves.

Some Indian and part-Indian people have cashed in on this open market as well. In urban areas they will, for a price, give you the “authentic” experience of a sweat lodge ceremony, or take your money for a seminar in which you will learn about animal spirit helpers. Using elements of native cultures in a new age setting, they prey upon those seeking spiritual enlightenment.

What native people have always been willing to share is their understanding of balance with nature and of responsibility for our actions. And this, perhaps the most important thing any of us can learn, has been largely tossed aside. How to live in right relation to all other things…the one thing that will bring us peace, comfort and a sustainable future…this knowledge has very nearly been lost for lack of use. Even native people themselves have had to re-learn the balance that their ancestors were taught from birth.

Several waves of “new age” religion have swept across Indian territory, bringing mixed results. The admiration of native peoples is usually one cloaked in a veil of pre-contact bliss and nostalgia that bears little resemblance to the reality of native life. The adaptation of ceremonial ways for personal profit has outraged some elders to the point that they have shut their doors to outsiders, Indian or non-Indian, in order to protect the sacred ways which they are the keepers of.

Newcomers usually don’t stick around long. After a few months or years, the glory of the stoic Indian seems to wear off. The day to day reality of native life is often harsh enough to send most spiritual seekers packing in short order. If they were expecting to be struck with enlightenment like a bolt of lightning from the heavens, they might do better standing on a hill in a thunderstorm.

For those who truly want to learn, however, there is still hope. There is one thing that can be said about most native peoples, regardless of their tribal identity. If they like you, they will set aside your ethnicity, appearance and socio-economic status, and whatever else makes you feel different, separate, fearful or unworthy, and accept you as you are.

There are no shortcuts to making friends; no gift that will insure this right of passage, no given name or secret handshake to get you into the club. Perhaps that’s why some people go to gatherings for years and years before they make lasting friendships with native people. There are no secrets, no tricks. There’s just you…who you really are, what you really came for, what you have to offer and what you hope to go away with.

And then, perhaps, slowly at first, your new-found friends will begin to break the indigenous code of silence, and show you the small, simple pieces of life that make up their vast and complex world.

***
author bio:

Corina Roberts, Founder

Redbird

Promoting the Awareness and Celebration of Indigenous Cultures and People and Creating a Sustainable Future

www.RedbirdsVision.org

Author, The Wisdom Walkers

www.lulu.com/corinaroberts

Corina Roberts was born in Wurzburg, Germany in 1964, the daughter of a German/Russian mother and Scottish/Welsh/Cherokee father enlisted in the United States Army. Writing, photography, art and poetry are both a professional and a personal passion. Redbird, founded in 1990 and receiving federal recognition as a 501(c)(3) non profit association in 1994, is a Native American cultural awareness and environmental organization created by Corina some 14 years ago. Writing skill came early, with the first recognition at the age of nine and a novel called Red Rover, which won an all-school first place award against many older students.

Most of Roberts’ work today focuses on cultural preservation and environmental education. She has written for a number of non-profit groups as well as doing freelance work. Her new novel, The Wisdom Walkers, available online at www.Lulu.com on October 1, will be the subject of a presentation titled “Telling Our Own Stories” on November 10-12, 2005 at the Southeastern University of Oklahoma’s Sixth Annual Native Writer’s Symposium in Durant, Oklahoma.

Recent poetry includes “Waking Up Screaming” in the July 2005 online edition of Autumn Leaves, collaboration with Virginia Morell on the National Geographic upcoming article “Sea Monsters” slated for publication in December 2005, and inclusion in the International

    • Poetry

  • Society’s 2005 Anthology with “The Honesty of Dogs”. Other current online credits include “Jump – Getting Started” an article about writers on writing at www.RedCedarPublishing.com. Visit Redbird’s new website, available October 1 2005 at www.RedbirdsVision.org and attend the Children Of Many Colors Intertribal Powwow, June 16, 17 and 18 2006 at Moorpark College in Moorpark, California.

    Corina has several other projects in the works as well. Fairy Island, Inc. is a wedding location operation in its early development, with some very innovative goals and ideas, and for which serious partner/investors are being sought. Through her non-profit, she is also working on a project called “Redbird Ranch”, an elder and transitional housing facility focusing on the Native American community, and providing peace and dignity in a culturally appropriate setting for families whose elderly are nearing their end of life.

    Contact Corina Roberts at: (805) 217-0364

    Or via email at:

    redbirds_vision@hotmail.com

    corinaroberts@aol.com

    Mailing Address:

    Corina Roberts, Founder

    Redbird

    P.O. Box 702

    Simi Valley, CA 93062