Native Americans: A New View
Learn About Their Spirituality, Healing Practices & More
By: J. Marlando
I have always had an interest in America’s indigenous people. For one thing as a child my grandmother, who was a back-hills woman during her own growing up years would often talk to me about Old Chief William Sitting Bear who was a friend of the family. She also told me that Old Chief William Sitting Bear was probably not a chief at all but a known alcoholic who lived with a black woman back in the Appalachians where they were raising their three children in a run-down shack. She said that the Old “Chief” sold her father bootleg whiskey from time to time but also he would do odd jobs for people who needed help around their places and that he was one of those men who could fix just about anything that was broken. Not that my grandmother’s parents had much money raising their own six children but Old Chief William Sitting Bear would work for a chicken, store-bought tobacco or even extra-material for his wife to make clothing for his two girls. Cash was not a major issue back then.
Old Chief William Sitting Bear claimed to be a full-blooded Cherokee but he said that his ancestors went back to when giant elephants roamed the land which most anthropologist would find difficult to digest but the old chief claimed the history was true because the story had been passed down from very ancient times.
Over the years my grandmother would often refer to the old “chief” in a beloved way and always with a lot of respect. In fact, in the spring when she planted her garden and flowers I would help her and she would tell me how Old Chief William Sitting Bear taught her that talking and singing to plants made them happy and helped them to grow strong. My grandmother always sang and talked not only to her plants but to our chickens and, truth is, we had the best layers in the neighborhood. In fact, a great many years before modern science began experimenting with animals and music, my grandmother had wired an old radio in the coop and played music to our chickens once or twice a day. I swear, our chickens laid the most and biggest eggs in our neighborhood. And that was a time when just about all our neighbors had chickens in their yard.
She told me that the old chief said the reason why talking and singing worked was because the Great Spirit was in all things not just people. “That’s right,” my grandmother would say, “if you pulled god out of the stars they would fall, if you took god out of the trees they would wilt…” Sometimes she’d change the word God into Love and her old eyes would just sparkle when she’d speak of such things.
I remember asking my grandmother—her name was Nellie
After I grew up I began thinking about America’s indigenous people and doing some reading about them too. And, while I do not claim to be an authority, I believe that I know enough to stir the heart and mind of most readers with hope that the information and insights that are about to unfold will intrigue him or her as much as they intrigued me while writing about them.
Native American Origins in Overview
Even in our ultra-modern, scientific times there is still no absolute answer to where the American Native originated from. (Just for the record, the term “Indian” originated from Columbus who believed that he had arrived in the East Indies while looking for Asia. This is why the Caribbean is often referred to as the West Indies). Anyway, my grandmother’s friend, Chief Sitting Bear, said that he had heard stories that his people were on the land going back to the times of the big elephants (Mammoths).
While some scientists claim that those we call “Indians” crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska only around 12,000 years ago. The Indians themselves say, from their many creation stories, that they they’ve always been indigenous to the Americas.
I’ve drawn my own conclusions which I will share a little later.
In our times a lot of universities have been studying the DNA of Indians wanting to trace their ancient beginnings. Most test results traces American Native heritage to Siberian-Asia ancestry. In 1997, however, a fly fell into the DNA ointment. The unique gene found in a group of American Indians was also discovered in a small tribe living on the Gobi Desert.
Certainly, if we go back even 30,000 to 50,000 years ago (much less further) we cannot know exactly what the landscape or weather was like before the last glaciation. And so, as some archeologists suggest, frequent migrations to the Americas might have been commonplace not only by way of the ancient Baring land bridge
As interesting as all this is, the bottom line is that when as American Indian legends tell us that they were indigenous to the land from the beginning, it is probably true. That is, since to the ancient mind there was probably ever an “over there” in the sense of cultural centers. During those times when the land bridge existed between the Asian and American continents the terrain would have been thought of as mere extensions of the same land. Migrations would have occurred because across the Bering land bridge there was better hunting, better gathering and continuing south much better weather. In this view, the American native may have had much more than 70,000 years to develop his tribal cultures in the Americas.
This is all food-for-thought of course but from all the facts and data I have been able to gather, I am fully convinced that the theory of American Indians being related to ancient indigenous Siberians is correct. This opinion is not based on pure speculation. My reasons for concluding this are twofold: First of all, one sees enormous similarities between the American Indian medicine man image
The second but no less important link is that of language. There has most recently been discovered a very ancient Ket language still spoken by a very small population in Western Siberia. The origins of Canada’s Dene Nation and America’s Navajo, Apache and other U.S. tribes are now known to having the roots of their languages in ancient Ket—this is an apparent tie—some call it a link—between the ancient Siberians and the American indigenous. I cannot imagine that archeology, anthropology or biology will ever make a better conclusion than this common sense view of the origins of the Native Americans. After all, similarities in language and “religious-spiritualistic practices
As for the speculation about the people of the ancient Gobi region in Asia, it is not difficult to conceive of those ancient Mongolians and Chinese simply migrating into the Siberian lands and perhaps interbreeding with the indigenous there…we’ll have to leave further speculation to the geneticists and anthropologists though. With this aside however, I am still convinced that the deepest roots of our indigenous are in connectedness with the Siberian indigenous.
Healing Practices of the American Indian
What is extremely interesting to me is that American Indian shamans—medicine men and women—were using psychology as part of the healing process many hundreds or even thousands of years before Freud. This is something of importance to all of us and we’ll be discussing the topic on a later page in this section.
Hopefully the reader will recall what my grandmother’s friend Old Chief Sitting Bear said about us humans being able to communicate with plants, trees, flowers and other wildlife Part of the shaman’s tribal life was the power to communicate with the spirits of both plants, animals and even the stones.
As a quick aside, I am fully convinced that this spiritual practice goes back to the very ancient cave painters and beyond. I absolutely disagree with the theory that cave painting was a form of sympathetic magic but I am rather convinced that the paintings have spiritual messages and meaning.
Anyway, just as Zen masters teach students, most tribal shamans were given instruction by older, experienced shamans in both the rituals of shamanism and healing practices.
Incidentally, unlike it has always been indicated in the movies, there were not only medicine men but also medicine women. And, many tribes believed that homosexuals were given special powers and therefore individuals who were called man/woman were held in great esteem and many of them became shamans.
When a person was seriously ill, a shaman would go to him and sing, drum and chant his/her prayers for hours. During such rituals they would sometimes use herbal hallucinogens to assist them crossing over into the spiritual world. (I am convinced that herbal hallucinogens were used ritualistically by the ancient cave painters as well).
Sometimes the Shamans would use a mixture of herbs and “psychology” which we will soon be talking about to heal the sick. The medicine man or woman would repeat phrases to the ill person such as: I am well today.
My fever has gone away and I am cool.
I am no longer sick but all my strength has returned and so forth; the shaman was reaching the ill person’s soul which we moderns call the unconscious and was apt to repeat such messages for hours and even days at a time.
As another quick aside and yet regarding the above, I will quote the world renowned neuroscientist, Candice Perk, who said: “I can’t relate to the mind/body dichotomy anymore…Is your consciousness in your head? No, it’s in your entire body. I no longer believe in disease at all. Disease is a hundred percent mental. It’s just your brain state being reflected in your body.” The native American Indian understood this long before modern science existed.
Shamans—also known as medicine men and women—simply understood from long traditions that the mind plays a major role in sickness and in recovery. As a result they would do their share of role playing too. Indeed, they might pick up a bug from the ground and palm it. Soon they would pretend to take the bug from the sick person’s stomach and tell that person something like, “Ah, here is what was making you sick, you will get well now.” If such remedies hadn’t had worked, they would not have used them. (I remember being deathly ill in the hospital and the doctors told my wife to call my relatives; that I would not/could not last. My wife said, nonsense, you tell my husband that he is getting well every time you see him and he will get well. That was well over five years ago),
Psychology was not only the Indian’s method of health care of course.
Many tribes had “sweat huts or “houses.” For one thing, microorganisms that cause sickness can only survive at normal body temperatures while intense
As another quick aside, I recall a man who traveled through the Amazon and discovered that a tribe’s medicine man was mixing complicated formulas from plants and so forth. The man asked the old holy man how in the world he figured out how to mix the herbs. And the old holy man said, “Oh, that is easy, we asked the plants and they told us.” There is an old Arapaho proverb that agrees with this. It says, “All plants are our brothers and sisters, they talk to us and if we listen, we can hear them.”
If the plants taught the Indians how they are to be used, the Aloe
The way the Indians used aloe was to cut a piece from the plant and snap it in half. It is the thick sap that has the healing properties. Indians also took it internally but it is strongly suggested that you ask your own doctor before you try it for internal use especially if you are pregnant or breast feeding.
Porter Shimer also tells us that the Indian aused bearberries
In the areas where it grew, the Indians had used black cohosh as seen here
If we were to ask this question to an Native American medicine man or woman who lived during those times that the Indians were free, he or she would have answered, the plants told us or it was given us in a vision. We will be talking about Indian spirituality and visions a little later.
The Indians also used dandelion
Speaking of flowers, the Indians used roots from white violets
There are of course numerous other herbs, plants and flowers that the American Native used for nourishment, energy and to cure illness. For purposes here, however, what is important to grasp is the awesome and complex information America’s indigenous had about the healing and health of people. Interestingly enough, they also had many herbs and plants that served as preventative medicine.
In regard to natural medicine, when I was a boy and endured an open wound as all boys are known to do, my grandmother would always put a band aid to close the wound and keep it from infection. The Indians did not have bandaids of course so what did they use? My grandmother told me that when Old Chief William Sitting Bear’s children had a cut, he would find a spider web and use it to close the wound. As the reader may know, spider webs have a very strong adhesive to them!
It wasn’t only herbs, plants and other things from nature that served to keep the American Indian alive, well and healthy. They included their spirituality for the health of their minds and bodies which we will talk about next.
American Native Spirituality
When the medicine man or woman was called upon to help cure an illness there was invariably dancing, chanting, drumming and performing other rituals. For one thing, as said earlier, the Indian healers had an incredible knowledge of how much the mind has to do with human health. And, we humans tend to believe in ritualistic practices as they create comfort zones for us. For examples, the Mormon baptism, the Catholic mass and protestant evangelism are all highly dramatic and ritualistic but even a court of law has its rituals to create an ambiance of respect and importance…and validity.
The Indian religion, however, was far more practical than the religion(s) of the “white man.” A major reason why Christianity was not accepted by most Indians was that at its center was death and suffering/crime and punishment. Life either led to salvation or fire’s hell! The American Indian expected more out of his religion than this. It is, after all, like Vine Deloria, Jr. says in regard to this: “The difference is notable. While Christianity can project the reality of the afterlife—time and eternity—it appears to be incapable of proving any reality to the life in which we are here and now presently engaged—space and the planet Earth”
While the Indian believed whole heartedly in life after life, his “religion” offered much more than a promise of reward and punishment for his human deeds (the coercive component of civilization’s organized religions).
The Indian’s religion was immediate and served daily life in prominent ways. In fact, to the Native American, religion was not at all about faith in God—to the Indian, the Great Spirit permeated everything. And so, when he prayed for some miracle, he or she did not hope their prayers would be answered, they expected them to be.
The famous American Indian shaman, Black Elk
Black Elk was a Sioux with a very exact image of the Great Spirit. His prayer was as follows: “Great Spirit! You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you—the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air and all green things that live…I am sending you a voice, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, forgetting nothing you have made, the stars of the universe and the grasses of the Earth.”
On the other hand, we need to be careful, however, not to over-romanticize the American Indian’s religion. He was not as aloof from the Christian—martyr—system as we’d like to believe. But before we talk about this let’s take a moment to talk about religious suffering as ritual.
Christ’s prolonged suffering and Crusifixion is said to have been to “suffer” for the good of mankind. This is the same myth told about Dionysus the Greek savior, Hercules the Roman savior, Osiris the Egyptian savior and the list continues of man/gods who suffered and died for the rest of us. First of all, living on earth is painful for every one of us—there is the knowing that we are vulnerable to illness and injury; the knowing that we are mortal and, for that matter, in the knowing that we are centered in life’s uncertainties. (Only Buddha practiced and taught ways of overcoming pain as an obtainable goal). In any case, the basic idea that pain leads to reward and salvation is and has been an Achilles Heel for our kind since very ancient times. In this regard, I personally knew a woman who had severe and painful cancer. She refused to take her pain medicine because, she said, “The more I suffer, the more Jesus will love me.”
The nonsense of such beliefs is apparent but both so-called civilized religions and pagan religions have taught this in a manifold of ways. The concept did not bypass all American Indians either and was part part of the American Indian experience. Pain in fact played a major role in the Indian’s ritual of thanksgiving called the Sun Dance.
The ritual was called the Sun Dance and was practiced by the Arapaho, Arikara, Assibiboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Sioux, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibway, Sarsi Omaha, Ponca, Ute, Shoshone, Kiowa and the Blackfoot tribes. Reasons for the dance varied with different tribes but the dance always included…human suffering to attract God—the Great Spirit—to respond to their pleas.
Some endured much pain during the ritual to gain revenge on enemies, others suffered because they had been protected during a dangerous battle while some young men suffered in order to be accepted as warriors and yet others as part of a vision quest. Most basically, those seeking a vision would find a sponsor who had done the same thing and they would go together to where the ritual was to take place. There the young man would sit down facing the east with his arms at his side. His sponsor, always an older man, pinched up the skin of young brave’s breast on either side and ran a knife through it. He would then take two wooden skewers, around three inches long, and pushed them through the cuts on each side of the breast, then attach a rope to a pole that had been firmly planted in the ground. Afterwards he would help the young man to his feet. The young man would then walk doing his best to tear the skewers from the skin of his breasts as this man is doing:
There was much more to the Sun Dance than this of course as even the children had special games they played during the Thanksgiving ceremonies.
In very olden times some tribes, like the Pawnee had a Morning Star Ceremony during which a young woman was “sacrificed.”
As a quick aside, this human sacrificing of the Pawnees is reminiscent of the Mayan civilization whose blood rites and human sacrificing are well known. The Mayan religion built pyramids like this one
This odd quirk for martyrdom, sacrifice and suffering in the human psyche goes back to the earliest civilization, perhaps even further? As said earlier, Christianity dwells on the suffering and death of Jesus and why he died for us. We wonder how much more valuable to the human psyche to have a savior/god who is happy PIC and celebrates why “he lived for us.”
What I am attempting to get at here is that religion, be it orthodox or pagan, clings on to the idea that somehow pain is associated with goodness and pleasure is somehow associated with evil. Even the American Indian, with all his wisdom, failed to break from this obvious superstition.
Becoming Indian is not for everyone and, in fact, some of today’s Native Americans are not able to, in a term, “become Indian in their minds and hearts.” What do I mean by this? I’ll try and explain below.
My grandmother’s friend, Chief William Sitting Bear, told my grandmother when she was a very little girl that “she could be an Indian too if she walked in the woods every day looking for God and when she found God, she would have become Indian.”
That was quite a challenge for a child her age but she believed him. When I was little my grandmother told me the story so I went everywhere in our yard and across the street into the big field looking for God in his hiding place. I was eighteen or nineteen years old, hiking up in the Rockies, when I finally realized that everywhere I looked, is where God, (the Great Spirit) was to be found. That realization changed my life forever as I had never felt such joy.
Today most (real) Indians have been raised either in the quagmires of reservations or shoved into the poorest districts of American life or have risen above both in the magic kingdoms of casinos
While the heart of the Indian of old was broken in the past, it has been pieced back together by modernism’s calloused hands but never to be free again. This is believe summarizes the story of the American indigenous.
Deloria, Vine Jr.,* When God Was Red *Fulcrum Publishing
Linn, Denise* Quest * Ballentine Books
Neihardt, John G. * Black Hawk Speaks *MJF Books
Mails. Thomas E.* The Mystic Warriors of the Plains *Barnes and Noble
Shimer, Porter * Native American Healing Secrets *Gramercy Books
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