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“Work is service and service is worship”—Native American Perspectives on Spirituality

May 30, 2021

Image: Hopi Powalawu sand mosaic. Source: Fieldiana: Anthropology, Volume 3, Pl.XLII.

Course: The Great Spirit Speaks: Voices of the Wise Ones (2021)
Faculty Mentor: Kevin Locke

The main insight and understanding that I gleaned from The Great Spirit Speaks: Voices of the Wise Ones is a more expansive and inclusive view of the Eternal Covenant and Progressive Revelation.  

“According to this Eternal Covenant, God never leaves us alone and without guidance. Whenever humanity moves away from Him and forgets His Teachings, a Manifestation of God appears and makes His Will and Purpose known to us.”

from website of Perth Bahá’í Community, Australia

Through our study of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s Tablet to Amir Khan, we learned that this promise applies to all of humanity. In addition to the Manifestations of God, who became the founders of the world’s great religions, there were other Divine Teachers who have been lost to recorded history, but still made a substantial impact on the spiritual lives and civilizations in which they appeared.

As Bahá’ís, we should refrain from useless debates about who’s on the “official” list of Manifestations and who’s not. The main point is that we need to be mindful of the belief that God’s Divine Guidance has been made available to all human beings throughout history.  And from our study in this course, this would include the indigenous peoples of the Americas:

“Undoubtedly in those regions [the Americas] the Call of God must have been raised in ancient times ….”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Extract from a Tablet of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá)

My wife and I regularly host interfaith devotionals.  I am now more inclined to seek out and include content (writings, music, and sayings) from indigenous traditions (Native American and African) as well as from other religions from India (such as Sikhism and Jainism) and Asia (Taoism, Confucian philosophy, and Shinto). It would be hard to expound on everything that I learned in this assessment, but I will briefly mention some of the take-aways I have gleaned:

* An awareness that Native American beliefs and principles have had an influence on the United States Constitution and our democratic form of government, specifically through the life and teachings of the indigenous messenger, Deganawida (The Peacemaker), and The Iroquois Confederacy.

* The teachings of the White Buffalo Calf Woman as presented in the article, “The Ten Commandments of Lakota Life,” especially the concept of Mitakuy Oyasin (All My Relations) as well as the reverence for the “four directions.”

* The Mandan Creation myth as a metaphor for our journey through life, including both our physical and spiritual development.

* The Mi’Kmaq Creation story: I will never forget the profound imagery that Grandfather Sun has provided all human beings with a connection between us and our ancestors through our shadows. From now on, whenever I get a glimpse of my shadow, it will remind me of family members who came before me.

* The seven Ojibway teachings and their connection to the Bahá’í emphasis on acquiring spiritual virtues.

* The Navajo story of Changing Woman, the Twin warriors, and their connection to the Bahá’í Faith.

I think the most important attitude that I gained from this course is that as a non-indigenous person, I need to have respect and reverence for spiritual paths and traditions that are quite different from my own background.  My approach needs to be one of humility and a willingness to learn, share, and gain wisdom from different religious practices.  This reverence is embodied in the spirit of  the Bahá’í principle of independent investigation of truth as well as unity in diversity.

Through taking this course I have gained a new understanding of the meaning and purpose of myths. Throughout this course we were introduced to sacred stories and religious myths from a variety of indigenous cultures.  In the article entitled The Indigenous Prophets: Lone Man in Mandan Sacred Tradition, Chris Buck provided the following insight on myths:

“Myths are stories. The stories may not be literally true, although some literally minded people may think so. But, as in all belief systems, the truth of the story itself is not what matters. What matters is the deeper truth the story tells. Sacred myths teach sacred values.”

Although there are many religions practiced in the United States, the majority religious culture is Christian.  So as a Bahá’í from a Christian (Catholic) background, when I attempt to share/teach our Faith to others from Christian background I’m often confronted with misconceptions about the teachings and stories found in the Holy Bible.  On the one hand, those from a more fundamentalist background want to take the text of The Bible almost completely literally, which defies reason.  On the other, many atheists and materialists believe that this sacred text is full of foolish stories that entail extraordinary events that are often supernatural in nature.  For this group, because these stories appear to be highly implausible or illogical, they tend to reject the whole body of teachings and wisdom contained within.

I think by adopting the above perspective on the meaning and interpretation of myths, I will be a more effective teacher when addressing concerns from seekers about the Bahá’í Faith as it relates to Christian concepts from the Old & New Testaments of the Holy Bible.

Of all the new concepts I was exposed to in this course, the thing that resonated with me the most was the teachings on Navajo spirituality and its relationship to the Bahá’í Faith. I was especially touched by Rainn Wilson’s interview with Nanabah Bulman, the youth coordinator at the Native American Bahá’í Institute.  Here are some of her points that struck me.

Religion is not separate from everyday life: The Navajo culture has no word for “religion.” “Religion is an everyday practice of who we are. Work is service and service is worship. We accompany each other in our service.” I believe that If western religious adherents would adopt this attitude toward spirituality, it would transform not only lives, but cultures and eventually the entire planet. When religion and spirituality are internalized into one’s life and parity is established between indigenous teachings and other religious traditions, we will have taken critical steps toward bringing to fruition ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prophecy that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas…. “will enlighten the whole world”.

The Beauty Way: Nanabah spoke a lot about the Navajo Bahá’í concept of beauty. As Bahá’ís, we know that Bahá’u’lláh, the Ancient Beauty, the Blessed Beauty has come to restore beauty to a suffering world through His Teachings. As a person of color, I found this to be profound insight to help me combat the pain of prejudice and discrimination that is rampant in our society. Through focusing on the beauty of His Teachings, I will be able to rise above all the disorder in the world, be more resilient, and continue to teach the Faith during these difficult times.

The course prompted me to investigate the spirituality of native communities indigenous to the State of Michigan, especially the Ojibwe. Over the past month, I have added these books about Ojibwe history and culture to my reading list:

Ojibwe Waasa Inaabidaa: We Look in All Directions, by Thomas Peacock and Marlene Wisuri

Ojibwa: People of the Forests and Prairies, By Michael G. Johnson

Contributors

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Eric Stanton

I have been a Bahá’í since 1991. I am a public librarian and I live in East Lansing, Michigan. My wife and I have been married for 26 years and have two adult children. We are both members of the Local Spiritual Assembly and are involved in the core activities. I was raised Roman Catholic and still have a deep affinity for Catholic spirituality. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, I was also influenced by African American Protestant culture. As a youth, I developed an interest in Buddhist teachings and have had a lifelong interest in comparative religion, specifically learning about world religions and Christian denominations. In my spare time I love to read, walk, and practice Tai Chi.

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