American Indian expressions of spirituality

Ann Charron

Ann Charron

As Native American Day approaches, many students and faculty members will use the three-day weekend as a time of relaxation and as a time to get away from the daily stess of college life.

The holiday weekend is more than just a time to relax though. It’s also a time to reflect on the history and culture of American Indians.

There are many aspects of the indigenous people to consider as the holiday grows closer, but one important area to focus on is the Native American religion.

In the 19th century, American Indians lost many of their religious customs as whites forced them to convert to Christianity, sent their children to mission schools and banned some of their ceremonies.

Today, more than two-thirds of American Indians characterize themselves at least nominally as Christians, according to a pamphlet called “100 Questions, 500 Nations.”

Some American Indians have combined their Christian beliefs with their native religions. Others practice two separate faiths.

“Many of us are Christians so that we observe many of the holidays of other churches,” said Leonard Bruguier, Director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of South Dakota. “We’re modern day people who exist as Christians and as a mix.”

Until the 1930s, the United States tried to ban Native American religious rituals, including the Ghost Dance, Sun Dance and peyote cult.

In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Religious practices, once considered on the verge of disappearing, were revived.

One of these practices is the Sun Dance.

“Sun Dances are not exclusive to Lakota/Dakota. Many, many tribes or nations perform the Sun Dance with their own origins, own versions,” Valerian Three Irons, Native American club adviser at SDSU, said.

Three Irons, an adviser for the College of Nursing and a coordinator for the International Partnership for Service Learning, has led Sun Dances for many years and describes the ceremony as a time to celebrate life.

“Many of our Sun Dances are a story. It’s a story about creation and a story about life,” Three Irons said.

According to Three Irons, the ceremony, held between spring time and harvest time, can be led by a tribal event or by an individual who has had a vision or right to conduct Sun Dances.

Sun Dances are not the only ceremony performed in the religion. Ghost dances, sweat lodges, vision quests and pipe ceremonials are also intrinsic parts of the religion that various American Indian tribes take part in.

Bruguier, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, is a Christian and a member of the American Indian church. He also carries the pipe with which he participates in a pipe ceremony called Inipi.

Bruguier, a Vietnam veteran, said that he carries the pipe to pray and symbolize the warrior in himself.

“The churches, the pipe, and the Native American church affirms your spirituality,” Bruguier said.

Spirituality is an important part of Native American religion. According to “100 Questions, 500 Nations,” many American Indians believe in a Great Spirit that reveals itself through nature and influences all life.

“We look at everything having spirit, allow things to be and be comfortable with who we are and what we are,” Three Irons said.

Many American Indians do not consider their spiritual practices a religion, nor do they rely on an institution to worship.

Instead their beliefs are an integral part of daily life.

“Many of us follow the small ritual of greeting the sun in the morning and saying your daily prayer,” Three Irons said.

According to “100 Questions, 500 Nations,” prayers have taken a variety of forms, including songs and dance and acts such as sprinkling tobacco or corn meal.

“I communicate with the creator, being thankful to the creator for giving a new sunrise and to remember special people,” Bruguier said.

When Native American Day approaches, Bruguier said that he will also give thanks.

“I’ll be thankful to the creator giving me another day and I will ask the creator for peace and I will think of the children,” Bruguier said. “That’s what I will be really thinking on Oct. 14.”