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Climbing The World Tree

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Climbing the World Tree: Native American Spirituality and the Natural World

In the autobiography of John Fire Lame Deer, holy man of the Lakota Sioux, he says, "A good way to start thinking about nature, talk about it. Rather talk to it, talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the winds as to our relatives" (108). To the European mind, his advice might seem a little strange and hard to follow, for the word 'nature' often refers to that which is separate from what constitutes man and civilization. But to Lame Deer and his people, as well as the majority of the indigenous societies of North America, 'nature' included not only humankind but all of creation; the natural world is the sacred whole which everything that exists is born from. Historically, there were nine basic culture areas of indigenous North Americans, mostly separated by region, as would follow from climate and adaptation. These were all very different from each other, but they shared the same belief that the incarnations of nature were inherently divine, that the forces responsible for the creation of all life were present throughout the whole (Berman 20). This sacredness of the natural world manifests itself in each of Ninian Smart's eight characteristics of religion, evidence of its status as a core foundation of Native American spirituality.

One of the most common core beliefs of many of the native peoples of North America includes the three levels of the cosmosÑ*the middle plane consisting of the spiritual realm and its material manifestation as the world of living beings, the upper plane as home to deities and spirits, and the lower plane of darkness and evil spirits. (Glazier 437) In Black Elk Speaks, narrator Black Elk makes reference to the higher planes, saying, "the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things...is the real world behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world." In this world he says, "the trees and the grass and the stones and everything were made out of spirit" (65). The connection between the different planes and worlds is the World Tree, which is represented by various incarnations of natural elements; to some peoples it was an actual tree, to others a sacred mountain, and so onÑ*the overlaying similarity remaining that the World Tree could be expressed by the natural world. (Glazier 437)

Aspects of the natural world come in time and again in much of Native American mythology. Lame Deer gives a story of a flood told over many generations which "engulfed the prairies like an ocean." In the story, ancient peoples tried to save themselves by climbing a hill, but the flood covered them and crushed all living things, turning to "a large pool of blood" (236). When the blood dried and solidified, it became red stone. This 'red stone', common in upper Midwest where it forms great expanses of exposed bedrock, is known scientifically as catlinite, a mudstone containing oxidized iron (known more commonly as rust). It is also called Sioux Quartzite, a nod to the people who considered it the holy lifeblood of the land (Barrows). The Navajo people have many myths about the stars and the heavens, as well as a narrative of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Together, Mother Earth and Father Sky represent the whole of creationÑ*the supernatural world as characterized by natural elements. A third example is the Cherokee account on the origin of sickness, which puts the blame strictly on animal spirits. Cramped by the rapid spread of man and hunted for food and skin, the animals decided to retaliate by inventing the multitude of diseases that inflict mankind (Taylor 109). Interestingly enough, many cures for these diseases are rooted in the natural world as well.

Evidence of the natural world as it effects the social institutions of these peoples is tied into their very act of merely surviving. Many of the Native Americans (including Lame Deer's Lakota Sioux, famous for Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and Sitting Bull) lived in shamanistic societies. From an anthropological viewpoint, a people are more likely to be shamanistic if they exist in a society that is subject to the sometimes unexpected workings of nature such as shifts in climate or natural disaster (Glazier 435). The natural world obviously had great effect on the different cultures and religious practices of these peoples. Their combined experiences allowed for a developed society intimately connected with nature. An interesting example of the overlap in institution and experience would be the great mound cities built by Mississippian societies between 900 AD and 1500 AD. The Etowah mounds of Georgia, a particularly well-preserved site, is just one example of the large constructions left over from this people. The mounds were slowly built over time as layer upon layer of housing built up and was torn down and covered again. The largest mounds were holy places, upon which temples were built. The mounds were an integral way of life for the Mississippian people, at once part of their domestic and spiritual life, closely connected to the earth (Etowah).

There was a certain sense of right action and wrong action in regards to nature. To the Laguna Indians of New Mexico, it was proper to cover a deer's face before gutting it, as well as sprinkling its nose with cornmeal to feed the deer's spirit. If this was not done, the deer would inform each other of the maltreatment and then the game would then become scarce (Williamson 32). The Lakota Sioux regarded the buffalo in a similar manner. According to Lame Deer, the Sioux apologized to the buffalo's spirit, praying for the "our brothers, the buffalo nation." Lame Deer goes so far as to attribute the Massacre of Wounded Knee to the white settler's inability to hold reverence for the living spirit of another creature as the Sioux did. He says, "to us life, all life, is sacred" (111). But even the

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