Passing Over Ceremony – By Joseph M. Higgins and Church Bergman, Native American Rituals and Ceremonies
A common theme found in Native Americans’ spirituality is the idea of finding god in nature. Understanding the world around them lead them to an interior understanding and connection with the divine. This Native American belief dates back as far as 60,000 years. Archeologists suggest that thousands of years ago people lived on a great continent, Pangea, which was responsible for a global uniformity of nomadic spiritual culture. These commonalities were responsible for the earliest forms of spiritual customs that developed into many of today’s spiritual beliefs. From hunting they developed a belief in Animism, the idea that spirits exist in animals, and that the spirits and traits of each animal are a true expression of God. Farming brought forth food and medicine, and taught a respect for Gaia, the Earth Mother, who provided for her children. Shamanism (and shamans, the medicine men of the societies) helped induce healing and meaning to the spiritual forces seen and unseen in existence around everyone. These were the earliest forms of cultural connections.
The root of these nomadic cultures is based upon the threefold concept of heaven, earth, and the underworlds. Everything is considered to be alive with a masculine or feminine expression of God — the trees, rocks, stars, animals, and all other entities are considered interconnected. All matter is considered an equal sentient being.
The earth is seen as a living, breathing conscious being. The earth is the “Mother” and the tribes are her children, nurtured and sustained by her love and grace. The need to live in harmony with the Mother rather than live off of the Mother is a fundamental to the future, spiritual advance, and survival of the Native American peoples. This is the primary and ultimate spiritual goal.
The understanding of the afterlife is as follows. The spirit is divided into two parts: the organic that returns to the Mother and the spirit that returns to the Father. This idea mirrors the Chinese concept of soul duality.
Indigenous belief systems vary from tribe to tribe. Even within one particular clan there can be multiple interpretations and beliefs, dependent upon the vision of the particular medicine man.
The following highlights common themes in Native American spirituality, as illustrated through the Oglala Lakota perspective:
- Wakan tanka — Literally translated this means “great mystery.” It’s considered the source, the creator of all, “the Great and Incomprehensible One.” This meaning of the name expresses the idea that humans are incapable of ever truly and fully comprehending the ways of the Great Spirit.
- Topa olowan — The four directions is a complex ideology that recognizes the sacred four directions of north, south, east, and west as sentient beings that guard the four quarters of the world.
- Ina maka — This term translates as “mother earth.”
All of these concepts are expressions of the wakan tanka, “one source,” from which all things come.
These various beliefs are never questioned or debated, for it is at the very core of native spirituality that the direction (or one’s spiritual destiny) is individualized, by an intimate connection with the Great Spirit. The process to achieve this intimate connection is called a Hanblecheyapi. This translates to “I cry for a vision.”
The Lakota were nomadic, equestrian plains Indians who hunted buffalo and lived in tepees. They became famous for defeating Custer’s forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. They followed the Seven Sacred Rites: the sweat lodge, crying for a vision, keeping of the soul, the sun dance, the making of relatives, preparing for womanhood, and throwing the ball. A modern additional practice known as yuwibi has been added and is used in worship.
Considered one of the seven sacred rites of Lakota beliefs, an individual seeks the assistance of a medicine man, and after a lengthy preparation process, goes to the mountain for one to four days to pray. If granted, a vision is given to the seeker and a process of understanding that vision ensues. This becomes the vocation or spiritual path. Here begins the glimpse into the true dynamic of this spiritual structure that sees everything as interrelated and connected. At the conclusion of all ceremonies, the words “All my relations” are stated.
As Godfrey Chips, Oglala Lakota Medicine Man, states:
When you gaze up at the evening sky, a thousand stars grace the dark night appearing as 1 million — plus points of light. These are our ancestors lighting the way that leads the Spirit on a journey home. As you look at the sky, the Milky Way is quite evident with its tightly compacted cluster of stars; this in Lakota Theology is the Spirit Road. Upon passing, the Spirit leaves the body and the Soul is guided by a Medicine person in prayer to reconnect the soul with the ancestors and urged to follow the Milky Way. Thus allowing the dualistic nature of the Soul to return to Wakan Tanka (Great Mystery).