Published July 25th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
No doubt many people don’t know or remember this, but the Indigenous people of this land — variously called Native Americans or American Indians — did not get legally recognized religious freedom until Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
And as Gaylene Crowser, executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center, can testify, it hasn’t been an easy path since then.
“With our spiritual practices being illegal for so many years, just because you changed the law didn’t mean it’s now a welcome thing,” she said. “Some of these practices were underground for so long that even some of the people in our communities weren’t aware that we still had them. It’s really a miracle that we have any of this at all.”
The Kansas City Indian Center promotes Indigenous spiritual values and culture by weaving them into its various programs, but it doesn’t offer what might be considered classes in institutional religion.
For instance, the center collects and regularly distributes food to needy Indigenous families in the area.
As Crowser, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who has headed the center for nine years, explains: “When I think about our values and the spiritual laws of being good to each other and taking care of each other and loving each other, those are pretty basic things. Food is kind of at the most basic level of nurturing each other. And trying to encourage people to eat well, using traditional foods.”
Staff member Ed Smith, for instance, teaches Indigenous people and others about native food and what’s called “food sovereignty,” foraging techniques and the idea of care for nature, a concept deeply embedded in Indigenous culture.
Crowser explains that work this way: “We belong to the land, but in our language it’s sometimes difficult to make those translations. Even our word for Mother Earth can’t be translated specifically. It’s more like ‘that from which we come and to which we shall return.’ Kind of like giving back. One day we’ll be the food.
“What it really boils down to is if you’re thinking about things from a spiritual perspective it’s an everyday thing. You have to consider your relatives. That doesn’t just mean your family unit. That means all other living things and even things that others don’t consider living, like the water and the stone. We consider those to be more than inanimate objects.”
Theologians distinguish between pantheism and panentheism. The former means a belief that a tree, a plant or a rock is divine because the universe as a whole is God. The latter term refers to a belief that God is in trees, plants and rocks but that those objects are not the complete reality of God. The latter idea comes closer to traditional Native American thinking than the former.
When, for instance, Crowser says “we belong to the land,” she is expressing a primary way in which Indigenous people think about their relationship to nature. In white European and American culture, by contrast, people are more likely to think “the land belongs to us.” And they have recorded legal deeds and other documents to prove such claims. Indigenous people don’t think about going out into nature. Rather, they recognize that they themselves are always part of nature.
In Indigenous culture, spiritual ideas permeate all of life and aren’t usually segregated into something called “religion,” though there is the Native American Church, which combines Indigenous spirituality with Christianity.
And although from time to time in the past the Kansas City Indian Center has offered classes on spirituality, now, Crowser said, “it’s just kind of built in” to all its programming.
The Indian center here is also in touch with and cooperates with Indigenous culture across the nation. For instance, the center recently helped host an event at the Liberty Memorial at which people viewed, learned about and blessed a totem pole created on the West Coast that is on its way to a permanent home in Washington, D.C.
Several dozen people showed up that evening to hear about the object’s creation and to lay hands on it and pray over it.
One of the prayers was delivered by a woman connected with the United Methodist Church’s Native American Ministry in Lawrence, Kansas. She leads a small Christian service each Friday that is held at the local Indian center.
As the nation’s attention has focused more intently on race relations in the last year-plus since a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, the appalling history of how Indigenous people in this land have been treated has gained increasing attention. It’s about time. Americans sometimes think of slavery as the nation’s “original sin.” But the destruction of Native American tribes and culture began even before the first slave arrived here.
Crowser is right that it’s a miracle that Indigenous spiritual practices have survived at all. But they’re alive and being fostered at the Kansas City Indian Center, and we can all learn from that native wisdom. Indeed, a terrific book I recommend to start that process is “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at email@example.com.