In 1992, almost 30 years ago and near the beginning of my work as an Ethical Culture Leader, I attended a workshop supposedly about “Native American Spirituality and Lore.” Because I’d learned from past workshops from this group on such topics as racism, I went even though the title and description seemed to trivialize and otherize a complex culture. We didn’t have the term “cultural appropriation” then, but I was uncomfortable with New Age spiritual borrowings and adaptations of Native American ceremonies and practices that often seemed disconnected from the people who had long practiced these. So I attended with some skepticism.
The workshop turned out to be so much more than I could have hoped, due in no small part to the two people leading the workshop: Reuben A. Snake Jr, a Winnebago tribal leader who served as national chair of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and who died the next year, and Vickie Downey, TEWA/Tesuque Pueblo elder, one of the featured people in the 1990 book Wisdomkeepers.
Right after the workshop, I summarized my learnings, and I recently ran into that summary again. (It was shared with the Ethical Society I was then working with as a newsletter column.) So much of this stuck with me all this time. I thought I’d share it (with one or two minor wording changes to adapt it to this context):
If I had to summarize my learnings of this experience, it would be these two:
First, the importance of being like a turtle, with the patience to move slowly, calling on our inner resources to guide us. This was no workshop for “instant Indians,” in the words of one presenter, Reuben Snake. There is no “instant medicine” which can be sold or bought. Yet, like the turtle, we still choose to move and we choose our direction. “If we do not change direction, we will wind up where we are headed,” Reuben reminded us.
Second, the reminder that “spirituality and social justice are not separate.” Some of you will read that and think (I can almost hear you!), “There she goes on that social justice stuff again.” Others (I can hear you, too!) are thinking, “Oh, no! Not that awful spirituality stuff again!” But read it again. Not, one is more important than the other. Neither is above, neither below. Another of our teachers, Vickie Downey, emphasized that she was not above the rest of us, nor below us. We are all on the same level, unified as part of the human family. So it is with spirituality and social justice. On the same level, naturally unified, interwoven.
If the practices, millennia old, of one peoples’ religion can be made illegal, and their sacred sites seized because they are more valuable for oil, mineral, or water rights or as tourist attractions, is our Ethical Society protected? If some people are plagued with poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, destruction of the family and culture, are any of us truly free? Can any philosophy or spirituality be “true” that does not connect us with the land we live in and with the people who were here for millennia before most of our ancestors arrived? These are important questions that return us to the basic unity of all people, that connection we affirm and work for — for the sake of spirituality, for the sake of justice.