One area of spirituality often ignored by the wider world is the Native American. The Native American mystic is often known as the Medicine Man, principally because of his power to heal, but also to communicate with the supernatural.
A continuation of the early shaman, endemic to most tribal societies, he also bears many similarities to the guru. The ‘Medicine Man’ most likely survived from before the migrations across the Bering Strait over twenty thousand years ago.
Such a mystic is thought to be chosen by the spirits, indications of an ability to communicate with them beginning in childhood.
Continuing visions and omens will lead to the child being taught by an existing mystic.
A right of passage for the growing mystic will be his first vision quest, of which he will have many in his life.
Such quests happen after a period of asceticism, such as going to a remote place to meditate. Another method is the sweat lodge in which saplings are covered with blankets and hot stones placed within. The mystic will go inside and pour water on the stones, his sweat causing purification.
THE VISION QUEST
During his visions he will meet his guardian spirit. Granted a dream or vision of this spirit, it will usually be in an animal form and will grant the mystic special powers.
He will be taught a spirit song and given a number of talismen - eagle feathers, shells, animal parts.
These bestow the mystic’s new powers and represent omens. They will be kept in a sacred bag known as his medicine bundle.
The mystic will, of course, become much more than a relationship between himself and the supernatural. In classic tribal style, he will also be the bridgehead between his tribe and the guardian spirit.
In this sense, he is responsible for the tribe’s culture and well being. He will be the storyteller who tells of the tribe’s origins as told by the guardian spirit, and he will be the symbol of totemism, giving the tribe identity and a moral code through animal or plant representations of natural phenomena and events.
Such factors give sociology to the role of the mystic. In diplomacy and other gatherings, the sacred pipe would be part of spiritual purification, allowing the participants to speak wisely. And other group ceremonies led by the mystic would be energetic indeed.
One of the most famous ceremonies is the Sun Dance. Especially popular among the Plains Indians, it was practiced annually to cause cosmic regeneration and tribal wellbeing.
The mystic and others would dance for up to five days whilst gazing at the sun. Some would attach themselves to totem poles by thongs and skewers through chest muscles.
Self-mutilation would occur. The end result would be absolute exhaustion leading to trance.
The dance was often performed privately when a particular mystic or chief faced a momentous decision. Prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull went into the wilderness to perform the dance.
He first cut fifty notches in his chest as sacrifice and danced for 24 hours. Exhausted, he went into a trance and saw white soldiers falling from the sky.
Around this time, the whole nature of the religion turned from a sense of oneness with the world to something approaching the Apocalyptic. This new phase was a direct result of the threat the white man posed to their society.
Suddenly, politics and fear were of importance. In 1680 a Pueblo named Pope used his mysticism to lead a revolt against the Spaniards after missionaries had threatened their beliefs.
Many such mystics arose, including Tenskwatawa of the Shawnee. For many years he lived in his brother’s shadow and drank too much. Then in 1805 he had a dream where he took the road taken by souls upon death. He became charismatic, in classic cult guru style, and preached a moral code to reclaim the lost ways.
Tenskwatawa, being apocalyptic, told of the Great Spirit sweeping across the land, releasing the lost game, and after, the white man would be gone. Gaining thousands of followers, he led them to a disastrous battle in 1811, after which his reputation had gone.
Such frustrations at the loss of their way of life became a predominant theme, harking back to the times before the white man. And in 1869, the frustrations birthed the Ghost Dance when a Paiute called Wodziwob had a vision of a train filled with dead tribesmen.
He urged people to resurrect an ancient dance similar to the Sun Dance, where practitioners danced in a circle, the aim being to bring back those dead tribesmen to remove the white man.
Wodziwob’s son, Wowoka, popularised the Ghost Dance, composing songs and preaching non-violence and a way to return to the old values, not letting the white man win.
We know a great deal of this period, and Native American mysticism in general, because of the research of American writer John Neihardt in 1930. He studied and spoke to one of the last great mystics, Nicholas Black Elk.
Born in 1863 into the Sioux, Black Elk had his first vision at five. Four years later his great visions occurred after an illness. The Grandfathers of the World came down from the clouds and took him away with them to the centre of the universe and showed him the sacred hoop that represented the collective soul of his people.
The Grandfathers told him, however, that there were troubled times ahead, as the hoop was broken. Becoming a healer, he could also understand animals, and he had a vision of the Little Bighorn before the battle.
Trying to show the white men that his ways were not bad, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, even performing in front of Queen Victoria. But by 1889 he was disillusioned.
Embracing the Ghost Dance, the movement surged in popularity, causing the white man to fear an upsurge in Native American nationalism. The following year, it all came to an end in the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee.
Black Elk was sent to a reservation in South Dakota. Many years later, Neihardt was one of the witnesses to Black Elk’s last spiritual vigil where he had met the Grandfathers. He apologised to them for failing to mend the sacred hoop. He knew, like the rest of his people, that their way of life was over.
© Anthony North, November 2007
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