First Peoples – A Celebration

Mary Magdala Community

2015-05-25_10320829th  Sunday in Ordinary Time,  October 17, 2021

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D.

Before you read this homily please download and view the Circle of Dance with this link:

This is an Ojibwe Circle of Dance performed in Grand Rapids, MN in 2011.  The Dance followed an event of cultural exchange between members of the Ojibwe Tribe and their neighbors in their surrounding region.  The program was titled “Common Chords.”  The video takes 3 minutes, 19 seconds.

Now, let these things sink and settle into your spiritual, intellectual, and emotional life.

Starting with the Circle of Dance.  Look at what happens in the circle.  First, is enjoyment – the children dance and swirl with the Circle Leader.  Second, is hesitancy – like the little girl in pink whose first time around the circle was a slow, cautious shuffle; but on her second time around she jumps and smiles widely.  Finally, are the people who invite others into the circle;  it’s about inclusion into the fun and celebrating.  In just 3 minutes it’s amazing what you notice and can learn about the community building nature of the Circle of Dance.

Close to twenty years ago Jean and I, her sister and her sister’s grandchildren attended a powwow of the Winnebago Sioux on their grounds set aside for such gatherings in western Iowa.  We saw all these things over a 3 hour period.  Yes, you read that correctly.  We watched a circle of people dance around in that circle for 3 hours straight!  I tell you it was mesmerizing.  The drums, the traditional clothing and costumes, the singing – it was an event part religious, part social gathering, part coming-out party, part potluck supper and more all rolled into one.  And it drew me in like I was in a hypnotic trance.

The lessons of a circle dance are applicable, I think, to so much of life.  Like, have fun when you can simply for the sake of fun, gain ability after much practice, walk before you perfect the dance step, and always, always, include by inviting others to join you in the circle.

In the first Reading of our Service today (attached to the end of this homily), the wisdom of the Seneca chief, Keeper Awake, is not only a revelation;  it is also a humbling act, even a shaming one.  He says, in effect, to the Rev, Mr Crim, the Massachusetts missionary who came to New York to preach to the Indians, and, by extension, to all Christians who feel the call to preach to First Peoples, “If your religion is so great and your God so correct, then why do you harm and cheat us?”

Or the question, “If your God, for that is the way you address the Great Spirit, gave your religion as the universal truth, you would think it would have already been given to us by now.”  It’s the connection of all things in Earth and the Stars, the relation with ancestors that inspires the spirits of the First Peoples to believe in Great Spirit.  Similarly, this connection enables First Peoples to acknowledge Great Leaders and Great Teachers.  Which leaves us all with the thought that, had Mr. Crim preached today’s Gospel passage (Mark 10:35-45), that Jesus came to be the Servant and teaches his disciples that this is their role also, perhaps the First Peoples would have an understanding of Jesus that aligns with their own teachings from the Great Spirit.

Instead, First Peoples (as Keeper Awake continues) experienced a people whose spirit was and is about destroying the competition.  Indians experienced these late-arriving guests as people disposed to create an economic system of predatory capitalism and who devised a strategy of depriving children of their language, their culture, and their own connection with Great Spirit.

For the last 100 years in certain circles of western philosophy the connection between the material and spiritual worlds has been explored.  Lately, phenomenologists have come upon the notion of what they call embodiment.  Beginning with Edmund Husserl and on to Martin Heidegger and so on, and so on, we have heard of the life-world, the unconcealment of truthful connections, and more.  And yet, western societies (well, eastern ones as well but that is another trip) have shown an inability to sustain and protect the Earth.  It occurs to me that these past 100 years became necessary because of the destruction and conquering which western societies saw as the best responsible way to carry out biblical mandates to overcome and subdue the earth.  And so, philosophers of the phenomenological school believe they have come upon an insight to teach others about.

When you realize that First Peoples have lived by this spiritual depth of connection with the Earth and the human spirit’s inextricable experience of oneness with material reality, it’s possibly then that you also realize that we are not the teachers here!

We pray for the humility to recognize that it’s not about what we are to teach.  Rather, it’s about acknowledging what we need to learn.

A Prayer by Black Elk

Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my

feeble voice.  All things belong to you — the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings

of the air, and all green things that live.

You have set the powers of the four quarters of the earth to cross each other.

You have made me cross the good road and the road of difficulties, and where they

cross, the place is holy.

Day in, day out, forevermore, you are the life of things.  Lean to hear my

feeble voice.  At the center of the sacred hoop You have said that I should make the

tree to bloom.  With tears running, O Great Spirit, my Grandfather, with running

eyes I must say the tree has never bloomed.

Here I stand, and the tree is withered.  Again, I recall the great vision you

gave me.  It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives.  Nourish it,

then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds!

Hear me, that the people may once again find the good road and the

shielding tree.
       A Speech by the Seneca tribal leader, Keeper Awake

n the Summer of 1805, on the invitation of Rev. Mr. Crim of Massachusetts, who was accompanied by an interpreter and an agent of the United States Government, the chiefs of the Seneca tribes met to discuss the relationship between the Red and the White people.

Here is the response by the chief known as Keeper Awake.

Friend & Brother.

It was the will of the Great Spirit that we should meet this day. He orders all things and has given as a fine day for our council.  He has taken his garment from before the sun, and caused it to shine with brightness upon us. Our eyes are opened, that we see clearly; our ears are unstopped, that we have been able to hear distinctly the words you have spoken. For all these favors we thank the Great Spirit, and HIM only.
Brother.  Listen to what we say.  There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island.  Their feats extended from the rising to the setting of the sun.  The Great Spirit had made it for the use of the Indians.  He had created the buffaloe, the deer, and other animals for food.  He had made the bear and the beaver.  Their skins served us for cloathing.  He had caused the earth to produce corn for bread. All this He had done for his red children because he loved them.  If we had some dispute about our hunting ground, they were generally settled without the shedding of much blood.

But an evil day came upon us.  Your fore-fathers crossed the great water and landed upon this island.  Their numbers were small. They found friends, not enemies. They told us they had fled from their own country for fear of wicked men, and had come here to enjoy their religion.  They asked for a small seat.  We took pity on them, we granted their request, and they sat down amongst us.  We gave them corn and meat, they gave us poison [alluding, it is supposed to ardent spirits] in return.
Brother.  Our seats were once large and yours were small.  You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets.  You have got our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us.
Brother.  Continue to listen.  You say you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind, and, if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right and we are lost.  How do we know this to be true?  We understand that your religion is written in a book.  If it was intended for us as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given to us, and not only to us, but to our forefathers, the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly?  We only know what you tell us about it.  How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people.
Brother.  You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit.  If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?  Why not all agreed, as you can all read the book?
Brother.  We do not understand these things.  We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son.  We also have a religion, which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children.  We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive: to love each other, and to be united.  We never quarrel about religion.

Brother.  The Great Spirit has made us all, but he has made a great difference between his white and red children.  He has given us different complexions and different customs.  To you he has given the arts.  To these he has not opened our eyes.  We know these things to be true.  Since he has made so great a difference between us in other things; why may we not conclude that he has given us a different religionaccording to our understanding?  The Great Spirit does right.  He knows what is best for his children; we are satisfied.
Brother.  We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you.  We only want to enjoy our own.
Brother.  We are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors.  We will wait a little while and see what effect your preaching has upon them.  If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians; we will then consider again what you have said.

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