Byron's Babbles

Making Cultural & Spiritual Connections

Yesterday, my family and I went to see Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. It was part of a four state excursion in one day, which included Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. What a day. On our trip that started last Friday night, we have seen some incredibly beautiful parts of our great country, majestic and powerful wildlife, National Parks and Monuments, and awesome people. Fly fishing Spearfish Creek from Belle Fuersch, South Dakota then all the way through Spearfish Canyon was a truly incredible experience with nature for my son, Heath, and I.

Many times on this trip I thought, “Wow, what beauty God has created.” As I have studied Native American history and culture and had the honor to visit personally with Native Americans on this trip, I have come to realize I don’t appreciate what I believe to be God’s creations enough. Today, at Devils Tower I had the opportunity to learn how sacred places are in the Native American culture and spiritual life. The connections which tie American Indian culture Devils Tower are both ancient and modern. Oral histories and sacred narratives explain not only the creation of the Tower, but also its significance to American Indians. They detail peoples’ relationships with the natural world, and establish those relationships through literal and symbolic language. The Northern Plains tribes, including the Kiowa, Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapahoe, and Shoshone have the closest ties to the Black Hills area where Devils Tower is located, but there are some 24 other tribes that have a connection there. 

The connection to nature, and specifically Devils Tower, is not only about the creation of the place, but also the people’s relationship to the place. I find this interesting because I don’t think those in my culture think enough about our relationship to nature and our place in it. Particularly our responsibility to what God (as I believe) created. In doing some studying I found that a key difference between American Indian religions and many other contemporary religions (“western” or “near eastern” religions) is the importance of places that dominate the religion of American Indians, as opposed to the sense of time that dominates many western religions. Instead of a focus of chronological events and the order in which they are presented, American Indian religion focuses on a place and the significant events that are connected with that location. Now to be sure, Christianity in my case, has important places, but we do not hold the level of sacredness associated with the important places of American Indian religions.We had the chance to experience one of the most common ritual that takes place at Devils Tower: prayer offerings. Colorful cloths or bundles are placed near the Tower – commonly seen along the park’s trails – and represent a personal connection to the site. We saw many tied in the trees. They are similar to ceremonial objects from other religions, and may represent a person making an offering, a request, or simply in remembrance of a person or place. As with many religious ceremonies, they are a very personal act. My family and I spent many hours hiking on the trails and in the boulders of Devils Tower. I overheard one young child ask his parent why there were red ribbons tied in the tree. The parent actually replied, “Don’t pay any attention to that it is just something those ‘Indians’ do.” Wow, what a missed opportunity to help our children understand other cultures, religions, and our fellow man. 
We must take more time to truly understand and have courageous conversations with those with customs and beliefs different than our own. I so believe in the principles OUR (that means all of us) country was founded on. Freedom of religion is one of those and we need to respect others’ cultural and spiritual beliefs. Take some time and learn others’ beliefs and help our young people understand those beliefs as well. 

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