With a basic understanding of Comparative Religion, it is easy to see that spiritual traditions are all fundamentally the same. Especially with respect to the major deities. No matter your tradition, you focus upon the center of the universe and the source of all life. All religions and spiritual paths inherently celebrate the same thing really. Aside from the obvious creator/creatrix, there are the spirit helpers, Angels, messengers, immortals (saints) and spiritual intermediaries.
A Spiritual Helper can be several things. First and foremost is the idea that one of the major deities of the creation stories is presiding over you and helping you. Secondly, there are the Messengers, those beings who carry our prayers to the Major Deities / Gods and Goddesses so that they might hear them and eventually answer them.
The messengers are Divine beings. Regardless of your tradition and what you think you know, these Divine beings can be many things, Angelic beings (Wakinyan), Fairies (canotila) and Little People (Wiwila). All of these messengers have a few things in common. They were all created to work for the Gods and Goddesses (Collectively known as Wakan Kin), and do not procreate as we do.
Then, lastly, there are the Spirit helpers in the form of Immortals. Immortals are many different beings. These are the saints, or mortals who have attained special power by fortifying their souls. In most Indigenous traditions, these can be humans, animals and other mortal beings that have transcended their limitations. These are the Spirit Helpers that make one tradition different from another. This type of spirit helper is what makes a tradition different than no tradition. and this is what I want to talk about here.
Some descriptions of Native American saints are wrongly labeled as ghosts. What is known as the Ghost Nations, can be more accurately described as Immortals. This concept is not limited to humans and can be an animal, plant or other being that has attained enlightenment. For example, a great bear of the forest may somehow be granted power for some brave selfless act and thereby attain sainthood.
In all of this is the idea that some Immortals are better than others to have as Spiritual Helpers. Immortals are important and unique in that they can tell you things and help you as a friend. The eagle can see where the buffalo are and show you how to find them. The Human immortal can speak and give advice.
In the Lakota language, all of these Spirit helpers, as well as any divine beings, are known as Tunkasila. Roughly translated this means grandfather, but the term is applied in a genderless way. When someone says “Wakan Tanka, Tunkasila”, it can be understood as Creator, Spirit helper. A female Immortal would still be referred to as Tunkasila because the spirit world is somewhat more genderless than the physical realms. Tunkasila are the ancestors, whether they be the gods, Goddesses, gnomes, fairies, stones, trees or whatever.
In Native American traditions people speak of animal totems. This has to do with family ties to the animal nations. It is believed that far in the past most humans and animals could change their species. Humans could transform themselves into animals and animals could become humans. There are still a few individuals that can do this. This is known as shape shifting. As the story goes, humans and animals intermarried creating ancestral inter-species relations.
Ones’ animal totem has to do with an ancestral link with a particular animal. most people can see, when looking at a family, what animal is more prevalent. You can tell which parent past on the animal of their family to their children. The bear is a very prevalent family totem among all humans. This is so because bears came from humans. In the same way that it is believed that humans came from primates, we believe that bears come from people. That is why many tribes won’t eat Bear meat, it is considered cannibalism. Likewise, a medicine woman who works with the buffalo or has a strong family connection to the buffalo, will not eat buffalo meat.
A healer may have an ancestral link to the Elk nation, yet may have a “ghost” Spirit Helper of the mountain lion (for example). Inherently a totem animal is a spirit helper of sorts, in that there is a connection to another nation, as relatives.
All beings are created in the image and likeness of the creator, on earth as it is in heaven, as above, so below. That’s true for everything and every event we experience. In Lakota philosophy this is known as Gapemini. For every visible/physical thing there is an invisible/ethereal counterpart. Likewise, for the creator to make the trees, it would have first had something like a tree within itself (for example). So, all trees have an over-soul, an angelic being “Tree” after which all trees were modeled.
There then is a messenger or angelic being representing of all forms of life in the universe. In the Lakota belief there are then 405 angels. That is why we make 405 tobacco prayer ties for the Hanbleceya (Vision Quest Ceremony).This is to address them all, perhaps only one or two of them will come to hear our prayers, but they are all invited. It is interesting to note that in European Christian lore, the Angels started to be depicted as humans (and as males), when in the original biblical descriptions, they are combined animal forms and never depicted as people.
Whatever the case may be, there are many types of helpful spirits. what I am wanting to focus on are the spirits that make one altar more effective than another. The reason why ancient traditions are more effective than domestic, contemporary traditions, is because they have more seniority and more validity with the founders of the universe.
People of our modern culture have difficulty understanding this concept. Those who do experiment with different spiritual paths, usually settle for something more tame and comfortable. These times are forging a whole new era of simplified, domestic religious systems. The problem with this is purely metaphysical and has little to do with doctrine or philosophy. It has to do with who you know and what kind of connections you have (spiritually).
Suppose you wanted a job as an executive for a large business. You would have to get credentials, get the right kind of education. The person hiring you would have to actually like you, You couldn’t just act like a jerk and expect to get the job. You would have to show that you have the skills to communicate by communicating in the right way. Suppose you got the job, you would have to learn who is who and fit into the pecking order And it would be of utmost importance to go through the proper channels.
As it is in the spiritual world, Just like anything else, it is all about who you know, the friends you make and your ability to forge and maintain good relations. A medicine man may gain a few Spirit helpers in his lifetime. This is within the context that he has a 26 thousand year old tradition backing him up. A tradition that forms a collective of Spiritual immortals that could not be achieved in any other way.
When someone just starts a new religion it will not have the power that an ancient tradition has. Most people in our culture would never even know the difference. In Indigenous Traditions, miraculous events are commonplace. Contemporary traditions scoff at this, claiming that it is the work of evil spirits. Some of the most powerful traditions of this earth have been massacred under this pretext.
When a ceremony is about to begin some of the The spirit Helpers are signaled by the activity itself, others are called from far away with songs. It is said that we were given intelligence and a voice originally for the communication with spirits. Some how we are so busy talking to ourselves or each other that we barely notice the spirits nowadays. All animals may use their voices to speak to one another, but if you pay close attention, you can catch them in the act of calling out to the very center of the universe, praying.
The Messengers or Angelic Beings are likewise specially attuned to the human voice. They were designed to hear us, to help us, as part of our birthright. An audio recording of Incantations to a spirit will not conjure that spirit, only the true voice will do that. If you have been praying for something and it has not come to pass, perhaps you haven’t spoken your prayer out loud. Many spirits may be able to read your mind, but not necessarily the messengers meant to carry your prayers.
It is interesting to notice, if you pay close attention to a spirit that is listening to a person’s prayer. notice what happens when the normal speech of the prayer breaks into a shaky crying voice. The spirit reacts with great urgency! Perhaps this is why in some spiritual traditions, prayers are recited, purposefully, in a shaky, weeping tone.
Many spirits recognize any rite as being a ritual, especially by the presence of fire and water, fire and water are part of what forms a doorway for spiritual beings. Just to make up a ritual one may attract attention but that is not always a good thing. When a leader of an ancient tradition of any kind presides over a ceremony, he or she calls a group of spirits specific to that tradition. To lead a made up ceremony may call upon one’s individual spirit or ones own ancestors. When calling ancestors you should be aware of many things, as an example, when they show up, they may be angered by the breaking of some family taboo. It may be something long forgotten by you in the present.
For example, if you have family ties to the Deer Nation, and your family was forbidden to eat deer for thousands of years, but somehow lost that ancestral vow, you could be in quite a fix when that spirit shows up. If your ancestors made any agreement with the spirits you would have to remedy that in the present, after all, you are here on behalf of your ancestors and therefore have somewhat of a responsibility to them.
Some spirits of one tradition may not jibe with the spirits of another. In most all religions and systems of magic, it is understood that whatever you offer you attract. If you offer alcohol, you will attract spirits that like that stuff. Don’t offer Buffalo kidney to a vegetarian Hindu goddess! this represents what we call the mixing of medicines.
In the Voodoo tradition, for instance, you will notice altars of conflicting deities are kept separate and not crossed. Different and even enemy forces of nature my be honored by one person, yet their altars are not lumped together like some new-age mishmash. These things are subtle to us, but very important to them.
When someone becomes a Medicine Man or Woman it is because they are initiated in a true tradition, regardless of anything else. Whatever the case, a position like that exists because a group of spirits are assigned to a person by another person according to that tradition. By merely understanding Native American spirituality by itself one may not necessarily enlist the help of those spirits. There has to be an unbroken line of tradition making the connection.
As an example, from the Catholic tradition one can see then, the emergence of the Protestant faith. This is an interesting example because the protestants actually cut themselves off from the Catholic saints. Aside from God, the other major deities and the Angels, the protestants basically had to start from scratch. Over time they gained Spirit Helpers.
Keep in mind that there really is no wrong or right way to pray. The creation herself is the body of the goddess. No one goes unheard. We are all inherently connected to the source of all that is. No matter what wrongs we commit we are all inextricably connected to the creator. We are made out of the very substance of god and cannot even escape our divinity if we tried. It is a reality that we, as beings, can offend the spirits in the same way we could offend each other and even ourselves. Part of any Indigenous tradition relies upon the adherence to ancestral vows.
Nevertheless, though beings may take many forms and many bodies, we have one spirit. There is one force fueling all perception and that is the one thing beyond math and comprehension. The fabric of the universe is woven with one thread! Each one of us, and everything, has a direct connection to Wakan Tanka.
What makes a Tradition powerful is it’s collective of spiritual Helpers, particularly the immortals. Spirituality is the same with anything else. There is a structure and order to all things. When we are born, we work hard to learn to move. We learn slowly to stand, walk, Talk and everything else. the same thing goes with the spiritual path. We can’t just walk right after being born. In the spiritual life is no different.
A true spiritual tradition is characterized by it’s saints or Immortals. When a person claims to have spiritual power outside of a traditional context it is actually very rare. There are many who take up a priest like position alone, like the new-age shaman or the solitary practitioner among neo-paganism. The problem here lies in the issue that one person cannot enlist the help of enough spirits to form a group of spirits that characterize a true tradition. The spirits of Native American spirituality in general are a culmination of thousands of lifetimes of spiritual work, sometimes more.
Being a Medicine Man or Woman is not dependent on what you know or how you behave. Those factors do determine how long you keep that power. Like many indigenous paths, a two way communication with the spirits is inherent. This allows everyone to be informed directly rather than from written or oral instruction. As you can imagine all this could be very dangerous without a traditional connection to a living lineage.
What does enlist the help of spiritual forces regardless of anything are the making of offerings. A personal sacrifice, changing your behavior, leaving behind your ugly old ways or putting water out for your ancestors. This is something that anyone can do and is probably the best thing to do to form spiritual alliances.
Who practices Modern Indigenous American Traditions? People from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. Like all good traditions and spiritual practices, they have the tendency to grow. In terms of Native American spirituality, the Lakota traditions have done the best. This is so because the Lakota people have always shared with others, adopted people as family (Hunka) and have always helped others without hatred and judgement. That is why it is a blossoming tradition. The Navajo have had a hard time generating interest among their youth in the practice of traditional ceremonies. Since they have been reluctant to pass their sacred ways outside of their own blood relatives they have suffered the total extinction of many important rites in very recent years. Nowadays the Navajo are related to every race on earth and come from all walks of life. Like most nations of the earth, a small percentage of them are involved in Lakota ceremonials!
There is this illusion that indigenous traditions must remain unchanged, like the anthropologist frowning over the Sun Dance Chief taking flesh offerings with a surgical scalpel instead of a flint knife. The anthropologist has totally missed the point and cannot see the practicality, wisdom, and level of detachment inherent in non-domestic spirituality (attachment and sentimentality are enhanced in domesticated animals).
The true indigenous spiritual leaders have the same ethics and humility as most of the world religions. In the first century, Christianity immediately spread from being Jewish to embracing Greeks, Ethiopians and any one else that expressed an interest, this is a natural phenomenon that can be seen everywhere. The Catholic Pope is nether Jewish, Greek, or Italian right now he’s of American Indian heritage! One might argue that Native spirituality cannot be compared to Christianity even though it is the chosen path of most Native Americans. Others would say that in the story of Christianity the Jews represented the good traditionalist, staying in line with the sacred ways. Nothing could be further from the truth because the Jewish tradition has always been open to the public. People all faiths continuously convert to Judaism and always have. It is not uncommon for a man to undergo a circumcision operation in the hopes of becoming admitted to Judaism. Like the Navajo they too are international, global citizens!
Like all paths to God, you’ll find a Catholic and Protestant versions of all of them. There are the purist fundamentalists, the spirit filled ones in rapture, as well as closet atheists who think they are spiritual because they are part of a religion. All of them play important roles as it truly takes all kinds!
We are constantly reminded at our ceremonial functions of the strange circumstances of the changing world in which we live. There are a lot of misconceptions about spirituality in general and folks these days have allot of different motives for being involved. It is up to us that the coming generations not pollute indigenous ways by making them domesticated. This has been what has hurt the worlds greatest spiritual paths more than anything else. Domestication is warping our perception, the only thing we take with us beyond this life!
What makes Indigenous traditions, of any kind, so powerful is that they are wild and untamed. They access that part of the human psyche that is unmolested by industrialization. It is ever important for the human race to hold on to the magic that is swiftly receding away from us. Many new age philosophies would disagree with this, but let me point out that they are a strictly domesticated variety of human beings. When any animal is domesticated, or even when wild animals are caged or subjected to routines, they tend to slip into neurotic behavior patterns, like living in a made up fantasy world.
Many do not realize that the Lakota Sun Dance is an international religion, for example. There has emerged many powerful medicine men and spiritual leaders representing Lakota traditions from the world over. Many people are against this (mostly nonspiritual people). It is truly mysterious how the spirit moves, a person may acquire spirit helpers through association with a tradition, through marriage, by ordination and by birth. Sometimes it runs in the family as was the case with Daniel Dunglas Home and Carlos Mirabelli. There is also the case where someone is born with miraculous powers outside of spiritual tradition altogether.
There are hundreds of cases of human foot prints fossilized in stone, any where from 1 million to 90 million years old, a testimony to the awesome mystery of human kind and what lurks deep within our human consciousness. Modern Indigenous American Spirituality is in constant flux as we our selves are redefined by what we know, and that goes for all of spirituality, everywhere!
Only the last remaining indigenous traditions of the world still have miraculous, seemingly impossible things as commonplace. Spiritual leaders of domestic religion, sadly, cannot begin to imagine the reality of the aboriginal spiritual world (whats left of it).