The Mountains are Alive: Why I Believe in Native American Spirituality

On August 18, 1991, the day after my wedding to my now ex-husband, I woke up in a honeymoon hotel in Virginia Beach, Virginia to be greeted by my husband holding up the front page of the newspaper with a photo of Boris Yeltsin dancing on top of a tank in front of the White House, the seat of government in Moscow in the now former Soviet Union.  I had recently finished a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures and had returned just a week before our wedding from a summer post-doctoral fellowship in Moscow.  During our ensuing week-long honeymoon on the island of Ocracoke, North Carolina, I was glued to the television while I watched the overthrow of the communist regime and the end of the Cold War unfold under pressure of peaceful protests by Muscovites against a military occupation fueled by then President Mikhail Gorbachev’s own ministers.  The Soviet leadership that had for decades maintained a well-deserved reputation for unrepentant brutality against and oppression of its own people, apparently relinquished the use of arms in the face of this powerful display of the innate human desire for peace and dignity.

This was almost 3 years before I met the Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo after a series of events in my life led me to her Peace Village in Lincoln, Vermont.  As I always say, I did not go there seeking to learn Native American spirituality. Because the Ven. Dhyani is also recognized as a khandro–the reincarnation of an enlightened teacher in two Tibetan Buddhist lineages, I thought I had come to study Buddhism.  Much to my surprise and even chagrin, it was the Tsalagi teachings that captured my heart.  The dances, meditations, chantings, visualizations and teachings of peace she offered during that weekend workshop thrummed deeply in my peace-starved body.

Yet this resonance with the Cherokee teachings of peace with my own vision for the world made great sense. I had spent much of my life studying the violence and oppression of the former Soviet Union since the age of 15 when I picked up a novel by Russian dissident and writer-in-exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  This young interest burgeoned into a full-fledged career as I pursued a B.A. in Russian Studies and an M.A. in Soviet Studies and on to the PhD.  Throughout those interesting years, I was always aware that as a young scholar in this field during the height and decline of the Cold War that I was holding aloft a candle for peace for the world. How horrible it could have been if either side in this intractable conflict had chosen to use nuclear warfare!  When the Berlin Wall fell in the late 90s, in fact, my intense interest in this part of the world waned and I began to move onto other intellectual and spiritual interests.  Eventually those flowed into a passionate study of Native American spirituality as both a spiritual seeker and a scholar.

Venerable Dhyani’s message about the power we have within ourselves was compelling.  She writes in her book, Voices of the Ancestors: Cherokee Teachings from the Wisdom Fire (Shambhala, 1987): “Human beings have the opportunity to exercise the creative power of intellect.  Some of men’s inventions have gone astray and run wild: such inventions as armaments and pollutants threaten the existence of life. Just as these inventions arise first from destructive thoughts of control and domination, so may your mind give birth to creative means of reconciliation and transformation. You make a difference.  Know that the very thing which disturbs your mind’s peace offers opportunity to generate clear mind and transform patterns of disturbance for all.  Replace your anger with care; defuse potential destructive energy by clarifying conflicts in your own mind and relationships.  By the force of resonance that clarification will expand through your individual relationships to your family and neighborhood, to the nation and the planet.”

As she says, she does not ask us to become Indian. Rather, she offers the ancient meditation and ceremonial practices from her people to assist us in the process of clarifying our minds, emotions and body so that we may be agents of peace in the world.  I moved forward after 3 years of studying with Venerable Dhyani into a rather lonely yet diligent study of other Native American wisdom streams.  I was afraid to reveal to most people this dimension of my spiritual life for fear of ridicule in my professional life and from family and friends.

Nevertheless, I prayed in the Native way–to the Powers of the Four Directions, Mother Earth, and Father Sky/Creator.  I also forged a deep sense of connection to the Earth while living in a somewhat remote and idyllic mountain cove south of Charlottesville, Virginia during the 17 years of my marriage.  There, I could commune daily with the waters, animals, plants, and mountains.  I learned that the mountains speak to us if we only awaken our awareness of their sentience through many gifts of hawk and turkey feathers they gave me when I asked for signs of their and the spirits’ presence.

I remember one day when I was in a very troubled state of mind.  I decided to go up into Castle Rock Mountain–one of the three that formed the walls of the mountain cove–to clear my mind.  At that time, I was in the very early stages of my exploration of Native spirituality and was trying to peel away my skepticism and fear.  I asked the mountain to give me a sign of its presence.  The old CCC trails that wound around the mountain ridges were often overgrown. After 2 hours of hard hiking, I decided it was time to return home. It would be faster to go right down the mountainside into the cove, rather than to backtrack. So, I started to bushwhack my way down the steep slope along what appeared to be an old deer trail. I suddenly came upon a huge tree blocking my way. I was forced to navigate around it through the brambles, shurbs, and overhanging branches. When I finally reached the side of the tree opposite where I had originally come upon the barrier, there in front of me were three turkey wing feathers sticking straight up out of the underbrush as if they wanted to make sure I would not miss them.

I leaned over and picked them up gentle and with awe.  If I had any doubts, for that moment, they were washed away. I whispered my thanks and continued on down the mountainside to home.

Since then, I know that when we ask from a place of humility and clear intention, the powers of nature will always respond.   More recently at a Great Medicine Wheel teaching retreat in western Virginia, my students and I woke up to a light veil of snow outside.  We were studying the teachings of the North–held by Hummingbird–Sirakente–from South America and White Buffalo from America.  The North direction holds the energy of the peace and healing of winter snows.  There has been very little snow this winter–indeed, no snow had been called for prior to our weekend workshop. Yet, after a night of ceremony in which we called in the teachings and teachers of the North, the magic of resonance happened and the snow came. It was not a hard snow–indeed, by the afternoon, the temperatures had once again become unseasonably warm.  But it had been enough to wake us up to our ancient memory of the power of our intention and thoughts.

These and so many other experienced convince me of the truth of Native American spirituality that nature is alive and conscious and available to us to assist in our lives and spiritual growth if only we are willing to ask and to acknowledge their presence.

There is a longer story to tell here of my journey as a practitioner and now teacher of the great Red Road and Rainbow Journey offered by many Native American teachers from both North and South.  What is important to me today as I write this reflection to share with my readers and students is how relevant are these precious and transformational teachings to the world.

Twenty years after Yeltsin danced on that tank in from of the Russian White House, the world has watched similar events unfold in the Middle East and in our country as various nonviolent movements have unfolded here, including in my own community in the University of Virginia Living Wage Campaign.  And while Muammar Gaddafi has responded with violence and nonviolent protests in this country have sometimes been shut down with violence, the successes in Tunisia and Egypt point to the very real possibility that a more peaceful, humane future for humanity is possible. In the words Venerable Dhyani: “A new day arises, spawned by our thoughts and deeds—seed thoughts of peace moistened by love, tilled by right action, weeds of discord pulled by diligent action. The harvest shall be abundant joy sustaining future generations.” As the repercussions of these nonviolent movements unfold, there is no time more pressing or timely to bring to the table all the human knowledge available to help us create a nonviolent future.

I know from personal experience that Native American spirituality gives us practices that enable us to walk more in balance in our daily lives.  Whether they are small actions, such as lighting and breathing in the beautiful energy of white sage, building medicine wheels on the Earth in community, or getting energetic healing work adapted from South American shamans, they all share an ancient and powerful way to heal what ails us individually.  And collectively.  They also enjoin us to rekindle our ancestral connection to nature and the Earth.  These wounds are deep–as the ongoing wanton destruction of natural habitats all over the world show.  Yet no task is more important.

As all the Native teachers whom I have read or met say, we must look to healing ourselves if we expect to heal the Earth.  This means that if we are activists for peace and human rights, we must always strive to do this work out of love, not anger and hatred. Since all of us are human and have grown up and live in a world that teaches us only how to meet violence and oppression with anger and more violence, this means we must reach to traditions and tools that offer us alternatives.

M. K. Gandhi has inspired millions with his messages of nonviolent resistance to oppression and unjust laws.  Let us in this country, the United States–my home that I love and a worldwide messenger for democracy–look to those indigenous teachers that have arisen out of the ashes of our own genocide and violence. Let us take off the blinders of prejudice and ignorance that have obscured our understanding of the beauty and depth of Native American spiritual traditions. In so doing along with reading the messages of peace and healing coming from so many other quarters, we will ensure that there is water to drink and a place to walk, as Venerable Dhyani puts it, for future generations here and on the planet as a whole.

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