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DocumentRekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
DocumentPart 1: The spirits spoke to him
DocumentPart 2: The seventh fire
DocumentPart 3: Christianizing the Indians
DocumentPart 4: One church, two traditions
DocumentPart 5: Where tradition thrives
DocumentPart 6: Ceremony and symbolism
DocumentPart 7: The healing spirit
DocumentPart 8: Returning to the Red Road
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Commentary: Find common ground
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Father Bill Mehrkens (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Father Bill Mehrkens is a priest at St. Mary's Mission on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He says living on the reservation has changed his thinking about Native American spiritual ways. He writes about the common ground among the spiritualities of the world.

Red Lake Reservation — Before I arrived at St. Mary's Mission on the Red Lake Reservation more than a decade ago, I had some misconceptions about Native American spirituality. I have since changed my thinking.

My feelings changed after I got to know the traditional people. For example, I grew to know an Indian medicine man, and we were able to build a respectful and trusting relationship.

In one of our conversations, the medicine man mentioned in passing that we both believe in and worship the same God. He said, "Even though the Ojibwe people may refer to God as the Great Spirit, Grandfather or the Creator; Jewish people call God Yahweh; and Christians call God Father and Lord, nevertheless, we believe in the same deity from different points of view."

This relationship began when I asked the medicine man to participate in a wedding ceremony in which one of his relatives was one of the spouses. Later, the medicine man invited me to smoke the sacred pipe in a significant public ceremony.

This story belies a common impression that Native Americans do not have believe in a personal God, and it also corrects the impression among some Christians that the people of the Native American way of life are pagans.

Native American spirituality is one of many spiritualities. One's spirituality includes the values, moral and social, especially the ultimate values of a person's community, institution or nation. Spirituality also includes the ritual celebrations of a people's way of life and the handing on of the values and way of life to the young in a given community.

Usually, a spirituality embodies a belief in a higher power and a form of communication with that higher power called ritual and prayer. A spirituality often holds a faith in a future life beyond planet Earth, and often answers fundamental questions about human life, questions such as: Where does life and the universe come from? Why do we exist? Is there life beyond earthly life? How can we find happiness?

Although there are significant differences among the diverse spiritualities, there is also a surprising common ground among the spiritualities of the world. There is a strong teaching for non-violence, justice, reverence for life, the need to care for "Mother Earth," the need for forgiveness and a concept of what is sacred.

Among the values held by both Native American and Christian peoples are awareness of what is sacred, reverence for life and all creation, honesty, prayer, ritual and the equality of human beings. A great many of the Native elders carry a great sadness when children and young adults show little interest in the community values.

As recently as a few decades ago, people so misunderstood American Indian values and beliefs that even the Christian people belittled the elements of Indian spirituality, considering Native beliefs as evil or pagan.

Today, a growing number of people approach the spirituality of Native peoples with humility and respect, recognizing that Indian spiritual leaders have much to teach peoples of other spiritualities.

Indeed, many of us now realize that Native leaders such as Chief Joseph, Chief Seattle and Black Elk exemplify some Christian biblical values more completely than do most Christian communities in the United States. Among such values are: sacredness of the earth, common ownership of land -– more often practiced by Native communities -- concern for non-violence, and a simplicity of life without pretense.

As we all grow in openness to human cultures and spiritualities, may we also grow into a more peaceful world.

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