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Go to Rekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
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
Document'The jewelry on American culture'
DocumentPreserving the language
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Part 6: Ceremony and symbolism
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White Earth pipe carrier Joe Bush says the pipe is symbolically as important to Indians as the cross is to Christians. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)

Pine Point, Minn. — Ceremonies are the most visible part of American Indian spirituality. But there's much more to walking the Red Road than the occasional ceremony. Anishinaabe people say their spiritual beliefs influence everything they do, every decision they make.

Some sacred objects are central to Indian spirituality. Tobacco is offered each time prayers are sent to the Creator or helper spirits.

The ceremonial pipe is perhaps the most often used, and most misunderstood, instrument in American Indian spirituality. It's been mispresented in American culture as the peace pipe, smoked to signify friendship.

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Image Not a peace pipe

For American Indians the pipe is a tool. It connects them with the power of the spirits. It's smoke carries their prayers to the Creator. White Earth pipe carrier Joe Bush says the pipe is symbolically as important to Indians as the cross is to Christians.

Joe Bush offers an Ojibwe prayer at a recent American Indian event on the campus of Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Bush was given his pipe by an elderly medicine man. He's carried the pipe for more than 20 years.

"There's a lot of power in that pipe," says Bush. "I just really can't explain what the pipe means to me, down here in my heart. It means a lot to me."

Joe Bush has unquestioning faith that prayers offered with the pipe will be answered by the Creator. He says people are physically and emotionally healed by the power of the pipe.

Bush lives in a small two-story home near the White Earth community of Pine Point in northwestern Minnesota. Pictures of grandchildren and great-grandchildren cover the walls, along with traditional spiritual symbols.

People knock on his door at any hour of the day or night, seeking his help.

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Image The heartbeat of the earth

"They'll offer me tobacco. Can you say a prayer for me. I'm having family problems. I'm having a drinking problem. I want to get out of drugs. Can you help me."

Joe Bush will climb the stairs to his bedroom, and bring down his pipe. He'll smoke and pray with the person who wants help. Then he sends them away, confident the Creator is listening.

"And I won't see 'em for awhile, and then they'll come back and shake my hand. 'You helped me a lot. We're back together. I haven't touched a drop in three weeks and it doesn't bother me. I've left the drugs, I left that weed, that grass, that crack, whatever.' See, that's the power you get from that pipe."

Joe Bush says he will carry the pipe until just before he dies. He says the Creator will let him know in a dream who should carry the pipe after his death. He'll teach that person the ceremonies. The power of the pipe will be passed to the next generation.

The drum is another object that is central to American Indian spiritual life. Drums are used for social and ceremonial purposes. Ceremonial drums are carefully protected and rarely photographed or recorded. The drum is the heartbeat of the earth -- Indian people believe its beat gives them strength.

In a 1963 recording, Leech lake tribal elder Paul Buffalo talked about the spiritual importance of the drum in everyday life.

"The Great Spirit is the one, the only one who will help you. Without a Spirit which cannot be seen, you will forget him and you'll be lost. When you hit that drum the Spirit comes. You know it's here," Buffalo said.

Indians believe drums, like pipes and all other things, have a spirit. But they don't worship the objects -- those spirits help communicate with the Creator.

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