The same week that Pope John Paul II traveled the Americas to canonize an Indian saint and to beatify others, an unnamed Navajo medicine man, working from oral tradition, correctly identified the meanings of a buffalo-hide shield perhaps 600 years old.
Pope John Paul II is an incredible bastion of heart and spirit. Frail, bent by Parkinson's disease, he spoke to youth in Toronto, then flew over the U.S. to land in Mexico, where he spoke directly to huge Indian crowds and where he anointed an Indian saint. By all accounts, it was a tremendous event and perhaps the culmination of a trajectory that has seen this pope travel the globe in search of a better understanding among Christians and all peoples.
In the large measure of things, we can thank Pope John Paul II and his "Popemobile movement" for expressing outrage against both historic and present oppression of Native peoples and for recognizing the range of humanity and spiritual value that is to be found in Native populations. In Mexico on July 31 he canonized Juan Diego, who legend tells was a Chichimeca Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531. Always a controversial story, (many Indians say it was made up), it is the very basis of the policy of mestizaje ? the racial and cultural integration prescribed by the Conquest. Juan Diego, Cuauhtlatoatzin (Talking Eagle), now a saint, and his vision of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is divinity itself for millions of Catholic Indian people not only in Mexico but throughout much of the Americas.
Clearly, the Church has come a long way from the days when Indian medicine people were hanged by their feet and burned, in groups of 13, so as to commemorate Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles. It will always be remembered that the Church landed on these lands in the full vigor of its own period of Inquisition and that the torture-chamber cruelties that were just beginning to abate in Europe wrapped their knurled and bloody tentacles around the most knowledgeable holy people in the Native nations of the Americas. For many centuries, right through three-fourths of the Twentieth, all things Indian that dealt with spirit, with living ancestors' memory or with the cosmological relation of humans to the Natural World, were judged to be things of the Devil, to be suppressed, denied, replaced. A lot of suffering was generated by this attitude, which the Pope recognizes has not nearly disappeared.
Under John Paul II's leadership, the Catholic Church has made sweeping reforms in the way it approaches Native peoples and cultures of the world. In doing so, John Paul II brings back into his flock many who have strayed into the hands of Protestant evangelical churches, some perhaps even from among the many others who have quietly gone back into the Indian spiritual ways. Of this relationship, a lot remains to be understood.
While expressing respect for Catholic Indians, and while the new, more inclusive approach toward Indian customs and traditions is welcome, a question remains for the Church. What about Native peoples who do not necessarily want to believe that their cultural and spiritual roots are found in Adam and Eve, but instead believe in their own cosmology and creation stories, who enact ceremonies and practices of thanksgiving from their own cycles of Creation and who wish to keep those practices separate from other religions, including Catholicism? Apart from its new inclusivity, which is a form of recognition desired by huge numbers of Indian Catholics, will Catholicism ever see a bona fide Indian religion or spiritual tradition as worthy of the same respect it now accords to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, among many others? More than most, Native religions (many prefer the term "lifeways;" we use "religion" as the general term for a common spiritual belief) are not based on conversion of others but are held and spread through family, clan and tribe or nation. But to describe these independent lifeways, or religions ? certainly on a par with other such spiritual systems ? as mere "customs" does not do the reality justice. In fact Native lifeways or religions are complete systems of spiritual interpretation, where worship is intently prescribed for the good of all. There is room for more recognition, not so much inclusivity "within" the church itself, but an affirmation of existence, of intrinsic right to exist as independent spiritual systems.
Which brings us back to the Navajo medicine man. The Associated Press story that broke the news of the shields did not record his name, and this may have been his wish. He did something remarkable for his tribe by offering compelling evidence that identified the symbols and meanings on buffalo-hide shields that likely come from the time before Columbus. The medicine man came from the family that hid the shields around 1860 in the area of present-day Capitol Reef National Park. The shields were discovered in 1926 and have been held by Park officials. He convinced officials at the Park that the shields should be in possession of the Navajo tribe. In his place of origin, he still remembered the sacred knowledge handed down through his generations.
It is this independent, residual knowledge, still at work in the contemporary world, that defines American Indian lifeways, which are not perhaps religions in the exact definition of Christian churches, but which deserve all the world's respect for being, each and every one of them, a distinct spiritual way. That resiliency of belief ? local and eco-systemic ? is a miracle of sustenance and the breathing spirit of most tribal peoples.
Many Native people, of course, are pleased to merge the various ways of belief, from Catholic and other Christian forms to Pipe and Four Directions ways and other indigenous systems. This is also traditional, to layer onto the consciousness, rather than to draw a barrier, or to reject and be decimated. This has also been a way of survival for Indian spirituality. Perhaps, ultimately, in its quest to envelop Indian traditions, the Catholic Church will become more indigenized, at least within Latin America, than it now can contemplate. Perhaps even more than Indians will be Catholicized.
Nevertheless, those who belong to or have experienced in any way the intricate, independent and yet interdependent spiritual traditions of any American Indian people, anywhere in the hemisphere, will always attest to the seriousness and potency of traditional ceremonies, healing activities and prayers. These are ways of life that are important and deserve to be respected, in their own right. They are still around, after 500 years. Given the right of tribal integrity, these traditions will survive. They have much to teach the various other traditions of humankind.