NEW YORK CITY ? At the invitation of local clergy and Red Cross counselors, American Indian spiritual leaders are conducting a series of sacred ceremonies at Ground Zero, site of the World Trade Center disaster.
Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe of the Lakota Nation, and Henrietta Mann, southern Cheyenne elder and professor of Native American Studies at Montana State University, separately offered private prayers at the site in recent weeks.
They responded to invitations from clergy at nearby St. Paul's Church and from the Spiritual Care service of the Red Cross, who minister to workers at the World Trade Center cleanup and to families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Rev. George Abrams, a volunteer with the Spiritual Care center, said the Red Cross wanted to provide religious support for the Mohawk ironworkers clearing the wreckage.
Abrams also visited Tom Porter, the Mohawk spiritual leader, to discuss a ceremony, but Porter told Indian Country Today he preferred to wait until getting clear direction from the spirits at the site. "Dealing with the dead is a very dangerous thing."
Indian and non-Indian workers alike report the site itself, entombing about 3,150 unburied victims, was deeply troubled and troubling.
"What it was is that when a person commits suicide or dies a tragic death, the spirit is still there,' Looking Horse said. "Why I did the ceremony was to help them so the family can feel good."
He said that on Nov. 16 the pastor of St. Paul's took his group to a small porch overlooking Ground Zero, where he and his associate, Dave Yakima Chief performed a prayer.
The historic church survived the collapse of the nearby towers and although it is closed to the public, it serves as a "respite center" for workers at the site. Visitors festooned its fence with banners, posters and memorial items.
Looking Horse said just to see the jumble of cement and melted metal at Ground Zero "was very chilling. It was pretty heavy."
A week earlier, the Red Cross counseling center arranged for Mann and her daughter Montoya Whiteman to lead a smudging and prayer on the cleanup site itself.
"The crane stopped and they stopped work for half an hour," said Liz Longshore, a Red Cross volunteer who escorted the group. "We were down underneath the largest crane, the large red crane, right over the pit where most of the work was done."
The prayer group was limited to four, but workers at the site looked on, Longshore said. Participants were smudged and Mann said a prayer to each direction.
"She picked up some dirt and said she wanted to purify the ground for all the people working in the pit. The ceremony lasted 30 minutes. It was very somber but very joyous, too.
"There was such beauty in the midst of such horror."
A Mohawk worker at the site, Michael Laughing Sr., of the Akwesasne territory, said he began each shift by smudging himself. During the nine days he spent at Ground Zero, he said he frequently felt an unexplained presence. "I would be standing on a pile of rubble and feel someone plucking at my elbow. But when I turned around, the nearest person was 30 feet away."
A non-Indian volunteer described having dreams of six victims of the attacks when he returned home. His wife, who attended a prayer circle with Looking Horse in Massachusetts, said she began to dream of the same people, but successfully prayed for them to help them start their journey.
Looking Horse described the World Trade Center site as heavy with the presence of unreleased spirits. "They weren't going any place. There's got to be some kind of breaking point.
"That's why I went there. I had the support of many nations. People from different tribes have asked me to go there. There are a lot of different tribes of people in New York. A lot of people were praying with me through that ceremony."
Before visiting Ground Zero, Looking Horse spent a week in Massachusetts, speaking at Hampshire College and Harvard University and conducting Pipe ceremonies. He said he was touring to seek support for his annual World Peace and Prayer Day on the summer solstice.
Mann was visiting New York as a featured speaker at the annual fund-raising dinner of the American Indian College Fund.