It is a fact that every ancient culture has struggled with the concept of deity, and the spirit world, in attempt to find meaning to their existence. The native peoples of the Americas are no different. One common element among the ancient cultures was that they ascribed a mythology of deity to the earth, wind, rain, and even animals, in a pantheon of gods.
The Lakota peoples whom I’m most familiar, have an immense spiritual heritage and mythology. Like, most primitive cultures, they’ve attributed spiritual significance to virtually every aspect of life and material existence. Similar to the nature of the Amazonian deities, these spiritual beings have been revered, feared, and even worshipped.
My own paternal Grandmother spent many years growing up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, as an enrolled member of the Hunkpapa (Lakota (Sioux): Húŋkpapȟa) who are a Native American group, one of the seven council fires of the Lakota tribe. As a young adult, there was a time when I thought it was important to understand that part of my heritage — especially the spiritual aspects.
So, color me surprised this morning when I witnessed a Lakota Holy man chanting the familiar words “Wakan Tanka,” while in incensing a group of Catholic worshipers in Rome. I guess, in hindsight and context of the ongoing Amazon Synod, it really shouldn’t have been surprising. The bigger question is, was it appropriate in the context of a Catholic event? Is it possible to reconcile pagan and pantheistic religious practices within our Monotheistic faith?
The Lakota Concept of Wakan
Trying to describe the Lakota concept of “wakan” would be much like trying to put down a few paragraphs and accurately and amply sum up “God.” It can’t be done. Wakan is so interwoven in nature it would be impossible to describe it all in words, but the following is an attempt to convey just a inkling of what it is all about.
In the world of the Lakota, the word wakan means many things, yet nothing that is easily understood. Even among the Lakota themselves a great deal of thought and study is necessary in a quest to understand the concept of wakan.
Those who travel among the Lakota hear them speak of their beliefs in wakan by many names: Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila, Taku SkanSkan, Great Spirit, Grandfather. The traveler might ask “Are these names for one being or for many?” The answer would have to be yes, all of the above.
To the Lakota, those which made everything are Wakan Tanka. Though wakan have separate meanings unto them selves, Wakan Tanka can be loosely interpreted as “wakan” as “mystery” and “tanka” as “something great.” And being the “creators,” the Wakan Tanka also are Wakanpi, those things above mankind. They are never born and they never die. The Wakanpi, spirits, have power over everything on earth and control everything mankind does. There are benevolent Wakanpi that will bestow the wishes man asks of them, and evil Wakanpi that are to be feared.
Though there may indeed be valid ways to inculcate aspects of native spirituality into Catholic style worship practices, one would have to do a great deal of linguistic research to ensure proper intent and focus, bring clarity out of the confusion.
Simply substituting a sage bundle for incense should be a simple matter. However, referencing Wakan Tanka is a bit more problematic. While this could indeed be a generic term for God in the understanding of a “Great Spirit,” or creator god, the unenlightened could take it to be referencing a wider, pantheistic reference — including those “other spirits” mentioned above.
Christianity is a stringently monotheistic religion. It has been handed down to us for millennia that the God of the Old Testament is particularly intent on ensuring that His people understand that He is the One, True, God. The ancient Jewish people didn’t always heed the prohibitions against idolatry that they were given. As a result, they were seriously chastised on more than one occasion. This is why there are many such as myself looking at the pagan spirituality on display in Rome with suspicion and even dread.
Ambiguity is one of the problems that many have with the open paganism on display in Rome. We are hot hearing attempts from the pope or the Synod Fathers to eliminate confusion or clear up misunderstandings regarding what is going on.
In Catholicism, we worship the “One, True, God.” Now we are being presented with a pantheon of deities, with the Pope as an active participant alongside other clergy who are literally bowing down before strange gods.
Christianity has been interacting with indigenous cultures for nearly two millennia. No, we haven’t always gotten it right. I had the privilege of working for a couple of years in Alaska, among their native peoples. I learned first hand the negative impact that the early Christians model of missions had on these people. If those missionaries had taken the time to investigate the culture of the Yupic or the “Real People,” they would have discovered that this culture had an ancient spiritual tradition of Creation that beautifully mimics the Christian tradition, and is highly compatible with our traditional faith. Learning their culture, rather than dismissing them as simply being “pagan” or uncultured, has had negative impacts that continue to this day.
Similar to the experiences of the Yupic peoples, it is important to acknowledge the culture of places where we minister, finding ways to authentically relate Christ to every people and nation where we journey. It is primarily for the above reasons that the International Catholic Confederation actively supports the inculturation of such things as native dance and ritual that help people to tie their culture into their faith. However, with that stated, we must also work to remove ambiguity and confusion.
No, the Virgin Mary cannot be reconciled as an incarnation of “Mother Earth,” no more that imagery of “Wakan Tanka” are capable of relating the fullness of our understanding of our Creator God.
Those of us with an evangelical calling must indeed work to properly catechize those in other cultures. We will never accomplish that goal by removing native languages along with all their traditions.
However, with that stated, neither is it helpful to display indigenous worship practices alongside those of the Authentic Catholic Faith, as if they were of co-equal validity. Our responsibility as Christians remains the same as it did when Christ uttered the Great commission — take the Gospel TRUTH to the whole world. The word truth must be understood in juxtaposition to falsehood and, or misinformation.
We must remember that our issues with what is going on in Rome is not with their bringing together peoples from various cultures, but with the ambiguity and lack of clarity. Without clarity, many are hearing a message of universalism, where all paths to the divine are of equal value. This is simply not the message of orthodoxy.
Whether we’re talking about Lakota or Amazonian Spirituality, Christians must insist on clarity and disambiguity, while at the same time seeking to love and respect our fellow travelers.