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For the Native American man, woman, and child, the spiritual world was not separate from the everyday experiences of life. From sunrise to sunset, and while they slept, they lived in a spiritual world. Spiritual leaders, only men in some Native societies, both men and women in others, negotiated the distance and relationship between the human and the sacred. These people, often called Shamans, interpreted dreams, assisted in the vision quest experience, and/or carried out rituals designed to keep peace (and prosperity) between the spiritual world and the Native people. In some Native Nations healing societies represented the connection between the spiritual and physical world. Among the Iroquois League, the False Face Society healed the sick while wearing hand-carved masks, the design of which had come to them in a dream vision from the spiritual side of the universe. Among the Dene (Navajo) some healing ceremonies were, and continue to be, conducted on a sand painting that consisted of an intricate spiritual ceremonial design made by a traditional Navajo chanter (medicine person) trickling fine colored sand, crushed minerals, pollen, or powder onto a neutral sand base. This connection between spiritual design, natural elements, and healing also serve to show the connectedness of Native people to what many Native people call "Mother Earth." Many people have misinterpreted the concept of Mother Earth as a sort of Native American environmental concept. While the natural environment is a part of Native spirituality, Mother Earth is better envisioned as the cosmological and spiritual world within which Native people live, work, marry, raise families, conduct ceremony, and pay respect to the Creator. Some Indian people refer to this as "the sacred hoop." In its most simple definition it can be viewed as a set of concentric circles each overlapping and woven around the other. These various weavings taken together make up the whole of Native American spirituality. The center circle is Mother Earth; the circles that are woven around and interconnected are concepts such as time, history, family, ceremony, place, culture, government, and law. Early European settlers failed to recognize this complicated sense of cosmology and claimed that Indian people were without religion, history, or culture.
When the European colonists and later U.S. citizens set out to expand across the American continent under the guise of manifest destiny, cultural and spiritual myopia resulted in the destruction of Indian Nations, their cultures, their religions and caused severe damage to the complicated system of beliefs that were embodied in and made up the totality of Native spiritual cosmology. Early explorers and European settlers who followed in their footsteps expected Native American people to either be converted to the Catholic or Protestant religions voluntarily (or in the case of the Spanish) by force of coercion. Failure to convert often resulted in death or being sold into slavery in the West Indies or in Malaga, Spain. For both the Catholic and Protestant religions, the worship service, the focal point of their spirituality, was the cathedral or church building. Huge ornate buildings were built with spires reaching into the heavens. Sermons were preached in languages foreign to the Native tongue and the practice of Native religions was denounced as devil worship. For Native people the world was their church. Where early Europeans saw the forests as dark and foreboding, filled with evil spirits, Native People saw these forests as places where spirits resided, where they could be at one with nature and their creator. Native people revered the natural world and all that was in it. They did not need a church building; the universe was that building. They did not need priests to intercede with the Creator; they spoke with the creator daily as they went about their lives. Europeans failed to understand this sophisticated level of spirituality and carried out a relentless religious warfare against Native religions and Native people deemed to be worshipers of Satan. In the 21st century, at a time when more than 50% of Native Americans live in urban areas, Indian spirituality still exists within the heart and soul of many Native people. Apache families still return to their reservations to celebrate the coming of age of their daughters in the NJA NJLEESH, "She is painted," ceremony that tests the young woman's suitability to be recognized as a woman among the Apache people. Among the Dene (Navajo), service men and women returning from war will participate in the Enemy Way Chant that exorcises the ghosts of death, violence, and ugliness that they have seen and experienced. The Apache and Dene are examples of the many Native people from many Native Nations that return yearly to their reservations to participate in ceremonies and to renew their spiritual relationship with the Creator.
Among the Serrano Indians of Southern California the last girl's puberty ceremony was practiced some 140 years ago; however, the ceremony serves to demonstrate the spiritual connection between the past and present as young Indian girls "came of age." At the onset of puberty a "waxen" ceremony was held. A shallow pit was dug and lined with heated stones. The stones were covered by leaves, and the young girl was laid in the shallow grave. This symbolized the death of childhood and entrance into womanhood. Sacred songs were sang, food was offered to the creator and those in attendance, and the young woman (no longer a child) was raised from the grave and was now eligible for marriage. Many factors have contributed to the decline of Indian culture in southern California; however, the failure to observe native religious rites such as the girl's puberty ceremony is intrinsically connected.
Spiritual practice, tradition, and faith have been and continue to be at the center of the lives of Native Americans. As such, it is impossible to separate the spiritual lives of young people from the rest of their development. Promoting and preserving the spiritual practices of Native American traditions is therefore an important aspect of healthy development.