I was sitting on a meditation cushion in a musty domed tent in the Green Mountains of Vermont. There was a raised dais in the front. On it sat a beautiful Native American woman with sparkling eyes, a gracious manner and a melodious speaking voice. She is called the Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo. She is Cherokee. I was entranced by the chanting, visualizations and teachings of peace she offers. Because the Ven. Dhyani is also recognized as a khandro--the reincarnation of an enlightened teacher in two Tibetan Buddhist lineages, I thought I had come to study Buddhism.
But it was not her teachings on the Buddhist Heart Sutra that captured my heart, it was the prayers to the 6 directions and what she calls the crystal teachings. Much to my chagrin, I, an American White Anglo Saxon Protestant through and through, had become both New Age and “discovered the Indian.” Over the next 15 years, I continued to study shamanism and indigenous spirituality and meditated and prayed in private in a Native American way. I divulged my true beliefs rarely and only with trusted confidantes.
Since first meeting Ven. Dhyani in 1993, I have been the lucky and grateful recipient of the teachings of various Native American teachers and their non-Native students. Like many of my sisters and brothers in spirit around the world, I look to the natural world as my sacred text and listen for messages and inspiration from myriad other-than-human, not-in-the-body spiritual teachers and sources. I pay attention to dreams and visions as teachings and road signs along the spiritual path. I believe in an immanent, un-nameable, universal, creative power that I alternately refer to as Wanka Tanka, from the Oglala Sioux, Great Mystery from the English translation of the latter term and other Native languages, God from my Christian background, or Creator, a gender neutral term now used among many faiths. I include in my beliefs the Sacred Feminine, Gaia, or the Goddess that is incarnated and expressed, among myriad other forms and emanations, in our Mother Earth.
This growing movement in the West is sometimes called “Native spirituality,” “earth spirituality” or shamanism, depending upon the individual teacher and the cultural source. Names like Sun Bear and Ed McGaa Eagle Man may be familiar from their extensive publications. They were the inheritors of the literary and spiritual legacy of Ben Black Elk whose life history and explanation of the seven sacred rites of the Lakota people was recorded and published by Richard Niehardt in Black Elk Speaks in 1929. It is known as one of the greatest spiritual books of the 20th century.
It has been a long journey to come to the place where I can announce so openly my spiritual beliefs. I was academically trained as a Soviet Studies scholar and went on to become an anthropologist and folklorist of Slavic cultures. I had a long and successful career in higher education administration. During those years, while I managed a technology center at a major American university, I parlayed my expertise in the former Soviet Union into studying and teaching about individual, social and cultural violence and systems of oppression. My awareness of my privilege as a white, middle class, educated woman led me to taking more than 10 years to come to terms with this spiritual calling and to emerge from out of the closet.
Finally, in 2007, I left my tenured position as an administrator and faculty member at the University of Virginia to become a shamanic healer in a tradition adapted from the Peruvian Andes and Amazon. As a healer, writer, activist, and educator working to bring greater awareness about how to stem the tide of violence in our world, I am convinced that these teachings and spiritual practices provide us with powerful tools to create a more peaceful future. Part of my lifelong work has been in dismantling racism and systems of oppression. Therefore, in order to be a shamanic healer and practitioner, this means I must include in my work educating Westerners about their often invisible prejudices against indigenous peoples and non-Native adherents to earth spirituality. I must also educate my own non-Native sisters and brothers in the faith about the responsibility they carry when they step onto this path. There are too many people who think they can borrow and steal practices and beliefs from native peoples without considering the impact. There are also many who play “Indian” without realizing that they are perpetuating insidious and often demeaning stereotypes.
Despite these complexities, it is my fervent belief along with many others, both Native and non-Native, that the indigenous peoples of the world have a great deal to offer our troubled planet. These perspectives and practices can help us ameliorate violence, address trauma, and develop more psychologically and physically healthy and balanced lives. In short, they can help us end suffering. I have seen firsthand their transformative power when brought into the undergraduate classroom and into training settings with professionals who deal with problems of violence, trauma and human suffering, no matter what their religion, race, ethnicity, or beliefs.
It is for these reasons and more that I am a dedicated practitioner of Native American spirituality. This path is an act of true love for me. It is rich with meaning, healing and power. I hope others will find their way with me. You do not have to give up our own culture and religion to do this. You only have to learn how to honor the powers of nature and the mysterious world beyond what can be seen with your physical eyes.