A Quest For Religion: Finding My Tribe
By Melanie Bates
I have a confession to make and I feel pretty damn vulnerable putting fingers to keys around it.
(No, I haven’t been watching The Bachelor.)
I spent almost two decades of my life wishing I were Native American. What’s more is that, for many of those years, I didn’t consciously recognize it. Essentially I just wanted to be of this culture as part of a tribe of a people and history that I looked up to.
Instead, I was born into a family of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) which traces back to my 4th or 5th great grandparents who lived near Joseph Smith and, upon his death, traveled with Brigham Young to Utah. While my family is amazing, the garments just never fit me and I’ve been searching, studying, and “trying on” different religions and different types of spirituality since I wore a retainer and a turtleneck with frogs smattered on it.
I attended catechism with my sister until she pissed off Mother Superior Mary and got us kicked out, though we continued to go to the Catholic Church every Sunday with my step-father for services. I came to discover that it wasn’t about the words that were spoken down front, it was a test of my physical endurance that I could continuously kneel on the kneelers without wavering – spine rigid, no tottering. One slip, or horror of horror, one rest of my arse against the bench and the Holy Bible in my step-father’s hand met the back of my head with a resounding thwack. Sometimes I was so fidgety that I spent the entire service outside on the lawn dreading the punishment I would receive back home. I really did like the Catholic Church; the stained glass, the glossy prayer cards lined up with the Virgin Mary and Jesus and other folks I didn’t know. I loved the sacristy with the holy water where I’d dip in a few times before crossing myself. I felt left out and full o’ sin because I wasn’t allowed to go up front with all the other people and eat the bread. My stomach growled for those few years that “I was Catholic.”
Perhaps I’m Baptist?
But, alas, my spine wasn’t strong enough to make it through Catholicism and with typical childhood resilience I moved on. One bright Sunday I boarded a peacock blue bus with a large giraffe painted on it that stopped right outside our front door and dropped me off at Sunnyside Baptist Church. I remember only snippets of that experience; a lot of yelling, watermelon Jolly Ranchers tossed through the air to those who could find their bible verses the quickest, and throwing rocks at the rooftop where the Devil was copping a squat. Though I couldn’t see him I had a fairly good arm and thought for sure I must have scored a few hits. My mom drove up during one of my “fast balls” and, for some reason, never allowed me to go back.
Methodist, Mormon, Lutheran, a few more Baptist services, non-denominational: I went with friends, my mom, my mom’s friends, and I just never found my church. I also found that I didn’t even have to leave the house to learn about new religions. Members of the Unification Church (also known as “Moonies”) would stop by the house and my step-father, with a flair for the dramatic and a wicked penchant for messing with people, would spend hours at the front door telling them how his parents had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars deprogramming his Moony brother who tried to jump off a bridge on the Potomac.
And… as I said, many of my family members are Mormon so I went to a number of services with cousins and my Grandma. I marveled at the tiny little kids who could stand up so proud and say “I know that this is the only true religion” when I didn’t know where I’d hidden my sandwich baggie full of Jell-O granules or what I might buy with my 50 cents down at the Maverik after church.
As I grew up I let go of my desire to find my church, (though I was rather fond of the non-denominational services which served coffee), and I began studying spirituality and Eastern religions; Buddhism, Wiccan, Christian Mysticism, Paganism. I bought a map commissioned in 1886 of the Prevailing Religions of the World and was surprised to find very few represented: Roman Catholics, Protestants, Asian Buddhists, Jews, and a few others. “Everyone else” on the map was listed as “Nondescript Heathens,” a term which immediately resonated with me and which I use to describe myself to this day. (Though I also adored the “Fetishists” on my map and considered that one as well.)
At the age of 22 a dear friend of mine introduced me to my totem animals which set me on a 15+ year journey studying Native American spirituality. Boy, was I a good student. I had every book. I had drums hanging on my walls and kachinas lined my shelves. I cleansed with sage smudge sticks and sweet grass and I smoked a peace pipe with my guests. I went to Pow Wows and bought leather to make totem pouches and I felt more connected to Great Spirit than I had ever felt in my life.
Every animal I encountered became a personal message for how to live my life. The daily/hourly moments of synchronicity blew my mind and there were more lone tears of awe on my cheeks in those days than I can remember. Flying down the road, late for work, pissed off at my then husband for letting me sleep too long, I would see a deer on the side of the road and remember the “gentleness” of deer. I would know that the deer was there to remind me to calm my ass down and embrace deer’s attributes. I would hear people at work talking about my heathen ways and, I shit you not, moments later I would see a skunk and be reminded of “reputation” and I would let go of those hurt feelings. Every hawk was a “messenger” and every raven spoke to me of “magic.” Even the ants were there to teach me “patience” while the spiders begged me to “create.”
That time in my life was the longest, most magical, spiritual connection I’ve ever had to the Divine, myself, and Mother Earth.
And I remember exactly where I was when the realization struck that I would never be Native American; when I came to understand that no matter how hard I tried to glom on to that culture, I would never be part of that tribe, regardless of how many kachinas I bought, how many peace pipes I smoked, how many books I read, how many animals spoke to me, and how connected I felt to Mother Earth.
The Spiritual Lost & Found
I was sitting on the cracked bench of a set of white-washed bleachers in Heber City, Utah at a Pow Wow. I was watching the fancy shawl dancers twirl in their colorfully beaded costumes, their white deer skin covered feet floating across the earth, the drum beating with my heart and, just like that, I realized that I was a white girl with freckles and about as much rhythm as a newborn calf (unless I had enough tequila in me.) I was heartbroken. I looked down at the family circles of the different tribes. Older men sat outside the drum circle, watching. The women stood nearby in full leather dress chatting with each other, always with one eye on their children. Kids ran everywhere, their long dark hair flowing down to their butts, their tiny hands latched on to warm frybread dripping with golden honey. I didn’t belong down there. I wasn’t part of the people no matter how much I longed to be; no matter how much I ached for their treatment in this country, no matter how much I’d learned, no matter how many times I watched Dances With Wolves.
Spirituality was never quite the same for me after that. Sure, I pursued religious studies in college; more Eastern religion, Christian Mysticism, Women in Early Christianity, blah, blah, blah. I’ve never again found that connection.
But the Universe has a funny way of bringing things back around; full circle. You see, I just found out that I’ve been spiritually guided, for my whole life, by this dude pictured above. Isn’t he gorgeous?
Let me explain. My best friend, Monica, gifted me artwork this Christmas, but not just any artwork. Rather this work was spiritual in bent and the artist, Abby Rose, has a very unique gift. She draws, sketches, paints, and uses charcoal to paint your spirit guide. We all have spirit guides surrounding us, helping us out, giving us comfort, laughing with us when we trip on our Uggs, and Abby communicates with spirit guides and draws them. It’s an incredible experience and she’s just chock full of Awesome. I actually got to watch her as she worked via video. I don’t know about other folks who have experienced this gift but my guide morphed like three times. First a man, then a woman, then finally to the Native American man you see above. The craziest thing of all? The familiarity I feel with this portrait; with this man.
I’m new to all this, I don’t know how it works. Did the guide come first, or did my continued study of Native American spirituality bring the guide to me? Was he the one who was jonesing for a puff o’ the peace pipe? I don’t know. Was he the one guiding my animals to me so that I might learn their beautiful qualities? I don’t know. But I do know that, deep inside, I am guided by a Native American. I have a tribe.
A fox flees through the brush in front of my home and I remember “family.” I am connected.
Femme Tales – Truth with Humor