Aug 31 2010


Published by under Talks

Aelred Edmunds

I will begin this paper by reading a short article I was asked to write for the Methodist churches in Dunedin. It is my attempt to communicate some of the essentials of my recent experiences in terms that church people will, or may, recognize………………….

I have just returned from a Native American Pow Wow or Gathering in Pipestone, Minnesota. This was a gathering of what are termed “Pipekeepers” – keepers or guardians of the Sacred Pipe or Peace Pipe. I am privileged to be a Pipekeeper in New Zealand, and I conduct regular Pipe ceremonies in Dunedin.

Certainly this has been one of the Peak experiences of my life – including my spiritual life. This has been a true pilgrimage experience for me.

And what am I, a Christian, doing in my involvement with the spiritual practices of Native Americans?
Firstly, the Holy One (with many Names) is Unity, not divisions. Secondly, “I need all the help I can get,” as they say. Christianity does not have the answers to everything, and other religious traditions can, depending on the individual’s needs and background, provide important insights. Thirdly, “the global village” reality of our time makes nonsense of religious (and other) tribalisms. At this time in history we we walk together or perish in isolation.

I am also firmly of the view that the Holy Spirit speaks in ALL traditions – according to the cultural forms known to the people concerned. As St. Augustine said, what is called the Christian religion “existed among the ancients, nor was it wanting from the inception of the human race until the coming of Christ in the flesh, at which point the true religion which was already in existence began to be called Christian.”

As I proposed recently in a sermon, “Christ is the Life Force.” Christ is bigger than the historical Jesus. Christ is everywhere … in man, animals, plants, human cultures. Christ is at the heart of every atom … and when the moment, the imperceptible instant called death comes, it is always Christ who withdraws, as much from a tree as from a human being.” (Mircea Eliade)

And so I return to New Zealand having celebrated the presence of Christ in forms, rituals, celebrations, that on the surface do not look or sound like Christianity at all. This has been a very good thing for me. What have been some of the results? An incredible sense of newness, freshness. The Christ has been dressed in Church garments for 2000 years, and some of those garments are very musty and dusty indeed! It was amazing to perceive Him dressed in very bright colours, wearing a feathered head-dress, and dancing beautifully to the magic beat of the great drums.

What I am really saying here is that we should embrace ANY experience in the human family which helps to break the rigidities of long-established custom and habit. It is WE who are bound up, not Christ. Christ is free in all the world, and in all expressions of Life.

Aelred Edmunds.

And now, allow me the time to repeat the quotation I placed in the Sea of Faith Newsletter by way of providing a prologue to my presentation.
Vine Deloria Jr., a respected Native American scholar (professor at the University of Colorado) writes:
In spite of the overtures made in recent years by Christian denominations toward traditional Indian religions and practices – such as bishops wearing warbonnets at services, pipes and other traditional objects used to bless congregations, and occasional prayers for the Earth – one fundamental facet of Christianity must always detour any effort to come to grips with reality. Christianity was not designed to explain anything about this planet or the meaning of human life.
Every single ceremonial act of the Christian tradition is based on the belief that history was coming to an end, that the believers would be taken up to heaven, a place radically different from this earth …”

I cannot do better than contrast this traditional Christian dualism with the following examples (among many that my mentors have sent me) of typical Native American teaching:

[Pipemakers2] Fw: Elder’s Meditation of the Day – July 22 Thursday, 22 July, 2010 11:16 PM
From: “North Star” <>

Elder’s Meditation of the Day –  June 20

“But in the Indian Spirit the land is still vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers’ bones.”

–Luther Standing Bear, OGLALA SIOUX

It is said when we walk on the Earth, we are walking on our ancestors and our unborn children. This is the relationship Native People have with the Earth. It is this relationship which gives insight into the Earth’s rhythm and heartbeat and creates the feeling of belonging. If you feel you belong to something, you’ll treat it with respect. If you feel you are above something, you’ll treat it with disrespect. Indian Spirituality is tied to the Earth. We belong to the Earth along with all other creatures on the Earth. We must align to this realization.
Great Spirit, today, teach me to respect the  Earth Mother.

Elder’s Meditation of the Day – July 22

In this universe, all activities, events, and entities are related. Indians believe that everything in the universe has value and instructs us in some aspect of life. Everything is alive and is making choices that determine the future, so the world is constantly creating itself … With the wisdom and time for reflection that old age provides, we may discover unsuspected relationships.


We are all connected. This is what the Elders have told us for a long time. If we are connected to all things, then whenever we harm anything, it causes harm to ourselves. If we destroy the air, then we will be affected by what we breathe in. If we poison the Earth, we poison ourselves. We must respect our Mother Earth and She wil respect us in return. We must open our eyes and obey the spiritual laws that govern the Earth and ourselves.
Grandfather, today allow me to honor and respect the things You have made. Let me see the beauty of all things.

Elder’s Meditation of the Day – June 12

“The faces of our future generations are looking up to us from the earth and we step with great care not to disturb our grandchildren.”

–Traditional Circle of Elders

The leaves, when they are finished with their life on the trees, will return to the Earth. The leaves that return to the Earth are the future trees. So inside the Mother Earth are the future forests. The human, when finished with its life on the Earth, will return to the Earth. So in the Earth are our future grandchildren. Knowing this, we should be respectful of the place where our future generations live. Only take from the Earth what you need. Every time you pick a plant or Medicine, leave an offering and leave a prayer. Be respectful and walk in a sacred way.
Great Spirit, teach me to respect the place of future generations.

And there is the Navajo Chantway that I have chosen to use in the Pipe ceremony that I conduct in Dunedin:

*The Earth is beautiful… The Earth is beautiful… The Earth is beautiful.
Below the East, the Earth, its face toward the East, the top of its head is beautiful.
The soles of its feet, they are beautiful.
Its legs, they are beautiful,
Its body, it is beautiful.
Its chest, it is beautiful.
Its breath, it is beautiful.
Its head-feather, it is beautiful.
The Earth is beautiful.

Further, delightfully, there is the connection between music-making and aspects of Nature.
At this point I read a traditional story explaining how the Indian Flute came to the people, and played one of my own “tree tops” compositions. If you wish to actually experience this (again?) you will need to contact me for a demonstration!

And now my path becomes very interesting and challenging indeed. I had been holding the Pipe ceremony for a small group in Dunedin for some months – after resisting calls made on me to provide this ministry. When this became known to some associated with the Pipekeepers’ community, there was a strong negative reaction. Emails flew to and fro! Predictably, much of this negativity amounted to me having been constituted a “scapegoat” for the undoubted crimes of white colonisers in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. You know some of the sad history, no doubt: the Massacre at Wounded Knee, “The Trail of Tears” of the Cherokee, and so on.

I found this negativity quite exhausting. But then, it was also enlivening – in a variety of ways. For one thing, I have been called upon to think with great precision about what I am doing and projecting. For another, I have had to work really hard at maintaining a positive stance toward these individuals; and that involved “biting my tongue” over and over again, rather that reacting in kind.

Fortunately, the great support I have received from most of the other members of the community has more than compensated for the distress. I will not quote any of the messages of support in this article since I have not sought the permission of the writers concerned. It is sufficient to say that their blessings on my ministry have given me the resolve to continue.

There is a core issue here, of course: As interest in indigenous traditions continues to grow in many parts of the world – including in New Zealand – there is always the risk of hostile elements claiming “You white people have taken everything from us – our land, our cultural uniqueness; you have practised genocide on us … and now, in latter days, you even want to take our religion!”

There is a view that so many indigenous traditions are a highly important human and planetary resource at this time in history. Some of their traditional wisdom may well prove crucial in the re-education of millions.

It was at this point that I gave what is, to me, a dramatic example of sharing across religious and cultural divides – the recognition, by some, that the Sacred Pipe of the Native American can actually contribute to our appreciation and understanding of the figure of Christ. Here follows the text of the discussion stimulus which I handed to all members of Sea of Faith who were present:

# 1 Corinthians 10: 4f – “… they all took of the water from the holy rock … and the Rock was Christ.”

#If Christ could be the rock struck by Moses, why could he not be yet another rock – the rock made into the bowl of the sacred Pipe?

#Fr. Paul Steinmetz S.J. .: “… I  draw from the ethnology of the Sacred Pipe as David Miller did from Greek mythology in his Christs: Meditation on Archetypal Images in Christian Theology .. Miller argues that Christian theologians to articulate the faith borrowed Greek philosophical thought forms which, in turn, were borrowed from the poets and myth makers … My argument is that beacuse Christian images are derived from a common religious substratum expressed through primal religions, behind the image of Christ is the image of the Sacred Pipe and its many associations …”

Could the figure/image of Christ be revived for our contemporaries by walking this road? Would it even be desirable?

I concluded my paper by quoting from another Jesuit priest, William Stolzman:
“.. there really are radical differences between the Lakota and Christian way, AND it is possible for a person to draw spiritual good from both traditions without sacrificing one’s authentic participation in either religion. In this way, a person is able to receive and share ALL the revelation which God has given to those whom He has called to be spiritually and culturally one with Lakota people, as blessed by both the Pipe and Christ.
… Just as two people do not have to be exactly alike to marry – so too, two religions, like the Lakota and the Christian religions, need not be made equivalent to be brought together in a fruitful interrelationship.
…The Lakota and the Christian religions fit. They “fit” as a hand and a glove “fit.” … The two religions “fit”, as a horse and wagon “fit.” The Lakota religion is like the horse. It is very natural, continually touching and feeding off the earth. The wagon is man-made, and it can carry more people and things than the back of a horse can. While a person does not try to put the glove in the hand or the wagon in the horse, he may put the hand in the glove and the horse between the poles of a wagon…”

This is typical of the way so many Native Americans think and speak. It is very refreshing … and sensible. “hand,” “glove;” “horse,” “wagon:” these metaphors/images say most of what needs to be said by way of essentials when it comes to the field of Interreligious Dialogue – a field that has occupied my time and attention for well over 20 years.

I look forward to further deeply enriching contacts with my Native American “relatives.”

No responses yet

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply