With a drum circle beating the entry rhythm and singing the entry song, the opening ceremony of the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions was a joyous celebration of diversity and the spiritual traditions of the globe. For more than 15 minutes, the parade of international religious leaders in colorful garb and vestments filled the wide aisles of the plenary hall. By chance, I was seated on the aisle. So I was thrilled when two men blew their conch shells within a few feet of me, and I felt blessed when a Native American man brushed his fan of eagle feathers over my face in a greeting. Unexpected tears flowed down my face.
It felt like a Grand Entry at a powwow, so it was natural for leaders of seven tribes to take the stage for the first words spoken at the Parliament. Spiritual Storyteller Larry Cesspooch of the Ute Nation began with a welcome to the land of his people. He lit a bundle of sweetgrass and fanned its smoke to those around him. His quiet spoken prayer accompanied the smudging ceremony.
Over the five days of the Parliament, many indigenous persons spoke on the plenary stage. One of the six plenary sessions was devoted to indigenous communities. Each indigenous speaker began his or her speech with words of appreciation to the Ute, Paiute, Goshute, and Navajo peoples for hosting the gathering on their traditional land. Many of the non-indigenous speakers followed suit. A sacred fire burned on the plaza outside the convention center throughout the assembly, providing a place of prayer for all. Workshops, films, and performances gave opportunities for indigenous peoples from around the globe to share their teachings and traditions.
It was visionary, in 1893, to bring world religious leaders together for the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago. Yet that historic gathering could not comprehend the possibility of including Native American or other indigenous religions. Only three years before, nearly 300 Lakota persons (most were women and children) had been massacred at Wounded Knee, in what would eventually be considered the last major engagement of the “Indian Wars.” “Pagan” ceremonies were outlawed in the United States in 1884. Native religious traditions were further suppressed in 1894, when dancing and other religious ceremonies became punishable by imprisonment. Indian spiritual practice was illegal in 1893, so how could it be regarded as part of a legitimate faith tradition?
That the indigenous spirituality we experienced at this year’s Parliament was once outlawed is a travesty, but not ancient history. It wasn’t until 1978 that American Indian Religious Freedom Act gave native religions legal protection in the United States. Further protection of native religions came with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, guaranteeing access to sacred sites, the use of sacred objects such as eagle feathers, and the ceremonial use of peyote. That same year, the second Parliament of the World’s Religions, also in Chicago, welcomed indigenous faith leaders and their spiritual practice to the table. Subsequent Parliaments have expanded the presence and voice of native peoples. It becomes more apparent with each passing year that if we are to join together in caring for the earth and all its inhabitants, we need the wisdom of indigenous traditions. And that wisdom is carried in spiritual beliefs and practices.
9800 people, 73 countries, 30 major religions, 550 sub traditions, thousands of speakers, millions of words—this year’s Parliament was astounding and awe-inspiring, if only in its numbers. But my greatest moment of delight? When I felt the brush of eagle feathers on my face, I received it as a sign of forgiveness.
And the smile of my Indian brother helped me know that he meant it as a blessing, and a gift of hope.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/20342758@N00/7963756324″>Warwick Castle 9 September 2012 (23)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>