Students were introduced to Native American spirituality and artwork through lectures, reading assignments and photographs. Focusing on sandpaintings and medicine wheels, they learned about the cultural, religious, and symbolic significance of these creations.
To most Native American groups (and we discussed the fact that tribes in different parts of the country had different beliefs), "religion" was not seen as something separate from their every day life. Prior to the early 1900s, the "sacred circles" that they created were expressions of their spirituality and were not considered to be "artwork."
Sandpaintings, for example, were used as part of a healing ceremony. The Navajo believed that the universe was carefully balanced between the forces of good and evil, and that sickness was a sign that an individual was out of tune with the natural world. Through the use of sacred songs and sandpaintings, the medicine men would try to restore proper harmony in the universe, and thus cure the illness. The Navajo said that those who got well would again "walk in beauty."
The sandpaintings created in these ceremonies were destroyed shortly after their creation. The sand was all swept together, scattered to the four winds, and therefore returned to the Earth. In this regard, they are similar to Tibetan mandalas which are "dispersed" when they are finished.
Beginning in the early 1900s, some tribe members began creating "artistic" sandpaintings which used traditional symbolism, but were still respectful of their beliefs. These are permanent creations, in which the sand is glued onto a board.
Medicine wheels, also known as "Sacred Hoops," were circles created through a careful and symbolic arrangement of stones. While the symbolism varied from tribe to tribe, key stones were aligned in such a way as to represent the cardinal points--north, south, east and west.
The circular pattern represented the cycles of the sun and moon, of life and death, of the changing seasons, and the orbits of the planets. Essentially, the medicine wheel was a symbol for the universe and all that it contains.
After the wheel was created, Native Americans would walk or dance around it in a clockwise direction (moving from east, to south, west, north, and returning to the east). It was believed that doing so would help to restore balance and unity in their lives.
As part of our discussion, we talked about how Native Americans--like the Tibetans--are struggling to preserve their heritage. Throughout history, these people have been forced to give up their land, their language, and many of their spiritual practices. In the early 1900s, for example, it became illegal in this country for Native Americans to perform any of their ritual dances.
While recent legislation--including a 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act signed by President Jimmy Carter--has restored their right to worship in the way they choose without government interference, Native Americans still are striving to keep their culture alive.
Native American Spirituality
Medicine Wheel Project