How can there be any inter-religious understanding between Western Christians, whose religion depends upon the written word, and Native Americans who practice their traditional religions that are essentially oral?
One answer is to set aside the written words—even the Bible—and instead focus upon one mode of religious expression that classic Christianity and traditional Native American religion both used. Over many generations, the faithful have adorned their ceremonial spaces with art that conveys a sense of what is important in their spiritual understandings and patterns of life.
Saving Paradise, an award-winning book published in 2008, has influenced my reflections about the way that many Christians have painted the interior of their churches. During extensive travels across Europe and Asia Minor to study the art in ancient churches, the authors realized that pictures of paradise had been the dominant visual environment in churches for the first millennium of Christian life. Better to understand what they were seeing, the authors read widely in Christian literature, including prayers, hymns, and theology.
Their readings confirmed that during the first half of Christian history, the focus of worship, church life, theology, and public policy had been on life in this world, life lived with ethical grace and beauty, the way that God has always intended that it be lived.
For a millennium, Christians built churches that portrayed paradise. Around the communion table, worshipers experienced the joyful feast of love and peace that they believed God intended for all people. Inspired by their worship, Christians could live lives of ethical grace and work to transform the world around them so that it was more like paradise.
During these generations, when most worshipers were illiterate, the visual environment transmitted a way for Christians to live faithfully that may have been even more dynamic than the printed pages of later generations.
While churches and the ceremonies within them have almost always been public, this has not been the case with Native American religious places and ceremonies. Because kivas are not public spaces, non-Natives usually cannot see the decorative walls and sense their spirituality.
The Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, however, is helping to bring our worlds together. It collects art that portrays the stories, principles, and patterns of life that have been practiced by the Native peoples in the four corners region. Part of the process has been to invite contemporary artists and articulate writers from these Southwestern peoples to create new art and prepare informed interpretive materials.
Perhaps the most spectacular of these ventures is a mural 5’ X 46’, created in 2001, that adorns the wall of a room in the museum built to simulate a Hopi kiva. In the Fall 2006 issue of its journal Plateau: The Land and People of the Colorado Plateau, the museum published extensive photographs of the mural and other holdings, along with interpretive essays by Hopi scholars.
The modern work of art is similar to murals in traditional kivas, which portrays the central story of the world, a story in which Hopi ancestors ascended from the world below, through a hole in the ground, and populated this middle space in which everyone now lives. The Museum’s mural uses an artistic style that combines traditional Hopi patterns and modern techniques such as cubism.
According to the explanation posted by the Museum, these murals “were spiritually empowered compositions that—through prayer, song, and ritual—effected changes in the ordinary world. Ultimately, they were invocations for rain and the fertility that would nurture life.”
The first essay explains that the songs of many ancient people of the Southwest and Mesoamerica “describe a colorful, glittering, flowery paradise evoked through singing and the sounds of bells, rattles, flutes, and bird song…This flowery world is not a separate place, like a Christian heaven, but a reality that can be brought forth through human prayers, songs, and actions” (Plateau, 14). The murals in some of the Hopi kivas “invoke a flowery spiritual landscape; they may have served as backdrops for spiritual performances by small groups of initiates at particular times of the year.”
The authors of a second essay report that Hopi prayers are marked by reciprocity between the responsibilities of the people and the goodness of the Spirits who are represented by the Katsinam, the sacred dancers who come to villages during festivals. The katsina songs describe the “principles and practices of the Hopi way of life.” The songs describe the way that Hopi people should live and affirm their belief “in a destiny that promises prosperity, long life, and happiness…If the Hopi pray with united hearts and live the life they originally agreed upon, then the katsinam ‘for their part’ will reciprocate with rain” (Plateau, 30).
How different the outward forms! How much alike the inner spirit!