Native Americans lived in a different world before Europeans crossed the ocean. They perceive the world as completely sacred. They respected all life, living and acting in the harmony with their environment. They followed the laws of nature and understood that by violating these laws, they would cause unnecessary pain and suffering.
When asked about their “religion” White Eagle replied, “In contrast to the modern Europeans, they (Native Americans) did not ‘imprison’ themselves in stone houses, were not ‘shackled’ by dogmas about the structure of the world. Indians felt that they were an integral part of nature; their home was the boundless forest, rocky mountains, blue lakes, waterfalls. The state of mergence with nature was very natural”.
Native Americans, do not regard their spiritual beliefs and practices as a “religion”. Their beliefs and practices form a integral and seamless part of their lives. Land and earth and animals, rocks and trees, are all held sacred as creations of the one “Great Creator”.
Then foreigners arrived, some simply to gain riches but many were fleeing religious or political oppression. Unfortunately the persecuted brought their ideals with them…and they brought their fear of what they didn’t understand. Whether through piety, fear or greed, tragedy resulted. Native Americans were deemed heathens and dangerous and Europeans put into practice the oppressive practices from which they fled. Through greed others saw the open land, of which the natives had been stewards, as something to be seized, owned and exploited for personal gain. The atrocities began.
There were whose who tried to bridge the cultures. A minister named Samuel Worchester was arrested by the State of Georgia for treading on Cherokee land. He responded by filing a law suit against Georgia. He lost. The resulting court decision was devastating, cancelling all laws stating that Native Americans were sovereign nations. Andrew Jackson sent U.S. troops into Cherokee land and forced them onto “Indian reservations”.
Jackson had a rationale for this forced movement. In a State of the Union address, he says: “The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the Westward; and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West, by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to a land where their existence may be prolonged, and perhaps made perpetual…”
This action thus began the famous and painful Cherokee Trail of Tears and eventually placed all Native Americans on reservations. It ended the fighting, but it ruined a culture. Since then they have largely been treated as second class citizens in the land that they had first nurtured. The Native American today is struggling to hang onto his culture in a world that has become foreign.
“When the white man first came to this land, we had the land and they had the bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them again, we had the bible and the white man had the land.” As Christian Americans we have a tragic history with Native Americans. It is a history that can not be undone yet must be acknowledged and not repeated.
Addendum: During the journey, it is said that the people would sing “Amazing Grace”, using its inspiration to improve morale. The traditional Christian hymn had previously been translated into Cherokee by the missionary Samuel Worcester with Cherokee assistance. The song has since become a sort of anthem for the Cherokee people.