Having Faith

dated Monday, November 5, 2012

Today we left campus for Pine Ridge! It was all very exciting and new—I’ve never been on a block that had an off campus trip before (I know, I know, I’m a senior and everything, but there was always just so much to do on campus). I didn’t get much sleep the night before, with packing and procrastinating, so I managed to pass out in the car for a couple of hours before taking over to drive in the middle of Wyoming, thus preventing any carsickness disasters.


It’s an eight or nine hour drive to Pine Ridge—we left at 7:45 and got there a little after four, so I suppose we made pretty good time, especially since we got caught in Denver traffic and stopped for a long-ish lunch in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. It was mostly pleasant, and kind of pretty in a sparse, almost bleak way. The generally sleepiness of Mondays and car trips meant a lot of the drive was pretty quiet, which afforded me some time to think. I’ve always found driving to be rather meditative, and this drive was particularly so. We drove on straight two-lane highways through sparse landscapes, the leaves mostly gone from the few trees and the bark grey from wind and weather. It was easy to get lost in my thoughts, which were going a million miles an hour in every direction.


First, I was excited. I was going on an off-campus field trip, one that other people who have taken IRT in the past have said is amazing. The first week of class only cemented that enthusiasm—as this class has gone on, I’ve felt more and more that it is going to be good for not only the academic in me, but also for myself as a spiritual being. It’s made me think a lot about my own traditions and beliefs, but it’s also made me reevaluate the traditions of others. And I don’t just mean indigenous religions, but of many of the religious traditions that I know. And while that thinking has been in many ways scholarly, it has led to a deeper contemplation of my own spiritual practices in a completely non-academic way. I have, for the past few years, thought I was very comfortable in my faith, but suddenly I was looking at it in a different way, and I began to wonder. Those feelings of unease became crystal clear in the ceremonies we did today, but I’ll touch on that later.


So I had a good feeling about my spiritual and educational growth. But at the same time, I was worried. There were so many of us, and so many things to plan, and so many things to be in the right place at the right time, and so many ways to screw it all up, and I worry about everything to the point of distraction.


And even more than that, I was scared. What if I was wrong about my growth as a spiritual person? What if I messed something up? What if I crashed the car and killed everyone? What if I got left behind? And, worst of all: what if I was somehow, by someone, deemed unworthy of the knowledge, academic or otherwise, I hoped to obtain?


Coming into Pine Ridge changed all that. We arrived just before (a painfully early) sunset, and spent some time exploring the Wounded Knee memorial site, which is in a cemetery. There we met Mike and did a small ceremony, and then ended up at one of his relative’s houses, celebrating a birthday party for a four-year-old. We followed that up with a brief visit to a wake, and then went to sweat.


There were lots of things going on tonight, in lots of different ways, and I could probably write several thousand words on it. But I’ve been rambling on for a while as it is, so I’ll just talk about two things.


At the wake, which was for a Korea veteran who died last Thursday (if I recall correctly, he was 81), Mike and several of his family members sang. The music was some of the most baldly mournful, beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. I didn’t know this man—I didn’t even know he’d existed until we arrived at the wake, but there was something so candid and lovely about the songs they sang, something that inspired empathy. Unbidden, I thought of the deaths of some of my older relatives, particularly my grandmother, while listening, I was stuck with the same feelings of grief I had felt then, as powerful as they had been in the moment. In that moment, listening to five men and one woman sing around the casket of a beloved relative, I grieved, though I had never known the person for whom I was grieving. That connection was powerful. Music has always been something that has driven me to emotion, but it is rare that I get so swept up in it as I did.


Then there was the sweat lodge, which was great, but I don’t want to talk about that. What I want to talk about is something Mike’s father, Big Mike, said at some point in the evening: he said something like, “You gotta have faith in what you do.”


It hit me like a frying pan over the head: I don’t.


Self-confidence is something I’ve always struggled with, but the realization wasn’t just that I didn’t have faith in what I did physically or said, or thought—I don’t have faith in the power of my beliefs, and maybe, even, in the beliefs themselves. I want to, but I don’t.


It was a shocking realization, and a painful one, and one I haven’t quite come to grips with yet, but it was a little like lancing a wound. It had to be done, and now that I know that, I feel better. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a long ways to go, but it’s a start. My prophecy was right: I have grown as a spiritual being on this trip, and even if nothing else happens for the next four days, I can come away with something to work towards. But I have a feeling that I have a lot more growing to do before I return to Colorado, and I look forward to it.


Next time, on Indigenous Religious Traditions’ blog: We have an impromptu buffalo dissection! Expect pictures.


See you then,