Religious Concepts: Religious and Spiritual Investigation McKenna Litynski


PHIL 201: Professor Dorbolo

McKenna Litynski


Religious and Spiritual Investigation


At the beginning of June, my grandparents made the decision to take their children and grandchildren to South Dakota. During my time on this trip, I was able to speak with Native Lakota Indians and learn more about their religiousness and spirituality. Recently, I was able to attend an Indian Discovery Day at the Historic St. Mary’s City located approximately 20 minutes from my home. During this event, I was able to connect, explore, and celebrate the Indian lifeways and culture. In learning about the spirituality and religiousness of the Native American people, key spiritual concepts emerged from my conversations and experiences.


The Lakota Indians are a Native American tribe that has rich spirituality and a deep respect for the Earth and all life. During my trip to South Dakota this June, I had the opportunity to speak with Starr Chief Eagle, a woman who is part of the Rosebud Lakota Sioux Tribe. Starr Chief Eagle grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She was taught to hoop dance by her father, Dallas Chief Eagle, before she could even walk. Today, she continues to carry on this Lakota tradition when preforming and practicing new skills and techniques of the hoop dance every year. She also shares arts, language, dance, and song with the people in hope to keep and maintain the Lakota culture. Star Chief Eagle explained that their name changes depending on significant events, achievements, and changes that occur in their lives. Starr Chief Eagle was born with the name Wichahpi Tokahe, or First Star. When she became of age, her name was changed to Wichahpi Ohitika Winyan, or Brave Star Woman.


The spiritual and religious concept of sacred appeared when Starr Chief Eagle talked about the deep spiritual meaning behind the hoop dance. Cangleska Wakan is the Lakota term for the Sacred Circle or Hoop. It symbolizes that everything in the universe is interconnected, including humans and all the life that surrounds them. It also represents the sacred cycle of life, or thenever-ending cycle of life. The Lakota believe that the hoop represents the unity of the tribe and their shared values and culture and that everything good is circular. The Lakota feel a rich spiritual connection to the sky and the Earth as they feel they are the mother and father of human kind. I was able to actively listen to Starr Chief Eagle and interpret what she was saying in a way that I could understand. I gained a better understanding and appreciation for her words regarding the balance between Father Sky and Mother Earth when I looked at the horizon line. The horizon line creates a hoop around me and follows me everywhere I go. When I look at the horizon line, I can understand why the Lakota believe that the hoop dance symbolizes that everything in the universe is interconnected and how the Earth and the sky are the foundations for the life around me.


The hoop dance typically starts with a single hoop to represent unity. As the dance progresses more hoops are added to represent different elements, such as animals, other humans, objects that carry great meaning, the elements of the Earth, or life events that tell a story of a person’s life. Starr Chief Eagle told me that the hoop dance is a story telling dance in which each hoop dancer tells their own individual story through the elements and symbols that they create with their motions and hoops. I was able to better interpret and understand her point of view when she invited me to participate in a simple hoop dance. Starr Chief Eagle taught me various elementary skills involved in the hoop dance. Then Starr Chief Eagle performed her own dance in which she told her story about growing up, the importance of what she is doing today, and what she wants to accomplish in the future. As I watched her dance, I was able to understand and notice the various elements and symbols formed from the hoops. For example, midway through the hoop dance, Starr Chief Eagle formed the wings of an Eagle by connecting several hoops together on her arms.


The spiritual and religious concept of spirituality transpired when I had the privilege of speaking with Darrell Red Cloud about his beliefs on the spirituality of nature. He taught me about the Wakan Tanka and the spirituality of nature of the Lakota people. The Wakan Tanka, also known as the Great Mystery, is looked upon for spiritual guidance in the Lakota and Dakota communities. Today, I can apply the Principle of Charity to the wonderful conversation I had when I relate the concept of spirituality to Wisdom Literature in Parallel. Jon Dorbolo states, “Religions provide accounts of the creation of the world/universe.” The Native Americans believe that the Great Mystery created all the life and earth itself. That is why they refer to the buffalo as their brother and other animals as family. I can understand the Native American’s deep connection to nature when I realize that the two-legged, four-legged, winged, and swimmers are all family. When I go out hiking in the woods, I do not need a priest or a church to persuade me to believe that my Creator gave the birds the ability to chirp, the trees the right to stand tall, and the streams the freedom to flow. Rather, all I need is my personal spirituality and religiousness to understand what connects me to nature.


Sacrifice was another religious and spiritual concept I noticed when speaking with Native American Indians during my time at the Indian Discovery Day at the Historic St. Mary’ City and during my conversations in South Dakota. I was able to learn about the Tatanka (bison) and its importance in Native American religiousness. The Native American people believe that the Tatanka (bison) came for the two legged so that they can have life sustaining sustenance, and clothing. This is why they feel a deep spiritual connection to these majestic creatures. When they killed a bison, they would always thank the animal for giving up its life. They would not waste any part of the Tatanka that gave its life to provide for the Lakota people. I interpret and relate the Native American’s direct religious and spiritual connection to nature to the Harmony Model discussed in “The Relationship Between Science and Religion” by Brad Sickler. According to Sickler, The Harmony Model suggests that religion and science can happily coexist. Sickler gives the example of Francis Bacon, who argued that, “recent advances in science which supplanted the scholastic approach to physics with its four elements, provided a firm foundation for belief in God’s existence.” In the case of the Native American people, they feel a deep connection to life on earth because they believe that the nature around them is proof of the Great Mystery’s existence and handiwork.


The Piscataway Native American Indians believe that traditions, values, and ceremonies are given to them by the Creator. They allow them to survive as a people and ensure the survivability of the Earth Mother and all of the relations whom they share in this world. I was able to further celebrate the Native Americans during the Indian Discovery Day when watching additional demonstrations, including learning how to make ceramic pottery through pinch pot and coil pot techniques; learning how to shoot a bow and arrow; watching a demonstration on how fish is encased in clay so that is can be cooked over a fire; and participating in an nature stroll to learn about the different kinds of plants available at certain times of the year. In addition, I had the opportunity watch a performance by the Tayac Territory Dancers. It was interesting to learn about the importance of the drum, for they believe that the drum represents the heartbeat of life. The Grand Entry Dance represented the concept of war as it encouraged bravery in which the performers circle each other until one touches another with a feather-tufted stick. The second dance they performed symbolized the concept of community in which the tales of hunter, tracking, and conquering large wild game were repeated exactly in the original words told through generations of storytelling. Lastly, the performance ended with the concept of harmony as the dancer encouraged the audience to walk with balance within the natural world.


In conclusion, my experience at the Indian Discovery Day and the incredible conversations I had during my trip to South Dakota have given me newfound knowledge about the religious and spiritual beliefs of the Native Americans. My experiences went far beyond my expectations and I feel privileged to have a better understanding of the hoop dance and its importance to the Lakota people; the religious beliefs related to the Great Mystery; and the proper techniques and skills related to tasks that apply to their beliefs and ways of life. I was especially awed at the deep connection the Native Americans have to nature and think that we as a society can benefit from their wisdom. The Earth shares many gifts with us that we often take for granted. For example, the Earth shares the gift of sea life with us. We use this gift as a food source as a way to survive and thrive. What gift do we give back? Do we thank the sea life for giving its life? Do we appreciate the Earth and thank it for providing us with this source of energy? No. Instead, we throw away 2 billion pounds of sea food each year and continue to pollute our ocean. We are destroying the environment and therefore we are ignoring the wisdom that of the Native Americans that teach us to keep the balance in nature. I believe that when we better understand and appreciate the Native American’s religiousness and spirituality, we will benefit our way of life and become more thankful for the life around us.


Thank you note:

Historic St. Mary’s City
18751 Hogaboom Ln
Saint Marys City, MD 20686
Dear Historic St. Mary’s City,
Thank you, so much for giving me the incredible opportunity of participating in your Indian
Discovery Day. It was truly a privilege to speak with the various Piscataway Native American
Indians. I really enjoyed watching the Tayac Territory Dancers and feel so thankful for the
opportunity to learn about their religiousness, spirituality, and lifeways. I look forward to future
events and learning more about this city’s amazing past.

McKenna Litynski

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