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Nancy's Thoughts on Understanding Native American Spirituality

From the Preface to Spirit Walker, 1993

 

These poems, like the others, are based on my long association with the Taos Pueblo Indians, who shared their deep spirituality. From the time I first met them, in 1961, I was impressed by their values and by an unshatterable outlook that stemmed from their interconnectedness to the earth as a living whole. Was it possible for me, a white woman, to understand these values? For years I merely observed, absorbing what I could. Slowly my perceptions and, ultimately, my way of life began to change.

 

What did it take to become "in tune" with Indian beliefs far removed from my Judeo-Christian background? Learning to listen, for one thing; letting go of old, worn-out cultural ideas, for another. Solitude was necessary if I was ever to learn anything, so I retreated to the mountains for long periods of time. I still live that way, twenty miles from Santa Fe, at the edge of an old Spanish land grant. Loneliness is part of the lesson, my teacher Red Willow Dancing used to say. Empty your heart and mind. Do not become distracted.

 

But that was the catch. I was distracted - by the realities of having to support four children. After a time the children left, my life moved into a middle-age phase, my consciousness expanded. Distraction meant taking time to watch a red -tailed hawk soaring above my house or witnessing the drama of huge clouds rolling down from any one of the four mountain ranges I can see from my window. This is what matters now, acquiring what the Indians call the quiet heart. In so doing, I have learned to live life from the inside out.

 

We all are a part of something largely undefinable, call it God or the Great Spirit, Buddha or Allah, Krishna or Mozart. I feel connected to this mystery on rivers, in deserts, and on the sea, but mostly in the mountains. Twice a year at summer solstice and again at autumnal equinox, I make a pilgrimage to the top of Independence Pass, at twelve thousand feet in the Colorado Rockies.

 

As I am perched on top of the world, my ritual never changes. I carry a portable tape deck, tapes of beloved Vivaldi, the Mozart horn concerti, and Beethoven's Triple Concerto, and hike out across the tundra until I am far away from people. I choose a spot on the knife-edge ridge that forms the division between the eastern and western watersheds of the country. There I unpack a long, billowing purple silk dress from my day pack and slip it over my parka and jeans. The music of Vivaldi plays to the wind, and I dance, on and on along the Continental Divide in my hiking boots, paying homage to the mountains, renewing my claim to a stubborn, persistent force that anchors me to this earth. Here is where I am free. Here is where I bend to examine, with a geologist's loupe, a tiny yellow flower no bigger than the head of a pin, and weep because the Great Spirit has seen fit to create such perfection.

 

This is what Red Willow Dancing meant about interconnectedness. A blade of grass was where he said God lived; the wind was the breath of the Great Spirit, renewing us once again. To me, this is what life is all about.

 

There, between earth and sky, suspended in time, I begin to understand.

 

Nancy Wood

Santa Fe, New Mexico April 1992

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