* How can a person immersed in western society recover an indigenous worldview? What are the ways that indigenous and non-indigenous people can build bridges of mutual appreciation and understanding? Can building such bridges help create shifts and a transformation toward a more holistic, ecological, spiritual, resilient and life affirming approach?

In this and the next posts, I share about my experience of participating in a Cree Sundance near Calgary, Canada. Rather than going right into describing the experience, in this post, I reflect on the challenges and opportunities of crossing cultural boundaries and world views and why it is important to explore them.


Inclusion: A Necessary Step toward Collaboration

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first Sundance ceremony with the Cree people, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Calgary, Canada. It is not a regular practice for Native people to invite non-Natives. This group’s openness to share their ceremony with people from across cultures makes me hopeful for our future. For those who participate from other cultures or traditions, the ceremonies open the door to experiencing the Cree’s cultural practices and worldview and the deep wisdom in this spiritual healing tradition. Of course, like the others coming from the outside, I will never be indigenous and will never grasp the totality of a Native worldview and the subtleties of this spiritual orientation. We can, however, be open to appreciating and experiencing their ways and explore how these can help address the calamities of our western way of life and a worldview that feels so out of balance.

More and more indigenous people are stepping forward to share in this way. They KNOW that deep down inside—below the color of our skin, and beyond diverse cultural traditions and practices, white hegemony, cultural oppression and the genocide we have perpetrated upon them—we have to find better ways to collaborate in order to create a livable future on the planet. Over the years, I have been deeply moved by the generosity and seriousness of commitment of those indigenous people who choose to include non-Native people in their most sacred ceremonies.

Ceremonies: Collective Renewal, Healing, and Well-Being

I have written elsewhere  about the traditional ceremonies I experienced in the Peruvian Andes with the Q’ero well over 20 years ago, with the Kalahari Bushman in Namibia in 2008 and the Aboriginal people of Australia in 2010 and 2011. In my doctoral work in human and organizational systems I focused on how rites of passages provide a human systems framework for understanding and working with change and renewal. (Please see The Liminal Pathways Change Framework which I developed based on this research). This research included a focus on how initiations into indigenous cultures can help open the western mind to more reciprocal, holistic, earth-honoring, and spiritual approaches, missing in our own culture.

Participating in these traditional ceremonies profoundly expanded my awareness and appreciation for the human capacity to search for and find a sense of place and belonging, not only within the world we live in, but also within the cosmos. These understandings are captured in the many creation stories that tell us about our origins and how to live in a good way. Many ceremonies are enactments of these stories, providing a timeless healing response to the existential experience of being human. While cultural expressions may be vastly different, a shared pattern of human need is present across all of them.

For millennia, humans have come together to care for one another in times that are difficult, to observe or celebrate the significant passages in our lives, to make sure that the fabric of community remains strong, and to deal with the variable presence of the uncertain and unknown in our personal and collective lives. With our initially gradual, then rapid departure from the indigenous worldview, we in the “western world” have largely left these regenerative communal practices behind. Through my own experiences of participating in indigenous ceremonies, I have come to deeply trust that ceremonies filled with genuine feeling, humility, and aliveness, along with a guiding sense for the sacred, can help bring about individual and communal renewal, healing, and well-being.

The issues we are facing on this planet are huge—from the climate emergency, to racial and gender inequality, mass-migration, and misuse of natural resources to name a few. These issues transcend our social, cultural, and national divisions. As humans, we have proven that we are quite capable of developing and engineering solutions. However, we are still not very good at respectful collaboration that engenders mutual empowerment and supports whole systems solutions across our sometimes very stark differences. Perhaps it is time again to welcome indigenous communal practices, and the ways of knowing in which they are based, back into our contemporary lives? Our ability to develop and implement new dramatic and wholistic solutions that benefit all of the stakeholders and not only selected groups, who may already be advantaged, may depend on it.

The Bridge Across: Challenges & Opportunities

I have been on the bridge of connecting the western and indigenous worldviews since I first became introduced to the Andean tradition in 1995 and I have learned from my own experience that this is not an easy path. The ethical dilemmas are huge. Indigenous peoples’ concerns regarding cultural misappropriation and continuing colonizing impact cannot be averted. They need to be lived into and cannot be figured out in the abstract. In order to become introduced to an indigenous culture, we need to bring our willingness to learn and practice, have patience, sincerity, humility, and be open to being changed by the experience.

Over the last 30 years and more, a wide range of texts by Native Americans and other indigenous authors are helping build these bridges. Louis Owens of Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish descent in Mixblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place (1998) writes

“Our responsibilities as readers and writers, as critics and teachers, and as inhabitants of a planet becoming smaller and more fragile by the moment are increasing exponentially. To survive on this globe, it has become clear that we must achieve a transition from egocentrism to ecocentrism. More and more we will be required to read across lines of cultural identity around us and within us. It is not easy, but it is necessary, and the rewards are immeasurable. Finally, it is clearly the only way the community we call life will survive.”

This perspective also reflects the stand that led Chief White Standing Buffalo to open up his Cree Sundance to non-Natives.

Four Arrows (aka John Trend Jacobs) of Cherokee-Irish decent in Point of Departure: Returning to Our More Authentic Worldview for Education and Survival, (2016), alerts us to the division within “Indian Country” to share indigenous ways. He says

“I ask you to avoid this [being caught between this division]. We must understand the pain and politics behind our division, while realizing we are all in the same boat, which is sinking. We share our legacy of our ancestry and our roots in the Grandmother Earth. If you maintain authentic respect, avoid profiting from indigenous representation, and support Indigenous rights and activism while standing against genocidal forces, you cannot go wrong in re-embracing Indigenous traditions, even if you have not mastered the “protocols”.

The recognition for the growing need to support this kind of cross-cultural exchange is the basis from which I am offering my reflections on the Sundance and the insights that emerged from my participation. Of course, what I offer is a very personal, partial and biased. I want to acknowledge that my beliefs, filters, frames of references, etc. as well as my intent for going have inevitably shaped my experience and have made certain aspects of the ceremony visible and others invisible to me. Many I may have simply overlooked.


Until recently, as far as human history is concerned, ceremonial practices have been an integral part of our shared human experience. But with the birth of a mechanistic worldview, the beginning of industrialization, the division of work and leisure, European colonization of the new and ancient worlds, any feeling and appreciation we might have had for indigenous ways of life has nearly vanished.

I believe we are fortunate that there are indigenous peoples who still practice their traditions and that some of those whose tradition was taken from them are finding their way back. They can teach us something about these ancient ways that would be hard for us to recover without them. I believe ceremonies that deeply connect us to one another, to the energy and intelligence of the living world around us, and to a sense for the sacred—however it is practiced in any given culture—provide some of the most vital spaces for collective renewal, visioning, and creating a collective future. We need this to survive on this planet.

*1 Cheyenne Dance, Photo by Henry Chaufty, US Library of Congress
Attending the Cree Sundance, we were asked not to take photos of the ceremony. While they are a few Sundance images online, most of them are copyrighted. This one from a Cheyenne Dance which is similar to the one I participated in and is available to be shared. In addition, many indigenous people appreciate not having their ceremonies photographed or filmed.