By Don Frew
Growing an Interfaith Indigenous Culture
The interfaith movement has an illustrious history of bringing the major religions together to compare similarities, share differences, build relationships, and discover new ways to work together for the betterment of humanity and the world. Collateral benefits that often go unnoticed include a multitude of meetings among smaller groups, communities included in global interfaith organizing efforts, who are now able to come together in their own smaller meetings, creating new networks of friendships where few existed before.
The flowering relationship between the Wiccans of the Covenant of the Goddess in the United States and the Indigenous peoples of the world is a perfect example.
The Wiccan-Indigenous relationship – as experienced by the Witches of the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG)1 over the last 18 years – started at the global level, at meetings of the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the United Religions Initiative. Then, as friendships grew and trust deepened, it moved to regional and local meetings, and finally in encounters in homes in the United States, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
The World’s Parliament of the Religions in 1893 included no Native American participation. The 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions was determined to correct that insulting oversight. Many Native Americans accepted the invitation to attend, be part of meetings and featured in programs. The Covenant of the Goddess was one of four Neopagan groups2 that recognized the importance of the upcoming Parliament and became a sponsoring organization of the event.
Thanks to a riveting opening keynote by Dr. Gerald Barney, the 1993 Parliament suddenly found itself with a focus on “re-sacralizing Nature.” Everyone’s attention became focused on the only two religious communities there that specifically address that relationship as the core of their spiritualities: Neopagans and Native Americans.
The Native Americans tended to keep to themselves and seemed reticent to share many of their traditions, no wonder considering how those traditions have been culturally co-opted time and again. In contrast, the Covenant of the Goddess had a person attending the morning press briefings every day, handing out press packets, and provided a hospitality suite staffed with folks ready and willing to answer questions.
Suddenly, we Witches found ourselves the media darlings of the conference! Our “What is Wicca?” workshops had to be moved to larger rooms to accommodate the numbers wanting to attend. Our Full Moon ceremony in a nearby park, planned for a circle of 50, drew 500.
In the midst of this, a number of Native American representatives, in the middle of one of their programs, read a “Declaration of War” against all those who would “steal” their spiritual practices. The Declaration named Neopagans among the thieves.
We immediately arranged a sit-down meeting with a number of the Native American Elders. We explained that their information about us was coming from the same news sources that so often misrepresented their spirituality. Why should they trust those sources to be any more accurate about us? We shared information about our practices, how people living on and in relationship with the Earth in different parts of the world will come up with similar practices, how ours are rooted in historic examples of the practices of our ancestors in Europe, and how we shared their disgust with those who falsely pass themselves off as Native American teachers to make money.
By the end of this, relations were fine. They invited us to a pipe ceremony. We invited them to our Full Moon ceremony. These were the only ceremonies held outdoors in a Parliament that had become focused on spirituality and nature.
Neopagans went home glowing from the 1993 Parliament, as almost everyone did. Our next opportunity to advance Wiccan-Indigenous relationships came at another global meeting – the 1998 Global Summit planning the nascent United Religions Initiative (URI).
The 1998 Summit at Stanford University was one of a series of planning conferences to craft URI’s Charter. Deborah Anna Light and I were the only Neopagans present, but we met numerous practitioners of other “Earth-religions.” These diverse representatives were all experienced in representing ‘odd’ groups and being stuck around the edges of the core of ‘world’ religions. We got together for lunch, sitting in a very visible circle on the ground in the conference’s central courtyard. We were practitioners of Wicca, Shinto, North/Central/South American Indigenous traditions, Candomble, Taoism, and Hinduism. To our surprise, the environmental scientists joined our group, saying they felt more at home with us than in the other traditions. Sitting in a circle at the center of this international interfaith gathering, sharing lunch, we realized that the Earth-religions represented thirteen percent of conference delegates.
No longer were we seen as disparate groups. Earth- based religions established an identity in common as a “way” of being religious – a Pagan identity, broader than the concept of Neopagan. Many of the representatives at that first Pagan lunch continued to work together, leading to the formation of the Spirituality & the Earth Cooperation Circle, a multi-regional, URI-affiliated group networking Earth-religionists around the world.
URI planners from around the world came to Stanford again in 1999, and a new role developed for Wiccans in interfaith work. I was in a small group working on wording for the URI Charter, to be signed a year later. The group included Rosalia, an indigenous Kolla woman from Argentina who spoke only Spanish, and participated through an interpreter. At one point, we were discussing “the sacred.” I noticed Rosalia shaking her head, saying “No, no, no,” and I asked about her concern. For her, she said, “sacred” translates into Spanish as “things associated with a church.” After some discussion, we came to a comfortable understanding. It was the first of many instances where Wiccans have found themselves acting as ‘translators’ between Indigenous people and Western systems of organizing, especially Robert’s Rules of Order. Even when we don’t understand each other’s language very well, we understand and share the similar worldviews and spiritual concepts.
Later in 1999, a score of Neopagans attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. I was invited to be part of the Parliament Assembly, a manageable group of the world’s religious “leaders” and representatives of civil society that met separately to focus on issues of common concern. On this occasion the Assembly celebrated a creative process that promoted “Gifts of Service.” They had called for projects in which faiths can work together for the betterment of humanity and the world, and I decided to respond.
In discussions with representatives of two indigenous communities, the Zulu and !Kung tribes, about their needs, I developed the Lost & Endangered Religions Project (LERP)3. LERP works with marginalized religious communities to help preserve and restore religious and spiritual traditions in danger of being lost forever. It was selected for presentation to the Dalai Lama and, with support from the Parliament, has gone on to work with Earth-based spiritualities in Canada, England, India, Turkey, and the United States.
Over the years the representatives from indigenous, tribal, polytheistic, Nature-based, and Earth-centered spiritualities,4 seeing each other in meeting after meeting, built friendships based in our shared relationships with the Spirit. Those friendships reached a new level of trust on the occasion of the signing of the URI Charter in Pittsburgh PA in 2000.
On the eve of the signing, Gary, a Lakota representatives, came to me. He said his people believed that whenever a great good is being born into the world there will always be forces working against it. His people were working protective magic on behalf of the URI. But the threat was so great and the birth so important that they were asking if the Wiccans would help. I spoke with the other Witches present. For the first time ever we shared ceremony this way, involving a new level of spiritual trust born out of our shared concern.
The Parliament and URI continue to provide venues for Earth religions to network. Their efforts to make sure that everyone is respectfully represented in the global interfaith community creates opportunities for us to meet, build relationships, and organize in ways that had never been possible before. For this we all are very grateful!
4 This phrase was what the Pagan Lunch came up with as the most inclusive way to describe our spiritual traditions.