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First Nations of the Americas

        In this gallery, First Nations is the term for Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The term emphasizes the sovereignty and originality of diverse and numerous Indigenous cultures. There are more than 500 Indigenous nations and tribes in the United States alone, with distinctive cultures, languages, histories, and religions. Religious patterns vary tremendously, especially as related to traditional life ways (e.g. wild rice farming along the Great Lakes; nomadic hunting on the central plains; desert mesa top villages and maize farming in the southwest, etc.) and current living situation (e.g. reservation, urban, traditional, assimilated, and blends of these). First Nations' traditions and spiritual practices were persecuted during centuries of colonization of North America. Patterns of discrimination continue. Therefore, many First Nations people are cautious about the sharing of details about their religious practices and beliefs. In addition, many traditional ceremonies are intended for private use. For these reasons, this section of the gallery avoids using photographs of sensitive, sacred, and private places and ceremonies. The pictures from a Native American Church ceremony are used with permission of participants.
       Despite the great variety of spiritual ways, there are some themes that are broadly shared among traditional First Nations peoples. Humans and the many other animal, plant, insect, bird, and spirit beings of earth and sky are relatives. Humans should treat them all with respect. Well-being is nurtured through lifestyles that harmonize with the cycles of human birth through death, and the cycles of moon and sun and seasons. Individuals have their identity within the context of their family, community, and place. Relating with the land in a sacred way is crucial to health. Each Indigenous tradition includes wisdom about the healing and helping qualities of plants and animals and sacred places and spirits in the area of habitation. In addition, Indigenous cultures include specialists of healing, such as herbalists, midwives, shamans, and many others. Many contemporary Native people blend traditional healing practices with conventional health and social service systems.
       In this section of the Gallery, there are photos of ancient places and villages, no longer inhabited (such as the southwestern Anasazi villages and the southern Ohio burial and ceremonial mounds). These suggest the traditional way of living intimately with nature as well as the thousands of years of Indigenous peoples' history. Petroglyphs (rock carving art), many of them hundreds of years old, show the spiritual and practical interconnections among Indigenous peoples and the other beings in their areas.
Contemporary spirituality is depicted in remaining photographs. The sweat lodge (or purification lodge) ceremony (see the lodge frame photo) brings people humbly into profound connection with the earth and all relations inside the nurturing womb-like dome through prayerful encounter with hot steam rising from water and sacred herbs spread on red hot stones. Participants pray for the health and well-being of themselves, loved ones, all peoples, and the earth. The sweat lodge ceremony may be used to help people through life crises, make important decisions, and recover from trauma or substance abuse. Versions of this ceremony are very widespread.
        Images from a Native American Church (NAC) ceremony reflect a spiritual practice especially among tribes of the plains and the Dine (Navajo) Nation. NAC is a formal religious organization that embraces the Peyote ceremony as means to guide one on the spiritual path in life. Peyote is a cactus, which used properly, helps practitioners to deepen awareness of the sacred. NAC first formed in the 1890s; it developed as a result of the Indigenous peoples being forcibly resettled in Oklahoma, and thus, sundered from spiritual ties to their land. Two forms of ceremony emerged: the Comanche Half Moon and the Wilson Big Moon. Ceremonies take place in either a tee-pee, hogan (Navajo style round house), or a house and carry on for the entire night. Worshipers sing to the accompaniment of a gourd rattle and small drum, as well as pray, meditate and consume peyote. Most meetings are held to mark a particular event such as a birthday, marriage, or funeral by offering prayer, thanksgiving, praise, and appeals for spiritual guidance. At the heart of each ceremony is the attempt to understand the paradox of suffering amidst the joy of life. These ceremonies often blend Indigenous and Christian beliefs and symbols.
         Photographs of contemporary artwork from Haskell Indian Nations University illustrate cultural motifs from some of the more than 100 tribes represented among students. The cultural center photographs show a story of resilient transformation of the institution from an assimilation oriented boarding school about 100 years ago to a university that preserves and honors Indigenous cultures. The medicine wheel designs in various pictures reflect symbolisms of harmony, balance, and sacredness of life.