With an eagle feather standing tall on her head and her moccasins beating out a tattoo on the floorboards of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., 18-year-old Noreen Johnson dances the Jingle Dance.
Rows of metal cones on her clothing create the jingle that gives the dance its name, as Johnson, who is half Northern Ute, lifts a feathered fan aloft to the beat of the drums. Different tribes have different stories about the meaning of the dance, said Roberta Windchief, a Nakota Sioux. But the dance always has been connected with healing.
For many Native Americans, the Sept. 21 dedication of the Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, is a kind of healing, offering long-overdue acknowledgment to this country’s native peoples.
But it’s also a celebration, and to that end about 50 Native Americans from eight Episcopal congregations and eight tribes -- including the Pauite, Northern Ute, Shoshone, Bannock, Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho -- traveled to St. Patrick’s, which for 16 years has been a member of Mountains and Deserts, an Episcopal ministry founded to foster relationships between Anglo and Native American congregations.
St. Patrick’s members have taken annual trips to partner with Native American communities in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada, to work on service projects and participate in cultural exchange.
But this year, rather than embarking on another mission trip, the northwest Washington church decided to use the money it would have spent to help bring its Native American friends to Washington for five days of festivity. Parishioners opened their homes to offer their guests a place to stay, while around 20 younger visitors camped out in the parish hall.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said the Rev. Betty McWhorter, rector of St. Patrick’s. Parishioners and guests savored every minute of their time together: dining, dancing, sharing traditional stories and taking part in a special service at Washington National Cathedral and the ceremonies on the National Mall.
The visit began quietly with a joint Sunday service at St. Patrick’s that incorporated Native American music and blessings into the traditional Anglican liturgy. Clifford Duncan, former head of the Ute Nation, played a wooden flute that brought the sound of wind and birdsong into the nave. Reynelda James, a Paiute from the Pyramid Lake reservation in Nevada, offered a traditional blessing using sage and water.
“The blessing that I do, we usually do it with the fresh white sage, sprigs of it -- I usually pick three -- and the water from our lake,” she said. “The people have always considered it a spiritual lake. We draw it out with prayer and use if for baptism and blessings.”
But the Paiute blessing is traditionally given to one person at a time, and James wondered how she could modify the ritual so that many people could share it. She turned to her Lakota friends, and by combining the two traditions, found a way to offer her blessing to the whole congregation by incorporating the four directions into her prayer.
Bringing the water and sage to the altar, James asked the congregation to turn to the East, to give thanks for the sun and the light of the new day. She asked them to turn to the South, to give thanks for the warm winds, and to the West, where thunder heralds the renewing rain. And then she asked them to turn to the North, to face the direction of the cool winds and the snow.
“Any time you’re using God’s gift to us of water and sage and you’re asked to pray -- it’s not wrong,” she said. “It might be the tradition of another place, but if you like it, it’s only right that you should take part.”
In this spirit of sharing, the First Americans Festival on the National Mall enabled all Americans to honor the customs of this country’s indigenous peoples. “I think it’s very exciting, and I feel like I’m honored to be able to attend this occasion,” James said. “It’s honoring all native peoples. I think that also because of our spirituality, there’s going to be a lot of good feelings.”
James was gratified that her daughter, Delia, and two of her grandchildren -- Andria, 10, and Stressler, 12 -- accompanied her on the journey. The grandchildren kept journals so they could share their experiences with family members back home.
God, the Great Spirit
Bruce Pargeets, a Northern Ute from the Unitah Ouray Reservation in Whiterocks, Utah, also brought a family member with him -- Chandler, his 8-year-old son. The father-son team performed a traditional men’s dance during a program at St. Patrick’s before attending the ceremonies on the National Mall in their full regalia.
“We’re looking forward to seeing other Indians, seeing so many of them together. It’s rare that you see that many, with the East Coast and the West Coast and the Northern and the Southern,” said Pargeets moments before the official ceremonies began.
For Episcopalians marching beneath the Mountains and Deserts banner, God, the Great Spirit, was at the center of this joyful coming together of directions. And his blessing is for all peoples and brings healing, dancing and birdsong on its wings.
-- Lucy Chumbley is editor of Washington Window, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.