Front Porch Essay #6

Indigenous Practice Wisdom
Venida S. Chenault, MSW

Discussions about the role of spirituality in the lives of people often evoke passionate discourse as diverse cultures and religious doctrines simultaneously intersect and diverge along a continuum of beliefs and practices. Recognition, tolerance, and respect for differences in the multiple ways individuals, groups, and cultures express spirituality, as well as the central role of spirituality in the lives of many individuals, families, and communities is critical. This essay will examine spirituality from the standpoint of "a" First Nations woman. It is not intended to represent a universal perspective of all Indigenous People, but instead may be useful in generating insight and discussion about the role of spirituality in social work practice.

The term spirituality is interpreted in many ways and it is important to understand spirituality from the perspective of the person being worked with. Spirituality refers to my connectedness with an essence of sacred and universal power that is not easily compartmentalized. As such, it affects my relationship with all that emanates from this power that I call Creator and is a way of life. This connectedness is not limited to people but to all that has been created, including the Earth, stars, the moon, the sun, the plants, the waters, and animals.

The cultures of First Nations People are rich with spiritual traditions although we may or may not be associated with formal institutions, such as churches, or meet on days set aside for religious activities within a mainstream society. My expressions of spirituality may be carried out at any time or place, individually or through community gatherings, lasting from hours to days. The long history of religious oppression and more recently New Age appropriation of Indigenous spirituality has produced a guardedness that may be difficult or impossible to overcome with some First Nations People. This context needs to be considered and respected when difficulties arise related to spiritual assessment.

The empowerment of Indigenous People can take place in many ways, including honoring the right to determine when and if it is appropriate to discuss matters of spirituality. Assessment that includes questions related to religion might be expanded with First Nations People to include items that ask, "are traditional Indigenous or Native American spiritual practices a part of your religious beliefs?" If an individual responds affirmatively, one might follow up with a question such as, "are there specific practices that I need to be sensitive to while you are here."

The setting and nature of the work to be done should also be considered. In some situations, issues of spirituality are paramount while they may not be as critical in others. For example, it is not uncommon when an individual is seriously ill or near death to have many visitors from one’s community come and offer support to the person and their family. Such support can include prayers, singing of chants or songs for the person, placement of spiritual objects near the person or placing or burning small amount of cedar, sage or sweet grass in the room of the person.

In some cases, this will need to be negotiated with the family, particularly if it creates problems, i.e., smoke alarms sounding , but the emphasis should be on trying to accommodate that which is doable. Early assessment will reduce unnecessary problems and stresses associated with such crisis.

Spiritual voyeurism, described here as an inappropriate demand to know details of spiritual practices or ceremonies that are not relevant to the overall needs of the client should be avoided. If an individual indicates they do follow traditional practices or identifies a religion you are not familiar with, this information in itself, along with the suggested follow-up questions should be adequate. Prying into details that may have culturally imposed restrictions may undermine the relationship being established and may be considered as disrespectful behavior. Understand that when Indigenous People come together for ceremonies, we pray, just as others do when they attend church or enter mosques or synagogues.

While there are many established Indigenous religions, many will be unfamiliar to those outside tribal communities and most will not be included on lists of religious preferences. If the intake records are marked with other for religious preferences, a quick assessment as discussed earlier may be useful. In some settings, it may be useful to inquire whether there are helpers or other people in the community who also treat the kind of problem the person is experiencing. Referral to these individuals may be useful if the treatment available in your agency doesn’t produce the desired results and they may also serve as a culturally appropriate support network after the individual has completed your requirements. I have referred Hmong individuals back to Hmong spiritual practitioners when individuals have described imbalance in their lives, as well as First Nations people back to traditional medicine people as legitimate alternatives.

Venida Chenault is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas