Where a people's vision speaks of life, sacrificial means for recurrent renewal of all life, and suffering for the identity with the source of life, such vision can neither be destroyed, denied or ignored.
Native Americans practised sacrifice in many forms, from the simple giving of oneself, spiritually, in the Lakota Vision Quest, to the elaborate rituals of the Incas and Aztecs. As a sacred path, the sacrifice has always existed among the tribes of the Americas. These traditions required of their adherents both sacrifice and death; the two aspects are intricately intertwined. The foremost theme of sacrifice and death is the giving up of yourself, whether in an inward or outward sense.
All these holy peoples and holy things are now hearing what I say! O Wakan-Tanka, I shall offer up my body and soul that my people may live!
The outward sacrifice is the ritual performed, the surrender of earthly goods or of life itself, for the renewal of that life, for all things are interconnected.
We should understand well that all things are the work of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four legged animals, and the winged peoples.
The inward sacrifice is the capitulation of the ego, the death of the lower self, to attain the higher. Rather than loss, as it would first appear to be, the sacrificant gains all; unity with the Creator. That which is ephemeral is abandoned and the imperishable is all that remains. Sacrifice and death, then, are positive affirmations of the truth of existence; that we must lose in order to gain.
American Indian belief is that this life is a gift from the gods and a sacrificial attitude acknowledges this gift, returning thanks from deep within ourselves. This path is the only way to a wholesome existence for the Native American. With this inner pathway and the outward ritual comes access to the Divine storehouse, without this, the door is closed. It is believed by the Lakota that if the affirmation of sacrifice is not made then the, "Every energy of the world will run out." The sacrificial rites of the Sweat Lodge, the Sun Dance and the Crying for a Vision are all a giving of oneself to renew creation.
O Grandfather Wakan-Tanka, bend down and look upon me as I raise my hand to you. You have beheld this sacred centre which we have fixed, where we shall suffer. I offer all this suffering to You on behalf of the people. It is Your Light which comes with the dawn of the day, and which passes through the heavens. Be merciful to us, O Great Spirit, that the people may live.
The first tribes received gifts from their Creator, such as the Sacred Pipe, the Sun Dance and the Keeping of the Soul. The rites associated with these gifts were part of their obligation to revere all life, as well as a way of showing gratitude. The earth was their Mother and she cared for them and sustained them. They, in turn, cared for her, for they knew that all things and all peoples are related, that we all exist in a mutual and beneficial relationship.
Behold this pipe which we - with the earth, the four Powers, and with all things - have offered to You. We know that we are related and are one with all things of the heavens and the earth. We all wish to live and increase in a holy manner.
Such knowledge was not confined to the Lakota but was almost universal throughout the Americas. The Quiche Maya knew that sacrifice was essential to the life of the land and its peoples. This is evident in their sacred book, "The Popul Vuh." The heroic brothers Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu were sacrificed by Priestly Gods Hun-Came and Vucub-Came. The head of Hun-Hunahpu was placed in a tree that had never before produced fruit; instantly the tree bore fruit. This fruit, miraculously born, in turn gives rise to the birth of the Mayan people. The Hunahpu brothers had undergone purificatory rituals before they were sacrificed so that their offering was acceptable and caused a renewal of all life. Life is given through a sacrifice of the gods so that the people must return sacrifice in acknowledgement of the gift of creation. The melding of Hun-Hunahpu with the tree symbolises the relatedness of life on earth with the gods; the birth of the Mayans from the tree illustrates the interconnectedness of earthly creation.
The Tupi tribes of Brazil practised ritual sacrifice and cannibalism which, despite its apparent savagery, was a holy act and ensured the survival of these prolific peoples. There were distinct rituals involved in the killing of the sacrificial victim which demonstrate the awareness of the Tupi to the inter-relatedness of all life. The executioner did not eat of the victim but retired to his hammock to recover from the event. This is a direct result of his connection to the victim, an intimate relationship caused by the giving and taking of life. There is a real sense of renewal in these rites. The victim, by the giving of his flesh for the people to consume, gives life to the tribe. The victim, in a sense, continues his life by giving strength to the people.
Far north of the Tupi, the Eskimo have a myth which tells of Sedna, a goddess, who cut off her fingers to give birth to seals, whales and other marine life. She herself, is half human, half fish, symbolic of the unity of all things. This myth again demonstrates the relation of the gods to the tribes and the animals to each other.
The act of sacrifice is the perpetuation of unity. It is the rite for the renewal of life in almost all of the tribal groups of the Americas. The people return offerings in acknowledgement of that which they have been granted, and believe that in so doing they reunite themselves with the Great Spirit. That these rites and beliefs were more or less universal throughout the continent preserved the purity of the environment, for these tribes respected the earth as a sacred gift. They were aware that the earth, their Mother, sustained them and that they should not abuse her. Native Americans did not take the fertility of the earth for granted. Creation was not an object to be used or cast aside but a living being who nourished them. They were one with Her. If the Indian did ignore his sacred duty then Mother earth Herself would extract the price.
Where the sacred in the world and life is held as irrelevant illusion, where evasion of sacrifice in pursuit of some seeming "good life" becomes a goal unto itself, then in the empty and concomitant ugliness of such a life and human-manipulated world, the ordering cycle of sacrifice will and must be accomplished by nature herself so that again there may be renewal in the world.
The sacrifice must, and will, be paid. Natural disasters are, in reality, nature in the process of re-establishing the equilibrium, should we take the view outlined above. The modern spirit is often in disharmony with its environment, misunderstanding or ignoring the sacred web of all life. We are not here to control nature and exploit Her, but to live in harmony with Her and with the Great Spirit. The Native American stepped lightly on the earth for he trod on sacred ground. "My relatives, Wakan-Tanka has been kind to us and has placed us upon a sacred earth; upon Her we are now sitting." They dealt gently with nature for She is alive. She is no less than the Great Spirit. In Her manifestation on earth, She is a gift from the Great Mysterious, the Creator, and was revered as such. All creation was sacred and it was a great crime to harm it.
For religious man, nature is never only 'natural'; it is always fraught with a religious value. This is easy to understand, for the cosmos is a divine creation; coming from the hands of the gods, the world is impregnated with sacredness.
American Indians were always aware of their sacred origin. They lived daily in the presence of the sacred. There existed nothing that was not sacred. "My paw is sacred. All things are sacred."
Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux speaks of what is in the world,
The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the world.
All of the things in the world are related to each other and in this sense rely upon each other for their continued well-being.
What is almost unique in the Indians attitude is that their reverence for nature and for life is central to their religion: each form in the world around them bears such a host of precise values and meanings that taken all together they constitute what one would call their "doctrine."
If one of the links in this "doctrine" or sacred chain of existence should neglect or abuse its position then the consequences affect all life. For like the spiders web, these values and meanings, nature and life, are intricately spun together to form the beauty of Creation.
It is evident that the link has been broken when we view the modern environmental crisis. Although one could analyse the problem and apportion blame in many areas, this would serve little purpose. Our aim should be to understand, within ourselves, where we went wrong and attempt, first to change ourselves and from there we may be able to progress to a solution. It is in the ancient wisdom of the still living Native American Tradition that healing and forgiveness lie. This is not a matter of adopting the faith of the Indian peoples but of learning from them, and other still vital Traditions, to revere life as a whole, understanding that we are all related, the peoples of the earth, the animals, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, even the grasses and the trees. With such an attitude it would be difficult to abuse our earth for we would know that in so doing we abuse ourselves.
A sense of the sacredness of life would quite naturally change the perspective of society in that it would no longer feel that it could exploit the earth with impunity. There would be awareness that there is a need for care to be taken in our habitation of the world. Sustainability is only possible in the realm of the sacred; for it is the sacred that sustains the world.
To return to the words of Black Elk,
We should understand well that all things are the work of the Great Spirit. We should know that he is within all things: the trees, the rivers, the grasses, the mountains, and all the four legged animals, and all the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as he intends.
To know who we are and where we come from are keys to successful living. It is only in modern times that people have asked for the 'meaning of life.' Countless spiritually oriented cultures and societies have lived with the secure knowledge of these facts about humankind's origins. Black Elk may have doubted himself at times but he never doubted to whom he owed his existence, to whom he owed his service.
The Sun, the Light of the world,
I hear Him coming.
I see His face as He comes,
He makes the beings on earth happy,
And they rejoice.
O Wakan-Tanka, I offer to you this world of Light.