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Indian spirituality

Mountain Stewards
Sam Proctor, left, an elder of the Muskogee Creek Nation and a Medicine Man of the Nation, visits with Stan Cartwright in Meriwether County. Photo by Don Wells

Mountain Stewards
By Don and Diane Wells

Stan’s Story: Part 3
In tribal life, a “Medicine Man” serves as a spiritual leader and healer. This person often undergoes decades of training to gain the knowledge necessary to deal with various sicknesses and evil spirits.

But not all are trained; some inherit this ability. Stan’s great-grandmother, Lou Teal Allen, and his grandmother, Middie Lou Allen Cartwright, both had the gift of healing and of perceiving the spiritual world.

One of Stan’s fondest memories growing up in the Cove was going with his grandmother to pick plants to use for Indian medicine. He said they would travel all over the Cove for a day or more, gathering plants when they were in season. It was a special bonding experience between them.

Stan’s grandmother reverently was called “The Indian Woman.” She was not a “shaman” but had acquired a great knowledge about Indian medicine. Growing up in the Cove, Stan said they did not go to the doctor if they were ill. They went to grandmother and she fixed a potion or salve made from medicinal plants or gave them something to cure their illnesses. Unfortunately, today, there are few Indians who are able to perform the services of “The Indian Woman.”

The deeper spiritual understanding inherited by Stan’s grandmother is not well understood and seldom spoken about by Native Americans. William Winn, an authority on Creek Indians in the Chattahoochee Valley and author of “The Old Beloved Path: Daily Life among the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley,” writes, “Special individuals called keethlulgi or ‘knowers’ among the Creeks were considered to be invested with spiritual powers beyond the ordinary.” He goes on to say they were not shamans but, rather, people with a rare and exceptional gift with deep spiritual and psychological wisdom—a sort of second sight.

To the Creek Indians, an integral part of daily life was keeping oneself pure and in balance with nature. Winn surmises the keethla's (singular form) main function seems to have been to help restore this balance. A Muskogee language scholar said they would write the word as kerrvlke for the group of knowers and kerry for a single knower.

The gift of kerry (or keethla) appears to be an inherited gift, and certain family members may have varying aspects of the gift. Stan’s father had it, as does Stan. Stan’s father told him some of those with the gift could speak to animals and to the dead. To prove his statement, his father would stand out in a field and, using a language he did not understand, call animals to him. Birds and four-legged animals would appear near them when his father called using languages unique to each species. Stan warned having the gift of keethla is not always considered a blessing. What he sees in his dreams sometimes can be disturbing to his well-being.

Biblically, spiritual gifts are mentioned in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11. The spiritual gifts mentioned in Romans are said to be provided to each Christian to be used for the church. One of those gifts is prophesying. That term carries a deeper meaning beyond what we would see in people with that gift. Terms more closely representing the meaning are “perceiving” or “knowing.”

Diane has the gift of perceiving. One Sunday after church, Diane told me she couldn’t leave right away because there was someone who needed her. It is times like these I know to move on, as I don’t comprehend this gift or have an understanding of it. But she does.

Later, she told me a lady by the name of Nell remained in the church after everyone else left, and Diane sat down with her to ask what was troubling her. Nell had cancer and was facing an operation the next day that scared her. This was Nell’s first visit to our church and no one knew her story. Diane prayed with Nell and they became best friends. She was cured of her cancer and still attends that church in Alexandria, Va.

Few families, who for generations hid their Indian culture for fear of being removed from their homes, today have a comprehensive understanding of their heritage. Although, in some cases, they were told stories, very little understanding has been passed on. None of Stan’s family knows what plants to use for medicinal purposes, as his grandmother did. The ability to speak to animals is all but gone, and the hunter-gatherer life of an Indian is a thing of the past as most family members have become urbanized. This is not only true of Stan’s family and those like his but, in some cases, of Indians living on the reservations.

The Indian way of life—of living in harmony with nature—has been impacted greatly by the terrible injustices previous generations have committed against the Indians. In a period of 400 years, from the time Columbus set foot in the New World, more than 90 percent of the indigenous people have perished. The greatest harm from that calamity was the loss of the elders who were the keepers of knowledge. Today, there are few left who have a comprehensive understanding of their tribal culture. For most tribes, there are few left who can speak the language of their tribe. One elder told us if you cannot speak your language, you cannot sing your songs, tell your stories or perform your ceremonies. You’re no longer an Indian.

With this piece, we come to a close of our series. We have met and interviewed many more families who have lived under the burden of hiding their culture in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and elsewhere. Each week we are out speaking to groups across the country, we meet more people who share stories similar to Susie’s and Stan’s. It is a sad commentary on the history of the relationship between Americans and those who have lived under and, in some cases, continue to live under the burden of fear they are in danger. We can only hope someday these families will feel they can join society as equal partners.

 

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