Native American spirituality is focus of presentation at St. Norbert Abbey

A New Genesis Sr. Verna Fowler, nephew Leon Fowler, share personal insights

DE PERE — There are 573 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., so providing a broad overview of Native American spirituality is a difficult task due to their many differences. That’s why A New Genesis Sr. Verna Fowler and her nephew, Leon Fowler, focused their presentation, Sept. 18, at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey, on their personal faith journeys. The presentation, entitled “Native American Spirituality,” was part of “The Many Faces of Faith Series.”

“We by no means are the experts on American Indian spirituality,” said Sr. Verna, “but we can just share what we do and how we live with it.”

A New Genesis Sr. Verna Fowler, along with her nephew, Leon Fowler, both members of the Menominee Indian Tribe, led a presentation on Native American spirituality at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality on Sept. 18. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Sr. Verna and Leon are both members of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

“My mother spoke Menominee. She didn’t speak English until entering a boarding school in the fifth grade,” said Sr. Verna. “She was very fluent in Menominee. My father was Stockbridge-Munsee, a tribe from out east. They lost their culture years ago.”

Born into Catholic faith

Both of her parents were baptized Catholic, although her father wasn’t aware of it until they prepared for marriage. When his mother died, he was raised by an aunt who was Presbyterian. He then attended a Lutheran boarding school.

“When he met my mother and wanted to get married, they told him that ‘you have to turn Catholic,’” said Sr. Verna. “It didn’t matter to him. He was used to all these other religions. They found out in the records that he was baptized Catholic.”

Sr. Verna, who attended St. Anthony School in Neopit, explained that her mother blended Indian spirituality with her Catholicism. She was active in the church, including serving as president of the Christian Mothers. The blending of spirituality was a valuable learning experience during her youth, she said.

“We learned to become very tolerant of other faiths and the way they do things and what their beliefs are all about,” said Sr. Verna. “Our house was one of real tolerance in terms of religion.”

Sr. Verna was a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity before she and other sisters established A New Genesis in 1983 with permission from Bishop Aloysius Wycislo. She spent her entire professional life in education, notably founding the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena. Her travels led her to numerous spiritual ceremonies on reservations throughout the country.

“All have been very different, but there are some commonalities,” she said. “Their lives have been shaped by their environments — Woodland Indians, Desert Indians, Plains Indians. When the federal government wanted Indians to ‘become civilized,’ they used churches. Indians were so confused by all the different missionaries. The federal government must have let different church people draw lots. Some priest must have drawn the lot of the Menominee.”

Belief in a creator

Sr. Verna added that the tribes had something in common with the Christian religions, so it made it easier to accept these religions. Most of the tribes believe in a Creator.

“They have their prayers and ceremonies in which they speak of this Creator, thank him for what they have, for showing them the way,” she said. “They believed in spirits, so it wasn’t hard to believe in saints and angels who came and help you and protected you. That’s how Indians saw many of their spirits as helpers and protectors.”

The Native American Church is a recognized organized religion in the U.S. Sr. Verna said that it “is not as structured as some of the Christian religions, but there are similarities.”

The Big Drum, another Indian religion, is present on the Menominee Reservation. Sr. Verna shared a story about a blending of her family’s Catholic faith and Native American spirituality. Her brother and three other men were killed in an automobile accident. The priest wanted one Mass on the baseball field. Her parents wanted an individual Mass for her brother.

“I said, ‘Dad, you don’t need a Mass, we will use the Big Drum ceremony. They invited us,’” said Sr. Verna. “I found another priest. We could use the church with another priest. That evening (following the funeral Mass) the Big Drum people invited us to their village and they had a ceremony for my brother. My parents could invite whoever they wanted. It was very meaningful and very touching. It meant a lot to both my parents to see the community come together. The tolerance is there.”

Battled alcohol addiction

Leon was born and raised on the Menominee Reservation. He was baptized Catholic and attended St. Anthony School. His mother died in an automobile accident in 1983. He said that his father used alcohol as an escape from his grief. Leon moved in with his grandmother for a period of time before once again living with his father. His life took a bad turn.

“I dropped out of high school, started getting involved in alcohol and drugs,” he said. “I was definitely going down the wrong path; really to the point that I was out of control.”

He spent time in a treatment facility and a halfway house.

“After I sobered up, I really wanted to find out who I was, where I was going,” said Leon, a forestry technician. “I learned how to smudge, set my tobacco, pray to a higher spirit. It started my journey, where I’m at as an adult.”

He discussed his sweat lodge experiences, about how water, prayer and heating up rocks help to remove all the impurities. Leon also shared how the pipe and prayer come together.

“This is what I consider sacred,” he said with his pipe in hand. “The church considers the (body of Christ) tabernacle sacred. This is what is sacred to me and American Indians of different tribes.

Leon follows the Lakota Sun Dance, a ceremony of prayer and sacrifice. The majority of Sun Dances are held in South Dakota, the traditional home of the Lakota Sioux people. The Sun Dance includes piercing rituals. Leon explained in detail the four levels, which he has completed in Pine Ridge, S.D., including displaying the ropes and wood pegs used to demonstrate the sacrifice. The sacrifice also includes fasting. His body was in a dire state following the fourth level.

“I was seeing what they call ‘the mile stare,’” he said. “Everything was just yellow. I could see where the bluffs were. My hands were shaking, my foot was tapping, the guys were talking to me, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I couldn’t hear them. Everything was really yellow, a yellowish haze. Somebody said, ‘Get that smudge can; get that cedar, he’s about to pass out.’ I was about to pass out.”

Leon had dedicated prayers at that Sun Dance to his Aunt Mary, who was battling cancer.

“Now she’s cancer free,” he said. “It took a lot out of my body physically, but knowing that she is healthy, I know that it works.”

“(Leon) searched. He found something that feeds his spirit, that nourishes him,” said Sr. Verna. “That keeps him on the straight and narrow. He does very, very well with his life.”

Leon emphasized that everything involved with the rituals is centered on prayer. He encourages people of all faiths to pray.

“It’s always good to pray, no matter what kind of day it is, make time to pray,” he said. “It’s really good to have spirituality. I applaud each and every one of you for your spirituality. I would be lost. I would still be drinking, still be drugging.

“If it works for you, please do it,” he added. “This is my way. This is how I found God, how I found my higher power. I know it works and I’m going to keep doing it.”

The Many Faces of Faith Series continues at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality with a presentation on Buddhism on Oct. 30.