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Prayer feathers, ancient flute, carry voices of Native Americans

Prayer feathers, ancient flute, carry voices of Native Americans

Missions and Outreach

Editor’s Note: November is Native American Heritage Month, and the Florida Conference celebrates the traditions and beliefs of those who are such an integral part of United Methodist churches and our communities. For more information on this celebration, click here.

As Florida Conference churches and people from across the country celebrate November as Native American Heritage Month, Dock Green Silverhawk passes a prayer feather and thinks back to his childhood and the premonition he once had about his future.

The Silverhawk Native American Flute Gathering, held each year, features this oversized "thunder drum," the same kind of drum used at Native American Christian circles around Florida. Photo by Dock Green Silverhawk.

“This one day, I was following a momma deer and her baby, and I was playing Indian behind the palmettos,” he said. “I heard a hawk cry out. I’ve always been drawn to hawks,” he recalled. “It was a huge gray hawk. I stood up, and everything went white. I had a terrible premonition something bad was going to happen.”

For years, he wondered, telling the story to his wife and kids.

When he was in his 50s, Green said he landed in the hospital to undergo heart surgery. He was listed in critical condition. Doctors advised there was little chance he would survive.

But, he did survive.

In the months following his surgery, his wife took him to his first powwow. He explained that he reconnected with his Native American roots after coming across an ancient native flute, which he taught himself to play.

Word spread, and a group called “Heart to Heart” reached out and asked him to share his native music with others facing similar heart surgeries. Green went from one hospital bed to another bringing peace and calm through quiet melodies centuries old.

His premonition had been fulfilled.

As time went on, at the urging of Pastor Dennis Roebuck of Thonotosassa United Methodist Church, he created an American Indian Christian circle there, which has been going strong ever since.

With the help of those who joined in, Green learned how to bring many facets of his heritage together—Christianity, drums, music, spirituality and that sacred feather, which the congregation in Thonotosassa passes to this day to ask for prayers, share something in their hearts or to pray for others.

United Methodist churches across the Florida Conference embrace Native Americans, a number of them providing space for such Christian circles. Some of those who regularly attend are said to still feel the pain of their ancestors, who were once told that to become Christians, they would have to abandon their heritage.

Vickie Swartz, a former chair of the Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM) for the Florida Conference, said knowing who you are and where you come from is important, especially in a country like the United States where everyone’s roots were first planted somewhere else.

“First, I’m a Christian, and anything in my native heritage that would not line up with the word of God would not be something I would continue to practice,” she said.

“Many of those who attend that circle (at Thonotosassa) attend United Methodist churches,” Swartz said. “At our circle, which is a church meeting, it is very Christ-centered, but we use native instruments in our worship. We might use storytelling from one of the tribes. We like to use the stories that have been handed down orally from the different tribes and pull the truths from the stories that can be paralleled in the Bible.”

Ed Taylor, current chair of CONAM, leads a Christian circle for Native Americans at First United Methodist Church of Clermont. “We conduct a worship service to the Creator and his Son, Jesus Christ, in a method our native ancestors would recognize. My bloodlines go back to the Miami people of Central Indiana.” Most who attend have Native American blood mixed with Asian, European or African people, he said.

Members of the Native American Christian circle at Thonotosassa UMC, some dressed in full regalia, are shown here on a recent road trip.

The primary reason these Native American Christian circles are so important is that many Native Americans cannot get over their people’s past mistreatment by the Europeans in the name of Christianity when they colonized this country, he said.

“Children were taken from their parents ‘to take the Indian out of the child.’ Even now, in our circle, it isn’t as acceptable to use the word, ‘Christian.’ We prefer to use the term ‘follower of Christ,’ a result of past mistreatment.”

Those that become involved in the Christian circles do heal, Taylor said.

“The worship service to the Creator and Jesus Christ is in a context relevant to the people. Quite often in our circle, we will begin with a flute song; and then I, as the leader, will light our circle fire, which in (our church) is a three-wicked candle, and let people know the three wicks represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

They then light sage, which is Native American incense.

“It is an act of purification,” Taylor said. “I smudge everyone in the circle, and then I offer prayers to the four directions of the compass, always recognizing the Creator.”

The “talking feather, or prayer feather,” goes around the circle for praise reports or petitions to the Creator, “or someone may say a silent prayer, then pass the feather to their left,” Taylor said, adding that they use a “wild turkey feather that’s been decorated.”

The most common prayers are prayers of thanks.

“Native Americans are very grateful to the Creator for all He has given us,” Taylor said. “We don’t have to be fearful of crossing over to the next world.”

Referring to the ceremony of the Christian circle and the special blessings that often resonate in such gatherings, Dock Green commented that “these are physical signs we love Him.

“Our whole entire service is centered around the Lord in its own way,” he said.

--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.

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