The Land’s Religion: Hold Her In Your Heart


We are like a branch grafted onto the wrong tree, an organ transplanted into another body. We’re aliens in our own homes. But we cannot go back where we came from; we’d be aliens there, too. There is nowhere in the world that we really belong.

Those of us of European descent who don’t live in Europe — who live, in fact, in landscapes conquered or annexed by our ancestors — do not have a simple relationship with the earth we live on. On the one hand, the Earth sustains us and gives us life, we breathe its air and eat its fruits, its flora and fauna surround us, its bacteria suffuse us, and the very topography of its surface imprints itself on our subconscious. We’re a part of it. On the other hand, compared to the native plants and animals, the rocks and waters, and of course the First Nations peoples, we are aliens, invaders.

And so inevitably our feelings about First Nations peoples and their spirituality is complex. Some of us feel as if we are native (or imagine that we do); others wish we were native (or how we imagine natives would be). Many of us tend to forget that First Nations peoples still exist today, and always talk of them in the past tense. In history class, they’re barely mentioned after the end of the French and Indian War. Insults and discrimination against them are often much more socially acceptable than against other groups. But they are still here, they will always be here, and elements of their culture have powerfully influenced us.

Walking in White Man’s Moccasins

As a European, I cannot tell their stories; I cannot speak for them. Nevertheless, for all my life, I have been drawn to First Nations spirituality. My mother even made me moccasins when I was very little; she didn’t want me to learn to walk in white man’s shoes. (She’s such a hippie, God bless her.) I have been intrigued and fascinated by them, and always wanted to learn more. So when I first visited South Dakota in 2006, I was tremendously excited.

The history of western South Dakota is dominated by the conflict between the Lakota (Sioux) and the US Army. As we drove over the prairie, the size of the reservations, the historical markers in the national parks, the majesty of the buffalo, the folk tales woven into the landscape, and the irresistible menace of the sacred Black Hills themselves seemed to whisper stories of holy ground defiled and bloodstained.

I struggled with my feelings. As a white man of European descent — an alien — the landscape was unfamiliar, the animals and plants were exotic, and the hints and intimations of First Nations spirituality were strange. As a human being, one who feels strongly drawn to the natural world, and as an American, I couldn’t help feeling the pull of the symbols and history of the land and its peoples. So how was I supposed to feel? What relationship should I have with these lands, these peoples, these histories, these spirits?

We were almost home when I had a very strange dream.

I dreamed that I was part of a Lakota tribe. I was good friends with the chief of the tribe, and also good friends with his wife. In fact, I was deeply in love with his wife. He knew it, and she knew it, but they both knew I would never act on my feelings; so they tolerated it, and probably felt some pity towards me because of it.

There came a time when both the chief and I were away from his wife, and she was killed. I think she was killed by an errant hunter’s arrow. We rushed to her side, but she was dead.

Both of us began to grieve. We lifted her body and began to carry her back to the village. But when we had only gone a few paces, miraculously, she came to life again.

Somehow the chief and I knew that it was our love for her, combined, that had brought her back.
I was so surprised I woke up.

I tried to puzzle this out for a few minutes, and couldn’t get anywhere. Finally I decided to try a meditation and see if I could find some clues with that. Since I had so recently woken up, it was easy to get back into a meditative state. The chief from my dream appeared when I asked for a guide.

I asked him what it was all about, but he just said, “Hold her in your heart. Hold her in your heart.”

That’s as far as I got. It was a lot to think about, what with trying to get the family back home in one piece, so I set the whole episode aside to come back to later.

So often our culture associates love with possession, affection with ownership. But they are completely different things. [Tweet this]

Learning How to Love Her

For weeks I could make no sense at all of it. Finally, after talking with some friends and meditating further, I got something that made sense.

The chief’s wife represents the First Nations spiritual paths. The chief, representing the existing First Nations peoples, love her; and I do too, even though I am not married to her and never can be.

In the dream, I loved the chief’s wife, but could never consummate that love. In the real world, I love the First Nations paths, but cannot walk them.

In the dream, the chief’s wife was shot and killed. In a similar way, First Nations spirituality has suffered terribly from the European occupation. But the wife was revived through the love that I and the chief shared for her. The interpretation of the dream is now clear: the spiritual paths of the First Nations can be revived and healed if both European-Americans and First Nations peoples love them enough. The love of just one or the other is not sufficient.

But even when she was reborn, she was still the chief’s wife, not mine. In the same way, if the traditions of the First Nations comes back into full flower, it will still be their path, not ours. But that doesn’t mean that the love is worthless or misguided. On the contrary: as long as the love is pure and not mixed with desire for ownership, or envy — as long as it’s a healthy, non-possessive love — it’s necessary for the survival of those traditions.

So often our culture associates love with possession, affection with ownership. But they are completely different things. The marriage vows may say “to have and to hold”, but no one can own another, not even a spouse.

And this distinction is essential if we of European descent are to be in right relationship with the land we live on, and the peoples we share it with. We are here, we draw life from this land, and we love it with all our being, and we cannot change that, even if we wished to. But we do not own it, its fruits, its animals, its people, or its cultures. We can only hold them in our hearts, not in our hands.

Jeff Lilly is a druid, linguist, and author. He writes about meditation, relationship with Spirit, soulful fulfillment in scholarship and art, reconnecting the ancient with the modern, creating beauty, and healing the world.

Professionally, he is a computational linguist, with a focus on socio-linguistics, historical linguistics, lexical semantics, and lexicography. He has a keen interest not only in the minutiae of the working of the human mind and its manipulation of symbols, but also the broader patterns of social change and development. He has published papers on conversational implicature, dialect analysis, lexical semantics, and syntactic universals.

Spiritually, he was raised Zen Buddhist in the culturally conservative South, and is now a revivalist druid. He has worked in the fields of internet search, text-to-speech processing, and the defense industry, and is the father of four children. He lives in Seattle, WA, with his wife Ali and black cat, Cu Gwyn.

Photo Credit: (CC) Dave Morris (source)

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6 Responses to “The Land’s Religion: Hold Her In Your Heart”

  1. BlackBirdie says:

    that’s beautiful.

  2. Wonderful perspective Jeff. I think I have a different scenario, yet battle with trying to bring NA spirituality into my life. I am of Cherokee blood on one side and German on the other. So I feel at crossroads at times. I went quite a few years studying Euro based spiritual paths but cold never completely connect with them. Something about “my other side” kept calling me. I had a very hard time finding where I fit in and how NA spirituality fit me, in a respectful yet fulfilling way. I had talked to a few Native Americans that were quite abrasive of the idea of a half blood (or other things that were not pleasant to be called) trying to live their path and spiritual way of life. I can understand their dismay as their culture has been “attacked” for so long and there is those Indian want to be’s that look like they came from a really bad John Wayne movie (don’t get me started on JW!)..
    Yet others, many others, have been very open and feel if one is pursuing the knowledge with a true heart and with respect, it is considered a compliment in the highest respects. I have a few that I talk to regularly and have learned so much, that I can truly say I have found a comfort area of how to include things in my daily life, yet be open to other ideas (I still consider myself somewhat eclectic) and not feel I am disrespecting my ancestors. I will admit to also having a dream or two, although not as detailed as yours Jeff, of being with a tribe, once in the past and once in the present. I think these dreams were messages as each one had an idea that seemed to come across.
    Thanks for a great podcast, always enjoy the perspectives and intelligent thoughts and ideas you guys present.
    Peace and Cheers,
    Chet (White Hall, MD).

  3. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, Chet. It sounds like you’ve definitely been in a difficult place, and I’m glad you’ve found a comfort area! I think we’re extremely fortunate to be living in a time when progress is being made by so many people working to try and address and acknowledge the terrible crimes past (and in many cases still ongoing), and figure out what the best next steps are. I used to live in MD too (up in Greenbelt), and one of my regrets is that I moved away before the National Museum of the American Indian opened. I know it’s been controversial, but I hope that it (and projects like it) can at least remind people of the tremendously rich cultures of this continent, and what they offer to human heritage.

  4. [...] Those of us of European descent who don’t live in Europe — who live, in fact, in landscapes conquered or annexed by our ancestors — do not have a simple relationship with the earth we live on… We are like a branch grafted onto the wrong tree, an organ transplanted into another body. We’re aliens in our own homes. But we cannot go back where we came from; we’d be aliens there, too. There is nowhere in the world that we really belong. So what should our relationship be? [...]

  5. Ken Gordhamer says:

    Nicely said, Jeff. I’ve struggled with the same feelings – as a kid my parents and I spent a lot of time in Taos, NM and were friends with many of the pueblo indians. I’ve been closer to NA spirituality than any other, though my chosen path is that of my ancestors, Norse. I think, ultimately, that my love of NA spirituality brought me into the broader spiritual world, and I bid it a fond farewell when I realized that it was a beautiful path, but not mine.

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