A meeting of religions
Walker arrived on Pine Ridge six years after the massacre at Wounded Knee, which is a stream that runs through the Pine Ridge Reservation. In this massacre, soldiers from the 7th Cavalry Regiment, the same regiment that suffered a humiliating defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876, had opened fire against unarmed ghost dancers. They killed 250–300 men, women and children. Walker talked to eye witnesses who gave detailed descriptions of the massacre. His account of Wounded Knee, in the words of the indigenous population, form a part of Eli Ricker's tablets, a collection of interviews with survivors from the wars with the indigenous population (6). Black Elk, a Lakota Tribe holy man, is reported to have said that human beings were not the only fatalities at Wounded Knee; the dream of a better world that until then had been alive among the indigenous population had also died (7).
During the colonisation of the North-American Continent, the most severe loss suffered by the indigenous population and the whites alike was perhaps the inability of the 'palefaces' to understand the nature-religious values of the Native Americans. Christianity was not infrequently promoted by suppressive means, accompanied by a ban on the indigenous population's religious rites (Box 1).
Box 1 Religious rites
The religious rites were based on the belief that all things in nature were animate. Human beings could get help by attaining spiritual contact with an animate universe. The most important rites were purification by steam in sweat lodges (cleansing and strengthening the body by inhaling the water's soul), striving for visions (solitary meditative existence in order to receive signs and revelations from the spiritual world), pipe-smoking (ceremonial contact with the spirit world through inhalation of soul power from tobacco and certain herbs) and the Sun Dance (dancing and singing for several days in order to gain strength and recognition from the sun and from the community).
Walker did not only recognise the values of the Lakota Tribe, he also joined their religion by training as a shaman. His efforts may have been commendable (from a public health perspective), but he was accused by colleagues on Pine Ridge and by the local congregation of bringing medical science and Christianity respectively into disrepute (1).
Did he believe in the existence of spirits and in the rituals' appeasing effect on them? According to Walker himself, it was the nature-religious aspects of the Lakota faith that fascinated him, and he found that their rituals could have a healing effect on people's suffering. He was accepted as a shaman primarily because the tribe's own shamans were old and few in numbers, and they recognised that this might be their only opportunity to pass on their religion to their descendants (8).
Walker went far in his recognition of the shamans' supernatural powers and believed that they manifested a universal human capacity to gain insight into the mysteries of nature beyond the sense of man (8). Nevertheless, it is important to point out that he also defended science. For instance, he exposed how some shamans were using trickery to remove worms that were supposedly the cause of tuberculosis (1).
The balance is currently shifting from the avoidance of discomfort and pain to living a self-respecting life in accordance with one's own values
The ecumenical movement among people of faith around the world gained pace only a couple of generations after Walker's death, with the 21st ecumenical council (the Second Vatican Council) in 1965 being one of several turning points. This was also to become a source of inspiration for conciliatory talks between Native American religious leaders and Catholic priests on the reservations of South Dakota (9).
Seven years of talks developed mutual respect and recognition that there were common functional elements in the rituals of the two religions that might appear dissimilar to an outside gaze. For example, purification by steam in sweat lodges may well fill the same religious need as the confession and forgiveness of sins. Prayer and meditative practices are akin to one another, and revelations are equally important in both religions (9).
Of course, the talks also revealed that there were differences. It was hard to agree on the existence of spirits and the appeasing effects of rituals. Even if Christianity has established the Holy Spirit as an intermediary between human beings and God, Christians expect no causal connection between rituals and the appeasement of a spirit that helps us as we go about our daily lives. However, causal explanations were of very little interest to the Native American religious leaders, who were more concerned with effects and functionality. Also, the Lakota people had no concept of sin. They were more concerned with shame, and how they handled shame through improvement rituals and, if required, through social exclusion (9).