I was born and raised in Garden Hill (Island Lake), a remote community in northern Manitoba. Due to my dad’s illness we moved to the city of Winnipeg when I was seven years old.
We were taught good morals in our family, but it was not easy to find respect in the city. By age 15 I was in a gang. After getting in trouble with the law, I was placed in a detention centre. Later I was sent to a residential school.
I graduated from school and moved back to my Reserve. Soon after, I had a motorcycle accident that broke my collar bone and cracked my ribs. I thought I was going to die. I called to God to spare me. When I started breathing again I knew that God had heard me.
I started to live a clean life. I met a beautiful girl who I really loved. I asked her to marry me and she agreed. I was so happy! But our first years of married life in Winnipeg were hard. Alcohol nearly broke our marriage.
One day a family asked me to drive them to church. They said they’d be there an hour. I thought that was not a long time to wait, so I went into the church to wait, and I heard the Gospel. I heard that I could be forgiven of my sins. I remembered the time when God helped me to breathe again. I accepted Christ and went home and told my wife. I started reading the Bible and looking for guidance in spiritual things.
I started volunteering in a Native community centre where I was introduced to Native spirituality. The people there respected my Bible and told me I could use my Bible “and” traditional spirituality. I started attending the ceremonies. The sound of the drum was exciting. There was a sense of spiritual life that I had not felt before. I felt as if I belonged and that my identity was being fulfilled as a Native person.
I began a job at a theological centre. Even though I was just working in maintenance, I was welcomed to get involved in their training sessions. I was interested in knowing more about spiritual things. They told me that it is okay to worship God “our way.” In using the sweet-grass, they said, the smoke carries our prayers to God and cleanses us to be pure for worship. They told me that it’s the same as in the Old Testament when people burned incense.
When you go into the sweat-lodge, I was told, you are being regenerated, like in the womb of Mother Earth. They said it is just like what the Bible says about being born again. Also, like going through the fire, it purifies you. I was told that the drum is the sound of our heart’s cry to the Creator.
I still had some doubts, but I simply believed these ministers and teachers. “If this is of God,” I said, “who am I to doubt or judge? These people are training Native ministers to use the Bible.”
So I dedicated my life to be more spiritual and to follow my original roots. I walked the “sweet-grass road” — like a braid with the strands intertwined. In the sharing circles I heard that the two ways of worship were really one. It’s like railroad tracks. You see the two rails becoming one and heading to the same place.
I went to church and to the Native ceremonies. Working on the campus I looked after all the people’s needs to keep them comfortable. In the ceremonies I received the name “Care Keeper.” To me this was a great honour.
I got to know the four spiritual laws of the medicine wheel. Tobacco is one “medicine” that is used for worship. You offer it to the Creator and throw it into the fire. You can smoke it to purify your body. And I would go to the sweat-lodge. I would feel the spirits and feel refreshed and clean from the heat of the rocks.
I wanted to go on a vision quest, one of the greatest things you can do in Native spirituality. In this you receive guidance, honor and respect because of what you see. There are spiritual responsibilities you receive after your quest. You may receive a spiritual name. You may also receive a pipe, and be a “carrier.” Or you may be given the responsibility of warrior or elder, or as fire-keeper, the person who looks after the ceremonial fires.
All this time I wanted to be more spiritual, and wanted to be more fulfilled with my identity as a Native person. So that summer I went on a vision quest. It was three days of fasting and being alone with “Mother Earth.” The quest started with a sweat-lodge ceremony. Then I went into the woods by myself.
I did what I had been taught by my elder. I looked for a place to make my camp. I came to a river. It was beautiful and I prayed to the Lord the Creator. I looked for four small cedar trees to make my lodge. The four trees were to represent the four spiritual laws. I tied them together with a vine to make a dome. Then I made a fire which would burn until I was done my vision quest.
Each morning and evening my elder would come and have a pipe ceremony with me. We drank some herbal tea, which kept my throat from getting sore.
The third morning I was sitting and praying by the river. I started to hear voices, as if a crowd of people were coming. Around the corner of the river I saw the spirits of people coming right past me, then turning and circling my dome. I noticed that the spirits were people of all races, and excited about where they were going. After they circled my dome they went straight up to the blue sky. One of the spirits looked down toward me as I watched and said, “Follow us.”
I was fascinated by the vision and said to myself, “We’re going to heaven, too.” I truly believed I had been given a sign that Native spirituality was real. I had my Bible with me and truly felt that what happened was as written in John 4:23,24 (“Yet a time is coming … when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”).
When I finished my vision quest I felt renewed life. I received a ceremonial pipe. I started sharing my experiences in ceremonies and with people who didn’t understand this way of worshiping. I had respect for all religions and encouraged people to find their own way. “No one has the right to say you are wrong,” I would say. I believed I had fellowship with God. In this I found my identity as a Native person.
Later I moved back to my Reserve to work and to get back to my family roots. However, there I was challenged by a fellow worker concerning the truth about God and His Word. This fellow showed me John 14:6. I had read it before, but this time it seemed different: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.'”
My heart burned as if God was talking directly to me! I had been praying to God all along, but this was something I hadn’t felt for a long time. I had felt it when I first gave my life to God back at the church in Winnipeg.
I started to read more of the Bible and started to look at what it really said. But I was puzzled and confused, as if the foundation of my beliefs were threatened. I read Deut. 12:1-4. I started to cry in my soul because I realized that something would have to die. The Word of God was convicting me of sin. Vs. 2 was what I was doing — worshiping in my vision quest, under the green tree. I had not destroyed the ways we worshiped. As in Vs. 3, I was using my ceremonial pipe as a sacred pillar and carved image for worship. Like Vs. 4, I was combining my way and God’s.
Was it wrong to worship God with my culture? Are we wrong to follow our ancestors’ beliefs? I didn’t want to believe it was wrong.I read Ezekiel. I realized that Ezekiel’s vision was from God but, on my vision quest, I didn’t really know where my vision had come from. God was showing me that any image we worship together with God is wrong. I also looked at Jeremiah 11:10a: “They have followed other gods to serve them.” This was the breaking point.
I cried to the Lord to forgive me for my sin of idolatry. I gave everything to God, who is the great I AM. I burned all the ceremonial things I used for worship. I realized that my “vision quest” was over when I met my Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ! I have found true spirituality in Jesus Christ alone. My true identity as a Native person is found in Jesus Christ alone. He fills me with all I was meant to be.
In my vision quest I saw everyone going to heaven. I was blinded to the truth about God’s judgment (Heb. 4:12,13; Rev. 20:11-15). Those who have received the Lord Jesus are those in Revelation 7: “… a great multitude … from every nation, tribe, people and language … [who cry] ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.'”There are many good things in my Native culture that I participate in. It’s part of who I am. As I have talked to others about these matters, though, I know that there are questionable areas — things that people argue over as to being right or wrong. Often people focus so much on an “object” or a “practice” and fail to see that it is the meaning behind it that is most important. I must always ask, “Am I trusting only in Jesus Christ in this, or am I trusting in something else, like my culture?”
As Deuteronomy 11:16 warns us, “Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them.”
Condensed from a tract by Conrad Flett with the same title. To order, please contact our Bookstore.
Conrad & Florence Flett live in Prince Albert where they have served with NCEM’s Tribal Trails television ministry since 1998.
Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #493). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.