Article: Spirit World Of The Native American – Lewis E. Mehl (Is.8)

by Lewis E. Mehl, M.D., Ph.D.

The Native American, says this author, does not hold to a linear, wheel-of-karma, reincarnational logic. Rather, he (or she) embraces the concept of a free-roaming spirit that can cross time and space boundaries, mingle with other spirits and enter other lives. His world view is as direct and simple as that of the child whose imaginary playmates are still real. For the culturally intact Native American of today, spirit communication is a practical, everyday experience. Dr. Mehl offers a detailed account of a ceremony in which a woman of mainstream culture experiences and incorporates the Native American way of perceiving.

The Native American world, though sparse in developed theory, is rich in experience, stories, and lore. Theory is implicit within its teaching tales and ceremonies and its rituals reinforce the implicit theory without requiring explicit statement.

Through my upbringing and participation in the Native American culture, along with my bridging to the dominant culture, I have developed a special perspective on the beliefs of Native America. While it is impossible for me to say if these beliefs were always the same, an understanding of the teaching tales in which journeys take place to the past or the future, or to the spirit world, suggests that they were.

Implicit within all these tales is a lack of sense of circular reincarnation. There is none of the philosophy of the wheel of karma or of the Hindu refinement of the soul through successive lives. Rather, the Native American world view is consistent with the statement by Seth, as channeled through Jane Roberts: “We are only here once and cannot hold more than one exposure to this vibrational field.”

The Native American believes that we refine ourselves in the here and now. When we die we do not get reborn in a new body; we become spirits. And spirits have worlds like ours, with their own brand of problems, including domestic squabbles. Like us, they continue to refine themselves…

It is common to go to the medicine person, to be “put to sleep” and to find ourselves in another time and place, past or future, where we may join with relatives or with other beings. We may find ourselves inside another’s skull, or in the body of an animal, sharing its thoughts, movements, and feelings. But when we return, we do not say, “I was a bear in a past life in the 17th century” or “I fought with Geronimo in Arizona and now I am reincarnated as a stockbroker.” This is far too linear for the Native American. Rather, “I was with a bear. My spirit mingled with its spirit and, for a time, shared its earthly robe in that place where we made contact.”

Where is that place? “Over there.” We point vaguely into the distance, meaning the spirit world. Where is the spirit world? Everywhere and nowhere—all around us and in the distance. It is where we journey when we look within. It confronts us during our vision quest. It receives us when we dream, and often we see it during our waking existence.

Within Native American philosophy there is the sense of the integrity and inviolability of the spirit as it journeys through space and time, meeting and sharing space and bodies with other spirits, but never caught or trapped on a revolving door of lives and times.

Discarnate Intelligence

I prefer the word “spirit” to the rather technical term “discarnate intelligence.” It is more direct. Culturally intact Native Americans are in constant communication with spirit, often seeing the spirit in physical form, and having spirit helpers, guides and totem animals, plants and stones, all of which speak and assist with daily life and healing ceremonies.

Discarnate intelligence seems to have reemerged in mainstream America with the Seth material, which I first encountered in a Palo Alto bookstore in 1973. The book Seth Speaks pulled me into purchasing it despite the atrocious picture of Jane Roberts on its cover and my distaste at that time for “occult” writers. In those days, channeling was “far out” and presented as otherworldly. By contrast, the Native American experiences other worlds as close by and easily accessed for help and health.

Prior to my encounter with Seth, I had been aware of channeled experience not only in Native American ritual but among the fundamentalist Christian groups around which I grew up in southeastern Kentucky. In both, the communication was direct. During Native American ritual, spirits spoke through the medicine person. During fundamentalist services, spirits, angels, and the like communicated through the minister. Members of the congregation sometimes spoke in tongues, rolled about on the floor, and were otherwise possessed by spirits. These “discarnate intelligences” often gave good advice and assisted tremendously with daily life. This was practical regression therapy of a culture that did not need formal hypnosis—a culture in which hypnotic trance was everyday experience. Discarnate communication occurred frequently.

Discarnate Communication

I am not a follower of Arthur, but I was drawn to an excellent channeled passage from him about spirit communication: “All children have their (psychic) doors open and feel quite relaxed speaking with voices from other realms. They talk with these friends, with animals and plants—it is a very natural thing. But circumstances and life in general cause them to close those doors. Maybe the interest, the desire, is not strong enough, whereas (another who keeps the doors open) maybe needed that door open to face the kind of life she had.”

What a waste that modern Americans are forced to shut down as children and then must spend so much time, energy, and money learning hypnotic techniques and regression therapies to reconnect to the spirit realm! Culturally intact Native Americans have never left that realm—which may be why they are frequently compared to children. The trees speak to them, the waters murmur, the birds sing, the rocks warble to them. These are their relatives and bring important messages from the Creator.

Do we give spirits the shapes that conform to our world views? It seems we must. Native Americans create shapes like those already surrounding them in nature. Hindus create fantastic shapes, such as the god with 10 heads and 11 pairs of arms, or the god with human body and elephant head. Christians create human forms: Angels are often represented as humans with wings; Christ walked in a human body. Thus we open a doorway of consciousness so that the spirit can enter the shape. The study of spirit shapes is truly the study of human culture and mass beliefs. It was the focus of Joseph Campbell’s lifework on myths and symbols inspired by the earlier work of Carl Jung.

A passage from James Welch’s exceptional book Fools Crow shows how the spirit can become visible to the human eye. Fools Crow is following Raven’s path to reach the trapped skunk-bear (wolverine). Fools Crow has reached a valley by the spring. The raven has glided down to the shining ice and lit on a rock beside the spring. Fools Crow begins to load his musket with powder. Then he hears the raven call to him: “You do not need your weapon, young man. There is nothing here to harm you?

Fools Crow is surprised, even though he has been raised to expect such phenomena.

“It surprises you that I speak the language of the two-leggeds,” the raven goes on. “It’s easy, for I have lived among you in many of my travels. I speak many languages. I converse with the blackhorns and the real-bears and the wood-biters. Bigmouth and I discuss many things.”

Fools Crow drops his weapon and falls to his knees, saying, “Oh, pity me, Raven. I am a nothing-man who trembles before your power. I do not wish to harm my brothers. I was afraid of this place and what I might find.”

The raven then shows Fools Crow where the skunk-bear is trapped. Fools Crow opens the trap, and the wounded wolverine limps out. This is not an unusual kind of story in Native American country. The spirit has appeared and spoken through a physical form. The skunk-bear will become Fools Crow’s power animal. The power animal represents the physical form that the nonphysical entity will occupy for the beholder. If Seth had appeared as a bear, he would have been Jane Roberts’ power animal. Instead, in keeping with her beliefs and culture, he appeared as a kind, older man.

I have observed that when the spirit helper has a physical form, it generates higher levels of faith and trust. It is easier to doubt the words of Seth coming through Jane Roberts’ lips than it would be if we had the direct experience of seeing and hearing a bear speaking. Because we are physical creatures, the Native American world view can produce quicker results than some more esoteric belief systems. By the same token it imposes more limitations on the free roaming of consciousness and demands that all communication with nonphysicals take a prescribed form.

The Sweat Lodge Ceremony

For many North American Indian tribes, the sweat lodge ceremony is an opportunity to communicate with spirits. It is also used for healing the sick and for purification to maintain wellness. The ritual and its meaning are fully described in my book Healing Ceremonies: Native American Healing for the Modern World.

In the Lakota sweat lodge ceremony (the style of my father’s tribe) a round lodge is built of willow or acacia saplings. The appearance is that of a hemisphere, similar to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. The lodge’s single door faces east. In front of the door is a mound of earth, which serves as the altar. Close by is a circle of stones inside of which a fire is built in a prescribed, sacred manner. The fire is used to heat stones that are then carried into the lodge and placed in a central pit.

The medicine person sits beside the pit, and during the ceremony will pour water on the stones (to create steam and heat), will channel information to participants from the spirit helpers, will load and pass the sacred pipe for all participants to smoke, will lead prayers, and will supervise the healing activities.

One woman’s description of her first sweat lodge gives some idea of the emotional power of the ceremony. It also illustrates how a person from the dominant culture is brought into contact with Native American belief systems so she can experience direct spirit communication. In this ceremony, I served as the fire keeper and Marilyn was the medicine woman. Here is the newcomer’s description:

When the stones were ready, our group entered the sweat lodge. Until then my idea of the sweat lodge experience would be a gentle sauna with low light levels, with a subtle spiritual awakening created by the ceremony. I felt my first hint of concern when I overheard Lewis telling someone entering the lodge that we would be inside for three to four hours. Lewis and Marilyn took their places by the door, and one woman sat between Lewis and me.

Lewis went out and in, carrying the red hot stones into the lodge. When they were all in the pit, Marilyn said, “Some of you will be seeing wolves, turtles crawling, or buffalo running through the door at some point today.” It was at that instant I realized there would be power in that lodge, the likes of which I had never known before.

In the next instant, Lewis shut the door and I realized I would be dealing with this power in the total darkness. Panic hit me like a freight train and carried me along at terrifying speed. My first response was to shut my eyes, curl up, rock back and forth, and whisper prayers in Hebrew and English. My second response was to bolt through the door, but shame kept me in place.

When the water was thrown on the stones for the first time and the heat rose, I encountered the spirit of death. Outside the lodge was a redwood tree which I imaged to keep from running out. I alternated between Hebrew prayers and prayers to the redwood tree. Marilyn opened the door before my courage to remain deserted me entirely.

I was deeply embarrassed but realized immediately that I would never be able to cope if I didn’t ask for help. We said our prayers in light. I looked down upon the ground and saw a small shell someone had dropped and thought if I held it in the darkness, I wouldn’t die. Then I began to cry.

I told Marilyn and Lewis I was in trouble, and Marilyn had me move and sit next to Lewis. I left the tiny shell behind. In the darkness I lost my boundaries. My body disappeared, and only thoughts and terror remained. The heat was such an overwhelming, invisible power that to me it could only mean death. When Lewis put his arms around me, head touching head, arms touching arms, legs touching legs, I could feel the boundaries of my body again.

The blindness was bearable until the heat came again, and I began panting, struggling with fear as with the angel of death. Lewis’ head was resting on mine, and I thought I could never die as long as his head was there. His head became heavier and heavier, so I concentrated on holding it up with mine as an act of survival.

Light came again. I stared out the door and prayed to the redwood tree to save me. It never occurred to me that I would get up and leave. Choice did not exist. It had vanished. I had not opened my eyes in the darkness. If my eyes remained closed, I was creating my blindness. It was not being done to me. It was one of the few things I could control. When the darkness came again, Lewis held me, and this time my whole right side was touching him.

When the heat came, I clung to him furiously and panted. Suddenly I felt his body temperature go down, and something passed into me from him. In that instant, I felt willingness, trust, love, terror, sex, creation, death, and sadness—so profoundly I could see them encircle us in a ring and then dissolve.

Suddenly I felt future as an entity—saw Lewis and me crouching on a dirt road in a golden field with a voice repeating, “This is for your future.” I became stronger at this point and decided that I would sit alone when the door closed again, touching only Lewis’ hand in the darkness for reassurance. I was able to do so until the heat and terror returned.

I threw myself at his feet and put my face against the cool earth, discovering that I could find great comfort there. Sweat fell off Lewis’ face onto mine, cool mud clung to the other side of my face, and my forehead against his knee defined the boundaries of my head.

Suddenly renewed fear dissolved into a great sadness. I felt I could find no more courage within me. I heard the cold water hit the rocks, and then a full ladle of water hit me with the impact of a bomb. I jumped and screamed and started to sob. I was vaguely aware of Lewis rubbing herbs onto my back and rocking me.

When the door opened, I continued to cry and stared at the redwood, thanking it for showing me that I could always find courage where I thought there was none. I looked across the rocks to a woman I hadn’t been able to look at all morning. I forced myself to look at her and to see that what repulsed me about her was my fear of what I would become. I released that fear and could feel compassion for her.

The fear began to dissipate, and I experienced a vision of a road with golden dogs speaking to me, barking when I departed from the path, leading me toward my future. The dogs spoke to me and assured me they would always be there to guide me, regardless of the difficulties or circumstances. The redwood tree stood in the distance beckoning me forward. I was no longer afraid of living or dying. I was ready to follow the voices of the future.

This woman met her spirits in the form of golden dogs and a redwood tree. From that time on, they were available to guide her—as they still do, one year later. Her dogs take her on journeys into her past and future, helping her to gain perspective on her life in the present. This is consistent with the Native American world view and also the insistence on practicality in spiritual matters.

—Chholing Taha, Cree Indian Artist.
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Spirits Do the Work

In some Native American belief systems, the medicine person takes on the illnesses of the participants in a ceremony, releasing those illnesses later through his or her own purification and cleansing processes. Medicine persons sometimes pass out during or after an intense sweat lodge ceremony. Wallace Black Elk, a contemporary medicine man, is reported to have had a heart attack following one sweat lodge. In other Native American traditions, the spirit is allowed to do the work, while the healer merely creates an open portal for that spirit to enter through.

There is an alternative point of view—probably a safer one for the healer. My own experience within a sweat lodge ceremony can clarify this difference. Bridging two cultures, I am not necessarily restricted by traditional Native American beliefs.

When my teacher of the Lakota sweat lodge ceremony leads a lodge, usually the same seven spirits appear. They are powerful women who come to assist her: the White Buffalo Calf Woman, the Lady of Guadalupe, Pele (the Volcano Goddess), the Lady of Truth, the Mother of Corn, the Lady of Liberty, and the Lady of Justice. The eagle, the hummingbird, and the red mountain often also appear. The seven women are not all traditional. Some were unknown 200 years ago; others would have taken their place. Thus far, no masculine spirits have appeared, although we do address the grandfathers in our prayers.

At first the sweat lodge ceremony is intensely focused upon the self. Can I survive this heat? Can I remain alert and able to sit up in the midst of it? These were my prime concerns during my first sweat lodge. After a series of lodges, however, I became generally comfortable with the heat. I now look forward to the door closing, to the heat, the darkness, and the steam. I am learning ever more about expanding my awareness outward to experience the images and perceptions of the people present in the lodge. I let my consciousness expand and live. I begin to sense the awarenesses of other human beings, islands at first, isolated, their thoughts trapped within their skulls.

In the lodge already described, there was a transition time in which I made contact with a larger being. There were 25 people in the lodge, and I suddenly became aware of about 15 who were closest to me. I could sense the energy and spirit of the medicine woman leading the lodge, but her energy was somewhat closed to my inquiry. Then I sensed an immensity attached to the entity. It was a masculine compassion, a strength, and a love. Recognition occurred. This was the energy form I called Christ as a child (from the Baptist side of my family experience). Who is it? I wondered.

“Any name will suffice,” came the answer. “I am the spirit of collective humanity. I come to any name.” I found myself transfixed by the unconditional love of this entity. I rode with it like a participant-passenger. I was exhilarated. I felt a love for humanity and an unbounded joy in physical existence. I wanted to savor each moment as delicious in its own right.

I felt the woman’s fear, choking her like a weed threatening a young corn plant. The Christ entity opened her skull, and I watched with fascination while it realigned her brain waves, straightening and adjusting them as a weaver might untangle strands of yarn on a loom. I could see her fear dissipate as it was removed and realigned. In this state of heightened awareness, I understood how electromagnetic patterns create the body.

Thus, the spirits who present themselves to us are uniquely focused for us. Marilyn worked with women spirits. My helper spirit is primarily masculine, although he has told me that in reality he is neither or both. My early childhood experience forges him into maleness.

During one regression with a medicine woman, I returned to an experience of being in my mother’s womb in Kentucky. I felt her shame at being pregnant and unmarried. This helped to connect me to my own personal sense of shame. Then, still a fetus, I traveled to South Dakota to meet my grandfather. I repeated this journey constantly—whenever life in Kentucky became too painful—an escape mechanism I still (unfortunately) use on occasion. In South Dakota I merged with the body of a young Native American and relished our wild rides across the prairie, as well as the tender touch of my grandfather. Sometimes I had my own body and worked with Grandfather, learning tribal lore and medicine tradition.

Then the medicine woman helped me to go to the Creator’s realm and meet the spirits of my parents. We talked about the purpose of our coming together and of my father’s leaving soon after my conception. We forgave one another and recognized our experiences as within the Creator’s plans. Soon thereafter my relationship with my actual mother improved enormously.


I would close by noting the Native American insistence on experience as coming first and foremost. Once you have experienced, you know. The theoretical constructs are less important than the direct relationship with the spirits in a manner that is practical for life as a two-legged creature on our mother the earth.


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