Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2003: Volume 7, Issue 3

Teaching Mindfully
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A Spirituality of Collaboration 

Tribal Cultures and A Spirituality of Community
In her 1986 book The Sacred Hoop, Laguna scholar and University of California 
professor Paula Gunn Allen describes the “sacred , ritual ways of the American 
Indian peoples” as an example of “a worldwide culture that predates western systems 
derived from the ‘civilization’ model,” such as the sacred and tribal cultures of 
Tibet, the trans-Caucasus (including the Mediterranean and its western descendants 
in Brittany, Normandy, England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland), Southeast Asia, 
Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and Africa. [1]   Allen argues that these “tribal 
worldviews are more similar to one another than any of them are to the patriarchal 
worldview, and they have a better record of survival.” [2] 
These ancient cultures assume collaborative, rather than individualized or isolated, 
teaching and learning. “In American Indian thought, God is known as the All Spirit, 
and other beings are also spirit—more spirit than body, more spirit than mind. The 
natural state of existence is whole”: The universe itself is “circular…and dynamic,” 
and within it “all things are related and …of one family.” [3]   Collaboration and 
community are essential for both spiritual and physical well-being.  The ritual or 
sacred centers of tribal spiritualities (for example, the Lakota sacred pipe, the 
Kiowa Grandmother bundles, the Cherokee ceremonial fires, and the Pueblo plaza) 
possess “nonrational power to unite or bind diverse elements into a community, a 
psychic and spiritual whole”:  Thus the ritual and spiritual life of tribal peoples 
focus on changing “a person from an isolated… state,” which is seen as “diseased,” 
to one of “health,” understood as “incorporation” in the community. [4]

Tribal Understandings of Community and Collaboration
Tribal consciousness and social structure differ “enormously from that of the 
contemporary western world”: Concepts of family, community, gender roles, power, 
and bonding and belonging “distinctly understood in a tribal matrix…[are] very 
different from those current in modern America.” [5]   Kinship ties, which require 
“peacefulness and cooperation among people,” are important “in the customary 
ordering of social interaction.” [6]   However, “among American Indians, 
Spirit-related persons are perceived as more closely linked than blood-related 
persons.” [7]   This deeply affects the way that community is understood. In 
particular, “the meaning most often given to the concept [of community] in 
traditional tribal cultures” is “those who are of a similar clan and Spirit; those 
who are encompassed by a particular Spirit-being.” [8]   Collaboration and community, 
then, are inherently spiritual.  There is no separation between the pedagogical, the 
social, and the spiritual in such a worldview.

Spirits are understood as directing individual action “(through dreams, visions, 
direct encounter, or possession of power objects such as stones, shells, masks, or 
fetishes).” [9] Therefore, marital, family, and clan relationships are based on 
spiritual connections and spiritual guidance rather than purely civil, sexual, or 
genealogical concerns, making them more fluid than in non-Indian social systems. 
Women and men didn’t necessarily spend a great deal of time living together. 
Traditionally, family-band-clan groups worked together in practical matters of 
mundane survival, such as to construct living arrangements; to produce or procure 
food, weapons, clothing, and living space; to maintain political function; “to 
perform social and ceremonial rituals;” and “to undertake massive tasks such as 
hunts, harvests, or wars….But in terms of any real sense of community, there were 
women and there were men,” each of whom tended to spend most of their time with 
members of their own gender. [10]  Since clan membership is often determined by 
maternal relationships, “a unified household is one in which the relationships 
among women and their descendants and sisters are ordered….A community, then, is 
an ordering of sister relationships that determine who can depend on whom for 
what.” [11]   It only makes sense for those who are new to the collaborative 
learning and teaching model to learn from those who have used it the longest and 
most effectively.  The success of a collaborative learning community could well be 
based on how clearly we understand the ordering of our relationships in the group 
and how carefully we identify who can depend on whom for what.

Collaborative Complementarity in Tribal Societies and Spiritualities
Allen observes, “There is an old tradition among numerous tribes of a two-sided, 
complementary social structure.” [12]   The social systems of tribal groups based 
on clan systems reflect a perception of the universe “as aware and organic,” 
functioning in terms of “relationship between the inner and the outer.” [13]  
	The old systems were for the most part superbly healthy, simultaneously 
	cooperative and autonomous, peace-centered, and ritual oriented. The 
	success of [these] systems depended on complementary institutions and 
	organized relationships among all sectors of their world. The significance 
	of each part was seen as necessary to the balanced and harmonious function 
	of the whole, and both private and public aspects of life were viewed as 
	valuable and necessary components of society. [14]   

This social and universal whole, expressed by the Plains’ tribes as “a medicine 
wheel or sacred hoop,” is “dynamic and encompassing, including all…of life”:  
Though “tribal systems…have undergone massive changes,” they have retained “those 
characteristics of outlook and experience that are the bedrock of tribal life,” such 
as the assumption that all things are of equal value and in essential harmony. [15] 
This dynamic, holistic, relational and complementarian understanding of the universe 
is also “reflected in ritual systems, as seen in the widespread incidence of legends 
about … the Sacred Twins among [many] tribes and Nations, [who] embody the power of 
dual creative forces…as strong as that of the negative and positive charges on 
magnetic fields.” [16] Allen notes, “The Aztecs also had such complementary deities: 
the internal or domestic god was a goddess…or some similar supernatural woman-being; 
their external god was … [a] god of amalgamation or expansion.” [17] Just as two 
deities embodied the creative internal and external forces of the universe, tribal 
groups in both the American Southeast and Southwest were often governed by two 
traditional leaders: While each leader was “both spiritual and ritualistic,” one 
presided over the group’s internal affairs and the other over external affairs. [18] 
According to Allen, “The private (‘inside’) [aspect of life and society] was shared 
by all.” [19] The traditional internal leader “maintained peace and harmony among the 
people…and administered domestic affairs.” [20]   In Pueblo culture, this office is 
known as “Tiamuni hotchin,” or “Chief Remembering Prayer Sticks,” and “is authorized 
by Iyatiku [“Corn Woman” or simply “the Mother”], who counsels the Tiamuni hotchin…to 
keep the people ever in peace and harmony and to remember that they are all her 
children and thus are all entitled to the harvest of her body/thought.” [21] Allen 
further explains: 
	The ‘outside’ was characterized by various social institutions, all of which 
	had bearing on the external welfare of the group. Hunting, gathering, 
	building, ditch cleaning, horticulture, seasonal and permanent moves, 
	intertribal relationships, law and policy decisions affecting the whole, 
	crafts, and childrearing are some of the areas governed by outside 
	institutions. [22]  

The external leader “presided over relations with other tribes and officiated over 
events that took people away from the village…, implementing foreign policy, and, 
if necessary, calling for defensive or retaliatory forays.” [23]   

This complementarian worldview and social structure should not be confused with 
dualism or hierarchy. Though internal and external deities and governing leaders 
in these tribal cultures have somewhat distinct spheres of activity, their goals 
are the same. “Each is responsible for maintaining the harmonious working of the 
energies on which the entire existence of the people depends” and “must be careful 
how they use the energies at their disposal”. [24]   A complementarian spirituality 
or worldview as a model for collaborative teaching and learning will recognize the 
necessity for distinct roles and functions while valuing them equally.

Collaborative Teaching and Learning
In The Sacred Hoop, Allen’s particular concern is to celebrate and support 
collaborative learning and teaching by and among Native American women: 
	Through all the centuries of war and death and cultural and psychic 
	destruction have endured the women who raise the children and tend the 
	fires, who pass along the tales and the traditions, who weep and bury the 
	dead, who are the dead, and who never forget.[25] 
Collaborative teaching and learning is not just an interesting pedagogical experiment 
in such a context bur rather a vital necessity.  As Allen laments, patriarchal white 
institutions, laws, and customs are affecting traditionally gynocratic and clan-based 
tribal cultures. “Patriarchal revisionist versions of tribal life, skewed or simply 
made up by patriarchal non-Indians and patriarchalized Indians” are influencing the 
way “archaic tribal versions of tribal history, customs, institutions, and the oral 
tradition” are being remembered, Allen warns.  “Consequently, Indian control of the 
image-making and disseminating process is crucial and…is a major part of Indian 
resistance to cultural and spiritual genocide.” [26]   Simply put, collaboration is 
more than an educational technique, it can also be a necessary act of solidarity or 
even a scholarly strategy to preserve valuable knowledge and endangered voices from 
being lost.

[1] Paula Gunn Allen. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American 
	Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1992, 5.
[2] Ibid., 6.
[3] Ibid., 60.
[4] Ibid., 80.
[5] Ibid., 247.
[6] Ibid., 23, 212.
[7] Ibid., 247.
[8] Ibid., 252.
[9] Ibid., 250.
[10] Ibid., 256.
[11] Ibid., 251.
[12] Ibid, 18.
[13] Ibid., 19, 80.
[14] Ibid., 31.
[15] Ibid., 56
[16] Ibid., 19.
[17] Ibid., 20.
[18] Ibid., 18.
[19] Ibid., 31.
[20] Ibid., 18.
[21] Ibid., 19-20.
[22] Ibid., 31-32.
[23] Ibid., 18.
[24] Ibid., 22.
[25] Ibid., 50.
[26] Ibid., 42.

Heather Ann Ackley, Ph.D.
Azusa Pacific University 

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