Following the Red Road: Native American religion

By Olivia Touba
On April 8, 2014

Stacy Hokinson looks very much at home in her University of New Hampshire office, decked out with a Native American wall-hanging above her desk. Her beaded sinew-and-porcupine-quill earrings beautifully accent her dark, singly-braided hair.

Hokinson is one of two advisors for the University of New Hampshire's Native American Cultural Association, or NACA. She is not fully Native American, but her mother is Cherokee and her father is Abenaki. Her mother follows Christianity and her father, a trapper and trader, follows the Red Road. While individual tribes have different teachings, the "Red Road" is a common term used by most tribes in reference to their faiths. Hokinson herself is a follower of the Red Road.

Back when the white settlers arrived in America, some of the Cherokee embraced the Christian faith, as they traded and interacted with the newcomers. But "holding onto their faith was taboo," Hokinson said. "The white settlers thought they were savages, that their beliefs were out of this world. If we spoke our native language, our mouths were washed out with soap."

But Hokinson's journey to find her faith was a personal, less oppressive experience.

"It was weird for me, how I got involved," she said. "My dad is friends with everyone and has always been close to his culture, and he happened to meet a Lakota."

When Hokinson was 11, a Lakota Native approached her and asked, "Why aren't you dancing at a powwow?"

"I don't even know what a powwow is," Hokinson replied.

"I can feel your spirit, and you're supposed to be dancing," the Lakota native said. He told her of a vision he'd had, where she was a jingle dancer. He told her it was what she was meant to do. 

"I didn't want to because I was very, very shy," Hokinson said.

But she consented. She picked up the art of jingle dancing at 11 years old, which was when she really began to pursue her Native American faith and heritage. She is now 32, so she has been actively engaged in celebrating and embracing her Native American roots for 21 years.

"Dancing for me is my passion and calling," Hokinson said. "Twenty-one years ago I would have said, 'You're kidding me.' But that vision was right."

Her parents being of different faiths, Hokinson was ultimately given the choice of what she wanted to believe. 

"My mom reads the Bible every day. I wasn't told I had to read the Bible; she gave me the choice." But, Hokinson said, there was a time when her mother did try to convince her to become a Christian.

"I'm the type of person who, if someone forces something on me, I will absolutely go the opposite way. Now, as an adult, I am open to other faiths and where [people are] coming from, but I am very comfortable and secure in my own faith," Hokinson said.

The Red Road, Hokinson said, is "like any religion - there's tradition and there's faith. ... It's following a way of life in balance, in purity and in following traditions."

There are many aspects to the faith of the Red Road. One is the belief in a higher power, a Creator, and also the belief that everyone is connected. Adherents to the Red Road believe in purity; abstinence from alcohol and drugs. They honor the sun and the moon and respect Mother Earth. 

One way they honor the earth: They offer gifts of tobacco. 

Before a hunt, a Native American of the Red Road will say to Creator, "If it is your will that we receive an animal, let it be so." Tobacco will be presented as an offering. Some might sprinkle the tobacco in the wind, and others might toss it on the ground. If an animal is caught, they will again offer tobacco as a thanksgiving offering to the animal for having offered up its life. 

In a powwow circle, a person who seeks guidance from someone else in the circle will pass a small packet of tobacco called a tobacco tie to this person. He or she will address the other person by name and say, "I would like you to teach me ..." The person passing the tobacco and the person receiving the tobacco will always hold the tie with his or her left hand, because it is said that the left arm is closer to the heart. This practice is called the "passing of tobacco."

Smoking tobacco is also a key to the faith.

"We believe that when it is smoked or offered in a fire, it brings up our prayers to Creator so he can hear," Hokinson said. 

Tobacco is also offered for healing. It is presented to a jingle dress dancer, a woman who performs a medicinal dance to pray for healing.

"When we dance in a circle, that's our church," Hokinson said. "Often, dancing is our prayer."

In addition to tobacco offerings and prayer, a practice called smudging plays an important role in the faith, Hokinson explains.

To cleanse oneself from the "bad thoughts and negativity on us that cling to us," perhaps before a dance, sage and other plants are burnt in an abalone shell so that they smoke. Then the individual will smudge him or herself with the remains. Smudging is a way of showing that "we value the purity of how we live our lives," Hokinson said. "This is something that everyone [in the faith] does."

Some Native Americans also believe in stones. Hokinson describes a circle that is divided into 12 zodiac-like signs, each with a different animal, a different stone and one of the four natural elements (fire, earth, wind, water).

"Believing in stones is where you open yourself up to the point where [the stone] gives protection, depending on when your birth month is. Everyone has a stone that guides [them]," she said. 

Hokinson said she knows not every Native American believes this. She says that she personally feels a connection to turquoise and her birthstone, amethyst.

"I really relate to it. It tells you how you are in relationships and whom you're compatible with," she said.

To follow the Red Road on a daily basis is to maintain the attitude of the faith every day, she said. 

"We're all human, not ... angels," Hokinson said. "We can't help but be human. We look at the best in everything, but we're not so happy that people think something's wrong with [us]. We try to bring a balance. It's a battle, like how it's hard for a student to balance life and school. Sometimes we need someone to help put us back on track."

Part of her faith is played out in her being a NACA leader. 

"There are so many traditions, and so many I don't know," she said. "I wasn't brought up in a Native community, so I try to learn as much as I can, so I can teach the students. ... We need more youth to be a part of our community. Our traditions are not written down, but are passed on by word of mouth." 

To keep tradition alive, the UNH chapter of NACA hosts a powwow each November. A powwow, she says, is a social gathering where there is teaching, dancing, singing, drumming, trading, selling and food. The dress of the Native Americans at the powwows, she said, is called "'regalia,' not 'costumes,' which means dressing up as someone you're not. 'Regalia' means 'honor' to us. It is passed down from generation to generation, and is sacred to us and our family. We often make our own, and our friends and family help us with it."

Hokinson has confidence in her faith and culture. 

 "We're still a people, still a culture, still surviving," she said.

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