Academic Exchange Quarterly
Fall 2003: Volume 7, Issue 3
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.
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.  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.” 
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.”  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. 
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.”  Kinship ties, which require
“peacefulness and cooperation among people,” are important “in the customary
ordering of social interaction.”  However, “among American Indians,
Spirit-related persons are perceived as more closely linked than blood-related
persons.”  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.”  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).”  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.  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.”  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.”  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.” 
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. 
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. 
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.”  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.”  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. 
According to Allen, “The private (‘inside’) [aspect of life and society] was shared
by all.”  The traditional internal leader “maintained peace and harmony among the
people…and administered domestic affairs.”  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.”  Allen
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
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.” 
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”.  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.
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.”  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
 Paula Gunn Allen. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American
Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1992, 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 247.
 Ibid., 23, 212.
 Ibid., 247.
 Ibid., 252.
 Ibid., 250.
 Ibid., 256.
 Ibid., 251.
 Ibid, 18.
 Ibid., 19, 80.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 56
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 19-20.
 Ibid., 31-32.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 42.
Heather Ann Ackley, Ph.D.
Azusa Pacific University
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