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Native spirituality

Medicine Cards can help create a link with nature

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Entering a candlelit room for a "Native American card reading," I couldn't help but be skeptical. Would Nancy Furst, a blond transplant from Los Angeles, turn out to be some kind of con artist, mixing tarot cards with sage and feathers?

To my relief, Furst is the real thing. She's a student of Native American spirituality, one with respect for tribal traditions as well as a desire to spread them. She did light a sprig of sweetgrass, and she did play a drum softly — but not so much as a wisp of New Age puffery came into that room.

A resident of the ultra-environmentally conscious community of Kayenta, Washington County, Furst is as down to earth as they come. She happens to use colorful decks of "Medicine Cards," explained in Jamie Sams' book of the same name. But there's not a lot of mystery or strangeness in the cards.

"They're conduits for your truth coming forth," she says. The cards' images include rabbits, eagles, trees, cliffs — all natural features of our world. It's just that we become disconnected from nature, cut off from our basic needs. A Native American card reading can turn our attention back to our inner voice: the voice of "spirit, God, Creator," whatever we choose to call it.

American Indians know the creator as "Great Spirit," and reacquaint themselves with this force by reconnecting with nature. Healing of spiritual wounds comes on a walk, in a ritual with burning of herbs, or through music. Furst urges her clients to use these therapies to "clear away the stuff": everyday stress, worry, other distractions that rob us of inner peace.

"But what has been hard to reconcile is that I'm teaching Native American spirituality, and offering readings like this without being Native American biologically," Furst says. Yet "all of this is about the inner, and not the outer. . . . I have a soul's history, a soul's connection" to Native American teachings. Furst began studying tribal spirituality nearly 20 years ago. "I had a very strong reaction to it. When I read about the ceremonies they did, my heart just leapt out," she remembers. Since then she has watched Native American elders take strong criticism for sharing their ceremonies with non-Native people. So she asked a friend who is a Piute elder what he thought. He reminded her of the Lakota prayer summarized in the words "mitakuye oyasin." It means "All of creation are my relatives."

Mother Earth, Furst says, supports all of us: "the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the winged ones, the finned ones, the standing people who are the trees, the stone people and the creepy-crawlies." The Earth and her living things hold the answers for us when we're struggling. "Quiet time, spent listening, in nature," helps us hear the inner voice guiding us into peace.

The Native American card decks, then, contain representations of those living things, to help us refocus on the natural. The "Animal Medicine" cards can point us onto a path of healing.

Furst began studying the cards and the concept of medicine for herself after her mother died in 1990. "I started pulling cards for myself, using them for messages about my own direction in life. What is the higher road I can take?"

With clients, "I have psychic abilities that I probably could use. But I really don't think that's the best way, to sit here and say, 'Here's what going to happen to you.' Tarot cards tend to be very predictive that way. These decks aren't about that.

"They're about guidance and clarification," about calming yourself and finding a spiritual perspective on your life and how it affects those around you. Instead of dwelling on past mistakes, you can practice discernment, choosing which path will benefit you and your community.

"You have all of the answers inside of you," Furst emphasizes. But when we're embroiled in life's temporal trials, "we can lose sight of our truth."

Furst does three or four Native American card readings per week at the Red Mountain Spa in Ivins, and conducts a private practice that is fueled only by word of mouth. She asks her clients to pick out stones and crystals from her collection; she uses the selections to remind people of their connection to the Earth. Next she has them draw cards from the decks. One might pull a card depicting "prayer ties," small bundles of tobacco tied to tree branches. This card is a reminder to take an interest in the welfare of others, Furst says. Then there's the "dreamtime" card, a message about the importance of devoting some time to one's dreams. Don't spend all your energy on the mundane; meditate on higher possibilities.

"I am as respectful as I can be" of American Indian traditions, Furst says. "All of the work I do is to facilitate your truth coming forth."

Still, some tribal leaders pause when asked what they think of Furst's readings. "A lot of the Native people feel that it's another kind of exploitation, especially if someone is charging" for a service, said Anthony Smith, health director at the Indian Walk-In Center in Salt Lake City. Tribal spirituality and healing "shouldn't be a source of profit. It belongs to everyone." On the other hand, "It's good that non-Native people are becoming aware of some of the traditions we practice. It helps them to reconnect to our natural world."

"There are a lot of politics" around Native traditions, Furst acknowledges. But her Piute friend has taught her that the bedrock belief is "a respect for all life and for all differences." She urges the people who come to her for readings to cultivate such respect, and to honor Mother Earth as the source of healing.

Red Shawl Woman, a healer of Mescalero Apache and Spanish heritage, also leads Native American rituals at the Red Mountain Spa. On New Year's Eve she handed out parchment, told guests to write down "things they want to let go of," and then had them burn the paper and bury the ashes. It's an Earth-centered ritual, Red Shawl Woman said. Both Native and non-Native people who partook "were very respectful."

Like many tribal leaders, Forrest Cuch of the Utah Indian Affairs office harbors some ambivalence toward whites who adopt American Indian practices. But if reverence is shown to Native elders and their ancient traditions, everyone stands to benefit, he says. And "We need all the friends we can get."

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com