Online Drum Circles and Heart-Opening Mantras: A Native American Church in NYC Adapts to COVID-19

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Robert Alexander/Getty Images

By Rita Omokha

This story was originally published on the Covering Religion website, which is produced by students in the seminar by that name at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

On a rainy Wednesday morning, just days into the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, a Native American leader and her husband left the city by car for a serene village upstate that is surrounded by farms, rivers and streams.

“Mother Earth wants us to take a break,” said the woman who is known as Little Owl. “We figured that this is the perfect opportunity for us to be close to the land.”

Little Owl is the medicine woman of the Oklevueha Native American Church of New York, a community of over 1,000 members practicing spiritual traditions that honors Mother Earth and Father Sky. The New York group is an extension of their main Utah community based on two Native American tribes: Lakota Sioux and Seminole.

As with other faith groups, Little Owl and her community have turned to digital resources to stay connected during the pandemic using the Zoom video conferencing tool, iMessage and WhatsApp. Recently a video was shared through text to the community.

The community is doing its best to continue its ceremonies, heart-opening mantras, live music and drum circles online. But whether in person or online, the goal is the same: connected with the concept of oneness.

In the video that was recently shared, a rugged, graying man with unruly hair stares into the screen. He is the ayahuasca shaman — a healer who uses the plant of the same name — leader of the Amazon.

“In this moment of this world epidemic,” he begins. His words mixed over recorded violins and other string instrumentals. “We now have in our hands the opportunity to heal our heart from fear.”

The video continues highlighting almost-bare women and men in the Amazon, reconnecting with Mother Earth around flaming woods. The video serves as a reminder of what’s interrupted by the current crisis and what’s ahead.

“We have been living from fear for so long,” the shaman in the three-minute video continues. “A movement of healing is being born, a movement that will unite us globally.”

The pandemic is a wake-up call, Little Owl explains. She adds that, if people don’t wake up to change how the earth is treated and how people treat each other, then Mother Earth is going to do something about it. This pandemic, though extreme, could be that “something,” she says. The global crisis is chaotic and one with a divine purpose; it’s a reawaken to listen to the earth they worship.

Oklevueha’s planned ceremonies and rituals for the remainder of the year, like the healing rituals and dance circles, were postponed or canceled. The live, interactive community at large, Little Owl says, is on pause.

Though not ideal, the benefit of their Zoom meetings and group chats is that the community can still “see each other’s faces” and stay connected. They can grow together through the uncertainties and remain inspired by sharing videos like the one of the Amazon and joining in on collective meditation while safely at their homes.

“This is the perfect time for us to find that inner peace. And, to find that connection to silence.”

In the countryside now, she already sees a shift in her perspective amid the crisis.

“Where there’s a crisis, there is blessing, and there is an opportunity for change,” she says. “The bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunity we have to shift to a new reality.”

Rita Omokha is a student in the M.S. Class of 2020 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Columbia Journalism

Reporting from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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