The Unity-Native American Connection - Greg Barrette
A Unity minister on a long-ago summer journey follows a trail of synchronistic connections linking Unity with the indigenous culture of this land.
Unity's co-founder Charles Fillmore was born on a Chippewa reservation near St. Cloud, Minnesota, and raised among the Ojibwe nation. His father was a trader with the Chippewa. The elders of the tribe recognized young Charles as having been marked by the Great Spirit to do divinely preordained work. They believed that he needed to be prepared spiritually with ceremonies. For this purpose, Charles was “kidnapped” by members of the tribe at the age of two and taken through the appropriate rituals. He was then returned to his family that evening in perfect condition. This so traumatized his mother that she would never speak of it, except to confirm that it happened, but Charles somehow knew that it was for a good purpose and had never felt in danger.
This story was confirmed many years later by a member of my Unity church who grew up on the Ojibwe reservation and had heard stories of that young boy. Only when I shared this story in a service did he realize the young boy was actually Charles Fillmore!
A Memorable Meeting
For years after hearing the story, I never gave it another thought until I was returning to college from a summer hitchhiking trip across America in 1972. I stopped at a fast food place in Winterhaven, California, and had my first personal experience of the connection
between my Unity upbringing and Native American spirituality.
In 1972, the young medicine man of the Quechan tribe in Winterhaven could not get a hamburger served to him in town. I know because he gave me the money to purchase one for him, calling out to me from the parking lot as I walked up to the drive in. It seems they didn’t serve Native Americans there, even though we were on ancestral tribal lands.
The owner asked if I was making my purchase for “the Indians” and lied. After I gave the young man his burger and expressed outrage at his treatment, he invited me out to the reservation, where he and his friends talked with me all night about the many injustices they had experienced, as well as about their beliefs. I told them about Unity, and they were amazed that someone who was not Native American believed pretty much what they did about the Spirit and healing. They had never experienced that before. The conversation was a mind-opening experience for all of us.
Early the next morning, I hit the road. I got a ride north and was eventually dropped off at an on-ramp in Earlimart, California, where some type of spiritual synchronicity must have been at work. Another hitchhiker, an oddly dressed man about my age, happened to be there as well. We struck up a conversation while we stuck out our thumbs, as we didn’t have much else to do as we waited. I knew that his getup was going to make procuring a ride very difficult in that conservative agricultural town.
As it turns out, my new acquaintance was also a medicine man—this time of the Yurok nation, from the redwood country in northern California near Eureka. He had until recently been a pre-law student and student body president at California State University, Northridge, but felt a spiritual calling in a dream to return to his tribe. His earlier spiritual training had been cut short when he decided that his talents would be better used in service to the tribe as a lawyer, but his dream told him that he needed to return home and resume his training.
So he dropped out of school and started hitching north to attend a convocation of medicine men from all over the west that was taking place in Eureka. He told me that his first ride was a spiritual test in preparation for his return to being a shaman. They had robbed him of all the money he had, stolen his clothing, beaten him and left him naked by a dumpster at a Salvation Army store in the San Fernando Valley. There was a clothing donation box there, out of which the young man pieced together the most incongruous of outfits. Nothing fit or matched. So now he had to manage to find a way home, dressed like
that, with no money. We would be there for a long time, I thought.
To kill time while we waited for a ride, we shared what we each believed, and just as happened the night before, he was shocked to find a non-Native American who held to his tribal teachings about Spirit and healing. He had never met such a person.
As he shared his beliefs with me, I realized that our meeting, coupled with my experience the previous night in Winterhaven, was no accident and that Fillmore’s Native American connection was strong enough to have affected his teachings in a powerful way.
As the day progressed, it was becoming clear that the young man’s looks were going to make getting a ride impossible, so I offered to buy us both bus tickets to the next city, Fresno, where it would be easier for us to get rides. At that point, most of our time together
had been spent in meditative silences of profound energy that I will never forget.
A Hopi Helper
Ironically, the impetus for my journey that summer was to get to Unity Village in Missouri, where I’d planned to attend a retreat. While I was there, I met with James Dillet Freeman, then the director of Silent Unity. In our conversation, Freeman (who himself had Cherokee
and Choctaw blood, in addition to English and Irish heritage) shared the story of a surprising Native American connection he’d experienced.
Some years earlier, Freeman told me, he had been writing an article that included some information about Native American shamanic beliefs, but he’d gotten stuck on one part. He needed more information about some Hopi tribal teachings he’d heard about that he was working into his article. Freeman remembered muttering to himself, “I wish there was someone I could ask about this.”
The very next day, he received a phone call from a man who turned out to be the very Hopi shaman who had been the source for the spiritual teachings written down by Frank Waters in The Book of the Hopi: Drawings and Source Material Recorded by Oswald White Bear Fredericks (Viking, 1963). The shaman identified Freeman as his favorite writer and asked if Freeman had any time for him the next day, when he would be passing through the Kansas City area. Freeman told him of his writing predicament and muttered question, and the shaman replied simply, “I know.”
From then on, I always had a sympathetic feeling towards Native American teachings, which I knew in my heart were compatible at a deep level with Unity beliefs. Many years later, while speaking with Unity minister Dale Batesole, I was amazed to find out that that this same Hopi medicine man attended his services in Sedona, Arizona, driving nearly three hours each way every week. Unity is where he went to receive his spiritual nourishment.
As a side note, he told Batesole that one of his practices was to drive into Winslow, Arizona, and sit in the back of the theater through all the showings of whatever scary movie was playing. He’d gather up all the energy from all the screaming teenagers, transmute it, and then use it for healing back on the Hopi reservation.
I guess it didn’t surprise me too much when I got a phone call many years later from the medicine man of the Taos Pueblo, who expressed his appreciation for the Unity message and our radio broadcasts in New Mexico. At the time, I was the minister of what was then Christ Unity Church (now known as Unity Spiritual Center of Albuquerque), and we broadcast inspirational spots on the classical radio station there. This Taos elder was an avid listener.
In her last year of physical life, Unity cofounder Myrtle Fillmore wrote, “I often think that the Indians’ concept of a Great Spirit brought them, consciously, nearer to the creator than the Christian’s concept of a personal God.”
It is satisfying to me that Unity and Native American spirituality share a deep connection and strong spiritual foundation that has endured over many generations.