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An ancient religion revived

The steady beating of the drum nearly drowns out the hum of the nearby traffic as more than 75 people gather in a field behind a shopping center to celebrate a Native American full moon ceremony.

The night air is comfortable and, in the distance, the moon rises.

If it were not for the occasional interruption from the roar of airplanes overhead, one could almost imagine a time hundreds of years ago when it was common for people to sit cross-legged on blankets in a circle, offering prayers to their creator.

Ron Standing Bear, medicine man for the Heart of the Bear Clan, a Native American Metaphysical Church, stands in the middle of the circle invoking the spirits at the six points of the Medicine Wheel.

"What a glorious church we have," he says. "Mother Earth has given us a carpeted floor. Father Sky has given us a roof, and the Creator has given us many new friends."

Indeed, this new church is attracting more and more people since it began in August with 30 members. Sometime this week, it expects to receive its tax-exempt status officially designating it as church.

The participants range in age from The participants range in age from the very young to senior citizens. A few are garbed in traditional Native American apparel including grease paint, but most wear ordinary clothes _ shorts, blue jeans or slacks.

Medicine Chief Standing Bear, whose heritage is Cherokee, turns to the sky and invites the creator to join the circle. He looks toward the earth and issues a similar invitation to the mother. He faces the north, east, south and west and invites the spirit keepers _ the white buffalo, the eagle, the coyote and the bear _ to join the circle with their powers.

The legend is that the Great Spirit, the creator, looked upon his creation and realized the people needed help so he gave them the spirit keepers, he says.

Each animal has its own meaning and symbolism in the life of the clan. The white buffalo symbolizes health and teaches people about selfless giving. The eagle symbolizes mental powers and wisdom and honors old age. The coyote symbolizes emotions, and the bear denotes spirituality.

The bear is Standing Bear's personal totem.

When the Medicine Wheel ritual is completed, the purification ceremony, called smudging, begins. A bowl filled with smoking white sage incense is placed in front of each participant. While a member of the group fans a feather over the bowl, the smoke wafts toward the individual who ceremonially washes his or her face and hands in the swirls.

"Smoke has always been used by every major religion to send up prayers to a higher power," Standing Bear says. "The smoke drives away what Hollywood called the "evil spirits' and what I prefer to call the negative energy. It allows the individual to enter into communion with the Great Spirit."

Standing Bear, 36, wasn't always in tune with his Native American heritage. He grew up in a middle-class family that did not talk about its ancestry. Only his grandmother told him stories of the days long ago when her grandparents left the Trail of Tears to settle in the rural South.

He has a degree in communications, once served as a graphics editor for a small Florida weekly newspaper, and a few years ago served as a minister in a charismatic non-denominational Christian church.

The Native American church he now leads is a metaphysical church. He had his first psychic experience when he was 4.Years later, he began to tap into his Native American spiritual heritage and acknowledge his psychic abilities, he said.

In 1992, he underwent a "vision quest," a Native American mystical experience whereby a person is shown his purpose and work in life. His, he said, was to share Native American spirituality and its ecologically oriented beliefs with others who are receptive to the beliefs.

He now does psychic readings and appears as a regular guest on the Gary Spivey radio program. Standing Bear said that Native American spiritual traditions are filled with mystical elements.

"I think most Native Americans have psychic abilities," he said.

His clan also visits schools to share Native American culture with the students. Recently, he and others visited the Honeywell Partnership School in Largo.

"We brought all the sacred things _ the rattle, the pipe, the drum _ and each item was treated with respect by the children," he said. "One little girl presented me with a feather and a hug. I have never been so touched.

"We are willing to go and present Native American culture in any situation. This is very important to us," he said.

Adam Belvin, 21, is known as "One Who Comes Back." He is of the Lakota heritage, what he says the "white man calls Sioux." He has been performing Native American dance for more than eight years, and also visits schools to perform. This night, he dances to honor the other clan chief and drummer Medicine Wolf as well as Grandmother Moon. He has been with the clan for less than two months.

"This is the best one I have ever experienced," he said.

The Heart of the Bear Clan is governed by Standing Bear along with a council of 12 elders and meets each Wednesday night for its religious ceremonies. Members are involved in a number of environmental causes such as the Center for Marine Conservation and the Coalition for Endangered Species.

Standing Bear creates an analogy of illness with the earth as the body and humans as an infection. Global warming is a fever; shivering is earthquakes, volcanic eruptions are the earth's digestive system rebelling.

"Man has almost become a disease on this planet," he said. "The planet is trying to fight this infection. Environmental concerns have soared these past few years, and people are searching for an environmental spirituality. What they are finding is tribal people. They see that their respect for the earth carries over to respect for people."

As the clan continues its new moon ceremony, the moon itself rises above the treetops to shine upon those gathered.

"Grandmother Moon has decided to join our circle this evening," Standing Bear says.

"Aho," the people reply. The word signifies an affirmation, similar to the Christian, "Amen," he says.

Once the people are purified, the sacred pipe ceremony is held. The red stone of the pipe represents the people.

Legend has it that, when tribes were warring, the creator was so pained he used the spilt blood of the people to create the red stone. The pipe stone occurs in only one place in the world, at the Pipe Stone National Monument in Minnesota, Standing Bear says.

He tells the group to "respect this ceremony above all else" because it not only affects those in this circle "but all indigenous people of this continent."

Those who don't smoke take a symbolic puff of the pipe then reverently hold it high above their heads. Because the crowd is larger than usual this night, the cornmeal ceremony occurs simultaneously with the sacred pipe ritual.

In the cornmeal ceremony, people take a pinch of the cornmeal, meditate on their negative thoughts and energy, then toss it into the burning incense as an offering. Standing Bear compares this ceremony to Christian communion. The people are told to say their prayers for others, not themselves, and to reflect back upon a time when people realized their connection with the earth and all living things upon it.

"The Medicine Wheel is the hub of all we do in the clan," Standing Bear said. "A major tenet of the Medicine Wheel is, whatever energy that you send out _ as it goes around the wheel it will grow and gain power and will come back and hit you. So it behooves us to send out positive energy. Even (Christian) scripture says to consider others' needs above our own."

Fall Powwow Nov. 5

Beginning at 9 a.m. Nov. 5, Standing Bear and the Heart of the Bear Clan will gather with others for the 1994 Fall Powwow at their "Dream Lodge" at 5501 28th St. N, Suite 1. After dark, the clan will hold a new moon ceremony. The powwow features Native American dancers and drummers as well as artists and vendors. A psychic fair will be held from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. For information about Heart of the Bear Clan, a Native American Metaphysical Church, call Standing Bear at 327-0088.