By Wes Isley
Sounds innocent enough, right? Hardly. Turns out many Native Americans are offended about the growing attendance by whites at their powwows and the usage or appropriation of their rituals and symbols for pricey New Age spiritual retreats. You can't blame them when tragic deaths occur at "Native" sweat lodges led by white folk like Oprah guru James Ray, when self-appointed celebrities like Heidi and Spencer Pratt announce that they wish to be known as "White Wolf" and "Running Bear," or when poplet Ke$ha performs with a full feather headdress for no apparent reason.
While these are extreme cases, to be sure, Native Americans are organizing around this issue and becoming more vocal about what they see as outright theft of their ancestral spiritual traditions. The site New Age Frauds & Plastic Shamans aims to uncover hucksters posing as "real" Native Americans, and more thoughtful blogs like Native Appropriations and articles by Native spokespersons nudge us not to be so arrogant and clueless.
So what does this have to do with me? First let me say that I am as white as they come, and if there is any Native American blood in my family, it's well hidden. The only claim I make is that what little I know of Native American spirituality stirs my soul at a deep level. There's something about the simple act of acknowledging the cardinal directions that quickly puts me in my rightful place on the Earth. And I have come to believe that all animals possess insightful qualities and attributes that we can learn from if we just slow down and look. But some anthropologists are up in arms, and some Native Americans say, "Indian spirituality is for Indians only." If that statement is true, I think it bodes poorly for our future as a nation and also for us as spiritual people. I may not be conducting sweat lodges or dressing in native garb, but am I allowed to incorporate Native American-inspired traditions into my own private spiritual practice?
We have to ask ourselves whether culture, race or DNA forever determines our spiritual path. Is Christianity only for white Anglo-Saxons? Are all Catholics Irish or Italian? Can a Westerner practice yoga, meditation or Tai Chi? Are all Arabs Muslim? Turn the tables and ask: Can a Cherokee be a "real" Christian? Or, can Native Americans celebrate Easter or Christmas? Does their own cultural and spiritual heritage prevent them from understanding what these traditions truly mean?
No, religion is not in your "DNA." It is, however, deeply ingrained in your psyche. You can't escape the way your society has shaped your brain without serious, long-term effort and guidance from natives. I converted to Judaism, but despite years of intense study (intense!!!) I didn't begin to learn to think like a Jew until at least 14 years had gone by--and I hadn't even been brought up Christian. You cannot, simply cannot, begin to understand Native American religions. What you think you are seeing is through your own white lens. And believe me, Native Americans are right to resent it. I have never, ever met a white person who actually understood Native American spirituality--most especially not a Christian.
You have no idea whatsoever what the four directions mean to a Native American.
Would anyone say he wanted to practice a Middle East-based monotheism without specifying which one? Because they're all similar? That's what Isley is proposing with Native religions.
He's interested in a generic Native religion that bears little relation to an actual Native religion. It's like saying, "What I've seen of Islam impresses me. I'll become a Unitarian to practice it because one 'God' religion is like another."
Would a Muslim be impressed that Isley undertook Unitarianism to show his love of Allah? I doubt it. I'm guessing he'd complain much like Native people complain. "Your bastardization of our religions doesn't honor us. It dilutes and trivializes our religions. When anyone can claim he's a practicing Muslim, Lakota, or whatever, it cheapens the actual effort needed to learn the religion."
The fact that Isley thinks all Native religions are the same shows he doesn't get it. Most Native religions have what most non-Native religions have: a pantheon of deities and spiritual beings, a complex philosophical and moral code, an annual schedule of rituals and ceremonies, etc. They aren't just a matter of bowing in the four directions and being kind to animals.
It's as if I said Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism--doesn't matter which) involves doing good deeds so you end up with the white guy in the sky, not the red guy underground. That's such an oversimplification of Christianity that it's a sad joke. Yet Isley wants us to take his interest in "Native religion" seriously? I don't think so.
The worst part is he's telling the world his grossly simplified idea of what Natives believe. Thousands, perhaps millions, of Huffington Post readers are swallowing his views uncritically. This is exactly what Natives fear about cultural appropriation: the spread of stereotypical misinformation that makes them look bad. Isley is perpetuating the notion that Native religions are simple, crude, and primitive--akin to a Boy Scout or Y-Indian Guide ritual.
Since his beliefs are generic, he doesn't need a particular Native religion, or any Native religion. He probably could find lots of indigenous or ethnic religions that have similar beliefs but don't involve Native Americans. Isley apparently wants to be "Native" because it's spiritually "cool" and trendy, not because he's chosen carefully from the world's thousands of religions.
Desperately seeking validation
So that can't be what Isley is really asking. What he's really asking is, "Why can't I join a powwow or sweat lodge or vision quest and publicly proclaim my Native religion?" In other words, "Why can't I be Native too?" And, "Why must Natives criticize me when I share my stereotypical version of their religions?"
Judaism provides a good example of what it takes. Namely, years of study before Jews will accept a convert as one of them. If Isley wants to choose a particular Native religion--not his generic one--and study with the religion's leaders for 10 or 20 years, a tribe may accept him as one of them. Until then, he's a New Age wannabe, not a serious candidate for conversion.
The short answer to Isley's title question is: Native religions are for Indians or anyone who has had a lifetime of training and experience equivalent to an Indian's. In other words, not you, Isley.
For more on the subject, see Mehl-Madrona vs. Facebook Critics and Indian Religion Isn't Shamanism.
Below: The Disney/Isley belief that animal worship = Native religion.