July 19, 2010

"Native religion" for Indians only?

Native American Religion:  For Members Only?

By Wes IsleyAs my spiritual path has evolved, I've discovered a growing appreciation and respect for Native American spiritual beliefs and traditions. I know there are many differences among tribes, but in general, they all appear to share a reverence for the land, for animals and plants, for the bonds of community, for the wisdom of the elderly and for the contributions of their ancestors. I find these perspectives compelling and valuable because they are unfortunately absent in my own culture's religious traditions.

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?
Someone named Chaya responds:I am white, too, and I am appalled when other whites try to pick up Native American or Pueblo beliefs and rituals, prance around at feasts, or crawl all over ancient Mesoamerican sites soaking up "energy." I'm embarrassed, mortified, and appalled. The best I can do in apology is stay away so as not to add to the problem. You're not "stealing" their religion, as you suggest they think: you're deeply offending them.

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.
Comment:  Several problems here:

  • Isley acknowledges the differences between several hundred Native religions, then dismisses them. Yes, they have common points. So do Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

    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.

  • Clearly, Isley wants to practice his stereotypical notion of what Natives believe, not what (some) Natives actually believe. He can do whatever he wants in the privacy of his home, but why should he expect Natives to approve? His stereotypical ideas aren't helping, they're hurting.

    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.

  • As Natives inevitably respond in these situations, why does Isley need to practice a "foreign" religion? Why doesn't he pick some Anglo-Saxon religion that involves worshiping the land, plants and animals, etc.? Druidism, perhaps. Or invent his own religion?

    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

  • Isley asks, "Am I allowed to incorporate Native American-inspired traditions into my own private spiritual practice?" Answer: Yes. Who's stopping you? If your practices were truly private, no one else would hear about them. Your bastardization of Native religions would be irrelevant because it wouldn't affect anyone else.

    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?"

  • Occasionally non-Indians join a tribe's religion and become full-fledged members. They usually do this by living with the tribe for decades and learning firsthand what their beliefs entail. It's not something they pick up over a couple of weekends because it "moves" them.

    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.


    Southern Plainsman said...

    Religion and spirituality are two different things.

    Religions like Christianity, Islam, Catholicism etc., are no longer spiritual realms, they are governments. They have a physical presence based on monetary and materialistic goals.

    Spirituality deals with what we cannot see, tax or confine in a building. It is what the human chooses to be a part of, or disregard as insignificant.

    I believe anyone can have spirituality, it is our own individual path that we choose to the same light.

    Natives are just as susceptable to being corrupt and false as prophets like anyone else.

    If Natives regard white presence at pow-wows, then we need to stop marrying into other races and ban other races into our dances. Some tribes already do this, but there is a big difference between what a ceremony is, and an intertribal pow-wow or celebration.

    Michael David Lockhart said...

    (Edited for grammar and typos)

    I need to partially advocate an opposing view here.

    First, though, I want to say that I understand the objections to Isley's generalizations. The observation that he's trying to stuff multiple beliefs from multiple traditions under one umbrella is true, and the attempt is just plain disrespectful and wrong. I get that.

    I, however, don't believe in any religion, or in the practice of religion at all in the sense that it requires trusting or holding to one exclusionary set of beliefs. I'm spiritually eclectic at the very least, and I shamelessly pick and choose the ideas from every system I've learned about to form my own perspective. That practice doesn't require that I become a convert to any one of them, and I resist any system that requires full conversion.

    Yet I respect that people of all faiths and beliefs have the right to follow and practice their religion or philosophy without having to worry about someone claiming to be a follower when they actually aren't. I may be able to claim a small percentage of First Nations genetic history, but you won't catch me saying that I am an adherent to any particular traditional belief system or religion. That said, as a member of the species, I reserve the right to glean what wisdom I can from any belief system I learn about. I will try to do so with respect at all times, but I won't turn my back on wisdom because I lack the genetic markers to be able to claim a full right to that tradition. If that were the case, my 'mutt' heritage would preclude me from any and all of them.

    While Isley's article may have shown ignorance, I think his heart was in the right place. The condemnation he's receiving for the flaws in his understanding seem disproportionate to the crime. Maybe a compassionate correction would be more appropriate?

    Anonymous said...

    Just one question: if Natives object so strongly to white people interefering/wanting to be part of their religious ceremonies, then why are there Natives who travel the world, making sweatlodges for white people and even teaching them how to build them, and giving them such sacred rites as painting teepees? Some tribes even allow non-Natives to actively take part in Sundances. Perhaps Natives should first agree on what's allowed or not between themselves..how is a white person to know what they are doing is "offensive" to some Natives if other Natives openly invite them to do it?

    Rob said...

    Why do some Natives "sell" their religion, Anonymous? Because they aren't a monolithic group with a central authority to tell them what's allowed. But most Natives seem to think selling one's religion is wrong. They scorn Natives as well as non-Natives who violate their cultural norms.

    Didn't I address your point, Michael? I said Isley could adopt Native practices in the privacy of his home. The problem arises when he goes public on a popular website such as the Huffington Post. And asks why everyone can't participate in his phony version of the singular "Native religion."

    I don't object to every New Age wannabe who shares his love of Indians on the Net. I'm reacting primarily to Isley's using a high-profile site to spread his stereotypical views of Native religion. And only secondarily to his call to let non-Natives in.

    If he presented a Native religion accurately, I don't think admitting non-Natives would be a problem. Why not? Because the religion would seem too complex and uninviting to outsiders. Few people would want to learn a real Native religion because it wouldn't have that "cool" cachet.

    As for being compassionate, I think I was compassionate by not adding my comments to his article. As I often say, I don't have the time or energy to correct people one by one. I'm here to educate the public, not to inform stereotypers of their mistakes.

    dmarks said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Southern Plainsman said...

    I think much of the confusion as to why Natives are/were so lenient in opening up to non-Natives with ceremony and culture is because unlike most of the practiced faiths and cultures around the globe, indigenous peoples never sought or thought to "copyright" or seek "trademark" rights to practices and songs.

    A good example would be 49 songs. Many tribes have 49 songs that are different and yet, used in the same manner(s).

    There are a few non-Natives out there that can sing and dance, but most live in and around Indian country.

    Personally, I have no problem with this. There is a proper way and protocol to getting and having PERMISSION to dance or sing if you have no blood relation to the people.

    And then, if you have a people such as the Hopi that absolutely do not allow cameras or sometimes non-Natives into the loop, you must respect that. Tribes vary in what is allowed and what is not.

    I would rather see a non-Indian participate and be respectful to the culture as a guest to a pow-wow than to see a film, cartoon, skit, imagery, video or sports mascot that allows the opposing team to say, "#@$%!" the Indians or Redskins as the mascot dances around like a fool after stating he is honoring Indians.

    If I had it my way, everyone from Jeep Cherokee, the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and the US Army using the Apache helicopter would be paying fees to said tribe or nation for the use of such names.

    dmarks said...

    SP said: "Religion and spirituality are two different things."

    Actually, it is all the same. I've yet to find a definition that divides the two that has any meaning or consistency.

    "Religions like Christianity, Islam, Catholicism etc., are no longer spiritual realms"

    An observation which reflects an ignorant and cursory glance at these faiths.

    Southern PLainsman said...

    If religion and spirituality are the same, why is one tax free, has mega-churches, condones and harbors pedophiles and promotes killing in the name of God/Allah while the other reaches further into the human realm?

    DMarks, I don't think God will make you fill out paperwork or ask for money for you to get into Heaven, those are man-made requirements.

    Spirituality is an unseen force whereas religion is a man-made material membership that requires earthly investment for a guaranteed afterlife.

    How are those the same dmarks?

    Like Christianity, Muslims pray for the death of the "unbelievers", I thought the bible said, thou shalt not kill?

    But in invading America, Christians believe God was not here before them.

    Answer that one DMArks!

    dmarks said...


    "If religion and spirituality are the same, why is one tax free, has mega-churches..."

    There are many many Christians who don't go to these churches, or even any. The same is true in a similar way of adherents to other religions.

    The "material membership" thing you mention is not necessary for religion at all.

    "Like Christianity, Muslims pray for the death of the "unbelievers","

    Only an ignorant religious bigot would make such a statement as a blanket one. And you are one unless your statement includes "many" for both groups, and does not imply "all".

    In the mean time, I defy you to find one instance of Dr. King (perhaps the most famous Christian leader in American history) praying for anyone's death. And isn't the idea that Muslims are prating to kill all non-Muslims the worst sort of bigotry and ignorance also?

    "Answer that one DMArks!"

    You will have to reword that sentence.