The Ohio State University
Pagan Student Association
Native American Religions and the New Age Movement
by Brian C. Blakemore
Do non-Native Americans have a right to practice Native American religions? This question not only brings to light concerns regarding how much freedom a religion has concerning who it allows to practice it, but it also arises issues about the travesties inflicted upon the Native American people by the people who now wish to practice their religions. Should they be allowed to keep their religion to themselves, and only themselves, because it is the last bit of their culture that hasn't been stolen from them by the white man? Both sides of these issues have been more-or-less well represented in the assigned readings and, from these readings, we can see that there is no clear answer to questions.
It can clearly be seen that the questions themselves are very much asked from a Euro-American point-of-view. Historically, Europeans and Americans have felt that they were empowered by the Christian God, or by other things (such as greed), to conquer foreign lands and peoples in order to spread Christianity and their individual state's power (usually not in that order). The colonization of Africa, Australia, parts of Asia and the Americas are all perfect examples of this, as is the United States' "Manifest Destiny" policy. The native inhabitants of these far-off lands were considered inferior to the Euro-Americans and thus little concern was given about the people themselves. Most of the time they were not even considered people, they were more like animals to the "civilized" people. Euro-Americans ruled these inhabitants as a mother does her children, always talking down to them., the rulers and the ruled were not equal. All the great ideas about democracy and freedom simply didn't apply to those people who weren't the same skin color as the Euro-Americans. Whole Native American tribes were moved so that a couple white American families to have land to farm on. A white man could kill as many damn Indians as he wanted to and be just fine. But let an Indian look at a white woman the "wrong" way and all hell would break loose. In keeping with this, the question is generally "Are they right if they choose to keep their religions away from us?" and not "Are we doing wrong if we try to practice their religion?" Euro-Americans always like to see themselves as being right, its everybody else that is wrong. There is no need to question our morals, our ethics, ourselves, only theirs. Patricia Shaw Mathews addresses this aspect of the debate in her essay "Not a Question for European-Americans." In it she writes, "The people who created and maintain a culture are the only ones with the right to say rather or not their culture and spiritual practices should be shared with outsiders, and if so, on what terms... (p. 43)" A little later she sums up the Euro-American perspective as " ‘If we want what they have..., we therefore have a right to it..." (43).
Not only are Euro-American ideals concerning dominance and stubbornness in effect here, but the almighty dollar is as well. Greed is another great thing Euro-Americans are noted for. Modern capitalistic ideals tell us that we need to make as much money as possible in order to be successful while disregarding other people's feelings and the effects we have upon them. We love to use people for our own gain and pleasure. And thus we get the Lynn Andrews of the world. We get white, upper-class people writing about religions and peoples they know very little about and making a lot of money from doing so. Of course, in keeping with the great Euro-American tradition of exploitation, none of this money ever goes back to the people whose religion this is. Nope, the Indians who actually know their own religion well enough to write decent books about it are living in trailer parks along with their alcoholic relatives, the best they can hope for is to get a job in a casino that is "theirs" but is run by people more white then me while the Lynn Andrews of the world charge hundreds of dollars just to talk to them about Native American religions. Andy Smith puts it quite nicely in her article "For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life" ;
"True spiritual leaders do not make a profit from their teachings, whether it's through selling books, workshops, sweat lodges, or otherwise. Spiritual leaders teach the people because it is their responsibility to pass what they have learned from their elders to the younger generations. They do not charge for their services." (p. 44)The Native Americans were not a capitalistic society and their religion does not incorporate capitalistic ideals into it's followers. A true medicine man or woman would not even think about making someone pay to learn information.
This is not to say that most Native Americans don't want Euro-Americans in their religions (I do not claim to be speaking for Native Americans at all) After all, we all know Native American religions are not missionary, they do not seek out converts, and so it is up to the individual to go out and learn about their religions (or one specific religion). However, what is wrong with this picture is that this spiritual journey should not be as easy as going to the bookstore and buying a copy of Lynn Andrew's Medicine Woman for $5.99. These people, who just read a book and are transformed are not true members of a Native American religion (no offense to Christians regarding the reading one book and being transformed thing). What makes a lot of Native Americans mad is that most of the Euro-Americans "studying" their religion only adapt the parts of the religion that most easily fit into that person's lifestyle and schedule, not the whole thing. These people are seen as disrespecting the religion by making it into a thing, not the thing. In other words, they make Indian spirituality a small part of their overall life, when the Native American religions require (as do most religions) full devotion. Myke Johnson writes of this in her essay "Native American Spirituality...Not!". She writes that, "Each of these ritual "borrowings" ignores a whole system of beliefs, ethics, a history, a community: one cannot merely export specific practices out of context and assume one has learned what a spirituality is." (p. 42) According to Johnson, "... if one is interacting with Indian people, participating in Indian community, often one will be included in various elements of ritual life ... This has not been white people adopting Indian spiritual practices; rather it has been the community which had the power to adopt." (42) Emphasis in the Native American community is on that community, where as Euro-Americans are more individualistic and this can cause great cultural conflicts.
There are those people, however, who say that Eugenics (judging people based on their race) should not be applied to religions at all. To them, anyone should be able to practice Native American religions regardless of if they have any Native American heritage or not. America is seen as the great melting pot of peoples, and those people's religions have also been part of that melting. There are also many people in this country who are "thin bloods," people who have a little bit of Indian heritage in them. Is it wrong to tell those people that they can't explore their Native American heritage, no matter how small it is? In "Visions of the Rainbow Tribe," Zisi Redwing writes that, "Labels split an individual's identity, chop it to pieces, shatter the sense of connection with ancestors who might tell us who we are." (p. 46) Those opposed to selling Native American religious membership out of bookstores wouldn't have any problem with people exploring their ancestors, but they might be upset with someone who claims that because they are 1/32 Cherokee, that they are an Indian.
My dad's bathroom is decorated in a Native American motif. There's little statues of Indian children playing and an big arrowhead with an Indian chief on it. Also there is a dream catcher on the wall and miscellaneous other stuff. Some of it was there when my dad bought the house from his sister, some of it he added himself. Of course, the statues are made in Taiwan and the dream catcher is made with plastic on it. The point is that Native Americans are a part of our (i.e. Euro-American) shared culture in the present day and age. They interest us. That in and of itself is fine and dandy. However, where most people can be seen as going wrong is that they refer to the Native Americans as objects, rather then people, and Native American religions as thoughts instead of beliefs. There is nothing wrong with sharing, we were all taught to do that as children. However, most Euro-Americans don't share when it comes to Native Americans. They are expected to "share" their religions with us and that's that. They usually get nothing in return.
At the Crossroads Magazine, Issue Five, "Forum" section, p. 41-53.
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