Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Before there were blogs, there were academic listservs for students and professors. One of the more heroic, still persisting in spite of a formidable workload, is H-Amindian, which attempts to sift daily news about autochthonous Americans of South and North America and post significant events. Also, people often ask for advice about books to use in courses.

Recently an innocent young professor asked for suggestions for novels that would enlighten his students about Indian spiritual matters, a book like for instance “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko, a recognized classic about a young veteran healing from trauma. A hornet immediately lit on him, a female professor whose doctoral thesis was an attack on all persons (esp. whites) claiming to have any spiritual knowledge about Indians. She is part of a cloud of avenging furies intent on punishing those who “abuse” NA spirituality. What maddens them most is the notion of such persons making big bucks from ersatz ceremonies and experiences. They themselves are only looking for prestige and the right to condemn. They do not explain how their knowledge is far superior to that of the offenders, except that sometimes they claim genetic entitlement.

These ferocious wasps may be on the side of the angels. But it’s not the whole story. Certainly I would try to discourage psychoanalytically hip and liberal persons from coming around established ceremonies practiced by old-timers in their traditional ways. Fake Indians who transform those practices into New Age jargon and privilege so as to wring profit from their relationships with Indians should be deplored. No one was more eloquent on this point than Ward Churchill before he got busted for doing that very thing.

But still more is going on. Authentic, bedrock, pre-contact Indian religion was local, the same as authentic, bedrock, pre-institutional religion in every other country, including Christianity when it thought it was still a sub-category of Judaism. The practitioners were unshaken by alternatives, unself-consciously and simply accepting their own ways as normal, harmonious and good for them. It’s not until those motifs and practices become entangled in politics that they began to struggle for power -- even domination.

I never knew any of the old Blackfeet practitioners to do more than withdraw to protect themselves. They did this so well that few even knew they were continuing the old ways until they were invaded by amateur anthros. The ironic modern history is that New Age persons (both red and white) have invented a pan-Indian religion that had never existed -- taking a dream-catcher here and a geological icon there -- invested it with Jungian gravitas, claimed to know all about it (maybe with academic credentials), and then appointed themselves the gate-keepers controlling who had access, thus politicizing the movement.

Sitting right here now I can name three self-identified “shamans” in the area. All are at least Indian enough to be enrolled in the tribe. One does indeed charge big bucks for outsiders to “be initiated.” Another, after some exciting times in France, has withdrawn to ceremonies within his own family. A third is adept at getting white outsiders to present his ideas to the public, with the profits going to himself. None of them is making as good a living as the angry professor attacking plastic shamans, but then they live on the rez with low overhead and the professor seems to live in Bellevue, WA, one of the richest communities in the nation.

I remember dozens of old-timers from the Sixties who are now gone but who were authentic practitioners of “Blackfeet religion and spirituality.” They were humble people who lived pretty much the way recommended by Jesus, Confucius, Mohammed, et al. Whether they burned sweetgrass, incense or bear fat didn’t really matter much. The exact words to their songs and prayers didn’t matter much. What really mattered was to be in harmony, to treat others well, so they would be treated well -- in short, to have good hearts. One doesn’t need a shaman for that, nor a therapist either.

It’s certainly true, as the hornet claimed, that Native “religions” have been “bastardized, claimed, stolen, imitated” and ferociously suppressed by the government in an effort to “make them be like us -- i.e. white.” What’s missing is consciousness that political bodies, including the Catholic church, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and so on, have always tried to suppress the “other,” the oppositional, the strange or powerful. Think of all the witches burned, the Baptists and Quakers persecuted, the Unitarians attacked. Think of the Jews! Think of Arabs on your block today! This fall I met a Lebanese man who had been teaching on the reservation but felt he’d better get out of the USA before “they” came for him. Think of the treatment of slave religion or modern Santeria, quite apart from Voodoo. Did you know about the ruckus over a recent US. soldier casualty in Iraq who wanted a Wiccan pentacle on his gravestone?

These avenging furies have invented a pan-Indian, bi-continental (North and South America) “religion” that never existed. Or maybe it invented itself as a kind of cultural projection of the old European Roman Empire. It doesn’t exist before the Euro invasion. The great irony is that these intense self-appointed door-keepers are guarding entry to the Emperor’s New Tent. The tragedy is that it is the same sort of shimmering mirage that through fear of its power justified the destruction of the lives of two continents of people, who were only minding their own business and defending themselves. Euros were so afraid Indians might have access to the supernatural (“God”) that they never figured out that indigenous American power still came from the natural world.

Today many Indians themselves like to think they have supernatural powers and are willing to promote that point of view to tourists. Local folks are less impressed. I notice most of the doorkeepers are in academic settings where they claim post-modern alternative-culture credentials, qualifications that seem to be leaking energy these days. If you follow the entries on H-Amindian, it will be clear that the issues tend more to water rights, casino profits, and preventing suicide among young Indians. I lament that writing novels seems also to have been pushed aside.

The great and saving fact is that Nature is still there and still a source of power.


Lauren said...

In the late 1800's an Indian Man by the name of Quannah Parker had established the "Native American Church", one that took Jesus from christianity, the bible, among others, the ever popular, peyote. And thru some sort of cauldron, created a religion, I have my thoughts, but I'm interested in yours.

prairie mary said...

Hi Lauren. Bet we've met somewhere!

Quanah Parker, Black Elk, Wovoka, all those honorable and standup guys were trying to understand what those Euros had on their minds and get with it. In fact, folks in Browning today -- as you know-- are likely to be Catholic or Pentecostal. Most don't see religion as having to be on one side or the other, as keeping people OUT.

You remember Louis Plenty Treaty? Tom Many Guns? Louis Fish? Many others. Not New Age California types -- truly religious in the Indian way.

Prairie Mary

sheepdays said...

You're right to say that empires want to control and sometimes eliminate the other. And if this happens through appropriation, marketing, or whatever, so much the better.

But, appropriation certainly wasn't the first strategy of the empires when it comes to Native American religions. I'd say the first attack was to put these religions into a contrived evolutionary framework that put indigenous religions on the bottom (primitive) and Christianity at the apex (civilized). In this framework, appropriation was not the goal but rather "improvement" through things like evangelization on the one hand and ethnography on the other.

Thanks for sharing the H-Amerindian discussion with those of us not on the listserv!

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Sheepdays. Of course, the FIRST tactic was to define the Americans as "not human" and therefore not to define their religions as anything, since they were presumed not to have any. But that tended to be the Prot strategy. The Catholics were more interested in collecting souls for THEIR God (and the Pope), so they had an interest in humans -- just not their gods.

I've always been intrigued that the assumption that Hebrew was the first language (because it was Biblical, I guess) was so strong that Columbus went to some trouble to take a rabbi with him on his exploration -- as an interpreter. The Hebrew-speaking skills weren't much help, but maybe the rabbi could recognize a tribe when he saw one.

Prairie Mary

sheepdays said...

That's interesting about the rabbi--I'd never heard that, but it sounds like something Columbus would do.

prairie mary said...

John, I'm going to try to delete your comment, though I'm tempted to leave it there for your next tenure committee or prospective employer to find.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I know the 3 greats Grand daughter of Quanah Parker her first son Quanah is a cute little blue eyed Metis kid.Leah is very well educated and is a real nice person she worked for my Mom for awhile at our local hospital. My feeling toward some of the new agers is they are TAKING OFF THE TOP some of them really need a strong religious experience not this feely good stuff that floats around them like a tickle to their ears. I played music with one that hid her self so well when I figured out some of her games I was a little hurt. At a pow wow we performed at when she asked me How on earth did you get this gig? Up to this point I thought maybe she got that I was expressing my heritage.Maybe not? By the way Leah Parker's first language was Hebrew.