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Some Thoughts About White People and Native-American Spirituality

In the past few years I have been listening to Native people in Maine, USA talk about their spirituality and how it is perceived and used by white people. Some things have become clearer to me, and I believe they need to be shared widely.

Unlike most of the religions that European Americans grew up with or around, Native spirituality is not a religion. It is an attitude about human relationship to the environment, to other human beings, and to the universe. It is a way of life, a world view, and is not compartmentalized into a specific day or hour. It is part and parcel of Native culture and therefore cannot be learned or practiced outside of an understanding of the culture and its history.

Recently in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere in the world, people dissatisfied with their own religious heritage have tried to learn Native spirituality and practice it as a religion. For a number of reasons this is not useful or effective.

White people in the U.S. need to work to reclaim the rational parts of the religions we grew up with or around. For many of us this means discharging on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Christianity. We may think we were not raised with any religion, but Christianity (more specifically, Protestantism) is the predominant religious influence in our country. In the U.S., Protestantism and capitalism grew up together and form an assumed basis for many policies and mores that deeply affect how we all live.

When white people take on the rituals and trappings of Native spirituality, we inevitably neglect or ignore the oppression of Native people. As oppressive as stealing land or bringing small pox to a people, we steal this thing that looks good and pure. But we neglect the five hundred years of oppression and its results. We don't want to look at or work on eliminating the oppression which white people have, in the name of our religions, inflicted on Native people. If we are interested only in Native spirituality, we are again thieves.

If we assume that simply because it is not ours, Native spirituality must be completely distress-free, then we cannot help our Native allies discharge their way to a rational position on spirituality, whatever that may be. Also, we are not in a position to counsel Native people on what is good and what is distressed about their spirituality if we have not looked long and hard at our own religions.

I would recommend that all white people go back and clean up the feelings we have about the religions we grew up with or around, and discharge (with non-Native people) on what is fascinating and compelling about Native spirituality. We should also counsel on what white people's patterns have done to Native communities and apply what we have learned about eliminating white racism to these situations. We should interrupt other white people when we see them acting out their confusion and unawareness by adopting Native spirituality or its trappings. This may be especially effective in health food stores and at gatherings of people who have defined themselves as outside the traditional U.S. culture.

White people need to counsel on suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and brutality from the government, police, social services, and "mental health" system so that we can listen to Native people talk about their experiences with these things. Our horror of the oppression will not be very useful; our ability to hear about the oppression and its effects will allow Native people to think freshly about their own solutions to the oppression.

We must grieve the loss of our connection to our God, angels, spirits; our ancestors, our helping saints, etc.

Like all people, Native people need us to be their friends. Being a friend means listening to and learning about what has happened to Native people and what they have figured out about how to survive.

We must listen to and discharge about all the things Native people have done to provide for each other, to fight the oppression and live and love in spite of the internalized oppression.

We should not go to pow-wows unless invited by a Native person with whom we are personal friends. We should not go to sweats or ceremonies unless we have been specifically asked by a Native person to be present, i.e., "I want to give you something" or "I would like you to be part of my healing." In that case, we are actually being asked to be responsible and we must be ready for that responsibility. If invited to a Christian or Jewish ceremony that we are unfamiliar with, we would go with respect, and not partake of the rituals in which we have no training. The same should be true of a Native ceremony. A Native "pattern," which incidentally left Native people vulnerable to extermination, is to be open and welcoming to other human beings without understanding the potential oppressive nature of that contact. Thus, to be invited to a ceremony does not necessarily mean that it makes sense to actually go. Native people need Native spirituality for their survival. Making them have to fight white people for the right to keep it Native is yet more racism.

White people must not preach some version of Native spirituality that belittles the triumph of survival of a proud and resilient people. We must reclaim our own pride in the spirituality that we grew up with or around and clean up the parts of it that are distressed.

Much hurt and much good has been done in the name of religions. We can discharge our way to clarity about which is which. Once we claim our own religion with pride, we will be started on the road to being allies to our Native friends.

Betheda Edmonds
Freeport, Maine, USA
(with editorial help from Marcie Rendon,
Veronica Sapiel, Minquansis Sapiel,
and Mary Bassett)

(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00