a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by David Shorter

James Earl Fraser's <i>End of the Trail</i>
James Earl Fraser's End of the Trail

I am sure that I share this experience with many people who work in Native Studies, or in the study of indigenous religions at least. I often find myself meeting people and then having to field their inappropriate responses after hearing what I “do.” To be more specific, people seem to have absolutely no idea how their responses evidence a totalizing colonial mindset. A sample dialogue:

Oh, a professor, how interesting! What do you teach?

I primarily teach courses in Native Studies, or courses about indigenous peoples around the globe.

That’s interesting. I also feel deeply connected to American Indians. I love Sedona and Santa Fe. I guess I’m just a spiritual person.

The last sentence has some variation, including “I like how they have a spiritual connection to the earth.”

What makes this, in my mind, one of the most challenging of colonial mindsets is that such perceptions of native people are fostered by how indigenous people around the world represent themselves. Due to the on-going theft of native lands, indigenous people have used the linguistic framings of “sacred” property and “spiritual” connections to the land and to “nature” as key articulations of their own sovereignty. The thought was that such framing devices would help land claims cases. Whether a serious matter of internal colonization or simply the attempt to communicate to cultural outsiders in terms the outsiders might better understand, the connection between spirituality and indigenous people runs deep in history. Over and over, scholars have shown that the earliest representations of native people that circulated throughout the 17th and 18th centuries were that they lacked civilization and therefore were somehow untainted by the material concerns for possessions, laws, and capitalism. During these same early reports, indigenous peoples of the Americas (and other lands), were portrayed as some sort of animal-human hybrids, close to nature, more wild than fully evolved people. In the worse cases they were cannibalistic monsters; in more romantic characterizations, they were children of nature. Michael Taussig demonstrated how such projections excused the othering and killing of indigenous peoples in South America in one century, and then provided the “magic of primitivism” in a later era, both parts constituting the project of colonization. And yet, in the first quarter of the 21st century, little has changed. One can draw fairly quickly a direct line from the earliest and most racist views of indigenous peoples to the mascots, Navajo designed fashions of Urban Outfitters, Halloween costumes of American Indians, and the continued legal theft of indigenous lands across the globe.

Historically, we can now look back and see how modernity was perhaps defined by a yearning to make sense of everything in categorical and typological fashion. From Darwin’s desire to categorize everything to the creation of academic disciplines, the world not only could be understood, but there was a category for everything and everything belonged in its place. The most basic of these categorical distinctions is a binary: mind/body, body/spirit, us/them, knowledge/belief, black/white, straight/gay, etc. These dichotomies are often a sign of elementary thinking: we begin with basics, including basic ways to differentiate between two things.

But as our own lives prove time and time again: life is messy. Boundaries break down. Borders are porous. And still, these false binaries continue to frame legal practices and the sciences, and therefore have serious consequences for subjugated or marginalized peoples. Western man has logic; ethnic people have beliefs. Western man has History and Science and other people have folklore, mythology, and superstition.

I want to be very careful about terms that imply dichotomies, or binaries that falsely construct an order that then divide the world into one thing and then (vs.) another. Allow me to use a binary myself, that of spirit vs. matter, to illustrate my point. When non-indigenous people claim a connection to indigenous people due to their spirituality, they are almost never connected to indigenous people due to their materiality. In fact, this is exactly the allusion that people unconsciously mean to accentuate. They are saying that they are interested in, reading about, and consuming indigenous non-materiality: spirits, dreams, beliefs, legends, and myths. They are rarely interested in reading or sharing indigenous struggles for sovereignty, water rights, or political recognition. (I am adding here to the important work of both Andy Smith and Lisa Aldred).

I believe there is considerable force to Sherman Alexie’s argument that the market of non-Indian readers leads many writers (including indigenous authors) to continue misrepresenting Native Americans in romantically religious terms. There is real danger to this representation. Indians died in higher numbers than other soldiers when serving in Vietnam. They were put in the front lines because they were thought to be able to listen to the wind and have a natural ability to track prey. A market for Indian spirituality enables both retailers and consumers to feel good about supporting a subjugated group. They can sell, wear, perform, or symbolize their care for others by buying, consuming, and profiting from the Other, rather than real labor for human rights. They do not have to fight for native rights; but they can buy native purification for a weekend in a sweat lodge. Imagine if every dream catcher purchased also entailed a letter written to request Leonard Peltier’s freedom from prison. If we think of native peoples as somehow more spiritual, and thus less material, than we have to care less about their material needs.

Not considering the materiality of native communities helps colonial settlers (most readers of this essay) ignore the realities of life for the original Americans. Like an American version of the movie, Sarah’s Key, we choose not to look at those histories which evidence our continued complicity in the displacement and subjugation of humans. Frankly, it is a downer. Then again, so is living in dire poverty. Unemployment and poverty rates are higher in reservation communities than for any other group in the United States, four times the rate for the average American. Even among gaming tribes, unemployment afflicts a quarter or more of reservation populations. The image of the “rich Indian” was used to combat pro-gaming ballot initiatives in the ’90s, particularly in California. How could real Indians also have large houses and cars, plural? The contrast between a “real” Indian as spiritual and a “fake” Indian as a rich Indian was portrayed to some comic relief by Seth McFarland’s Family Guy episode, “The Son Also Draws.” However, as with other popular representations, I believe the laughs provide relief mostly for the colonizer. The main non-Indian characters have a gambling problem but try to convince the tribal casino management that they are from that tribe. The tribal members in the cartoon are mocked as being pretend Indians since they cannot simultaneously be rich, dress in contemporary fashion, AND also be indigenous people. Indians cannot win. They are invisible out on the reservation, or no longer Indian if they attempt to work within the capitalist system. In fact, the Occupy Wall Street movement has enabled me many chances to point out how Indians were the first that were, and generally speaking still are, left out of the system. And when they “occupied” Alcatraz, Wounded Knee and the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, members of the American Indian Movement experienced the blunt repercussions of living in a police state.

The other side of the material/spiritual binary is that it elevates the Indian to a position of civilizational healer. Thinking of native people as having more access to all things spiritual, we fail to recognize that no one has the upper hand on deeply cosmological questions (not Buddhists, not Hindus, not Southern Baptists). However, settler colonizers do have the upper hand in legal and academic structures. And if we think of Indians as spiritual people, then their land claims and wisdom traditions are about sacred matters rather than rational science, and we have seen how those battles are lost. They are lost in courts of law and they are lost in what gets to count as History with a capital “H,” and Truth with a capital “T.” The real life implications of representing my research on native rituals and mythistory as “spiritual” are that I would be continuing to simplify the importance of indigenous lifeways as matters of the otherworldly. Because my first book dealt directly with the Yaqui people’s views of dreams, myths, and the afterlife, I committed myself to writing also about how such matters related to their struggle for land and the current debt-peonage in Mexico.

But of course, in colloquial settings, it gets a bit tricky; highlighting why settler colonialists might want to think of kokopelis and dream catchers makes people uncomfortable. Still, I like to do it. When I tell someone that I teach about indigenous peoples including American Indians, and they respond that they have visited a vortex or use Native American Tarot Cards, I graciously respond, “That’s interesting!” And then I immediately follow with a question about the last time they visited the tribe near to where they live. My point is that I want them to know, and I want them to consider, living Indians, not just the ones showing up to psychics in channeling sessions. I tend to ask if they agree with the indigenous contentions regarding Occupy Wall Street. I might throw in a trick question or two, such as “What do you think those Indian spirit guides have to say about that Keystone Pipeline?” Or laughing a bit maniacally, “I bet all those Indian spirits want back their land you’re living on!”

You can imagine why I do not get invited to a lot of new age events. I sent a PR letter to every new age bookshop in Los Angeles when my book was coming out, and not one bookstore replied. Yet their weekends are packed with presenters on Indian spirituality. I did wiggle my way into a book fair session in Tucson on spirituality. I felt a bit like an infiltrator, but to a packed room I was able to introduce the subversive idea that if you want to learn about Indians, you must encounter living Indians and their political struggles to be heard above the din of their commodification.

The conundrum is quite complex. On one hand, Indians probably do have ghosts just as any other human population does. And, I do think indigenous religiosity is important to study and understand for both native and non-native peoples. For all I know, dream catchers even work. I am even willing to admit that perhaps the Indian spirits roaming the forests and new age bookstores are laughing at me now. Perhaps they are able to see what really matters for us poor living folk and that we should pay more attention to the spiritual aspects of our lives.

I also know that indigenous people, even some well-meaning scholars, seemingly cannot help themselves from using “sacred,” “holy,” “spiritual,” and the like, when talking about indigenous worldviews and land claims. When asked during the research of the famous Maine Indian Land Claims case, a Passamaquoddy woman told a professor of mine that her relationship to the land was spiritual. As the conversation continued, she explained that she needed to communicate with the land, feed the land, and dance with the land. And she explained that if she did not do such activities, the land would cease to be in relation with her. But as my professor relayed to her, these very real, very physical responsibilities are not included in the concept of “spirituality.” “Spiritual” and “spirituality” do not get at the actuality of that relationship and those words often fail to address what is at stake. She agreed but added that there was a not direct translation for the word she used in her language to categorize such activities. When taught how to pick sage at sunrise, I was told by a Navajo friend to verbally ask for permission, to breathe on a pinch of corn pollen, and to put that pollen at the base of the plant where the sage comes out of the ground. He said these acts were “holy.” But, these are intensely physical acts that establish relations. And how does “holy” make sense in a generative linguistic system (as opposed to a representative linguistic system) that does not have a word for “profane” or “non-holy?”

One more example is in order from my own fieldwork. When Yoeme collaborators tell me about visiting ancestral worlds, or “aniam,” in the hills, they are talking about actual physical entrances. And if a visitor to these worlds fails the tests therein, the affects are physical in the most real sense, including sickness and death. The Yoemem characterize such worlds as “yo,” which earlier ethnographers translated as “enchanted.” But my research into this syllable has shown it means “ancient, respected, and/or elder,” which characterize aspects of culture without implying other aspects as profane. Rather than a dichotomous designation and evaluation, “yo” denotes importance in the spectral terms of something or someone’s aboriginalness or traditionalness.

The Passamaquoddy, Navajo and Yoeme examples, though only briefly described here, tell us that however respected, vital, and religiously considered, many indigenous connections to land are not without materiality, physicality, and substance. Many indigenous peoples do not maintain “spiritual” relations with the land if that term, “spiritual,” is in some way defined or co-constructed as non-physical. Indeed, one can argue that Indians and allies who use the word “spiritual” have been selling the boat to keep the sail. I have been thinking for a while now on the absurdity of calling something “spiritual” or “sacred” to win a land claim in a colonial court of law. Have you seen how non-Indians commodify, represent, and sell their sacred things? Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity covers this latter ground quite well.

All of this reminds me when “spiritual” made it to the big time, when it had its own commercial practically. When Extra made it’s 1996 commercial for sugarfree, extra-lasting gum, viewers had to watch this poor woman miss her life-time dream of seeing the “elusive blue-back whale.” While looking for a piece of gum with more flavor, the crass lady who is portrayed to be doubtful of the whale’s impact, ends up having a moment of rapture and yelling out, “Oh, that is soo spiritual!” It still cracks me up. And like that lady who misses it, I am at a loss for how “spiritual” can come to mean so much and therefore mean so little. “Spirituality,” the term, has become my great white whale. This essay is just one part of my hunt.

“Spirit” has meant breath courage, desire, mind, soul, spirit, demon, energy, and succubus. The inability to use the word with specificity makes it all the more dangerous in a colonial context. If the post-Cartesian turn among the sciences is to mean anything, it should mean to “escape the materialist-spiritualist dualism that mistakenly constructs some humans as rational, and others as not.” Kenneth Morrison wrote that in a forthcoming essay. He adds, “Utopian dreams constituted a romantic impulse to ‘spiritualize’ both nature and indigenous peoples, and might be dismissed (as has animism) as unreal fantasy.”

We are served well to think about how non-Indians, and Americans in general, like their Indians. They seem to like them talking as Indian guides to psychics. They seem to like them as brave chiefs leading a football team to victory. They seem to like them as sad, downtrodden and droopy, losers on the Trail of Tears. They like them with six-pack abs and holding up half-naked princesses on top of ancient temples. They like them crying about pollution. And they like them selling hand-blown pipes and rolling papers on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.

But most of all, they like them spiritually. Like the blue-back whale, Indian spirituality comes to non-Indians, to remind them of something gloriously wild and free, something unfettered by materialism and modern day life. Like an eagle calling out its screech of liberty, the spirit of the Indian lets us know: we are a nation meant for great things. You can make this country better, just keep shopping. If only the living Indians, with their daily lives and struggles, would stop reminding us of reality.