On our way to a recent Grove meeting at Dances-with-Weasels place, Locksley and I had a fragmented discussion about the North American Indians and their place in world spirituality. It was fragmented because I was obliged to keep an eye on the road, the traffic being uncongenial to sober reflections. Nevertheless we shared some thoughts and ideas, and generally agreed about how Native Americans have become freighted with too much symbolic baggage, from the neediness of Westerners (mainly white) who desperately need spiritual role models for their own practice. Somehow their identity simply as people has been denied and their humanity has become subsumed into a cartoon model of ‘Spiritual Warrior’, deeply attuned to Mother Earth and bearing an almost otherworldy relation to nature itself. Quite apart from the unreality of such an image, it simultaneously denies the harsh realities of life for most Native Americans during the nineteenth century (from when most material stems), plunders their culture for our benefit not theirs, and renders their lifestyles as cartoon models for Westerners (us).
If you doubt this, take a look at some of the excellent books on the subject, especially, I would say, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. I seriously doubt that even the most passionate Western ‘admirer’ of the Native Americans would be willing to give up all the material advantages they have in exchange for the simpler, more ‘spiritually attuned and ‘purer’ way of life they allegedly admire so much (me included), when the harsh realities are included. So, to redress the balance a little, here are some passages which reflect the simple humanity of North American Natives, in this case the Chiricahua Apaches.
We have been led to believe by some of the more sentimental treatments in print and film that the North American Indians held their shamans or medicine men with some special reverence. From many of the first hand accounts we have, clearly they did, but we are seduced too easily into thinking that the spiritual knowledge and practices of the shamans were accepted uncritically, forming an unquestionable central spiritual, epistemic and ontological basis for the life of the tribes regardless of practical exigencies. The following passages, taken from An Apache Life Way by Morris Edward Opler, pp 313-315, present quite a different picture. They are, of course, quite selective, and I have chosen them precisely because they offer a corrective to the over sentimentalised view and give a more particularly human impression, supporting what seems to me to be a more realistic and somewhat more detached or critical view of the shamans and their practice.
Clearly, far from being uncritical of their shamans some could be very sceptical:
‘ … any member of the tribe can be, on occasion, a sharp critic of supernatural claims. This was so clear to one shaman that he told his audience “Many of you don’t believe in what I’m doing. You think I’m a fake. I tell you to your faces that many of you will be willing to be this man when you see how I restore him.”
Importantly Opler notes why this is not always apparent in the most frequent accounts:
Criticism and scepticism are not likely to appear in stories of the acquisition and use of power, but they are revealed in casual conversations. … Religiosity is thus tempered with a saving humour and distrust which act as brakes upon unreasonable claims. Each shaman knows there are those who believe in the efficacy of his rite and those who do not and that it is wise not to swell the number of the latter by radical departures from established custom. … undignified religious excitement is cause for humour rather than for praise.
“This is sometimes called religious excitement or religious ecstasy. It is the same as what is called crazy ceremony. … The Chiricahua believe that you get this way when you take religion too seriously. Some Chiricahua think this is funny.”
Admittedly this is a sparse selection, but it was the product of, oh, several minutes’ research at least. With somewhat more time and application, however, I am convinced that there is much more material of this kind out there in the information saturated world. But the point is made. By treating the North American Indians as ‘otherworldly’ and impossibly ‘spiritual’ whilst ignoring the reality of their lives as people, we deny their humanity and forget that they are, just like us, people first and foremost, animals for whom survival is paramount, and whose spirituality is tempered with the necessities of that survival. This does not mean that we cannot learn from them, nor does it mean that their beliefs and practices are entirely irrelevant to us. Far from it. But we should not plunder them willy nilly for our own purposes because their beliefs are born out of their own experiences, in their own environments and in relation to their own pressing priorities.