Preface: In the past few years there has been an increase in pop shamanism as well as “white” people insisting on the right to market “Indian” ceremonies. This has provoked a militant reaction among some Native American traditionalists and even their strident Anglo followers to expose, discredit, disrupt and in some cases maliciously destroy the lives of what they consider to be New Age Wannabes appropriating their sacred ways. In the ensuing conflict many truths have been ignored, complex relationships and inevitable twists overlooked, and people on both sides have been distracted from the real and urgent work of personal growth and realization. Cultural rewilding. The awakening of compassion and response. Opposition to global institutional injustice and the rape of the planet. The work of reducing population while raising empowered children. Creating alternative schools and community organizations. Planting trees, gardens, and the seeds of noble resistance. Coming together to heal and repair. Remembering to celebrate, and to savor…
In the interest of of getting on with this shared responsibility, we offer this revised version of the classic 1986 Animá text:
Matters of Respect & Belonging
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
IN-DIG-E-NOUS: adj. 1) Occurring or living naturally in an area; native
2) Intrinsic, innate
“We see in the present best efforts of groups of non-Indians an honest desire to become indigenous in the sense of living properly with the land…Sacred places in North America may yet see a series of transformations in which new peoples using new languages rely on them for spiritual sustenance.”
-Vine Deloria. Jr. (Sioux historian)
Not so long ago unassimilated Native Americans marked five centuries of opposition to the European incursion… preceded, we should note, by over three millenniums of struggle waged in behalf of cultural sovereignty and human dignity by land-based tribes, each courageously facing the encroaching civilized paradigm as it crept over Asia, Europe and Africa before the Americas.
The strength to resist destruction or assimilation, to resist the denigration and transformation of the physical landscape, comes from the depth of one’s relationship to it. Strength is one of the gifts we’re given in return for our devotion and loyalty, for acting like responsible natives. The power lies in belonging not owning, from hearing and serving, stretching and risking for a larger purpose… and it is the unimpeachable connectedness of all indigenous people that gives them the strength to face seemingly insurmountable odds. Such connection comes from our species slowing down and staying put for a change, on our loving tending and intense paying of attention.
To commemorate, to celebrate, to pray or just to make their lives and their spirituality more real, contemporary land-based and spiritual communities have begun to fashion rituals relevant to current times, the planet’s dire straits, the mixed-lineage of the clans, and their terrestrial sites: their place. They may be fourth and fifth generation inhabitants of Turtle Island, as the North American continent has sometimes been called, and yet they are unlikely to have elders to turn to for instruction or rites to call their own. In camps next to threatened forests, in gardens and on mountain walks, during rites of passage for their children and attending the births and the deaths of their loved ones, they piece together fragments of prayers, symbols and ideas. They draw from the universal to tap the power of the sacred circle, of sweat lodges and burning smudge. They gather bagpipes, drums, rattles, sometimes even a saxophone– and open themselves to giving voice to Spirit, to Gaia, to Mother Earth, to God.
It turns out to be a fine line between the creation and adulteration of tradition, between honoring Indian spiritual traditions and what some AmerIndian activists have labeled “cultural genocide.” After a history of their homelands being appropriated and sold, the extraction of their Native American rituals and symbols is experienced as the final affront, the ultimate theft. The one thing usually left to a defeated and dispossessed peoples was their unique cosmology, the songs and rituals through which any culture knows and defines itself. The new Indian traditionalists grew up with their artifacts sold to museums, their implements bastardized as rubber tomahawks and pueblo ashtrays, their people stereotyped thanks to non-Indians playing their part in a deluge of western movies. Many have struggled to eschew the materialist ways of the invader culture, and applied themselves to learning the old ways of their various tribes. Now they find other Native Americans sharing, and sometimes charging for lessons in their spiritual ways. They find Europeans and EuroAmericans marketing “Lakota” Inipi ceremonies (sweats), and making money writing “Indian” books.
It’s important, however, not to invalidate someone else’s personal connection when protecting the exclusivity and privacy of cultural knowledge and ritual. Many questions remain unanswered, even by the most vocal of activists waging their campaign to bring grief to what they call “New Age Wannabees” and “Twinkies.” What of non-Indians who have grown up on the reservation, and call a particular tribal world-view their own? What should a non-Indian do if invited by a Native American to join in a ceremony? What of the appropriateness of the spread of the plains’ Sun Dance the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest? The line is further blurred when one considers the ritual use of sweat lodges, drums and vision quests which are common to the primal peoples of numerous races and cultures, regardless of place of origin. No one can reasonably make any proprietary claim to that which can’t be owned: the spirit of place, right here in North America, and the search for relationship with all its resident beings. Nor are those of Celtic descent the only peoples capable or worthy of accessing the energies of Ireland. Indeed, it is not only possible but crucial to that country’s spiritual and environmental realities that any AmerIndian, Asian, Australian Aborigine or multi-racial New Yorker visiting or settling there learn to connect to its Spirit and honor its timeless character.
In Animá we’ve not only avoided muddled eclecticism, but also honored the concerns of our American Indian friends, by employing only practices that both our feeling hearts and our deep experience of our home place provide – regardless of how useful certain practices from other cultures might be. And in addition, we discourage any ceremony or practice that doesn’t naturally arise from present needs and context, the land we are a part of and our individual experience. Our Shaman Path correspondence course doesn’t offer easy feel-good shortcuts to weekend enlightenment, but nature-provided insights and tools for the few to answer an insistent calling, painfully readjusting perceptions and remaking their daily lives, preparing them to serve the larger whole. The quests we facilitate are in no way meant to be traditional Native American ceremonies, they’re processes and tests that the land and spirit call to us of every race and culture to undertake. We do not do “Indian Sweats” or teach an “Indian Medicine Wheel”… we strive to understand the life wheel as it is revealed now and here. And we just sweat, as part of the effort of doing our best.
“It is essential that people reconnect with Earth-based religions, but many times people are trying to practice Lakota vision questing or other practices out of context. You can’t practice Lakota without being in the context of a Lakota community.”
I’ve given talks at several conferences where fellow presenter LaDuke admonishes our mostly Caucasian audiences to search out earth-honoring practices within our own cultural and religious framework, meaning to look to the Kabbhalic roots of pre-patriarchal Judaism, the Gnostic traditions of early Christianity and the example of St. Francis, and by implication the religiosity and rites of the Druids of Western Europe, the Yoruba of Africa and the Jains of India. The problem is that not everyone claims a single country of origin, a single (or any) existing religious practice. They couldn’t “go back where they came from” even if they wanted, when so many migrants from so many different countries may have crossed to create the persons they are.
Should someone of mixed lineage return to their Pict roots, search through the sprawling cities of Great Britain for the vibrations of their history, or take off to find the birthplaces of ancestors on their mother’s Russian side, where the oldest surviving tradition is patriarchal Orthodoxy? Or might they belong in France, the place of origin for at least one branch of the spreading family tree? Or is the only real geographical return one to Mother Africa, the playground of “Lucy,” according to genealogists the original home of the common ancestor of every human on Earth? Nor can one carve up their body, send a foot to walk two separate shores, an arm to be raised to the Gods of the Pyreenes, guts to the Caucasus, one’s head staked to the destiny of the Emerald Isles…forever looking west. And even if, our heart must surely remain in the place we love most, the place of allegiance, the place where we finally take on the responsibilities of home.
Being Indigenous doesn’t necessarily require one be a member of an established culture, religion and community history previously associated with that piece of land, although it certainly helps strengthen and codify the relationship. More crucial, perhaps, is that the person (or other lifeform) be open to the directives of the ecosystem, ready and able to symbiotically interact with every element of that ecosystem.
At the same time, the primal perception of remaining land-based and tribal peoples becomes increasingly important as our modern society reels out of control, out of balance both ecologically and spiritually. In their land-specific stories we can help recover our lost the awareness of place, the feeling of being home. The knowledge of how to live in balance, sustainably, already exists – in the ways of the ancient ones of every continent. The information is being lost along with the unraveling of tribal customs, with time tested skills and gifted insights disappearing as fast as their lands are being seized for development. The young often feel they have no choice but to embrace foreign values and lifestyles, seeking a livelihood in the major urban centers of the colonizers. As our existences and enterprises become increasingly commercial and controlled, our pleasures ever more vicarious, our sense of both culture and place perverted or absent, as both our schedules and our thoughts race ever faster, we can still turn to they who have lived here, and loved here the longest. Turn to the Native American elders, placed peasants, Hispanic dirt farmers with their knowledge of weather and wild foods, nomads still following the reindeer and the seasons, the Kayapo and their jungle pharmacy. Not to emulate or simulate mind you, but in a respectful search for the evidence of truths we might then apply in our own lives, families and societies.
The primal mind isn’t just for the seekers of a few tribes, a state of mind accessible to the tranced-out Ladakh, the Kogi or the Shuar. It is a region or capacity of the human brain, accessible by the most predisposed of us. It surfaces during love making, while crossing the slick head of a waterfall, in the presence of enraptured children, whenever circumstance and surprise have delivered us most fully into our sentient bodies. At these times the the Earth reveals itself as unquestioningly sacred, imbued with the numinous. Even the most mundane expressions of inanimate nature appear alive, and one can sense movement in patterns of fiber and the grain of mineral and wood. We find ourselves in the timeless now, the eternal bodily and psychic engagement with the present, a part of an interconnected universe that unfolds and contracts in cycles. Even if only for the shortest period of time, we jettison words for reality, symbol for touch, and know the world through our primal minds. We feel more alive, complete, tested and worthy. And we are. Worthy to be. Worthy to be here now.
We become more and more indigenous to the degree that we reside in our primal minds, in place, in the moment. To become: coming to be, leaning how to really be, coming into one’s self. In re-becoming native, we re-create a contemporary culture, community, vocabulary, spiritual sensibility and finally a history true to our mixed-blood ancestry and the urgent and trying times at hand. Along with our grounding comes an almost forgotten humility. We can look to the the first “two legged” peoples to inhabit this continent for guidance, but we must each establish our credibility directly with the land, own our deepening connection. We must stand up for the fact that we too belong, while respecting the ways of those peoples who showed respect to these places so long before us.
In time we may come to recognize being native as a condition of relationship, sensitivity, engagement, reciprocity and allegiance. Reindigenation is, in fact, an evolutionary imperative. Just to survive, those people facing the challenges of the next hundred years will have had to learn to feel and act placed again… settling in not as the managers of creation but as humble co-creators of our world and our reality. Such survivors will likely be of ever more mixed blood, the descendants of Shona and Aborigine, Mongol and Semite, Hispanic and Cree, and they will of necessity have learned respect. They will be the proud inheritors of the affections of Aphrodite, the temperance of Chuang-Tzu, the resolve of Odin and Ogun, the determination of the Berserkers and the spirit of Crazy Horse. No matter where they’re situate, they’ll have survived because they came to know and manifest themselves – completely and unapologetically – as indigenous.
And this alone will have brought them great satisfaction and peace.