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Wes Isley

Wes Isley

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Native American Religion: For Members Only?

Posted: 07/15/10 08:52 PM ET

As my spiritual path has evolved, I've discovered a growing appreciation and respect for Native American spiritual beliefs and traditions. I know there are many differences among tribes, but in general, they all appear to share a reverence for the land, for animals and plants, for the bonds of community, for the wisdom of the elderly and for the contributions of their ancestors. I find these perspectives compelling and valuable because they are unfortunately absent in my own culture's religious traditions.

Sounds innocent enough, right? Hardly. Turns out many Native Americans are offended about the growing attendance by whites at their powwows and the usage or appropriation of their rituals and symbols for pricey New Age spiritual retreats. You can't blame them when tragic deaths occur at "Native" sweat lodges led by white folk like Oprah guru James Ray, when self-appointed celebrities like Heidi and Spencer Pratt announce that they wish to be known as "White Wolf" and "Running Bear,", or when poplet Ke$ha performs with a full feather headdress for no apparent reason.

While these are extreme cases, to be sure, Native Americans are organizing around this issue and becoming more vocal about what they see as outright theft of their ancestral spiritual traditions. The site New Age Frauds & Plastic Shamans aims to uncover hucksters posing as "real" Native Americans, and more thoughtful blogs like Native Appropriations and articles by Native spokespersons nudge us not to be so arrogant and clueless.

So what does this have to do with me? First let me say that I am as white as they come, and if there is any Native American blood in my family, it's well hidden. The only claim I make is that what little I know of Native American spirituality stirs my soul at a deep level. There's something about the simple act of acknowledging the cardinal directions that quickly puts me in my rightful place on the Earth. And I have come to believe that all animals possess insightful qualities and attributes that we can learn from if we just slow down and look. But some anthropologists are up in arms, and some Native Americans say, "Indian spirituality is for Indians only." If that statement is true, I think it bodes poorly for our future as a nation and also for us as spiritual people. I may not be conducting sweat lodges or dressing in native garb, but am I allowed to incorporate Native American-inspired traditions into my own private spiritual practice?

We have to ask ourselves whether culture, race or DNA forever determines our spiritual path. Is Christianity only for white Anglo-Saxons? Are all Catholics Irish or Italian? Can a Westerner practice yoga, meditation or Tai Chi? Are all Arabs Muslim? Turn the tables and ask: Can a Cherokee be a "real" Christian? Or, can Native Americans celebrate Easter or Christmas? Does their own cultural and spiritual heritage prevent them from understanding what these traditions truly mean?

While it is important to root out fraud no matter what your religion is (Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, anyone?), I prefer to believe that our spirits are bigger than the tiny, particular corners of the world into which we are born. I understand that Native Americans have experienced a near extinction of their culture in this country, and the appropriation of spiritual traditions seems like yet another violation.

But don't all religions evolve? For example, Christianity evolved from Judaism and ancient mystery cults. Yet the Christianity practiced today in the U.S. has little in common with that of the early Church, and today Christians have numerous worldwide denominations and offshoots, all of which evolved out of particular cultures and peoples. I believe this is a good thing. Perhaps Native American spiritual traditions have an opportunity to evolve, too. And if calling it "Native American" is distasteful, then give this emerging spiritual practice a name of its own and allow it a space to flourish. If it has no validity, it will eventually wither and disappear.

I don't know who gets to make this decision, and I deplore all that my own ancestors did to the Native tribes when they arrived in North America. But as a result of my meager exposure to Native American spirituality, I believe I have changed for the better. How wonderfully ironic! Perhaps their spirituality is the Native American's most enduring legacy for the people now living on this continent, what some refer to as Turtle Island. Religion certainly once kept Whites and Native Americans apart. What do we gain by maintaining this separation? If you believe that places, such as Turtle Island, have a spirit, does that Great Spirit play favorites?