Philip Jenkins. Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality.
Many American Indians have long lamented the appropriation and adaptation of their traditional religious beliefs and practices by non-Indians. They have pointed out that their traditions cannot be accurately practiced outside of Indigenous cultural contexts, especially by people who are unfamiliar with their languages, histories, and often-subtle cultural protocols. Native Americans, of course, have many reasons to be upset by the resulting corruption of their beliefs and practices. Because the appropriators of Native American traditions are so much more visible to the average American than are Native traditionalists, the average American is likely to assume that the decontextualized, pan-Indian practices of the appropriators are accurate expressions of Native American religion. For this reason, misunderstandings of Native American cultures are often perpetuated by those who claim to respect and represent them. There are other consequences of the appropriation and adaptation of traditional religious beliefs and practices by non-Indians too. Many traditionalists suggest that the improper practice of their ceremonies may be dangerous; these ceremonies, after all, involve communication with other, powerful beings. These beings may take offense to being communicated with by selfish individuals, who ignore long-established protocols governing such communication. Despite all this, and despite other criticisms and consequences, the desire of the non-Indian public to practice their own versions of Indian traditions shows no signs of abating. Scholars thus face the difficult task of making objective sense of this phenomenon, while at the same time acknowledging its negative impact upon Native Americans. It is this task that historian Richard Jenkins takes on in Dream Catchers: How Native America Discovered Native Spirituality.
Jenkins is largely successful. With Dream Catchers, he presents a broad history and analysis of the non-Indian fascination with Indian traditions. Jenkins begins his history in the seventeenth century, by documenting the very negative but very public opinions of Native American cultures held by early settlers. He then examines the romanticization of these cultures that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, he looks at the active transformation of Native American cultural practices by "New Agers" and others in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century--a transformation that is still occurring. Jenkins highlights the fact that this transformation has resulted in a corruption of traditional beliefs and practices, and he affirms that this corruption is of great concern to Native Americans. At the same time, though, he argues that the resulting "neo- or pseudo-Indian spirituality has now achieved the status of an authentic new religious movement" because of its popularity (5).
Jenkins shows that a fascination with Native American cultures existed in the United States from the very birth of the nation. This early fascination, however, was negative. Jenkins points out, for instance, that such prominent figures in Euro-American history as John Smith and Cotton Mather regarded Native Americans as devil worshippers (22). Many others associated Native American religious practices with witchcraft. Jenkins writes that the very Christian and ethnocentric "colonial Americans connected witches and Indians just as naturally as Continental Europeans linked witches to Jews" (25). Jenkins also addresses the prejudices against Native Americans that continued to exist in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many Euro-Americans in these centuries regarded Native Americas as "superstitious" "primitive" or "unusually violent," if not downright evil (27, 31, 33). Sadly, Jenkins points out, such prejudices influenced the treatment of Native Americans, contributing to the suppression of the Ghost Dance movement, the banning of Native American ceremonies, and many other tragedies as well (43, 44-45).
Jenkins writes that the views of Indians and their cultures held by some non-Indians began to change for the positive in the mid-1800s. He tells us that this change was brought about largely because of increased ethnographic activity (51). Figures such as George Catlin and Francis Parkman made earnest efforts to understand Native American cultures and to represent them accurately (51, 53). They helped many of their fellow Euro-Americans to recognize the beliefs and practices of Native Americans as constituting valid, if very different, religions (52).
In truth, Catlin, Parkman, and their peers still wrestled with cultural biases, and, because of that bias, their studies are considered seriously flawed by today's standards. Yet, they helped facilitate an appreciation for Native American cultures that was largely absent in earlier years. In addition, they inspired other ethnographers to begin their own explorations of these cultures. Many later scholars and writers developed a genuine sympathy for the peoples they studied and an attraction to their beliefs and practices. Members of the Euro-American public, who devoured these ethnographic writings, began to see Native Americans and their cultures in a very different light than their foremothers and forefathers did. Jenkins writes, "By 1900, Indian religions had become familiar; by 1920, they were presented as national treasures, part of America's cultural patrimony" (65).
Unfortunately, "patrimony" implies ownership and possession. This fact is not lost on Jenkins, who chronicles how Euro-Americans began to feel a need to participate in Native American practices and even to interpret the practices and the beliefs behind them, according to their own needs and desires. This reinterpretation occurred at a time when developments in transportation made it possible for many Euro-Americans to visit Native American lands, when environmentalism was a growing concern, and when some Euro-Americans were seeking religious alternatives to Christianity and Judaism in mystical and "Eastern" traditions. As a consequence of these developments, and because Native American cultures were made so popular via ethnographic portrayals, many Euro-Americans in the 1890s and later "would seek out Native rituals and spiritual leaders" and then reinterpret the practices they witnessed and the teachings they heard (71). All of this led to a romanticization of Native American cultures as representing real alternatives to the often alienating and troubling world of modernity, in which many advances seemed more like failures. This romanticization, in the end, led to the corruption of Native American beliefs and practices mentioned above.
According to Jenkins, romanticization has also had a positive benefit, however. Some of those who were enamored with Native American cultures became their defenders. Perhaps the best known of these defenders is John Collier, whom Jenkins discusses at length. Most readers will recognize Collier as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs who oversaw implementation of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. This act ended allotment of reservation lands, allowed Native American governments to organize according to "Western" models, and urged the creation of tribal constitutions. While there have been some negative consequences to the reorganization of Native governments, most scholars understand Collier meant well for his charges.
Jenkins reveals that Collier's concern for Native Americans was influenced by a belief that Native Americans were members of a mystical "race,' who were, in some ways, superior because they successfully "integrated the material and spiritual." This integration, Collier believed, was something that his contemporary Euro-Americans were unable to do; their failure, he maintained, was the cause of so many horrible, modern events (88). Jenkins admits that these views of Collier's were not particularly widespread. Still, Collier's influence upon Native American policy is undeniable. Moreover, Jenkins does offer examples of figures who held views very similar to Collier's. No doubt, this section of the book will be of great interest to those who are not already familiar with John Collier's biography or with the very mystical romanticization of Native American cultures that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Jenkins spends a great deal of time exploring the surge of interest the American public has shown in Native American cultures during the past few decades. He suggests this surge was caused by the tremendous disaffection that many people felt toward American mainstream society in the 1960s and '70s. Also, Jenkins points out that Native American cultures, or romanticized versions of those cultures, were made more available to Euro-Americans than ever before through even more efficient modes of travel, through a huge body of literature on Native America, and through their regular appearance in the in electronic media. According to Jenkins, Native American cultures were, thus, in the minds of many, easily accessible and imitable alternatives or supplements to mainstream American culture.
In the 1960s and '70s many Americans began to exercise dominion over what they really had come to see as their own "patrimony." Images, accurate or otherwise, of Native America were so ubiquitous that mainstream Americans naturally came to believe that those cultures could have been, or should have been, their own. Jenkins argues, therefore, that the interest shown in Native American cultures during this period "differed from its predecessor in one crucial way, namely, that sympathy soon transformed into active imitation" (154). Jenkins continues to say that, by the 1970s, "Native spirituality was repackaged in a way that made it feasible for adoption by white observers, in however generic or deceptive a form" (155).
Jenkins surveys many of the people involved in this "repackaging" and "imitation," both Native and non-Native. He covers such well-known and diverse figures as Sun Bear, Brooke Medicine Eagle, and Carlos Castaneda. In most cases, he provides a biography of the individuals and looks very objectively at their often extremely controversial roles in reinterpreting and representing Native American religions.
Jenkins writes not only about individuals but also about the beliefs and practices themselves that have become so popular. For instance, he devotes a section to the "medicine wheel," which has become a key feature of the new pan-Indian "spirituality,' even though it was primarily a religious tool of the Plains peoples (186-90). Additionally, Jenkins examines the creation of new tribes, shamanic communities, and other religiously based organizations, populated by mostly white members, that now exist independently from established culture groups and traditions (190-93). Other topics in this portion of the book include spiritual tourism, the commoditization of Native American ceremonial materials, and more.
Jenkins does an excellent job throughout this portion of the book emphasizing that the reinterpretations and representations of Native American beliefs and practices that have become so popular are, from traditional Native perspectives, misinterpretations and misrepresentations--or, as I wrote earlier, corruptions. Jenkins explains that the beliefs and practices are often divorced by their appropriators from their Indigenous roots, teased out from wider bodies of religious knowledge and rituals, and associated with a "new age." The problems created by these actions are, of course, compounded by the fact that the people doing these things are almost never even equipped with the languages and other tools that would allow them to understand the beliefs and practices in the native cultural contexts.
Traditional Indigenous beliefs and practices are normally associated with a particular community and adapted to a particular environment--an environment filled with particular spirits and other beings. The appropriators of these beliefs and practices come from a culture that emphasizes individuality and deemphasizes the importance of place. All too often, then, these appropriators end up practicing rituals that were never intended to benefit just one person, in a foreign environment, surrounded by very different beings.
Jenkins recognizes this fact and writes that Native American religions do not "relocate successfully, or at least, not without great difficulty" (219). Jenkins also notes that there is a tendency among appropriators of Native American beliefs and practices to pick and choose only those elements of a religion that they find particularly appealing and to combine them with elements of other religions (219). The appropriators then effectively construct from cannibalized parts a religion that appeals only to their personal needs and desires. Thus, we may now find people using a Lakota pipe during a Cree-style Sundance, for which they prepared with a Blackfoot sweat lodge, all so that they can fulfill their own desires to find relief from their own society.
Worse yet, many of the people doing this appropriating want others to do the same. Influenced by a proselytizing attitude inherited from the mainstream Christian culture, they seek to share their newly constructed, pan-Indian spirituality with others, to help initiate a "new age" in which the evils of modernity will be overcome and forgotten. The reader will notice that this idea has much in common with the millenarian ideas found in Christianity and in other forms of Abrahamic religion. Jenkins does not deal extensively with this idea, but he certainly points out that neo- and pseudo-Indian spirituality has become a staple element of what is now called the "New Age Movement" (197).
As I pointed on in the introduction to this review, traditional Native Americans have many reasons to be upset about the appropriation of their beliefs and practices. Jenkins acknowledges this point repeatedly throughout the book and, in fact, devotes the entire eleventh chapter to the Native activism that has arisen to prevent it. Speaking of the beginnings of this activism, he writes, "Native activists were disturbed to see outsiders apparently stealing their treasured rituals and practices, often in such crude and inaccurate form that they constituted a kind of blasphemy" (239). Jenkins even acknowledges that the appropriation of Native American beliefs and practices is more than a mere annoyance to Native American traditionalists:
Apart from causing emotional offense to believers, the imitation of Native spirituality poses immediate practical dangers. The more non-Indians convinced themselves that they were following Native ways, the more inclined they were to seek out Native holy places, and to perform rituals and other actions there that were offensive to traditional people. (241)
Of course, much has been written about this very important topic. However, because it is not the focus of Jenkins's book, I am not going to explore it further here. The reason I bring it up is to establish that Jenkins does indeed look critically at neo- and pseudo-Indian spirituality, before finally proceeding to his claim that, as offensive and downright damaging as much of this spirituality has been, it has resulted in a new type of religion that simply does not appear to be going away.
Certainly, with Dream Catchers Jenkins provides an excellent general history and analysis of the appropriation of Native American beliefs and practices by non-Natives. His central aim, though, is to show that the resulting form of spirituality should be recognized as a very real form of religion. Jenkins writes, "A religion is not less valid because it is newly minted, nor even because its early development may contain elements of deceit" (248). Indeed, there is something deceitful in the actions of those who present neo- and pseudo-Native American spirituality as being authentically "Native." Jenkins himself writes that "much or most of what is currently presented as Native spirituality simply should not be so described, at least in the sense that it represents or reproduces the practice of any historical community" (218). In spite of this, Jenkins argues, scholars should afford a certain "respect" to this new form of religion (249).
No doubt, "respect" will be a difficult thing for many of Jenkins's readers, including myself, to muster for this new religion. Jenkins realizes this likely reaction and reminds his readers in the last pages of his book that he recognizes the actions of many New Agers (particularly when they ignore established protocols while visiting Indian communities) as "despicable" and "insensitive" (254). Perhaps, then, what Jenkins means by suggesting that we should "respect" this new religion is that we should consider it worthy of study. If scholars are able to do this, then they might better understand the motivations of those who are acting so "insensitively" and "despicably." Such an understanding might allow those in Native American Studies who consider themselves as cultural critics or advocates for Native peoples to accomplish their goals more easily, and it might enable them to communicate better with the New Agers who must be made to understand how hurtful and damaging their actions often are. I suspect, however, that Jenkins's controversial claim will probably be of more interest to theorists of religion than to other scholars involved in Native American Studies.
The real value of Dream Catchers to most Native American Studies scholars will be the sweeping history that Jenkins provides of the shifting attitudes of Euro-Americans toward Native American cultures and his surveys of the key figures who influenced these attitudes. Much of this history and many of these figures will already be well known to those involved in Native American Studies. Also, the reader will find that Jenkins often only touches upon events and persons that probably deserve much more attention. Still, Jenkins provides a very comprehensive and convincing narrative of just how and why attitudes toward Native Americans shifted so drastically between the colonial era and the past few decades.
A concern that is of greater substance than the mere breadth of this book--a breadth that explains why so many events and persons are not explored in greater depth--is Jenkins's failure to include more Indigenous voices in the text. Jenkins accounts for their absence by explaining that his intent was to focus upon the Euro-American appropriators rather than the Native American peoples whose traditions are being appropriated. He makes this clear in the introduction:
I should stress what the book does not attempt. It does not describe or analyze American Indian religion, or offer a history of their fate under U.S. rule. To take an obvious example, any worthwhile history of official religious repression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have to make use of Native voices themselves; and many such are available, in the form of oral histories records. I do not use these materials, because they are not germane to my purpose of describing the changing attitudes of the mainstream society.
Jenkins's point is well taken. Yet, he does, in fact, devote the entire eleventh chapter to Native American critiques of cultural appropriation. While Jenkins relies upon quotes from some Native American scholars and cultural critics in this chapter (Vine Deloria Jr., Andy Smith, and Russell Means, to name a few), he could have strengthened his arguments in this portion of the book by including a much greater number of Native voices.
Nonetheless, Jenkins has succeeded in writing a book that will inform many scholars about the history behind the reinterpretation and representation of Native American cultural traditions by non-Natives. Jenkins has also succeeded in writing a book that might compel some scholars to take a closer, though no less forgiving, look at the religion that seems to have resulted from these reinterpretations and representations. Dream Catchers: How Mainstream American Discovered Native Spirituality is thus an important contribution to the literature of Native American Studies. Scholars who are interested in cultural appropriation, whether they specialize in religion or not, will find it an interesting and useful book.
Kenneth H. Lokensgard, Gettysburg College
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|Author:||Lokensgard, Kenneth H.|
|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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