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Seeking Native American Spirituality: Read This First!

Judging from the email I get, there are a lot of people out there trying to learn about traditional Native American religion and spirituality these days. Many of them are trying to do this on the Internet.

Now, there is a lot of garbage and misinformation on the Internet no matter what subject you're talking about, but American Indian religion and spirituality has got to have the worst signal-noise ratio of any of them. The 'information' out there about American Indian religions ranges from inaccurate school projects by seven-year-olds, to deeply biased generalizations about the 'heathens' written 300 years ago, to hucksters pretending to be Native American shamans to scam money off of people, to useful and interesting information about actual American Indian religious traditions past and present. Sorting through these sites can be a nightmare. I wish you a lot of luck with it. Before you start, let me give you a few words of experience.

There are two reasons to be looking for information on Native American religions. The first, and easier to address, is educational. Either because you're a student who's been assigned to or just out of intellectual and cultural curiosity, you would like to learn more about how American Indians, or a particular tribe of American Indians, view the world. If that's you, then your main problem is going to be identifying the authentic and trustworthy sources. Indians are happy to talk about their beliefs and spiritual practices, both historically and in the modern day. Unfortunately, so are plenty of ill-informed non-Indians (or people of Indian descent) who think they know a lot more than they do. And so are those unscrupulous souls willing to pretend they're something they're not in hopes of making a buck or getting a little attention. My best recommendation is to get a Native American book out of the library as well as looking on the Internet, since any quack shaman can put up a website but it's a lot harder to publish a book. I also suggest ignoring and avoiding information about American Indian spirituality presented by anyone:

1. Offering anything religious for sale. Money is never accepted by authentic holy people in exchange for Indian religious ceremonies like sweat lodges or sun dances, nor for religious items like medicine bags or smudged items. (They might sell arts and crafts, of course. Use your common sense--a devout Catholic might sell you a hand-carved crucifix to hang on your wall, for example, but he wouldn't sell communion wafers over the Internet or charge you admission to bring you to his church! Selling dreamcatchers or fetish carvings online is one thing, but don't believe information provided by anyone who is trying to charge people for smudging or blessing anything, making medicine, or letting them take part in a sweat lodge or dance. They are not authentic sources of information.)

2. Inviting you into their religion on their webpage. Authentic Indians may seek to educate strangers online, but actually adopting an outsider as part of their culture is only done face-to-face and after knowing the person for some time.

3. Claiming to be American Indian shamans , talking about tarot cards and Wiccan/pagan things, or talking about crystals and New Age things. I've got nothing against shamanism, paganism, or the New Age, but a cow is not a horse: none of these things are traditionally Native American. Shamanism is a Siberian mystic tradition, Wicca is a religion based in pre-Christian European traditions, Tarot readings are an Indo-European divination method, and the New Age is a syncretic belief system invented, as its name suggests, in the modern era. None of them have anything to do with authentic Indian traditions, and anyone who thinks they do is likely to be wrong about anything else he claims about Native American religions as well. Wiccans and New Agers don't have any more knowledge about actual American Indian beliefs than you do.

4. Identifying only as 'Native American' or 'American Indian' (an authentic person would list their actual tribal affiliation). Be a little wary, too, of people trying to speak with authority who identify as "mixed-blood" or "of Indian descent" or having a "Cherokee ancestor." There are certainly some mixed-blood people who were raised in their tribe's culture, but many more were not. A person who has rediscovered his Indian heritage as an adult is a seeker, not a teacher. He is not qualified to speak authoritatively about Native American religion or culture, for he wasn't raised that way and doesn't have any more knowledge about it than anyone else learning about it second-hand--including you.

If you're trying to learn about American Indian religion because you want to become a part of it, though, you not only face that problem, but another, much deeper one as well: American Indian spirituality is not evangelistic. It is private and entirely cultural. You cannot convert to 'Native American' any more than you can convert to African-American or Korean or any other cultural identity you would need to be raised in to understand. (In fact, many Indians--myself included--are Christians in addition to our traditional tribal beliefs, just like many African-American and Korean people are Christian in addition to having an ethnicity of their own.) The only way to 'join' a Native American spiritual tradition is to become a member of the cultural group, and it's impossible to do that over the Internet. No one who truly believed in American Indian spirituality would ever offer to tutor total strangers in religious matters online, much less charge anyone money for such a thing. So, by definition, the people who make these offers are those who either don't really believe in Native American spirituality, or don't know very much about it. Is that really who you want to be listening to?

On our site, we have generally given people the benefit of the doubt with our links, including websites unless we are sure there is a reason not to. Regarding Native American religion and spirituality, however, we have decided to err on the side of caution instead. Anyone who is looking for a new religion or seeking spiritual truth is a needy individual and I will not contribute to their being used by irresponsible people. If you are reading this page because you are a person in need of religious and spiritual guidance, I urge you strongly to seek out some religions that are evangelistic rather than cultural (one of the many Christian churches, Buddhism, Baha'i; there are many choices) and talk to spiritual leaders there until you find one that can help you. Falling under the influence of a false 'shaman' will only hurt you spiritually.

Since I have put this page up, I have received many anguished emails saying "But my grandmother was part Cherokee... are you telling me to just forget that part of myself? How can I honor my Native ancestors if you won't share your religion with me?" The answer is simple: honor them the way they would want to be honored. Don't pay some new-age guru $250 to perform fake "Native American" rituals that would have offended your ancestors, go physically to their tribe and re-connect with their other descendants. It will be hard work convincing the people there that you are genuine but if you go with humility and patience you will eventually be accepted, and that is the ONLY way you will ever become part of the spiritual tradition you desire. There is no shortcut to that. Native spirituality belongs only to the cultural group, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to make some money off of you and/or to take a power trip at your expense.

You've been warned. Good luck, with whatever it is you're looking for. You're probably going to need it.

Orrin

Useful Links on Native American Religions:

Since each tribe has a unique cultural and religious tradition, it is difficult to generalize about native beliefs. You can look through our list of Native American tribes for some good information and links about individual cultures. Here are a few good links about Native American religion in general:

Native American Religions: Essay by an Osage writer about the religious traditions of Indian communities.
    This is the best overview of native spirituality I've seen on the Internet.
Native American Spirituality: Generic overview of American Indian religious beliefs and related issues.
    Very simple and it might be good for kids doing homework.
Native American Legends: Online collection of American Indian myths and traditional stories.
Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality: The Sioux peoples have the worst problem of all the tribes
    with non-natives exploiting their spiritual beliefs. Read how they feel about it.
Selling American Indian Spirituality: Article by a Sioux woman about the exploitation of Native American traditions.
Native American Religious Exploitation and Defense: Links about American Indian religious exploitation and persecution.
Tengerism: Siberian Shamanism: Website of an indigenous Buryat shaman from Siberia. If you are interested in actual
     (non-American Indian) shamanism, this seems like a good place to learn.

Further reading:

Here are a few genuine and worthwhile books on Native American religions:

God is Red: A Native View of Religion: Book by respected Lakota author Vine Deloria, Jr. comparing Christianity and
    native religions. It's a controversial book, requires critical thinking skills. I recommend it for adult readers.
Encyclopedia of Native American Religions: This is really the book you want if you're trying to write an essay
    about Native American beliefs, or just curious about world religions. Lots of accurate information here.
Native Religions and Cultures of North America: Collection of in-depth anthropological essays on a dozen different
    Native American religions.
The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life: An interesting book on Native American spirituality by three
    Indian women from different tribal traditions.
South and Meso-American Native Spirituality: An overview of Indian religions in countries other than the US and Canada.
Native and Christian: A series of essays by Native American authors on their experiences blending Christianity and Indian spirituality.
American Indian Myths and Legends: Well-attributed collection of many diverse traditional stories of Native America.
Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies:
    Book by a Karuk elder about the meanings of animals and other natural symbols in Native American spirituality.



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