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Issue Date:  December 10, 2004

By Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press,
320 pages, $28
'Native spirituality' gets new respect

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST

During the past century, a profound shift in mainstream cultural and religious values has occurred in the popular view of Native American spirituality, according to the eclectic and prolific Philip Jenkins.

Jenkins, who teaches history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, has recently authored, among a spate of other books, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (2003).

Jenkins now turns his proven intellectual and analytical skills to another idea-rich subject in Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. He demonstrates convincingly how native spirituality -- he calls it Indian spirituality -- has undergone a dramatic 180-degree shift in cultural receptivity. Within little more than a century, it has evolved from devil worship into a respectable world-class religious tradition.

Supporting the central focus of his book, Jenkins demonstrates how our understanding of religion itself has dramatically changed during the past century. We Christians have expanded our sense of what religion means to include a much broader range of belief systems, reaching well beyond what was once considered to be orthodox teaching.

Mainstream culture has appropriated American Indian spirituality to serve its own purposes. This has occurred far too frequently, the author laments, with less than an honest attempt to understand that spirituality as a living faith tradition in its own right. The primary reason for this change lies in the fact that American Indian spirituality provides a compensatory path that many of us find lacking in our inherited church communities. But what we have done with aboriginal spirituality has been too frequently self-serving. We have not hesitated, stepped back and made the effort to recognize native spirituality as authentically valuable in and of itself.

I believe that non-native North American Christians have gone through four distinct phases of addressing native spirituality since first contact. Carol Higham’s book Noble, Wretched and Redeemable (University of New Mexico Press, 2000) provides the structural framework for this overview. I add one more term to her trio -- “Respected.”

Views of native spirituality

  • Noble: Early in the encounter, American Indians were viewed by whites as idealized citizens of the natural world -- untouched and unscathed by Old Country contaminations. The “noble savage” was commonly believed to exist beyond the ordinary. He was, in reality, a creative figment of the white man’s imagination rather than a real figure. Yet, as Jenkins avers, Euro-Americans have always been creating American Indians in their own image rather than recognizing them as they really are. This, he asserts, has been a major iniquity inflicted by whites upon natives.
  • Wretched: Reality set in. With time, negative aspects of the encounter became entrenched. Christian religious authorities continued to interpret the situation through their prejudices. “Wretched” became the way sincere but culturally biased missionaries and the majority of Euro-Americans viewed the native inhabitants. Indeed, most believed first peoples to be primitive savages lacking in developed cultural attributes. In this state, they inhabited a world of superstition and idolatry. They lacked convincing indicators of a higher religion. Sincere, well-intended folk sought to rectify this perceived lack and expended great efforts to civilize and Christianize the native peoples.
  • Redeemable: In more recent decades “redeemable” represents the way dominant Christians related to their now-Christianized native brothers and sisters. Human rights and justice issues resonated strongly from voices within the churches. Disadvantaged First Nations people needed recognition and justice to guarantee them equality within their larger nations. At the same time, spiritually arrogant Christians and other humanitarians began, for the first time, to attend more humbly to native understandings of spirituality and justice. Gradually, American Indian people have been naming and claiming their own voices after years of existence as victims of colonization.
  • Respected: We now enter a time when American Indian spirituality is respected for what it is, says Jenkins. This respect is still plagued with misunderstanding and undermined by abuse such as the appropriation of native spirituality by New Age “wannabes” and entrepreneurial opportunists both within and beyond the native communities. Still, the end result of this new era of respect acknowledges the need for restitution for cultural losses and recognition of land rights. Respect implies a redefining of the traditional meaning of religion and acknowledging First Nations peoples and their spiritualities as valid living faiths alongside the other great world religions. The emergence of this fourth stage bodes well for the future.

Challenging assumptions

Jenkins frequently challenges common wisdom concerning native people today. For example, he considers untrue the belief that modern North American culture is primarily individualistic, while native cultures are essentially communal. He questions the view that native and Christian religions are polar opposites. Catholicism, as opposed to Protestantism, he says, has many natural affinities with native religion. The author claims that many contemporary American Indians are themselves no more grounded in “Mother Earth spirituality” and related aspects of ecological conservation than other Americans.

Issue could be taken with some of Jenkins’ theories and assessments. Yet the overall tenor of this study is stimulating, positive and expansive. He challenges complacent spiritual thinking, even among those of us who consider ourselves aware of the subject.

Dream Catchers is surprisingly moderate to liberal in tone. It is not as disparaging as might have been anticipated of New Age influences on some expressions of modern native spirituality. This book ranks in quality with Jenkins’ The Next Christendom and is a considerable improvement over his rather unsatisfying recent defense of modern Catholicism.

“We are in a very different environment from the 1960s when Indians watched in passive bemusement as the counterculture absorbed and imitated their religious practices,” the author concludes.

We have come to a period in the development of Western culture where the First Nations are viewed as respected leaders for us all in the life of the spirit.

If that is so, and this reviewer finds it hard to disagree, we are entering a new and exciting time in the maturation of human spirituality.

Wayne A. Holst is an adult educator at St. David’s United Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 2004

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