Indigenists and Universalists

I seem to have been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation lately — issues such as theft of voice and spiritual eclecticism. One way of thinking about these issues is to point to two very different ways of looking at spirituality: for want of existing terms, I have called them indigenist and universalist. Indigenists are communitarian, traditional, hierarchical, and concerned with correct ritual action; universalists are individualist, eclectic, egalitarian, and concerned with psychological states. The following table may be helpful in capturing the underlying beliefs of these two approaches:

Spiritual values derive from a small, homogeneous community with well-defined leadership roles and what is perceived as an essentially unchanging oral tradition.Spiritual values derive from a large diverse world community providing both oral and written resources which may be selected, adapted, or combined by the individual.
Spiritual values are a product, embodied in a special kind of knowledge, which requires both membership in the group and usually some kind of apprenticeship to receive.Spiritual values are a process, embodied in a special kind of search, which requires primarily — or perhaps only — sincerity to pursue.
Spiritual values are embedded primarily in the community.Spiritual values are embedded primarily in the individual.
Focus is on the appropriate ritual activity.Focus is on the individual’s psychological state.
The individual is subordinate to the community’s spiritual leadership.The individual can accept or reject spiritual leadership.
Membership in a spiritual community is by the genealogy of the member.Membership in a spiritual community is by the member’s own choice.
Power is feared and respected, often avoided.Power is sought, in order to be controlled.
Spiritual matters are discussed privately.Spiritual matters are discussed publicly.
Universalists are perceived as rootless, superficial, and predatory.Indigenists are perceived as authoritarian, insular, selfish, and racist.

Of course, these groups are abstractions, but perhaps they are useful ones. It is probably worth mentioning, too, that the distinction between indigenists and universalists does not easily map onto the already deeply troubled distinction between Indians and whites. There are certainly white indigenists, such as anthropologists Alice Kehoe and Lisa Aldred; conversely, as anthropologist Raymond Bucko points out, “The Lakotas do not provide a unified front in this regard, for some Lakotas actively promote such integrations as necessary and beneficial.”

Here is an example. Universalists often express their quest for personal growth in terms of power, and books written by universalist writers claiming indigenous credentials often emphasize in their titles that indigenous teachings can provide such power. For example, Lynn Andrews speaks of Love and Power, Rolling Thunder reveals Secret Healing Powers, Sun Bear offers The Path of Power, Mary Summer Rain promises Sacred Power.

To indigenous peoples, however, spiritual power is dangerous and unpredictable; it is not to be taken lightly, but rather to be approached with great care and respect. Universalists — both writers and seekers — are thus perceived as disrespectful to the spirits by taking them too lightly, discussing them in public, trying to reduce them to rational explanations, playing with spiritual matters without proper commitment or guidance, and being unwilling to commit to the prohibitions which indigenous people observe when involved in spiritual matters. But the universalist audience has very different ideas about power — not that it is dangerous, but that it is desirable, and can be controlled, largely through good intentions.

The clash between indigenists and universalists can be multilayered and ironic. Indigenists complain that universalists are attempting to steal their culture; universalists reply that spirituality belongs to everyone, and that the indigenists are being insular and selfish. For example, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, in his book Coyote Medicine, writes, “Native American spirituality is a gift to us from North America herself. It is the natural spiritual path for those who live on this continent. Native American people have been preservers of this spiritual path for centuries, but they do not own it. No one can own a spiritual path.” In turn, this response is perceived as imposing culturally dominant concepts of rights and ownership on subordinate cultures — that is, as an additional instance of cultural domination, an unthinking and reflexive assumption that the values of white America are universal.

Historian Philip Deloria points out that this exchange puts indigenists in a a double bind: “Native people who reject this kind of cultural incorporation find themselves in a curious and contradictory position, shunted outside the boundaries of a universalism that purports to be without boundaries. Reluctant to share their cultural heritage as common property, they are marked as exterior.”

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