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  • Spiritual Appropriation As Sexual Violence
  • Andrea Smith (bio)

The Hebrew word YDH, which translates as "to know a person, carnally, of sexual intercourse" according to the Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, is used frequently in the Hebrew scriptures to connote sexual relations. For instance, Genesis 4:1 (NRSV) states: "now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain saying, 'I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.'" YDH colloquially refers to engagement in sexual relations. Inherent in this double meaning of "to know" is the sense that (1) sexual intimacy conveys an intimate knowledge of a person but also that (2) knowing a person intimately conveys a sense of sexual relatedness. Consensual sexual relationships require the loosening of the boundaries of one's physical and psychic space-it involves allowing another person to not only become close to you physically, but allowing her or him to know more about you. Sexual violence then suggests the violation of these boundaries on not only the physical but the spiritual and psychic level as well. In addition, sexual violence is ultimately structured around power relations-it entails establishing the power to control someone's life. Similarly, "knowledge" about someone also gives one power over that person. Withholding knowledge, then, is an act of resistance against those who desire to know you in order to better control you.

It is with this understanding of sexual violence that I explore how the "New Age" movement and other forms of indigenous spiritual/cultural appropriation constitute a form of sexual violence. While there [End Page 97] have been numerous critiques of spiritual/cultural appropriation, I focus particularly on how it can be analytically understood as a form of sexual violence. I also extend my discussion to not only the most obvious forms of appropriation as found in the New Age movement but its problematics in seemingly more innocuous forms, such as those found in the comparative study of religion.

Using this analytical framework, I suggest that much of the energy directed toward "knowing" more about Native peoples can also be understood as concerns about what Mary Douglas terms as "matter out of place."1 That is, Native peoples, as well as other people of color who have survived centuries of genocide, are a constant threat to the dominant culture's confidence that it will remain triumphant. From the colonizer's perspective, Native survivors pollute the colonial body-they are matter out of place. To fully understand, to "know," Native peoples is the way the dominant society gains a sense of mastery and control over them.

Consequently, Indian communities are flooded with people who want to know more about them—New Agers looking for quick spiritual enlightenment, anthropologists eager to capture "an authentic culture thought to be rapidly and inevitably disappearing,"2 and Christians eager to engage in interreligious dialogue. How one evaluates these attempts to understand and "know" Indians involves in large part how one analyzes the primary causes of the oppression of Native peoples. Many people—Native and non-Native alike—believe that the primary problem Native peoples face from the dominant society is ignorance. That is, non-Indians oppress Indians because they are ignorant about Native cultures. By this reasoning, if only non-Indians knew more about Indians, they would be nicer to them. Thus, even if attempts to "know" more about Indians are problematic, we can assume that at least these attempts are a step in the right direction.

Without wanting to fashion too simplistic a dualism, I suggest that the primary reason for the continuing genocide of Native peoples has less to do with ignorance and more to do with material conditions. Non-Indians oppress Indians because Indians occupy land and hold resources that the dominant society wants. The majority of energy resources in this country are on Indian land.3 The United States cannot stop oppressing Indian people without fundamentally challenging its hegemonic position or multinational capitalist operations. If we frame Native genocide from a materialist perspective, then we have to rethink our analysis of non-Native ignorance about Native cultures. This ignorance becomes a willful ignorance in which non-Natives tend to...