Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 84-87
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Native American Spirituality: A Critical Reader ought to be renamed. Or at least the "critical reader" idea should be given first billing. Fourteen scholars with excellent academic credentials and publication records conjoin to produce a book of essays concerning ethical approaches to the study of Native American religious practices. In his introductory essay, Lee Irwin defines "spirituality" as activities that establish "connectedness to core values and deep beliefs" as well as "a pervasive quality of life that develops out of an authentic participation in values and real-life practices meant to connect members of a community with the deepest foundations of personal affirmation and identity" (3). One could expect, with such an introductory clarification of spirituality, a work dedicated to an understanding of the daily activities of Native peoples—those activities that have allowed traditional peoples to survive the incursions of arrogant outsiders. Evidently Native religious practices have undergone such horrific censoring and misguided appropriation, that those entering into contemporary discussions about Native spirituality must first learn to position themselves politically, ethically, and intellectually before Native spirituality can be adequately understood and narrated.
Part One: "Theoretical Concerns" focuses on protocols that can more productively engage researchers, professors, and students alike in understanding the sacredness of traditional peoples' life-ways. Having authority to speak or write about Native American religious traditions requires auto-ethnographic identification. In other words, the storyteller's position must emerge from "understandings of the ethical frames, boundaries, and reciprocal protocols that attend to any discussion [End Page 84] of Native belief systems," claims Inés Hernández-Avila (Nez Perce) (13). To avoid being duped by "white shamans" or spirituality for sale, aspirants should employ a "politics of recognition." This requires cognizance of cultural difference (pluralism), authenticity (whether elders have authorized sharing traditional practices), place (understanding the power of sacred sites), and survival (the "evocation of sacred power" in daily living), explains John A. Grim (42-49). New kinds of discourse patterns must emerge between "this hemisphere's First Peoples and Euroamerican intellectual tradition, in which the former are active, critical participants rather than passive specimens or curiosities," writes Christopher Ronwanièn:te Jocks (Mohawk) (63). Such new patterns involve moral-political and hermeneutical arguments accompanied by recognition of the privileges and responsibilities attendant to scholarly endeavors. And finally, Ronald L. Grimes explores the fundamental academic question confronting scholars of Native religions in the twenty-first century: Under what conditions should non-Native academics offer courses in Native religions—if at all?
Part Two: "Dialogic Relations" demonstrates how dialogic methods more clearly reveal spiritual identity. Robin Ridington draws on the experiences of various ethnographers, Native informants, and contemporary Native American authors to show that Native experience is performative, experiential, and participatory. Furthermore, Native experience is reciprocal (dialogic). Dialogues are "possible only when storyteller and listener respect and understand one another through shared knowledge and experience." The truly dialogic is "possible only when every person can realize a place in every other person's story" (99). Melissa A. Pflug shows how "the good life" or pimadaziwin is obtained through contemporary Odawa rituals. Ritual reciprocity pulls individuals into interactive community, into a circle where "connection between all ethical people is continually regenerated" (123). Theresa S. Smith's essay explores attempts at syncreticity (the conjoining and reinterpretation of traditional Catholic iconography with and in light of Native symbolization) in the building of the Church of the Immaculate Conception among the Anishnaabeg of Manitoulin Island. Smith explores this thesis question: "Is the move to syncretic structures and worship in this context a responsible and appropriate response to the [End Page 85] past and promise for the future . . ., or are we merely witnessing the appropriation of the one symbol system in the service of the other?" (148). Richard Haly, in a monograph length work, explores the possibility of the survival of Nahua religion "from the perspective of nationalism," a perspective through which "indigenous religion...