Whose Spirituality is Whose?

The draw -- and danger -- of borrowing from native spiritual practices

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As soon as Pocahontas opened last month, online reactions surfaced instantly. On a women's spirituality list, a loud bravo for a mainstream movie that 'celebrates the spirituality of the earth.' On the newsgroup alt.native, a disgusted thumbs-down: 'Maybe [whites and wannabe Indians] are not the ones to make a film about an Indian girl.'

POCAHONTAS symbolizes the latest chapter in a simmering debate over the appropriation and marketing of Native American and other indigenous spiritualties. In the last few months, several thoughtful responses have emerged.

In Gnosis (Spring 1995), June Huang argues that given the current state of the earth, adopting nature-based religions is a no-brainer. But she notes that many moderns, including white people who sell Indian teachings in workshops and book s, 'play Indian' solely for self-improvement or personal gain. 'How are we to pursue these practices,' she asks, 'without hurting the very culture they come from?'

Indeed, anthropologist Barre Toelken believes that his popularized Navajo coyote stories may have been literally harmful to his Navajo hosts, many of whom were subsequently hit by a series of fatal accidents and illnesses. Toelken concludes in Parabola (May 1995) that tales used in healing constitute strong spiritual medicine and should only be administered by Indians.

Huang argues that borrowing is valid if it's used to connect and heal a community of respectful followers. In her group, members' personal traditions -- like a Yom Kippur sweat in an urban backyard sweatlodge -- are also incorporated. In Mother Jones (March/April 1995), African shaman Malidoma Som? tells interviewer D. Patrick Miller that spiritual development happens best when multicultural participants meet and process the inevitable tensions between traditions.

And finally, in The Sun (May 1995) Sy Safransky cites Indian writer Sherman Alexis' warnings about 'the romantic myth of the spiritual Indian.' Forcing all Indians into a DANCES WITH WOLVES or POCAHONTAS mold makes Indians 'live up to an impossible ideal.' When whites take only the good from Indian culture, 'it's just a different kind of theft.'