Whose Spirituality is Whose?

As soon as Pocahontas opened last month, online
reactions surfaced instantly. On a women’s spirituality
, 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
(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.’

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.