The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, August 9, 2010

Old time religion...or not

When I was in high school, one of my friends announced that, having discovered that she was something in the neighborhood of 1/16th or 1/32nd Iroquois, she was going to start following "the Native American religion." She was rather proud of her new-found and allegedly deeper, nature-derived, mystical spirituality, which of course made her a bit obnoxious. Even more bizarre, she had turned to another friend, who was equally non-Native American, for information on this religious path*.

I found this whole turn of events baffling for three reasons.

The first reason is that I have never understood the common belief that having Native American ancestry somehow makes one more mystical, or provides them with a mystical birth-right. As I have described before, a full quarter of my ancestry comes from the Cherokee and Choctaw, and this in no way changes the fact that I was essentially raised as a white kid in a small town (which rapidly became the suburbs as I was growing up). The "mystical Indian" notion is at its heart a racist concept, and one that has been used (both historically and in the here and now) to damage attempts by Native American groups and individuals to advance their own causes in our modern world (see Eve Darian-Smith's book New Capitalists for a good discussion of the matter). It's basically culture porn that is used by (usually white) people who feel dissatisfied with their lives to try to make themselves feel connected to some other (non-existent but stereotypical) culture.

The second reason that I was baffled by this young woman's claim was the fact that the notion of the (as in a singular) Native American religion is absurd on its face. At the time of European contact there were hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups within North America and thousands of tribes and tribelets. Even looking at one ethno-linguistic group, let's say the Gabrielino of southern California, there is a figure who is considered a historic leaders at one village, a spirit at another village, a messiah at another, a culture hero at another, and a god at another village. And this is within an area that consists solely of modern-day Los Angeles and Orange Counties and amongst people who spoke dialects of the same language family and were part of the same social network. This doesn't even get into the differences between the Gabrielino and the Iroquois, Choctaw, Inuit, Tlingit, Hopi, Chumash, and so on. The notion that there is a single "Native American Religion" is based on the notion that all of the native people of the Americas are more or less the same - which is another rather racist notion*.

The third reason that this was baffling to me is something that I have actually come to accept, though not quite understand, since then. We, as a society, tend to talk about religion as being a deeply-held set of convictions and beliefs about the way the world works. For many people this is true. However, for some people religion has significantly more to do with adopting an identity than with belief. This is why it is not uncommon for some people to adopt religions when they admit that they don't know the religion's tenets, and why it's not uncommon for adherents to many social movements to adopt the same religious label as other members of the movement even though they may not actually hold the same beliefs or even know what the religion's beliefs are**. While I don't know if this woman was among them, as a teenager and as a college student, I knew many people who adopted new religions as a form of rebellion (they later admitted this was the case, which is how I can comment on it without worrying about overly-insulting them).

At any rate, I find the declaration just as odd now as I did back then.

*I remember, several years back, seeing the video-tape box for the film Island of the Blue Dolphins. The story is about a Nicoleno woman, but the video box bragged about having "genuine Salinans" in the cast. On the one hand, this seems rather uncomfortably reminiscent of the 17th-19th century European habit of putting non-Europeans on display for public gawking. On the other hand, it is as non-sensical as filming a movie about 1930s France and bragging that your film is especially authentic because the cast features "real, live Germans!"

**In retrospect, discovering this, and realizing that many people don't actually know, much less believe, the teachings of the religion that they claim to follow (such as the people I met who refused to believe that Jesus was Jewish) is probably one of the many factors that made me really start questioning religion in general.


RBH said...

We, as a society, tend to talk about religion as being a deeply-held set of convictions and beliefs about the way the world works. For many people this is true. However, for some people religion has significantly more to do with adopting an identity than with belief.

Nicely put. However, I think I'd reverse the "some" and the "many." My strong suspicion is that religion, and participation in religious communities, is in general more about identity than about beliefs. The beliefs are professed as part of the identification process rather than being primary. It's sort of 'I profess to hold these beliefs because doing so provides me with (validates? signals?) my identity in the context of a particular community.'

That's not well put, I'm afraid, but it's in the neighborhood.

RBH said...

I'm posting this purely because I forgot to check the "Email followup comments" box when I posted that last one. Sorry.

Anthroslug said...

RBH, I tend to agree with you, I just try to avoid making statements about prportion without any actual data. But, I have seen more than a few people exclaim their dedication to a religious tradition, and then have to ask the tenets of the religion, which would tend to back up your notion.