On the Uses of ‘Native Spirituality’

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by Matt Sheedy

In his essay appearing in Religious Experience: A Reader (Equinox 2012), Craig Martin discusses how William James’ rhetoric on religion lends itself to a naive empiricism by putting forward a notion of the world as something that is “simply ‘there’ to be discovered.” He continues,

[T]he naive empiricism of the ontologized spirituality/institutional religion dichotomy results in subjects just ‘finding’ spirituality and ‘finding’ religion in the world, with nary a concern with how this way of dividing the world is historically constituted (183).

Martin’s observations on the spirituality/institutional religion dichotomy came to mind the other day while I was reading an article entitled, “Facebook Sweat Lodge, the Online Resurgence of Native Spirituality.” The piece begins with a common list of practices that most people tend to associate with “native spirituality,” including:

Smudging, sweat lodges, drum songs. If you were to ask most Canadians what comprises indigenous spirituality in this country, those are the images that would likely come to mind.

The article’s author, who is aboriginal himself, points out how these practices are far too generalized while discussing the historical context in which things like sun dances, sweat lodges and even speaking in traditional languages were banned following the Indian Act of 1876.

This history has of course long been obscured in Canada–and in the Americas more generally–which is a trend that the First-Nations led Idle No More movement has sought to challenge with regular public acts including: round dances, drum circles, sacred fires, as well as occupations and blockades, along with teach-ins and lectures regarding the violation of treaty rights and the impact of economic and environmental policies. This is all well and good.

Reading through this article, however, I couldn’t help but note how the author’s evocation of historical injustice was accompanied by the sort of naive empiricism that Martin points out in regard to the spirituality/religion dichotomy, as seen with the following lines:

But now, as newer generations start to reclaim the ways of their ancestors, many of these ways are slowly flourishing again.

Indigenous people were once shamed out of practicing their spirituality, or forced to hide it.

While it may be true that many aboriginal people share in common certain “beliefs” and “practices” and, as Suzanne Owen pointed out to me in a personal correspondence, while there does exist an institutional “protocol” for certain shared ceremonies across First Nations in Canada, the on-going use of the word “spiritual” as a marker of “nativeness” by both insiders and outsiders reveals an interesting dynamic in the social construction of this term.

On the one hand, “native spirituality” is often marshaled by insiders to indicate commonalities across aboriginal cultures and serves—at least on a political level—to create a sense of unity among diverse groups. On the other hand, the term is also used by outsiders to cast a vague and generic sense of “nativeness” and is variously appropriated by “new age” movements as well as by detractors who look to lump literally hundreds of distinct groups (e.g., Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, Cree, etc.) across a vast territory into one homogeneous stew.

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Scholars of religion are all too familiar with how this pattern has been imagined in the discourse on the history of religions, where so-called “natives” have been labeled as primitives, heathens, and polytheists, along with the more recent incarnation of “Indigenous traditions,” a term that, at its most basic, comprises any socio-ethnic group that hasn’t expanded in influence beyond a certain geographical region (with the possible except of Shintoism) and thus hasn’t risen to the rank of a “world religion.”

In most of these cases there is, to repeat Martin’s phase above, “nary a concern with how this way of dividing the world is historically constituted.” While this may be too much to expect from a public forum, for scholars of religion it is interesting to consider the multiple ways in which such terms as “spirituality” are currently taken-up and re-imagined by different aboriginal groups and how processes of historical and contemporary homogenization are being used to the advantage of marginalized groups by turning their collective experiences of oppression into a united front. If these trends continue, perhaps it won’t be too long before the term “native religion” catches on?

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere and he is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy Movement, which includes fieldwork at Occupy Winnipeg.

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2 Responses to On the Uses of ‘Native Spirituality’

  1. Randi Warne says:

    Very interesting. This reminds me in part of the homogenization and false unification of “women” – both as a term of opproprium used by the malestream, and as recovered by “feminists” under the highly problematic rubric of “women’s ways of knowing.” Unification in the face of a common enemy has its strategic uses, and there certainly are commonalities amongst those who don’t worship at the altar of masculinist, so-called “Enlightenment” reason. Perhaps once that monolith is more fully shattered, the range of epistemological iterations might be broadened.

    • Matt Sheedy says:

      I would tend to agree with your points here. As a political strategy, creating a sense of unity certainly makes sense, especially given that aboriginals in Canada and elsewhere have been homogenized by outsiders for a very long time.

      While it likely comes through in my post that I do support this movement, my scholarly interest is of course different, as I’m sure is evident. How and why groups will deploy notions like “spirituality”–terms that are rarely of their own invention–is fascinating to watch and reveals, I think, something about how processes of imagining and re-imaging identity have their root in social struggles.

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