By YVETTE RELLES-POWELL | Contributing Writer |
From spiritual colonization to commodification of indigenous spiritual ceremonies, debates continue in the communities of the Inland Empire. James V. Fenelon, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology who identifies as a member of the Lakota/Dakota and leads the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at CSUSB. As the published author in the areas of American Indian sociopolitical issues, race/ethnic conflicts, and social policies, he shares his perspectives on the issues of indigenous cultures in our communities.
Q: Can you expand on the generalizations that are made about Indigenous Spiritualism?
A: Basically, there is just a huge diversity. We are not referring to the concept of religion. Religion is more of a set of social structures connected with a set of beliefs and some idea of spiritualism. Many Lakota and Dakota people even used to reject the concept of religion. That is both idealized and a lived reality. Because Native people, like any other group of people, can be petty and small as well as generous and good and have ideas on spirituality that some follow through with and others do not
Q: Why are out-group members drawn to Indigenous Spirituality?
A: As western society became more and more alienated from their religious traditions, they seek out eastern ways, such as are practicing yoga. One they have probably done more than any other is the Sun Dance, a community ceremony of deep spiritual significance. It was made illegal by the United States under the Indian Offenses Act of 1883. It came back in the 60s and 70s and became fairly popular in the 80s. This is a deep spirituality, it is connected to the earth, and it is a sense of community and belonging. Much of which has been lost or set aside in the modern world.
Q: What has spiritual colonization looked like in the past?
A: People started to focus on the physical element of the Sun Dance. We call it a Čhaŋnúŋpa, but it is a pipe. A pipe is a way of praying and accessing one’s spirituality. The western world became obsessed. They made pipe carrying groups. They had some set of rules that they would get really upset about and they were all non-Native. They had to pass laws saying only recognized spiritual leaders could take the pipestone. They would pay someone to hold a sweat lodge ceremony so they could become a pipe carrier. Native traditionalists rejected that because one cannot purchase something that is an experience. Who is a recognized leader? Who can and cannot practice these ceremonies? These are western concepts. This became a huge problem because there never were rules for this. It was just something people practiced in society.
Q: What laws delegate ownership of spiritual ceremonies?
A: The right to practice, in Lakota Nakota, has not been restricted. However, the strongest traditionalists passed The Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.
Q: Who can practice Indigenous spiritual ceremonies?
A: In the history of California, it was that missionization system which was used to destroy native spirituality. Now here is where it gets tricky because the right to practice or the acceptance of people to practice is incredibly diverse among Native nations. In this tradition, there is a concept of Ikce Wicasa [EEK-CHAY-WEE-CHASA]. Even a leader, especially a spiritual leader, needs to say, “I am Ikce Wicasa.” I am just a person. I am just a human being. Lakota Nakota do not believe there is such a thing as purity. There are human beings who do things. No one is automatically over other people or life forms. In accessing one’s spirituality, it is not considered separate and for someone to tell me the rules. Instead, I have to find myself in a community of people and other life forms.
Q: How are members being disadvantaged in the commodification of spiritual ceremonies?
A: The strongest traditionalists have said this is the last theft. There was the theft of land, societies, and history. The last thing that western society wants and has a hard time getting is this spirituality that is directly connected to the earth. Western society is trying to dominate that and take that away. It is cultural destruction.
Q: If purchasing Native experiences is not ally-ship, how does that look?
A: You have to get deeply involved and participate on the deepest level. My family is from Standing Rock. A lot of people said they were going to stand up for standing rock. It was beautiful, 200 nations, thousands of people saying we are going to decolonize. It is a wonderful movement. Then there were few participants who claim to be here standing up for Standing Rock, but they often do not know people in the community. Life is a great struggle at Standing Rock. There is a lot of poor people, there is a lot of dysfunctions and addictions.
Q: When is it appropriate for out-group members to participate in Indigenous spiritual practices and ceremonies?
A: No one can tell you who or where to go to or not. There were many in-group and out-group members who were very exclusive with the practices and did not even qualify to be so. They would allow outsiders who could be Natives and non-Natives. If you were respectful, you may be invited to a deeper ceremony. I asked my friend about attending and he said, “We did not get invited so we did not go.” And that should really be the response. There is no one who makes the rules about who can be an ally, how do you be respectful, who can participate or not. It is not okay to tell people these are the rules when you yourself do not qualify. Seek people out. There will be varying levels of experiences, acceptances, and rejections. If you get invited to a ceremony, that is a good time to go.