Spirituality Is A System

When hobbyist groups undertake to embrace Native American spirituality, the approach most often utilized might be termed the “potpourri” method. Perhaps more egregious than the “Chinese menu” approach I mentioned in my post on cultural traditions, this method encourages the members of the hobbyist group to throw anything from their cultural understanding that appeals to their spiritual appetite into the collective spiritual practices of the group, much as potpourri is made by combining botanical substances with an attractive scent together with the intention that the resulting mixture will produce a symbiotic fragrance greater than the sum of its parts.

Similarly, the spiritual practices of a hobbyist group are often constructed from customs and practices borrowed from the various cultures represented throughout the group. Or, perhaps more accurately, constructed from whatever spiritual practices can be easily discovered and appropriated.

When I was with an intertribal group, we held a Green Corn feast where the ceremonial aspects were derived from Shawnee, Lenape and Ojibwe practices, incorporating elements of the Lenape Big House alongside Ojibwe prayers.

When I was the principal chief of a Lenape hobbyist group, we had a member who wanted to bring what she purported to be a Cherokee Moon ceremony to our women. And this typified my experience among the hobbyist groups. Anything from any culture that seemed useful or interesting could be incorporated into the spiritual fabric of the group.

Yet, it ought to be intuitive that the spirituality of any tribal culture should be seen as a complete system that complements their cosmology uniquely. It should follow, then, that a spirituality constructed from elements drawn from somewhat disparate cultures and cosmologies should be ineffective or impotent. Yet this ventures into territory that is more philosophic than tangible.

When I began my journey, it was infinitely easier to learn and appropriate Lakota spiritual practices because they were the most prominently documented among the resources most easily discovered in bookstores and libraries. They are also the most prominently stereotyped in movies. The sweat lodge, the pipe, and even the Sun dance are known in the general consciousness of American society. And they are still being practiced to the present.

Lenape spirituality was, until recently, a matter of history and anthropology. The Lenape people have largely assimilated Methodist protestant Christianity, but there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional spirituality in the last decade. It was reasonably well-documented, once you figured out what the appropriate primary sources were, but was no longer actually practiced.

Nevertheless, it must be recognized that Native American spirituality is not static and is subject to personalization. Among the Lenape, there were ceremonies that were regarded as the possession of certain families, having been formulated around an event in that family. The Big House ceremony is generally believed to have been formulated around 1820, after the Lenape had moved away from their traditional territory.

The longhouse religion of the Haudenosaunee, following the Code of Handsome Lake, was formulated in recorded history (as opposed to prehistory), as was the Ghost Dance religion and the Native American Church.

I have come to realize that my disagreement with a certain “medicine chief of the Eastern Allegheny tribes” is not so much about the efficacy or validity of his spiritual practices as that he calls them traditional Lenape, in that they do not seem to accurately reflect those practices that are recorded in the historic (primary) and anthropological sources. They may be a family tradition, they may be a personal tradition, but they have apparently evolved. He introduced me to a rain song that I will testify is effective; I have used it many times to break a drought. But I also know that it is a recent tradition, being less than 25 years old, and unique to his immediate following.

In formulating our own spiritual practices, and those of any group we belong to, we should be mindful of the sources we are drawing that spirituality from. Hopefully, it will be a complete body of ceremony and practice drawn from the singular source of the culture we are trying to accurately represent, as best as we can discern it. Anything else screams “culture vulture”.