I have a friend who was a part of the pretendian community in Western Pennsylvania, and who carries a lot of bitterness towards the groups she was a part of and one person in particular, for all of the things that happened to her while she was “playing Indian”. She recently made the observation that most of the people she encountered in those groups were disadvantaged people who used a Native identity as an escape from their ordinary reality, allowing them to assume a persona that offered the prestige or comfort of uniqueness.
I would not disagree with that; I have made the same observation to myself over the years. That and a few other circumstances periodically cause me to do some personal reflection as to why I project a Native identity and persist in this community.
As an aside, the post title is, of course, drawn from the milieu of method acting, where the actor attempts to internalize the character they are portraying by analyzing the circumstances that cause their character to speak and behave in the manner in which their part is scripted. And, also of course, the pragmatist and cynic in me mentally responds to the question: “You are a hungry actor who needs this gig; what further motivation do you need?” That said, I’ll get to my point.
First of all, when my wife and I first began to explore the Native community, we were not particularly disadvantaged. I was employed as a software engineer and had a reasonably good standard of living. The subsequent years only got better; at one point I was approaching that vaunted six-figure salary. Thus, it was not economics that propelled me on my journey.
Likewise, it was not exactly the “noble savage” stereotype that pulled me along. I never saw myself as the “warrior” type. I felt no pressing need to appropriate that stereotype to compensate for some underachievement in my “real” life. But I must confess, it was and is, to some extent, a form of escapism.
While I eschew the word, I recently heard an interview with Martha Beck where she posited that the shaman-born (the dreamers, the wayfinders) see themselves at odds with the rest of their society; round pegs trying to find their place in the square hole. There were other attributes she cited that I felt described me rather precisely, as well. And then she noted that such people are, indeed, out of place in our Western society; modern Western society has no perceived need for people that spend any time in “non-ordinary reality”.
Thus, it was the traditions of Native society that attracted my attention, because they stood at odds with the traditions I had grown up with and had been taught as fundamental to survival in my Western world. As I learned how Native traditions and lifeways resonated more closely with my own nature, I became more and more inclined to escape into that mindset at every opportunity.
As I have previously stated, my vision has set me on a path to become a healer, which puts me at the highest risk of being accused of being a “culture vulture” because I am most interested in learning the spiritual and ceremonial aspects of Native culture that accompany their healing traditions. Yet this is a calling or vision which predates the beginning of my active interest in the Native community.
I held as my intention from childhood to be a doctor. My father is a medical doctor, so that could be seen as a “like father, like son” kind of sentiment. My mother is a registered nurse, so I grew up in and around the medical community. Thus, my inclination could be seen as a family matter.
I was dissuaded of pursuing that career path by someone I respected that saw the trajectory that Western allopathic medicine was assuming. I was encouraged to select another career path. So I chose religion.
In truth, another person I respected highly counseled me that, if there were any other vocation I was attracted to other than religion, I should choose that. But, having already abandoned one calling, I was not inclined to abandon a second. And so I set out to become a holy man in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
It didn’t quite work out. When I realized that I did not relish the inter-personal politics that go with church leadership, my trajectory shifted toward academics and teaching. But other life forces short-circuited those ambitions and I drifted into the world of electronics and computers, by way of a second baccalaureate degree in Electrical Engineering which, oddly, landed me in the realm of computer science.
Shortly after that, I found myself drawn to the Native community. Thus, I would not say that economic or educational disadvantage played a role in that attraction. There was something else.
While I regard most of my early experiences in the pretendian world with a degree of disdain, I cannot say that I was entirely misinformed about the Native mindset and traditions. Thus I was intrigued to learn that a warrior is a servant to the community, that a chief rules by the breath of the people, that elders are revered and cared for first, that the community leaders (chiefs and clan mothers) put the needs of the community before their own, and other traditions that stand in contrast to the colonizer traditions which I had been taught and yet somehow saw as fundamentally flawed.
I cannot enumerate the ways in which the Native mindset more closely fits my personal worldview or how it has permitted me to both realize my true nature and live accordingly. In that way it has been escapism from the colonizer mentality I live and work around. It continues to change my perspectives and propel me forward on my life’s journey. And THAT is motivation enough to persist as a pretendian.