Subtle Signs You Might Be More Pretendian Than You Think

If you use tobacco in the chanunpa…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you think the black drink is really strong coffee…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you don’t know whose heart is buried at Wounded Knee…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you don’t know who the 1491s are…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you don’t know who A Tribe Called Red or Supaman is…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you think Buffy Sainte-Marie could be the latest supermodel…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you’re not sure whether the Black Lodge Singers are the house band at a resort in the Catskills…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you think Saginaw Grant could refer to a parcel of land…you might be more pretendian than you think.

If you don’t know why these are preposterous…you need to pay more attention to what is going on in Indian country.

These are not as pithy as the previous offerings; they are not intended to be. These are intended to make you think. If you don’t know the correct answers to the first three, you haven’t read widely enough. If you don’t see the silliness in the last three, you are not very aware of current affairs in the Native community.

Honoring The Culture

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but caricature is the most egregious form of colonization. I suppose it has become an old saw for me, a tiresome theme I return to frequently, but I cannot emphasize enough the care with which the enthusiast must approach the acculturation of a Native identity. Our aim must always be honoring the culture we are seeking to emulate by precise imitation.

The notion of “honoring” lies at the heart of the mascot issue. Schools and institutions that use mascots or branding that invoke Native themes or names insist that their intentions are to honor whatever culture the mascot or branding is drawn from. And yet, that culture or family often finds offense in how the honor is portrayed. The caricature inherent in the concept of mascot can only superficially defended as honoring. The attachment of a heroic name to a product that that individual would not have used or endorsed personally, or that represents an affront to the Native culture at large, cannot truly be defended as anything more than exploitation under the guise of free speech.

Yet, how can the enthusiast defend their portrayal of the culture they are seeking to acculturate themselves into unless steps are taken to ensure that it is done with deliberate imitation of that culture and its traditions? Regalia, personal accouterments, and cultural artifacts should be carefully researched to ensure the authenticity to the culture from which they are supposed to be drawn. Anything else trends toward caricature.

From a different perspective, if the enthusiast understood what it really means to live as an Indian person in the modern world we might be more reluctant to try to assume that identity. But then, since we are not actually Indian persons, we are shielded from that reality. We can choose to be unaware of current affairs in Indian country, preferring rather to cling to a perceived persona rooted in history, or we can choose to contribute to the culture we desire to emulate.

How many of us really stand with Standing Rock in a tangible way? The legal fallout for the Water Defenders is far from over. How many of us even know about the Peace Village of the Ramapough? How many of us have any idea of what is occurring among the People we claim to belong to? This is another aspect of honoring a culture–being aware of the current affairs of that nation and being proactive toward them whenever possible. Honor the People by providing for their common good; that is the way of it.

When Hobby Becomes Lifestyle

My pretendian journey began with an interest in exploring my wife’s supposed family Native heritage. We joined ourselves to an inter-tribal group and then to a Lenape “nation”. This was followed, in turn, by other “nations” and groups until my wife had had her fill and largely moved on to other, more familial, matters.

But I couldn’t let go. I continued to attend powwows and tell stories. For a little while, my wife and I continued to educate at a local exhibition and frequented another inter-tribal association. But, gradually, we stopped participating in the local pretendian community.

So, I turned to Internet oriented Native activities, e.g. forums and chat groups. I developed and maintained friendships with various Native people across the country. And I continued to study. I attempted to learn a dialect of the Lenape language. I was drawn to Native life like a magnet.

There comes a point in your journey where a casual interest becomes a driving passion and then becomes a lifestyle. I found resonance in the Native mindset and spiritual traditions. I learned and practiced ceremony for myself. I learned to listen more than speak. And I continued to study.

Finally, there comes a day when you realize that you don’t remember how to be anything other than a pretendian. It is fully integrated into your being. I cannot return to the person I was 20 years ago. I don’t see the world in the same way. Hopefully, I have lost much of the colonizer mindset I was raised with. Prayerfully, my ambitions are turned outward to helping others more than myself.

I still periodically attend a local powwow. This is not because of any allegiance to or affinity for the host organization, but because I have an innate need to dance in the circle and feel the heartbeat of the drum. Given the opportunity, there are several powwows and events that I would like to attend at least once; a bucket list, if you will.

I recently received an ongoing opportunity to tell stories and educate locally, periodically throughout the year. This encourages me to continue to study and research, so that I do not find myself numbered among those I have been calling out on this blog!

I have developed a driving ambition to give of myself to the Native community, regardless of any prevailing attitude. I have been given a vision of how I can integrate myself into the Native community, not by force, but by service and active participation.

The Native lifestyle and mindset is no longer a pursuit of curiosity; a hobby, a weekend diversion. It is the major part of who I am and how I view the world around me. It colors my being and consumes my non-professional time. It is my passion. Call me pretendian if you must; my spirit camps among the People.

God Is Red – Point Taken

It took several attempts over several years to finish reading “God Is Red“, by Vine Deloria, Jr., because I kept getting stuck on his indictments of Christianity. I kept noting that it was an unfair assessment of the teachings of Jesus to judge them by the way they were perverted by the colonizers. I finally got his point on page 261.

The book is subtitled “A Native View of Religion”. The earliest part of the book is taken up with a brief examination of modern Indian relations and the popular perception of the American Indian and a comparison between Native religion (generally) and the Judaeo-Christian cosmology on points such as time and space, origins, history, death and human personality. The latter portion of the book is devoted to a discussion of how the Judaeo-Christian worldview influenced the colonization of the Americas.

It took me over 10 years to finish reading the book. I would begin reading it and repeatedly stall out because the analysis of how the Judaeo-Christian viewpoint on a certain subject was used as a pretext for the colonization of the Native population, while accurate, did not square with my understanding of Judaeo-Christian scripture. I could not assert that the author did not know his subject matter; he had pursued an education at a Christian seminary. Yet I objected to his insistence that historical orthopraxy accurately represented the import of Judaeo-Christian scripture.

Thus it was that I only grasped the import of the author’s message when I reached the latter portion of the book and read the following: “In almost every generation trade and conversion for religious purposes have gone hand in hand to destroy nations of the world on behalf of Western commercial interests and Christianity. Where the cross goes, there is never life more abundantly–only death, destruction and ultimately betrayal.”

“Average Christians when hearing of the disasters wreaked on aboriginal peoples by their religion and its adherents are quick to state, ‘But the people who did this were not really Christians’. In point of fact, they really were Christians. In their day they enjoyed all the benefits and prestige Christendom could confer. They were cheered as heroes of the faith, enduring hardships that a Christian society might be built on the ruins of pagan villages. They were featured in Sunday School lessons as saints of the Christian church. Cities, rivers, mountains and seas were named after them.”

Then I understood his indictment. Then I could not argue against his point. There is no valid argument that can be made against the ugly truth that the “gospel of peace” had been exploited to justify the destruction of aboriginal peoples around the world.

As I stated in a previous post, I find no reason that Christianity and Native religion cannot coexist. I prefer to believe that God is color (ethnicity) neutral. But I concede that Native religion is devoid of the evangelism of exclusivity that underwrites the colonizer mindset; historical Christianity has provided that only too well.

What IS My Motivation?

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.

Reverse Assimilation

“Assimilation” was the object of the infamous campaign to colonize the Native peoples by forcing them to disappear into the American society. The missionaries attempted to obliterate the Native spiritual traditions. The treaties attempted to permanently alter the Native lifestyle. The Indian boarding schools attempted to remove all traces of their culture from the consciousness of the Native children.

The object of this campaign was always to blend the Native people into the society of their conquerors until there was no memory of their former existence. This is perhaps the apex of the “melting pot” philosophy that we were familiarized with in the history and social studies classes of our own educational process; that every race and nationality is eventually woven into the fabric of American society until they are no longer distinct in any way.

What the modern day hobbyist should be pursuing is the opposite of this. If we are serious about our endeavor, we should be seeking to learn the cultural traditions and practices that distinguish the culture of our Native ancestor from the one in which we were raised.

There needs to be a conscious strategy formulated to reconnect with the tribal culture you wish to celebrate. My working assumption is that you are seeking to assimilate that culture because that is the one you believe your ancestor belonged to.

Nevertheless, acculturation is probably a more accurate description of the goal we are working toward. Alaska historian Peter Metcalf is quoted in Indian Country magazine (April-May 2017, pg. 54) as saying: “Assimilation is when two cultures meet and one culture absorbs the other one, destroying the first one. But acculturation is when two cultures meet and each culture learns and adopts elements from the other.”

Of course, there is no reason to suppose that any Native culture would have reason to learn or adopt anything from the culture of any specific hobbyist. It is we who wish to learn and adopt elements from the Native culture to better balance our own lives. Unfortunately, there is also no reason to suppose that any Native culture would have reason to welcome our interest in acculturating their culture, based on harsh past experience.

Once again, it is incumbent on the hobbyist to patiently pursue the cultural knowledge he or she seeks by listening more than speaking and giving more than taking; accepting whatever is offered without overtly demanding more. It is my experience that knowledge will be shared as it is earned; as familiarity with your intent is established as respectful of that culture and their traditions.

If you truly wish to be considered a part of any Native community, regardless of how peripherally, you must expect to participate in that community. Working for the good of the people is a core tenet of Native tradition. See what you can do to help out. As you become known in that community, your real intent can be judged by the way you conduct yourself.

As a quick example, one could not say they were actively supporting the Standing Rock camps by “Liking” updates on Facebook. We could not all go and stand with them; “to get our fair share of abuse” as the Rolling Stones once so aptly put it. But we could sign and circulate petitions, donate money and food, and support their cause through local activism. Nonetheless, those who did go received an education they could not have anticipated.

That is an extreme example. Yet opportunities such as that present themselves quite regularly. There is always a confrontation somewhere in Indian Country; the struggle for sovereignty never ceases. When you put forth an effort on behalf of the People, you establish yourself as a part of that community. Slowly, gradually, you will acculturate yourself.

This I Believe – Traditional and Christian

When my wife and I began to explore her Native ancestry, without a doubt the aspect of Native American tradition and practice that I most carefully examined and cautiously participated in were the spiritual traditions. We both grew up in fundamental Protestant traditions and I hold a baccalaureate degree in Bible (I studied to be a church pastor). I did not want to do anything to compromise my Christian beliefs.

Nevertheless, having investigated and contemplated for over 20 years, I find that an open mind will see little difference between traditional Native spirituality and Judaeo-Christian spirituality, at least in the most general sense. And I find that that viewpoint is shared by others on both sides of the matter.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that both Nicholas Black Elk and Frank Fools Crow considered themselves Roman Catholic and saw no contrast between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila and the spirit helpers. I found myself in agreement with The Sacred Pipe: An Archetypal Theology and One Church, Many Tribes, and other books of a similar nature, written from the perspective of both traditions.

I have to admit that I found the Roman Catholic cosmology easier to correlate with Native American spirituality than that of my own Protestant traditions. There are more levels of spiritual assistance available in that model, allowing for better correlation between the two systems (Native American spirituality and the Judaeo-Christian tradition). To be honest, my fundamentalist Protestant tradition downplays angels and excludes saints (ascended heroes of the faith), leaving the Trinity as a monolith of the sacred, with even the Holy Spirit having an indeterminate role in the daily affairs of mortals.

I have not made an exhaustive study of the traditions and cosmologies of all Native nations, thus my perspective may not match every nation’s cosmology. The two traditions that I can address broadly with some degree of confidence are the Eastern Woodlands traditions and the Plains traditions; any others may diverge from the correlations made in this post.

Had the colonizers put down their White Man’s burden long enough to truly understand the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, it is my firm conviction that they would have discovered that the indigenous spiritual systems did not diverge too widely from their own, on the most basic levels. Indeed, it is my conviction that the Native spiritual systems I have studied bear a great deal of resemblance to the archaic Judaeo-Christian system.

First, the Native traditional spiritual systems which I have studied are monotheistic. There is one God, though He may be referred to as Creator, Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka, or some other name. There are myriad Spirit helpers that assist that one God, but none of them are accorded equality to Him.

It would not be correct to absolutely equate the Spirit helpers to angels and saints, but there are similarities that prompted me to co-opt them for that purpose. The four directions could be roughly analogous to the four archangels. The specialization of the spirit helpers is vaguely analogous to the patron saints. That’s where any correlation must stop, but it worked for me.

Likewise, the use of incense in Roman Catholic worship is analogous to smudging and offering prayers on tobacco smoke. The invocation of Mary as an intercessor could be seen as analogous to asking the various spirit helpers to join in prayers or carry them to the Creator.

None of this can be found in the Protestant fundamentalist traditions I was educated in. But I choose to remember that Protestantism arose from Roman Catholicism and discarded all those elements and practices, and that Old Testament Judaism (right up to the time of Christ) incorporated those elements and practices as well. Thus, I do not find them to be idolatrous but merely archaic.

A singular post does not afford the breadth to consider all of the elements of ceremony and practice. Perhaps subsequent posts can center on the pipe, the sweat lodge ceremony, and other specific elements of Native traditional spirituality. Suffice it to say for now that I have found no reason to view Native spiritual traditions as antithetical to Christian belief. An open mind can traverse freely between the two.

The Adoption Option

Among the pretendians I began my journey with, adoption into the “nation” was the entry point to truly belonging to the group and assuming a Native identity. It signaled your acceptance by the people of the “nation” and the commitment that you made to assimilate into their Native community. It provided a lineage for those who had an indefinite Native ancestry.

It cannot be denied that this practice has a basis in the historic Native culture. There are many personal accounts available of people being adopted into the various Native nations, as well as official records reflecting the same, through the early history of the United States. There are famous stories and great literary works that incorporate this concept, based on historic facts. And, of course, it can be found in the oral histories of many families with roots dating back to the American frontier.

To my understanding, this practice is rooted in the idea of replacing persons lost from the nation due to war or disease. It was a means of artificially maintaining the population count of the nation and keeping the community strong. Captives were selected to fill the place of individuals in families to maintain a healthy community structure and ensure the strength of the nation. Thus, necessity made the practice of adoption considerably more widespread in earlier times than it is today.

My wife and I were adopted quickly into the “nation” we were associating with. We received Native “spirit” names. We were part of a long chain of people adopted into the Lenape culture. But what sort of identity does that offer? How does that make your claim to an actual Native identity any stronger than does your distant grandmother that oral family history identifies as an Indian princess?

Modern adoptions into Native community still occur. But they don’t necessarily mean what you might think. Now, as in earlier times, adoption is a family affair, as it is in Western society. It need not signify anything greater than affording a familial relationship with the individual initiating the adoption. It is the prerogative of other family and tribal members to accept and honor the adoption, based on respect for the individual initiating the adoption, or disregard the adoption, based on their personal judgment. And it still won’t put you on the tribal rolls.

In the context of a pretendian “nation”, what does adoption do for you? If you are adopted by an individual who was adopted by an individual who was adopted, and so forth, even if there was a legitimate CDIB Native somewhere up the line, how does that bring you closer to having an unimpeachable Native identity? And what if the individual who adopted you quits the “nation”? Where does that leave you?

The pretendians would be far better off to avoid the use of this practice to offer the illusion of a Native identity. It is meaningless to the actual Native community and offers one more way that we can look foolish to the world at large.