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.

Fulfilling the Prophecies

One of the realizations you will eventually have to embrace in your journey is that you are fulfilling the old prophecies of several Native cultures which predicted that a day would come when all of the other races of Man would come to the red race and seek their wisdom in saving this present world.

It is ironic that I hear those prophecies repeated often by leaders of the various tribal cultures and, yet, they never seemed to be applicable when the non-Native seeker attempts to join themselves to one of those tribal cultures. Again, this is not without reason.

There was an outgrowth of the hippie culture of the 1960s that sought to return to a more symbiotic relationship with the Earth we walk on. The blossoming of the ecology movement, the rebellion against the industrial machine and the relentless pursuit of material gain, and a desire to live more simply fed the “Back to the Land” movement which spawned communal farms across the continental United States. And who better to guide them than the original stewards of those lands, the Native peoples.

Perhaps it was coincidence that the Native youth were simultaneously rising to national prominence, demanding the justice that they had been being deprived of for hundreds of years. Suddenly, the reservations became a “Mecca” for non-Native people to seek the wisdom of the people who had been repressed for so long and yet had survived.

A very complete account can be found in the writings of Vine Deloria, Jr., particularly Custer Died for Your Sins. The Native people were rather forthcoming with their wisdom, perhaps being too perplexed by the sudden interest in their culture to consider the long-term effects of such an action. Or perhaps, as with the original colonization of their lands, they could not anticipate the sheer numbers of people who would show up.

In essence, these were the original hobbyists. It was not so much an attempt to reconnect with a personal Native heritage, as it is for some of us in the 21st century, as to reconnect with the Native philosophy and cosmology. It is not hard to imagine that these people may have been seen at that time as the fulfillment of the old prophecies.

Regardless, what was apparently not anticipated was the non-Native penchant for appropriating and adapting cultural philosophies and traditions. Misuse and distortion of cultural and sacred traditions began to disseminate into the non-Native counter-culture.

Now, 50 years later, the Native elders are much more cautious about what is revealed to people outside their culture. Hobbyists are looked upon as “culture vultures” regardless of their professed sincerity. Tribal membership is safeguarded, for many reasons. Even close descendants can be denied access to the culture of their parents if they are not found on the tribal rolls.

There is little that can be done to reverse the damage and reluctance on the part of Native elders to divulge cultural information. Patience and persistence are the only avenue available, as futile as it might seem. It will be necessary to demonstrate the sincerity of your pursuit of information; to earn the trust of those who safeguard the cultural traditions you wish to learn.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the quest to reconnect with the Native culture of your ancestor must be undertaken with absolute seriousness and determination. It is a difficult undertaking, made only the more difficult by the ill feelings that those who have preceded you have left in their wake.

Among the Lakota, people of European descent are referred to as “wasichu”, which translates literally as “fat-takers”, meaning they are self-serving, seeking always to take the best of everything for themselves. It is a term that has been well-earned over hundreds of years of colonization and exploitation. It is an unfortunate reality that the current President of the United States, Donald Trump, seems to embody these characteristics and could well be called the Colonizer-in-Chief.

Perseverance in every aspect of your pursuit must be exercised. Never stop learning; seek sources of information wherever they can be found. Grasp any opportunity to meet authentic Native people; look for opportunities to serve their needs. Perhaps, in time, your sincerity will be recognized.

Nevertheless, recognize that you will always be an outsider. There will be places you will not be invited to go. There will be limits to what you are told and allowed to experience. Accept that you will always belong to the culture you were born into; that cannot be changed and it will always color how you see the world, regardless of how hard you try to think otherwise.

The prophecies predicted that the other races would come to the red race for instruction. It did not predict that the other races would merge into the red race. That would disrupt the balance of the universe. We would be foolish to imagine any differently.

Honoring the Earth – Honoring the Medicine

A few years ago, my lawn tractor broke down. I could not get it to start; I concluded it was something in the ignition system. Anyhow, I stopped mowing the entire seven and one half acres we own. I still hand mow the acre or so around the house; the horses and goats nibble at the rest but, to my neighbors’ consternation, most of it now grows wild.

Somewhat simultaneously, I began to develop a serious interest in herbalism. I had long held a passing interest in natural medicine and alternative healing modalities, but I really began to study herbalism. And then I discovered what grew up in the places I no longer mowed.

Last year, my rather relaxed work schedule permitted me to do a fair amount of foraging and gathering. I began to make tinctures and dry roots and leaves. And I began to pay attention to what was growing up in the places I no longer mowed down and elsewhere.

Actually, even the part I was trying to keep mowed got away from me and I found myself trying just to keep pathways cleared to allow access to the barns and outbuildings and such. So, this year, I determined that I would make a concerted effort to keep up with the acre or so, and began to mow fairly early in the growing season with the intent to mow each week.

The front yard area and the areas toward the barns didn’t arouse my attention much. There is burdock and dandelion scattered throughout, but there is plenty of that elsewhere. I mowed around the patch of stinging nettle we allow to propagate next to the garden. But I ended up leaving the back yard area for the next day.

I had planted some flowering tree starts, which I had received from the Arbor Day Foundation, around the back yard area, so I knew I would have to be careful around those. But then I began to notice other interesting plants and shrubs around the periphery of the yard area. I realized that a sharply defined yard area no longer matters to me. There are still raspberry canes and wild roses growing at the edges of the slightly diminished yard area and what appears to be an unexpected domesticated rose bush growing in the middle of the yard area. And I found myself apologizing audibly to the canes and plants I did choose to mow off.

In the course of my herbal studies, I have read several authors, and heard at least one speaker, who talk about getting to know plants personally; going and sitting with them to “hear” what they can tell us about themselves, asking their permission to harvest from them and giving back to them to honor their gift to us. Each of these authors and speakers attribute these practices to Native origins. Indeed, I was already aware that these practices were a part of most indigenous medicine traditions.

In the course of my career as a farrier, I have grown more and more into intuitively practicing kinship with the horses I interact with. Likewise, I have found this to be true of all the creatures that inhabit our seven acres. I have come to realize experientially that we really ARE all related.

My wife has had to become accustomed to my conversations with mice, spiders, snakes, flies, bees, wasps, fleas, ticks and so forth regarding respecting our space so that no forceful confrontation will be required. Grudgingly, she is learning to do the same, though our limits of tolerance are not necessarily the same.

I find myself thinking that this post did not live up to the noble sentiment the title suggested. The words that rolled off of my fingers do not quite match what I had originally anticipated. But, really, the concept of honoring the earth is contained in the concept of honoring the medicine (plants). And, really, both concepts end up being rather elementary:

When you learn to internalize the precept that everything in the creation carries a spark of the Creator, animate and inanimate, you cannot see the world as a colonizer any longer. As I heard Chief Arvol Looking Horse state recently, “You begin to see the earth as our source, not a resource.” When you sense the kinship we share with the plants and animals around us and learn to appreciate the interdependence of everything in the web of life, you will not even mow your yard in the same way.

Earth People

I came across a concept that resonates with me in Kenneth Cohen’s book Honoring the Medicine. I share it for your consideration, exactly as he wrote it:

“In Native American literature, the term white man is frequently a designation of colonial values–the need to dominate, divide, and acquire–rather than of ethnicity. People who superficially imitate Native Americans while denying their own ethnicity, perhaps by wearing Native American clothing and jewelry and imitating speech patterns and mannerisms, are called by a equally derogatory term: wannabees. There are also wannabees among Native American people: ‘red apples’, who are red on the outside but white on the inside. In the past, red apples were called ‘loafers around the forts,’ because they hung around the soldiers’ forts to receive handouts rather than fight against injustice or live in a way that affirms Native American freedom, sovereignty, and values.

Today we have an entirely new fruit, one with a white skin and a red heart.What should we call people who identify with Native American values and behave in a way consistent with those values? A person can be born Indian but act like a colonizer. A person can also be born white or Asian or black and act like a traditional Native American. Yes, it is possible. Not though imitation but by having the courage to follow the guidance of the heart. I have met many non-Native people who have shed colonial assumptions and learned to live lightly and respectfully on the earth. Native American elders recognize that in today’s mixed up world, race is no longer a guarantee of culture. The Creator has revealed his wonderful sense of humor in putting so many red souls in multicolored bodies!

People who respect Native American people, culture, and land and who are willing to make a personal and political stand for them deserve a proper term of respect. I like the designation suggested by a Lakota acquaintance: Maka Oyate, Earth People. The term is similar to a Cree phrase that is sometimes used by spirits (who speak through a ceremonial leader) to refer to Indian people: aks-ju-aski-wes-skin-hagun, ‘Earth-Made People.’ In the Holy Bible, the first human being is called Adam, meaning ‘Earth Person,’ because this androgynous being was formed of earth infused with God’s breath.

You cannot become an Indian if you were not born one. But you can be an Earth Person.” (page 27)

I could live with that…

On “Tribes” and “Nations”

There are no Indians in Pennsylvania. That is the official position of the state government. And, historically, that is correct. For the most part, the Indian nations had all removed themselves westward prior to the War for Independence, though, for a time, the Seneca nation extended into the northwestern corner of the state. Yet, there are still self-proclaimed tribes and nations throughout the state.

Speaking only of the Lenape claimants, there have been eight or more groups claiming tribal identity in the last 50 years. I think there may be four remaining, though one has effectively removed itself to Ohio. I cannot knowledgeably speak regarding any group claiming tribal identity from another nation (e.g. Cherokee, Shawnee, etc.). And I cannot speak of any other state or location other than Pennsylvania. My time “playing Indian” has been spent among the Lenape of Pennsylvania.

The above cited statistic should speak volumes regarding the authenticity of such claims. The fact that the Thunder Mountain Lenape Nation and the Lightning Valley Village were both established in recent memory and have both subsequently passed out of existence ought to exemplify the fallacy of their claims. The acquisitions and mergers that underlie the present composition of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania should serve to cast a shadow on their claim. And so forth.

In short, the problem is that these groups never met the most basic criteria to support their claim to a tribal identity. They do not represent a long-standing community of Native people from a single nationality. They do not have a stable membership base. They lack a clear ethnic identity and shared genetics. They do not fit the description.

For the sake of my argument, I will enumerate the most egregious flaws in the claims of the groups with which I have had any association. I do not wish to attempt to enumerate them all. Three in particular will suffice.

An actual tribal group will have documentable origins that predate history, at least orally. The membership will be closely related genetically. (When Native people refer to one another as “cuzzin”, they are generally not too far from the truth.) They will have a long-standing history in the area in which they claim to be located.

A tribal group will have an established and stable membership base. There cannot be a revolving door on the membership. Leaving the tribe is not an option. You don’t have to attend any of the functions any longer, but you cannot divorce yourself from your tribal identity and assume a new one elsewhere. Again, it is a matter of shared genetics.

Finally, an actual tribal group will have an established and historically recognizable culture base. The language, spiritual practices, customs, mannerisms, and so forth will, in essence, have been established in antiquity. There should not be numerous instances of the establishment of a custom or ceremony within the memory of the membership, unless it is the reestablishment of a custom or ceremony from another related group (e.g. there are efforts being made among the state-recognized Lenape groups in New Jersey to recover elements of their culture from federally-recognized Lenape groups in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada).

None of the Lenape groups in Pennsylvania meet any of these criteria, no less any other more minute criteria. Members come and go. Some hold dual memberships in one or more other “nations”. Close examination will reveal that the customs and spiritual practices are liberally borrowed from numerous other actual tribal cultures (e.g. Ojibwe and Lakota). And the origins of all the groups can be established to have occurred within the last 100 years.

There are no Indians in Pennsylvania, unless they have relocated from another region. Which means that their tribal identity and extended familial roots lie elsewhere.

There is one further feature of these groups that call themselves a tribe, band, village or nation that should be noted for the folly that it is: the attempt to emulate a tribal government. Perhaps it is not so evident in a group much larger than I was ever associated closely with, but my experience is that there are usually too many people with official titles. The expression “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” could have been coined from watching these groups.

I offer two examples to illustrate this and some of the other points above: When I was a village chief, we set about to fill out the roster of governmental and social structure as we perceived it. So, with a membership of about 15, we selected a principal chief, a head warrior, a medicine chief, and a clan mother for each of the three clans of the Lenape (Turtle, Wolf and Turkey).

When we joined ourselves to the Munsee-Delaware Indian Nation the next year, we repeated the same exercise, adding a clan chief for each clan and a war chief. In each instance, by the time we were finished, nearly half of the membership had received one or more titles.

There are so many points of foolishness in these accounts, I hardly know where to begin. But I will summarize, rather than belabor each one. It should be remembered that both of these groups were largely populated with people who had decided to join themselves to Native culture. When an individual is able to ascend from novice seeker to any tribal office in less than five years, there should be a red flag set for any outside observer.

If the nation is not presently at war, there is hardly a need for a war chief (though many tribal meetings could use a sergeant-at-arms). If there is not a large warrior society, there is no reason to have a head warrior. If there is no medicine society, there is no need for a medicine chief. And, in short, there is seldom enough membership to warrant that many titled offices.

Often in these groups, titles are used as a means for manipulating the membership. Pliable individuals can be pulled closer to the group leader (the personality around which the cult is formed, regardless of their supposed position in the ersatz government hierarchy). Difficult individuals can be reined in and placated. And undesirables can be excluded.

A similar case in point: There was a woman I knew from a group other than any that I had belonged to. I met her at a gathering while I was the principal chief of a Lenape hobbyist group. She was identified to me at the time as a medicine person. I met her again a few years later, when I was participating in a powwow as a storyteller. If memory serves, in the interim she had assumed a different Native name, but now she was also a clan mother in the other group.

As an aside, the individual that had organized the powwow was an archeological field assistant with no particular ties to any Native group when he organized the powwow the first year. By the time the powwow was organized the second year, he and his wife had formed a village and joined themselves to the nation this woman was now a clan mother in.

A few years later, I saw the woman in a video that was filmed in the Southwest. In the discussion that ensued on the online forum where I saw the video, I was informed that she had “moved on” and actually relocated to the Southwest. Similarly, the individual who had organized the powwow has relocated his entire village to another nation that is more geographically convenient to him.

This begs several questions, the foremost of which should be: “How is this possible?” How can an individual assume an important role such as a clan mother (the matriarchal leader of an extended family association that represents a major portion of a village or nation) and then “move on”? Yet this typifies the transient nature of the membership and leadership of these “nations”; the only constant is the personality around which the cult formed.

I can only guess at what transpired. A difference of opinion. A better opportunity in another locale. Who can say? Yet this is hardly representative of the nature of federally-recognized, historical nations.

If you are born into an actual Native culture, you are stuck with it. You can move to the city, you can stop attending the tribal functions, you can shred your tribal ID card. But you cannot change who you are or where you came from. Among the hobbyist groups, you can just relocate to another group that more suits your interests or demeanor at any given moment and never look back.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

The horse dance stick makeover is finally finished! I think I worked on it for almost two years, on and off.

A very long time ago, I was gifted with a horse dance stick. It may be one of the first accessories I had for my regalia. As it was given to me, it was quite primitive, being decorated with cloth bands, metal tacks, a buckskin collar and some buckskin around the handle area. It has always been my practice to make those things which are given to me my own, by embellishing them further. And then I honor them by dancing them around the circle at least once.

Originally, I embellished the dance stick by adding a strip of horsehair to represent the mane and adding deer hoof rattles around the buckskin collar. And I used it in the first few powwows I attended. But a horse dance stick is actually a Plains type of accessory. Before long, I acquired a dance staff that was more appropriate for my Eastern Woodlands regalia, which I have carried ever since.

A few years ago, I was inspired to give the horse dance stick a makeover. I wanted to decorate it with a gourd (peyote) stitch design which would replace the cloth bands, which were somewhat faded. And the deer hoof rattles had mostly broken off. So, quite some time later, I have finally completed the project.

I chose to use the gourd stitch to remind myself how to do it. I am much more accomplished with the brick (Comanche) stitch; I was introduced to that many years ago because it is easier to add and subtract beads from on odd shaped pieces. But the handle area of the dance stick is fairly uniform, so that wasn’t going to be an issue and I hadn’t practiced the gourd stitch for years.

This is one of those pieces that did not turn out as nice as I had hoped. The design did not end up looking like what I mapped out on the grid paper; it is obviously distorted. I’m not sure if it is because I didn’t start the gourd stitch correctly; I can’t see how the bead placement differs, but I wasn’t about to start over just to find out. I also admit that I could not follow my own design pattern; that has never been a problem previously, but this one apparently required better attention to design than I could muster.

I was inspired to replace the deer hoof rattles with horse hair tassels made with cartridge casings. The horse hair in the tassels is from one of my own horses who had died, so they honor him. If you are familiar with the Plains traditions, you understand why this is appropriate. I would have liked to use an older rifle casing, perhaps from a .45-70, but I don’t know anyone who owns one of those so I used a modern (.30-30) rifle casing.

Later this year, I will dance the stick around the circle. But I wanted to take this opportunity to relate a humorous story about a different horse dance stick.

There is a certain hobbyist group that comes to my town each year to present an exhibition for the general public. They drum and dance and offer educational insights into Native culture. They generally represent the Eastern Woodlands culture. I try to make a habit of going to their exhibition in order to see what they have to say each year.

And so it was, this past summer, that when I arrived before the presentation and perused the items they were displaying on their artifact table, I spotted a very nice, yet unadorned, horse dance stick. It was quite nice, in that the hoof representation on the end of the stick was fully three-dimensional (you can see that mine is more two-dimensional), and apparently old, in that the hoof representation had already cracked because the wood had dried out since the artifact was originally crafted. I could not recall seeing this particular artifact in previous years, so I was curious to hear the explanation that would be given when it was displayed for the public.

The explanation that was offered defied credulity. Besides misidentifying the artifact (and the tribal culture from which it came) completely, an explanation of its use was offered which was an amalgam of misapplied factoids and outright fabrication. But I know where the presenter gathered all of that from; I had some of the same “teachers” in times past. She had heard that information in some form and somehow cobbled together the explanation she delivered.

Which points up a glaring problem present in all hobbyist groups: thoroughly uneducated educators. I suppose there could be a hobbyist group somewhere that acquires knowledge and keeps it to themselves, sharing it among themselves but never attempting to divulge it to the outside public. But I have not encountered a group yet that didn’t feel compelled at some point to have a public face, through a powwow or exhibition.

If each individual in the group had thoroughly educated themselves on at least one aspect of the tribal culture they presume to represent and stuck to what they know well, this might not be such a bad thing. But that is a concept doomed to failure, even if that was the original intent.

The viewing public is, by definition, less educated than the presenter. Ostensibly, they came to the presentation because they wanted to be educated. It must be presumed that, generally, the viewing public has only a rudimentary knowledge of the material being presented, yet they are eager to gather as much information as they can to bolster that knowledge.

Consequently, they will ask questions across the spectrum of their curiosity. They will ask questions about any bit of information they have internalized from every source they can remember. Unfortunately, it is the tendency of the presenters to attempt to answer all of those questions, hazarding a guess where necessary, usually without qualifying the certainty of the answer.

But even worse, generally, is the knowledge pool from which the guess will be drawn. Most intertribal groups mix and match their information on Native culture, using what I call the “Chinese menu” approach.

Perhaps there are not many actual Chinese restaurants left. There seem to be many more Asian buffets these days, so perhaps the metaphor is unfamiliar in current times. But there was a time when a Chinese meal was ordered by selecting an entrée from one column of the menu with side dishes listed in an adjoining column. Thus, there was an expression that became a part of the common vernacular, “One from Column A and two from Column B”.

It is my contention that New Age spirituality is assembled in the same manner, so it could be equally appropriate to characterize the cultural information appropriated by most intertribal groups as “New Age Nativeness”. The formulation proceeds somewhat like the following:

An individual selects the culture they wish to represent and learns a rudimentary amount about that culture from whatever sources they can discover, written or oral. But then they encounter an idea from a different culture that sounds interesting or attractive, so they append it to their knowledge and practice. As additional divergent concepts are encountered and appended, the original knowledge becomes increasingly adulterated and unrecognizable as accurate or authentic. Nevertheless, it is passed on to other less educated individuals as accurate and authentic.

Thus, I attended a presentation on a medicine wheel garden once which typified exactly that phenomenon. It was presented at a powwow that purported to be a Woodlands powwow (representative of the nations which comprise the Eastern Woodlands cultural group). No mention was made of the historic fact that medicine wheels did not figure prominently in Woodlands culture; they are more a feature of Plains culture. The information presented was an amalgam of medicine wheel lore from several Plains cultures. The presentation included a sort of guided visualization of the four directions with accompanying symbolism. And the presenter concluded her presentation with “Nemaste”.

I walked away from that presentation thinking to myself: “I wonder how many people think they just learned an Indian word?” Hopefully, most people recognized it for what it was and didn’t consciously connect it with the remainder of the information presented. Nonetheless, for those who didn’t, there was no one to tell them that “Nemaste” is an East Indian word; not an American Indian word.

If we are going to attempt to educate the public, we had best be certain that we are delivering the information accurately and that we can cite the source from which we acquired that information. We are doing a disservice to the public and failing to represent Native culture properly and respectfully when we fabricate information. Nothing could mark a wannabe in a more negative light.

Intertribal Does Not Mean Interchangeable

I have noted previously that most hobbyist groups call themselves intertribal. This means that they acknowledge that they represent a multitude of tribal identities without claiming a distinct tribal identity. Anyone from any tribal identity is welcome to join and participate and, in theory, bring their culture with them to share with the others.

At least, they don’t try to call themselves a tribe or a nation. They portray themselves as an association of multiple tribal identities. In principle, this is a straightforward and acceptable idea. When properly conducted, it should be an appropriate place for a seeker to begin to learn the culture of his ancestors. In reality, I have yet to see this play out correctly.

I have long believed that an intertribal group should be a springboard to real exploration of your Native heritage. Of course, it would help if there were one or more people already there who have already assimilated the culture you are wanting to assimilate. The ideal model for learning the culture of your ancestors would be one of those further along the journey reaching back to pull you along.

Unfortunately, the reality is usually that there is no one in the group that knows much about any particular tribal culture. There is usually a generalized knowledge of Native life and history, gathered from whatever books can be discovered. There will usually be a fair representation of people claiming ancestry from the best known nations (Cherokee, Lakota, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), etc.), but often none of them have any depth to their knowledge of the culture they claim ancestry from. Instead, there is a much too prevalent tendency for each individual to pick and choose information from any tribal culture that appeals to them.

Times have changed since I began my own journey. At that time, it was necessary to travel to a bookstore and peruse whatever was shelved there to find resources for study. Of course, there were libraries also, but you were still limited by the interests of the acquisitions committee and donations.

Since then, the Internet has exploded and one can find almost any book ever written available through myriad sources, often indexed by keywords, which makes locating primary source information much easier. There is also seemingly limitless information available through web searches, though it is often difficult to discern the validity of any given article.

Nevertheless, this presumes that people are motivated enough to actually research the culture they claim ancestry from. This is seldom the case. People prefer to be fed information by others, which presupposes that those people have accurate information to offer. The examples here are too numerous to recount.

I once was in a group with an individual who claimed Cherokee ancestry. So I suggested some well-known resources on the Cherokee for him to use to learn that culture. His response was that he preferred resources that had mostly pictures. I’m still looking for the Classic Comics version of James Mooney’s work.

I attended an educational presentation by a group that I was somewhat familiar with and heard an account given of an origin of ribbon work on Native clothing. The story offered was plausible enough and I liked it. So I attempted to verify it through my own research, which I was unable to do. So, the next time I heard the story in a subsequent educational presentation I asked the presenter to cite the source of their information.

This was an individual who claimed Lenape heritage. The story she had offered involved the children who were sent to the Indian boarding schools. The explanation (citation of source) I received astonished me. She tried to attribute the story to oral history because the Lenape did not have a written language.

There are two problems here: The Lenape language was transcribed and written down by Moravian missionaries before the American War for Independence. It is difficult to say how many of the Lenape could actually write the language at the time, but it is reasonable to assume that there were a few.

But even more pertinent to the explanation given is that the era of Indian boarding schools began after the American Civil War, well into the historic period of both Indian culture and American culture. It is certain that if there were any validity to the account given, someone would have written something of it somewhere.

Returning to the theme represented by the title of this post, the fundamental problem of most intertribal hobbyist groups is that all tribal cultures become generally viewed as somewhat interchangeable. Customs and practices from any culture can be grafted into each individual’s understanding of the culture they aspire to represent according to any whim or fancy.

If such an understanding were kept private and personal, no one would be harmed by the blatant inaccuracies thus constructed (other than the individual themselves). But when it is disseminated to the unsuspecting public as accurate and authentic, a transgression is committed that cannot be easily corrected. It is little wonder that pretendians are generally regarded as pariahs among those raised in the cultures that are thus misrepresented.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for each individual to study the culture they aspire to represent, in as many aspects as they can. In my experience, it is likely that you will learn aspects of other national cultures in the process, but it is important to keep those carefully compartmentalized to the culture they belong to.

Likewise, it is imperative that you be able to cite the sources of your information as much as possible, and be honest when you are offering extemporaneous information (making an educated guess). Authenticity and accuracy is paramount if you are representing a tribal culture you were not raised in to the public.