The Conundrum of Spirituality

It would probably be ideal if the pretendian would not even venture into the arena of Native spirituality. But that is a virtual impossibility for several reasons.

Foremost is the understanding that spirituality is inseparable from Native culture. It is integrated into every facet of the culture because of the cosmologic perspective of the Native, that everything is spiritually connected in the web of Creation. There is no activity that does not have a spiritual aspect integrated into it.

Secondarily, spirituality draws each individual to itself. We are all fascinated by the spiritual. Even the avowed atheist acknowledges that there are facets of human existence that surpass understanding, though they dismiss them as matters that just have not been quantified yet.

And, finally, the unique features of indigenous spiritual practice invite exploration by the hobbyist initiate. Curiosity compels us to explore the unfamiliar terrain of indigenous spirituality.

Thus, if you are intent on actually living in a Native manner, you cannot avoid spirituality. Yet, authentic Native peoples are not willingly forthcoming about their spirituality, and not without reason.

I have learned repeatedly that there is no faster way to turn a dialog with a Native person to silence, even with close acquaintances, than asking questions about their spiritual traditions and practices. Whether they are reluctant to answer incorrectly or just feel compelled to protect the traditions from non-Native persons who are likely to misuse and misrepresent them, it is very difficult to obtain spiritual information in an informal manner.

Should you be fortunate enough to have an authentic Native elder open themselves up to teach you, be sure to offer a gift of tobacco to them for their wisdom and then listen quietly to whatever they have to say. Don’t interrupt them with questions, as non-Native people are apt to do. They will tell you what Spirit directs them to tell you; you should not attempt to direct the conversation.

Nevertheless, for the most part, you will find that you will have to learn what you can, wherever you can, and practice at your own risk. It is my belief that our Creator accepts our spiritual practices when they are done with reverence and sincerity. We should strive to honor the traditions we can learn by practicing them exactly as we were able to learn them. Beyond this, we must rely on Spirit to guide us in other practices we feel compelled to pursue.

We should constantly seek to enhance our knowledge as opportunities present themselves. Then, when we have put forth our best effort to learn and preserve the spiritual traditions and practices of the culture we are assimilating, as we are granted permission to practice them, we should be confident that no harm will befall us. Our prayers will rise with smoke and be honored by our Creator.

More Signs You Might Be A Pretendian

If you live east of the Mississippi and own a tipi…you might be a pretendian.

If you have a medicine wheel in your back yard…you might be a pretendian.

If you won’t use a butane lighter to ignite your smudge…you might be a pretendian.

If you have ever regarded the sweat lodge as an endurance contest…you might be a pretendian.

If your spirit name involves a bird or animal near the top of the food chain…you might be a pretendian.

If your computer desktop and screen-saver are Native themed…you might be a pretendian.

If you don’t understand what all the fuss is about fashion models and rock stars wearing war bonnets…you might be a pretendian.

If you don’t understand why sports team names and mascots, brand names and logos are not appropriate ways to honor the Native peoples…you might be a pretendian.

If you think the four sacred herbs are tobacco, marijuana, peyote and ‘shrooms…you’re just ignorant.

If you don’t understand the problem with any of these…you might want to do some more research.

Editor’s Note: I recently came across a similar list older than this blog. I don’t recall seeing it before, so I don’t think I was influenced by it. But it is enjoyable.

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”.

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.

Indian Country Magazine

I was pleasantly surprised to finally receive the debut issue of Indian Country magazine, published by Indian Country Today Media Network, recently. Indian Country Today Media Network has been promoting it for several months, so my anticipation had been mounting; especially when the articles had been linked to other articles from their regular news feed, but were only available in summary to non-subscribers. I had only signed up to receive the debut issue before I determined if I wanted to pay the full $35 subscription for the year (six bi-monthly issues).

I am a firm believer that the pretendian cannot avail themselves of too many information sources. This one is a good one, in a more general sense. It contains articles largely concerned with contemporary human interest stories, with sidebars for historic and cultural expansions. Perhaps it could best be characterized as a “People”magazine for Native America.

Perhaps the most valuable aspects of this issue’s contents are the personal observations offered by the writers and subjects of the articles. Even the way a Lakota creation story was related offered an insight into the viewpoint of the author (which extends, apparently, to the Lakota people in general).

The magazine includes plenty of fine photography, artistic features and tourist information. This issue included a fairly comprehensive powwow schedule, along with some other powwow-related information.

I have to surmise that Native America is not really the intended audience; the content seems more suited to drawing non-Natives into the Native world in an informative way. Nevertheless, if you can afford the subscription amount, there is plenty of insight that can be gleaned by the pretendian with regard to the Native perspective and the Natives who are making their mark in the world.

The Evolution of the Enthusiast

If you are not born into a Native culture, everyone has to start somewhere. Even if you have a Native ancestor, regardless of how close they may be in your family genealogy, but the culture is not practiced in your immediate family, you will still find yourself adrift from those roots. And, as the familial links to that Native ancestor die off, your chances of cultivating any meaningful connection to those Native roots die with them.

Thus, the seeker invariably finds themselves searching for any person or resource that can reestablish those links. Most seekers are operating from the knowledge that there is an individual in their family genealogy who is alleged to be a Native. Laughably, that individual has often been inflated in the family history into a chief or a princess. Yet most often, the actual tribal identity is not firmly established; hence the vast proliferation of Cherokee grandmothers and Blackfeet progenitors. And so the journey begins.

There is a maxim that prevails in the hobbyist scene that asserts: “If you have one drop of Native blood in you, you are Native”. Hardly anyone knows that that maxim is borrowed from the legacy of racial segregation in the United States, perhaps made most famous by the work of Thomas Plecker in Virginia. It was coined to be an instrument of exclusion, not inclusion.

Nevertheless, the starting point for most hobbyists is one of demanding admission to the Native community. We have the ancestry, so we ought to be able to celebrate our heritage alongside those who were factually born into that ethnicity and culture. Skin color and actual cultural identity are irrelevant.

Most times, lacking the knowledge or means to access individuals who actually live in the culture we wish to assimilate into, we join ourselves to any local group of hobbyists we can locate, to find an entry point into our Native identity.

Most hobbyist groups are intertribal, whether they choose to acknowledge that or not. They are often a cult of personality, being founded and dominated by a singular individual or a very small group of like-minded individuals. And they are usually a quagmire of unreliable information for the sincere seeker.

Nevertheless, they defy anyone to deny their right to self-identify as Native and they teach the members to do the same. Native identity is conferred on any who seek it, regardless of how tenuous their link to the Native culture and ethnicity. Everything goes smoothly until you are challenged by an actual Native person.

It is generally incumbent on the individual to establish their actual genealogical claim to their Native identity. And you may stand on that as long as you can. But, invariably, you will encounter someone who will discount your claim because it isn’t close enough to give you any substantial blood quantum.

And here’s the reality. If your ancestor was more than 3 generations up the family tree, you don’t really qualify for anything except to celebrate that you have a Native heritage. And you probably will not be able to prove the ethnicity of that ancestor from census data; you are almost certainly relying on oral family history.

So you stake your claim. But sooner or later, you will be challenged, unless you are content to sit quietly in a corner and console yourself that you have a Native heritage. But, isn’t the point to proudly wear your Native identity for the world to see? To learn and proudly share your knowledge of your ancestral culture? And here is where you will run into trouble.

There will be a moment when you will encounter someone who knows something about the culture you are assimilating yourself into. And chances are, they will challenge your knowledge and your origins. Then you will have a choice; you can admit that you don’t know much and may have been misinformed, or you can become adamantly stubborn. And the more comfortable you have become with your Native identity, the more likely you are to become stubborn.

And loud. You will reiterate and assert your right to claim a place in the Native community to any who will listen. It will become a mantra for you. You will exert whatever logic you can muster to bolster your claim. You will be adamant and unyielding, hoping to wear the opposition down with your tenacity.

Then, when the opposition becomes fierce enough, for those of us who tend to lead with our jaw, you will eventually resort to trying to “out-Indian the Indians”. You hit the books and learn as much as you can about your adopted culture. You may even try to learn the language (you may even succeed). If you can be a better Indian than your Native detractors, they will have to accept you, right?

Nevertheless, if you can learn to be honest with yourself, you will reach a day when you have to admit that you have no real claim to a Native identity. Your Cherokee ancestor is a nice conversation piece, but they could not bequeath their culture to you. You were not born into the culture and you will likely never truly assimilate it. You are, as the saying goes, neither wolf nor dog.

So, in the end, you must retire your claim to belong and return to the culture of your birth. Or admit that you are a hobbyist, an enthusiast, and try to fit in where you can; where you are permitted. Curiously, that can become the point at which doors may be opened for you to begin a further journey.

Sometimes I Still Surprise Myself

I didn’t formerly view myself as artistic. I was never impressed by what I created in art class in my formative years. Consequently, I have always undertaken new projects in making regalia or artifacts with no small amount of trepidation. And yet, over the years, I have surprised myself over and over with how well my artistic attempts turn out (not every time, however).

In a recent article in Indian Country Today, a Native pipe maker was quoted as saying that we should ask the stone what kind of pipe is inside of it. I had heard this from a Lakota acquaintance who is also a pipe maker. And now I can say that I have experienced this for myself.

Many years ago, my wife purchased two pipes from a friend of ours which he had crafted. One was made from a deer antler, which I still use as a personal pipe, and the other was made from clay, which she claimed for herself. Some years ago, her pipe was misplaced and, when it reappeared recently, the clay bowl had broken where the wooden stem joined it.

An attempt to repair the bowl was unsuccessful and I was inspired to carve a new bowl from pipestone (catlinite). Somewhere along the journey, I had acquired a box of catlinite chunks, so I selected one that would contain the broken bowl, with the intent of merely replicating the broken bowl. The stone had other ideas. It became clear to me, through means I will not attempt to articulate, that there was a turtle inside that catlinite chunk. The turtle has meaning to my wife and the project was intended to be a birthday surprise for her, so this seemed appropriate to me.

In a previous conversation with that Lakota pipe maker, he had explained to me that he makes pipes in a traditional manner, using only hand tools. I had made a few very simple pipes for myself previously, but had used power tools for most of the process. So I asked my acquaintance if it would be acceptable to rough out the design with a power tool and finish with hand tools. He said that I should use whatever was necessary to do the job.

I have never lost the trepidation. I have learned the value of “measure much, cut once”. My profession as a farrier has taught me that you can always remove more hoof, but you cannot glue it back on. I downloaded a picture of a painted turtle and sketched a design on the catlinite block. I carefully removed what pieces I could with a band saw (using a metal cutting blade). I carefully drilled the hole for the stem without encroaching on where I anticipated that the bowl would be. Then I began to remove material with a rotary tool.

When the design was roughed in enough to see the outline of the turtle, I switched to files to finish the project. One of my hoof rasps was appropriate to flatten the lip of the bowl; I used a small flat file and needle files for the remainder of the design. And somewhat to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile of a box turtle emerged from the stone.

To be honest, I credit Spirit with guiding my hands. I did quite a bit of praying while I worked. When I went to drill the final hole into the pipe bowl, it was placed exactly right; both the depth of the bowl and the center of the stem hole met perfectly.

My only regret is that I did not use an appropriately sized boring tool to make the bowl; I could not craft a perfectly round hole with the rotary tool, try as I may. I suppose that the traditionally appropriate tool would be a bow drill with a flint or chert “bit”, but flint knapping is not in my skill set at the moment!

If I had intentions of continuing to carve pipes, I would acquire a pair of D-type carbide cutting burrs in 1/2″ and 3/4″ to craft perfect bowls. I had used a 1/2″ ball burr on the previous pipe bowls but I could not locate it this time; and I needed a 3/4″ burr to replicate the dimensions of the original bowl anyhow.