February 4, 2011

Cultural Imperialism and Native American Spirituality

Another short essay from my Native American Religions course, fall 2010, that tackles the issue of the expropriation and commodification of Native American spirituality under the auspices of American capitalism. My sources are Lisa Aldred, “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sundances: New Age Commercialization and Native American Spirituality,” American Indian Quarterly v. 24, n. 3 (Summer 2000): 329-52; Laurie Anne Whitt, “Cultural Imperialism and the Marketing of Native America,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal v. 19, n. 3 (1995): 1-31; a chapter from Vine Deloria's God is Red; Young’s Quest for Harmony; and a documentary called White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men.

In this essay, I will argue that the recent trends toward the expropriation and commodification of Native American spirituality and religious culture constitute cultural imperialism. To argue this, I will first describe the shape of the commodification and expropriation of Native American spiritual concepts, symbols, practices, and artifacts; the resultant criticisms from the Native American community; and the personal rationales of the participants, both native and nonnative. Second, I will define cultural imperialism and show how it is descriptive of these recent trends. The ultimate goal of this essay is to identify the potentially harmful effects of these trends upon Native American people and cultures while still operating within a strictly academic, objective, and critical framework.

The commodification and expropriation of Native American religious culture has taken place in a variety of ways. In some cases, nonnatives are selling books and other merchandise that claim to be authentic reproductions of traditional teachings, myths, religious objects, and ritual implements (Aldred). Other nonnatives host sweat lodges, seminars, workshops, dances, and pale imitations of other traditional ceremonies, again claiming to be authentic or, if not strictly authentic, at least true to the essence of spirit of the original cultural practices (White Shamans). In both cases, concerned Native Americans argue that, by charging money and emptying the teachings and practices of contextual significance, the nonnative practitioners are compromising the essence of the practices and trivializing sacred traditions (Young 383). Nonnatives are not the only ones participating in the commodification of Native American spirituality; several Native American people have spread versions of Native culture to largely nonnative audiences. Most Native Americans are critical of these supposed “healers” and “shamans,” arguing variously that Native Americans stoop to this resort out of financial desperation (White Shamans) and work for nonnatives to the neglect of their tribal responsibilities and obligations (Deloria 252).

Native Americans have roundly criticized the commodification of their religious culture on both sides as hollow and materialistic, in the sense that the religious symbols are emptied of content and context (White Shamans). In addition, critics have argued that the nonnatives attracted to the perceived authenticity and legitimacy of these watered down teachings and practices are spiritually starved products of a postmodern, capitalist world (Aldred) whose “hunger for some kind of religious experience is so great that [they] show no critical analysis…” (Deloria 252). Participants in the commodification of Native American religion have voiced various responses to the concerns of Native Americans, which run the gamut from vacuous individualism to clever rationales for their actions. Most often, the participants appeal to the common heritage and universal applicability of spiritual teachings (White Shamans; Whitt 8). This rationale is the most important for this essay because it directly relates to Laurie Anne Whitt’s definition of cultural imperialism.

Witt defines cultural imperialism as “cultural acquisition via conceptual assimilation” whereby the marketing of Native American religion “serves to extend the political power, secure the social control, and further the economic profit of the dominant culture” (2). Intricately woven into the process of cultural imperialism is the concept of “imperialist nostalgia,” which roughly describes the way the invading culture absorbs and recreates an indigenous culture after deliberately tampering with said indigenous culture (Whitt 7). Whitt argues that by first appealing to the commonality and universality of religious traditions (thus making the teachings and practices of Native American culture absorbable by the invading culture) and then repackaging these traditions as private intellectual property (thus allowing the culture to recreate the original phenomena as something now belonging to them), the expropriation and commodification of Native American religious culture is a process of cultural imperialism (Whitt 19). I find Witt’s argument convincing for two reasons. First, the conception of religion as a transhistorical, transcultural phenomena (and, therefore, of unlimited utility and applicability regardless of social and historical context) was produced by the dominant culture in this case. This conception of religion has a distinctly Euro-Protestant flavor, and the conscious or unconscious projection of this definition of religion onto Native American traditions is imperialistic. Second, recreating these teachings and practices in a Euroamerican image and marketing them as private intellectual property for economic gain, in addition to being offensively inconsistent, secures the place of the dominant culture.

Native American tribes have historically been dynamic cultures. In this class, we have discussed numerous examples of tribes coming into contact and participating in a free exchange of ideas and concepts, which allowed different rituals and stories to adapt or be newly adopted. Yet this discursive process of cultural interaction came with one major difference from the form we see today. Pre-contact tribes interacted in a way that was communal, free, and essentially creative. The expropriation and commodification of Native American spirituality by nonnative and Native people, on the other hand, is artificial, individual, costly, and largely destructive. Instead of beautiful, dynamic developments that allow both cultures to be enriched, the imperialistic tendencies of recent trends have allowed a dominant culture to consume another culture. The perceived benefits for nonnative and Native participants in cultural imperialism pale in comparison to the confusion and pain caused to Native American people and cultures.