Let me preface this by making it clear that I'm not Native American. I am an Indian, from India. And no, that's not 'East Indian', it's just Indian, the ignorance of a certain Italian genocidaire notwithstanding. I am extremely happy to know that this group exists, and I have joined in the hopes of some mutually-beneficial cross-cultural exchange.
As you no doubt know, my own people have suffered a long history of European oppression and genocide through war, indentured servitude and disease, although it cannot be compared in scale to what was done to you and your land. There are many similarities in the problems that our cultures must solve in the face of the continued cultural imperialism that the dominant Euro-centric social condition facilitates.
One common problem that we have is that, in their haste to assert a defining narrative about our native cultures, our scholars and popular writers have resorted to proclaiming the most superstitious and regressive aspects of our history. We have this problem with Hinduism today in India, where all the superstitions of the land are packaged into an amalgam of religion, tradition and culture at large. I have noticed this problem with Native American cultures as well. I know I'm lumping you all together and making generalizations, but I hope I'm not too far off in my observations.
The impetus behind such branding is understandable. Our cultures have not had a chance to participate in the normal process of change and evolution that happens to those cultures and languages that are the mainstream and are involved in all the academic and intellectual interaction between people. So, what stands out the most when scholars look at our cultures is a pre-scientific worldview, which these well-intentioned people have made to be the defining characteristics of our cultures. Granted some of it may be metaphorical or ritualistic in nature, but the claims almost always spill into the real world, affecting perception of reality and acceptance of scientific ideas. The damage that this sort of scientific relativism (as opposed to cultural relativism, which is legitimate and has a different epistemological focus, asking different types of questions) does to our peoples is terrible.
In India we are today dealing with all sorts of quack ideas and superstitions in the mainstream. There are universities and colleges dedicated to unscientific ideas such as ayurveda (a pre-scientific medical system) and astrology. Its all done in the name of "Ancient Indian Science". A court in Bombay recently ruled that astrology (the Indian version) is a science. Yoga (there are many superstitious aspects to this practice that are not so well-known in the West) is pushed on school children without proper scientific guidelines. This is just the tip of the iceberg, I could go on forever. The worst thing about this is that our culture has become branded internationally as a superstitious culture. To those who promote this branding, the few in the West who proclaim Indian culture as an "enlightened" or "spiritual" culture is all the evidence that India is indeed the greatest country in the world. Any criticism of these superstitions is treated as an attack on Indian culture as a whole. We are branded traitors, and worse, as peddling some sort of Abrahamic faith!
Have you folks faced similar issues?
Is there any literature on the subject?
What ideas have Native American scholars suggested that might help counter the popular belief that the best way to reclaim cultural recognition is to define one's culture as being comprised (mostly) of all those things that are patently superstitious even at the cost of causing irreparable damage and preventing any real progressive activism that can make our cultures relevant in the 21st century and beyond?
What do each of you think about this subject on a personal level?
How do you personally describe your affiliation with your culture without the superstitions included?
Or do you include them and simply treat them as harmless myths?
Do you think that in the long run such mythologizing is a good thing?
Do you have alternate narratives of reason and systematic knowledge that can define your cultures in a way that is consistent with science and reason?
Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope we can have a wonderful discussion!
With exception of the Meso-American cultures there was no written record of the indigenous cultures only oral histories. Oral histories can be quite accurate if the culture associated is still viable – there in lies the problem.
From the first contact in 1492 until the time of any significant European settlements a period of over a hundred years elapsed – seven generations. In that time anywhere from 75% to 90% of the indigenous people died from epidemic disease. The people the first Europeans met were only a shadow of the great nations that thrived a mere 100 years earlier. Villages were abandoned, people were scattered and oral histories forgotten so Europeans wrote what they believed was the history based on greatly distorted views, prejudice, fear and a paucity of evidence.
At a painfully slow pace the true (truer ) history and nature of those societies is being revealed. Evidence is being found that is 180 degrees from the “common wisdom”.
The human toll in those 100+ years far surpasses any other human disaster in history – even the plagues of the 14 th century throughout Eurasia doesn't compare.
I am mostly caucasian and have happily practised "secular" yoga through the years. No Ayurveda, no chanting, no wild physically transcending feats, just simple calming 'westernised' physical yoga, control of respiration, stretching, inversions, calm.
The challenge you pose is a good one. Our society is passing from a theocracy to a technocracy (with its inherent oligarchy and/or plutarchy). Control of civilisation is passing into the hands of fewer and fewer people.
I am one of those who has as you say "cherry picked" what I like from other cultures and worked on implementing those in my own culture. Here in Yukon, first nation "respect" has grown in only certain directions. The most common form of "native respect" is done by saying prayers (combination of Christian and pagan) before big events, inaugurations, festivals. I consider this an annoying form of lip service. White people make themselves "look" and "feel" good by doing these prayers, which are today so imbibed by Christianity anyway, that it's not a big leap for a religious white person to stand hand in hand with a first nation person for these prayers. But we do very little in reversing the harms done by whites to first nations here, ridiculously little, so all the praying is but lip-service (pardon the pun, but what a great pun indeed) to an image with no real action behind it.
Myself, I've always cherry picked a different aspect of North American First Nations culture. Its stance of balance with nature and the "facts of life" rather than the continued human obsession with dominance of nature. In Canada, most First Nations believe in white bread Christianity, I've always been atheist, so I've never had any interest whatsoever in that part of the culture.
I think its the very nature of any open minded person to "cherry pick" from being a traveller in other cultures, to improve our own. I've been to 13 countries (no conventional tourism), and when I return to Canada, I'm always a changed person to some degree, and hopefully I bring this insight to my own political sphere.
One of the worst ways the West pushes globalisation in India that I've noticed in past decades in the continued push of the Green Revolution through Monsanto imperialism. Monsanto destroys farms and farmland and communities, and I've watched as Indian farmers struggle against the lies perpetrated by this megacorporation. I support Indian farmers on this. In North America, a common sight is Uranium exploitation and nuclear discharge (relating to nuclear power) on First Nations lands. A continued form of colonialism, even today's protected First Nation lands are not spared the push of the oncoming technocracy.
The push of modernity, a push to the death, against "traditional" cultures, goes way beyond any religious debate. People who value traditional cultures, religious or not, are name called by those in favour of the new technocracy. But technocracy is no more democratic than theocracy is. So in many regards, atheists are pushing the exact same value system as religious people, and this I find appalling.
I grew up around a lot of 'superstitions' but none of them were harmful or alarming in any way. Our tradition of medicine men and cleansing rituals are pretty superstitious, but I'm not always sure that everyone takes them literally either. Being wafted with smoke from burning herbs, or hearing superstitious tales about how this or that came to be that doesn't match with science - in some ways these aren't nurturing progress or cultural evolution, but they weren't necessarily damaging either. The traditions and rituals aside, I've always found that many Native American view points (that is, our collective world views, which aren't much different across the board) can be quite consistent with science if one does let go of literal interpretations of myth and fable, or those rituals.
From living in a population with a high aboriginal percentage, and having a pretty good grasp of local history, it seems to me that these rituals used to take up extremely small chunks of time, and were very infrequent, in traditional cultures before the arrival of Europeans. But with all the missionary activity of these Europeans, aboriginal culture fought back by emphasizing the "sacred" and "rituals", but what we see today is much more volume of such time expenditures than was pre-colonial culture. It seems to me that pre-colonial North Americans spent more time feeding/hunting/leisure, than worshipping and discussing spirits. To me it's all a matter of omnipresence in ones life. Today's "sacred" activities don't really jive with historical accounts.