Lee Irwin, editor,
Native American Spirituality
(University of Nebraska Press, 2000)

Of more than 60 books about Native American religion and spirituality that I reviewed for the 75th anniversary of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act, Native American Spirituality is by far the overall best. It contains 14 essays written by native and non-native academic specialists in selected fields.

There is an introduction to Native American spirituality by editor Lee Irwin that sets the stage by defining "spirituality," for the purpose of this book, as "a pervasive quality of life that develops out of an authentic participation in values and real-life practices meant to connect members of a community with the deepest foundations of personal affirmation and identity." He explains the objective of this book as prompting the reader to look at all views instead of taking sides and ignoring the points of the opposing side. He touches briefly on a few of the issues regarding Native American spirituality.

The first essay pulled me into the book and hooked me for the duration. In "Meditations of the Spirit: Native American Religious Traditions and the Ethics of Representation," Inez Hernandez-Avila, a Nez Perce associate professor of Native American studies at the University of California at Davis, speaks frankly about what it is like not to know your tribal culture -- not to speak the language or know the songs -- and to embark upon a search for answers from people that are reluctant to divulge those answers.

This author has the spunk to dive straight into the middle of several of the leading controversies about how Native American spirituality is represented and misrepresented. She suggests it is ridiculous that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act had to be drafted in 1978 when the First Amendment of the Constitution already guarantees religious freedom. She briefly covers some important court cases and their effect on Native American spirituality.

Hernandez-Avila breaks down the essay, "Claiming Power-in-Relation: Exploring the Ethics of Connection," written by leading feminist Mary Grey. She explains how and why Grey's writing is self-inflating and elitist. She ends the section with a punch by stating that Native American women empower themselves and need no "women of privilege" to take responsibility for this empowerment.

She examines why "discovery" of a native spiritual ritual or practice usually means "extinction" of that practice, especially when it involves herbal or medical procedures. She questions why there is still an active practice of "demonization" of native practices that results in the elders deciding to protect the younger generation by not passing on the information.

The next topic in this essay is how the new-age crowd, Eco-Tribes and "Rainbow Tribes" affect Native American spirituality, from their commercialization of spiritual items to the "instant shamans." She brings out a very legitimate point about the dangerous nature of non-native persons goofing around with spiritual ceremonies and causing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harm.

The last part of this first chapter looks at how Americans have designated the Sioux and the Aztecs as "typical Indians" and are incorporating their spiritual ceremonies into "circus sideshow"-like public exhibitions. She points out that poor migrant workers from Mexico are quick to learn that the traditional native ceremonies of their region are a "commodity" in the U.S. They exploit these ceremonies for personal gain.

I have gone deeply into this one essay to make a point. This is only one of 14 such pieces of work contained in this book. Every essay is equally powerful and thought-provoking. By the time your reach the end, it is like having taken an entire course in Native American spirituality. The writing is spirited and intensely personal throughout, though the styles and tones vary by individual writer.

Once you begin Native American Spirituality, you cannot put it down. It drops all the academic jargon and leads an in-your-face discussion of the entire scope of native spirituality. You will walk away from this discussion well-informed and conscious of the ongoing battle for personal freedom, religion and cultural retention that Native Americans face on a daily basis.

- Rambles
written by Alicia Karen Elkins
published 22 May 2004

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