I seem to have been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation lately — issues such as theft of voice and spiritual eclecticism. One way of thinking about these issues is to point to two very different ways of looking at spirituality: for want of existing terms, I have called them indigenist and universalist. Indigenists are communitarian, traditional, hierarchical, and concerned with correct ritual action; universalists are individualist, eclectic, egalitarian, and concerned with psychological states. The following table may be helpful in capturing the underlying beliefs of these two approaches:


Indigenist Universalist
Spiritual values derive from a small, homogeneous community with well-defined leadership roles and what is perceived as an essentially unchanging oral tradition. Spiritual values derive from a large diverse world community providing both oral and written resources which may be selected, adapted, or combined by the individual.
Spiritual values are a product, embodied in a special kind of knowledge, which requires both membership in the group and usually some kind of apprenticeship to receive. Spiritual values are a process, embodied in a special kind of search, which requires primarily — or perhaps only — sincerity to pursue.
Spiritual values are embedded primarily in the community. Spiritual values are embedded primarily in the individual.
Focus is on the appropriate ritual activity. Focus is on the individual’s psychological state.
The individual is subordinate to the community’s spiritual leadership. The individual can accept or reject spiritual leadership.
Membership in a spiritual community is by the genealogy of the member. Membership in a spiritual community is by the member’s own choice.
Power is feared and respected, often avoided. Power is sought, in order to be controlled.
Spiritual matters are discussed privately. Spiritual matters are discussed publicly.
Universalists are perceived as rootless, superficial, and predatory. Indigenists are perceived as authoritarian, insular, selfish, and racist.

Of course, these groups are abstractions, but perhaps they are useful ones. It is probably worth mentioning, too, that the distinction between indigenists and universalists does not easily map onto the already deeply troubled distinction between Indians and whites. There are certainly white indigenists, such as anthropologists Alice Kehoe and Lisa Aldred; conversely, as anthropologist Raymond Bucko points out, “The Lakotas do not provide a unified front in this regard, for some Lakotas actively promote such integrations as necessary and beneficial.”

Here is an example. Universalists often express their quest for personal growth in terms of power, and books written by universalist writers claiming indigenous credentials often emphasize in their titles that indigenous teachings can provide such power. For example, Lynn Andrews speaks of Love and Power, Rolling Thunder reveals Secret Healing Powers, Sun Bear offers The Path of Power, Mary Summer Rain promises Sacred Power.

To indigenous peoples, however, spiritual power is dangerous and unpredictable; it is not to be taken lightly, but rather to be approached with great care and respect. Universalists — both writers and seekers — are thus perceived as disrespectful to the spirits by taking them too lightly, discussing them in public, trying to reduce them to rational explanations, playing with spiritual matters without proper commitment or guidance, and being unwilling to commit to the prohibitions which indigenous people observe when involved in spiritual matters. But the universalist audience has very different ideas about power — not that it is dangerous, but that it is desirable, and can be controlled, largely through good intentions.

The clash between indigenists and universalists can be multilayered and ironic. Indigenists complain that universalists are attempting to steal their culture; universalists reply that spirituality belongs to everyone, and that the indigenists are being insular and selfish. For example, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, in his book Coyote Medicine, writes, “Native American spirituality is a gift to us from North America herself. It is the natural spiritual path for those who live on this continent. Native American people have been preservers of this spiritual path for centuries, but they do not own it. No one can own a spiritual path.” In turn, this response is perceived as imposing culturally dominant concepts of rights and ownership on subordinate cultures — that is, as an additional instance of cultural domination, an unthinking and reflexive assumption that the values of white America are universal.

Historian Philip Deloria points out that this exchange puts indigenists in a a double bind: “Native people who reject this kind of cultural incorporation find themselves in a curious and contradictory position, shunted outside the boundaries of a universalism that purports to be without boundaries. Reluctant to share their cultural heritage as common property, they are marked as exterior.”

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3 Responses to “Indigenists and Universalists”

  1. Gyrus says:

    Hi Steve, a friend just linked to this, very interesting. However, I’ve been immersed recently in studying simple hunter-gatherer societies. While I’ve still not covered a huge amount of ground in this, it’s been enough to upset quite a few dualistic oppositions in historical models. It’s interesting to me to image a third column on the left of your table. I might change the headings to “Hunter-gatherer”, “Traditional” and “Modern”, and under “Hunter-gatherer”, the following (please take these as rough notes!):

    * Spiritual values derive from a small, flexible community with impermanent (if any) leadership roles and an oral tradition that is constantly adapted by individuals
    * Spiritual values are a process which is common currency among the group
    * Spiritual values are embedded in the flux between individuals and the group
    * Focus is on playful engagement with ritual traditions
    * There is constant negotiation between individuals and the group’s mores, which are in the service of sharing and autonomy
    * There is no “spiritual community” separate from the social group
    * Power is sought for the benefit of all, and mitigated when it benefits individuals
    * (This one I’m not sure how to phrase, but there’s certainly a complex combination of “it goes without saying” and public debate, even joking)
    * Traditionalists and moderns are perceived as over-serious!

    Hmm, incomplete and rough, but you get the idea. I’m sure you know about this stuff anyway. I’m just struck by how studying foragers undermines our contrasts between the modern world and “traditional societies”. Like in Colin Turnbull’s ‘The Forest People’, where the pygmies have such a loose, playful attitude to their most “sacred” rituals, and some pygmies think there’s no life after death. Rane Willerslev’s stuff on joking in hunter societies is great too (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/laughing-at-the-spirits-in-north-siberia-is-animism-being-taken-too-seriously/).

    With three broad categories for history, it’s tempting to wonder if there’s some kind of Hegelian thing going on. But the more I think about it, the more the original hunter-gatherer mode seems like a synthesis that historically “decomposed” into the traditional and modern modes!

  2. The sentence “To indigenous peoples, however, spiritual power is dangerous and unpredictable; it is not to be taken lightly, but rather to be approached with great care and respect” raised the following thoughts within me.

    Towards the indigenous end of the spectrum, spiritual power is dangerous and unpredictable exactly because the spirits the practitioners address are often dangerous and unpredictable. Towards the indigenous end of the spectrum, work with non-compassionate spirits is routine, and these spirits must be … flattered, paid, fed, tricked, dominated, bargained-with, acknowledged, soothed, sacrificed-to, defeated, evaded … the whole gamut of what we know from countless legends.

    Towards the universalist end of the spectrum, work with compassionate spirits is routine, and compassionate spirits are looked upon as, by far, the dominant force. Non-compassionate spirits – also termed, as we know, as “Middle World” spirits – with their hungers, egos, evils, and cruelties, are looked upon as micro-entities, unfortunate and localized aberrations in a Universe that is regarded as fundamentally suffused with a tendency towards love and abundance. As for spiritual power – for a universalist it is, accordingly, dangerous only to the extent that the practitioner disregards the requirements of mindfulness, of ethics, of humble self-shielding … of, overall, a thorough and current alignment with the overwhelmingly available forces of good. Indeed, to adapt some words from one of the items above (“Power is sought, in order to be controlled”) — “Power is sought, since one is only going to try to do good with it. After all, only a tragically misguided person would try to do anything bad with it!”

    So this would lead to another entry-pair in the above columns:

    Indigenist: Spirit power is mercenary and egoic; spirits must be fed, placated, coaxed, and dominated (with the aid of detailed and exhaustive lore and ritual) to be of any use, and the human apprenticeship – and shamanic career – is a fearsome, perilous, lonely road.

    Universalist: Immense spirit power – benevolent and wise – is available to those who seek it with diligence and humility. The compassionate Helpers will give us all our little hands can hold, if we will only align ourselves with the good, and not scream and run away as soon as things start to get real. As for the practitioners’ personal sacrifices, in this process – they are solely in the realms of one’s illusions and prejudices: no alienation need occur.

  3. This thread is quite inspiring.

    Indigenist: Vehemently attacks problems.

    Universalist: As one goes further along the spectrum towards Universalism, one has increasingly severe issues with labeling _anything_ as “a problem.”


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