Have Euro-Americans Any Right (Or Hope) to Lay Claim to Indigenosity?

A reader, Elina, wrote this response to my posting Indigenize Yourself!:

“How lucky for you to have become Indigenous without ever having to have experienced colonization, racism, etc. How miraculous for you to have received “the seed of an indigenous, native intelligence within me`,`without having been part of an Indigenous family. “I believe that day I became the first of those in my English and Danish lineage to set foot in the sacred topography of the New World, receiving the seed of an indigenous, native intelligence within me.“ – yes, I`m sure your English and Danish ancestors were more interested in “receiving“ other things – the land itself, resources, etc – laying the ground for their future generations to have the good fortune to eventually be able to miraculously `receive` the knowledge and understanding you are getting in life. I`m not sure if you realize how exploitative and ignorant this post comes off as.”

Well, it’s certain I’m walking a fine line in claiming that, even for the ancestors of Euro-Americans, our indigenous souls can still be reclaimed. Perhaps she is right to accuse me of hubris.

There is no denying the grievous history of exploitation and genocide, rampant destruction and arrogant blindness that has followed in the wake of the Western European drive to subjugate the natural world and the Earth’s inhabitants. As I watch my daughter blossom as a little girl, everyday I worry about the inheritance she will receive from such short-sighted folly.

At the same time, I would challenge Elina’s assumption that I, and other descendants of European immigrants, have never tasted the consequences of colonization and racism. Entering a children’s shelter at age ten, I experienced the penal system first hand, and growing up in juvenile halls, foster homes, and on the streets learned what it meant to be colonized in my soul. I was intended to be on the margin, a criminal, a remnant — and the system was prepared to deal with what it had manufactured in me. A lot of profit stood to be made by my degradation, and folks were lining up to feed on my and other children’s souls. If this isn’t colonization, I don’t know what is.

I want to suggest, therefore, that some Euro-Americans may understand the consequences of systematized oppression, and can renounce the power that such systems bestow.

But this still leaves the issue of whether a descendant of a cultural group that produced the Nazis can reclaim his or her indigenous self.

There are two answers to this question, I think.

The first has to do with our most recent work, to uncover the overlooked indigenous consciousness right at the origin of the literature of Western civilization — in Homer’s Odyssey. Our forthcoming book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, works hard to show how indigenous, shamanic ways of healing and prophecy are not foreign to the West, and how the native way of viewing the world—that is, understanding our cosmos as living, sentient, and interconnected—can be found hidden throughout Western literature.

Indeed, I believe that the Odyssey, emerging precisely at the rupture between modern and primal consciousness, represents a window into the lost native mind of the Western world. In this way, the Odyssey as well as Tolkien’s work can be seen as an awakening and healing song to return us to our native minds and bring our disconnected souls back into harmony with the living cosmos.

As Martín Prechtel has asked,

Are most of the allegorized, dramatized, literalized, sanitized, boring, overly historified rituals and written stories, only jealously guarded fragments of a pushed-aside indigenous intactness which all people, in this increasingly displaced world, have hidden somewhere in their bones as an unremembered legacy in which an intact living story still waits to come into view?

I believe the answer to Prechtel is yes. Stories, true stories, can re-member our lost indigenous intactness. In terms of the over-arching human trajectory, 98% of our existence as homo-sapiens has been indigenous. The European break with that indigenous intactness is a brief spell, that I believe we can recuperate from.

My second answer to Elina has to do with how communities hold their identity. Werner Sollors, in Beyond Ethnicity, articulates two ways of imagining communities: those based on strict genetic descent, and the other based on volition and choice. The first is a closed social group, which one must be born into to be a member of. The second is open, and welcomes those who share its interests, passions, convictions, or faith. And, of course, there are the degrees between. Communities, such as indigenous ones, that involve deeply committed life-ways naturally give a long trial period of initiation and apprenticeship to those who feel called to join. I believe that indigenosity is something learned, is a cultural inheritance, not a genetic one. I would therefore suggest that there is no genetic, biological barrier separating any human being upon this planet from indigenous consciousness.

Perhaps Elina is right. Perhaps my words smack of hubris, of conceit, and I am espousing an arrogant cultural appropriation of life-ways that are not native to my people.

But I hope not. For my child’s future, for all our children’s futures and the lives of all beings on this planet, I pray not.

6 Replies to “Have Euro-Americans Any Right (Or Hope) to Lay Claim to Indigenosity?”

  1. Hello Robert,
    Thank you for such an extensive and thoughtful reply.

    I can’t disagree with your intentions toward living a healthier and more balanced lifestyle. As well, I agree that both settlers and Indigenous people are colonized and affected by racism, albeit in very different ways. Indigenous people haven’t had the luxury of white privilege, and in Canada anyway, Indigenous children were removed from their homes in far greater numbers than white children – the terrible legacy of residential schools, and the foster care ‘scoop’ are still playing out in Indigenous communities all over Canada.

    I still take issue with the idea that anyone (who reads your blog? your book? etc) can ‘indigenize’ themselves. What does it mean to be indigenous anyway? Can you be Indigenous and modern? If we all have an “indigenous intactness” are actual Indigenous people simply the bare bones of humanity, somehow pure and mystical (or childlike, as you seem to infer at the beginning of your blog post), rather than real, political, and layered with the ‘cultural’ meat that is constantly needing to be strengthened by the actual practices and relationships within Indigenous communities? How can non-Indigenous people presume to answer what it means to be Indigenous, when Indigenous people are still fighting to define themselves against colonial and capitalist social systems that must always seem to be pressing in?

    If it is true that Indigenous communities may be “open and welcome those who share its interests, passions, convictions, or faith,” it seems to me then that such communities should be the one writing blog posts that welcome anyone to ‘indigenize’ themselves with the help of said community. I just don’t think you are well placed to give such an invitation.

    I too am of European descent, Robert, and I too am a parent. Like you, I worry about the direction Western culture has been going for too long, and want to help my kids learn how to take action toward decolonization and sustainable peaceful living. Perhaps the things that you identify in some of the non-Indigenous literature you have reviewed can help to identify a place of hope that does not need to be identified as Indigenous. Maybe we need to work a little harder to make our own culture(s) better ones. I know you might disagree with some of what I’ve written, but maybe you will agree that encouraging people to ‘indigenize’ ought to be linked to some sort of political responsibility.

    Thanks so much again for the reply,

  2. Hello Elina,
    That was certainly a provocative piece and it gave me quite a bit to think about. I am also of European decent trying to find my place in this world. While that is true on a metaphysical level it also qualifies on a physical level as well. It would seem that as technology evolves and allows, we as humans are becoming increasingly nomadic…and that doesn’t simply hold true for White Europeans.

    Before I can seem to find the truth in any philosophical point I like to look at the mirror effect of my conclusion. So, I attempted the same principle to your conclusion. If I understand you correctly, you feel that it is impossible, if not unethical, for White Europeans to attempt to or lay claim to indigenizing themselves to the region they live in, specifically if it is adopted like North America.

    With this understanding I would like to challenge your line of thinking and subsequent conclusion based a sort of mirror effect. What if the reverse were true? What if we are talking about a minority that would like to indigenize themselves to America because, for whatever reason, it is now their home?

    How long does a foreigner have to live in one place before they are now longer considered a foreigner? I understand that for academic purposes indigenous, by definition means “native or original to”. But we are an adaptable lot, aren’t we? So this complicates things a little.

    I was born In Bremerton Washington in 1975. I moved to Idaho Falls Idaho when I was 2. My fondest and youngest memories are of Idaho Falls. I moved to California in 1980. I still live in California. I was very angry about living in California for my first 13 years of residency. At what point do those around me consider me a Californian? How long do I live here before I consider myself a Californian? There is nothing about me in spirit or physical attribute that would indicate that I am indigenous to anywhere but California…yet, based on your definition, not only do I not belong here as a native, I never will. Does that mean I should not connect to the environment and commune with the life forces around me…because I did not originate here?

    We can take that to a smaller, more environmentally effected level. From 1980 – 2001, I lived on the Central Coast of California. Sixty degree weather was a beautiful day perfect for a light weight sweatshirt, shorts, and bare feet. From 2001 – present I have lived in the desert. I can assure you that my body is no longer in tune with the rhythms and the nature of the Central Coast. A beautiful day there is near next to freezing for me now. My blood has thinned and my body has adapted to triple digit weather. After approximately ten years I am ready to bond with the region I live in and learn to feel and hear the knowledge and wisdom that it has to impart. I am ready to understand its human history and creation stories in an effort to understand how to best serve that which serves me. I am prepared to indigenize myself.

    In this cultural shift, this technological stupor we are attempting to wake from, it is a perspective and notion worth exploring. How can we possibly heal that which has been damaged if we relegate ourselves to only identifying with the politics of an adopted region? The concept of indigenizing is not something that I would discourage no matter how misguided a process your personal convictions may feel that it is. For my understanding, this concept of indigenizing one’s self is not about the country or region that is native to one’s ancestors. It is about a human, indigenous to this planet, finding their place, “plugging in” to their environment, and having a free exchange of knowledge and symbiosis to ensure that both our serving each other in the most optimal way. With this exchange comes growth and spiritual expansion that ultimately networks its way around the planet promoting health and balance.

    Just a thought.

    With Gratitude ~ Shannon Faye

  3. Dear Elina, please excuse my delay in responding to your recent post. I’m glad you’re raising these issues. I think you’ve got a good nose for new age bullshit. So, thank you, and I have a response to your points.

    Obviously, in a short blog post it’s not possible to cover all the possible objections that could arise to such a radical invitation as I’m issuing.

    I should tell you first that the title of the post, “Indigenize Yourself,” comes from a dear Native American friend, and that we have joked about spreading the invitation further by making bumper stickers with that slogan on them.

    Who would not want indigenous consciousness to sprout in our Western minds of hardened concrete, especially when such places as Wiricuta, the sacred lands of the Huichol peoples of Northern Mexico, are now threatened by mining interests? Indigenizing ourselves and political action are one and the same. This is especially true when you consider that prayer, offerings, and sacrifice are made to preserve the health of the community and the earth in indigenous lifeways. It is far more difficult to poison your mother and father if your mind comprehends its indigenous connection to the Earth and Sky.

    I think as well the invitation has already been resoundingly and strongly issued by indigenous communities for Westerners to return to their senses, from the U.N. on down. My own attempt, in my forthcoming book “The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience,” is to reclaim our own Western tradition as indigenous. This is the work Euro-Americans must do. It is a missing piece of the puzzle that needs placing within the greater perspective of who we are and where we came from. It is also has a simple goal: to honor the voices of our Indo-European ancestors. We have ‘dissed them long enough. It is time to hear Homer, the ancient Celts, (and J.R.R. Tolkien) with sincere respect, not the same dismissive paternalism as European society adopted towards the indigenous cultures it encountered in its westward expansion.

    I want to tell you as well, as a member of the Native American Church, I sit in tipi meetings with members of many different tribes. I’ve been honored to pray with Shoshone, Navaho, Apache, Comanche, and other indigenous peoples of the U.S. and in my experience they are nothing but delighted to find Euro-Americans ready and willing to undergo apprenticeships in their traditional ways. There is no precious new age spirituality here. Members of the NAC display a profound political consciousness.

    Within many indigenous traditions, there are prophecies of a coming time when, like the colors of the rainbow, all peoples will return to sit together in unity. That is the prophetic stream that my work is inspired by. RT

  4. To anyone following the concept of Indigenosity,

    Reading the responses back and forth between the author and one of the readers I am questioning my understanding of what Ingenizing one’s self really means. I am wondering if I am in the ball park but seated up in the nose bleed section.


  5. I loved reading your posts, friends.

    I am currently on a journey of understanding what “indigenosity” means to me.

    So far I am finding it has to do with feeling part of “place”, knowing, dialoguing and interacting with the families of beings that populate the World outside of me (tree beings, clous beings, human beings, waters, squirrels, deer beings, spiders, flower communities, etc.) as well as the world inside of me (dreams, imagination, my own body, different parts of self).

    I also see it as an ever-evolving journey of discovery and remembrance. A critical mind is helpful, however a curious one ever more so.

    I hear Martin Prechtel say that the indigenous soul cannot be laid claim only by natives (although, you must know that although I was born in Italy, I feel a VERY strong connection to native american traditions and I am currently exploring that journey, which includes looking and facing the horrors of colonialism insidie and outside of self). Martin says that the indigenous soul is alive within each of us, like a seed. He asks us to keep the seeds alive so as to build a new human culture.

    Robert I do love the vision, beyond a spiritual bypassing picture, of people of diverse cultures coming together to form a rainbow of new eco-centered culture.

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