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.