Ritual in Native American Traditions

The Impenetrability of the Native American Mind

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Donald Lee Fixico, a Native American author intending to introduce and defend the Indian worldview to a nonwhite audience states in his book the American Indian Mind that Native Americans such as himself, even after being socialized into white society, have a cultural worldview that is integrally and profoundly different than whites, a worldview that is anathema to the linearity and scientific rationalism endemic to white society. Viewing Native culture as such, even to defend the beauty and uniqueness a perspective that has been devalued by white society, may seem to run the risk of essentializing Native Americans and reducing native rituals cultures to museum pieces. According to editor and author Calvin Martin of the collection the American Indian and the Problem of History, the ways that Native American religions and cultures have been conceptualized by white culture often have a “fixed and rigid quality” which creates an object of study that is really a storefront Indian “hewn out of a rock” (Martin 211).

However, Martin’s own analysis in his essay “The Metaphysics of Writing Indian-White History” seems to do exactly that — to create a rock-like, unchanging conception of Native culture and practices. Martin, like Fixico, tends to essentialize ‘the’ Native American and see the American Indian as a singular, untouchable entity, impenetrable to white historians (Martin 29). Martin, to defend his his initial essay to a variety of scholars and asked for a response, as detailed in his introductory comments: “An Introduction Aboard the Fidele.” Martin believes that Native American culture and that of the Europeans are “mutually irreconcilable, mutually antagonistic, and mutually unintelligible” and no white history ever has or can illuminate native culture because of its profound difference from white culture (Martin 9). Viewed as such, even the most well-meaning historian or anthropologist engages in an act of colonization when he or she engages with the Native person’s mind, and writes white history upon the history of the Indians in an act of “historiographic colonialism” (Martin 11). Martin, along the lines of Fixico believes that Native Americans perceived an integration between past and present, and took a holistic and cyclical view of the earth and its history, as opposed to white approaches to history which tends to view ‘man’ and ‘nature’ as inherently divided and more often than not, antagonistic. Indian history is biological and primordial, while white history is linear and white religions try to lift the subject ‘above’ nature, rather than to place the subject through ritual within nature, as is the case with Native American rituals.

Martin believes even white native apologists tend to view native-white relations through only one lens, such as an economic or political paradigm and to essentialize a single outlook or worldview as generalizable to all native societies. The “ebb and flow of Power can in truth be said to form the warp and woof of the Indian-White experience,” and whites always wield the power of reductive interpretation, however well-meaning they may seem (Martin 32) However, within the collection, Martin also includes those who disagree with his and Fixico’s concept of the Native American mindset as alien and impenetrable to whites. For example in her essay on “Pagans, Converts, and Backsliders” Mary Young argues that a dialogue did occur between white and native culture, not simply in terms of a trade of goods and land, but also of religious worldviews.

According to Young, to view ‘the native mindset’ as a monolith is an error. Natives took a multifaceted view of their own religion, often creating a synchronistic faith of Christianity and traditional native movements and there is no “single metaphysical outlook” that can be characterized as Indian (Young 79). This sense of cultural dialogue stands in profound contrast to Martin, who refers to what he calls “the scythe of Christianity” cutting out Native American religion entirely from the history books as well as history itself (Martin 218). Additionally, Vine Deloria’s essay, also included in the collection, on “Revision and Reversion” cautions against Martin’s view of Native American thinking as impenetrable, arguing that this makes it impossible to ‘do’ Native American history at all — a great loss, Deloria writes, to both whites and natives. As it currently stands, the current academic literature of Indian studies tends to take Martin’s view and replaces new myths about the purity and environmental integrity of Native culture with old ones about savageness. The actual data about the differences between tribes, about different religions and worldview is rendered into a homogeneous entity, and even to make reference to ‘Native Americans’ is somewhat of a misnomer, given the great diversity of rituals, religions, and worldview of the Native American tribes.

It seems clear that Native American culture is never static. Ultimately, a true grappling with the complex interrelation of cultures that occurred, as embodied in Mary Young’s essay, for example, is much more fruitful and edifying. Calvin Martin’s view seems paradoxical, to some degree — even self-hating. He is a white historian arguing the impossibility of ‘doing’ native history by whites, writing from a post at a university outside of the tribal nations. Even Fixico’s position to some degree is paradoxical, as he argues the separateness of the Indian worldview, even though he is bicultural individual. If one accepts Martin’s argument that native cultures are biologically oriented, these cultures must have differed, based upon their geographical locations in the Americas, and much as Martin may dislike the impact of European and Christian culture, native religion and ritual undeniably changed, through the exchange of new material goods as well as cultures. The way that natives saw themselves, saw the world around them, and ultimately perceived their history changed as their material environment changed. Martin tries to make himself more of an apologist and a defender of Native culture as ‘pure’ than even many a Native American, and his attitude ignores those individuals, like in the Young essay who have adopted Christian concepts and rituals in a synergistic but ultimately creative fashion.

Works Cited

Fixico, Donald Lee. The American Indian Mind. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Martin, Calvin, editor. The American Indian and the Problem of History. New York: Oxford

University Press, 1986.