Title: Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality
Author: Philip Jenkins
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Interesting critical analysis of how American culture appropriates others beliefs
Provides insight on the history and development of American religion, culture, politics
Good for anyone interested in American religion or Native American beliefs
Limited discussion of what Native Americas really believe, if thats what you are looking for
Analysis of how Native American religion has been used by others
Argues that Native American religion is normally portrayed in a manner suited to meet others needs
There is an incredible hunger for Native religious and spiritual beliefs in America. A profitable industry caters to this hunger and, apparently, clients are getting something out of it the industry only keeps growing. Many justifiably object to the transformation of sacred symbols and practices into fodder for consumers, but its an improvement over the days when these beliefs were denigrated and suppressed right?
Understanding the religious beliefs of Native Americans would thus appear to be a good idea; unfortunately, its difficult to come by accurate and fair information. Much of what people think they know is heavily filtered by white Americans assumptions and desires. As Philip Jenkins explains in his book Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality, the rest of America has invented fantasy after fantasy about Indians based upon whatever was needed or just socially fashionable at the time:
- Native spirituality has changed kaleidoscopcially over time, mirroring the prevailing obsessions of the mainstream society. Originally, Indians were presented as benighted savages whose crying spirtual needs justified the colonial errand into the Wilderness.
- When white Americans wanted to believe that Indians were the lost tribes of Israel, they sought (and found) Old Testament parallels in their worship. When spiritualism was a national craze, Indians were exciting because of their ability to cross the worlds between living and dead... Later, Native pagans were thought to rain a sensual spirituality of the body that had been destroyed by the world-denying sterilities of Christianity... If drugs were fashionable, then Indian religion was fascinating because of its integration of mind-altering substances... Indians today are models of ecological gender-sensitive religion, true sons and daughters of Mother Earth.
The purpose of Jenkins book isnt to explain real Native American religion, scraping away the barnacles of history and misunderstanding. Instead, the purpose is a bit of reverse anthropology. If peoples understanding of Indian spirituality is conditioned by religious or social needs, than an examination of this spirituality should provide an interesting perspective on those needs and the people themselves. The topics in American religion which Jenkins in this manner investigates are:
- ...notions of religious diversity and pluralism; the legal position of religion and religious toleration; the cultural and religious impact of relativism; the shifting definition of religious actions or behavior; the growing recognition of womens spirituality; and a growing reverence for the primal and the primitive.
In the process of exploring how Americans have distorted Indian beliefs, he of course has to explain a bit of about what those beliefs really are and thereby undermines a number of popular myths. Its not a communal religiosity that can be contrasted with North American individualism. Its not any more grounded in the Mother Earth than European religious beliefs. Its certainly not monolithic in its practices, beliefs, and attitudes.
The book, though, isnt so much about Indian religion as it is about white Americans (mis)appropriate of Indian religion and what this tells us about religion, politics, and society through American history. Its an interesting and insightful perspective we really learn a lot about Americans attitudes towards religion as well as Native Americans this way.