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Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality

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Dream Catchers

Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality

America is host to a bewildering array of religions, religious beliefs, and spiritualities. Among the most misunderstood and misused are probably the religious beliefs of Native Americans. At different times vilified and lauded, Native American beliefs have played a serious, if often unseen, role in America’s religious landscape.


Title: Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality
Author: Philip Jenkins
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195161157

•  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 that’s 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


Book Review

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 it’s 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, it’s 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 isn’t to explain “real” Native American religion, scraping away the barnacles of history and misunderstanding. Instead, the purpose is a bit of reverse anthropology. If people’s 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:

Dream Catchers

Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality

    “...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 women’s 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. It’s not a “communal” religiosity that can be contrasted with North American individualism. It’s not any more grounded in the “Mother Earth” than European religious beliefs. It’s certainly not monolithic in its practices, beliefs, and attitudes.

The book, though, isn’t 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. It’s an interesting and insightful perspective — we really learn a lot about Americans’ attitudes towards religion as well as Native Americans this way.

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