A respectful look at native spirituality

Published October 1, 2004

The eclectic and prolific Philip Jenkins asserts that during the past century, a profound shift has occurred in the mainstream acceptance of Native American spirituality. What was once considered demonic is now followed as a way of salvation.

Mr. Jenkins has a reputation for conservative writing and the utilization of disarmingly articulate intellectual gifts. Dream Catchers is surprisingly moderate in tone. It is not as disparaging of the extensive New Age influences on modern native spirituality as might have been expected from him.

Mr. Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (2003), turns his proven analytical skills to an assessment of this important contemporary subject and convincingly demonstrates how Native American spirituality (he calls it Indian spirituality) has undergone a dramatic 180-degree shift in cultural receptivity. Within little more than a century it has evolved from devil-worship into a respectable, world-class religious tradition. We Christians have expanded our understanding of religion, for example, to include a much broader range of belief-systems, reaching well beyond what was once considered to be orthodox teaching.

Mainstream culture has appropriated aboriginal spirituality in self-serving ways. The author laments that this has occurred with little understanding of these traditions as patterns of living faith in their own right. The primary reason for this appropriation is that native spirituality offers a compensatory path for what many find wanting in their inherited church communities.

This book focuses on developments in the United States ; not Canada. A rendering of this transformative story in a Canadian context remains to be written. Until that happens, Mr. Jenkins’ book is the best we have on the subject and helpfully introduces us to key themes and issues.

Having moved through periods when natives were viewed by white people as idealized citizens of the natural world — untouched and unscathed by old-country contaminations, then viewed as childlike primitives who lacked a developed cultural awareness and inhabited a world of superstition and idolatry, non-native people eventually began to realize that disadvantaged First Nations people needed recognition and a level playing field to guarantee their equality within larger national communities. Previously arrogant Christians and other humanitarians began, for the first time, to attend more humbly to aboriginal spirituality. Gradually, native people themselves began to name and claim their own voices after years of confinement and colonization.

We now enter a time when Native American spirituality is respected for what it really is, says Mr. Jenkins. This respect is still plagued by significant misunderstandings and abuses (such as the misappropriation of native spirituality by New Age “wannabes” and entrepreneurial opportunists both within and beyond native communities). Still, the end result of this new respect acknowledges the need for restitution for cultural losses and a recognition of aboriginal land rights. “Respect” implies a redefining of traditional non-native understandings of what constitutes religion and acknowledging First Nations peoples and their spiritualities as valid in themselves. Aboriginal spirituality is a living faith tradition alongside the other great world religions and this recognition bodes well for the future.

Mr. Jenkins frequently challenges common wisdom concerning contemporary native people. For example, he considers untrue the belief that modern North American culture is primarily individualistic, while native cultures are essentially communal. The author claims that, in spite of the assumption that native = natural world, many contemporary native people are themselves no more grounded in “Mother Earth spirituality” and related aspects of ecological conservation than non-natives.

As with all Mr. Jenkins’ books, issues can be raised over a number of Mr. Jenkins’ pronouncements and assessments. Yet, the overall tenor of this study is both positive and thought provoking.

“We are in a very different environment from the 1960s when Indians watched in passive bemusement as the counterculture absorbed and imitated their religious practices,” the author concludes.

We have truly come to a period in the development of Western culture where the First Nations are viewed as respected leaders for us all in the life of the spirit.

If that is so, and this reviewer concurs, we are entering a new and exciting period in the evolution of human spirituality. Wayne A. Holst is an adult educator at St. David’s United Church, Calgary. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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