Philosophers have long struggled with the intersection of their belief systems that embrace religion and their attachments to science. Not surprisingly most Americans say they are religious: only about 15% consider themselves atheists or agnostic, according to Gallup polls.
Few non-Indians are intimately familiar with native spirituality, although my hunch is that, if you asked in a poll, respondents would say they know something about Indian spirituality. But, if most non-Indians have no exposure to native spiritual practices, how do they know what they know?
Most likely we’re informed by films, television, music, museums and shopping malls. For example, we learn from Disney’s Pocahontas that Indians commune with trees and raccoons. You can walk into a jewelry store at the mall and buy a Kokopelli necklace, or find some sage to burn at a candle store. You can hand over your wallet and steam yourself in a fake Indian sweat.
But do you know what the symbols represent? You can see artifacts of spirituality at museums—rattles and pouches and dried peyote—and you can even see mummified bodies. According to its website, the San Diego Museum of Man still displays an Indian mummy called Lemon Grove Girl (estimated at 800 years old).
In my home state of Oregon, you can find bookstores and boutiques that cater to native spirituality (and not just North American). You can buy cedar, incense, candles, Tarot cards, Buddha statues, lotions, potions, music, books, drums and crystals. I looked at the website of a popular bookstore in my town and found the following quotes left by shoppers:
“If the Dali Lama and Jesus had a baby, I doubt it would even be half as cool as the bookshop”
“I’m pretty sure I was a kitten in my past life, so I went to [the bookstore] and consulted the I Ching just to make sure”
I have friends who read cards, meditate, fast and pray, and most of them easily enfold their spirituality with a confidence in scientific empiricism. So it seems that we have no trouble melding our rational selves with our spiritual selves, and carrying on each day.
Why, then, are American Indians depicted as anti-science when their beliefs conflict with scientific empiricism? Why are Indians labeled irrational and backward when they fight over the return of a mummified ancestor on spiritual grounds?
One explanation may be that, because depictions of Indians tend toward the narrow, we fail to account for the complexity of belief systems in native ontologies. In other words, it’s easier to consider Indians as simple spiritual beings rather than as embracing rich meaning systems that include science, empiricism, rationality and spirituality.
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