With small changes this article appeared in The Interfaith Observer.
Can indigenous peoples not practice indigenous religions? What if a non-indigenous person claims to practice their religion? Can people normally not considered indigenous have an indigenous religion? Can people normally not considered indigenous have an indigenous religion? What if they claim they are reconstructing one that died out? What does “indigenous” actually mean and how does it relate to both people and religion? While I will offer some general suggestions of my own, the most important part of this essay explains why these apparently simple questions are so complicated.
Even in its initial sense of referring to a people, indigenous has been used in many different contexts, sometimes with very different shades of meaning. The term “indigenous” contains all the complexities of cultures and peoples that have chosen a particular place to call home, including those that either conquered or were conquered by others, and, of the conquerors, either colonialists or other peoples closer to home who themselves may themselves have then been conquered. Its many dimensions do not all map onto the same pattern, and are employed by people claiming indigenaity for different reasons. Indigenous spirituality partakes of all this complexity.
Take a simple but telling example, many Native Americans seeking to preserve their language and other traditions are Christians. They are indigenous people by most criteria, but not practicing what anyone would call an indigenous religion. On the other hand, the Native American Church uses indigenous practices in powerful ways, while incorporating Christian elements and spreading into regions where it had been entirely foreign. But many people include the NAC among indigenous religions, and its core practices are of great antiquity, as among the Huichol people. And then there are some EuroAmericans who also practice within the NAC. Are they practicing indigenous religion?
“Indigenous religion” refers to something most people believe is important, but where to draw its boundaries is not agreed upon. If we start with “indigenous people,” several characteristics repeatedly appear, but sometimes not all.
• Indigenous people are born within a common culture with a strong identifying sense of kinship.
• Indigenous people voluntarily maintain a sense of their cultural distinctiveness, and seek to preserve it.
• Indigenous people have experienced subjugation.
• Indigenous people are a minority in their country.
• Indigenous people occupy ancestral lands.
• Indigenous people share a common ancestry with a place’s original inhabitants.
• Indigenous people share a common language not spoken much outside their community.
• Indigenous people self-identify as indigenous.
Importantly, many people most of us would unhesitatingly call “indigenous” will not necessarily share all these traits.
Also importantly, the term has changed its meaning particularly during the twentieth century. Under European colonialism nonEuropean peoples in colonized areas were commonly referred to as indigenous. In post-colonial times the term was generally used to refer to nonEuropean peoples in areas dominated by people of European descent. Later it has expanded to include other marginalized cultural groups.
One thread uniting most indigenous peoples by these definitions is their historical and ancient connection with specific places. But the Roma are arguably an indigenous people by most other criteria, and are without such a connection to the land.
At the same time many people commonly referred to as indigenous resist identification from the outside, arguing that their communities are who determines who is or is not a member.
The most obvious meaning of indigenous religion is applied to tribal peoples practicing different religions centered on specific places, at least some of which were held sacred, and are even said to be where a particular people arrived in this world. The paradigmatic example would be the traditional religions of Native Americans. These peoples are considered tribal, and at the time of European contact were often either horticultural or hunting and gathering, practicing religions in harmony with that way of life. Since before European contact none were influenced by Old World religions, it is easy to call their religions “indigenous.”
By extension the term indigenous has been extended to any tribal peoples whose practices are distinct from Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions. At this point the term begins to show its ambiguities. Hindu traditions are most definitely religions of place, with sacred rivers like the Ganges and sacred mountains like Mt. Kailash. And yet the dominant cultures of India are hardly tribal. Further, unlike what we usually think of as indigenous religion, Hindus have a sacred literature, arguably the world’s oldest and most voluminous.
And yet, the concept of a vast Hindu religion itself results from European colonialism, where an extraordinary variety of practices and beliefs were amalgamated under that label. But today many Hindus so identify themselves. Very much the same thing happened earlier with western Paganism. Celts, Norse, Hellenes, and others saw themselves as engaged in different practices, worshiped different deities, and only became “Pagan” through the imposition of that name by practitioners of Abrahamic religions.
To take another example illustrating the complications involved in expanding the term, Bon is arguably the original religion of Tibetan culture. Buddhism arrived between the 5th and 8th centuries, and first became the state religion, andlayer that of most Tibetans. However, a Naxi priest from a tribal region in Southwest China adjacent to Tibet told me his religion, which to the untrained eye looks like Bon, is different because Bon has incorporated so many Buddhist elements. When he described many of their beliefs to me, it sounded far more in harmony with many NeoPagan themes than with anything Buddhist. I felt very much at home in a ritual he gave, as he did when attending a shamanic healing ceremony I gave. And that ceremony drew on African, Brazilian Indian, and French Kardecist roots.
Tibetans are the indigenous people of Tibet now that it is incorporated into China. Bon would be most easily seen as the indigenous religion of Tibet were Tibet still independent. But if my Naxi informant is correct, Bon is already deeply transformed by Buddhism and most people consider Vajrayana Buddhism Tibet’s religion. At what point does an indigenous religion influenced by more powerful ones cease to be indigenous and become a variant of the dominant religion? This question obviously has relevance to evaluating the NAC in America.
And if we look more closely at Native Americans, these people were far more diverse than simply hunter gatherers and horticultural peoples. Their practices also included agricultural peoples, city states and empires, among the Iroquois something close to a nation state. The Mayan religion included a sacred literature.
Are the African Diasporic religions indigenous? Their sense of place is usually more abstract because their Orixas are usually more universal, being honored in Cuba, Brazil, and West Africa, to name but three of many. They are far removed from their African context and can flourish far from any countryside, in large cities. Further, they have often changed markedly from their African roots since being established by slaves. Finally, some Brazilian practitioners are now returning to Africa to re-establish connections with practices and teachings long absent, creating a kind of reconstructionist approach within their traditions.
These considerations highlight another dimension of indigenaity. Indigenous cultures were usually conquered by other peoples, usually the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam, particularly after modern science and technology gave Christian nations unrivaled military superiority. Indigenous peoples almost invariably suffered from colonial oppression, including the suppression of many of their religions.
But even here ambiguities and exceptions exist. A long suppressed but still surviving tradition is different from one people are attempting to revive based on old texts. And often texts are fragmentary at best, for those practices were primarily rooted in oral traditions.
Further, not all indigenous traditions were colonized. Certainly Japanese Shinto was not, nor were Chinese traditions thousands of years old that, while suppressed by Mao Tse-tung, revived once the most oppressive aspect of Communist rule ended. Both are indigenous if the word has any meaning at all with respect to religious traditions. But in both the Chinese and Japanese cases the people are not indigenous by most criteria, they are the dominant culture, and in Shinto’s case, a variant was long the state religion.
And then there is the modern NeoPagan renaissance which includes Wiccans, and other traditions which see themselves as reconstructing the pre-Christian conquest religions of Western, Central and Northern Europe. In these cases there is either no continuity of tradition, or for the Romuva perhaps, a very attenuated one. But their practitioners usually see themselves as part of a religious sensibility having much in common with more clearly indigenous traditions. Many practitioners of those traditions see this similarity themselves, sometimes describing them as non-indigenous people practicing an indigenous religion.
Are efforts to reconstruct Roman Paganism in America by non-Italians examples of indigenous religion? Roman Paganism was indigenous to Rome, and focused on sacred places there. It was carried across much of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East by conquering armies, not as something imposed on conquered people, but as an element of the conquering culture. Sometimes syncretism took place. Sometimes, as with Druids and Jews, not.
My purpose in this introductory essay is not to solve these questions. I want to raise them and so provide an over view as to why I think they are unable to be solved in any final ways. Humanity’s spiritual practices are a beautiful tapestry of individual experience, cultural variety, the character of the places where those cultures arose, and both peaceful and imposed historical interpenetration. Onto this extraordinary complexity people have tried to create political, theological, and historical understanding, including classifications and boundaries for something that does not easily fall into neatly defined categories.
I think indigenous religions can best be seen as a kind of rope comprised of many threads. At any point along the rope a thread may be missing or weak, but the rope will still be a rope. Certain threads seem to me particularly important.
One thread is that each religion is relatively powerless within the relevant context that has led to its being considered indigenous. In almost all these cases weaker groups seek to preserve their separateness from larger dominant culture’s religions.
Another is that, from an indigenous religious perspective, practitioners of one can feel more or less at home when visiting another, compared to their reaction when observing Abrahamic traditions. Consider my story concerning the Naxi priest The larger community itself recognizes a common indigenaity.
A third is a focus on practice, and particularly practice focused on immanent sacrality rather than on dogma or belief. Indigenous spirituality focuses on the sacred in this world, and so on the sacred as it manifests in place. Those most localized to specific places shape their understanding with regard to those places, and those which are less localized have a more abstract conception, but an abstraction which still finds recognition in specific local places. Unlike traditional Native Americans, American NeoPagans do not have a tight linkage of our practices with specific places of sacredness and power. But at the level of a local practicing community we often do have places set aside for special concern and ritual. Here in Sonoma County there is a particular old growth redwood grove that fits this description. At a more inclusive but still local level, many see Mt. Tamalpais as a place of a special power and presence. There are others.
Here we find both the connecting thread and why its details are so immensely varied, for places vary, cultures vary, historical experience varies, and so traditions that focus on sacred immanence of place will vary. It would be strange were it otherwise.
If examined individually, indigenous religions are tiny, inconsequential mites compared to the many millions and even billions involved in the Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. (Leaving Hinduism out of “indigenous” for the moment.) Even comparatively small Judaism dwarfs them.
And yet when combined together these unifying themes make indigenous religion not only humankind’s oldest spiritual tradition, it remains a large one; one accepting its particularistic cultural and regional manifestations and so not seeking converts or to spread their practice except as their devotees themselves move to new places.