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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
Spirit Wars: Native North American Religions in the Age of Nation Building, by Ronald Niezen, London and Los Angeles: University of California Press (2000), 256 pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Greymorning, Departments of Anthropology and Native American Studies, University of Montana.
In Spirit Wars, Ronald Niezen has masterfully
researched the impact colonization has had on the religious practices
of Indigenous North Americans. If influenced by initial appearances the
book would appear overly ambitious, by its effort to address a multitude
of events from a variety of geographic regions and time periods through
subjects ranging from missionary and government intrusions to that of
New Age mentalities. Solid research and scholarship, however, ground the
book and give readers insight into a world of cultural domination and
religious suppression rarely seen and most often misunderstood. Readers
further benefit from several essays by Native contributors writing on
how individual Native people and communities have been affected both historically
and contemporarily by activities aimed at alienating Indigenous North
Americans from their cultural ways of being.
Following his introductory chapter, Niezen sets about
introducing readers to the rationale underlying early Spanish assaults
on Native rituals and ceremonies; part of which included "making
them amenable to White economic exploitation" (p. 39). Whether at
the hands of missionaries or politicians, educating the "Indian"
was a constant theme.
By the later part of the 1800s the marriage of evangelism
and education became the modus operandi of the new Indian solution. In
Chapter Three, Niezen exposes how the works of some of Europe's and America's
greatest thinkers helped shape the world view of Anglo-Americans, which
in turn yielded cultural forces that led a nation to believe it held a
God-given right to shape a people in its own image. In one discussion
Niezen holds the writings of Lewis Henry Morgan up as a mirror, reflecting
the beliefs of a nation that perceived the best strategy for transforming
Indian people's lives was through education and Christianity. The medium
for this social experiment became the Indian residential schools, and
the individual credited with bringing the needed structure to those schools
was Lieutenant Richard Pratt.
From the onset the objective of the residential school
was to convert Indians to White values. Niezen informs readers that Pratt
believed the first step in this transformation was to physically change
their appearance. While this had a devastating impact on many Indians,
some also saw it as ludicrous.
Most others, like Luther Standing Bear, were left feeling
distraught. "After having my hair cut a new thought came into my
head. I felt that I was no more Indian, but would be an imitation of a
whiteman" (p. 63).
Thus after 200 years of failed missionary efforts to
educate and assimilate Indians, Pratt's Indian residential school set
the new standard. Niezen relates, however, that those standards brought
with them the implementation of a level of punishment and control that
became sadistic and often crossed over into the pathological. While it
is common knowledge that Indians were punished for speaking their Native
language, at the Alberni Indian residential school in Canada one individual
revealed he was "punished for speaking Tseshalt by having sewing
needles pushed through his tongue. From then on he rejected his Native
tongue and refused to teach it to his children" (p. 77). In almost
all cases throughout North America, "the risk of excessive punishment,
torture, or sexual abuse for Indian students... in residential schools
was extremely high and had devastating and lasting consequences"
Niezen has made Spirit Wars significantly relevant
by going beyond mere reporting. Spirit Wars probes some very difficult
issues and brings with it a meaningful discussion of how, at least for
Indians, the devaluing of self-worth, self-image or self-esteem, along
with physical and substance abuse, can be linked to what is at times labeled
as the "residential school syndrome." Certainly in my work I
have repeatedly observed this residential school syndrome to be a significant
factor in curtailing the progress of contemporary efforts to revitalize
language in many Native American communities.
For most people, the idea that a war on Native spiritualism
could continue in a contemporary and technologically advanced world would
be quickly dismissed. In Niezen's chapter on medical evangelism, however,
this idea receives persuasive support. Christianity and biomedicine, having
long been wed, have also long been at war with shamans and native spirituality.
This marriage, as warring companions, continues globally, impairing successful
Native health practices such as ethnobotany and treating mental health
afflictions. Niezen shows how this persistence, with its false sense of
superiority, has failed Native communities. "If there is one major
failing of biomedicine among Native Americans, it is in its delivery of
mental health services" (p. 115). Drawing upon a 1990 report to Congress,
Niezen relates that Native adolescents face 26.3 deaths per 100,000 population,
when compared to 10.0 per 100,000 in the US general population. While
for children between the ages of ten and fourteen, suicide deaths are
four times higher than all races in America, in Canada "Indians are
four to five times more likely to die from accidents or violence, and
two to three times more likely to commit suicide" (p. 115).
Where missionaries were historically quick to point
out the failings of Native medicinal knowledge, through Spirit Wars readers
learn that Native people were not necessarily ignorant of Western medicine's
limitations. To this regard Niezen draws on a collection of radio interviews
conducted between 1992 and 1994 that dealt with the topic of healing.
Through radio narratives and interviews, differences between Native and
White perspectives and approaches in dealing with health issues are revealed.
A common theme in these narratives is the inability of clinical doctors
to bring about cures of chronic illnesses, and how when faced with such
illnesses Native people tend to view the situation much differently. Niezen
documented such a perspective from a Canadian radio narrative, in which
the person interviewed reported, "She was alive, not dying like the
modern medicine failed, so I wasn't going to use anything
modern" (p. 105).
A nice addition to this chapter is Phyllis Fast's article
on "Gwich'in Athabascan Perceptions of Spirit Invasions and Recovery."
Phyllis writes about two cases. In the first, a Gwich'in man was tormented
by voices he heard in the house in which he lived. After running to his
grandmother for help, she brought him to a minister to be exorcised. The
man's mother, who owned the house, and who had also experienced supernatural
occurrences while living in the house, burned it with all its contents
to the ground so no one could ever be tormented again. Afterwards, the
man was referred to a psychiatrist and was put on medication presumably
for the remainder of his life. Phyllis goes on to discuss the differences
between the medical, which looks at a psychological imbalance, a Christian,
which looks at the devil as the cause, and the Gwich'in perspectives,
which saw spirits in a specific locale as the cause.
The second case also dealt with a man hearing voices.
With this one, however, his mother sought the guidance of Native health
practitioners most commonly referred to as medicine men. In their diagnosis,
one sees the sharp divergence in what Native and Western medicine would
perceive and subsequently offer as a treatment. Native health practitioners
diagnosed that he was hearing voices-thoughts of shamanic spirits because
he himself was a latent shaman. His cure, or treatment, required him to
be trained as a shaman. Here readers should not mistakenly believe that
when individuals heard voices they were counseled to become a shaman.
There was greater understanding and cultural flexibility than that.
What this chapter actually reveals is a cultural continuity
that has persisted to present times. One disappointing aspect about this
chapter comes from Niezen's use of the term biomedicine. By contrasting
Native health practices with "biomedicine" as two distinct and
separate systems, Niezen undermines huge contributions that medicine has
received from the ethnobotanical knowledge of Indigenous peoples and fails
to recognize that ethnobotany by its application is a form of biomedicine.
In the end, the chapter's message is fairly straightforward.
Where Western medicine systematically seeks to alienate or isolate afflicted
individuals, due to a perceived potential threat to the community, Native
practices operate in such a way as to reincorporate the afflicted back
into the community. As a result, Western medicine has failed Native people,
when addressing certain Native health issues because the two approaches
are culturally in conflict.
In Chapter Five, "The Politics of Repression,"
Niezen directly discusses government reaction to Indian spiritualism and
religious ceremonies. On this same subject, Rupert Ross has observed that:
While Niezen's chapter agrees with Ross' claim, regarding
the level of intolerance and contempt that government officials held for
Native ceremonies, his section on the Ghost Dance runs into interpretive
problems. By Niezen focussing primarily on how the Sioux interpreted Wavoka's
message, readers are not made aware that the majority of tribes did not
have the same interpretation. Niezen writes,
What Niezen overlooked is that the destructiveness
was to be selective for Indian and White alike. According to Porcupine,
a Cheyenne emissary who heard Wavoka's teachings and witnessed his last
miracle, Wavoka stated fighting was bad, "and we must all be friends
with one another. He said the youth of all good people would be renewed
told us not to quarrel or fight or strike each other, or shoot one another;
that whites and Indians were to be all one people" (Peterson 1990:
108). For Wavoka, the all meant both Indian and Whites and anyone not
following his teachings would perish. The Sioux, however, chose to bring
away a different message. Another element overlooked is the fact that
had Wavoka been preaching a message that all whites would be eliminated
from the face of the earth, it is hardly likely that Bill Wilson, Wavoka's
adopted white brother, would have helped Wavoka stage all his miracles.
At the time of Wavoka's messianic message, the Sioux,
having been told they no longer possessed Paha Sapa and having been forced
onto reservations, were experiencing significant hardship under United
States government rule. They were desperate to put these insolent peoples
in their place and restore balance to their lives. Though Wavoka had performed
a number of seemingly miraculous feats, it was his last miracle that most
impressed the Sioux and gave rise to the Ghost Dance Shirt and how the
Sioux in particular interpreted the underlying message of the Ghost Dance
Wavoka's Ghost Dance religion brought together Paiute,
Christian, Shaker and Mormon religious elements. From the latter, Wavoka
made use of the Mormon Endowment Robe, a robe "emblazoned with sacred
reputed to protect the wearer from Satan and physical harm"
(Peterson 1990: 110), and Sioux and Cheyenne emissaries were the first
to see its power. In a staged miracle Bill Wilson, shot Wavoka at close
Sioux emissaries viewing this, saw in it their chance
to reclaim what was rightfully theirs and possibly exact revenge in the
Niezen goes on in the chapter to offer solid analysis
and discussion of Canada's repression of the potlatch, and America's attack
on peyotism. With the latter Niezen further reveals the impact of Christianity's
colonization of Native Americans with his disclosure of how peyote came
under the assault of Christian Indians and purveyors of Indian religious
traditions. There are many good aspects to this section, some of which
discuss legal cases and how development issues have kept Native peoples
under the influence of colonization. The chapter concludes with an enlightening
essay from Valerie Long Lambert on the complexities of "Native Spiritual
Traditions and the Tribal State." In this essay Lambert offers a
critical analysis of Hollis Roberts success in being elected, and
several times reelected as Tribal Chair, on a political platform that
exhibited strong hostility toward Native spirituality.
Since the time of initial contact Native religion and spirituality has been assaulted by the colonization efforts of Christian bearing cultures. In Chapter Seven, "Apostles of the New Age," Niezen provides detailed descriptions and analyses of the New Age movement. The chapter unfortunately can leave readers a bit confused as one easily sees a message that the New Age movement has shifted the battle on Native spirituality from assault to acclaim as a symbol of world salvation. Though Niezen's discussion attempts to move readers through the issues, with regard to this new phenomenon, there is concern that in the end readers are left confused. What is missing is a clear discussion of why the Native community reacts toward charlatans, and that the surmounting level of appropriation that occurs by New Age activists only ensures that the spirit wars on Native North American religions will continue in the twenty-first century.
Peterson, Scott. 1990. Native American Prophecies:
Examining the History, Wisdom and Startling Predictions of Visionary Native
Americans. New York: Paragon House.
Ross, Rupert. 1992. Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality. Toronto: Reed.