Indigenous Religious Traditions is my second religion course. The first was World Religions, a survey course at my hometown’s community college with over fifty students and professor who was not a fan of discussion. The class consisted of static once-a-week three-hour lectures with an occasional video to save the professor’s aged voice. There were no written assignments, projects, or inquiry into the students’ experiences or opinions. We were graded primarily on the multiple choice quizzes given at the end of every class.
Needless to say, Indigenous Religious Traditions has been an incredibly different experience.
Not only ripe with discussion, Indigenous Religious Traditions has been flooded with participational observation and (for some of us at least) a heavy dose of personal spiritual experience. Not only did we meet and observe the very people whose traditions we were studying (the Lakota), we experienced their traditions. We smoked sacred pipe in a circle, we blessed buffalo and prayed for the land, we trekked Bear Butte and stood where many have gone for their vision quests, we erected a tipi, we sat and sang and swayed in a sweat lodge, and we huddled into Mike Littleboy Jr.’s basement for a spark-filled Yuwipi. The course far surpassed the average read and discuss deal–for a week we were given the opportunity to experience our studies through the Lakotas’ feet.
But such a learning method seems to open itself up to controversy.
A friend and I went out for a dinner a few days after I returned to campus last weekend. She asked me about the field trip to Pine Ridge. I attempted to explain. I was only a few sentences in when she rolled her eyes. So typical of CC, she said, an entire course devoted to trying to be a Native American.
On some level, such a reaction is expected, for out of context it may seem that the course is a group of college kids “trying to be” a different culture, to adopt their rituals, to feed a romanticized ideal. Such an assumption though can’t be further from the truth. No one enrolled to “become” anything. I won’t speak for all twenty-six students, but I put my points on the course because of a genuine interest and concern: a longing to understand indigenous culture and their traditions, as well as see how such communities are existing the too-often discriminatory modern world. I recognized how heavily romanticized Native American culture is and how I had general assumptions based on being a 90s child in the bubble of Orange County and I wanted to smash such ideals. It should be clarified that there was never a point in the last three weeks of this course where I felt a culture, religion, or tradition being forced onto me, or where I felt that any student was trying to “be” a Native American. So, I’ll restate what I said to my friend again here, in case there’s any existing confusion: We were not trying to adopt the Lakota ways, we were (and are) trying to understand.
As Bruce so eloquently wrote in the syllabus:
“Studying indigenous cultures runs the dual risks of romanticism as one idealizes the value of native traditions and fatalism as one despairs over the overwhelming social stresses on indigenous communities. Genuine understanding avoids these dangers by situating learning in the concrete experience of real people living in actual communities and avoids the temptation of reducing living, breathing and complex human beings to abstract intellectual ideas or academic theoretical constructs.
In addition to the concerns of culture stealing, in a course as reliant on personal experience as this, there is also the risk of becoming too individually impacted/invested and thus crossing a line where one becomes too close to the experiences to adequately analyze ritual through an academic understanding. After a week at Pine Rige–a week of participating in ceremonies that did impact me and were perhaps a integral step of personal growth–I recognize the painfully tricky balance. Always an innately spiritual person, I participated in ceremonies open in heart and mind, but also consciously aware of my outsider status and my purpose for being there: to learn and understand. And yes, while I experienced several massively “spiritual events” last week, they were my own personal moments reliant on the history I subconsciously brought to Pine Ridge and not due to an attempt of conversion to the Lakota tradition–while they do offer great perspective that has fed my understanding of ritual, I don’t consider them truly a part of my academic studying. While the Lakota rituals played a key role in surfacing the feelings of spirituality, because I am who I am and came from where I did, because I was the “outsider” I was, I participated the rituals in my OWN way. It’d be impossible to do anything otherwise–impossible for anyone in the course to fully participate in a Lakota ceremony as a Lakota does.
And finally, to touch on the second part of the issue of personal experience in an academic context, would I have the understanding and respect for the Lakota culture and its traditions I now do had I not traveled with my course to the reservation? Could I have gained what I did from the mere contents of a page? Would I have ANY degree of comprehension of the Lakota ceremonies had I not participated in them myself? I kinda hit on this in my post last week, when I wrote about how you have to see and feel to understand the beauty of Pine Ridge. Likewise, this course has been a testament to the strength of personal experience paired with academic analysis in religious studies. While there is always a risk of becoming too close to your experience, if one can practice the proper distance, I believe the wisdom we gained from our first-hand experiences at Pine Ridge is far superior than the surface knowledge would have attained if we’d only read texts. After this block, I believe neither a purely academic approach nor a full reliance on personal experience can suffice alone to truly understand a religion: arguably a true academic powerhouse comes from interweaving the two. Contrasted against the text-reliant nature of my World Religions course, where the semester ended with a sense of only having dipped in my toes, in Indigenous Religious Traditions the readings fed the experiences and the experiences fed the readings. The block will end not only with a sense of expanded knowledge, but a stream of Lakota wisdom and respect.
And thus ends my version of a rant.