It had been a very long drive into work that week, not the least of reasons being a heavy snow storm that descended upon the central Navajo Nation just as I got into the area. I didn’t expect to see my landlady in the office, but there she was. She and I normally passed each other going both ways of our weekly commutes, and upon seeing her I assumed she had been trapped in town by the snowstorm. Would I be on the floor that night? …or asleep in the office? Not to worry, my landlady and her 4-wheel drive were on the way out of town, but she wanted me to know that I would have company that night after all.
I cocked an eyebrow and waited to learn more.
It turns out she had picked up a guy on the side of the road near Chinle. She didn’t know much about him, except that he was a bilagáana (a white guy) and he had come out to the reservation looking for native wisdom. She had blessed him with his first taste of that wisdom by getting him in out of the cold. She added that she thought he was sick. So, I taught my class that evening and headed over to the house wondering what (or rather whom) I would find.
I’ve long since forgotten the man’s name, but he was indeed sick. A doctor had apparently told my guest that his Prostate Cancer could not be treated. So, he had come to Navajo country in the hopes that a Medicine Man could accomplish something that modern science could not. My guest didn’t elaborate much on his condition, though his frequent trips to the bathroom might have testified in some sense to the diagnosis. He was French, as I recall. I don’t think he ate at all that night, nor did he accept an invitation to breakfast.
The house contained two quite decent beds, but no central heating. So, my guest slept on the floor that night and I slept on the couch, thus putting us both near the coal-burning stove. In the morning, he pulled out his tarot cards and tried to get a sense of what the day had in store for him. The man offered to do a reading for me, but I declined. It had been a long time since I had left that sort of thing behind, and I didn’t want it back in my life, not even as a sort of social experiment. Instead, the man explained what each card meant as he drew it during his own reading. There was some good and some bad, and as one might expect, a lot of wiggle room on the particulars.
Although I asked, the man never really told me whether or not he was looking for someone in particular. I suspect he thought the practical problem of finding a Medicine Man willing to help him would resolve itself, perhaps with the aid of his cards or some comparable means of divination.
I don’t think my guest ever asked me for anything, nor did he accept anything I offered. The storm had broken late that evening, and his reading had been promising. So, the man opened the door to find a truly beautiful morning. Soon, he was on his way.
It is hard to explain just how out-of-place my guest for the evening had been. The man would have had far more luck turning south and heading into Sedona. Perhaps one of the more shady medicine-men would have sold him a quick Blessing-Way, but the real thing, so to speak, is a family affair. It would take friends and relatives to put together the resources, to aid in the ceremonies, and to help in the long rites. The proper healing from a local perspective might have taken several nights on end with several participants needed to make all this work. The logic of the system is as much social as it is metaphysical. Repayment for all of this effort would take the form of similar service when those same people needed help in various forms over the course of their lives.
This man didn’t really fit into the scenario he was trying to bring about. It wasn’t just the clumsy eclecticism of tarot cards and native healers that seemed off to me. On a much more profound level, my guest had come seeking a personal experience; its social implications were simply beyond him. With enough goodwill, folks could of course devise a work-around, but how likely was it that anyone would give him the chance? To say nothing of the odds that any of it would work!
I could easily hope that my guest for that evening found what he was looking for and flourishes today, living evidence that my sense of both metaphysics and indigenous culture are dead wrong on all counts.
It was desperation, not malice, that brought this man to Navajo country, and yet his failure to appreciate the social setting was part of a much larger problem. I often wonder just what is it about other people’s rituals and beliefs that makes them so attractive to those on a spiritual quest, even with personal health hanging in the balance? Among other things, this question always comes to mind when I think of that particular night in Chinle. Once that question takes hold of my thoughts, I cannot help but to want to follow it down a few similar paths.
I’m not altogether unfamiliar with the sort of thinking my guest brought with him that night. I remember reading about the ascended spiritual masters (Kuthumi, Maitreya, St. Germaine, etc.) in my grandmother’s old Theosophy books. The masters dwelt on this earth, at least when they wanted to, or so I read. The home of the masters, so the story goes, rested in the remotest parts of Tibet. I suppose that when the books had been written, this seemed an adequate explanation for the seeming impossibility of finding the masters by normal means. It took meditation to bridge the distance.
I remember sitting in on a séance as a child in the early 70s, one in which I and several family members received the names of our spirit guides. I remember the name of my “Indian guide.” It was “White Thumb.” With the name of “Wee One,” my “Joy Guide” also seemed to bring to mind an Indian, albeit a little one, perhaps an invisible playmate, …very useful to a kid living on a ranch inconveniently far from my classmates. I wasn’t half as interested in any of my other guides as I was in these two.
I also remember that the name of my father’s Indian guide had been of the South Asian variety. I cringe at the explanation, …this was a higher form of Indian guide, so he was told. I cringed again many years later when a family friend dismissed questions about the authenticity of sweat baths run by non-Indian practitioners. She assured me that she and her spiritual mentors were engaged in practices far more advanced than anything Native Americans had actually done. And of course I thought about all of this when I learned about the tragedy of a sweat bath lead by James Arther Ray. I wonder if he too was engaged in practices far more advanced than those of the Indian peoples from whom he borrowed piecemeal?
I remember a woman at a Native American Studies conference who once asked me if I was following the “Red Road,” a question so loaded with cultural baggage I couldn’t begin to unpack it in time to give an adequate response. I expect the woman must have found me quite a disappointment.
But Spiritual appropriation isn’t just limited to Native American traditions. I recall with great pleasure reading Karma Cola long before I headed out to the rez. Gita Mehta’s brutal observations on the antics of spiritual tourists in India touch upon issues quite familiar to those observing how Native traditions fare in New Age circles. Many of the characters she describes in Karma Cola appear quite as hapless as my guest sitting there reading tarot cards on his way to find a Medicine Man. Few seem quite so innocent or nearly as sympathetic.
Mehta has been rightly criticized for focusing on the negatives. So many claim to have found something of value in Eastern traditions. What personal pettiness it must take to deny or to minimize this! And yet the specter of people on a personal quest, proceeding oblivious to the social context in which they operate rings true for me. Whatever folks may have found in these strange, foreign, traditions, it seems a safe bet to suggest that they commonly miss much more.
What bothers me most is that the part spiritual tourists miss may well be the most important piece of the story, the part which anchors all that spiritual talk to an established community. I cannot help but wonder if the quest to learn someone else’s spirituality isn’t rather commonly an effort to escape that very thing!
Those traveling (literally or metaphorically) through another people universe are freed from much of the social context in which the symbols and ideas they seek to learn acquire meaning. They can learn how to perform a ritual, or even what it’s iconography means in some idealized sense, but they are freed from the tedium by which that ritual is connected to countless aspects of daily existence. Most importantly, spiritual tourists are free to fill in the gaps of their understanding as they see fit, unencumbered by multiple sources of information, some of which will surely disagree. What spiritual tourists acquire is a radically simplified version of some other world view, all the easier to tweak it to their own tastes. Perhaps some people need this; perhaps some even do great things with the opportunity. Either way, the point stands. Something highly important is lost in translation.
For some at least, the chance to strip a practice of its social context and rebuild it as they see fit is precisely the pay-off for embarking on a trip into unknown spiritual territory. There may be good reasons for doing that, but how often do people even realize that is what they are doing?