“But it is not enough to listen to or to read or to understand the truths contained in stories; according to the elders the truths must be lived out and become part of the being of a person.” – Basil Johnston, Ojibway Heritage
When I started off in Native American studies, my view of the world was resolutely materialist. Raised by parents whose main belief is “science is what explains the world,” I never really thought of religion as anything other than a bunch of interesting stories. My folks certainly didn’t discourage the idea of spirituality, and I went to church with friends from time to time, but I never found my way to belief. Religion, as far as I was concerned, was the opiate of the masses.
As I started graduate school and read my way into Native literature and theory, and as I listened to Native folks talk about their experiences, it became fairly clear to me that there were people I respected, authors as well as friends and acquaintances, for whom the “supernatural” and “paranormal” were both natural and normal. Anishinaabe author Gerald Vizenor and Choctaw-Cherokee-Scotch-Irish author Louis Owens use the term “mythic verism” to describe the world in which much Native literature takes place. Even though a character’s bread might turn into a never-ending cascade of mud, or the dead could have conversations with the living (who think the dead have a creepy sense of humor), describing Native literature as being “magical realism” is, they suggest, a mistake.
“Magical realism serves as a metaphor to tell us about our existence,” Owens explained. “But what’s magical in Native American writing is part of the real world. It requires that the reader cross a conceptual horizon and enter into the Indian world in a new way. If a raven flutters down from a branch and talks to a character, as it does in James Welch’s `Fool’s Crow,’ that’s reality. It’s not a metaphor for anything.”
Magical realism means that both the author and the audience understand that what happens in the world of the novel would be impossible in the real world–no old man is going to grow wings and fly away, though it makes a damn good story. But much (though not all) of Native literature does not come out of that same assumption. Instead, it suggests the possibility that the real world is considerably more magical than many people think it is–which I was also hearing from people I knew and respected.
This idea challenged my own sense of the world in a fundamental way that I wasn’t prepared to deal with, so I put the question of belief on the back burner. There it remained for a long time. Throughout my doctoral program, I managed to keep the issue at arms’ length personally, even though I dealt with it on the level of critical theory. (This, of course, is a classic academic move: Complex emotional or spiritual issue? Oooh, let me intellectualize it and file it away!!) In addition to Native lit, I was reading postcolonial theory, Marxism, and Indigenous theory in order to develop a critical framework with which to read, study, and eventually teach Native American literature.
As I studied, it became clear to me that insisting that spiritual experiences were opiates or mass delusions was rather patronizing. You can see that clearly in the way that Frantz Fanon, a brilliant anti-colonial writer and one of the key thinkers in the struggle for African independence, looks at religion. As Federico Settler describes it,
Not unlike other scholars of a similar materialist orientation, Fanon regarded religion as essentially pre-modern and as such,he assumed that the onset of modernity marked the decline of religion. In his The Wretched of the Earth (1968) he asserts that religion is more terrifying than the [colonizing] settler. He argues that religion, whether through established faith communities or indigenous traditions would undermine the struggle against oppression.
Yeah, that Frantz Fanon, the one who wrote so incisively about race and colonialism in Black Skin, White Masks, and The Wretched of the Earth. That’s dogmatic Marxism talking, right there (whose other major downfall, explored brilliantly in Leslie Marmon Silko‘s Almanac of the Dead, is that it cannot account for or deal with the cultural and spiritual value of Indigenous lands).
Beyond that, I gradually began to see that the problem wasn’t merely a patronizing or dismissive attitude, but was rooted in the very way the world was conceptualized. Reading Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies gave me a great deal to chew on in this regard, quite literally challenging me to decolonize my methodologies. The book articulates–and critiques–the ways that Western methodologies and world views negate Indigenous ways of knowing, and thus, I recognized, negate many, many Indigenous experiences. The ways we are taught to do academic research, and the ways we are taught to think, even our very language enforces a Western cultural distinction (material / spiritual), not a universal one. What does the world look like if you don’t distinguish between “supernatural” and “natural,” or “paranormal” and “normal”? What if all of that is natural and normal, and your definition of the world is more expansive and inclusive?
Those questions blew the top off my mind for a while, and yet I only remember talking to one person about it. Because this is true :
In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar…can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project.
That’s Jeffrey J. Kripal talking about the challenge of doing Religious Studies in this kind of environment, and that’s the essay that started me on this whole essay (which began as a Facebook link to Kripal’s article). I think Indigenous Studies is probably more open, more porous when it comes to this than most other fields, but I also think it’s something we may avoid because it might make other people take our field less seriously–a challenge we’re constantly faced with. It’s certainly not a topic that non-Native academics tend to approach in anything other than an extremely theoretical way. But the truth is, I now realize that for me, it is impossible to teach appropriately about Native American literature if I do not accept the possibility–even the probability–that Native spiritual experiences are, quite simply, real.
At the same time, seeing how many Native beliefs have been co-opted by white folks (first and foremost New Agers, who really raised neocolonialism to an art form), there’s a large part of me that also sees claims of Native beliefs or practice by non-Natives as almost inherently colonialist. (That “almost”… that’s something I’m still thinking about.) So while I want to accept the truth of these beliefs, I don’t want to go so far that acceptance turns into adoption that transforms into a kind of ownership. If you are trying to decolonize your own mind, you can’t do that by simply going around colonizing someone else’s beliefs.
Part of my challenge is to find what is true for me, and that is a complicated path full of potential pitfalls as well as possible epiphanies. But part of my challenge is also why I’m writing this essay: finding not only my way in this, but considering how this might be an important conversation to begin, both with Native people and with non-Natives, so that more of us might start thinking about how this might affect our truths and our ways of being.
For the past few years, I’ve quietly transformed the way I see the world. I talk about it in the classroom (because it’s why the phrase “magical realism” isn’t appropriate when talking about Native lit, and because it necessarily affects how we read the literature), and it’s an acknowledged fact when I’m talking with friends, colleagues, or students who are Native (or Hmong folks who have been raised in the traditional shamanist way). This openness has led to important conversations, creating a safe space for students from Hmong and Native traditions to speak about knowledges and experiences they consider important, without fear of being disbelieved. (These conversations have been among the most important ones in my academic career.)
Generally, though, I don’t discuss this in a wider public context. In part that is because I’ve not had any of these spiritual experiences myself, and in part that is because I’ve imbibed the notion that these things are inappropriate for The Academy, and for an academic. But it is also, to be honest, because these are difficult and uncomfortable things to talk about, things that took me years to even articulate to myself, let alone to others. So this is nothing like a finished product, let alone the final word, but a first attempt at conversation. How do we respect and accept beliefs without colonizing them? And when we do this, how does this change our relationship not only to reading and scholarship, but also to mainstream society and its accepted ways of knowing? How do we live this change in the world?
A Little About Miriam Schacht. Miriam is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her special interests include Native American and international Indigenous literatures, post-colonial literature and theory, and queer and two-spirit literatures. As a teacher, her courses are demanding but always filled to capacity and receive rave reviews. As the faculty advisor for the Inter-Tribal Student Organization, she plays a crucial role in supporting Native American students and educating the broader university community about contemporary challenges for tribes and Native American peoples. And as a scholar (Ph.D. in English, University of Texas at Austin), she devotes her skills as a critical thinker and creative writer to address oppression.