Taken from Spiritual Appropriation As Sexual Violence by Andrea Smith
… Indian communities are flooded with people who want to know more about them- New Agers looking for quick spiritual enlightenment, anthropologists eager to capture “an authentic culture thought to be rapidly and inevitably disappearing,” and Christians eager to engage in interreligious dialogue. How one evaluates these attempts to understand and “know” Indians involves in large part how one analyzes the primary causes of the oppression of Native peoples. Many people- Native and non-Native alike- believe that the primary problem Native peoples face from the dominant society is ignorance. That is, non-Indians oppress Indians because they are ignorant about Native cultures. By this reasoning, if only non-Indians knew more about Indians, they would be nicer to them. Thus, even if attempts to “know” more about Indians are problematic, we can assume that at least these attempts are a step in the right direction.
Without wanting to fashion too simplistic a dualism, I suggest that the primary reason for the continuing genocide of Native peoples has less to do with ignorance and more to do with material conditions. Non-Indians oppress Indians because Indians occupy land and hold resources in this country are on Indian land. The United States cannot stop oppressing Indian people without fundamentally challenging its hegemonic position or multicultural capitalist operations. If we frame genocide from a materialist perspective, then we have to rethink our analysis of non-Native ignorance about Native cultures. This ignorance becomes a willful ignorance in which non-Natives ten to selectively and opportunistically draw knowledge about what they think is Indian, largely because it is in their economic interests to do so. To authentically understand and represent Native peoples would demand, first of all, a reappraisal of non-Native , colonialistic attitudes of entitlement to indigenous lands. Without such a reappraisal, most efforts to “know” Indians will be necessarily less than benevolent in their intent and in their effects.
Native spiritualites are land based- they generally cannot exist without the and from which they originate. When Native peoples fight for cultural/spiritual preservation, they are ultimately fighting for the land base which grounds their spirituality and culture. For this reasons, Native religions do not generally proselytize and are generally seen by Native peoples as relevant only to the particular land base from which they originate, they are not necessarily applicable to peoples coming from different land bases. In addition, as many scholars have noted, Native religions are practice based- rather than belief-centered. Christianity is generally defined by belief in a certain set of doctrinal principles (about Jesus, the Bible, and so on). Evangelical Christianity, for instance, holds that one is “saved” when one professes belief in Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. Native traditions, by contrast are practice centered, that is, what is of primary importance is not so much the ability to articulate belief in a certain set of doctrines but rather taking part in he spiritual practice of one’s community. Thus, for instance, it may be more important hat a ceremony be done correctly than it is for everyone in that ceremony to know exactly why everything must be done a certain way. Vine Deloria (Dakota) notes that, in a Native context, religion is “a way of life” rather than “a matter of proper exposition of doctrines.” Even if Christians do not have access to church, they continue to be Christians as long as they believe in Jesus. Native spiritualities, by contrast, may die if the people do not practice the ceremonies, even if the people continue to believe in their power.
Native communities argue that Native peoples cannot be alienated from their land without cultural genocide. This argument underpins many sacred sites court cases, although usually to no avail. Most of the court rulings on sacred sites of not recognize this difference between belief and practice-centered traditions or the significance of land-based spiritualites. For example, in Fools Crow v. Gallet (1983), the Supreme Court ruled against the Lakota who were trying to halt the development of additional tourist facilities. It ruled that this tourism was not an infringement on Indian religious freedom because, although it would hinder the ability of Lakota to practice their beliefs, it id not force them to relinquish the beliefs themselves. For the Lakota, however, stopping the practice of traditional beliefs destroys the belief systems. Consequently, for the Lakota and Native nations in general, cultural genocide is the result when Native land bases are not protected.
However, to disconnect Native spirituality practices from their land bases is to undermine Native peoples’ claim that the protection of the land base is integral to their survival and hence is to undermine their claim to sovereignty. Disconnecting Native spirituality from its land base is prevalent in a wide variety of practices of cultural and spiritual appropriation, from New Agers claiming to be Indian in former life to Christians adopting Native spiritual forms to further their missionary efforts. The implication is that anyone can practice Indian spirituality anywhere, and hence there is no need to protect the specific Native communities and their lands that are the basis of these spiritual practices.