Western Culture’s Misperception of Indigenous Ceremony

The biggest obstacle to people of the dominant culture who want to make a paradigm shift into a worldview that understands and fosters sustainability is its epistemic barrier that prevents relationship with the natural world. And one of the most powerful mythic stories Western culture tells itself in order to maintain that barrier is a story about — of all things — Indigenous ceremony and ritual. That story has troubled and even angered Indigenous people for centuries, and it has done us actual harm of many different kinds. But I am addressing it here, in the pages of this exercise, because of the way it harms people of Western culture. When we project our own problematic paradigm onto others and use that projection to vilify or denigrate those other people, we cannot engage in the paradigmatic awareness that would permit us to analyze this very paradigm’s presence and impact in our own lives and culture.

People of Western culture have almost always interpreted Indigenous ceremonies and rituals as attempts to appease dangerous nature. Indigenous people have protested the misperception for generations, but our corrective statements are not heard. Even Vine Deloria’s very direct attempt at correcting things was ignored. “This view supposes that [so-called] primitive peoples felt the same sense of alienation in natural surroundings as do people of the Western industrial society,” he wrote, “[but] this basic scenario is wrong, for we do not find a cringing fear of the environment in tribal peoples. Instead they are keenly aware of rhythms and activities that scientific people cannot begin to fathom” (1999:64).

The fear that Western people are so certain Indigenous people feel in the presence of nature is actually a projection of their own Western cultural paradigm. When an archeologist imagines pushing a hand-made canoe into a swift river, for example, he is certain anyone doing such a thing feels fear because he would. So when he learns that an Indigenous person doing this makes an offering to the river, he assumes that “The Indian deposits tobacco on the rocks of a rapid, that the spirit of the swift waters may not swallow his canoe” (Kelsen 1943). A contemporary anthropologist tries to draw the same conclusion without the patronizing tone, but  the implication that anyone who’s not afraid of nature is stupid is still visible: “People living in the late Pleistocene weren’t stupid. They spent an awful lot of time avoiding being eaten, and one of the ways to do that is to stay away from big bears” (Trinkaus 2010). In both these examples, projecting their own fear of the natural world onto Indigenous people permits the scientist involved to express their own cultural fear without acknowledging that fear or its impacts on their own behaviors and in their own lives. “It’s not me that’s afraid of the bear; it’s them. And it’s a good thing too, because bears eat people” — said as if it’s a fact.* Projection allows people to keep the emotional reality of their paradigm (“the natural world is dangerous”) without feeling the emotions themselves (“but those guys over there are the ones who are scared, not me — because I have science and technology to protect me whereas all they have is a ritual”).

Fear of nature is the most common manifestation of the deep separation between humans and the natural world that is Western Culture’s bedrock paradigm (Adams and Belasco 2015). That’s why it’s not just archeologists and anthropologists who project their fear of nature onto Indigenous people. Bamber Gascoigne is the author of numerous books and history documentary films, a Trustee of the National Gallery, Trustee of the Tate Gallery, member of the Council of the National Trust, and member of the board of directors of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The words he wrote about Indigenous spirituality on the “History of Religion” page at the History World website (Gascoigne 2001) create a powerful self-image of Western Culture (Hopson 2005) rather than a picture of Indigenous worldview or experience. In trying to describe and “explain” Indigenous ceremony in a way so erroneous as to be grotesque (sorry, but it is), yet so commonly espoused that it abounds in Western media of all time periods, this text inadvertently reveals the precise way that Western Culture’s alienation from nature prevents reciprocity and, thereby, makes sustainability utterly impossible for people of Western culture to achieve.

“Mankind needs the cooperation of these aspects of nature. Religion, in the primitive form of animism (the need to befriend and appease the spirits within natural objects), is designed to secure it. What can humans do to influence nature? Carrying out an appropriate ritual, whether in the form of dance, sacrifice or chant, seems to offer the best chance. As with any superstitious habit, a primitive religious custom is thought likely to work because it is believed to have worked in the past. A ritual, by the time anyone is aware of its ritual nature, gives the impression of having been done from time immemorial. And the proof of its power is plain for all to see. The sun has gone on rising, the bison have reproduced themselves, the crops have come up.”

Because Indigenous people are not afraid of nature, ritual and ceremony are not about “appeasing nature.” If you are not afraid of a thing, after all, there is no need to “appease” it.

The common Western tangle of projection and misunderstanding about Indigenous ceremony creates a wall between Indigenous and Western scholars that’s every bit as high as the one between Western culture and the natural world. That similarity is no coincidence. The result is that Western scholars ask Indigenous people to explain how it is that our cultures have a relationship with nature that permits sustainability, but are unable to hear the answer we give them.

Indigenous scholars haven’t ignored Western scholars’ requests for help. Many have stated very directly that the key to our worldview is understanding that the Land is alive. But Western scholars throw that statement away as merely a “belief system” rather than a description of ontological reality that’s the crucial key you’ve been asking for. The way this is done is very interesting. Instead of writing “the Land is alive” and citing the Indigenous scholar, or writing “such-and-such Indigenous scholar reports that the Land is alive,” a Western scholar writes that “Indigenous people believe the Land is alive” and then adds (somewhere in the paper) that “this is clearly metaphor.” Doing this strips the actual meaning and significance off the statement they’ve cited. So they ask for help, get it, then throw the information away as a primitive or superstitious belief.

If you’re having trouble seeing the subtle way Western culture’s dominant paradigm tosses the key to sustainability in the garbage, consider other situations in which Western scholars cite someone with whom they disagree. They don’t say a specific scholar “believes” the phyletic distance between two species is greater than generally reported, or that this other specific scholar “believes” that Aristotle meant something by “form” that isn’t correct. They don’t use “belief” language at all in those situations. Instead, they use use “thought” or “communication” language. So they say the other scholar thinks this or that thing they disagree with, or has written this or that thing they disagree with.

But Western scholars say Indigenous scholars believe that the Land is alive.  This is religious language. Their use of the word “belief” signals the presence of that deep misperception of Indigenous ceremony based in their own fear of nature — the view Gascoigne elucidated so neatly in the passage I cited. The result is they can’t receive the information we’re supplying in response to their request because they see it within a false context of “primitive superstition to appease nature.” The reason Western scholars so frequently say “this is clearly metaphor” after they say Indigenous people “believe” the Land is alive is that the Western concept of metaphor parallels the Western cultural paradigm of story as a thing that’s not true. So saying Indigenous “belief” that the Land is alive is metaphor constitutes a denial-phase level of paradigm shift response. That’s because if we really mean the Land is alive, ontologically, then we’ve pointed to a dinosaur walking by that the Western scholar is certain has long been extinct. And that shakes the Western paradigmatic walls in a way that feels terrifying.

The Western process we call acculturation is driven primarily by this culturally-based fear of nature and the separation from the natural world that comes with it. So the acculturation process focuses on forcing non-Western people to relocate to a position behind Western culture’s side of the wall they’ve built between themselves and the natural world. As one example, an act of acculturation that’s physical has just recently been carried out on the fisherman of coastal Japan. They mourn their loss of relationship with the sea and express a sense of being imprisoned by the new tsunami walls that separate them from the natural world in a way they find unbearable. Another example of acculturation centers on the fact that the English language does not have words for the complex and nuanced terms needed to talk about seen and unseen relations with Land. Punishing children for speaking their own Indigenous languages and forcing them to use English literally separates them from the ability to speak about the things that ground them in Place.  In many boarding schools the wall was enforced with severe corporal punishment. Acculturation of research methods and knowledge, with open ridicule and academic failure as the enforcing agents, takes place in college and university science programs to this day. It is painful and frustrating to constantly resist Western culture’s acculturation pressure — painful to the point of being clinically traumatic — but the alternative is even more painful for most of us: losing the connection to the Land that sustains us. Vine Deloria explains that Indigenous peoples’ experiences with the natural world simply “proved so intense and so encompassing that Indians did not move away from them” (1999:229). This was even the case whenforce was applied to the innocent and helpless.

So: Indigenous people are not afraid of nature. I am not saying we’ve repressed a fear of nature or that we’ve sublimated it. I am saying Indigenous people are not afraid of the natural world. This is simply the truth.

The point of telling you this is: It means there is no reason for you to be afraid of the natural world either. Do you see?  Your own roots, centuries and sometimes millennia in the past, were and — somewhere — still are Indigenous. Acculturation hurt you, too.

Ceremony is not about fear or appeasement. It’s something different, that’s powerful, beautiful, and natural.


*There are and have been species of bears that harm human beings. This doesn’t mean we need to be afraid of bears. It means we need to respect them. Fear and respect are very different things. (It should also be pointed out that there are human beings who harm bears. Respect runs two ways.)

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