Plastic Shamans and Lakota Reformation

For those interested in the lucrative and ludicrous commercialization of Native American spiritual traditions, I highly recommend Lisa Aldred’s article “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances,” which you can find here.  With a nod to David Harvey and Frederic Jameson, she notes:

In the so-called postmodern culture of late consumer capitalism, a significant number of white affluent suburban and urban middle-aged baby boomers complain of feeling uprooted from cultural traditions, community belonging, and spiritual meaning.  The New Age movement is one such response to these feelings.  New Agers romanticize an “authentic” and “traditional” Native American culture whose spirituality can save them from their own sense of malaise.  However, as products of the very consumer culture they seek to escape, these New Agers pursue spiritual meaning and cultural identification through acts of purchase.

Which cultural traditions could give rise to this peculiar form of nostalgia?  Surely not many such traditions have ever existed in mainstream US culture.  My guess is that this nostalgia is actually a yearning for a different way of life.

I am not aware of many cultural traditions rooted in capitalism that promote a sense of community belonging (or the idea that extended families and kinship networks are important).  It is no accident that our primary sense of community belonging now revolves around the nation-state: “Proud to be an American”!

Indeed, the necessities of capitalist production require the destruction of community and the formation of new identities revolving around the nuclear family and individual.  Nuclear families and individuals are mobile and can be plugged into the system wherever they are most needed, all in the pursuit of perceived self interest (i.e., making more money and accumulating more things).

Traditional Native Americans did, in fact, experience something radically different.  After the Lakota were finally subdued and confined to reservations, astute government agents recognized that the primary obstacles to “civilizing” and assimilating the Lakota into American society arose from their culture of sharing all resources and gift giving that prevented accumulation.  In 1881, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs bluntly stated that extended families and kinship networks needed to be broken, and an appreciation for ownership instilled in the Lakota:

Private property tends to break up tribal relations.  It has the effect of creating individuality, responsibility, and a desire to accumulate property.  It teaches the Indians habits of industry and frugality, and stimulates them to look forward to a better and more useful life.

All this leaves me wondering whether Americans afflicted by individuality and accumulation can find much comfort in a spiritual tradition that is deeply tied to a form of economy so different from our own.

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