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What Is Indigeneity?

By Gus DiZerega


Can indigenous peoples not practice indigenous religions? What if a non-indigenous person claims to practice their religion? Can people normally not considered indigenous have an indigenous religion? What if they claim to be reconstructing a tradition that died out? What does “indigenous” actually mean, and how does it relate to both people and religion? While I will offer some general suggestions of my own, the most important part of this essay explains why these apparently simple questions are so complicated.

Even in its initial sense of referring to a people, “indigenous” has been used in many different contexts with very different shades of meaning. The word contains all the complexities of cultures and peoples that have chosen a particular place to call home, among them those that either conquered or were conquered by others, as well as the conquerors, either colonialists or other peoples closer to home who themselves may have subsequently been conquered. These many dimensions do not all map onto the same pattern and are employed by people claiming indigeneity for different reasons. Indigenous spirituality partakes in this complexity.

eNative American Church logo – Graphic: Wikipedia

eNative American Church logo – Graphic: Wikipedia

A simple but telling example: many Native Americans seeking to preserve their language and other traditions are Christians. Indigenous people by most criteria, they do not practice an indigenous religion. On the other hand, the Native American Church (NAC) uses indigenous practices in powerful ways, while incorporating Christian elements and spreading into regions where it had been entirely foreign. Yet NAC is often included among indigenous traditions, and its core practices of great antiquity, as among the Huichol people. Some Euro-Americans also practice with the NAC. Is this indigenous religion?

Colonialized Peoples

“Indigenous religion” is attracting a lot of attention, but where to draw its boundaries is not clear. If we start with “indigenous people,” several characteristics repeatedly appear, but sometimes not all are combined:

  • Indigenous people are born within a common culture with a strong identifying sense of kinship.
  • Indigenous people voluntarily maintain a sense of their cultural distinctiveness and seek to preserve it.
  • Indigenous people have experienced subjugation.
  • Indigenous people are a minority in their country.
  • Indigenous people occupy ancestral lands.
  • Indigenous people share a common ancestry with the place’s original inhabitants.
  • Indigenous people share a common language not spoken much outside their community.
  • Indigenous people self-identify as indigenous.

The term has changed its meaning during the twentieth century. Under European colonialism, non-European peoples in colonized areas were commonly referred to as indigenous. In post-colonial times the term was generally used to refer to non-European peoples in areas dominated by people of European descent. Later it has expanded to include other marginalized cultural groups.

One thread uniting most indigenous peoples by these definitions is their historical and ancient connection with specific places. But the Roma are arguably an indigenous people by most other criteria, one without such a connection to the land.

Adding to the complexity, many commonly referred to as indigenous resist identification from the outside, arguing that their communities determine who is or is not a member.

Indigenous Religion

The most obvious meaning of indigenous religion is applied to tribal peoples practicing different religions centered on specific places, at least some of which were held sacred, often places where a particular people arrived in this world. Traditional Native American religions are a prime example. Considered tribal at the time of European contact, these people were often either horticultural or foragers, practicing religions in harmony with that way of life. Since before European contact none were influenced by Old World religions, it is easy to call their religions “indigenous.”

By extension the term indigenous has been extended to any tribal peoples whose practices are distinct from Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions. But now the term begins to show its ambiguities. Hindu traditions are most definitely religions of place, with sacred rivers like the Ganges and sacred mountains like Mt. Kailash. And yet the dominant cultures of India are hardly tribal. Further, unlike what we usually think of as indigenous religion, Hindus have a sacred literature, arguably the world’s oldest and most voluminous.

A door in Tibet with sacred symbols from the Bon religion. – Photo: Wikipedia

A door in Tibet with sacred symbols from the Bon religion. – Photo: Wikipedia

The concept of a vast Hindu religion itself results from European colonialism, where an extraordinary variety of practices and beliefs were amalgamated under that label. But today many Hindus so identify themselves. Very much the same thing happened earlier with western Paganism. Celts, Norse, Hellenes, and others saw themselves as engaged in different practices, worshiped different deities, and only became “Pagan” through the imposition of that name by practitioners of Abrahamic religions.

Take another complicating example: Bon is arguably the original religion of Tibetan culture. Buddhism arrived between the 5th and 8th centuries, becoming the state religion and eventually encompassing most Tibetans. However, a Naxi priest from a tribal region in Southwest China told me his religion, which looks like Bon, is different because Bon has incorporated so many Buddhist elements. The beliefs he described as his own sounded more in harmony with Neopagan themes than with anything Buddhist. I felt very much at home in a ritual he gave, as he did when attending a shamanic healing ceremony I gave. And that ceremony drew on African, Brazilian Indian, and French Kardecist roots.

Tibetans are the indigenous people of Tibet now that it is incorporated into China. Bon would be most easily seen as the indigenous religion of Tibet, were Tibet still independent. But if my Naxi informant is correct, Bon is already deeply transformed by Buddhism and most people consider Vajrayana Buddhism Tibet’s religion. At what point does an indigenous religion influenced by more powerful ones cease to be indigenous and become a variant of the dominant religion? This question obviously resonates with the issues surrounding the NAC in America.

Looking more closely at Native Americas, these peoples were far more diverse than simply hunter gatherers and horticultural peoples. Their practices also included agricultural peoples, city states and empires, among the Iroquois something close to a nation state, and in the Mayas, a religion with a sacred literature.

Are the African Diasporic religions indigenous? Their sense of place is usually more abstract because their Orixas (sacred spirits) are usually more universal, being honored in Cuba, Brazil, West Africa, and elsewhere. They can flourish far from any countryside, in large cities. They have often changed markedly from their African roots since being slaves. Finally, some Brazilian practitioners are returning to Africa to re-establish connections with lost practices and teachings, a reconstructionist approach.

These considerations highlight another dimension of indigeneity. Indigenous cultures were usually conquered by other peoples, usually Christians and Muslims, particularly after modern science and technology gave Christian nations unrivaled military superiority. Indigenous peoples almost invariably suffered from colonial oppression, including the suppression of many of their religions.

However, not all indigenous traditions were colonized. Japanese Shinto was not, nor were ancient Chinese traditions that, while suppressed by Mao Tse-tung, have been reviving. Both are indigenous (if our word still has any meaning!) with respect to religious practice. But in both China and Japan, people are not indigenous by most criteria: they are the dominant culture, and in Shinto’s case, a variant was long the state religion.

Then there is the modern Neopagan renaissance which includes Wiccans and other traditions which see themselves reconstructing the pre-Christian religions of Western, Central, and Northern Europe. In these cases there is no continuity of tradition. Their practitioners usually see themselves having a great deal in common with more clearly indigenous traditions. Many indigenous practitioners, in turn, recognize this similarity, sometimes describing Neopagans as non-indigenous people practicing an indigenous religion.

Seeking Order

My purpose here is not to solve these questions. I raise them, suggesting there are no final answers. Humanity’s spiritual practices are a beautiful tapestry of individual experience, cultural variety, the character of the places where those cultures arose, and both peaceful and imposed historical interpenetration. Onto this extraordinary complexity people have tried to create political, theological, and historical understanding, including classifications and boundaries for something that does not easily fall into neatly defined categories.

I think indigenous religions can best be seen as a kind of rope comprised of many threads. At any point along the rope a thread may be missing or weak, but the rope will still be a rope.

One important thread is that each religion is relatively powerless within the relevant context that has led to its being considered indigenous. In almost all these cases, weaker groups seek to preserve their separateness from a dominant culture’s religions.

Another is that indigenous practitioners of one tradition feel more or less at home when visiting others, compared to their reaction when observing Abrahamic traditions.

A third thread is a focus on practice, particularly practice focused on immanent sacrality rather than dogma or belief. Indigenous spirituality focuses on the sacred in this world, the sacred as it manifests in place. Those most localized to specific places shape their understanding with regard to those places. Those less localized have a more abstract conception, but an abstraction which still finds recognition in specific local places.

"Sunset Glow on Mt Tamalpais by William Keith, 1896" – Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

"Sunset Glow on Mt Tamalpais by William Keith, 1896" – Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike traditional Native Americans, American Neopagans do not always tightly link practices with specific places of sacredness and power. But at the level of a local practicing community, we often do have places set aside for special concern and ritual. Here in Sonoma County in California there is a particular old-growth redwood grove that fits this description. At a more inclusive but still local level, many see the Bay Area’s Mt. Tamalpais as a place of a special power and presence. There are others.

So we find both the connecting threads and why the details are so immensely varied. Places vary, cultures vary, historical experience varies, and so traditions that focus on sacred immanence of place will vary. It would be strange were it otherwise.

If examined individually, indigenous religions are tiny, inconsequential mites compared to the many millions and even billions involved in the Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions (leaving Hinduism out of “indigenous” for the moment). Even comparatively small Judaism dwarfs them.

And yet, when combined, these unifying themes make indigenous religion not only humankind’s oldest spiritual tradition. In the aggregate, it is also one of the largest, accepting its particularistic cultural and regional manifestations and so not seeking to make converts or spread their practice, except as their devotees themselves move to new places.