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Native American Traditions:

Honoring or Exploitation?

Copyright © 1994 by Ron Knobbe

This story appeared in the April, 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

M.E.N. Magazine published a special issue, "Where is Men's Work Going?" in which several authors raised questions about "Men's Work." Ron Knobbe, Executive Director of the Saint Croix Tribe group Home/Mental Health Clinic for the St. Croix Tribe in Wisconsin, contributed a thoughtful piece on the use of Native American traditions.


In the Men's movement in the 90's there exists many assumptions which are taken as the liberty and license to assume the rubrics, signs & symbols, images of other cultures. While we must admit that the men's movement appears to be a white dominant cultural in it's very essence and also in fact, (Look around yourself at your next Men's meeting in a support group and ask how many ethnic minorities are present), we must also examine the issue of white low cultural self esteem, or, as I would call it "white male cultural identity crisis." What does it mean to be a white male in our culture? What are the signs, symbols and images portrayed by the white male which are, in their essence, culturally based? Could it be that we, as white males have no signs, symbols, rubrics which stem from our essence of being a white male? Could it possibly be that because of this white male culture internal insecurity, and white culture low self esteem, that we, as the dominant culture, have felt an insatiable need to turn to another cultures signs & symbols, images to bolster our own need to both assume white male culture signs, symbols and images, and thus calling them our own, in order to feel better about ourselves?

I believe we are doing this. I also believe it is time for a spokesperson to raise the "red flag" so to speak and announce: "You cannot receive that which is not rightfully yours." I would also like to make a bold assertion: "One cannot give that which one does not have."

I have worked as a white male exclusively within Native American Culture for the past 21 years. I work with Indian families, elders, political leaders and their precious children. I am finding most recently, (in the past 4-5 years) a growing new category anger towards the "white dominant culture" which goes something like this: "You cannot have legitimately that which is not originally yours." Indian people are looking at the white men's movement and are using terms like "Indian Wannabee's." Some specific examples: White culture males setting up "sweat lodges" and utilizing "sage, sweet grass" for purification rituals before meetings of white male support groups, "white males creating dream catchers, collecting eagle feathers, and banging their drums in white male testosterone rituals."

I will be blunt: We as white men need to be express a greater deal of sensitivity towards our Native American friends, by demonstrating more respect than we have towards them. In the mind of the Native American, white culture, the male dominant culture, has already for centuries raped their land, their families, stolen their culture by stealing their property, forced their families on forced marches into exiles onto land which is located in the middle of desolate areas of the country.

Now, could it be that perhaps because of our own spiritual and emotional white cultural insecurity that we, as the white male, need to turn to the plagiarism of the spiritual signs and symbols of the Native American Culture? Could it be that we have demonstrated a great deal of disrespect and thus have shown a tremendous degree of insensitivity towards another culture. Could it possibly be that in doing so we have demonstrated again values at work which are demonstrative of greed, control, power of our dominant culture? Remember: "We cannot have that which is not rightfully ours." Nor can we give what we do not have! We cannot continue this trend of freely and irresponsibly using the signs and symbols of our Native American friends without demonstrating more respect than we have.

Let's get real! This is happening! It is an issue!

Now that I have identified the problem, in my opinion, what is the solution? A remedy? What should our posture and stance be towards the signs, symbols and rituals & rubrics of another culture; in this case on the part of our white male dominant culture towards the Native American culture?

Let me share with you what some Native American men have shared with me. One stated, after being asked how he would feel were he to learn that a white male support group was making use of eagle feathers, burning sage & sweet grass, making use of sweat lodge for white men, stated to me: "I would feel violated and would feel very angry." "I would also feel pity and sorrow for the white man has not turned to the richness of his own cultural symbols, but rather has plagiarized the spiritual symbols of another culture."

I would like to suggest that we as white male culture are culturally deprived and as a result we find ourselves looking towards another culture to enrich that which we do not have.

Our posture must change. We need, as a medicine man told me recently, "to come follow me under my wings and listen to the teachings of my heart." We, as a white male dominant culture need to show greater respect by getting to know on a personal level a Native American person. We need to place ourselves in a submissive way under their wings, listen and learn from them with head bowed about the wisdom they can share with us. We need to place ourselves in a position of "vulnerable invitation." By this I mean, we need to humbly ask to be invited in, to be welcomed, to be in the posture of "invitation" as opposed to "domination" in our style.

I believe we are doing violence by using Native American rubrics as the while male dominant culture.

We are again the aggressor as opposed to the student learner. We need to adopt the spirituality of humbly asking, of listening and learning.

Example: It is a sign of disrespect to look a Native American person directly in the eye. It is also a sign of disrespect for a Native American person to look another native American elder in the eye. In fact, in the Indian culture, not maintaining eye contact is a sign of respect towards the elder. It, like bowing, in the Japanese culture, is a sign of showing respect. It is also a disrespectful thing to firmly grip and shake the hand of a Native American person. One must not GRAB and shake the hand. One PLACE our hand in theirs and touch and listen to the union of friendship.

Perhaps it is time that men's movements across the country seriously examine if we are "grabbing" or "placing." Perhaps it is time for us to reexamine and discuss our own insecurity of being white male, which is at the core of the real issue. Perhaps we need to re-examine our non-permitted use of native American rituals, rubrics and examine the harm we are doing and thus the lack of dignity and respect we are showing.

Perhaps, as in the words of the medicine man we "need to place ourselves under the wings of the eagle."

The medicine man also shared with me: "It is wrong for the white man to use our rich native American spiritual symbols and strong medicine because the Creator gave to each man and each culture their own symbols and rich teachings to make them whole." "To seek, find, and use what is not rightfully yours is a spiritual form of violence." He also stated: "Come and learn from me, my medicine, practiced by me will make you strong." "I will place the prayer pole in the ground for others to come and be humbled in it's sight." "Take pleasure in the eagle that soars above, and never drop it's feather." Be blessed.

Ron Knobbe is currently the Executive Director of the Saint Croix Tribe group Home/Mental Health Clinic for the St. Croix Tribe in Wisconsin. He has 21 years of direct experience in the field as a teacher, counselor, spiritual care provider working with Native American Tribes across the country. Ron lives in Saint Paul, MN and is on the executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Men's Center, Minneapolis, MN. He can be reached at 841 Sherwood Avenue East, Saint Paul, MN 55405

Related stories:

 A Response to Ron Knobbe, by Halim Dunsky

 An Interview with Wallace Black Elk, by Bert H. Hoff

 Becoming Native to Your Place, by Jed Diamond

 Reviews of a sampling of books by Native Americans, and authors respected by Native Americans, in order to promote respect for, and a deeper understanding of, Native American traditions, by Bert H. Hoff

 And on The Microsoft Network:

Be sure to check out our Native American Traditions Bulletin Board on the Men's Forum. What do you think of men's use of these traditions? Come and share your thoughts!

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