A Response to Ron Knobbe
Copyright © 1995 by Halim Dunsky
Halim Dunsky responds to Ron Knobbe's article, "Native American Traditions:Honoring or Exploitation?"
I was disturbed by Ron Knobbe’s article bashing white males for culture stealing. It is true that Europeans (men and women) have committed unspeakable crimes upon native cultures. But culture cannot be stolen, because it cannot be owned. Culture is held by a people, and is transmitted by all the varieties of human contact, but originates in Spirit, and is given by Spirit, and is nobody’s property.
Knobbe is correct in his call for a more respectful attitude toward Native American culture. He also rightly suggests that we should not neglect the wisdom in our own cultures. In my view, we need to go further. Deeper respect is due to all peoples, and to clouds, trees, and rocks, a dirty sweatshirt, a porcupine, a star, a book, an empty space—all the things of Spirit—that is, all things.
A carelessly superficial spirituality dishonors everyone. But when a person is making a sincere approach to the other world, it doesn’t matter what the door. Men and women are seeking spiritual connectedness in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. Who of us will sit in judgement of where a person chooses (or is led) to look?
It is a racist fallacy to associate color in any simplistic way with culture. Peoples intermingle in this world, cultures interweave, exchange threads, and are enriched. Many highly respected teachers from indigenous cultures around the world (Malidoma Somé, Lessert Moore, Hyemeyohtsts Storm, Ailo Gaup, an endless list of names familiar and unfamiliar) are working to share the deeply rooted knowledge that has survived in their cultures. It would seem that these men understand the pressing need we all have to reconnect with Spirit in this threatened age. They are not telling us to stay in our own cultures.
It’s also important to remember that Spirit is associated with place as well as with ancestors. When peoples migrate, they connect with their new home in both its outer and inner aspects, and it is entirely appropriate that they find life in ritual forms that are native to the place they have come to. The Pacific Northwest, for example, is a place where salmon spawn, and is a home of the Salmon spirit. We who live here are in relation to both fish and spirit, whether this is our ancestral home or not.
Who will dare to judge whether Eagle’s medicine came to someone by gift or by theft? In any case, if there is a transgression, it is against Eagle, or it is equally against all people, not simply against some other group with whom Eagle may have had contact. If your gut insists on telling you that somebody is an asshole in feathers, I suggest the best response is to acknowledge that reaction, while cultivating both compassion and humility in the face of the deep error you perceive. Possibly this person is even attempting to teach from a false position. This is a perennial problem, but certainly occurs within cultures as much or more than it occurs across cultural lines.
What’s important about culture—ritual, signs and symbols, language, and other elements—isn’t where you learn it, or what human community used it last, or even how deeply you understand it, but whether it serves a connection with Spirit. I was deeply offended by Knobbe’s dismissal of "white males...banging their drums in white-male testosterone rituals." Maybe that’s what he sees in Minneapolis, but it’s not what I observe in Seattle. For my part, I have been moved by the sincerity, humility, courage, and respect shown by the white men whom I’ve met in men’s work circles. And if a man has to first drain excess testosterone in order to expose an inner landscape for sacred work, and he is able to use drumming and dancing to do it, then I say Holy! Holy! Holy!
My own ethnic background is Jewish. The Jews have been dispersed around the world for thousands of years, forced to interact and, in consequence, exchange cultural elements with peoples everywhere. I believe this has been a process of mutual enrichment that reflects the inter-relatedness of all of us. Although it is true of all cultures to some degree, I think it can be said that being Jewish in particular is a porous condition. I know that my Jewish identity is only part of who I am, and that I am composed of important elements from my personal and ancestral experience with many cultures and many peoples, including Native American, Indonesian, and Islamic, as well as Eastern and Western European, Asian, and Mediterranean. And who I am in this life also reflects the ethnic richness that swirls about in this vast, diverse, and chaotic American experience that I was born into.
In this era of breakdown we are in desperate need of a spirit of healing, generosity, and inclusiveness, not division and paranoia. Who, then, will I call "my people"—is it only the ethnic group that comprises my dominant ancestry? The citizens of my country? Are only humans included? None of these limitations works for me.
Recently I met a wonderful, respectful, elderly white man, a retired minister and ecumenicist who grew up among the Lakota. He taught me some things I didn’t know about the Lakota phrase metákuya oyášin, usually translated "all my relations." From him I learned to pronounce the two words with the accent on the second syllable, and to pronounce the s as sh. He also offered a more literal translation, "to me, each of every a relative." For me this phrase holds, among other mysteries, the secret of why it is impossible for anything of Spirit to be the exclusive property of any person or group. Metákuya oyášin. These are the most powerful magic words I know.
Halim Dunsky lives and writes in the Seattle area. Email email@example.com.
Native American Traditions: Honoring or Exploitation?, by Ron Knobbe
Becoming Native to Your Place, by Jed Diamond
An Interview with Wallace Black Elk, by Bert H. Hoff
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:
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