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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2419

Philip Jenkins is an analyst of religious and sociopolitical subjects whose reputation for provocative and controversial scholarship was established by works such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (2003). His latest effort, Dream Catchers, is less controversial but does have the merit of originality. Many volumes have been written about American Indian spirituality, mythology, and folklore but next to nothing about the evolution of mainstream American responses to Indian spirituality. Dream Catchers thus represents the first attempt not only to chronicle changing mainstream attitudes but also to explain how the astonishing reversal of views of Indian spirituality—from fearful suspicion and revulsion to reverence and admiration—has transpired over the course of several centuries.

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Jenkins explores a variety of influential factors in this evolution of views: the growth of religious diversity and pluralism, legal recognition of Indian claims, the spread of cultural relativism, shifting definitions of acceptable “religious” behavior, the impact of women's spirituality, and the spread of reverence for the “primitive,” as evidenced not only in the arts but also in the New Age sensibility of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Dream Catchers makes it clear that mainstream American representations of Indian cultures have never been particularly realistic. For European Christians upon their arrival in the New World, two views of Indians were on offer. One held that while Indians were mired in a pagan darkness, their religious beliefs were not without some faint glimmerings of divine truth that, given the proper guidance, might be used to guide them toward completion in the Christian faith. This was the view assumed most often by Catholic missionary orders. Another doctrine held that “the newfound pagans [were] simply and literally worshipping the devil.” This was the predominant view among the Protestant settlers of the New England colonies, and it jibed nicely with their Old Testament-inspired concern with idolatry, sacrificial rites, and worship of false gods.

The assumption that Indian ceremonies were forms of devil worship was common in the works of such Puritan writers as Cotton Mather, who held that the savage American continent was the sole domain of the devil and that Indian “priests” were witches and sorcerers directly in service to the devil. Indian religious practices were often described in much the same terms as European denunciations of Old World witchcraft. Jenkins notes that the “narratives of early Christian preachers …regularly depict struggles with Indian spiritual leaders as demoniac powers …confronted and overthrown.” Also common in Protestant America were tales of human sacrifice among the Indians. Certainly, as Jenkins is quick to point out, human sacrifice was practiced among some tribes and in certain areas, but by the time of European settlement such practices had begun to die out. Yet exaggerated claims of the frequency of such sacrifices continued well into the nineteenth century and influenced sensationalist media accounts of Indian violence until early in the twentieth century.

It is hardly surprising, then, that government policy supported the Protestant missionaries in their attempts to suppress Indian religion and promoted an uncompromising goal of assimilation. By the middle of the nineteenth century the groundwork was being laid for another, more tolerant and pluralistic approach. Early anthropologists, for example, viewed Indian culture and spirituality more benignly than had their Protestant predecessors. Indian religion was not, in their view, demoniac but merely an exemplar of an earlier stage of cultural and social development. Such a perspective, however condescending it may seem today, had the advantage of allowing certain aspects of Indian culture—specifically its myths and folktales—to be valued for the knowledge of the primitive mind that they were supposed to offer. Anthropological studies of Indian myth and folklore provided fodder for many popular and sentimental collections of tales that captured a wide reading public in late nineteenth century America and contributed to a softening of mainstream attitudes toward Indian spirituality.

Equally influential in the second half of the nineteenth century were the works of historian Francis Parkman, whose widely read study The Jesuits of North America in the Seventeenth Century(1867) included an account of Indian beliefs and practices far more comprehensive than anything previously published. Moreover, Parkman was a firsthand witness to many of the practices, such as the Vision Quest, he describes. Reading Parkman's work, mainstream Americans began to understand that Indian religion was, in fact, an authentic “religious system, however alien, with distinctive values and beliefs.”

Additionally, ethnological research into Indian culture became a growth industry after 1867. The collection of the Smithsonian Institution, much of it focused on Indian ritual and myth, grew from just 550 items in 1860 to more than 13,000 by 1873. Many private museums dedicated funds to ethnological research, and the Bureau of American Ethnology became a source of federal funding for such studies.

Perhaps the most important result of all such activity, solidifying the perception that Indian beliefs and practices might be regarded as genuinely religious, was the publication in the first decades of the twentieth century of a number of collections of Indian songs, mythological poetry, and rites in English translation. Jenkins notes that “the existence of significant Scriptures was commonly taken as one of the characteristics of a major religion, evidence of sophisticated thought.” Thus the translation of, for example, the Zuni Creation Myth allowed the drawing of parallels between its sustained narrative sophistication and Homeric epic. The notion that Indian spirituality was merely a primitive expression of a discarded stage in human evolution began to lose ground, to be replaced—at least in some quarters—with the view that Indian beliefs “were not only clearly religious, but that they contained great truths.”

Prior to World War I, a number of factors contributed to the growing acceptance of Indian spirituality. A booming tourist trade drew tens of thousands of mainstream Americans to the Southwest to view Indian life firsthand. A powerful trend toward primitivism in the arts led to a popular fascination with Indian arts and crafts such as sandpainting.

Also, a number of well-known avant-garde writers and artists gravitated to the Southwest, making Indian culture—and especially its spirituality—the focus of their work. The most influential of these was the bohemian colony at Taos, New Mexico, loosely organized around the leadership of Mabel Dodge. Artists such as John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ansel Adams; writers such as Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, and D. H. Lawrence—all of these drew upon Indian art and spirituality as sources of inspiration for their work and propagated the notion that, far from being an evolutionary backwater, Native American culture “might actually be superior to its western counterpart.”

Claims of this nature grew out of a broader alienation among the intelligentsia from the traditions of Western society and, more particularly, from the evils of industrialism and mass civilization. As the ideas of these writers and artists gained mainstream acceptance, serious doubts began to arise about the desirability of assimilating American Indians into that mainstream. A new activism, promoting the autonomy of Indian cultures and their spirituality, gained ground against the assimilationist policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). However, in the wake of World War I, a number of countervailing trends in American politics tended to support the renewal of assimilationist doctrines.

Jenkins argues that new concepts of racial and national identity began to take shape between 1914 and 1925, stimulated in part by new waves of mass immigration, which begat in turn demands for cultural homogenization. Alongside these developments there emerged a more repressive public concern with moral issues. Prohibition was enacted in 1919, and in its wake followed activist measures against various kinds of substance abuse and sexual immorality. These trends directly affected Indian cultures, especially in the shape of attacks upon tribal dancing, said to promote sexual licentiousness, and the peyote cult.

Because tribal dancing and the ingestion of peyote were both elements of tribal religious life, the attacks upon these practices were, in Jenkins's view, simply part and parcel of the continuing effort to stamp out the “pagan” aspects of indigenous Indian culture and forcibly to assimilate the tribes to a Protestant, mainstream Americanism. Yet however repressive such measures may seem in retrospect, they were driven, in part, by underlying philosophical concerns of genuine import. The Indian Rights Association (IRA) argued that existing tribal structures prevented Native Americans from becoming fully active American citizens. Attempts to preserve the ancient tribal customs and religious life by Indian leaders and their mainstream advocates meant denying Indians “any chance of individual enterprise, of economic modernization, of democratic participation.”

Eventually, the assimilationist debate of the 1920's was resolved in favor of autonomy for American Indians. As Jenkins tells the story, mainstream America had, by the early 1930's, become increasingly inclined toward religious and moral relativism, and the majority were convinced that Indian religions were not only worth preserving but able to offer an avenue of escape from the pressures of the modern world: “As the United States became more technologically and socially advanced …the more Americans sought out the traditional and nonscientific spirituality of Native peoples, which offered a refuge from modernity.” By 1934 sweeping legislation was passed, including the Indian Reorganization Act, which reversed federal policy and ensured the continuance of tribal autonomy. Indian education would now stress Indian culture and language, and the tribes themselves were given the power to regulate Indian religious practices without federal interference.

Much of the latter half of Dream Catchers focuses on the indebtedness of the so-called New Age movement to Indian spirituality. Contrary to what one might assume, the New Age movement is not really a product of the 1970's. As Jenkins understands it, New Age spirituality is essentially a synthesis of selected elements of Indian religion and a variety of Eastern and occult doctrines. More recently, this synthesis has in some cases been supplemented by “chemical experimentation, psychological self-exploration, environmentalism, and even religious feminism.”

The original synthesis was already well in place by the late 1950's, and Jenkins credits much of its inspiration to Frank Waters, a writer who emerged from the Mabel Dodge circle in Taos. Waters's best-known work, Masked Gods (1950), explores a number of ideas already in circulation among the Taos coterie: American Indians shared a cultural tradition with the Mayas and Aztecs; this cultural tradition, more ancient than Christianity, emerged originally from lost continents such as Atlantis; this same tradition had core elements in common with Eastern religions such as Buddhism; and practitioners of Indian religion possessed advanced psychic powers that might be understood in the light of modern science and which anticipated the insights of modern psychotherapy. It was Waters, especially, who focused attention on Indian shamanism and the shaman's reputed capacity ritually to uncover the concealed contents of the subconscious mind.

Another influential work of the period was British writer Huxley's Doors of Perception (1954), which explored the spiritually beneficial effects of mind-altering drugs, especially peyote. These writers and others inspired poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, both connected to the San Francisco Beat generation of the late 1950's. By the late 1960's, the hippie countercultural movement had “discovered” Indian spirituality, texts by Waters and Huxley were given serious academic attention, and experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs entered the youth culture. “Tripping” on LSD or peyote became the secular equivalent of the Native Vision Quest.

Thus was the ground prepared for the New Age movement, which emerged as a mainstream phenomenon in the late 1970's. For the first time, millions of Americans began to seek an alternative to traditional religion (or to a spiritually vacant secularism) and found it in a New Age spirituality steeped in Indian lore and tradition. As Jenkins notes, the books that began to flood the market in the 1980's and 1990's were not just academic studies or “romanticized fictions”; instead, they “were intended to inspire involvement and participation, to allow ordinary consumers, however implausibly, to share the Native religious experience.” Jenkins documents in great detail the vast commercialization of Indian spirituality that continues to the present.

Though Jenkins is adept at revealing much of the superficiality that passes for “religious” experience in the New Age movement, he is also not without sympathy for what motivates its practitioners. What the consumers of prayer wheels, the drummers in sweat lodges, the seekers of shamanic healing find attractive, he writes, “is the appeal to authority and antiquity.” American Indian spiritualism packaged as New Age wisdom

offers a connection with the primitive that also implies a grounding in fundamental human realities. In this quest for the authentic, consumers seek out and accept the authority of spiritual leaders and teachers, who are accorded great respect because of their supposed credentials within a particular tribal tradition.

However, such credentials are often questionable. Beginning in the 1980's, American Indian activists began to attack many of the leading entrepreneurs of the “neo-Indian” movement, questioning not only their credentials (false claims of Indian heritage) but also their exploitation of Indian rites for commercial purposes. Even more radically, New Age appropriation of Indian traditions was seen as a form of cultural theft or genocide.

Jenkins's response to such criticisms is surprising. While he admits that many of the arguments made by American Indians against New Age exploitation are valid, he nevertheless asserts that “neo-Native spirituality …may well have a solid claim to be a legitimate religious movement.” At the nub of the issue lies the question of authenticity. Jenkins notes that authenticity in religion is frequently thought to arise from “an ancient, pristine core of reality, which remains despite all the inevitable change and development.”

It is, however, often difficult to identify such an unchanging core. Some American Indians regard the peyote cult as an authentic expression of their religious tradition, and yet the cult is of a relatively recent historical origin. While it can be agreed, Jenkins writes, “that much of the New Age synthesis that claims to be Indian has very poor credentials” and fails to reflect accurately “the spiritual life of any authentic Native community, past or present,” an authentic religion is nevertheless “one that people are prepared to treat as such, regardless of the historical …grounds on which their views are based.”

While Jenkins's discussion of the authenticity of New Age or neo-Native religion is not altogether satisfying, Dream Catchers is an admirable piece of scholarship. It is clearly written and well organized and undoubtedly fills a gap in the understanding of evolving attitudes of mainstream Americans toward Indian culture and religion.

Review Sources

Booklist 101, no. 1 (September 1, 2004): 24.

Library Journal 129, no. 14 (September 1, 2004): 156.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 28 (July 12, 2004): 60.

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