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.
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...
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