American Indian and Australian Aborigines are divided among themselves over Western New Agers, Pagans and other alternative spiritual groups adapting and marketing their traditions, according to an article in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (January).
For close to two decades, there has been a conflict between alternative spirituality-New Age groups and native spiritual leaders who accuse the former of exploiting and stealing their traditions for popular consumption and financial gain. Christina Welch writes that the current battle focuses on two key — and thus symbolic — indigenous practices: the American Indian sweat lodge and the didjeridu, an Aboriginal musical instrument.
The sweat lodge has become a staple of New Age-Pagan ritual, serving as a vehicle of spiritual self-discovery, while the didjeridu (used by Aborigines in initiation ceremonies) connects spiritual seekers to Mother Earth and an indigenous, pretechnological lifestyle. However, Welch writes that it is not only modern Westerners who have appropriated and often transformed these practices as they take them from native cultures.
Modern Aborigines in Australia, such as the international performer Mandawuy Yunupingu, now see the didgeridu as a symbol of Aboriginal identity and connection to the land, even as indigenous activists protest the Western use of the instrument. American Indians are now using the sweat lodge as a therapeutic tool to combat alcoholism and drug abuse. But Native American activists criticize such Indian authors as Wa’Na’Nee’Che for adapting the sweat lodge to Western spiritual standards (by, for example, stressing it is only a pleasant experience).
The fact that New Agers and Pagans put these once-secret ceremonies on the Internet in often changed forms only intensifies the conflict. Yet Welch concludes that the Internet can also allow “indigenous peoples the freedom to bypass the constraints of Western publishing houses and represent themselves in their own terms.”
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Theology Dept., King’s College, University of London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS, UK)