What is the difference between a New Ager and a Pan-Indian? This issue may become increasingly important for the future of Indian affairs in the U.S., and perhaps other places.
A recent academic theory penned by Dennis Kelley titled Tradition, Performance, and Religion in Native America: Ancestral Ways, Modern Selves, suggests that Pan-Indian beliefs are a form of personal spiritual engagement in ceremony, identity, and belief. Pan-Indian people are often persons living in urban areas, away from their ancestral tribal group(s), often for generations, and who do not have a direct tie or membership in an Indian nation. Sometimes, Pan-Indians do not remember their tribal background, but someone in their family has told them they are descendants of an Indian person, although sometimes they cannot remember the tribal nation. The academic argument also suggests that Pan-Indian persons engaged in a variety of ceremonies such as smoking pipes, dancing, sweats, and other forms of praying and Indian actions. Many Pan-Indians are looking to recover their identity and their Indian roots. By observation, the academic argument also says that Pan-Indians engage in ceremonies almost always borrowed from the Plains Indians. Or perhaps more specifically, from the Lakota tradition.
Pan-Indian communities are very active cultural centers. Many people who participate in multi-cultural Indian communities in off-reservation settings often have strong traditions, solid identities, and strong ties to a tribal community. To a large extent, Pan-Indian communities, events, and service centers are critically important for the support and well-being of Indian tribal members and their descendants. Getting together with other Indian nations and participating in social gathering and ceremonies is a time-honored tradition among Indian peoples.
Describing Pan-Indian identity as a personal spiritual ethic and taking on Lakota ceremonies as the marker of a spiritual way of existence seems troublesome, however. First of all, how do such actions differ from Indian wannabes or New Agers? New Agers believe they can shop around for any variety of the world’s religious elements or belief systems. Their point of view is often described as a super marker pattern, they find whatever they want or need from the religions of the world, and craft them into a personal spiritual belief system and way of life.
I am not against individuals finding multiple paths to the sacred, many Indian nations allow such beliefs and accompanying form of ceremonial participation. The mixing of beliefs is a pattern that is less allowed. In many Indian nations, one can practice a ceremony within the context of the tradition of a specific tribal community, but one must have an invitation and must keep the integrity of the ceremony.
If Pan-Indians take up tribal ceremonies as a personal spiritual path without permission or knowledge from the tribal community, how are they different from New Agers? How does anyone receive power using such a personal and supermarket practice of spirituality?
Pan-Indians who are not tribal members or engaged in an ancestral Indian community should try to recover the community and identity of the nations from which they are descendant. This path may be difficult for some persons, but they should make the effort to return to their historical communities, if they are currently not socially engaged with their tribal nation. Spirituality in Indian communities has both personal and collective aspects.
Furthermore, spirituality is not only a personal commitment, but also a commitment toward personal and community well-being. If not already doing so, Pan-Indians should commit to participate in and support their Indian nations, communities, and spiritual traditions. The key issues for indigenous nations remains self-government, land, community and culture. By taking on personal spiritual paths, those Pan-Indians who do so are not contributing to the collective welfare of their ancestral nations, communities, and kinship groups. Recovering an Indian identity goes beyond personal spirituality, but must engage the collective spirituality of their historical Indian nations and traditions. Returning to an Indian spiritual commitment means returning to and supporting the collective well-being of one’s tribal nation.