Respect Page 1 of 17

Wanting to Be Indian:
When Spiritual Teaching
Turns into Cultural
by Myke Johnson


Many people are searching for a deeper spiritual engagement with the world, and feel a hunger unmet by the teachings and services of traditional religious institutions. Some have begun to take an interest in Native American spiritual practices, and one can easily find workshops and lectures offering Indian rituals and ceremonies to non-Indian people. However, many Native people, including highly respected religious elders, have condemned such "borrowing." They identify it as a form of cultural exploitation, gravely detrimental to the survival and well-being of Indigenous people.

In this paper, I will be discussing the ethical questions raised by White people's exploration of the religious ceremonies and beliefs of American Indians. What is at work here which makes sincere spiritual searching an act of cultural theft? Why are Native peoples endangered by this interest in their beliefs and rituals? How can we respect the cultural integrity of Indian people, and yet also honor deep felt spiritual desires?

The Stereotype Indian and Native American Spirituality | Resistance, Colonialism and Structural Racism | Three Traps That Non-Indians Fall Into | So What's The Problem | Examples of Cultural Appropriation | What Can White People Do? | Do Your Own Spiritual Work | Are There Any Times When Non-Indians May Take Part in Native Rituals? | Summary and Further Questions

My Own Background

First, I want to introduce myself in relation to this issue. I am a White woman related by matrilineal ancestry to the Innu people, called by the French "Montagnais," who are indigenous to the land which is now called Quebec and Labrador. I grew up in the White U.S., Christian culture, with fair skin and red hair, and only a reminder we were "part-Indian" to link me to any other culture. To be White is to fit into the norm in ways that give one certain advantages denied to