Indigenous religion

With the help of some good friends, I’m thinking about how I relate to Ásatrú and Forn Sed. One of the questions that nags at me is the idea of heathenism as an indigenous religion. My ritual practice is primarily Greco-Roman, and has been for years, but it seems to me that going furthest back in most of the indigenous religions of Europe, there is generally a similar structure — gods who are deceased ancestors, gods who are spirits of place, and gods who personify natural forces. I see this in the Greeks, Romans, the Celts, and the Norse.

Viewing indigenous religions in this way, I always come back to the same quibble. How can it be proper for Americans to honor European spirits of place? To personalize the issue, I can understand that in praying to my ancestors it is proper to use Norse forms because they were Scandinavian. But wouldn’t it be proper to pray to Indian land spirits? And maybe even Indian forces of nature?

I’ve never found anyone who can answer this question, perhaps because everyone I know who has ever given it a moment’s thought identifies with one or another single tradition. I don’t find anyone really thinking about what it means to be an American with European ancestry, except perhaps Stephen McNallen, who has declared a war by the Norse gods against the Mexican gods for supremacy in southern California. Not an example I would want to follow.

Against this background, I recently came across an interview of some Ásatrúar in Iceland. In this interview, I find a striking statement:

“I always said, with whom shall we communicate?..to communicate with Ásatrú people abroad, that?s OK, but . . . it?s more interesting that we should communicate with people in native religions….like native people in Australia, Indians in America, people like that. About Ásatrú, some people say it is racism, and it is very hard to hear that, because for me…I think that no person is better than another…. There are Ásatrú people all over the world, and I respect them highly for their interest…but they have not so much in common with us. We should help them with their studies, but we should be more interested in native religions, because, for instance, Ásatrú people in the southern part of the globe, they are always going further from their own origin, from their own culture. They are stepping away from their culture, their history, their tradition. . . . What we are trying to do is build on our ancient tradition, to know our history, to try to live and understand our background…Ásatrú people in Australia are maybe not doing that, but what they?re doing is good, they are interested and that?s OK . . . but if they would think about the native religion [in Australia], they would go and try to build . . . on the ancient values [of Australian native religion]. Therefore, we [Ásatrú in Iceland] have more in common with native peoples and religions than with [foreign forms of] Ásatrú.” (Ásatrú in Iceland: ?Our Custom?, Sacred Heritage)

Here, it seems, is one answer to my question, but it raises (for me anyway) an equally perplexing problem. On the one hand, at least one Ásatrúar in Iceland sees it as the indigenous religion of that country and not really exportable with the same relevance. No nuance of folk and land, but in Iceland there is no divergence between the two, so fair enough.

But, there is something extremely disconcerting (and even insensitive!) about urging the descendants of immigrants to explore the indigenous religions of their adopted countries. My family happens to be culturally connected with the Lakota (my father was a medicine man), so I know: this is a highly political issue for the Indians in America. They feel that having Anglos expropriate native tribal religions is just another form of conquest. Not only did the Anglos take their land, but now the Anglos want their religion as well.

Yet, I wonder — perhaps the Indians are missing a dimension to this dialog. Granted that wannabes are a pretty sad lot, and that there really is no way to become a member of a tribe by converting to its belief system — isn’t there something to be said for honoring the native land spirits?

For myself, I could weasel an answer. With my quantum of Indian blood, with a medicine man father, with cousins on the reservation, I could say, “I’m Indian enough that the condemnation of Anglos doesn’t apply to me. But, that would be a dishonest answer. In fact, I am Anglo in every meaningful way. And, the only answer to this question of ancestor gods and land gods will be the answer that works for other Anglos in America.

I have no answer. This entry merely captures in a rough way a question that is bothering me. I will continue to think about it, and perhaps this entry will ultimately lead me to someone who has an answer.

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