Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: Amerindian Religion

Must be nice…

I’ve got to say, as someone who practices, and advocates for the rights of, an ethno-tribal religion, I am very jealous of the status of Amerindians when it comes to their group identity and religious practices. After all, they have the full weight of the United States federal government on their side. Take, for example, the case of Sioleski v. Capra et al.

This (I almost hesitate to use the word) “person” was convicted of throwing acid in his step-daughter’s face because he thought her mother had damaged his car, and to this day she fears that he will come after her if he makes parole. He recently sued because Sing-Sing prison wouldn’t let him have a “Cherokee mullet” (is that even a thing?).

But last week the court dismissed the case, and I’m not a lawyer, but it would seem to be because he hadn’t appealed the prison’s decision that he wasn’t Cherokee, and without exhausting all his options, he couldn’t sue:

“plaintiff has not appealed to CORC any grievance regarding defendant Capra’s failure to enroll plaintiff in the Native American religious community while incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility…. In fact, the CORC appeal list indicates that plaintiff has not appealed to CORC any grievances filed at Sing Sing.”

The facts of the case and his suit notwithstanding, what I find fascinating about this whole affair is the fact that the state of New York is apparently able to decide who can, and cannot, practice Amerindian religion, based on tribal membership. In the specific case of the Cherokee, they apparently go entirely based on genealogical records rather than blood tests, but membership in the tribe, and access to Cherokee religious rites, is still based on ancestry, and enforced by the federal government, at least in prison.

Which brings up an interesting question. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if someone of obvious non-European ancestry requested to be allowed to participate in Asatru rituals. Asatru is recognized as a real faith by the federal bureau of prisons, and thus they control who can, and cannot, practice it while in Federal custody. They’re apparently quite assiduous about making sure that Amerindian religions are only practiced by people of Amerindian descent.

Of course, being in prison isn’t a good thing by any stretch. But even felons have the government on their side when it comes to certain tribal religions. Must be nice to have the boundaries of one’s ethno-tribal religion protected by force of law, even within a Federal penitentiary.

(A tip o’ the horned helmet to Religion Clause)

New book!

Just got this wonderful book in the mail yesterday:

This oughta be good for a post or two.

About that Skraeling DNA in Iceland…

There’s a story kicking around since 2010 about some results of a DNA survey of Icelanders that purports to show an Amerindian came to Iceland around the year 1000 CE (presumably with some Norse explorers) and interbred. “AH-HA!” the Usual Suspects cry – proof positive that our ancestors didn’t care about “racial purity”.

Rather than just taking such people at their word, it’s worth reading the actual article, and the report upon which it is based. As can be imagined, it’s not quite the slam-dunk that folks who tout the article seem to think it is.

What’s most often cited is the National Geographic article reporting on the study. The language used is incredibly wishy-washy, and goes out of its way to hedge on any sort of definitive conclusions:

“The study authors themselves admit the case is far from closed.”

“Despite the evidence, for now it’s nearly impossible to prove a direct, thousand-year-old genetic link between Native Americans and Icelanders. For starters, no living Native American group carries the exact genetic variation found in the Icelandic families.”

“It’s possible, he added, that the DNA variation actually came from mainland Europe, which had infrequent contact with Iceland in the centuries preceding 1700.”

“Complicating matters, the historical record contains no evidence that Icelandic Vikings might have taken a Native American woman back home to their European island, scholars say. “It makes no sense to me,” said archaeologist and historian Hans Gulløv of the Greenland Research Centre in Copenhagen.”

Not exactly a rousing endorsement of the theory. Just a lot of assumptions and wishful thinking. But some people are willfully ignoring those caveats and running with a very dodgy conclusion because it suits their preconceptions and political narrative.

There’s also the question of the dating of the DNA admixture. According to the article, the DNA evidence points to an earliest date of around 1700 CE:

Through genealogical research, the study team concluded that the Icelanders who carry the Native American variation are all from four specific lineages, descended from four women born in the early 1700s.

The genealogical records for the four lineages are incomplete before about 1700, but history and genetics suggest the Native American DNA arrived on the European island centuries before then, study co-author Helgason said.

He pointed out that Iceland was very isolated from the outside world in the centuries leading up to 1700, so it’s unlikely that a Native American got to the island during that period.

As further evidence, he noted that—though the Icelanders share a distinct version of the variation—at least one lineage’s variation has mutated in a way that would likely have taken centuries to occur, the researchers say.

So the actual DNA evidence points to a date of 1700 CE. But because Iceland was “very isolated” at that time, the researches push back the date seven hundred years for no real reason. Iceland was pretty isolated in the year 1000, too; voyages between Iceland and North America were so extraordinary that entire sagas were written about them. Meticulous records were kept concerning who married whom, and who was descended from whom. But the researchers for some reason feel that a secret, unrecorded Viking-era voyage to Vinland that brought back a skraeling wife was less of a stretch than the idea that an Amerindian could have made their way to Iceland in the age of sailing ships. Why is the one more credible than the other? It’s not, of course.

As for the variation to the DNA that’s noted above, there’s absolutely nothing to say whether the mutation happened before or after the Amerindian blood (if that’s even what it is) entered the Icelandic gene pool. It’s precisely as likely that the variation occurred within a now-extinct Amerindian population (say, for example, the Beothuk, who went extinct in 1829) and was carried to Iceland by way of Denmark (which had a trade monopoly with the island) in the late 17th century.

If Pocahontas could be brought to London a hundred years earlier, there’s certainly nothing to say that a Beothuk woman couldn’t be brought to Copenhagen, and then maybe made her way to Iceland (trying to get home?) around the start of the 18th century.

So when someone gets all breathless and tells you that DNA proves that the Norse interbred with Amerindians in the year 1000, calm them down and explain:

  • The DNA evidence only goes back to 1700
  • The 1000 year date comes from a supposition that makes no more sense than a 1700 date
  • It’s entirely possible that the DNA sequence in question isn’t even Amerindian in origin
  • The study itself goes out of its way to downplay any concrete conclusions, despite what news reports say
Facts is facts, after all. And the conclusions a lot of people are drawing don’t seem to line up with the facts. Certainly they’re not the only interpretations, and not the only conclusions, that can be drawn. The original study itself even says so.

The Musconetcong Mantis-Man

I happened to stumble across something today which actually makes a lot of sense, given my previous thoughts and practices regarding what I regard as the “goddess of place” of the Musconetcong River, which flows right past my home, and to whom I have taken to making offerings in the Germanic fashion. On occasion, the goddess of the river has shown herself to me as a white heron.

Apparently, several fishermen in the Musconetcong have encountered what they describe as a “mantis-man”. The encounter was apparently featured on one of those cable cryptozoology shows, as wellHere’s the first, and more detailed account:

Although the water was clear, there had been heavy rains the past couple of days. We should not have been out there; the river was “smooth” but the current was exceptionally strong. I was leaning backwards and digging my heels into the the gravel but the river was still kicking me along pretty good. Sketchy navigating.

Please know, I am “privy to the paranormal” and always have been. Shadow people, ghosts, whatever. But what I encountered that day was not Spirit. It was a “biological”, living creature. But it disappeared into thin air almost as soon as I saw it.

… I just “Caught it”. Movement out of the corner of my eye to my left and there it was—
Humanoid. Tall. 6 foot at least –no reference points– but I sense 6’6″ – 7′. Moving away from me back up the bank. (I am chest-high in the river) The first thing I see was the ‘grasshopper’ thigh, but bending forward like a human. Then the whole form. He is looking at me over his shoulder, moving up the bank, astonished, amazed. What, that I am in the water in a strong current, that I can see him? But yes we lock eyes and this creature is astonished– I get the sense that he can’t believe I am in the water, that he can’t believe I have seen him, that I am not perturbed at all– something of all three, I still don’t know– just astonishment and he is actually trying to get away from me and the water!

Triangular Head. Huge, slanted black eyes. Just like a Praying Mantis. It’s whole body was gangly, nobby, ((Nobby!) but you could still sense it was powerful, and no– I would not say it was a “Big Bug”– it was definitely humanoid despite the mantis/insect qualities. …

No bank to speak of on the developed side, but the sloping bank on the rural side was high (ten feet?) A strip of trees about 10 – 20 yards thick separated the river from the fields beyond, but there was the occasional gap/path, each about 20 yards wide that allowed clear access to the river. …

When I saw The Mantis Man, it was in one of these gaps, moving back up the bank towards the fields, looking back at me over its left shoulder. About 15 – 20 yards away.

So understand that it was several feet above me (I looked up at it) and framed clearly against that blank/white sky. Like a full ghost apparition, it was indeed clear but nevertheless nearly transparent and fading fast. Then it “evaporated” mid-stride.
Again, I stress the strong impression that The Mantis Man was cloaked and I “caught it” just right; it abruptly found itself against a “new”/blank background and was adjusting quickly. No, I do not believe it “slipped” into another dimension/plane.

I detected movement and first saw that strong left thigh, (and strong right calf) then the whole thing and immediately those eyes/face. The whole encounter was only a couple of seconds. I can not tell you with any strong certainty what its feet or hands looked like –I wasn’t looking there– but I can tell you that its arms were “normal”, and not the literal Mantis forelegs I have recently seen in drawings of these “Aliens”.

And another, briefer (and third hand) account:

Apparently about a year ago my friend and his brother were down at Stephen’s State Park fishing right around dusk. During this time, while his brother was roughly 50 yards downstream fishing, he said he felt this strange vibration in his right ear and from that he turned and looked to the right. When he turned and looked to the right he said he saw this 6 to 7 foot praying-mantis-looking-man… just standing there and unable to believe that he could see him. He said the creature was black and gray and to be quite honest, the way my buddy was telling me this story, I was having a tough time. I know he saw this thing… because I could see it in his face.

Now, I don’t believe in aliens visiting our world or anything, but I do think that at least some of the “alien” sightings in recent decades might be nature spirits (and I’m not the only one). In centuries past, when people saw these sorts of things, they knew them to be the land-wights, brownies, elves, etc. that they knew of from the stories their parents and grandparents told them. In today’s world, in the absence of that sort of oral folklore, we necessarily interpret them in a way that makes sense to our modern sensibilities. In this case, aliens.
Still, it’s interesting to see this sort of thing focused on an obscure river in northwest New Jersey, coincidentally the same one in which I’ve long sensed the presence of a very strong land-wight that was probably known to the Lenape Indians as well. I’ve certainly never seen anything mantis-like, and there’s no telling whether that’s the true form of the spirit, just a form it took on, or whether these reports have nothing to do with the land-spirit I know, but it’s an interesting bit of data nonetheless.
I’ll certainly keep an eye out for anything particularly strange the next time I visit the river and make cult to Her.

Kennewick Man Update

No, this is not a repost from 2005.
ScienceNordic has an update on the two-decade-old Kennewick Man case:

A 2004 court ruling decided that no one had ownership over the remains of Kennewick Man, but that his remains should be safeguarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who owns the land where the remains were excavated. It also granted scientists the rights to study the remains.

Native Americans nonetheless took him to be an ancestor and called him the Ancient One. But initial investigations suggested Kennewick Man was not a Native American, and scientists believed he was more similar to an ancient group of people who went on to populate Polynesia. In fact, the Ainu people in Japan are thought to be the closest living relatives to this ancient group of people.

So was Kennewick man more closely related to the Ainu people or Native Americans? The debate continued for 19 years, until today.

Now an international team of scientists have sequenced Kennewick Man’s genome and found that Native Americans have the strongest ancestral claim.
The study is published this week in Nature.

The Asatru Folk Assembly also had a stake in the Kennewick Man case, claiming that the physiological features of the skeleton marked him as being related to ancient Europeans. That claim seems to be put to rest definitively, with the DNA sequencing results.

Gods of Place – Hraðrá

One of the conceits of polytheism in general is that the world is alive with spirits. In addition to the mighty gods and goddesses in Heaven (whether that be Asgard, or Olympus, or Swarga Loka or something else), there are a multitude of more local deities, linked to specific areas (or specific geographic features) who might also be approached for aid and to whom offerings may be made.

During the Migration Era, the cult of the Matronae was found on both sides of the Rhine, and often tied to the specific locale by the name given to the goddesses on their altar inscriptions. We also see references to practices involving worship of gods of springs, rocks, and trees in later Christian polemics, sermons, and manuals of penance, railing against these pagan holdover beliefs and practices.

Modern Asatru recognizes these beings as landvaettir, or land-spirits, in a generic sense, as well as the house-wight (tomten, nisse, or brownie) and these are attested to in the later written sources. It is sometimes the case that a given stone or tree or spring is said to be the home of a land-wight (such as the famous elf-stones in Iceland), but I find that modern Asatru rarely places these sorts of deities at the forefront of worship.

Here in the United States, it is easy to fall into what I call the Amerindian Trap. That is, the idea that because these lands were settled by Amerindians before they were settled by Europeans, that they somehow “own” the local land-spirits, and that the only way to approach them is to do so on Amerindian terms, with Amerindian rituals.

But the truth is different – those gods of place were here long before the Amerindians came here, and the arrival of Europeans didn’t displace them. Those Amerindians may have gotten to know the spirits better because of long association, but that hardly means we Europeans cannot get to know them, too, and honor them according to our own ancestral ways.

In my own case, I happen to live right next to a river that meanders around northwest New Jersey before emptying into the Delaware. Before this land was settled by Europeans (originally English, later Germans and still later Scandinavians), it was inhabited by the Lenape Indians. The name of the river is the Musconetcong, which in Munsee (the language of the Lenape in this area) means “swift river”. I’ve done some studying on the subject, and reached out to the remnants of the Lenape in Oklahoma, and listened to the goddess of the river herself.

I call her Hraðrá (Anglicized as Hratta), which means “swift river” in Old Norse. I have given her offerings of cakes, and ale, and lit candles in her honor. Mostly I just sit by the river and talk with her. Sometimes I will sing to her. On occasion she will appear as a white heron, and answers to questions can be read in the way she flies through the trees above the river.

Now, she’s not the only land-spirit around. Far from it, and I still make offerings “to the landvaettir” on a monthly basis. And I make offerings to the Aesir as well. And my ancestors. But there’s always Hraðrá there, too, the heron goddess of the swift river, who grows strong in the spring as the snow melts and the rain falls, and who brings life to the land, embracing the waterfowl, and fish, and frogs, and turtles, and freshwater clams that the raccoons eat at night, and the children who explore her banks and swim in her pools.

And I sing to her, and bring her cakes, as my Germanic ancestors did with the local goddesses in Europe according to their customs. And the goddess of the river doesn’t seem to mind that one bit.

Crow government brags about rejecting its ancestral folkway

There’s a new sign on the Crow Indian Reservation along I-90 in Montana.

Back in March of 2013, the Crow government (an independent Amerindian nation) passed a resolution proclaiming that “Jesus Christ is the Lord on the Crow Indian Reservation.” In that resolution, they acknowledged that Christianity was a foreign religion imported by missionaries during the 19th century, and also that many of the Crow tribe “still practice traditional spiritual customs”, which they claim “are compatible with Christian principles”.

Now, they certainly have the right to make any proclamation that they want to, just as I have a right to bemoan that decision, even though I am not a Crow or Amerindian in any sense (at least so assures me).

I might disagree with the notion that traditional Amerindian spiritual practices are compatible with Christianity, which embraces doctrines such as that of John 14:6 “No man shall come to the Father except through me”, which would seem to contradict the traditional Crow religion that embraced a world of many spirits, including Old Man Coyote and Raven Face.

Now the Crow have gone a step further and erected a huge sign that reflects the tribe’s official embrace of Christianity. So that every time someone who does still embrace the traditional Crow religion drives by, they’re reminded that their faith has been officially overthrown. But that’s okay, because it’s not meant as a put-down to those who still follow the old ways of the tribe:

“[Tribal legislator Conrad] Stewart said that, while the tribe’s public profession of faith could be seen as controversial, it isn’t intended to make non-Christians, including those who observe traditional Native American spiritual practices, uncomfortable.”

Because a big, honkin’ sign put up by the government saying “our religion, not yours, rules here” couldn’t possibly make anyone uncomfortable.

I cannot imagine that Thomas Yellowtail would have approved.

Now, even though I don’t have any connection to the Crow myself, I do feel strongly about this because it reflects precisely the same sort of surrender to a foreign god that my own ancestors undertook a thousand years ago. It reflects the convert-or-die attitude that figures such as Charles the First, Harold Bluetooth, and Olaf the First. First they come in quietly and meekly, and only convert those who wish to be converted. Then, once they have gathered their strength, they impose their faith on everyone.

It was an enormous shame on our Folk a thousand years ago that they abandoned their Gods for a foreign deity. I hope the Crow can shake off this yoke and return to the ways of their ancestors.

Is this Pagan? (Part Three)

“They say, ‘I was an Indian in a former life.’
Well…you’re white now!”
– Charlie Hill, Native Comedian

In part one of this series, I discussed the Japanese religion of Shinto, and in part two, I discussed the West African religious complex of Yorùbá. Today I’d like to round out the series with a discussion of Amerindian religion. Four continents down, one to go (sorry, indigenous Australians; while the broad points in this series apply to you, too, I think the point is made without a specific treatment of your situation).

First, it should be pointed out that there is no single “Native American religion.” Each tribe and nation has its own specific system of beliefs and practices. Many tribal beliefs fit in well with an overlay of Christianity, some do not. Some lean more towards polytheism and some more towards monotheism (and some, sad to say, emphasize a more monotheist interpretation of what are, essentially, polytheistic beliefs in order to placate the broader Christian culture).

There are, once again, lots of parallels with contemporary neopaganism. Polytheism, a rich mythology, well-developed rituals and a long tradition of deep spirituality, as well as a robust tradition of what might be called “magical” practices.

Because of those parallels (as well as the phenomenon of the “white savior complex“), Amerindian religion has been used as the buffet for countless appropriations by New Age frauds and well-intentioned but ignorant eclectic neopagans looking to add something novel and (ironically) “authentic” to their own practices.

As a rule, though, Wicca and neopaganism are held to be a very different thing than the various faiths of the Amerindian tribes:

I’ve got nothing against shamanism, paganism, or the New Age, but a cow is not a horse: none of these things are traditionally Native American. Shamanism is a Siberian mystic tradition, Wicca is a religion based in pre-Christian European traditions, Tarot readings are an Indo-European divination method, and the New Age is a syncretic belief system invented, as its name suggests, in the modern era. None of them have anything to do with authentic Indian traditions, and anyone who thinks they do is likely to be wrong about anything else he claims about Native American religions as well. Wiccans and New Agers don’t have any more knowledge about actual American Indian beliefs than you do. 

Some tribes and individuals are fiercely protective of their cultural rights, and some are more open to non-Amerindians participating in sacred rituals. But the existence of the one does not negate the anger, frustration, and pain suffered by the other.

A lot of very prominent people in the Amerindian community want their sacred rituals locked down so that only members of the tribes in question can participate. They aren’t the fringe, either, unless you count a Lakota Chief as “fringe”:

It was decided, from March 9th, 2003 and forward, there will be no non-Natives allowed in our sacred Ho-c’o-ka (our sacred alters) where it involves our Seven Sacred Rites. The only protection with this decision in Government law; is that only enrolled members can carry an eagle feather. In all the Seven Sacred Rites, there has always been the understanding of earning and a requirement of an eagle feather while participating in these Rites. The eagle feather stands for Indigenous knowledge and guidance in our spiritual ways.

And that includes things like Vision Quests, the Sundance Ceremony, and other things that “plastic shamans” tend to mush together and market like they’re selling a cheap used Toyota with a motor from a Hyundai. Sorry, Wiccans, no Vision Quest for you.

Some Amerindians are even more strident:

We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. …  We especially urge all our Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people to take action to prevent our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies and spiritual practices by outsiders; for, as we all know, there are certain ones among our own people who are prostituting our spiritual ways for their own selfish gain, with no regard for the spiritual well-being of the people as a whole. We assert a posture of zero-tolerance for any “white man’s shaman” who rises from within our own communities to “authorize” the expropriation of our ceremonial ways by non-Indians; all such “plastic medicine men” are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

A… erm… “sweat lodge”

And the Amerindian tribes are in something of a unique situation vis-a-vis who can and cannot consider themselves a member of the tribe. Unfortunately for many members of the “Wannabe Tribe”, reincarnation doesn’t cut it:

This trivialization of our oppression is compounded by the fact that, nowadays, anyone can be Indian if she wants to be. All that is required is that a white woman be Indian in a former life or that she take part in a sweat lodge or be mentored by a “medicine woman” or read a “how to” book. Since, according to this theory, anyone can now be “Indian,” the term “Indian” no longer refers only to those groups of people who have survived five hundred years of colonization and genocide. This phenomenon furthers the goal of white supremists to abrogate treaty rights and to take away what little we have left by promoting the idea that some Indians need to have their land base protected, but even more Indians [those that are really white] have plenty of land. According to this logic, “Indians” as a whole do not need treaty rights. When everyone becomes “Indian” it is easy to lose sight of the specificity of oppression faced by those who are Indian in this life. It is no wonder we have such a difficult time getting non-Indians to support our struggles when the New Age movement has completely disguised our oppression.

There is actually a whole body of law, much of it derived from and administered by the tribes themselves, regarding the standards that must be met to consider oneself a member of a tribe:

Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. … Two common requirements for membership are lineal decendency from someone named on the tribe’s base roll or relationship to a tribal member who descended from someone named on the base roll. (A “base roll” is the original list of members as designated in a tribal constitution or other document specifying enrollment criteria.) Other conditions such as tribal blood quantum, tribal residency, or continued contact with the tribe are common.

Once more, I pose the question. Should a group of faiths that holds itself as something unique unto themselves be forced under the “neopagan” umbrella? Should a constellation of cultures, with proud histories spanning back centuries or even millennia, be forced to give up the final aspect of their uniqueness to accommodate the fleeting desires of a bunch of “wannabes” and spiritual-salad-bar dilettantes?

Or do they have the right to retain a unique label for themselves, or rather a hundred or more unique labels, and to hold the bar for entry into their most sacred of rituals (and their very tribes themselves) as high as they want to hold it? After all that has been done to them, don’t they have the right to hold on to those things which allow them to maintain their own unique identity and proudly proclaim, “this is who we are!”?

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