Look beyond stereotypes to find truth

Louis Whitehead

Louis Whitehead

Native Americans do not belong to a homogeneous group. Each student, faculty member, and staff person comes to campus from a unique set of circumstances.

Similarly, life experiences shape Native peoples as individuals in many ways, including in relation to faith. With this column, I hope to address some common misconceptions about the spiritual practices of Native Americans at SDSU, rather than profess or endorse a particular faith.

Great diversity flourishes within the Native American community here. This diversity reflects itself in peoples’ tribal affiliations, upbringings, and faiths.

Many Native students here are Lakota from reservation communities, while others represent different nations and tribes and come from urban and other areas. One also finds those who practice traditional Native spirituality, Christianity or some other Western faith or some combination of the two.

Diversity extends even to those who practice the same general forms of spirituality. Spirituality tends to be more individualized than organized religion, so spiritual experiences like visions and dreams and the teachings of others can influence the path that one walks.

One should note that spirituality often is purposefully less structured than organized religion, but is no less valid.

One might think that all Native students coming from South Dakota’s nine reservations practice some form of traditional Native spirituality. Some of those students may follow the Red Road and attend related ceremonies, while others may worship and reaffirm their relationship to Creation by attending church services or the religious functions of other faiths.

Also, there are others who integrate aspects of both Western religions like Christianity with traditional Native spirituality.

Native people, like any other people, live their lives on a spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum stands an individual raised in a traditional environment on a reservation and who practices only one form of traditional Native spirituality.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, one finds a mixed-blood person who may or may not be tribally enrolled who grew up away from his or her reservation or tribe, lives a lifestyle acculturated to mainstream American society, and strictly practices only Christianity or some other faith.

A person’s position between the two extremes is not fixed; it can change throughout life.

People can learn to recognize and appreciate diversity among Native Americans at SDSU if they can look beyond stereotypes to see the truth.

Louis Whitehead does not represent the views of the entire Campus Interfaith Council. He can be reached at [email protected].