Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Philip Jenkins, Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, $16.95, 306 pages, ISBN 0-19-518910-8)—Malie Montagutelli, Université Paris 3 - Sorbonne nouvelle


Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He has published widely on contemporary religious themes, including New Age and esoteric movements (see Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, published in 2000). Dream Catchers “describes a radical change in mainstream American cultural and religious attitudes over the past century or so, namely in popular views of Native American spirituality.” [ix]

Thus Jenkins studies the changing attitudes of mainstream, non-Native Americans from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, that is to say from the beginning of the huge territorial expansion of the United States, roughly from the 1840s. Ultimately his goal is to shed light on the themes that he sees present in modern American religious thinking, such as acceptance of religious diversity and pluralism, the legal position of religion and religious toleration, the cultural and religious impact of relativism, the shifting definition of religious actions or behavior, the growing recognition of women’s spirituality, and a growing reverence for the primal and the primitive. Jenkins’s approach and intention in this study become clear to the reader when he writes: “By tracing the images that non-Natives construct of the first Americans, we learn about the changing needs of the mainstream society, the gaps that these invented Indians must fill.” [2]

In the time span covered by the book, a slow process is being described: it started as religious toleration at the end of the nineteenth century and over time led to the utilization and appropriation of Native American religions and religious practices by Euro-Americans, who from mere observers of these religions later became participants.

As an introduction to his study, Jenkins attempts to define what makes a religion, what differentiates it from mere superstition. He tries to determine why early non-Native Americans refused to see Native American beliefs and ritual practices as religions. He notes that these non-Native Americans first saw Indian practices as so alien, so removed from their own beliefs that they simply could not be seen by them as religious behavior at all, hence they could not be worthy of the name religion. As a matter of fact, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Indian religions looked to Christian missionaries much more like witchcraft, which they feared and tried to eradicate.

But during the nineteenth century, to the more liberally minded, Indian rituals began to appear to be expressions of primitive darkness and savagery, which rather quickly came to be romanticized as pristine paganism. That is precisely the time when religious toleration started to grow. Thus, the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century mark the transition toward a more accepting attitude toward Native spirituality by non-Native Americans. Jenkins lists several factors to explain this turnabout: the liberalization of Protestantism, which became more accepting of other religions; the expansion of metaphysical thinking; and the impact of certain social factors present during the periods of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. That is also the time when new academic traditions and new disciplines appeared, such as scientific anthropology, ethnography, and archeology, which greatly changed Western attitudes toward primal cultures. There were also various complex social factors and new developments. First, because of a declining confidence in the religious mainstream, especially in “respectable mainline Protestantism,” Americans were starting to look elsewhere to satisfy their need for mysticism, dramatic rituals, sense experiences, and they felt a growing admiration for the primitive, in religion, but also in art and culture. Consequently, there was the beginning of a full-scale industry of ethnic tourism, especially to the Southwest, as the American public wanted to see the “Indians” in their own environment. A number of American artists led the way and formed a bohemian circle in the South West, around Taos and Santa Fe. They greatly admired Indians as the bearers of an ancient culture, which they extolled against modernity. Additionally, women were starting to reject the authoritarian ways of Christian traditions and were looking for other sources of inspiration. Some political factors also played a role, for instance, the loss of confidence in the government, political leaders, and more generally in mainstream American civilization.

Almost from the start of the book, Jenkins posits as a principle that time and time again white Americans were attracted by Indian ways in times of crises and fear for the future, whether this might be caused by political, social or cultural changes or threats. He quotes author Philip Deloria: “Whenever white Americans have confronted crises of identity, some of them have inevitably turned to Indians.” [17, quoted from Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 156], and he himself writes: “Through American history, romantic Indian images are most sought after in eras of alienation and crisis” [154]. The period of the Great Depression is a case in point. Commenting on the period, Jenkins writes: “A number of social trends in these years encouraged cultural relativism. Above all, the Crash of 1929 and the following Depression raised doubts about the superiority of urban and industrial Western civilization and its ability to survive. [...] By the height of the Depression, commentators were noting a popular American cult focused on the Indian” [118]. The years of protest around 1970 is another example: “Given the precedents of the 1920s and 1930s, it was scarcely surprising that the crisis years around 1970 would lead to a rediscovery of idealized stereotypes of Indians, or that this vision would acquire specifically religious dimensions. [...] This was partly due to the depth of the social crisis in the late 1960s, but also to the role of the mass media in disseminating a sense of fear and national fragmentation.” [160] During such times, Indians offered a model of resistance, the possibility of finding a rich alternative, and a means of challenging “America.”

Jenkins isolates and describes certain decisive periods of transition during this long history of white/Native interactions and in the way Native Americans and their religion have been viewed and understood. The first of these began around 1917-1918 and developed more fully during the 1920s. “America’s own prospects seemed bleak given the political conditions of 1919-1920, those red years of riots, strikes, race wars, and terrorism.” [84] Native peoples came to represent resistance against the forces of modernity, urbanism, industrialism, mass society, and bourgeois values. The writers of Indian culture presented it as one “we Whites” could learn from. Some wrote about Native Americans as “proto-Christians”; some also professed the superiority of Indian religion, contending that Native Americans had retained what white Americans had lost, forgotten, or destroyed.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, Native spirituality gained the status of a valid and respected religion in the American consciousness. Understandably, various non-Native cults developed by utilizing some aspects of a particular Native religion as a focus, a source of inspiration. “Such idealization would have been inconceivable if American self-confidence had not imploded.” [119] Commenting on that period, Jenkins writes about “an esoteric boom” among white Americans, a phenomenon that precluded the advent of the New Age in the late 1960s.

The next phase, the most important to date, started during the 1960s, when interest in all things Indian came to its peak “as Native issues became inextricably linked with other critical social and political concerns” [154]. So that “by the mid-1970s, Indians were established as countercultural icons” [175]. Since then, there has been an explosion of cults, sects, teachings, and experiments in living derived from Indian spirituality.

Throughout this historical account, Philip Jenkins presents many men and women, some of them writers, artists, philosophers, anthropologists, who became mediators for this process of cultural appropriation. Among the most influential non-Native Americans, a few stand out: anthropologist James Mooney, who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology and published many works, in particular on the Cherokee, the Kiowa, and the Sioux at the end of the nineteenth century; George Cronyn, who published an anthology of Indian poems and chants, The Path on the Rainbow, in 1918; photographer Edward Curtis, who published a monumental collection of photographs, in twenty volumes, entitled The North American Indian between 1907 and 1930; artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Maynard Dixon, and Marsden Hartley; social worker and activist, John Collier, who served 12 years as BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Commissioner starting in 1934, and who “personally remained the nation’s most cited authority on Native affairs well into the 1950s” [112], for many years, his book, Indians of the Americas, published in 1947, remained the reference on Indian affairs; Frank Waters, whose father was part Cheyenne and who published, among many other works, The Book of the Hopi in 1963, which exercised a huge influence over the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1930s, psychologist Carl Jung, whose theories of myths and archetypes to explain the human psyche were already well known, visited Taos and eventually included Native American symbols in his system of symbolic references. There were also some influential politicians, at both local or regional, and national levels. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the introduction to The Indians’ Book, written by ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis and published in 1907, in which he praised “the charm of a vanished elder world.” More recently, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon were both strong supporters of Native Americans’ rights. In 1970, President Nixon signed a bill returning the sacred Blue Lake to the Pueblo of Taos.

What stands out in this analysis is the “vast hunger for Native American spirituality” [1], which non-Native Americans seem to have felt continuously since the nineteenth century. What makes Jenkins’s book of particular interest is his focus on the reinterpretation, misinterpretation, or even re-invention by white Americans of this spirituality, a process that has been constant in the history of the contact between the two groups. Pro-Indian attitudes and even what might be called idealization actually started very early in that history and so did the misunderstanding of Native Americans’ spirituality, rituals, and value system.

In each period studied, Jenkins evaluates the distortion which occurred when non-Native Americans adopted Native American beliefs and rituals. He simply describes and analyzes the process and the reasons for the distortion; never does he criticize or condemn. For example, when presenting John Collier and the extent of his impact on white Americans’ views of Native Americans, which was extensive, Collier’s background is carefully explained. Jenkins stresses his mysticism and his natural attraction for all things esoteric as a young man, his concern that “modern civilization was destroying natural linkages to blood and soil through ills such as capitalism, urbanism, the free market, private property and individualism.” [88] He makes an exhaustive list of the various theories which influenced the future Commissioner of the BIA. All this serves to explain that “when Collier encountered the Pueblos, then, his response was conditioned by the intellectual baggage that he was carrying, all the mystical ideas of Volk, race, organic community, Teutonism, blood and soil, and extreme antimodernism.” [89] The reader comes to realize how at times Collier’s understanding of the Indians and Indian spirituality was indeed highly subjective, an intellectual construct influenced by previous readings having nothing to do with the people themselves: “When John Collier was seeking a historic precedent for the world he found among the Indians, he cited the Teutonic community portrayed in William Morris’s House of the Wolfings” [114]. This is a mental process that repeated itself time and time again; each time out of a sort of cultural and spiritual melting pot came what non-Native Americans were unconsciously seeking at the time, that is a new syncretistic spirituality. One example is the period just prior to World War I, when many groups were fascinated by esoteric matters as varied as “astrology, Rosicrucianism, reincarnation, spiritualism, prophecy, and extra-sensory perception, as well as the mystical study of lost continents and the Great Pyramid” [136]. Indians fitted into that profusion as Natural Mystics: “For Theosophists, Red Indians represented survivors of ancient continents like Atlantis or Lemuria” [136].

Jenkins gives an especially careful account of the many manifestations of the New Age movement started in the 1970s; New Age is a heterogeneous movement of individuals and groups defined by some as a free-flowing spiritual movement. He describes in full detail the publishing boom that the “Indian niche” spawned at the time, a boom that was accompanied by subsidiary markets in art, video, tarot cards, music, tourism, and Indian paraphernalia. “These are the products of a generation of creative spiritual entrepreneurs” [219]. He points to the new demand for guides and gurus in Indian spirituality and rituals, which prompted the arrival of male and female shamanic societies, medicine men and women, healers, dancers, and visionaries. He stresses the role of the World Wide Web, which spread the movement faster and farther than ever before was possible. In the end, the reader gets a picture of a well-organized network of commercial organizations offering goods, activities, and workshops, all for a price of course.

In the end, Jenkins shows the actual relationship between New Age and any Native tradition, past or present, as rather tenuous. Whatever was borrowed from the Indians was quickly repackaged so as to appear more familiar to white Americans, and in these new forms the elements coming from Native cultures were more attractive than the teachings from the Bible or other mainstream religious traditions. Today, “much or most of what is currently presented as Native spirituality should not be so described” [218].

As a conclusion, Jenkins evokes “cultural theft” and he ends with the same kind of questioning he had in the beginning concerning Native spirituality, but this time it concerns New Age practices and adaptations of Indian spirituality. In spite of all the intense criticism of them, do New Age adaptations of Indian spirituality represent a legitimate religious practice? Or are they merely parody? Do they constitute an authentic religious system? His discussion on this subject seems to suggest that, in terms of the relativity of our postmodern age, “a ‘real’ religion is one that people are prepared to treat as such, regardless of the historical or scholarly grounds on which their views are based. By that standard, the neo-Native religion of the New Age group is as valid as any other, and deserves as much respect.” [249] In spite of the excesses and the commercialism, he predicts a future for Indian practices by non-Indians in America and for New Age in general.

This book will be of special interest to scholars and laymen who work on, or are looking for thorough information about New Age and its connection to Native spirituality (more so than concerning the history of Native Americans or even the relations with white America, as these two subjects provide only the general background of the book). The numerous footnotes (representing 42 pages at the end of the book) contain many valuable bibliographical references on background works published long ago as well as very recently. Jenkins’s style is clear and precise, which makes it a pleasant as well as interesting book to read.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.