Joseph Epes BROWN: The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian.
NY Crossroad, 1982 & 2000. Pp. 135. $8.95 pb. ISBN 0-8245-0618-9.

Reviewed by W. A. KOSTELEC, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258

This reprint of a 1982 compilation of essays by Joseph Epes Brown bears witness to the difficulty of doing justice to the complex world of Native American religious traditions. The essays themselves are the products of a span of ten years or so in the 1960's and 70's and were chosen by Brown as suitable for the general reader. They represent his "longstanding concern to develop the means by which selected and interrelated perspectives from the disciplines of cultural anthropology and the history of religions could be used to situate Native American spiritual heritages within the context of world religious traditions." (p. ix) Part of Brown's struggle was to overturn the complex of stereotypes and prejudices under which Native traditions and practices had been traditionally scrutinized. He seeks to present the traditions with a legitimacy and integrity that allows them to stand beside other world religions.

This is, nevertheless, a difficult book on a difficult subject. Apart from Professor Brown's work (which includes the more famous The Sacred Pipe) the task of addressing the broad idea of American Indian religion has proved difficult and controversial. The two American continents have hundreds of distinct peoples, languages and culture groups all indigenous to them. There is a great deal of variety in religious ritual among them, and each people has its own complex of sacred stories. Like the word "indian" itself, the notion of American Indian religion is to a certain degree, an artificial construct made by outsiders to simplify and reduce the rich complexity of the spiritual lives of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Scholars like Professor Brown have known this, and struggle with it. The very best essays on the subject tend to be those done as studies of specific peoples.

A second hurdle that all students of the subject have to get past is the 500 years of European and Christian influence on Native peoples. Even in the 1950's non-Indian researchers tried to find the "old men" whom, it was thought, still preserved the pure form of Native traditions, unsullied by influence of priests and ministers and government schools. There was an ideological naivete in such searching, and a very clear misunderstanding of the nature of Native American religious life; hence Joseph Epes Brown's earlier and more famous book, The Sacred Pipe, which was based upon his time with the old Lakota man Nicholas Black Elk. Black Elk himself, of course, was already famous for the John Neihardt book Black Elk Speaks. Nicholas Black Elk, by all accounts a man of sincerity and integrity, has become for the popular book interpretation of naiveté religion the godfather and saint and prophet. He has become so, I am afraid, for Professor Brown as well. Throughout this collection of essay, Professor Brown returns again and again to Black Elk as his chief interpreter. The author is not unaware of the great diversity among native peoples of course, and reminds the reader more than once that he is interpreting things according to the traditions of the Plains Indians, as it is that culture area with which he is most familiar. His chief source for Plains Indian life is, of course Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux who was a cousin of the great tragic figure Crazy Horse.

More recently, the life of Nicholas Black Elk has been reexamined. Michael Steltenkamp, S.J., found his own prime source in Black Elk's daughter Lucy, whose first revelation to Father Steltenkamp was, "My Father was a good Catholic." Steltenkamp's book Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglalas, details Nick Black Elk's years as a Catholic catechist. Such a reality is only shocking to those with a na‹ve concept of a pure and unchanging primal religion. The fact is that according to the best sources on native religious life, there was always a dynamic, flowing stream of ideas and practices within and between various tribes. American Indian peoples valued spiritual practices as an integral part of their material and cultural lives and new songs, dances and stories would hardly be thought of as threats to the "purity of the tradition", but rather potentially enriching elements to be examined and perhaps welcomed. Thus the presence of Christian influences would not be surprising nor should it inauthenticate a traditional Native spirituality. After 500 years of Christian and European presence we must be less concerned about primal origins and some kind of native orthodoxy and more concerned with the modes of transformation and adaptation that have allowed native peoples to survive spiritually and physically in a hostile social, cultural and political environment that has characterized their place in white America.

Professor Brown's book suffers from a yearning for a lost world. It will appeal to readers who are discouraged with their own Christian traditions or who have perhaps, already rejected them because it sees a form of cultural revitalization possible in the things that native traditions have preserved. He quotes and earlier author, John Collier, who in 1947 wrote, "They had what the world has lost. They have it now. What the world has lost, the world must have again, lest it die. Not many years are left to have or have not, to recapture the lost ingredient." (Collier, 1948, p.7)

In such a view, the "Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian" is a legacy for the non- Indian dominated world, a form of redemption and salvation. To acquire such redemption, however, the non-Indian world must take this legacy for its own, and there are many Native American people who will consider that another form of theft.

For further reading. Dennis and Barbara Tedlock: Teachings from the American Earth. NY Liversight, 1975. Steltenkamp, Michael F: Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993: Sam D. Gill: Native American Religions. Belmont, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

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