I had an interesting conversation with someone recently about the problem with indigenous animism. It was illuminating because it highlighted some misconceptions that are easily cleared up. Let’s take a look.
It’s a Utopia
Some people have this romantic point of view that indigenous people were living in harmony with Nature and themselves before the arrival of Europeans. There were no problems until the Europeans brought them.
Although this isn’t seen as a “problem”, it’s damaging because it’s not totally true. If you come to animism thinking it will solve all your problems and life will be one big kumbaya festival, you’re going to be disappointed.
Before the Europeans arrived, there was still tribal warfare. Some of it was quite vicious. This is partially how my mom’s people kept the missionaries out!
Regardless of what path you walk, life will always have problems. The cycle of life always moves from Order to Chaos and back again, so it’s a continuous flow and challenge. Adopting animism doesn’t change that. It accepts it and can help you roll with it.
Backward, Primitive Beliefs
Another criticism of indigenous animism is that it ignores science in favor of fanciful beliefs and practices. To that I say that perhaps you don’t understand enough of the animist world view to judge whether it’s fanciful or not.
The universe is holistic. Everything is connected. Just because you can’t see a thing or explain it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Prior to the invention of the microscope, the Greeks, Arabs, and Chinese knew that good hygiene helped keep people healthy. Before the invention of the telescope, the Dogon knew of the existence of Sirius B despite it being invisible to the naked eye.
Many indigenous tribes have mythology that include a lot of things for which there is no evidence. Sometimes these stories are a way to explain things that are unexplainable. Sometimes they are a reflection of a different, more holistic way of viewing the world. If you want to have a better understanding of it, you really need to learn about the whole culture and view the whole web rather than one part of it.
Domestic Violence, Suicide, Crime and Substance Abuse
Some people have the other extreme view that indigenous animism isn’t great because many indigenous communities suffer from high rates of domestic violence, suicide, crime, and substance abuse. Those are real statistics. So, let’s take a look at that.
My point of view is that animism didn’t cause any of those problems. Cultural and spiritual destruction and moving away from animism did. If you look around the world, you will see that conquerors took children away from their families and forbade them from speaking their own languages, wearing traditional clothes, and practicing their spirituality.
In a Stockholm Syndrome type of move, the conquerors made the defeated peoples dependent upon them for food, shelter, medicine, and their very lives. The only way to “succeed” was to adopt to the conqueror’s way of life. This continues today in many places.
This is cultural and spiritual genocide. You can’t remove someone from their families, land, and culture without killing their soul. It removes all sense of belonging. After generations of this, it’s no wonder that many cope by indulging in abuse, crime, violence, and self destruction. Most of the people who fall prey to these things aren’t practicing animism. They’ve forgotten it.
Return to Animism
Many communities are responding to these problems by returning to animism. They are replacing the history of the victors, which shows their people as “savages” with a more even, fair, life affirming versions.
They are teaching their adults and children their native languages. This is a really important step in recreating the bond with culture because it changes the way that the brain thinks. Words are the symbolic representation of the world view. Many cultures have words that don’t exist in other languages. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
These cultures are reinstituting rites of passage and other rituals. We know that this creates a sense of pride, belonging, and a stable foundation for identity of individual self as well as place in society.
Instead of making everything about acquiring and consuming, these cultures are stressing the importance of things like being, serving, gratitude, and giving. It makes the world more holistic, natural, and gives people a way to succeed that isn’t dependent upon how much money, power, or beauty you have.
Healing is holistic. So it’s not just about talking to a therapist or popping a pill. These traditional ways of healing involve the spirit, ancestors, and sometimes the land. They require the participation of the individual, so they aren’t something that is done to the person or given to the person. It’s give and take. Support is there to make sure the work continues.
In a nutshell, the animist approach reconnects the person to the web of life again. In the process, they gain hope, identity, responsibility, and purpose so that violence and self-destruction are no longer desirable.
I appreciate challenges and questions about animism. I am lucky to have an insider view of this situation and a foot in both modern and traditional worlds. If you have questions, please ask. Dialog helps both sides become more sensitive and knowledgable.