Taken Names, Devoured People: Andrea Smith’s “Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence” in Native Cultures

In honor of our penultimate blogpost as All Night, we have decided to pull a page from the writings of women that we have been gifted with this term, and share our individual experiences of this latest offering, Andrea Smith’s “Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence,” in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Additionally, we normally find images to accompany our posts, but today, out of respect to the many images, beliefs, ideas, traditions, and other art forms which have been stolen, used without permission, and acculturated, we will simply be leaving our reflections with our names to mark how we have been impacted.


Andrea Smith in her chapter, “Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence,” in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, uses the provocative imagery of sexual violence to describe Western culture’s tendency to take and consume knowledge from Native peoples without consent. Smith proposes that knowledge is something that binds us to a committed relationship and responsibility to that place from which the knowledge was required. To take knowledge without connection or responsibility to a peoples or place constitutes the fundamental assumptions of rape, namely, that someone could violate a boundary and take something without consent or consequence. While knowing, like sex, isn’t inherently colonialist, the approach can make the difference between intimate encounter and violent harm. Smith’s critique of Western culture is that the cost of truly knowing and becoming educated about Native peoples would not be in their economic interest. To know in a connected way would be to not be able to take land for consumerist purposes or take knowledge and wisdom for the purpose of commodifying it. The boundaries of personhood (psychic and physical) are what must be respected in mutual relationship. To begin to know Native communities, Smith urges us to begin to consider what the Native communities want. As she writes, “Only through being part of the community over a period of time and developing trust does the knowledge come to you- very slowly” (134). Withholding knowledge, then, may be an important act of resistance against imperial powers that seek to consume and possess.


“..in this society, white people have clear legal boundaries over their knowledge, while indigenous communities have none. Native communities and their practices can known to all; their boundaries are inherently viable.” (122)

Andrea Smith notes the ways in which having knowledge of another ultimately gives the dominant knower power. There is this idea amongst non-natives that Native communities are unable to on their own “preserve” Native cultural practices. I find this problematic that it is those who are of the dominant culture that get to define the boundaries of knowledge. There is a need to consider an epistemological shift as knowledge and belief are vastly different within Native context. There are questions being asked now of Native communities of how indigenous people will exist and thrive. While I think that Native communities do have much to teach western ways of thinking I’m not even sure people really want to listen and give up their own places of power. The dominant culture must begin to own the ways it continues to perpetuate systems of colonization.


“Just as those who sexually dominate others often contend that if they
 enjoyed the act, then ‘she must have wanted it,’ some academics assume
 that if they want to study Native communities, the communities must
 want that as well” (Smith, p. 132).

In this article, Andrea Smith communicates how the academic study of
 Native religious traditions can actually further the exploitation and
 harm done to Indians from the non-Indians who want to “know” them. The
 analogy of sexual violence that Smith makes here is admittedly
 difficult for me to correlate fully with the violence done to Native
 communities, although I am open to this being quite true for the
 experience of Indians, despite my difficulties accepting it wholly.
 What isn’t difficult for me to understand completely, however, is the
 Western based notion and value of pursuing knowledge, and in doing so,
 believing that this is welcomed by and beneficial for those whom they
 choose to study. Smith points out that often researchers have not
 asked, “Do Native people want others to know about them?” or “Do
 Native communities find this research helpful to them?” Smith urges
 the reader to consider these questions and the cost of not asking


I was struck by the way Smith describes the Native American’s way of knowing in contrast to the way I’ve been taught “to know”. The emphasis is on taking part in the traditions and being connected to a specific area of land as opposed to holding information in the mind. It is a way of knowing that involves relating to and with as opposed to understanding something objectively from a distance. She writes that she has heard Native elders say, “…if you want to learn, be quiet and pay attention. Only through being part of the community over a period of time and developing trust does the knowledge come to you — very slowly” (p. 134). The way some Western churches emphasize knowing and believing before belonging comes to mind. The horror in all of this is that Westerners who have been taught to learn differently have decided it is/was okay to take what they want(ed) from Native culture. The spread of Native traditions, for example, through the hands of white Americans, strips the meaning from those traditions by detaching them from the land they came from. Smith says that this mirrors the rape culture in America, and gives a warning to those in the Western academic world who seek to know and understand Native culture, that though many have great intentions, it is deeply important to respect a way of knowing that requires an invitation. We will not know until we are invited to relate, to sit with, and listen. As a white American seeking to be compassionate and caring towards others, I will hold this message close. That though I can attempt to inform myself through all the resources within reach, most knowledge can only be held through relating.


How hard it was, to discuss a piece of writing meant to explore and expose the harm done when a group with power feel they can know and understand the depths of another person, belief system, or group. The practice of reading and discussion exposed my own frustration; my own desire, assumption, angst to know. It exposed my fear that if I do not know the answer to something, if I do not have it mastered, I will somehow be in the wrong — and I fear being made vulnerable and wrong. And yet, as you have heard from my fellow group mates, the cost of my lack of vulnerability is another’s. In this particular article, the vulnerability in question was the continued exposure of Native Peoples in the United States to the scrutiny and consumption of predominately White culture, mining many cultures for their long-developed spirituality and way of being, even as we mine the resources of the lands we (by collective association) force them to occupy. To hold that mining of mental, spiritual, and emotional resources with the same contempt as DAPL — this was a new thought for me, and one I continue to wrestle with, as I contemplate my honest desire to better understand with my (perhaps perverted, trauma inducing) compulsion to know.

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