The Internet has given free rein to the spiritual quacks of the world. As RedLakeOgitchida wrote in "Native Mysticism and the Assault on Native American Identity": "Cyberspace has become a breeding grounds for the appropriation of Native American cultures and belief systems. Like faceless witchers, Memorex shamans and wannabis permeate cyberspace with an endless assault in the theft of Indian spirituality. In the quest for racial harmony, they have focused on the stereotype of the 'noble red man' to give meaning to their lives."
The following essay provides a good overview of the subject:
The Native Truth
A column dedicated to historical truth and human rights activism of the American Indian
Editor/Historian/Activist/Author: Terri Jean
Director of the Red Roots Educational Project
Established year 2000
Selling Native Spirituality
by Terri Jean
Recently I browsed through the "Native American" section of my favorite local bookstore. To my surprise, there was an entire "Native American Spirituality" sector -- twice the size of the indigenous history section -- that included books on topics such as building your own sweat lodge, animal totems, shamanism, vision quests and tarot cards. I asked the clerk why these items were in the Native American section, rather than the New Age, and she replied "Because they were written by Native Americans or deal with Indian topics." I asked "Since when were tarot cards a Native American topic?" She informed me that tarot cards were part of their religion and when I begged to differ -- she brushed me off, half-promising to look into it and change the book placement if deemed necessary. A week later, there was no change -- except that fact that I no longer have a favorite local bookstore.
When it comes to the concept of Native Americans and their spirituality, mainstream America has a truly misconstrued ideal of Native culture and religious beliefs. People outside of the Native community have taken it upon themselves to self-classify their writings and teachings as Native American or Native-inspired, and believers outside of the Native community happily follow.
What is New Age? The New Age movement gained momentum in the late 1970s and early 80s. It is an eclectic belief system, led by spiritual teachers and gurus (mostly authors and lecturers), focuses on whole-body healing and positive transformation of the spirit and soul. Many concepts and traditions of ancient cultures have been re-introduced to the public, blending one belief with another to form a generic religion that can be applied to nearly everyone. Unfortunately, a search for universal truth and wisdom has produced an epidemic of profit-driven fake and phony "teachers" portraying themselves as spiritual experts. Their authoritative opinions are featured in books, talk shows, articles and documentaries -- with a hungry audience willing to buy it all hook, line and sinker.
A popular aspect of this New Age movement is the inclusion of what is called "Native Spirituality" or "Native American Spirituality." Various beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions -- gathered from varied tribal communities -- are interwoven with concepts of other doctrines to form a belief system that is often sold via books, workshops, lectures, articles and pay-per-visits. This romanticized "spirituality" is often a poor representation of true Native beliefs, yet consumers purchase the work by the thousands and revel in the information presented, believing it to be true and soul-enriching.
Selling Out Native Americans
America is a capitalist society. We are product driven, consuming what we want, when we want it. We have even managed to commercialize spirituality -- especially that belonging to America's first people. Large department stores sell knock-off items of spiritual importance and well-known companies and sporting teams exploit Native images in the form of logos and mascots. Men and women without blood ties to Native cultures -- or those with a minuscule amount -- act as leaders, guides, medicine people and spiritual leaders, profiting from workshops, best-selling books, crafts, artwork, movies and false ceremonies.
Native people all over the country are outraged by such commercialization; their culture being stripped, pieces sold to gullible buyers. Their traditions and beliefs blend with others to form counterfeit concepts -- intertwined with stereotypes found in books or movies -- that is now marketed as an actual "religion." The so-called teachers gain authenticity from mainstream America (including publishers and the press) by fooling the public, staking claim to a heritage they truly know little about. They play Indian, looking the part, using buzzwords and stoic language -- yet steering away from "real" Indians, afraid of being challenged in front of their followers.
Mainstream American often accepts their "truths" at face value, without knowing the person is acting out of greed, arrogance and self-appointed superiority. Genuine spiritual leaders would not set out to turn a profit from their teachings. They would not sell a sacred ceremony or conduct a workshop on how to find your inner animal totem. They do not charge for their services, offer a "Shaman" website or create tarot cards. They will, however, instruct those who need instructing and heal those who need healing -- within their own community. Their lives are dedicated to their work. They are neither greedy nor looking for prestige. Their lives belong to their calling, and to the people within their community.
People to watch out for: Mary Summer Rain, Jamie Samms, Sun Bear and the Bear Tribe, Chief Red Fox, Iron Thunderhorse, Harley Swift Deer Reagan, Evelyn Eaton, O'Shinna, Ted Andrews, Jamake Highwater, Shequish Ohoho, Bird Brother, Mary Elizabeth Marlow, Vision Quest Inc, Sedonia Cahill, The Great Round Organization, Cyfus McDonald, Oshena, Brooke Medicine Eagle, Wallace Black Elk, Alonso Blacksmith, Carlos Casta~neda, Mary Thunder, Oceana, Ghostwolf, Barking Tree, Lynn Andrews and Barking Tree.
What they are peddling: Sweat ceremonies/ various workshops/ sun dances/ shaman healing/ power animals/ vision quests/ dreamcatchers/ medicine wheels/ CDs/ pre-made sweat tents/ medicine crystals/ tarot cards/ psychic readings/ Native American weddings or naming ceremonies/ pipe ceremonies/ and books on various topics.
The Problem with Such Profiteering
Native American activists challenge those who sell their "wisdom" to the masses, accumulating a following at the sake of bastardizing a religion not truly their own. Below are just a few reasons why such activists are actively fighting against these false prophets and charlatans:
1. Profiting from Native spirituality goes against most tribal beliefs. It is religious prostitution.
2. Most information given is derived from false information and stereotypes. Only a person from that particular culture can truly understand and appreciate their own heritage. You cannot gather such knowledge from a handful of books and movies, nor by witnessing a few factual ceremonies and rituals. Such misinformation perpetuates myths, stereotypes and romanticized ideals currently associated with Native people. You cannot construct an authentic Native American anything by employing bits and pieces of ceremonies and traditions, manipulating them into one package and calling it something new. Each ceremony and ritual, and every belief and song hold a specific purpose. You cannot extract certain elements of that ritual or song and use it as your own. Its true meaning is lost.
3. There is an absence of history. Indigenous people have endured a prolonged and cataclysmic act of genocide against them for over 500 years. Only they feel their past and can appreciate the traditions and ceremonies that stem from their survival. You cannot play Indian. Dressing up as a stereotypical Native American and sending smoke signals to the Great Spirit is not what the culture is about. One must know the oppression, the history, and the heritage. These cannot be learned from books or movies.
4. It is theft. It is exploitation. It is the interpretation of a self-proclaimed Native "teacher" who passes the information on to believers who pay to learn from their "wisdom." A non-Native American teaching Native spirituality contributes to the genocide of the Native nations. Their work often dominates the mainstream audience and continues stereotypes and misinformation plagued by the Native community.
5. Non-Natives teaching Native spirituality trivializes the true and accurate beliefs of all Native Americans. When non-Natives teach what is not their own, it belittles those who follow that belief. It says that anyone can teach or spiritually lead this culture. This presumption is degrading, arrogant, and racist.
6. It can be dangerous. If a person conducts a sweat lodge, vision quest, sun dance etc. without the proper education, someone can truly be hurt.
7. When a person of true Native American ancestry and teaching writes a book or teaches a workshop, their work may play second-fiddle to the flamboyant charlatan.
Although those who sell Native spirituality to the public have been notified of their wrong-doing -- having been told their acts are disrespectful and offensive -- they continue to prosper. They have even come up with reasons, or excuses, to validate their abuse. Here are a few verbatim examples:
1. "The Native people should share their beliefs with us!"
2. "I wasn't raised Indian, but I am Indian in my heart."
3. "There is jealously for those of us who have reached the masses with our work. We are well-respected and well-known. People are envious."
4. "My work is good and from the heart. Those who want to stop me are acting out of hatred."
5. "I have the right to practice any religion I choose."
6. "I have permission to conduct these ceremonies. An elder tribesman taught me."
7. "I accept no money, only donations for my work as a Shaman."
8. "I am preserving an ancient religion that is dying out."
9. "I am honoring Native people and wish to be part of their culture."
10. "I harm no one. I only want to help mankind."
11. "I am 1/8 Cherokee and 1/8 Shawnee. It is my culture." (Though they have never met a Cherokee or a Shawnee.)
Even if these false leaders honestly believe they are fostering a sense of community, acting as a guide to those who seek an earthy religion void of harm, it is still wrong.
So why does it continue? Simple: money, demand and prestige. 1) "Leaders," publishers and workshop organizers can make money from it. 2) The public demand is great. 3) Most of these "teachers" -- such as Mary Summer Rain, Jamie Samms, Sun Bear, Ted Andrews, and Brooke Medicine Eagle -- enjoy a cult-like following, selling thousands of books or raking in money via workshops and lectures. The position of spiritual leader is prestigious, a shot to the ego.
What's the Answer?
If you really want to honor Native people -- do it by showing them respect. Respect their wishes, their opinions and their warnings of who to avoid and their endorsements of who to trust. Learn about the issues that matter most to them -- whether it be treaty and fishing rights or the elimination of Indian mascots. Live life with respect, humility, love for Earth and all inhabitants, patience and a strong sense of community -- for these are the common threads woven between most tribal traditions. Pray daily, sacrifice yourself to the common good of others, read the writings of those who legitimately speak for Native people, and refuse to listen to any self-proclaimed pseudo-experts hocking Native religion for money.
Spirituality is not something you can buy. It's a feeling of freedom, understanding and balance with the universe. And it's free.
Bibliography and sources of additional information
Deloria, Vine. "American Indian Religious Freedom." Native American Rights Fund Winter 1997.
Andy Smith, "For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life," Ms. Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1991. WANTING TO BE INDIAN: When Spiritual Teaching Turns Into Cultural Theft
Some quotes on New Age beliefs
From Spiritual Commodification and Misappropriation: What Native People Want You To Understand:
Some people, Indians as well as non-Indians, will always prefer Ted Perry's version of Seattle's speech to Seattle's. And some will find the Black Elk of John Niehardt's book preferable to the intriguing, complex Nick Black Elk. In other words, some will prefer white inventions of Indians preferable to the real thing. There will always be a market for both nostalgia and fantasy. The cottage industry of Native Americana, formerly the province of hippies and enterprising opportunists has become mainstream and professional. Today in the average chain bookstore in the United States most of the Indian titles are in the New Age section. Well-meaning feminists conduct Indian rituals, and the men's movement has appropriated Indian drumming for their get-togethers. The myth-making machinery that in earlier days made us out to be primitive and simple now says we are spiritually advanced and environmentally perfect. Anything, it seems, but fully human. Over time these cartoon images have never worked to our advantage, and even though much in the new versions is flattering, I can't see that in the long run they will help us at all.
Paul Chaat Smith, Exile on Main Street: Home of the Brave
They want to become Indian without holding themselves accountable to Indian communities. If they did, they would have to listen to Indians telling them to stop carrying around sacred pipes...and to stop appropriating our spiritual practices. Rather, these New Agers see Indians as romanticized gurus who exist only to meet their consumerist needs...They trivialize Native American practices so that these practices lose their spiritual force....Their perceived need for warm and fuzzy mysticism takes precedence over our need to survive.
Avis Little Eagle (Lakota)
The realities of Indian belief and existence have become so misunderstood and distorted at this point that when a real Indian stands up and speaks the truth at any given moment, he or she is not only unlikely to be believed, but will probably be publicly contradicted and "corrected" by the citation of some non-Indian and totally inaccurate "expert."
Andy Smith (Cherokee)
These people have nothing to say on the matters they claim to be so expert about. To whites, they claim they're "messengers," but from whom? They are not the messengers of Indian people. I am a messenger and I do not charge for my ceremonies.
Vine Deloria, Jr. (Lakota)
The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in areas of their own customs and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and is not Indian, even for Indians. When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear. Non-Indians will then "own" our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources.
Russell Means (Lakota)
"New Age" on the Net
Wikipedia: New Age
Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality
Links of Shame/Fight the Stupidity
New-Age Fraud and Plastic Shaman (NAFPS) Sites
"New Age" in the Stereotype of the Month contest
New Ager uses sage, crystals, chants to give water "energy"
"Shaman" uses "energy medicine" to heal plants at a distance
Native religion equated with magic, astrology, human sacrifice
Native "wise men" were Druids fleeing Christian persecution
Apache "shaman" claims Lakota initiation, teaches prophecies
College plans to offer diploma in shamanic studies for nurses
Lakota "chief" performs "holistic healing" ceremonies for $65
N.C. shopkeeper Eagle claims to be "ordained shaman," chief
Sikh "faith healer" makes sun-dance dresses, crystal necklaces
Native-only casinos with holistic prizes would instill pride
"Lady Hawk" teaches shamanism with drumming, totems
Brother Bear website has "Create your own totem" game
Brother Bear's religion = "Great Spirits," animal totems
Man claims to be lost white tablet-keeper of Hopi myth
Belgian new-age group conducts a "sweatlodge" in an "igloo"
Website promises shamanic journeys, medicine wheels
Book says all Native faith is based on "shamanism"
"Crescent Moongoddess" sells Vision Quest Tarot Deck
Green Nations gathering conducts "purification lodges"
New Agers peddle "Cherokee visions" to cure illnesses
More on New Age mystics, healers, and ceremonies
Native healing offered--cheap!
White Eagle Woman exposed
New Age watchdog back online
New Agers shut down watchdog
Uncovering New Age frauds
Plastic shamans play Indian
Shamans, medicine men, or priests?
"You, sir, are one of those New Age 'acumenarians' who believes in nothing more than that which can be accessed at your very fingertips instantaneously."
"[M]y instincts tell me that your negativity is commercially driven."
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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.
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