Spiritual Commodification and Misappropriation What Native People Want You To Understand

Compiled by Mariah Jones

There is a disinformation campaign in progress in Sonoma County to  undermine Native peoples' nationwide efforts to protect their ceremonial processes from abuse. The promulgators would have you believe that  only a few "militant" Indians are concerned about this exploitation by those  who have no real knowledge of the deep inner meaning inherent in these  ceremonies. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Native people  DO object to  this phenomenon.

If you stand with Indian people, then you respect their moral right to decide  under which circumstances their ceremonies will be "shared" with  non-Indians. Please read the following statements by Native people. They  are spiritual leaders, authors, attorneys, anthropologists, scholars, activists, educators and tribal leaders. Though they represent just a small percentage  of those who have spoken out on this issue, the concepts presented will  give you some idea of the perspective you are being asked to consider.

"What's at issue here is the same old question that Europeans have always  posed with regard to American Indians, whether what's ours isn't somehow  theirs. And, of course, they've always answered in the affirmative. Now, being  spiritually bankrupt themselves, they want our spirituality as well. So, they make  up rationalizations to explain why they're entitled to it."

Russell Means (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."

Pam Colorado (Oneida) "...On the other hand, the stereotypical and grossly  distortive work of Hyemeyohsts Storm, a man only marginally Indian, has earned him the wrath of the Northern Cheyenne people with whom he  claimed affiliation." 

Wendy Rose (Hopi) "Do the names Sun Bear, Wallace Black Elk, Oh Shinna  Fast Wolf, Brook Medicine Eagle, Harley Reagan Swiftdeer, Buck Ghost  Horse, or Mary Thunder mean anything to you? Well, they should, because  these pseudo-medicine quacks are passing themselves off as Native  American spiritual leaders. Native American spirituality has become a fad to many New Age non-Indians and their naivete is being exploited to  the limit by plastic medicine people, much to the dismay of traditional elders. Practicing Native American spirituality out of the context of Native American  culture diminishes the integrity of both. Many of these people are actually Indians who are spreading false rituals  for profit. The rest are  white men and women who claim to be Indian. For  the most part they have changed their names to Indian names to lend  authenticity to their flock. One way to tell if these people are legitimate is  whether they go into the  Native American communities they claim to be from and perform the  same rituals."

l99l Turtle Island Project Newsletter Chairperson--Betty Cooper (Blackfeet)  "There are some obvious tip-offs for people interested in Indian customs  and ceremonies. One is simplistic vision quests. You can wait a whole  lifetime for a vision--these guys have visions about every week."

Avis Little Eagle (Lakota) "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."

Andy Smith (Cherokee) "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"."

Vine Deloria, Jr. (Lakota) "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."

Thomas Banyacya (Hopi) "We cannot prevent people from throwing their  money away on so-called "Indian Ceremonies", but we can challenge those  who misuse our sacred pipes, sweatlodges and ceremonies."

The Traditional Circle of Elders "Non-Indians have become so used to all  this hype on the part of impostors and liars that when a real Indian spiritual leader tries to offer them useful advice, he is rejected. He isn't  "Indian" enough for all these non-Indian experts on Indian religion. Now, this is not only degrading to Indian people, it's downright delusional  behavior... We've got real problems today, tremendous problems which  threaten the survival of the planet. Indians and non-Indians must confront  these problems together,... but this dialogue is impossible so long as  non-Indians remain deluded about things as basic as Indian spirituality."

Chief Oren Lyons (Onondaga) "What about the quest for Native spirituality?  It is mostly ESCAPIST, and people like Lynn Andrews, and other would-be  shamans would rather look to an ideal, romanticized "Native" living in  never-never land than confront the reality of what being Native means in  this society. Our elders and traditional teachers want to share the beauty of Native  cultures, the Native way. But appropriation is not sharing. Appropriation  exploits and commercializes Native cultures, and is harmful to innocent  people."

Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Ojibwe) "Not Just Entertainment" Whole Earth  Review '91 "Each tribe has their own unique ways which only they can fully understand... each tribe has their own sacred ceremonies, songs, dances  and prayers which form their own tribal religious ways. These come from each tribe's history, science, environment and all the things which make up  our different cultures. I am Ponca because of over l0,000 years of  intermingling the lives, blood and history of my tribe upon Ponca land.  Every movement and action is blessed with a meaning handed down by  generations of ancestors and held within our tribal memory. I say these things because I want to warn people about some bad things  happening to traditional ways. All across Indian country, in every city and  state, white people are commercializing Lakota ceremonies. Our ways  cannot be bought and sold like bibles. No knowledge, no science, no  language, no culture is involved in their pitiful mockery of traditional ways. They actually believe that by singing or drumming the right song, they are  doing something Indian. Medicine equals magic to them. Their ignorance  is an insult to even the very simplest of our ceremonies, but their white  arrogance leads them to believe they can learn in a week what an Indian  learns in many lifetimes. It is time we who value old ways begin to explain to our non-Indian guests  that our basic philosophy of respect for the circle of life is open to the understanding of all races. But if our tribal ceremonies are to survive with  meaning and dignity for our children, we must explain to the wasoci that it is not necessary for them to pretend to be Indian to understand the nature  of the circle. How can Lakota children find the same respect for tribal ways our grandfathers handed down to us if hundreds of these pitiful ones  are out waving Pipes, pouring water, singing songs learned from cassettes  and whipping a drum?"

Carter Camp (Ponca) Lakota Times "...Those of the New Age have proven  themselves willing to disregard the right of American Indians to a modicum  of cultural sanctity or psychological sanctity. They too, willfully and consistently  disregard the protests and objections of their victims, speaking only of their  own "right to know" and to victimize. They too, have persistently shown  themselves willing to lie, distort, fabricate, cheat and steal in order  to  accomplish their agenda. Why? The answers are as simple as the fact  that they are here and that they fully plan to stay. While the New Age can  hardly be accused rationally of performing the conquest of the Americas,  and its adherents go to great lengths in expressing their dismay at their  methods used  therein, they have clearly inherited what their ancestors  gained by conquest, both in terms of resources and in terms of relative  power. The New Agers, for all their protestations to the contrary, aren't about to give  up any power. It is a somewhat tricky psychological project to be able to "feel good about themselves" through "legitimizing" the maintenance of  their own colonial privilege.  The invaders' "contributions", however invented they may be, inevitably  "entitle" them to superior status; there may have been a problem once, but  it's in the past so forget it; we're all in this together now, so let's move  forward (with me in the lead); I'm OK, you"re OK (so long as you stay in  your place and don't upset me with questions of, or challenges to my  privilege)."

Ward Churchill (Creek/Cherokee Metis) Fantasies of the Master Race,  l992 "This process of white dabbling in American Indian spiritual rituals represents the ultimate absorption. Native American spirituality becomes a  commodity in the Euroamerican market place, to be bought and sold  alongside other "New Age" items."

M. Annette Jaimes (Juaneno/Yaqui) "I'm just tired of people going around  representing themselves as healers and medicine people. We hear of it  all the time, and no one is bothering to check their credibility or credentials."