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
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
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
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
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."