A Theft of Spirit?

A Theft of Spirit?

By Christopher Shaw

Originally published in New Age Journal
August 1995

This article by Christopher Shaw, originally published in the New Age Journal and reprinted in the Spring 1997 edition of Akwesasne Notes, is reprinted by permission of the author and Body & Soul Magazine (formerly New Age: The Journal for Holistic Living), from the July/August 1995 issue. For subscriptions, please visit www.bodyandsoulmag.com.

This important question of cultural respect and cultural awareness is examined from many different angles. For a mention of our work, please look at the last third of the article.—JS

FROM high-priced sweat lodges to imitation rituals, Native American spirituality is being debased and exploited, say Indian activists. And the culprit, they say, is “the new age movement.”

The day’s pounding rain and driving winds had shut down much of California, but still more than a hundred people turned out one evening last February for a reading and book-signing at the new Barnes & Noble store in Santa Rosa. They had come to hear the sixty-year old writer and workshop leader Hyemeyohsts Storm, perhaps best known for his 1972 best seller, Seven Arrows, the book that had introduced the counterculture to Native American spirituality—and, in the process, helped trigger a controversy that, some two decades later, continues to divide traditional Native Americans and contemporary spiritual seekers.

As the crowd wandered into the seating area, an Indian activist quietly threaded his way through the rows of chairs, placing a leaflet on each one. “STOP EXPLOITING THE SACRED TRADITIONS OF AMERICAN INDIAN PEOPLE!!!” the angry one-page missive began. “We are members of the Bay Area American Indian community, and we are outraged by non-Indian wannabes and would-be gurus of ‘the New Age’ shamelessly exploiting and mocking our sacred religious traditions… These sacred ways have enabled our people to survive five centuries of genocide. We will not allow these most sacred gifts to be desecrated and abused… OUR SACRED SPIRITUAL PRACTICES ARE NOT FOR SALE, AND IF YOU TRY TO STEAL THEM FROM US, YOU ARE GUILTY OF SPIRITUAL GENOCIDE.” Along with the flyer was another document, identified as an “American Indian International Tribunal Elder’s Statement,” which echoed the complaints against the unsanctioned use of Indian ritual and ceremony. “Our young people are getting restless,” the statement ominously concluded. “They have said they will take care of those who are abusing our ceremonies and sacred objects in their own way.”

Not exactly the type of greeting one expects at the neighborhood bookstore. But in recent years, as the popularity of Native American spirituality has grown, emotional confrontations of this type have become increasingly common. One need not look too hard to find the targets of the activists’ anger. Teachers of varying legitimacy—some Indian, some not—now charge considerable fees for what they describe as Native American sweat lodge ceremonies, sacred sun dances, shamanistic healing, and vision quest workshops. Sites such as Bear Butte in South Dakota and Mount Shasta in California, long revered by Native people, are regularly converged upon by spiritual seekers, who too often leave behind a multicultural trash heap of offerings, crystals and talismans. Alternative book and gift shops do a brisk business selling genuine and faux dream catchers, smudge sticks, pipes, herbal remedies, and other traditional Native American items for home use by curious non-Natives. Some of the abuses would be laughable, were they not so offensive: sun dances held on Astroturf, wine and cheese served at purifying sweat lodge ceremonies, and sex orgies offered as Cherokee spiritual workshops are among the worst cases reported.

The appeal of Native ritual and ceremony is not surprising in this time of spiritual exploration. Traditional Indian ideas such as respect for the Earth and a recognition of the interconnectedness of all life speak to those working to cultivate an ecological sensibility, while books such as Black Elk Speaks, The Teachings of Don Juan, and Storm’s Seven Arrows fuel the longing of those seeking mysticism grounded in nature. But given the long history of colonization of Native peoples and their ongoing cultural struggles, say Native American activists, such groping toward a vague spiritual “Indian-ness,” often by wealthy whites, can be deeply offensive. Ward Churchill, author of several books on issues facing Native peoples, including Indians R Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America, notes that over the years the federal government has systematically stripped Native people of their land, their resources, and even their identity (by recognizing as Indian only those who meet certain blood quantum criteria). “What’s left… is a fairly thin repository for something truly Indian,” he says. “And now we’ve got every yuppie new ager in the universe deciding they have an inalienable right to take that, too, and use it for whatever purposes they see fit.” John LaVelle, a Santee Lakota and director of the Center for the Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions (SPIRIT), calls this “the final phase of genocide. First whites took the land and all that was physical. Now they’re going after what is intangible.”

Native political organizations have taken the same position In 1993, the National Congress of American Indians issued a “declaration of war” against “non-Indian ‘wannabes,’ hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers, and self-styled new age shamans.” (Earlier that year, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in Chicago, activists also denounced the commerce in American Indians’ sacred traditions and spirituality). The issue dates back at least to the early ‘80s, when Indian activists, reacting to events such as the Medicine Wheel gathering of Vincent LaDuke—known to his many followers as Sun Bear—and the expensive workshops of Wallace Black Elk, issued forceful condemnations of commercialized spirituality. In 1992, the American Indian Movement (AIM) warned a number of practitioners that “our patience grows thin with them, and they continue their disrespect at their own risk.”

The case of Hyemeyohsts Storm is illustrative. Over the years, the writer has been widely criticized by Indian activists who consider him a false teacher, an ersatz Indian who has commercialized and distorted Native spirituality through his books and seminars. (Storm, who is of mixed descent, claims he was born and raised on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations of Montana and is “an enrolled Indian,” although his status with those tribes could not be confirmed.) His name—pronounced Hi-yuh-may-yohsts-— appears frequently on activist blacklists, alongside those of teachers and writers such as Brooke Medicine Eagle, Lynn Andrews and Jamake Highwater.

Despite the protest and allegations of impropriety that have marked his career, Storm maintains a loyal following among non-Natives. “There is value in what he’s teaching white people,” asserts Mercedes Terezza, whose Healing Guild sponsored a seminar with Storm in Santa Rosa and helped set up his bookstore appearance. “What we learn strengthens ourselves and our spirituality, so we can serve all people and this planet.”

Whatever benefits may come from the burgeoning popularity of Native spirituality, there are clearly substantial costs, say observers. In the Journal of Experiential Education, Gordon W.A. Oles, a Mohawk/ Cayuga Indian from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada—responding to the use of vision quests, sweat lodge ceremonies, and other rituals in wilderness education programs—notes that, from his perspective as a Native American and outdoor leader, “these contrived, psuedo-Indian activities [are] tantamount to a nonbeliever taking the Emblems of Communion and passing them out along the trail as a snack.”

“What if I were to come into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, clad only in moccasins and a breechclout, and attempt to take the place of the priest? Or suppose that I went into a synagogue on Yom Kippur and sang Kol Nidre instead of the cantor?… Even if I say the correct words and do the correct things, I certainly do not have the right to do so, and I would most likely offend the religious sensibilities of those within their respective congregations.”

Author Ward Churchill adds that the mix-and-match amalgamations of Native ideas that are often marketed as indigenous spirituality actually present a long-term threat to Native culture. “They undercut the integrity , the sanctity, of the real traditions from which they draw,” he says in an interview in the book Listening to the Land. “Undermine them enough and they’ll disappear.”

While no one defends the distortion and abuse of Native teachings, there are those who do hold that Native spirituality can be appropriately shared with non-Natives. Dorothy Blackcrow Mack, a white woman who married a Native American and and is a former caretaker of the Blackcrow sun dance grounds in Wanblee, South Dakota, acknowledges that, without “living it and breathing it day by day,” non-Natives cannot understand Native spirituality, and may even think they can “play around” with rituals and ceremonies.” Still, she says, nobody can legislate worship: The Great Mystery is open to all who believe. “I have heard Native people tell non-Natives that they can’t drum, or use deer toe rattles, or hold the sacred pipe,” writes Mack, who now teaches Native American literature in Oregon. “Once at Greengrass I was told I couldn’t pray there, but I just looked at that blue-eyed Lakota and smiled: No one can stop anyone from praying anywhere.”

“Similarly, no one can tell anyone not to go on a fast, whether they call it a hanbleceya or not. We often told visitors that they couldn’t sun dance at Blackcrow’s, but not that they couldn’t sun dance—if they were fool enough to try without understanding the depth and power of that commitment. These attempts to keep Native spirituality for Natives only are understandable. They’re based on fear—fear that spirituality can be taken away. It cannot. No imitator can steal anyone’s belief.”

Even some Native people who follow traditional ways welcome white interest in their culture and believe it signals a time of healing. The late Chief Frank Fools Crow, a Lakota holy man who helped restore the sun dance to common practice and was one of the spiritual founders of AIM, thought Indians owed humanity some of the wisdom they’d gained over centuries on the land. “The power and ways are given to us to be passed on to others,” Chief Fools Crow said. “To think or to do anything else is pure selfishness.”

But even those who agree with Fools Crow may differ on which teachings should be shared—and how best to share them. Ultimately, difficult questions remain: Can a spiritual tradition that is so closely woven into a culture keep its meaning outside of that context? And, if so, how can teachings be explored by outsiders so that the tradition is not compromised in the process?

I grew up in New York’s Mohawk valley, close enough to the river to spit in it. By the age of ten I felt the absence of the people who had left their place names scattered across the landscape like the erratics and moraines of the melted glaciers. These were the Haudenosaunee, the “Longhouse People” (called Iroquois by the French), best known for The Great Law of Peace, the oral foundation of the Six Nations Confederacy.

The Great Law was brought to the Haudenosaunee sometime around 1450 by the Peacemaker, a Huron, and his Mohawk spokesman Aiionwatha (Hiawatha) to end decades of conflict among the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations. The law, which fosters the exercise of reason and clear thinking and protects free speech and equality for women, may have been influential in the crafting of the United States Constitution. The philosophy contained in The Great Law is so far-reaching and comprehensive, in fact, that it isn’t surprising to find traditional Iroquois who continue to quietly promote its teachings to the world. And so it was to these people to whom I turned for insight into the broader issues raised by the growing popularity of Native American spirituality.

Among the first was Mohawk elder Jake Swamp, who lives in a modest house on the wide river flats at Akwesasne, a reserve that straddles the United States-Canadian border near the confluence of the St. Regis and St. Lawrence rivers. While not a hereditary chief in the Akwesasne longhouse, Swamp performs the functions of Sarenhowane: “Majestic Tree.” The title’s owner promotes the teachings that pertain to the Tree of Peace—the symbol of The Great Law.

In 1989, Swamp gave up his trade as an ironworker to run the nonprofit Tree of Peace Society, which he had founded several years before. Today, he lectures widely, by invitation, on reforestation, environmental issues, and The Great Law and plants symbolic peace trees at civic functions. Last August, with Oneida singer-songwriter Joanne Shenandoah and a troupe of Iroquois dancers, he participated in the opening ceremonies of the Woodstock II concert, in Saugerties, New York.

“Many of the people I have met who are considered new age people are really devoted to caring for the Earth and also to being respectful,” he says. “But within this realm there are emerging some people who do take advantage of the situation. They go to different stores or museums and they pick up pipes, and they tell people they have been instructed by some Native elder, and they pursue sweat lodges and perform for money. And that is a form of abuse.”

Raised as a Catholic, Swamp’s own spiritual awakening didn’t begin until he married his wife, who had been brought up in the longhouse tradition. “I had a fear of my own culture,” he says of those early days. “I abused myself with alcohol, and I didn’t understand where the pain was coming from, not until I got to the longhouse.”

Swamp quickly began pestering the elders for information, but the “old people” sidestepped his entreaties. “They were testing me to make sure that I wasn’t going to take the information, just walk away and never come back.” But after three years, he earned their trust, and they agreed to teach them.

Swamp’s own work has earned its share of criticism from some factions at Akwesasne, but he remains convinced of his message’s importance. “When I am accused of sharing this with other people, I understand, because I experienced the other life, too, and the other life is what I’m trying to help—the other life that I see around me, the people who are walking around empty, looking for something,” he says. “By sharing the story of the Peacemaker it gives a new hope and a new vision for the future.”

Swamp’s openness has its limits, however. “I feel that if anything is good in this world, everyone should have it. But I don’t think we should get it all in one dose. When you get something so easy you don’t value it as much. You have to pay your dues. Then you’re going to value it the rest of your life.”

As for the so-called plastic medicine men and others who abuse the teachings, Swamp thinks it’s useless to worry too much about them. “That’s taken care of on a spiritual level,” he says. “whoever acts in this manner always fails. The spirituality, when you play with it, tends to work on you.”

Mohawk newspaper columnist Doug George sits in the living room of the double-wide trailer he shares with his wife, singer-songwriter Joanne Shenandoah, on the thirty-two acre Oneida Nation reserve, less than an hour’s drive from Syracuse, which is all that remains of the Oneida’s six-million-acre former territory in upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania. From 1986 until 1992, George edited Akwesasne Notes, one of the premier journals of Native issues. He now writes a weekly column in the Syracuse Herald-American that promotes Native American thought and tradition for non-Indians. Last July, the column won the Wassaja Award for journalistic excellency from the Native American Journalists Association.

“We’ve had some very bad experiences with people whom we entrusted with our knowledge,” George begins, “people who went on to make a good living from what we gave them.” Scholars receive the brunt of George’s ire. He tells of one who was admitted to a longhouse ceremony at Akwesasne, under an embargo not to reveal specific practices. But the man described the event in detail, and non-Iroquois were thereafter forbidden entry to the longhouse, a proscription that stands.

Today George is helping to plan a series of conferences sponsored by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, in Boulder, Colorado, in conjunction with the writer Vine Deloria (author of Custer Died for Your Sins, among other books). “It’s called Traditional Knowledge,” George says. “It’s meant to draw together Native people from throughout North America to discuss what constitutes traditional knowledge and the best way to preserve it. It’s a way of looking back to what we used to have and bringing it forward.”

The conferences are closed to non-Natives, for the time being. George explains that people need to feel safe when exchanging knowledge specific to certain nations and geographic locales, knowledge that in some cases may be protected as sacred. “Iroquois people believe that when you go into a ‘circle’ ceremony, everyone in there has to be of like mind,” George says. “The speaker will get up and, in delivering a thanksgiving address, will refer to the bringing together of minds: all our minds together as one. And if you are not of that discipline then it’s hard to put aside your intellectual questioning, your curiosity, and just spiritually and emotionally merge with the group. If you understand what’s going on instinctively, if it permeates your being, then everything’s smooth. If a person doesn’t understand, for one reason or another, regardless of whether they’re Native or not, then it disrupts that.”

Curiosity about Native American spirituality by “new age” people, George says, is frequently discussed at Indian gatherings. He believes that there are benefits to be gained from Indians sharing knowledge of all kinds, including spiritual knowledge, with the world. “I like the idea that people are questioning the things that are going on around them and trying to come up with alternatives. I also understand the imperative to do this with what short time we have on this planet. Indian people have a certain way of looking at the world that’s necessary for everybody to adopt, which is that man is an integral part of creation, not detached by virtue of his intellect or reasoning.”

But he stresses that these spiritual ideas must be seen as inextricable aspects of a complex culture. Over the years, he notes, people have “had a difficult time dealing with contemporary Iroquois and their concerns. To them, it would be better if we were just these nice, pre-technological pagans of the past.” But in today’s world, any exploration of Native American life and spirituality must acknowledge the full complexity of issues facing the community—its history, land claims, internal tribal divisions, the return of sacred objects and Indian remains, economic conditions, and so on. To do anything less is to risk romanticizing the culture. “There’s something appealing about living in an idealistic society free from the normal constraints of the technological world,” George says. “People [would] like to be living in a simpler time. Who can blame ‘em? Indian people would like that, too.”

We have been talking for an hour when he removes his glasses and squeezes his eyes too wearily for a person who has just turned forty. “But the problem for Native people is that we’re in a state of very high transition,” he says. “On all levels— educational, social, economic—things are coming at us with alarming speed and keep on hitting us, hitting us; and whenever they do, they drive us farther back, farther and farther away from what was supposed to be the original structure.”

In response to the interest in Native spirituality by non-Indians, George says that he and the people he’s working with are now taking a new approach—encouraging those with European roots to explore their own heritage. “If you look far enough back, you’ll find that the Celts and the Anglos and the Saxons and the Jutes all had similar rituals of thanksgiving based on the cycles of the moon and the growing seasons of the Earth. That’s what needs to be revived. Maybe we can use this as a kind of spiritual judo. When people come to you with a desperate need to know more, just turn that around and say the solution is within your own self. The solution is in your own community.”

Both Swamp and George mentioned John Stokes, of the nonprofit Tracking Project in Corrales, New Mexico, calling him “a person who knows his limits”—an example of how non-Natives can present aspects of sacred knowledge in an unintrusive way. “Even though he might have been exposed to some of the deeper meanings, he will not reveal them,” Swamp says of Stokes, who has close ties with dozens of traditional Native leaders in the United States and Australia. “He is respectful. He only shares what is safe to share.”

Stokes teaches women’s awareness training, tracking and hiking. A storyteller and musician as well as a tracker, he travels widely to teach survival skills he learned from aboriginal people in Australia. Under the sponsorship of traditional leaders, he often gives free workshops for Native youth in this country to help them regain their connection to the land.

In some of Stokes’s workshops, participants visit Native elders or learn general principles of some Native beliefs, such as The Great Law, but each belief system is presented as specific to the place and the culture that gave it expression. His primary purpose is little more than helping people to “simply be” in the place where they are. Stripped entirely of appearances and quaint notions of Indian-ness, this may be the most elementary factor in any traditional or tribal spirituality, whether American, Asian, African or European.

Stokes has outlined three objections to insensitive treatments of Native spirituality. The first is the denial or deliberate avoidance of the negative, difficult or unromantic aspects of Indian/ Euro-American relations as well as conflicts within Native communities. The second is the “fiscalization” of traditional knowledge—charging money for teaching. “Many of the old stories say that if you take this body of knowledge and try to sell it you lose the spirit of it,” Stokes says. And the third is the failure to credit, or falsely crediting, the sources of teaching. Each leads to a flabby spirituality and “ungrounded” teaching.

“I try not to be a spiritual policeman,” Stokes adds. “But there’s a whole-truth factor. In the case of somebody like Lynn Andrews [author of a series of books on her bizarre personal experiences with Indians of dubious extraction], what happens is that everybody agrees that we have to read this as fiction, right? Then some people start saying that it doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, because it’s interesting. They forget that when that happens it demeans the culture it’s attributed to.”

Andrew Cooksey is one of many middle-class Americans attracted to Lakota teachings as part of the Native American civil rights movement. In the 70’s, he lived and studied with John Fire Lame Deer and was arrested for “crossing state lines to contribute to a riot” during the Wounded Knee protest in 1973. Now, every summer, Cooksey travels from Los Angeles to South Dakota, where he joins friends and supporters of the traditional healer Godfrey Chips and his family for sun dancing and healing ceremonies. Their practice is kept private, and the Chips family accepts only household donations as payment. Cooksey, echoing the sentiments of Stokes, says that even his own participation is circumspect. “It should be done quietly and respectfully,” he says, “and the medicine should never be sold.”

That all-important respect, says Cooksey and others, should be directed not just toward the Native beliefs and practices but toward the spiritual path itself. A Lakota elder once told Cooksey, “If you don’t understand this way, tough. If you do understand this way, it’s still tough.” Religious apprenticeships share this quality of difficulty, and truly understanding Native American spirituality—given its sacred importance to its culture—requires no less discipline. “People who run out and begin teaching what they’ve learned before they’ve completed the work, whether they know it or not, dilute the knowledge, which in time leads to a deterioration of the body of knowledge they represent,” says John Stokes. In other words, a vision achieved during a workshop where snacks are provided, or where inclement weather cancels the activity, is no vision. There is no halfway to sun dance: It is to “give flesh,” literally. When you pierce the breast, it bleeds. It is sacrifice of the most devout and costly kind.

The poet Gary Snyder once wrote that the personal quest “requires giving up comfort and safety, accepting cold and hunger, and being willing to eat anything. You may never see home again.” It is a continuing, self-perpetuating process, an exploration of “otherness” both geographical and psychological. The cost will be great, but it won’t come from your wallet.

“Someone mouthing a prayer, someone performing an ancient ritual without discipline, understanding and deep belief will have no power,” writes Dorothy Blackrow Mack. “People who deliberately seek such power will not find it. People who pay for medicine, who believe they can buy the Spirit, are fools.”

Yet, she adds: “We are hungry for doorways to the Spirit, to learn that everything and every day is sacred… Spiritual leaders need to encourage all to deepen their prayers and spiritual path… because we non-Natives must first learn to shift our thinking from ‘I’ to ‘we’, a concept built into many Native languages.”

The appeal of Native American spirituality is surely great. But so, too, is the need for responsibility in exploring it. As tracker John Stokes notes: “The new age is coming whether there’s a new age movement or not. It’s imperative that we learn from Native people. But I would make the distinction that you can be given something as a gift or you can steal. It’s much better for it to be given to you as a gift.”

©Christopher Shaw