Friday, July 20, 2007


Some time back I read a statement from Cleveland American Indian Movement about the theft of Indian Culture. As a non-Indian person with a great deal of respect for that culture, the statement made a great deal of sense to me and opened my eyes to a few things about the use of Indian spirituality by non-Indians which is anything but uncommon. I'd like to quote that statement as an introduction for the article below:
"Indians" continue to be very popular these days. Many believe they are "honoring" Indians by naming sports teams using Indian mascots, and hawking items, such as medicine wheels, headdresses, Kachina dolls, etc., in Trading Posts and mail order catalogues. Tour agencies offer "Indians" as a major component in many of their excursions in the West. Self-appointed shamans package traditional "Indian" spiritual concepts and ceremonies and sell them as avenues to self-discover and healing. All this may seem to most Americans as quite innocent, insignificant, or even a reflection of admiration for Indian peoples and cultures. NOT SO!

What is usually missing is an understanding of the grave insight and injury these activities inflict on Indian peoples. Wendy Rose, a Hopi writer and poet, comments that "white shamanism" is neither okay, harmless, nor irrelevant-no more than any other form of racist, colonial behavior..." Some people may participate simply as a result of ignorance, a situation that can be corrected by education. However, most of those who profit from these practices refuse to acknowledge their own racism, while trying to convince their Indian or non-Indian critics that they (the critics) don't understand their good intentions. Profiteers also argue that they have the right to use any material from any culture they so choose. This, of course, is only further proof that they have little respect for Indians as real human beings, with feelings, opinions, and beliefs that matter.

Nothing we do happens in a vacuum, but is embedded in complex histories and past and present social relations. The relationship between Indian nations and Euro-American populations is characterized by several centuries of land theft (every one of the 371 treaties made with the U.S. government was broken). Imported diseases and genocidal policies resulted in a nearly 99% reduction of the Indian population in North America by 1900. Well into the 20th century, Indian children were removed from their families for the purpose of "whitemanizing" them in church or government-run boarding schools. Under policies called "sell and starve" by the people (sell he land, starve with inadequate provisions), surviving Indians were incarcerated on reservations which indeed were prison camps run by mostly corrupt government agents under the U.S. War Department. In the U.S. Government Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal governments created by the U.S. Government Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Grassroots Indian owners are paid only a fraction of the real value of the leases (of Indian land) and rarely offered resources to develop self-sustaining enterprises on these lands. Instead they are offered meager welfare payments and commodity foods with little nutritional value. This is the context within which the exploitation of Indian spirituality must be seen. As Margo Thunderbird describes it: "they came for our land, for what grew or could be grown, for the resources in it, and for our pure air and clean water. They stole these things from us and in the taking they also stole our free ways and the best of our leaders, killed in battle or assassinated (or imprisoned). And now, after all that, they've come for the very last of our possessions, now they want our pride, our history, and our spiritual traditions. They want to rewrite and remake these things, to claim them for themselves. The lies and theft just never end."

Today there are survivors around the country who are working very hard to improve conditions for Indian people. They are using the courts to reclaim lost lands. They are looking to traditional elders for advice. They are introducing native languages into the schools (for it is the language that makes the ceremony) Above all, they are keeping old ceremonies intact, fiercely guarding them from dilution and commercialization. For a hundred years or more, these ceremonies were practiced underground, in secrecy, by people who risked their lives defying U.S. Governmental laws. That ancient traditions and languages are still alive today is a tribute to those who resisted efforts to colonize their minds and souls, not the self-made shamans of the modern day.

It is time that Euro-Americans stop the exploitation of Indian lands and Indian spiritual practices. Many grassroots spiritual leaders are generously sharing their knowledge and including non-Indians in their ceremonies. Non-Indians need to recognize that these are gifts to be received with proper respect and understanding. Traditional ceremonies and spiritual practices like the Lakota Sacred Pipe Ceremony, the Vision Quest, the Sun Dance, and the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, are precious gifts given to the Indian people by the Creator. These sacred ways have enabled us as Indian People to survive-miraculously-the onslaught of over five centuries of continuous effort by non-Indians and their government to exterminate us by extinguishing all traces of our traditional ways of life. Therefore, we urge all supporters of American Indian People to join us in calling for an immediate end to the cynical, sacrilegious spectacle of non-Indian "wannabes", would-be gurus of the "New Age", and "plastic medicine men" shamelessly exploiting and mocking our traditions by performing bastardized imitations of our ceremonies.

For those who have a true interest, please understand that Indian spirituality cannot be taken in pieces - a little bit here and a little bit there. Traditional spiritual practices involve daily prayer, sacrifice, and suffering-Not just an occasional sweat or smudging. Above all, Indian spiritual leadership is earned after years of learning, healing, gaining ceremonial knowledge, and through the community's recognition of one's contributions to the health and welfare of others. It is not a position one can assume by selling one's services or giving oneself to a name or title.

If non-Indians really want to honor Indian peoples and traditions, there are a number of things they can do. They can: Show respect by informing themselves thoroughly of the conditions faced by Indian people in the past and present: Help ensure that Indian people are consulted on all matters pertaining to Indian cultures and expose self-proclaimed pseudo-experts for what they are: Stop the exploitation of Indian cultures, the stereotyping, the use of Indian logos and mascots, and the appropriation of ceremonies for personal gain: Offer support to grassroots Indian organizations who are currently involved in recovering illegally seized lands, such as the Black Hills, and The Dann family holdings in Nevada: Pressure their congressman to pass legislation beneficial to Indians: Provide material support to Indians to ease their physical struggle for survival: Try to incorporate the most basic of traditional values of Indian cultures into daily living-respect, humility, patience, and the making of relatives (with other humans and all those living on Mother Earth) We are all related...

The following is from
Indian Country Today.

Speaking out on the theft and abuse of spirituality
by: Shadi Rahimi

SAN FRANCISCO - It was a strange sight, at least in East Los Angeles.

While walking her dogs recently at Arroyo Seco Park, Marisol Crisostomo-Romo, 26, said she spotted a van with a tipi on it. Into it piled a group of white children clutching bows and arrows.

They were members of the five-week-long Camp Shi'ini, ''a Native American-themed summer camp'' that is named after ''a Native American word meaning 'Summer People,''' according to its Web site.

The 60-year-old camp divides children into nine ''tribes'' and offers activities ranging from horseback riding (in the tradition of the Navajo, Comanche and Eskimo, its Web site stated) and archery (Mohawk, Seminole and Blackfoot) to fishing (Zuni, Iroquois and Apache).

Crisostomo-Romo, who is Pascua Yaqui, immediately wrote the camp a letter and e-mailed 422 people to do the same, beseeching all those ''offended and disgusted by cultural exploitation and mainstream society's self-entitlement.''

Her anger is echoed across the country by Natives who continue to be frustrated with what they view as misappropriation and abuse of spiritual and cultural practices.

Similar Native-themed camps, nonprofits, centers, programs, workshops, retreats and seminars offered mostly by non-Natives thrive across the country. And the number of non-Native people operating as medicine men and shaman - and often charging for their services - has only grown despite opposition from traditional elders, groups and Native activists.

''We don't charge for ceremonies. People with real sicknesses actually go to these people; we've heard of these people even taking advantage of women,'' said Charlie Sitting Bull, 54. ''That's the danger in people being misinformed. We battle it all the time.''

Sitting Bull is a traditional Oglala Lakota from South Dakota who said he is a direct descendant of Chief Sitting Bull. He began noticing the misuse of Native culture as a teenager, when he first saw a Boy Scout troup ''dressed as Indians,'' he said.

Since then, he has confronted Native and non-Native people falsely claiming to be descendants of Chief Sitting Bull and has worked to stop non-Native people from charging for spiritual teachings. Most recently, Sitting Bull said he prevented a white man from charging to teach Sun Dance songs at a Washington state bookstore, which the man had learned from a legitimate medicine man.

Responding to a request from the medicine man himself, Sitting Bull confronted the white man, telling him he could not hold the workshop, and asking for a written apology. The man was arrogant, but eventually obliged, he said.

A non-Native person practicing Native spirituality presents a similar danger to all Natives as a Native person who practices but ''isn't clean'' - taking drugs or not ''living a good life,'' - Sitting Bull said.

''They actually infect us like a sickness,'' he said, referring to both scenarios.

In 1993, a decree passed at an international gathering of 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota, titled the ''Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality,'' stated that immediate action be taken to defend Lakota spirituality from ''further contamination, desecration and abuse.''

It detailed what it described as the destruction of sacred traditions, reminding Natives of their highest duty - ''to preserve the purity of our precious traditions for our future generations, so that our children and our children's children will survive and prosper in the sacred manner intended for each of our respective peoples by our Creator.''

Among the ''disgraceful expropriation'' that even then had ''reached epidemic proportions in urban areas throughout the country,'' according to the leaders, were corporations that charge money for sweat lodges and vision quest programs; Sun dances for non-Natives conducted by charlatans; and cult leaders and new age people who imitate Lakota ceremonial ways and mix in non-Native occult practices.

The decree urged traditional people, tribal leaders and governing councils of all other Indian nations to join ''in calling for an immediate end to this rampant exploitation of our respective American Indian sacred traditions.''

The decree was published in a newsletter, in controversial author Ward Churchill's 1994 book ''Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America,'' and online.

Since then, an active stand has been taken by medicine men and traditional practitioners even against ''Native healers that are out of line,'' Sitting Bull said.

Responses to the decree from non-Native people on various Web sites explain why they engage in Native spiritual practices.

''I understand the importance of the statement and feel money is being made by the stealing of the traditionalists,'' Mark Montalban wrote. ''I also feel that ghosts and spirits can enter your life and give purpose and direction.''

But many Native people disagree, arguing that the appropriation of spirituality is not only disrespectful, but also dangerous if practiced incorrectly and by non-Natives.

''One can study Native culture all they want, but if it's not Native blood flowing through their veins then they'll never truly understand those ways and how to use them,'' said Anthony Thosh Collins, 25, of the Pima, Osage and Seneca-Cayuga tribes. ''I support the use of our Native culture to help heal this world, but only through the guidance of one of our own qualified elders.''

The movement against non-Natives appropriating and sometimes selling Native spirituality is growing, with younger Natives joining the forefront.

In her letter to Camp Shi'ini, Crisostomo-Romo explained the sacred nature of the face paint and war bonnets displayed on its Web site, saying, ''Non-Natives don't have business messing with these things.''

She suggested the camp instead teach children about modern issues faced by Native people, including the desecration of sacred sites, poverty and substance abuse.

It is important for non-Natives to understand that Natives do not exist only in museums or in Western movies: ''We are a people who have a future and who want the best for our children,'' Crisostomo-Romo said.

''The very notion of trying to recreate a lifestyle of a people that are still in vibrant existence is purely ridiculous,'' she said. ''Native people are not just about bows and arrows, feathers and dream catchers. The depth and beauty of our cultures can never be captured in a summer camp.''

© Indian Country Today

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