The Danger of ‘Wannabes’

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 6, 2007 — 7 Comments

The Colorado Springs Gazette features an editorial from columnist Barry Noreen on the problems faced by Native Americans trying to preserve their religious culture in the face of appropriation and exploitation by the New Age community.

“Christians aren’t the only ones for whom spirituality is a matter of life and death. So Jacob Anaya has taken up the role as a defender of the faith. Anaya, owner of All My Relations Creations in Manitou Springs, acknowledges he is a bit like the little Dutch boy, standing up against the latest assault on American Indian spirituality: New Agers. Anaya, originally of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and later a teacher of Lakota traditions, gives presentations to sound warnings about modern charlatans who will sell sweat lodge, vision quest or pipe ceremonies for a price … Typically, Anaya said, a New Age spiritualist will know some of the sweat lodge details and perhaps a snippet of Lakota language. They’re all about trying to create a ceremony, not about treating it as a way of life … These wannabes sometimes hand out certificates – “they start handing out (Indian) names like cigars,” Anaya said, derisively suggesting someone can become “Squeaking Squirrel Butt” overnight.”

Noreen continues this theme in his blog for the newspaper, where he recommends the NAFPS (New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans) group, and claims that spiritual exploitation is “another way to attack Indians”.

“There is 5-year-old effort, New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans, which established a Web site, to expose what it sees as fraudulent exploitation of Indian spirituality. These “outings” have resulted in charges that NAFPS is a racist hate group. Without entering into the charges and counter-charges, it’s fair to say that if one wants to Google “sweat lodge ceremonies,” a wide spectrum of allegedly holy opportunities are out there – some including astrology and others things never associated with American Indians. One can spend a good bit of money in some cases, although exactly what is purchased at the end of the day is another debatable topic. Some of these activities can help you feel good, but they have little or nothing to do with American Indian spirituality.”

While “borrowing” Native spirituality has become quite gauche within many modern Pagan circles (in fact, some members of NAFPS are modern Pagans), there are still many Pagans who claim to incorporate Native spirituality into their practice, and faux-Indian rituals and retreats are still entirely common within New Age circles (especially so in Europe, where Native “inspired” events are common enough that a documentary film was made on the subject).

“Europe has also seen a growing interest in so called Native American spirituality. Ceremonies and rituals together with sacred objects are being sold on websites and in papers. Cults and organisations offer people to become ‘an Indian shaman’ or a medicine man during a weekend course. Seldom or never do Native voices get heard and because of the lack of information, con-men make a considerable amount of money while they violate the spirituality of mostly Plains Indians.”

While I think that modern Pagans and polytheists should strive towards solidarity (when feasible) with those who practice pre-Christian faiths and rituals, our support should never be confused with the notion that we have a “right” to “borrow” (and take out of cultural context) their spiritual practices for our own benefit. Empathy for the Indian struggle does not confer the right to appropriate Native traditions and practices. Praying like an Indian doesn’t help the Indian preserve their culture and integrity, it only serves our vanity and dilutes authentic practice.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Synthesis

    Spirituality isn’t really any one person’s ‘possession’. If people are stupid enough to follow a trend that’s taking a spirituality and it’s titles and such that’s their problem. It creates stereotypes, it pleases fools, and every group has some sort of problem with this sort of thing. Life goes on.

  • Yvonne

    There’s an excellent article about Responsible Eclecticism and Cultural Appropriation which outlines the difference – basically if you take someone else’s ritual and plonk it down in your spiritual context with no thought about what you are doing, that is cultural appropriation. If in addition to that, the group you have borrowed from is in danger of having its culture and land-rights stomped all over by mainstream culture, and you do nothing to help them in their struggle, that is the pits. And most of the plastic shamans have done nothing to assist in the indigenous struggle for self-determination, they’ve just ripped off their rituals and made a great deal of money out of them.If on the other hand you look for parallels within your own tradition, and adapt the borrowing to your own context (an example being centering prayer, which is an adaptation of meditation) that is responsible eclecticism.

  • Trystn

    Their commonal spirituality isn’t a “possession” to the Natives. It’s their way of life and a large part of their identity. I agree with Yvonne, and further with my friend Brian who just completed the Sundance. It’s time for the self-absorbed, infantile, neoplaguan discommunity to learn to keep its hands to itself. Trystn

  • Ohstowe

    As a tribal member of the Nundawaono Hodinosionne Nation of the Grand River, and as a mixed blood, and as an anthropologist…big smile….I just can’t help but get a small laugh from this article and from all of the important things that it is NOT saying while it complains about trivia. Here are a few things that occur to me after reading this article:1.) Yes there are lots of charlatans out there claiming to be what they are-not, and using Native American spirituality as a means to make money. BUT there are also a few of these charlatans who are also Native Americans. The “Road Medicine Man,” as my grandfather used to call them, was a phenomenon that started among Native communities many years ago as alleged “medicine men” left their own reservations and hit the roads as itinerant “Holy Men” traveling to other communities and tribes to make a living off of their knowledge. Now days they can even be Native people who have cgrown up their whole lives in cities, and then had a brief emersion in their culture, followed by their claim to be a medicine man. Understand, some of these people we see out in the world today were, and are, the real thing, and they are just reaching out to others, but some of them were, and are, frauds looking to profit from a little knowledge, and they have little credibility in their home communities, but they can play the Mystic Indian to White people. My point is, not all of the con-men selling Native spirituality are New Age or pagan Whites. I think the only medicine persons you can trust are the ones who make no profit of any kind from what they do, and who are truly respected and honored in their own home communities, and thankfully there are still many True Spirit People who are like that. They give their lives to the craft they have been called to serve WITHIN their own communities even if they also reach out to other communities, or even if they don’t reach out to others. The Spirit burns within them and they give up their lives and comforts to serve, rather than to profit.2.) The writer also says something else that bothers me. No one can seriously claim that Native American spirituality is somehow more truly a “way of life” to Native people than any of the New Age or Pagan spiritualities can be to non-Native Americans. If they do make such claims, as the author seems to do, then they are also expressing a serious lack of respect for the spirituality of other human beings, the same thing they are acusing the New Age copy-cats of doing to Native religion.3.) A lot of Native American spiritual practices come from the many different cultures of the people, and those practices are not at all cast out of the same molds. The author’s Pueblo traditions are significantly different from the Northern Plains traditions he says he practices asa Sun Dancer, or at least thy “used to be.” During the last century, as more and more Native people left their own reservations and moved out into the bigger world after WWI and WWII, many Native spiritual practices of one tribe or other were borrowed and copied by other tribes. I live on the Pacific Northwest Coast, and Northern Plains spiritual practices are all over the place up here. This seems to me to be just what the author is complaining about the New Age and Pagan peoples doing.4.) Native America traditions not only come from Native Tribal cultures, they also come from the personal spiritual experience of the practitioner, and from the Sacred Land itself. The author claims that true Native American spiritual practices exist, at least in his mind, ONLY within Native American cultures. I agree with this point of view, but I also acknowledge that the Sacred Land of my ancestors, the Land that knows my foot steps because my ancestor’s flesh makes up the dust beneath my feet, the Land also speaks to other peoples here in America, not just to mine. A part of the reason that New Age and Neo-pagan religions are growing in America and also in other parts of the world, is that traditionally and historically, many sects of Christianity, including the major ones, have failed to honor or value the Sacred Land, anywhere in the world. This failure to connect with the rest of the community of life on our planet has repulsed many peoples, who, in-turn, go searching for Earth-valuing spiritual traditions. This is what attracts them to Native American ways, and also to the European “Native” traditions of the old pre-Christian pagans. Modern neo-paganism, especially here in North America, often blends Native American traditions and practices with Native European traditions and practices, weather it is Wicca or Druidism. In my mind this is totally logical as an expression of how Euro-Americans are attempting to connect their ancient pre-Christian cultures, and themselves, to a Sacred Land that is here in America. I have spoken with Australians who are practioners of British neo-Druidism, yet they too honor, and borrow practices and spiritual view points from their own Native Aboriginal peoples.5.) Copying can be the most sincere form of flattery. And I wish that all Americans would find a truer and more spiritual connection to our shared Sacred Land. What I would mistrust, however, is any claim by a non-Native person that this IS “The Practice,” or “The Belief,” or “The Tradition,” of the Cheyenne, or the Sioux, or any Native American culture. The only people who can say such things with any degree of truth are the Native American peoples themselves who are members of those nations. Those who are not living in the cultures of these tribes can’t make such claims. Another thing I mistrust is the tendency to claim legitimacy from one or another Native American spiritual teacher. It is fine to give credit and honor to our teachers, but every teaching is always personalized and transformed by our own life experiences and perspectives.Those who say, “This is how so-and-so does this,” or “this is what so-and-so says,” but do not take credit for their own in-put into what they do, are being deceptive to themselves and others. I give credit to my own teachers, but in no-way do I ever claim to speak with their voice. I speak with my own.Anyway, these are my two cents.Onneh estiwa all of my relations,Ohstowe Hajuks

  • ohstowe

    A final thought: Some people do exploit Native Culture, but one of my points is that not all of them are White. As for the mishmash of traditions that New Agers throw together, isn’t that simply eclectisism? Believe me, modern Native American Religion, as many native people practice it, is also a hodgpog of practices from many different sources that was pulled together to replace many of the original practices of the many tribal cultures that were lost, or only partially and imperfectly remembered. Thye were lost in whole or part after most of the elders who actually remembered them died off while their children and grandchildren were far away being brain-washed and forced to aculturate in the BIA and church-run boarding schools. Eclectisism is often a fact of how we humans develop. Where some feel they are more “pure” than others in their practices, others feel they have found the hidden truth by inovating and borrowing things in theirs. The real point, and one I didn’t make in my comments before, comes down to one of the closing statements in the article, “Praying like an Indian doesn’t help the Indian preserve their culture and integrity, it only serves our vanity and dilutes authentic practice.” I am sorry, but there is something really wrong here in that observation, really two things wrong: First, how does the way anyone prays threaten anyone elses culture and integrity and dilute “authentic practice?” A liar and a con-man is a liar and a con-man, but nothing the liar does threatens my culture or my faith! There is nothing that anyone can do, even in a living hell like the Guantanimo Prison, that can dilute or threaten the integrity of my culture, or my prayers. Secondly, why should anyone’s religious practices threaten someone elses? Just how does the psudo-Nativeism of someone who is a non-Native praying in a sweat lodge threaten real Native people praying in their sweat lodges? If there is a real threat in this, then I have to suggest that part of the threat comes from Native peoples like the author of this article, because real”authenticity” comes from within the practitioner and their relationship with their gods, not from any acts of those around them. The only reason that this man should feel the need to defend his faith against others who seek to copy it is if he is not being true to it himself. He suggests that Whites who “pray like Indians” do so out of vanity. Really? I have known Indians who prayed like Indians out of vanity. But not all Whites or Indians who pray in anything like an Indian way are therefore doing so out of vanity. That premiss is false on its face. The main falsehood here lies in claiming that something is what it is not, and we should all be alert for such falsehoods. “Authenticity” rises up from within, and it is demonstrated by how we conduct ourselves in our actions. If you believe that someone else has the power to determin weather or not your methods of prayer are “authentic” then you are probably a Roman Catholic. But I am not!

    • russell a grish

      this is probably one of the best responces to an article that Ive ever read! and I find myself agreeing with it whole heartedly.

  • pahchoka

    A " foreign ambassador and diplomat "—-once again well said Bjorn and goes to character and the nature of the heart.