The Danger of ‘Wannabes’

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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.