"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-discovery and healing. All this may seem to most Americans as quite innocent or insignificant or even a reflection of admiration for Indian peoples and cultures. NOT SO!
What is usually missing is an understanding of the grave insult and injury these activities inflict on Indian peoples. Wendy Rose, a Hopi writer and poet, comments that "whiteshamanism is neither okay, harmless, nor irrelevant, no more than any other form of racist, colonialist behavior..." Some people may participate simply as a result of ignorance, a situation which 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) dont 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 and opinions 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 97% 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 the 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 1930s, Indian Affairs were placed with the Interior Department, but "sell and starve" goes on even today. As an ultimate blow, U.S. government policy outlawed Indian ceremonies, such as the Sundance of the Plains and the Potlatch of the Northwest.
Today survivors of these policies are struggling with massive problems, such as emotional and psychological trauma, substandard and inadequate housing, frequent lack of food and heat, alcoholism and drug addiction, and high rates of poverty-related diseases. Large tracts of reservation land are leased to white ranchers by the 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 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:
Today there are survivors around the country who are working very hard to improve conditions for grassroots 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 grassroots people, who risked their lives defying U.S. government 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 1990s.
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.
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 and ceremonial knowledge and through the communitys recognition of ones contributions to the health and welfare of others. It is not a position one can assume by selling ones services or giving oneself 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 grassroots Indians in the past and present; help ensure that grassroots people are consulted on all matters pertaining to Indian culture and expose self-proclaimed pseudo-experts for what they are; stop the exploitation of Indian culture, 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 pressure their congressmen to pass legislation beneficial to Indians; provide material support to grassroots people to ease their physical struggle for survival; and, try to incorporate the most basic traditional values of Indian cultures into daily living: respect, humility, patience, and making relatives (with other humans and other living beings on our Mother Earth).
Churchill, Ward, "Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of Plastic Medicine Men," in Fantasies of the Master Race. Common Courage Press, 1992.
Churchill, Ward, "Crimes Against Humanity," Z Magazine 6 (March 1991), 43-7.
Rose, Wendy, "The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections of Whiteshamanism," in A. Jaimes (ed.), The State of Native America, South End Press, 1991.
Sherman, Alexie, "White Men Cant Drum," The New York Times Magazine, October 4, 1992.
Smith, Andy, "For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life,: MS, Nov/Dec 1991.
Smoley, Richard, "A Non-Indians Guide to Native Spirituality," Yoga Journal, Jan/Feb 1992.
SPIRIT, "Alert Concerning the Abuse and Exploitation of American Indian Sacred Traditions," in Ward Churchill (ed.), Indians R Us, Common Courage Press, 1994.
"In Their Honor" Produced by Jay Rosenstein.
"Paha Sapa" Produced by HBO.
"White Shamanism and Plastic Medicine Men" Produced by Native Voices Public Television, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717