By Valerie Taliman
This article is from the twice monthly newspaper, News From Indian Country, 1993. As published by Indian Country Communications, Inc. with offices at Rt.2 Box 2900A, Hayward, WI 54843.
It also appeared in The Circle, 1530 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55404 (612) 871-4555. Subscription – $15/yr; $25 2 yrs. Voted BEST NATIVE AMERICAN MONTHLY NEWSPAPER – 1991, 1993 by the Native American Journalists Association.
While Native Nations continue the flight for religious freedom rights, “New Age” hucksters and other exploiters of Indian spirituality run rampant throughout the country, forcing Native people to take a stand against the desecration of their spiritual ways.
As more people turn away from conventional religions and seek spiritual solace in alternative beliefs such as the New Age movement, increasing numbers of Euroamericans “wannabe” Indians when it comes to spirituality. But in their quest to learn and practice Indian ways, non-Indians have often abused sacred ceremonies and ceremonial objects suck as pipes and medicine bundles. And that abuse of the sacred, say many medicine people, is causing turmoil in Native societies prompting some spiritual leaders to speak out against further desecration of ceremonial ways.
At the Lakota Summit V, an international gathering of US and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations, about 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota unanimously passed a “Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.” The summit was held June 7 to 11, 1993.
The Declaration of War is intended for those who “persist in exploiting, abusing and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of the Lakota people.” The declaration denounces individuals involved in the New Age movement, shamanism, cultists, neopaganists and the men’s movement who promote “intolerable and obscene imitations of sacred Lakota rites.”
“For too long we have suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian wannabes, hucksters, cultists, and self-styled New Age shamans and their followers,” the Declaration of War reads.
“The absurd public posturing of this scandalous assortment of pseudo-Indian charlatans, wannabes, commercial profiteers and cultists comprise a momentous obstacle in the struggle of traditional Lakota people for adequate public appraisal of the legitimate political, legal and spiritual needs of real Lakota people.”
Wilmer Mesteth, a traditional spiritual leader and Lakota culture instructor at Oglala Lakota College, told the summit participants that he was aware that sacred ceremonies were being imitated and even sold by non-Indians as well as certain Indian people.
“We have to put a stop to it,” Mesteth said. “We are the ones who were given these ceremonies so that the people would remain together and strong. We were told to take care of these ceremonies so that our children and their children would have future.
“For a long time we have stood by and watched this abuse going on and we see how it is affecting the people. Nut now its time to take a stand to defend our people and our ways.”
Mesteth, along with Darrell Standing Elk and Phyllis Swift Hawk, was one of the principal authors of the Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality, which urges Lakota people to prevent “our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies by outsiders and certain ones among our people who are prostituting our spiritual ways for their own selfish gain, with no regard for the spiritual well being of the people as a whole.”
It also urges people to identify instances where sacred tradition are being abused and to work toward stopping the abuse through demonstrations, boycotts, press coverage and direct intervention.
With many other spiritual leaders present and in support of the document, Mesteth told the crowd, “Sacred traditions like our Lakota Pipe ceremony, vision quests, sweatlodge ceremonies and the sundance were given to us by our Creator and have enabled Indian people to survive a 500 year holocaust,” he said. “Those sacred tradition are precious to us and can’t allow them to be desecrated and abused.”
One hot spot that has attracted the ire of Lakota spiritual leaders is California’s Bay Area, where street vendors on Telegraph Avenue routinely sell drug paraphernalia made from sacred pipestone.
New Agers in the elite section of San Francisco hold their weekly “sweat ceremonies” with rocks heated in propane barbecue pits and living room fireplaces. Many charge admission for imitation sweat lodge ceremonies, vision quests and puberty ceremonies for young women that are performed by self proclaimed “shamans.”
Lakota songs and prayers are often used as are rituals from many other tribes and mixed with non-Indian occult practices. Many medicine people say that these groups are creating a hodgepodge of harmful and offensive imitation ceremonies that exploit and abuse spiritual traditions of the Lakota and other tribes.
To meet the growing demand for Native spiritual knowledge, Bay Area universities and institutions have responded to the growing demand for Native spiritual knowledge by offering classes that purport to teach the particulars of vision quests, sundances, shamanism and the “Good Red Road” way of life.
As the epidemic of exploitation and expropriation of Indian spirituality continues to spread, more Native people are taking direct action to put a stop to the “spiritual genocide” being committed by those who imitate Lakota ceremonies.
John LaVelle, a Santee Dakota living in the Bay Area, recently was shoved and pushed into the street for confronting a Berkeley street vendor who regularly sells pipestone carved into marijuana pipes. Police responded to the scuffle and assault charges were subsequently filed against the vendors.
LaVelle’s actions are part of the ongoing efforts of the center for the SPIRIT (Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions), a San Francisco-based organization of Indian people committed to halting the exploitation of Native ceremonies. The Center in dedicated to protecting Indian spiritual practices and traditions and is working to raise public awareness on American Indian religious freedom issues.
Darrell Standing Elk, a Sicangu Lakota and long-time traditional Lakota counselor who serves as board president of the Center, said the situation in the Bay Area reached a point where he and other Native people felt that something had to be done.
The Center for the Spirit has made a practice of confronting and refuting books, literature and seminars promoted by self-proclaimed “medicine people” such as Lynn Andrews, a Beverly Hills housewife-turned-shaman. Andrews has written several best-sellers on her journey to becoming a “medicine woman” under the tutelage of a Canadian Indian elder and conducts expensive, and very popular, seminars on shamanism.
At this year’s Whole Life Expo, a conference of “New Age thought” held in Los Angeles in March, Center staff and members of the local American Indian Movement confronted Andrews and tried to convince her to admit that what she was writing about was fantasy, not Indian spirituality. Andrews is reportedly considering the proposal but has not officially responded as she is negotiating a movie deal, according to Patti Jo King, a publicist for the Center.
As Native Nations lobby Congress and work toward strengthening the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act (NAFER), Standing Elk noted that it is imperative that supporters address the exploitation of Indian spirituality. “We are in danger of having our sacred spiritual ways stolen from us – the key to our survival,” he said. “We must raise a united voice of protest against those who steal our spiritual traditions and tell them ‘You cannot have them, not today, not tomorrow, NEVER.'”