Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spiritua Category: Religion and Philosophy

Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality
by Lisa Aldred
The American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3 (2000), pp.
329-352
University of Nebraska

Consuming Native American Spirituality

Commercial exploitation of Native American spiritual traditions has permeated the New Age movement since its emergence in the 1980s. Euro-Americans professing to be medicine people have profited from publications and workshops. Mass quantities of products promoted as "Native American sacred objects" have been successfully sold by white entrepreneurs to a largely non-Indian market. This essay begins with an overview of these acts of commercialization as well as Native Americans' objections to such practices. Its real focus, however, is the motivation behind the New Agers' obsession and consumption of Native American spirituality. Why do New Agers persist in consuming commercialized Native American spirituality? What kinds of self-articulated defenses do New Agers offer for these commercial practices? To answer these questions, analysis from a larger social and economic perspective is needed to further understand the motivations behind New Age consumption.


In the so-called postmodern culture of late consumer capitalism, a significant number of white affluent suburban and urban middle-aged baby-boomers complain of feeling uprooted from cultural traditions, community belonging, and spiritual meaning. The New Age movement is one such response to these feelings. New Agers romanticize an "authentic" and "traditional" Native American culture whose spirituality can save them from their own sense of malaise. However, as products of the very consumer culture they seek to escape, these New Agers pursue spiritual meaning and cultural identification through acts of purchase. Although New Agers identify as a countercultural group, their commercial actions mesh quite well with mainstream capitalism. Ultimately, their search for spiritual and cultural meaning through material acquisition leaves them feeling unsatisfied. The community they seek is only imagined, a world conjured up by the promises of advertised products, but with no history, social relations, or contextualized culture that would make for a sense of real belonging. Meanwhile, their fetishization of Native American spirituality not only masks the social oppression of real Indian peoples but also perpetuates it.


The Rainbow Tribe: New Agers Identifying with Native American Spiritual Traditions

The term New Age is often used to refer to a movement that emerged in the 1980s. Its adherents ascribe to an eclectic amalgam of beliefs and practices, often hybridized from various cultures. New Agers tend to focus on what they refer to as personal transformation and spiritual growth. Many of them envision a literal New Age, which is described as a period of massive change in the future when people will live in harmony with nature and each other. Only in this New Age will they realize the full extent of human potential, including spiritual growth, the development of psychic abilities, and optimum physical health through alternative healing. Most New Agers contend that this transformation will not take place through concerted political change directed at existing structures and institutions. Rather, it will be achieved through individual personal transformation.


The New Age is only a movement in the loosest sense of the term. There is no circumscribed creed or defined tenets in the New Age movement. Nor are there any requirements for membership, although studies show most tend to be white, middle-aged, and college educated, with a middle- to upper-middle-class income. Estimates of people identifying with the New Age movement tend to run from ten to twenty million. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, however, because many New Age books have seeped into the mainstream and have influenced the views of people not consciously identified with the movement. The New Age is thus not a strictly defined community headed by formally recognized leaders with an articulated dogma. Rather, it is a term that is applied to a heterogeneous collection of philosophies and practices. There is a wide and burgeoning number of practices associated with the New Age, including interests in shamanism, goddess worship, Eastern religions, crystals, pagan rituals, extraterrestrials, and channeling spirit beings. "Native American spirituality" is among the most popular interests.
1

It is my contention that the New Age is primarily a consumerist movement. There are a minority of adherents who live together and try to incorporate New Age philosophies and practices into all aspects of their lives. Some incorporate these practices into part of their lives by taking workshops and engaging in New Age practices in their spare time. However, the majority of those who identify themselves as New Age (or who could be reasonably labeled as such by others) participate primarily through the purchase of texts and products targeted for the New Age market. Native American spirituality is one of the most popular and profitable sectors of this New Age commercialism.
2

In this essay, the term New Agers is used to refer to the sector that is interested in Native American spiritual traditions. Certainly, not everyone involved in the New Age movement is interested in Native American spirituality. Moreover, there is diversity among those interested New Agers. A small percentage constructs their essential identity around Native American religion. A number of those who identify themselves as members of "the Rainbow Tribe" arguably fit into this category. Some Rainbow Tribe members spend time in communities they form, engaged in their own version of Native American rituals. However, many New Agers interested in Native American spirituality participate only through commercially run seminars or the purchase of texts and products. This article is primarily concerned with New Agers whose interest in Native American spirituality is expressed through commercial pursuits. Although entrepreneurs will be discussed in the overview of New Age commercialization of Native American spirituality, their motivations are not the subject of this analysis (arguably, they are shrewd businessmen and women who know how to tap into lucrative markets). Rather, this essay seeks to explain why New Age consumers seek spiritual meaning through purchase.


Plastic Medicine Men for Hire

A number of "Plastic Medicine People" have surfaced in the New Age movement, typically Euro-Americans claiming mentorship by "authentic Native American medicine people." These "Shake and Bake Shamans," as some Native American activists have dubbed them, write best-selling books and lead expensive workshops claiming to teach their consumers "how to practice Native American spirituality.
"

By far, the biggest business in New Age appropriation of indigenous spirituality transpires in the publishing industry where plastic medicine authors are big sellers. Perhaps the most successful, not to mention notorious, is Lynn Andrews. Andrews has been dubbed the "Beverly Hills Shaman" by some of her New Age supporters and the less flattering epithet "Beverly Hills Witch" by a number of Native Americans criticizing her commercial exploitation of indigenous spiritual traditions. Controversy aside, she is a best-selling author, having made The New York Times and Los Angeles Times best-seller lists on numerous occasions. Andrews claims that her books are true accounts of her mentoring experiences with two Canadian Cree medicine women--Agnes Whistling Elk and Ruby Plenty Chiefs. In the first two books, these two elderly women supposedly teach Andrews Native American shaman techniques to help her battle an evil sorcerer. In subsequent books, the trio encounters a flying horse capable of turning into rainbow colors and dolphins, who transmit Australian aboriginal dream visions via a eucalyptus tree antenna.


Another plastic shaman author, Mary Summer Rain, has a lucrative career, having published over fifteen books based on Native American spiritual themes and her mentor, a blind Indian woman she calls No-Eyes.
3

Interestingly, one of Lynn Andrews's mentors, Ruby Plenty Chiefs, is also blind. In Phantoms Afoot: Helping the Spirits Among Us, Summer Rain claims that No-Eyes entrusts her with a mission to help lost spirits find their way to the afterworld. In a stereotyped Tonto Speak, No-Eyes tells Summer Rain, "No-Eyes gonna be speakin' 'bout spirits who be stupid-dumb.
" 4

Native American activists have greatly castigated these works for their trivialization and commercialization of Native American spirituality. Nevertheless, the number of plastic shaman authors, not to mention their commercial success, continues to swell. Jamie Samms is a former country-western singer who claims to channel Leah, an entity supposedly living on Venus six hundred years in the future. Samms later seized on Native American spiritual themes. Samms claims that she was taught by the "thirteen clan mothers" who took human form during the Ice Age and then disappeared, leaving the "thirteen crystal skulls," one of which Samms claims to have seen. Samms teaches her readers how to call up the thirteen clan mothers by focusing on them, each of whom has her own shield and her own special abilities.
5

Don Le Vie Jr., who writes about Iron Thunderhorse, is supposedly of Algonquin heritage. Thunderhorse's teachings are a mishmash of Native American religion and other New Age favorites, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, and Ancient Druidism.
6

Mary Elizabeth Marlow writes about Beautiful Painted Arrow, a Picuris Pueblo-Ute who tells Marlow he has seen two kachinas landing in a space machine and explains his philosophy through allusions to Dances with Wolves.
7

Doug Boyd has written on two Native American medicine men, Rolling Thunder and Mad Bear, both affiliated with the New Age.
8

Taisha Abelar is a former anthropologist who encountered a Mexican sorceress while wandering through the mountains of Tucson in the 1960s. She traveled to the woman's home in Sonora, Mexico, to live with this woman who turned out to be from the same family of sorcerers that instructed Carlos Castaneda.
9

Not all those designated as "plastic" by Native American activists publish books. There are quite a number who run workshops, seminars, or centers claiming to teach Native American spiritual practice. For example, one non-Native American woman who calls herself Mary Thunder runs a New Age center in Texas where she conducts sweats, pipe ceremonies, and talks with space aliens through Max, the crystal skull. Another woman referred to as Oceana, or sometimes O'Shinna, claims to have been born in a crystal spectrum in Colorado; she mixes Native American teachings with references to Atlantis, Tibetan Buddhism, and theosophy. Some "plastics" produce videos explaining their philosophies and offering "do-it-yourself" instructions for Native American ceremonies such as sweats.
10

There are also a number of New Age "channelers" who claim to channel Native American spiritual entities. If paid the requisite sizable fee, these channelers access the wisdom of their Indian guides for their clients. One woman claims to channel a Hopi Indian named Barking Tree (as well as Bell Bell, a giggling six-year-old from Atlantis, and a being named Aeffra from Western Europe). A New Ager in Tampa, Florida, claims to channel an entity named Olah, who is supposed to be a reincarnation of both Edgar Cayce and the revered Lakota spiritual entity White Buffalo Calf Woman.


Many Native Americans have been offended by the mockery these bastardized versions make of their sacred ceremonies. Some of the incidents denounced as most offensive include Sun Dances held on Astroturf, sweats held on cruise ships with wine and cheese served, and sex orgies advertised as part of "traditional Cherokee ceremonies." A typical advertisement for such a workshop promises an introduction to "core shamanism--the universal and basic methods used by the shaman to enter non-ordinary reality for problem solving, well-being and healing.
" 11

Others make even more specific promises; for example, one workshop guarantees that you will retrieve your own personal power animal in a trance.
12

These workshops are also incorporated into theme adult camps, wilderness training programs, and New Age travel packages.
13

Native American activists have been greatly angered by the commercial exploitation of their spirituality represented by these workshops. A weekend vision-quest workshop, for instance, can currently run anywhere between $250 to $550 (accommodations and meals not included). In 1988, Singing Pipe Woman of Springdale, Washington, advertised a two-week pilgrimage that included study with a Huichol woman and was priced at $2,450. Native Americans have commented on the bitter irony of these plastic shamans profiting from the degrading, twisted versions of Native American rituals while many indigenous people still live below the poverty level.
14

New Age interest in Native American cultures appears more concerned with exoticized images and romanticized rituals revolving around a distorted view of Native American spirituality than with the indigenous peoples themselves and the very real (and often ugly) socioeconomic and political problems they face as colonized peoples.


Purchasing Spiritual Power Through Products

New Age interest in Native American spirituality has spawned numerous products over the years. Some products claim to assist the dabbler in Native American spiritual practices. For example, those who do not want to take the time and trouble of building their own sweat lodges can call 1-800-36-SWEAT to order a "sweat tent.
" Or the following kit can be ordered to obtain a more "total experience" of Native American spirituality:

YOUR PERSONAL NATIVE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE . . . Sage and cedar smudge sticks come with holy herb tea. The Spirit of Native America book, and the Desert CD or tape--all collected in a specially designed green box, made from recycled materials, honoring Mother Earth and providing you the opportunity to experience Native American ritual and wisdom.
15

Note that the catalog description promises the consumer "the experience" of Native American ritual and wisdom through multisensory consumption. The purchaser can drink up the sacredness of Native American spirituality while creating the right ambiance with the scent of sage smudge sticks and the proper New Age music evoking the proper locale. Meanwhile, he or she can read the kit's book The Spirit of Native America, which the catalog asserts is amplified by Anna's authoritative text so that the "'spirit voices' of her people speak clearly to you." The catalog promises that, through purchase and consumption of this product, the consumer can have a direct experience of Native American ritual and wisdom without ever leaving their armchair. Moreover, they are relieved of any guilt over their indulgent feast since the box is made from recycled materials and "honors Mother Earth.
"

Entrepreneurs have found ways to blend American Indian spiritual themes with other New Age objects, such as "Native American Tarot Cards." They have even tapped into new markets, such as "care crystals" for domestic pets. Medicine shields have been turned into earrings and the sacred figure of Kokopelli now serves as a wall clock.
The advertisement asserts that "Southwest Native America's playful 'Spirit Guide to the Fourth World' adds a touch of almost-eerie immortality to home or office!" 16

Perhaps the eeriness stems from the unsettling irony of imperialist nostalgia. In "Interrupted Journeys: The Cultural Politics of Indian Reburial," Pemina Yellowbird and Kathryn Milun refer to these types of objects and attitudes toward them as "imperialist nostalgia," which they define as a romanticization that assumes a pose of innocent yearning thus concealing its complicity with often brutal domination.
17

Native American Resistance, New Age Defenses

Many Native Americans are outraged at the commercialization of their spiritual traditions. At least two intertribal groups of Native American elders have issued proclamations warning the public that the teachings of these commercial profiteers may harm them.
18

As stated in the Resolution of the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Traditional Elder Circle, "Medicine people are chosen by the medicine and long instruction and discipline is necessary before ceremonies and healing can be done . . . profit is not the motivation.
" 19

Some Native Americans have taken a harder stand. Leaflets denouncing the commercialization of Native American religion have been distributed at lectures given by "plastics" and their workshops disrupted by confrontations instigated by Native American activists.
20

The Southwestern American Indian Movement (AIM) Leadership Conference held in Window Rock in the Navajo Nation condemned those who profited from American Indian spirituality. The document noted the "dramatic increase in the incidence of selling sacred ceremonies, such as the sweat lodge, and the vision quest, and of sacred articles, such as religious pipes, feathers and stones." These acts were denounced as "constituting . . . insult and disrespect for the wisdom of the ancients." They characterized the commercialization of Native American spiritual traditions as follows: "[T]he attempted theft of Indian ceremonies is a direct attack and theft from Indian people themselves." In this denunciation, a number of "plastics" were listed by name. The document concludes: "[W]e condemn those who seek to profit from Indian spirituality. We put them on notice that our patience grows thin with them and they continue their disrespect at their own risk.
21

The National Congress of American Indians went a step further, issuing what they term "a declaration of war against 'wannabees,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers, and self-styled New Age shamans.
" 22

Although some New Agers interested in Native American spirituality may not be aware of Native American protests, a significant number have heard the objections.
Why would New Agers continue to consume Native American spirituality when so many Indian people have expressed their reprehension of this commercialization? 23

I set out in my fieldwork to find out how New Agers rationalized their misappropriations and consumption of Native American spiritual traditions. A brief note on my research methods might prove elucidating here. I first encountered New Agers while working as an attorney on the Manybeads case for the Big Mountain Diné in 1986. This initial encounter raised a number of questions that could not be answered by the usual ethnographic methods delineating a specific cultural group in a particular locale. It became increasingly clear to me that the New Age was a national movement whose membership and participation was largely defined by consumption. Therefore, the usual ethnography conducted among a sociocultural group of people in a given area would not be enough to unpack the myriad manifestations of the New Age Movement. My ethnographic research then led me into places I had not anticipated, such as New Age bookstores across the country, weekend workshops led by New Age "gurus," and even to cyberspace New Age chat rooms. My investigative methods extended well beyond the usual participant-observation and interview techniques. My "informants" were no longer limited to New Age individuals, but extended to New Age publications, such as self-help books, advertising catalogs, and products.


In my ethnographic fieldwork, as well as other resources, the most frequent defense New Agers made to Native Americans' objections against misappropriation of indigenous traditions was couched in First Amendment terms. New Agers consistently argued that their right to religious freedom gave them the "right" to Native American religion.
24

Andy Smith, Native American scholar, activist, and former president of Women of All Red Nations (WARN) refutes the New Age claims that they have a "right" to Native American religion through their "right to freedom of speech.
" In "For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life," Smith aims her attack specifically at New Age practices and misappropriation of Native American spirituality among white feminists arguing:

Many white feminists have claimed that Indians are not respecting "freedom of speech" by demanding that whites stop promoting and selling books that exploit Indian spirituality. However, promotion of this material is destroying freedom of speech for Native Americans by ensuring that our voices will never be heard. . . .
Feminists must make a choice, will they respect Indian political and spiritual autonomy or will they promote materials that are fundamentally racist under the guise of "freedom of speech"? 25

Smith's argument is compelling. Given a history and continued social structure in which Native Americans' voices are often overpowered by dominant white discourse, is "freedom of religion" as egalitarian as New Agers suggest? Moreover, white New Agers' claim to freedom of religion must exasperate Native Americans in light of the history of suppression of Native American spiritual practices by the U.S. government. Even recent Supreme Court decisions interpreting the First Amendment and the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act have made it clear that protection of Native American religious freedoms and practices is a low priority in this country.
26

Some New Agers have based their claim of a right to Native American religion on the reasoning that spirituality and truth cannot be owned. "No one has the right to own the Truth," stated one of the New Agers I interviewed. Gary Snyder, who has won literary awards for poetry written from the self-proclaimed persona of a Native American shaman, makes a similar argument: "Spirituality is not something which can be 'owned' like a car or a house. Spiritual knowledge belongs to all humans equally.
" 27

Snyder's argument implies that something has to be a "property right" before someone's request that it be respected as private can be recognized. More ironically, it overlooks the fact that through Snyder's profiting from a claimed Native American shaman persona, work that is copyrighted, he is "owning" at least a piece of Native American spirituality. The commercialization of Native American spirituality in both books and products also suggests that consumers "own" Native American spirituality in some sense. This point is made even clearer by the fact that some entrepreneurs have incorporated Native American ceremonies, copyrighted material on Native American spirituality, and sought trademark protection of Native American spiritual themes. The Southwest AIM Resolution observed that a group of non-Indians operating under the name Vision Quest, Inc. were "stealing the name and attempting to steal the concept of one of our most spiritual ceremonies.
" 28

New Agers have other defenses against Native American objections to consumption of their spirituality. Some deny this commercialization altogether. Others mask it. For example, in an introduction to a book he coauthored, one plastic shaman claims, "We offer you this book to you now as our giveaway.
" 29

A giveaway is a practice in tribes where material goods are given away to others; there is no exchange, only the gift. However, this "giveaway book" is a commercial publication for profit. Other New Agers defend their commercial exploitation by arguing that they are "good people" who "give to Native American charities and support their causes.
" Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the owner of a New Age Native American bookstore:

Eight years ago, I started a "New Age" bookstore with very limited funds and an enormous amount of faith in God. A little over a year ago, adjacent to the store, I opened a Native American book and gift store. Both fit very well together, just as we people can work well together. . . . I have donated large amounts of food and money to Native Americans and hold continuous clothes drives through my New Age store. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, I have food and toy drives which are distributed to four different reservations. I subscribe to Native American newspapers and pray so your struggles will cease. I support Native Americans by buying and selling your crafts, so you are able to help yourselves.
30

This defense seems to rely on the old Puritanical standby that "good intentions" and "charitable acts" somehow absolve someone from the political implications of their actions for an oppressed group.


In addition, a significant number of people defend the commercialization of Native American religious practices with an argument that is characteristic of many New Agers' views toward money. They argue that it is "good medicine" to make money or that "money is just spiritual energy anyway." A good example of this kind of argument is found in the following excerpt from Sun Bear. Of Native American descent, Sun Bear, now deceased, wrote a number of plastic shaman texts and attracted a large following of white New Agers who have legally incorporated themselves into a "tribe" with stock offerings.
Shawnodese, referred to in the following passage, is a white New Age entrepreneur in the Sun Bear tribe:

Shawnodese, who is now my subchief, and director of the Apprentice Program, came here in 1979, with a background in about every new-age philosophy available. He had some progressive ideas that have helped us in many ways. For one thing, even though I had, at various times in my life, been an operator (such as selling real estate or men's clothes) in order to survive, I still had some reservations about being tainted by having a little extra cash. I felt that money was somehow bad. Shawnodese had the idea that money was just energy, and it was how you used it that counted. He took over the bookkeeping for a while and started writing affirmations on everything having to do with money.
31

New Agers' own statements defending objections against commercialization of Native American spirituality shed light on the rationalizations in their own psyches. However, to understand more fully the consumerist nature of their obsession with Native American spirituality, an analysis of their actions in a larger social and economic framework is needed.


Searching For Spiritual Satisfaction in the Shopping Mall

The New Age movement is part of the larger context of consumer culture. A number of social theorists have proposed that, increasingly, lifestyles, identity, cultural, and even spiritual meaning have become commodities for purchase. As Frederic Jameson argued in his influential essay "Postmodernism: or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," images, styles, and representations are no longer mere promotional accessories to economically useful products; they have become the products themselves. Thus, in contemporary consumer culture, a romanticized representation of Native American spirituality can become a product to be purchased and consumed. Grant McCracken explains why consumers find these products capitalizing on an exoticized Other so appealing. McCracken argues that individuals in a consumer society use consumer goods to try to recover displaced cultural meaning. He defines displaced meaning as cultural meaning deliberately removed from the daily life of a community and displaced onto a distant cultural domain by romanticizing another culture.

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