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Quest for Truth in Marriage Basket : Author Describes Years As Apprentice to Indian Shamans

February 25, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

If it were anyone else, a week in Palm Springs might have done the trick.

A well-to-do Beverly Hills art dealer, Lynn Andrews, was suffering a malaise common to people who have achieved comfort--a need to get away from it all.

But instead of seeking out a chic spa, Andrews found her way to a tin-roofed cabin on a desolate prairie in Manitoba, Canada, where she met two crones. As Andrews tells it in two books she has written, the women were Cree Indian shamans, and Andrews, a non-Indian, was about to be initiated into their secret circle.

During the 10 years she apprenticed to Agnes Whistling Elk and Ruby Plenty Chiefs, Andrews noted in an interview, she was torn between the Indians and loyalty to her daughter and film-producer husband.

Eventually, the spiritual quest won out.

'In Search of Something'

"If it had been a man having this adventure, they (readers and critics) wouldn't have been so surprised," Andrews said in a recent interview. "If they had read about a man leaving his family and going to Canada in search of something, they could say: 'Yeah, I can dig that.'

"Society has been able to accept the idea of women having careers in addition to the role of women as mothers, but we haven't gone the next step to accept a woman in search of the truth--particularly when the truth is found in a reality a lot of us are not familiar with."

The reality presented in Andrews' books, "Medicine Woman" (Harper & Row, 1981: $6.95) and a sequel, "Flight of the Seventh Moon: The Teachings of the Shields" (Harper & Row, 1984: $13.95), is not only unfamiliar, it's supernatural.

The author's quest began at an art opening in a Los Angeles gallery. A guest at the affair, Andrews fixated on a photograph of an American Indian marriage basket.

Following a lead on the origin of the basket--which, she had decided, she simply must possess--she hopped a plane to Winnipeg, rented a car and drove to the remote cabin of Ruby Plenty Chiefs.

Ruby had been expecting her.

In a welcoming rite, Ruby had Andrews assist in the butchering of a deer. Then the new friends shared a slice of raw deer heart; and the guest was left to sleep squeezed into the back seat of her car, animal blood drying on her Sassoon jeans and new khaki jacket.

This sort of humiliation and wallowing in all matter of dirt is a constant throughout the tale, as Andrews shuttles between Southern California and the Canadian steppes in search of the basket. Magical events are always counter-balanced with believable detail, for instance, when Andrews describes the sleeping bag she covered herself with in the shaman's cabin: "It was stained with oil and had a blue-and-pink Mickey Mouse flannel lining."

Andrews nonetheless accepts the fact that some readers will doubt that the story is true. "People just want to know that something is real," she said. "I felt the same way when I first met Agnes." (At least a few readers have made truce with the question by accepting Lynn Andrews' work in the same light as Carlos Castaneda's--as allegorical truth, at least.)

Andrews eventually becomes embroiled in a tug of war with the menacing sorcerer Red Dog over the marriage basket, which represents female wisdom and the power of creation. As to why a white woman from the city is being dragged into this tussle, Andrews said that "energy changes" have made it necessary to recruit non-Indians into the fight to restore balance on the planet. She writes that her assignment is "to be a bridge in this life between the American Indian culture and white consciousness."

Earth Is Female

Among the truths that Andrews says Agnes and Ruby have taught her is that the Earth itself is female and that the female principle teaches all people how to live. "If the power of women is negated, as has been in our culture, there is no one left to do the teaching," Andrews said.

"We live in a patrilineal society that has misunderstood female power. These women (the shamans) feel the earth is in danger of wobbling off and dying (due to nuclear war or other man-made catastrophes) and they feel the reason for this is the imbalance of male and female power."

Andrews currently spends much of her time applying Agnes Whistling Elk's principles to the lives of individuals. A number of men--as well as women--have responded to the message in her books, Andrews said. They come to her seeking to restore their personal balance of male and female energies.

"You don't necessarily have to go to find a medicine woman in Canada," she counsels those who seek her advice. "Everyone in your life is a teacher."

She is not the first non-Indian to be enticed by the rich world of Native American culture, but Andrews said she is trying to avoid the mistake made by others--she will not pretend to be an Indian.

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