YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Spirited Away : Native American rituals are trendy. But is this homage or another rip-off?


ALBUQUERQUE — The people of Cochiti Pueblo have made offerings at secret shrines in the quiet mountains near their homes for centuries, playing their part in an intricate dance of prayer and ritual that seeks to bring human life into harmony with the rhythm of the passing seasons.

Now, strangers are visiting some of these holy places.

They may tamper with what they find, or perhaps leave behind crystals, feathers and other objects, in an attempt to honor Native American beliefs.

The unintended result is that the Cochiti may avoid a shrine that has been trespassed for fear their offerings will be disturbed.

"It's real painful to see people having to deny offering prayers or making pilgrimages to these areas because the invasion has desecrated these places," laments Regis Pecos, a soft-spoken Cochiti tribal council member.

The people of Cochiti are not alone in their anguish.

Across the nation, the Lakota, the Hopi, the Cherokee and others are angry over what they see as the appropriation of their religious traditions and sacred places by non-Indians. They resent having their practices imitated by others disenchanted with their own spiritual heritage.

This perceived theft takes many forms: back-yard sweat lodges and vision quests conducted by self-styled shamans; drumming and chanting by men's movement followers, and the mass merchandising of books and sacred ceremonial objects to New Age adherents attracted by the holistic, Earth-centered spirituality of Native American beliefs.

Increasingly militant objections to such practices call attention to renewed spiritual vigor in many Native American communities, but also raise the knotty question of whether non-Indians should be exploring these rituals in the first place.

But many non-Indian practitioners, while deploring commercial exploitation of Native traditions, vigorously defend their right to study and practice Native American spirituality.

"The last time I heard it, Spirit is transcultural and transracial," says Timothy White, editor of Shaman's Drum, a magazine based in Willits, Calif. "My experience with Spirit says that Spirit is not something that can be possessed. It is not a limited quantity."

In fact, many traditions that Native Americans claim as their own, he argues, are practiced by tribal people around the world. Variations on the sweat-lodge ceremony, for example, occur among the Sami and Finns of Scandinavia, and chanting and drumming are universal expressions of human spirituality, White says.

The outrage of many Native Americans took shape last fall at a summit of Dakota, Lakota and Nakota leaders in the form of a "Declaration of War" against "non-Indian 'wanna-bes,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled 'New Age shamans' " as "exploiters" of Native spirituality.

The proclamation, later adopted by the mainstream National Congress of American Indians, also decried as "sacrilegious" the staging of sun dances by--and for--non-Indians and selling sacred pipes through the mail.

"I think all Indian people recognize that the spiritual traditions are the core of Indian survival," says John LaVelle, a Santee Dakota tribal member who helped draft the declaration.

LaVelle, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for the SPIRIT (Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions), sees the practice of Native American spirituality by non-Indians as a part of "a process of genocide" under way since the 19th Century.

"Now we have white people who want to be Indians. It's forcing an accommodation on Indians," he says. "We're being assaulted by people who are so lost that they can't see the violation of the healthy boundaries of our culture as an assault."

In LaVelle's eyes, offenders range from non-Indians who pass themselves off as Native American holy people, publish books and purport to hold traditional ceremonies, to tribal members who charge visitors $50 a head to sing sacred songs in hotel ballrooms.

But there are those who scoff that the uproar only reflects the opinion of a few "activists."

Thomas Mails, a Lutheran minister living in Lake Elsinore who has written about Native Americans for 30 years, says, "There's a strong difference of opinion between Native American peoples as to whether religion or spirituality--a person's relationship with God--should be shared with others, or whether it should be kept to themselves.

"The really great people, like (medicine men) Black Elk and Fools Crow, feel that religious understandings are given by God--they don't belong to the people."

Fears that outsiders may steal Native American spirituality are unrealistic, Mails says, because non-Indians don't know the necessary language or procedures to perform rituals.

"The average activist doesn't understand this," says Mails, who also has written about Hopi religious practices. "If you confront an individual who is complaining about this, you find they don't understand a whit."

Los Angeles Times Articles