Join Date: Sep 2003
While this is now considered an old article, published in 2000, I still think it is worth posting, in case there are some who have not see it before.
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 *******ized 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
"Be good, be kind, help each other."
"Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."
--Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)