Plastic shaman, or plastic medicine people, is a pejorative colloquialism applied to individuals who are attempting to pass themselves off as shamans, holy people, or other traditional spiritual leaders, but who have no genuine connection to the traditions or cultures they claim to represent. In some cases, the “plastic shaman” may have some genuine cultural connection, but is seen to be exploiting that knowledge for ego, power, or money.
Plastic shamans are believed by their critics to use the mystique of these cultural traditions, and the legitimate curiosity of sincere seekers, for their personal gain. In some cases, exploitation of students and traditional culture may involve the selling of fake “traditional” spiritual ceremonies, fake artifacts, fictional accounts in books, illegitimate tours of sacred sites, and often the chance to buy spiritual titles. Often Native American symbols and terms are adopted by plastic shamans, and their adherents are insufficiently familiar with Native American religion to distinguish between imitations and actual Native religion.
The term “plastic shaman” originated among Native American and First Nations activists and is most often applied to people fraudulently posing as Native American traditional healers. People who have been referred to as “plastic shamans” include those believed to be fraudulent, self-proclaimed spiritual advisors, seers, psychics, self-identified New Age shamans, or other practitioners of non-traditional modalities of spirituality and healing who are operating on a fraudulent basis. “Plastic shaman” has also been used to refer to non-Natives who pose as Native American authors, especially if the writer is misrepresenting Indigenous spiritual ways (such as in the case of Ku Klux Klan member Asa Earl Carter and the scandal around his book The Education of Little Tree).
It is a very alarming trend. So alarming that it came to the attention of an international and intertribal group of medicine people and spiritual leaders called the Circle of Elders. They were highly concerned with these activities and during one of their gatherings addressed the issue by publishing a list of Plastic Shamans in Akwesasne Notes, along with a plea for them to stop their exploitative activities. One of the best known Plastic Shamans, Lynn Andrews, has been picketed by the Native communities in New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities.
Critics of plastic shamans believe there is legitimate danger to seekers who place their trust in such individuals. Those who participate in ceremonies led by the untrained may be exposing themselves to various psychological, spiritual and even physical risks. The methods used by a fraudulent teacher may have been invented outright or recklessly adapted from a variety of other cultures and taught without reference to a real tradition. In almost all “plastic shaman” cases a fraud is employing these partial or fraudulent “healing” or “spiritual” methods without a traditional community of legitimate elders to provide checks and balances on their behaviour. In the absence of the precautions such traditional communities normally have in place in regard to sacred ceremonies, and without traditional guidelines for ethical behavior, abuse can flourish.
Among critics, this misappropriation and misrepresentation of Indigenous intellectual property is seen as an exploitative form of colonialism and one step in the destruction of Indigenous cultures:
The para-esoteric Indianess of Plastic Shamanism creates a neocolonial miniature with multilayered implications. First and foremost, it is suggested that the passé Injun elder is incapable of forwarding their knowledge to the rest of the white world. Their former white trainee, once thoroughly briefed in Indian spirituality, represents the truly erudite expert to pass on wisdom. This rationale, once again, reinforces nature-culture dualisms. The Indian stays the doomed barbaric pet, the Indianized is the eloquent and sophisticated medium to the outer, white world. Silenced and visually annihilated like that, the Indian retreats to prehistory, while the Plastic Shaman can monopolize their culture.
Defenders of the integrity of indigenous religion use the term “plastic shaman” to criticize those they believe are potentially dangerous and who may harm the reputations of the cultures and communities they claim to represent. There is evidence that, in the most extreme cases, fraudulent and sometimes criminal acts have been committed by a number of these imposters. It is also claimed by traditional peoples that in some cases these plastic shamans may be using corrupt, negative and sometimes harmful aspects of authentic practices. In many cases this has led to the actual traditional spiritual elders declaring the plastic shaman and their work to be “dark” or “evil” from the perspective of traditional standards of acceptable conduct.
Plastic shamans are also believed to be dangerous because they give people false ideas about traditional spirituality and ceremonies. In some cases, the plastic shamans will require that the ceremonies are performed in the nude, and that men and women participate in the ceremony together, although such practices are an innovation and were not traditionally followed. Another innovation may include the introduction of sex magic or “tantric” elements, which may be a legitimate form of spirituality in its own right (when used in its original cultural context), but in this context it is an importation from a different tradition and is not part of authentic Native practices.
The results of this appropriation of Indigenous knowledge have led some tribes, intertribal councils, and the United Nations General Assembly to issue several declarations on the subject:
“4. We especially urge all our Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people to take action to prevent our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies and spiritual practices by outsiders; for, as we all know, there are certain ones among our own 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.
5. We assert a posture of zero-tolerance for any “white man’s shaman” who rises from within our own communities to “authorize” the expropriation of our ceremonial ways by non-Indians; all such “plastic medicine men” are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.— Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality
Article 11: “Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature. … States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.— Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Article 31: “1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.— Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
“Therefore, be warned that these individuals are moving about playing upon the spiritual needs and ignorance of our non-Indian brothers and sisters. The value of these instructions and ceremonies are questionable, maybe meaningless, and hurtful to the individual carrying false messages.— Resolution of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Traditional Elders Circle
Many of those who work to expose plastic shamans believe that the abuses perpetuated by spiritual frauds can only exist when there is ignorance about the cultures a fraudulent practitioner claims to represent. Activists working to uphold the rights of traditional cultures work not only to expose the fraudulent distortion and exploitation of Indigenous traditions and Indigenous communities, but also to educate seekers about the differences between traditional cultures and the often-distorted modern approaches to spirituality.
One indicator of a plastic shaman might be someone who discusses “Native American spirituality” but does not mention any specific Native American tribe. The “New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans” website discusses potentially plastic shamans.
The word “shaman” originates from the Evenki word “šamán“. The term came into usage among Europeans via Russians interacting with the Indigenous peoples in Siberia. From there, “shamanism” was picked up by anthropologists to describe any cultural practice that involves vision-seeking and communication with the spirits, no matter how diverse the cultures included in this generalisation. Native American and First Nations spiritual people use terms in their own languages to describe their traditions; their spiritual teachers, leaders or elders are not called “shamans”. One significant promoter of this view of a global shamanism was the Beat Generation writer Gary Snyder, whose 1951 PhD thesis treated Haida religion as a form of shamanic practice, and whose subsequent poetry promotes the idea of the Pacific Rim as “a single cultural zone and a single bioregion.”. Other writers promoting the idea of a generalised shamanic religion in this period also include Robert Bly, who stated that “the most helpful addition to thought about poetry in the past thirty years has been the concept of the poet as a relative of the shaman … I am a shaman.”. Snyder and Bly’s remarks attest to the deep investment in shamanism in 1960s and 1970s counterculture. Leslie Marmon Silko would later condemn Snyder’s appropriations of Native religions in her 1978 essay “”An Old-Fashioned Indian Attack in Two Parts.” Later, Michael Harner would develop the concept of neoshamanism, or “core shamanism,” which also makes the unfounded claim that the ways of several North American tribes share more than surface elements with those of the Siberian Shamans. This misappellation led to many non-Natives assuming Harner’s inventions were traditional Indigenous ceremonies.Geary Hobson sees the New Age use of the term shamanism as a cultural appropriation of Native American culture by “white” people who have distanced themselves from their own history.
In Nepal, the term Chicken Shaman is used.
A 1996 documentary about this phenomenon, White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, was directed by Terry Macy and Daniel Hart.
|What is Cultural Appropriation?|
To understand how cultural appropriation shows up in our environmental movements and spiritual life, we need to look at the backstory, or how cultural appropriation came to be. About 50 years ago a strange phenomena began to happen. In mainstream society young white people were rebelling against the imperialist machine, while in a much less visible sphere, First Nations were just starting to recover from the dark ages of genocide, oppression, residential school displacement and segregation. In the dominant society of the mid-20th century, ties to a genuine spiritual life had been broken, organized religion was on the decline, and all of a sudden young white people were reconnecting with nature. This was a wonderful thing (!) but they had no role models to follow. So they turned to First Nations, freely adopting their cultural tools and spiritual traditions, and some going so far as to create a whole new Indigenous identity for themselves. Without proper boundaries, the whitewashed genre of “Native Spirituality“ was born, and cultural appropriation became imbedded in the flourishing New Age Industry.
Of course we owe a huge debt to the original rebellion of the hippies and the counterculture that gave us the alternative choices, sexual freedom, new spiritualities, holistic self-care, and healthy life-sustaining practices we enjoy today. These are features of society we take for granted, but unfortunately within the massive self-help, transformational and New Age marketplace the genres of “Native Spirituality” and “Shamanism” have been normalized. Being exposed to this material for so long, many New Agers and Pagans are shocked to find these genres being questioned, yet an interrogation is exactly what is needed. Not only are the white practitioners of “Native Spirituality” on shaky moral ground, First Nations have made it abundantly clear that they are completely opposed to any theft of their cultural and spiritual property.
Today, cultural appropriation occurs on a continuum from relatively harmless practices, to serious mental disorders such as identity theft found in the worlds of entertainment, literature, self-help and spirituality. Having moccasins, native jewellery, native art, or a drum in the privacy of your own home (acquired from native artisans) can be considered good Allyship by supporting the livelihood of First Nations. But on a larger scale, in mainstream industries like fashion, fine art, entertainment and home décor, items like dreamcatchers and headdresses are big business, and these cultural signifiers are casually and carelessly used by white people for fun and self-expression. Many of these symbols, often products made in China, are the sacred property of First Nations! We can just imagine how deeply hurtful this must be.
Native-themed fabrications in the marketplace and media rely on stereotypes, and infer that First Nations are a thing of the past, or “frozen in time,” whereas the reality is that Indigenous people are part of contemporary, living cultures. Indigenous people are also erased and made invisible by the use of sports team names and mascots, and dehumanized by decorative props used to sell goods, ideas and services. With all this “Columbusing“ going on, the genuine voices, cultural markers, and indigenous knowledge of First Nations themselves are lost in the shuffle.
At the far end of the cultural appropriation continuum, identity theft is by far the most serious problem. White people who have a superficial understanding of traditions held by Indigenous people for millennia create a fake native identity for themselves, and then offer spiritual services and ceremonies following the business model of consumer capitalism. Spiritual guidance is not part of the economic structure within traditional First Nation societies, so this is the first boundary (among others) to be breached. The phenomena of the self-styled “Shaman” charging big bucks for ceremonies and other quasi-native experiences, is shockingly reprehensible and morally wrong.
Contemporary Shamanism was first adopted by the early anthropology and New Age communities, and as we unpack these movements today, we see that the contemporary “Shamanism“ genre is based on intrusive and homogeneous European interpretations. And yet the title of “Shaman” to describe one’s practice is now so widespread, it is no doubt impossible to send it back to the Pandora’s Box from whence it came. The origins of the term “shaman” first appeared in the 1914 reports of American ethnologists to describe the practices of the Evenki-speaking Tungusian and Samoyedic tribes of eastern Siberia, and it can be argued that only practitioners from those specific societies have the right to use the term.
Why is cultural appropriation such a serious problem, and why is it so harmful to First Nations?
Fabricating a fake native identity is a continuation of Settler-Colonialism, which (1) seeks to eradicate indigenous people, (2) seize the land and resources, and (3), erase the cultural identity of the indigenous people themselves. And when we consider the phenomena of cultural appropriation on a deep level, we see that the activity of white wannabees or pretendians is not harmless or “spiritual” – it is an act of the deepest racism. The cultural markers white folks are drawn to, like drums, pipes and sweatlodges, are the very same things that were outlawed by the colonial powers. What white people freely use in their everyday lives are objects First Nations could be killed for using, not that long ago. What could be more macabre?
Cultural appropriation is an enormous widespread problem that interferes with First Nations resurgence and sovereignty. More than just the lifting of ideas, practices and physical objects, cultural appropriation dominates how oppressed groups present themselves to the world, and undermines their efforts to preserve their own traditions. Not to mention the disempowerment and loss of basic human dignity this suggests, Indigenous people no longer have their own autonomy or control over how they are represented in the public domain, which is a fundamental right for every human being. When white academics, scholars, writers, New Agers and Pagan practitioners (those with advantage and power) appropriate, write or teach about the cultural and spiritual traditions of indigenous societies, they are in fact dominating the original indigenous knowledge (IK). Their versions of IK become the valid narratives, fabrications that are sold back to the white majority, and even to Indigenous peoples themselves.
Fabricated Identities as “White Shamans”Playing around with one’s personal identity is an indulgence for privileged white folks, and critical responses by First Nations to the appropriation of their spiritual and cultural property is readily available in books, essays, blogs, Facebook groups and pages. Judging from their comments, they are shocked, horrified and insulted by any adoption of native identity in any sphere of popular culture or spiritual life. NDN’s stress over and over that there are absolutely no conditions that make it acceptable for a non-native person to assume a native identity and become a “cultural ambassador” of First Nations IK to other white people. Battling cultural appropriation has been at the forefront of Indigenous resistance in the Americas for many decades now, and has been addressed with legal means, documents from leaders such as Chief Arvol Looking Horse, and up to the highest level with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIPS). White pseudo-shamans are also the object of ridicule and derision. This can easily be witnessed by following the work of indigenous activists and organizations that monitor cultural appropriation such as NAFPS: New Age Frauds & Plastic Shamans; Native Appropriations: Examining Representations of Indigenous Peoples; or F.A.I.R. MEDIA for a couple of days.
In response to the white seeker’s claim of having “permission” from one First Nations person to use their spiritual or cultural property, it doesn’t follow that the rest of that FN community agrees. By going ahead and using FN spiritual or cultural property as a non-native person, you are (a) still going to look ridiculous, (b) appear to be “tokenizing” by separating out one FN’s opinion from their wider community, (c) are still indulging in racist and colonizing behavior, and (d) are showing that you have no clue what your own cultural identity is. Beyond the universal tools found in nature to make fire and shelter, and regional wild foods that are going to be similar whatever culture you belong to, it is best to recover the indigenous practices of your OWN ancestry.
So what is the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation?
There is one simple Rule – ask yourself if the cultures are on a level footing, and if one culture is freely sharing with another, or is there an oppressor/oppressed relationship, and is the oppressor taking from the oppressed? With the history of Settler-Colonialism on Turtle Island, identity theft is the final link in the chain of cultural genocide. Cultural appropriation is made possible by white supremacy and systemic racism.
What does cultural appropriation say about our own identity as white people?
In the massive Empire-building project on Turtle Island, our ethnocultural identity was stripped from us as we joined the homogeneous nation-states of Canada and USA with whiteness as the default. Colonized for centuries now, white people have forgotten why having an ethnoculture is important, yet we yearn for it at the same time. This collective soul loss is at the root of our attraction to Indigenous societies and the exotic “other.” We may exist in the cultural vacuum known as Settler-Colonialism, but Turtle Island Indigenous Knowledge is not our culture!
The popularity of New Age Capitalism has allowed us to use the spiritual property of Indigenous people without realizing that it is cultural appropriation. Boundaries should have been in place years ago, but the timetable of healing from genocide and slavery did not enable people of color to be empowered to speak out on this serious issue until recent times. Now that white people are aware of the problem, we are obligated to educate each other and stop these harmful practices.
Even if the false “shamanic” identity has been perpetuated for years and the practitioner has an established business, they need to stop aligning with the racist policies of colonialism and white knowledge domination. Shifting to the authentic earth-connected wisdom traditions of one’s own ancestors and offering that European Indigenous Knowledge (EIK) to one’s cultural group is not all that difficult, and would be a blessing to all involved. So-called “shamans” have re-created themselves once, and can do it again (!) this time using their own true identity and ethnicity, and their followers will love them for it. In fact, with the millions of spiritually-starved and culturally-alienated diasporans in the Americas, it is inconceivable that those focused on spiritual and cultural renewal would not see the value in offering their own authentic EIK teachings to others!
When First Nations people are telling us over and over that cultural appropriation is demeaning and disempowering (as well as a continuation of Settler-Colonialism), we really need to rearrange our ethical maps and stop this offensive behavior. In grappling for the shiny treasures we lack in our own lives, we have forgotten the basic values of honour and respect.
MEGA-RESOURCES FROM A-Z
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June 2003 Author Ward Churchill
“Yes, I know of Sun Bear. He’s a plastic medicine man.”— Matthew King, Oglala Lakota Elder, 1985
The past 30 years have seen the birth of a new growth industry in the United States. Known as “American Indian Spiritualism,” this profitable enterprise apparently began with a number of literary hoaxes undertaken by non-Indians such as Carlos Castaneda, Jay Marks (a.k.a.: “Jamake Highwater,” author of The Primal Mind, etc.), Ruth Beebe Hill (of Hanta Yo notoriety), and Lynn Andrews (Medicine Woman, Jaguar Woman, Crystal Woman, Spirit Woman, etc.). A few Indians such as Alonzo Blacksmith (a.k.a.: “Chunksa Yuha,” the “Indian authenticator” of Hanta Yo), “Chief Red Fox” (Memoirs of Chief Red Fox) and Hyemeyohsts Storm (Seven Arrows, etc.) also cashed in, writing bad distortions and outright lies about indigenous spirituality for consumption in the mass market. The authors grew rich peddling their trash, while real Indians starved to death, out of the sight and mind of America.
This situation has been long and bitterly attacked by legitimate Indian scholars from Vine Deloria, Jr. to Bea Medicine, and by activists such as American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Russell Means, Survival of American Indians, Inc. (SAIL) director Hank Adams, and the late Gerald Wilkenson, head of the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). Nonetheless, the list of phony books claiming alternately to “debunk” or “expose the innermost meanings of” Indian spirituality continues to grow as publishers recognize a surefire moneymaker when they see one. Most lately, ostensibly scholarly publishers like the University of Chicago Press have joined the parade, generating travesties such as University of Colorado Professor Sam Gill’s Mother Earth: An American Story.
The insistence of mainstream America upon buying such nonsense has led Deloria to conclude that, “White people in this country are so alienated from their own lives and so hungry for some sort of real life that they’ll grasp at any straw to save themselves. But high-tech society has given them a taste for the ‘quick fix.’ They want their spirituality prepackaged in such a way as to provide instant insight, the more sensational and preposterous the better. They’ll pay big bucks to anybody dishonest enough to offer them spiritual salvation after reading the right book or sitting still for the right 15-minute session. And, of course, this opens them up to every kind of mercenary hustler imaginable. It’s all very pathetic, really.”
Oren Lyons, a traditional chief of the Onondaga Nation, concedes Deloria’s point, but says the problem goes much deeper. “Non-Indians have become so used to all this hype on the part of imposters and liars that when a real Indian spiritual leader tries to offer them useful advice, he is rejected. He isn’t ‘Indian’ enough for all these non-Indian experts on Indian religion. Now, this is not only degrading to Indian people, it’s downright delusional behavior on the part of the instant experts who think they’ve got all the answers before they even hear the questions.
“The bottom line here,” says Lyons, “is that we have more need for intercultural respect today than at any time in human history. And nothing blocks respect and communication faster and more effectively than delusions by one party about another. We’ve got real problems today, tremendous problems, problems which threaten the survival of the planet. Indians and non-Indians must confront these problems together, and this means we must have honest dialogue, but this dialogue is impossible so long as non-Indians remain deluded about things as basic as Indian spirituality.”
Things would be bad enough if American Indian realities were being distorted only through books and movies. But, since 1970 there has also been a rapid increase in the number of individuals purporting to sell “Indian wisdom” in a more practical way. Following the example of people such as the “Yogi Ramacharaka” and “Maharaji Ji,” who have built lucrative careers marketing bastardizations of East Asian mysticism, these new entrepreneurs have begun cleaning up on selling “Native American Ceremonies” for a fee.
As Janet McCloud, a longtime fishing rights activist and elder of the Nisqually Nation, puts it, “First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game. Then they wanted our mineral resources and, to get them, they tried to take our governments. Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they’re medicine people. And they’ll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for 50 bucks. It’s not only wrong, it’s obscene. Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.”
McCloud is scornful of the many non-Indian individuals who have taken up such practices professionally. “These people run off to reservations acting all lost and hopeless, really pathetic. So, some elder is nice enough, considerate enough to be kind to them, and how do they repay this generosity? After 15 minutes with a spiritual leader, they consider themselves ‘certified’ medicine people, and then run amok, ‘spreading the word’—for a fee. Some of them even proclaim themselves to be ‘official spiritual representatives’ of various Indian peoples. I’m talking about people like Dyhani Ywahoo and Lynn Andrews. It’s absolutely disgusting.”
But her real disdain is for those Indians who have taken up the practice of marketing their heritage to the highest bidder. “We’ve also got Indians who are doing these things,” McCloud continues. “We’ve got our Sun Bears and our Wallace Black Elks and others who’d sell their own mother if they thought it would turn a quick buck. What they’re selling isn’t theirs to sell, and they know it. They’re thieves and sellouts, and they know that too. That’s why you never see them around Indian people anymore. When we have our traditional meetings and gatherings, you never see the Sun Bears and those sorts showing up.”
Thomas Banyacya, a Hopi elder, once observed that the reason for this is because “these people have nothing to say on the matters they claim to be so expert about. To whites, they claim they’re ‘messengers,’ but from whom? They are not the messengers of Indian people. I am a messenger, and I do not charge for my ceremonies.”
Some of the more sophisticated marketeers, such as the late Sun Bear (Vincent LaDuke, a Chippewa), have argued that the criticisms of McCloud and Banyacya are misguided. Sun Bear has claimed that the ceremonies and “wisdom” he peddled are not truly Indian, although they are still “based on” Indian traditions. Still, his promotional literature referred to “Native American Spiritual Wisdom,” offering ceremonies such as the sweat lodge for $50 per session and “vision quests” at $150.
“Since when is the sweat not an Indian ceremony?” demands Russell Means, an outspoken critic of Sun Bear and his colleagues. “It’s not ‘based on’ an Indian ceremony, it is an Indian ceremony. So is his so-called ‘vision quest,’ the pipe, his use of the pipe, sage and all the rest of it. Sun Bear is a liar, and so are all the rest of them who are doing what he’s doing. All of them know good and well that the only reason anybody is buying their product is because of this image of ‘Indian-ness’ they project. The most non-Indian thing about Sun Bear’s ceremonies is that he’s personally prostituted the whole thing by turning it into a money-making venture.’
Sun Bear also contended that criticism of his activities was ill-founded because he has arrived at a spiritual stew of several traditions—his medicine wheel was Shoshone and his herbal and other healing remedies accrued from numerous peoples, while many of his other ceremonies were Lakota in origin—and because he started his own “tribe,” of which he pronounced himself “medicine chief.” Of course, membership in this odd new entity, composed almost exclusively of Euroamericans, came with a hefty price tag attached. The idea has caught on among spiritual hucksters, as is witnessed by the formation of a similar fees-paid group in Florida, headed by a non-Indian calling himself “Chief Piercing Eyes.”
“This is exactly the problem,” says Nilak Butler, an Inuit activist working in San Francisco. “Sun Bear says he’s not revealing some sort of secret Indian ways whenever there are Indians around to hear him. The rest of the time, he’s the most ‘Indian’ guy around, to hear him tell it. Whenever he’s doing his spiel, anyway. But, you see, if there were any truth to his rap, he wouldn’t have to be running around starting ‘new tribes’ and naming himself head honcho and dues collector. He’d be a leader among his own people. “The thing is,” says Rick Williams, a Cheyenne/Lakota working at the University of Colorado, “Sun Bear isn’t recognized as any sort of leader, spiritual or otherwise, among his own people. He’s not qualified. It takes a lifetime of apprenticeship to become the sort of spiritual leader Sun Bear claims to be, and he never went through any of that. He’s just a guy who hasn’t been home to the White Earth Reservation in 25 years, pretending to be something he’s not, feeding his own ego and making his living misleading a lot of sincere, but very silly people. In a lot of ways he reminds you of a low grade Jimmy Swaggart or Pat Robertson-type individual.”
“And another thing,” Williams goes on, “Sun Bear hasn’t started a new tribe. Nobody can just up and start a new tribe. What he’s done is start a cult. And this cult he’s started is playing with some very powerful things, like the pipe. That’s not only stupid and malicious, it’s dangerous.”
The danger Williams refers to has to do with the very power which makes American Indian spirituality so appealing to non-Indians in the first place. According to the late Matthew King, an elder spiritual leader among the Oglala Lakota, “Each part of our religion has its power and its purpose. Each people has their own ways. You cannot mix these ways together, because each people’s ways are balanced. Destroying balance is a disrespect and very dangerous. This is why it’s forbidden.
“Many things are forbidden in our religion,” King continued. “The forbidden things are acts of disrespect, things which unbalance power. These things must be learned, and the learning is very difficult. This is why there are very few real ‘medicine men’ among us; only a few are chosen. For someone who has not learned how our balance is main-tained to pretend to be a medicine man is very, very dangerous. It is a big disrespect to the powers and can cause great harm to whoever is doing it, to those he claims to be teaching, to nature, to everything. It is very bad …”
For all the above reasons, the Circle of Elders of the Indigenous Nations of North America, the representative body of traditional indigenous leadership on this continent, requested that the American Indian Movement undertake to end the activities of those described as “plastic medicine men.” The possibly sexist descriptor refers to individuals of both genders trading in the commercialization of indigenous spirituality. At its National Leadership Conference in 1984, AIM passed a resolution indicating the will of the elders would be implemented. Specifically mentioned in the AIM resolution were “Sun Bear and the so-called Bear Tribe Medicine Society” and “Wallace Black Elk and [the late] Grace Spotted Eagle of Denver, Colorado,” as well as others like Cyfus McDonald, Brook Medicine Eagle (spelled “Ego” in the resolution), Osheana Fast Wolf and a corporation dubbed “Vision Quest.” Others, such as Dyhani Ywahoo, Rolling Thunder, and “Beautiful Painted Arrow” have been subsequently added to the list.
As Russell Means put it at the time, “These people have insisted upon making themselves pariahs within their own communities, and they will have to bear the consequences of that. As to white people who think it’s cute, or neat or groovy or keen to hook up with plastic medicine men, to subsidize and promote them, and claim you and they have some fundamental ‘right’ to desecrate our spiritual traditions, I’ve got a piece of news for you. You have no such right. Our religions are ours. Period. We have very strong reasons for keeping certain things private, whether you understand them or not. And we have every human right to deny them to you, whether you like it or not.
“You can either respect our basic rights or not respect them,” Means went on. “If you do, you’re an ally and we’re ready and willing to join hands with you on other issues. If you do not, you are at best a thief. More importantly, you are a thief of the sort who is willing to risk undermining our sense of the integrity of our cultures for your own perceived self-interest. That means are you complicit in a process of cultural genocide, or at least attempted cultural genocide, aimed at American Indian people. That makes you an enemy, to say the least. And believe me when I say we’re prepared to deal with you as such.” Almost immediately, the Colorado AIM chapter undertook a confrontation with Sun Bear in the midst of a $500-per-head, weekend-long “spiritual retreat” being conducted near the mountain town of Granby. The action provoked the following endorsement from the normally more staid NIYC:
The National Indian Youth Council fully supports your efforts to denounce, embarrass, disrupt, or otherwise run out of Colorado, the Medicine Wheel Gathering … For too long the Bear Tribe Medicine Society has been considered a repugnant but harmless to Indian people. We believe they not only line their pockets but do great damage to all of us. Any-thing you can do to them will not be enough.
The Colorado AIM action, and the strength of indigenous support it received, resulted in a marked diminishment of Sun Bear’s reliance upon the state as a source of revenue. Since then, AIM has aligned itself solidly and consistently with indigenous traditionalism, criticizing Sun Bear and others of his ilk in public fashion, and occasion-ally physically disrupting their activities in locations as diverse as Denver and Atlanta. Those who wish to assist in this endeavor should do so by denouncing plastic medicine folk wherever they appear, organizing pro-active boycotts of their events, and demanding that local bookstores stop carrying titles, not only by Sun Bear and his non-Indian sidekick “Wabun,” but charlatans like Castaneda, Highwater, Andrews and Storm as well. Use your imagination as to how to get the job done in your area, but make it stick. You should also be aware that Sun Bear and others have increasingly aligned themselves with such non-Indian support groups as local police departments, calling upon them to protect him from “Indian interference” with his unauthorized sale of Indian spirituality.
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published by Z Magazine in December 1990. It was subsequently collected in Ward Churchill’s From a Native Son: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1985-1995. (Boston: South End Press, 1996).
Ward Churchill (Keetoowah Band Cherokee) is professor of American Indian studies and chair of the department of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Who We Are & Our Purpose
New Age Frauds & Plastic Shamans or NAFPS is an activist group of Native people and our supporters. We began NAFPS five years ago as a Yahoo club/group and went through a lot together, at least eight unsuccessful attempts to shut us down, empty threats of lawsuits, stalkers, identity thieves, libel campaigns, and even death threats. We have emerged from it all relatively unscathed and more determined than ever to continue our work. This site and forum is for those concerned about the fraud, deceit, money hunger, sexual abuse, racism, control, hunger for power and ego, and cult-like tendencies of the New Age movement and pseudo “shamans.” We investigate and seek to warn the public about impostors and exploiters posing as Native medicine people or elders. There are more than two hundred impostors out there posing as Cherokee medicine people alone. Multiply that by five hundred Native nations in the US, and add on the exploiters who abuse or lie about practices of Latin America’s Indians, and you get an idea of the sheer, massive scope of the problem.
Do you think you are “Indian at heart” or were an Indian in a past life? Do you admire native ways and want to incorporate them into your life and do your own version of a sweat lodge or a vision quest? Have you seen ads, books, and websites that offer to train you to be come a shaman in an easy number of steps, a few days on the weekend, or for a fee?
Have you really thought this all the way through? Have you thought about how native people feel about what you might want to do?
Please think about these important points before you take that fateful step and expend time, money, and emotional investment:
Native people DO NOT believe it is ethical to charge money for any ceremony or teaching. Any who charge you even a penny are NOT authentic.
Native traditionalists believe the ONLY acceptable way to transmit traditional teachings is orally and face-to-face. Any allegedly traditional teachings in books or on websites are NOT authentic.
Learning medicine ways takes decades and must be done with great caution and patience out of respect for the sacred. Any offer to teach you all you need to know in a weekend seminar or two is wishful thinking at best, fraud at worst.
Most of these FRAUDULENT operators are not the slightest bit reputable. Some, such as Robert “Ghostwolf” AKA Robert Franzone and Forrest Carter, have actually been convicted of fraud. Some are sexual predators who prey upon their followers. “Sun Bear” AKA Vincent La Duke was a serial rapist who was facing numerous charges when he died, including the rape of girls as young as fourteen.
Women should be extremely wary of any ” teacher” who claims sex is part of an alleged “ceremony.” Most of these FRAUDULENT operators have been caught making complete fantasies of what many whites WISH natives were like. Another way to say it is that they are outright liars and hoaxers. Some, like Carlos Castaneda, were exposed as long as three decades ago.
You probably are asking yourself, “Aren’t any of these people for real and a good way for me to learn?”
We (native people and our supporters) realize that most of you do not know any better, at least not yet, but we hope you learn about these matters from more reputable sources and in a more respectful manner.
If it says New Age or Shamanism on the cover, it’s not a good source for learning about natives. Find out which authors can be trusted before you pay money to operators who harm us all.
Please understand the following points about native spiritual ways:
Native belief systems are COMMUNAL, not focused on the individual’s faith like Christianity, and are TRIBE-SPECIFIC. There is NO “generic Indian” form of spirituality. There are as many differences from tribe to tribe as there are between Hinduism and the Church of England. No one would think of teaching those two as the same and calling them “Indo-European,” yet many of these FRAUDULENT operators teach a thrown together mishmash of bits and pieces of different beliefs.
TRADITIONAL elders are very cautious about changing rituals and mixing different customs, it does happen, of course, but only after lengthy discussions that can take decades. FRAUDULENT operators are very casual and haphazard in what they do, in a manner that shows they have no understanding of or respect for the sacred.
TRADITIONAL elders DO NOT believe that any ceremony can be done by anyone who feels like it. It’s that same caution and respect for the sacred. Yet these FRAUDULENT operators will let anyone do their inaccurate version of a ceremony if they have the money. Vision quests, for example, are intended for young boys age 12 to 14, but boys don’t have much money, so these FRAUDULENT operators sell “quests” for hundreds or thousands to mostly middle-aged men and women.
There is also the matter of telling people they can be shamans and charging them for it. If you were interested in Judaism, would you pay money to someone who said he could make you a rabbi in just one weekend seminar? If someone did this and then claimed Jewish objections were foolish, we would recognize he was anti-Semitic. Think about the lack of respect these operators show to native people and beliefs, and to their own followers, by defrauding people.
Native people DO NOT use the label “Shaman.”
Think also about how it makes it harder for natives and whites to get along when whites have been given an untrue picture of native cultures. We have to learn to get along and we can’t do that as long as whites give support to operators who push a fraudulent version of what we are like.
Groups and Individuals NAFPS Has Worked with, Including those that Are Members of NAFPS and Other Activist Groups
American Indian Movement Chapters:
AIM Support Group of Northern Kentucky/Ohio
New England AIM
> American Indian Heritage Support Center
Iron Lodge (Native Prisoners Support Group)
Our Red Earth
Red Road Collective
Albuquerque Indian Center
(NAFPS members toured Europe to raise funds for them.)
Native Issues Supporters in Europe:
World In Our Hands Foundation
Sites that list NAFPS as a resource, work with NAFPS members,
or whose members recommend NAFPS, in alphabetical order:AllExperts.com
AmericanIndianPrisoners.com (Native Prisoners Support Group)
Americas Indigenous People, New Age, and Cultural Appropriation
Blog Critics Magazine
Blue Corn Comics
Care 2 Make a Difference
Curanderismo Research Project
Dakota Lakota Singing
Do No Harm (Anishinaabe Activists)
Reviewer on Ebay
Engler Refugee’s Homepage
Guru Ratings (Warnings on dangerous gurus – a Hindu version of NAFPS)
Health on Health
Internet Infidels Discussion Board (Skeptics Society)
Issues Affecting American Indians in Tennessee
Kisikew Wiki, Indigenous News
Library of Library.com
Native Culture Links
Native Youth Magazine
PeakOil.com (Conservation board)
Raising Our Collective Voices (Native Woman Activist)
Red Road Collective (Anishinaabe Women Activists)
Saponitown.com (Geneology Forum)
Six Nations Reclamation Info
Snopes.com (Urban Legend Debunkers)
Tutor Gig Encyclopedia
Many Pagan sites, whose members often mistakenly fell for Nuage exploiters, have turned to us as a resource.http://pub21.bravenet.com/forum/1732203021/fetch/339064/