Cultural Appropriation and Plastic Shamans

By Christine Nobiss

Are you angry about the recent cultural appropriation of Native American culture at Burning Man? Are you tired of seeing headdresses for sale at expensive boutiques? Or sick of hearing about schools for Shamans? Do you cringe when you see a Lynn Andrews book? If you do, you may also want to know about the recent co-option of the Ghost Dance.

If you have not heard of the Wind Over Fire Healing Arts Center, located in Southwest Minnesota, you might want to send them your opinion on their recent event titled “Ghost Dance—a Healing Event for All.” Though they changed the name to "10 Moons Dance" after receiving a number of calls from outraged Native Americans, the fact remains that the event should not have occurred at all. Attached is an article by Indian Country Today that discusses this particular act of co-option in more detail.

There was a time when Euro-Americans held Native American religion in low regard, condemning it as evil and archaic; however, in present day we see a very different sentiment as many Americans of the dominant, mainstream society admire and emulate Native religious traditions. This co-option phenomenon is controversial because the non-Native practice and commercial consumption of Native American traditions is essentially an act of colonization. Many Natives feel that the commercial appropriation of their traditions, customs, philosophies and worldviews is exploitative and a setback to the Native American identity struggle. While partaking in this co-option many non-Natives are not aware of or interested in this issue because there are often Natives or "self-identified" Natives legitimizing this trend.

Lisa Aldred, author of “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances,” has summarized why cultural co-option, a.k.a plastic shamanism and the increasing commercialization of Native American religion in the new age market “displaces, distorts, marginalizes and belittles” Native American histories and contemporary Native American identities. She writes, “Although the New Age spiritualists identify themselves as counter-cultural, their uncritical ideas about commercialization and marketing practices appear to have been shaped by the larger capitalist economy.” Aldred further states, “Moreover, their imperialistically nostalgic fetishization of Native American spirituality hinders any recognition of their own historical and social complicity in the oppression of indigenous peoples.” Basically, co-opters are imperialist colonizers that are unabashedly distorting the Native American identity through their own spiritual quest.

For this reason, the following "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality" is a good reminder of what we need to do to combat this form of colonization.

Appendix A - Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality

WHEREAS we are the conveners of an ongoing series of comprehensive forums on the abuse and exploitation of Lakota spirituality; and
WHEREAS we represent the recognized traditional spiritual leaders, traditional elders, and grassroots advocates of the Lakota people; and
WHEREAS for too long we have suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian "wannabes," hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled "New Age shamans" and their followers; and
WHEREAS with horror and outrage we see this disgraceful expropriation of our sacred Lakota traditions has reached epidemic proportions in urban areas throughout the country; and
WHEREAS our precious Sacred Pipe is being desecrated through the sale of pipestone pipes at flea markets, powwows, and "New Age" retail stores; and
WHEREAS pseudo-religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony "sweatlodges" and "vision quest" programs; and
WHEREAS sacrilegious "sundances" for non-Indians are being conducted by charlatans and cult leaders who promote abominable and obscene imitations of our sacred Lakota sundance rites; and
WHEREAS non-Indians have organized themselves into imitation "tribes," assigning themselves make-believe "Indian names" to facilitate their wholesale expropriation and commercialization of our Lakota traditions; and
WHEREAS academic disciplines have sprung up at colleges and universities institutionalizing the sacrilegious imitation of our spiritual practices by students and instructors under the guise of educational programs in "shaminism;" and
WHEREAS non-Indian charlatans and "wannabes" are selling books that promote the systematic colonization of our Lakota spirituality; and
WHEREAS the television and film industry continues to saturate the entertainment media with vulgar, sensationalist and grossly distorted representations of Lakota spirituality and culture which reinforce the public's negative stereotyping of Indian people and which gravely impair the self-esteem of our children; and
WHEREAS individuals and groups involved in "the New Age Movement," in "the men's movement," in "neo-paganism" cults and in "shamanism" workshops all have exploited the spiritual traditions of our Lakota people by imitating our ceremonial ways and by mixing such imitation rituals with non-Indian occult practices in an offensive and harmful pseudo-religious hodgepodge; and
WHEREAS the absurd public posturing of this scandalous assortment of psuedo-Indian charlatans, "wannabes," commercial profiteers, cultists and "New Age shamans" comprises a momentous obstacle in the struggle of traditional Lakota people for an adequate public appraisal of the legitimate political, legal and spiritual needs of real Lakota people; and
WHEREAS this exponential exploitation of our Lakota spiritual traditions requires that we take immediate action to defend our most precious Lakota spirituality from further contamination, desecration and abuse;

1. We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.
2. We call upon all our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota brothers and sisters from reservations, reserves, and traditional communities in the United States and Canada to actively and vocally oppose this alarming take-over and systematic destruction of our sacred traditions.
3. We urge our people to coordinate with their tribal members living in urban areas to identify instances in which our sacred traditions are being abused, and then to resist this abuse, utilizing whatever specific tactics are necessary and sufficient --for example demonstrations, boycotts, press conferences, and acts of direct intervention.
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.
6. We urge traditional people, tribal leaders, and governing councils of all other Indian nations, to join us in calling for an immediate end to this rampant exploitation of our respective American Indian sacred traditions by issuing statements denouncing such abuse; for it is not the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people alone whose spiritual practices are being systematically violated by non-Indians.
7. We urge all our Indian brothers and sisters to act decisively and boldly in our present campaign to end the destruction of our sacred traditions, keeping in mind our highest duty as Indian people: to preserve the purity of our precious traditions for our future generations, so that our children and our children's children will survive and prosper in the sacred manner intended for each of our respective peoples by our Creator.

Wilmer Stampede Mesteth; (Oglala Lakota); 
Traditional Spiritual Leader & Lakota Culture Instructor; 
Oglala Lakota College, Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Darrell Standing Elk; (Sicangu Lakota); 
President, Center for the SPIRIT, San Fancisco, 
California, & Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Phyllis Swift Hawk; (Kul Wicasa Lakota); 
Tiospaye Wounspe Waokiye; Wanblee, South Dakota


Christine Nobiss