Date: Sat, 7 Sep 1996 00:13:36 -0400 (EDT)
From: Joanna Soto Aviles <email@example.com>
Plastic Medicine Men/Women (Part 1/2)
>From: Nancy.Thomas@f0.n239.z88.fidonet.org (Nancy Thomas)
>Date: 24 Aug 96 21:07:00
>X-Listname: The Moccasin Telegraph
>To: firstname.lastname@example.org (Multiple recipients of The Moccasin Telegraph)
Yes, I know of Sun Bear. He's a plastic medicine man.
Oglala Lakota Elder
The past 20 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 such non-Indians Carlos Castaneda, J. Marks (aka
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 (aka:
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 the American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Russell
Means, Survival of American Indians (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
expose the innermost meanings of Indian
spirituality continues to grow as publishers recognize a sure-fire
money-maker 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 fifteen minute session. And, of course, this opens them up
to every kind of mercenary hustler imaginable. Its all very pathetic,
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
impostors 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
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 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
Indian wisdom in a more practical way. Following the
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
As Janet McCloud, a long-time fishing rights activist and elder of the
Tulalip 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 fifty bucks. It's
not only wrong, its 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 fifteen 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
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
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 sell-outs, 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.
As Thomas Banyacya, a spiritual elder of the Hopi, explains,
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 Sun Bear, have
argued that the criticisms of McCloud and Banyacya are misguided. Sun
Bear has claimed that the ceremonies and
wisdom he peddles are
not truly Indian, although they are still
based on Indian
traditions. Yet, his promotional literature still refers to
American Spiritual Wisdom, and offers ceremonies such as the sweat
lodge for $50 per person, 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
tuning it into a money-making venture.
Sun Bear has also contended that criticism of his activities is
ill-founded because he has arrived at a spiritual stew of several
traditionshis medicine wheel is Shoshoni and his herbal and
other healing remedies accrue from numerous peoples, while many of his
other ceremonies are Lakota in originand because he's
started his own
tribe, of which he's pronounced himself
medicine chief. Of course, membership in this odd new entity,
composed almost exclusively of Euroamericans, comes with a hefty price
tag attached. The idea has caught on among spiritual hucksters, as
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.
According to 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 Chippewa 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
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 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
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 maintained, 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 descipitor 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 that the will of the elders
would be implemented. Specifically mentioned in the AIM resolution
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
Ego in the resolution), Osheana Fast Wolf and a
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
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 integrity of our
cultures for your own perceived self-interest. That means you are
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 repugnant but harmless to Indian people. We believe they not only line their pockets but do great damage to all of us. Anything 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 occasionally physically disrupting their
activities in location 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 book stores stop carrying
titles, not only by Sun Bear and his non- Indian sidekick
Wabun, but charlatans like Castaneda, Jamake Highwater, Lynn
Andrews and Hyemeyohsts Storm as well. Use your imagination as to how
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.