Monday, March 22, 2010

HUM 221: Wannabes, 'plastic shamans' and Native spirituality

HUM 221: We'll discuss this in class Monday, and you'll want to follow up by reading the linked documents.

We will touch on a deeply controversial topic, the extent to which Native American spiritual practices have been revived in recent decades and the extent to which they have been "commodified" or commercialized by outsiders.

Among the outsiders are "plastic shamans" and "wannabes." Both terms need some definition. A shaman, in Siberia where the term originated, is a traditional healer who mediates between the spirit world and the world of daily life. A traditional spirit healer made of plastic is just a contradiction in terms, right? Hence the joke behind the name. A "wannabe" is just somebody who wants to be something he is not. The "American Idol" show is full of wannabe musicians, for example, and karaoke clubs make their money off of wannabe singers. So white people who "wannabe" like Native Americans can go to a "plastic shaman" and try to buy the kind of spiritual "wisdom" that traditional people would fast and pray for years to attain. At least so goes the stereotype.

And there are plenty of websites all over the Internet to confirm the stereotype, although a lot of the New Age practitioners on the sites I've looked at do appear to be sincere in wanting to help people. Who am I to judge?

An explanation of why the pipe ceremony is the "basis of Lakota spirituality" by Ben Black Bear Jr. See also the explanation of Prayer with the Sacred Pipe and the comments on the pipe ceremony by Nicholas Flying By. Our descriptions of the pipe ceremony come largely from a Lakota elder named Nicholas Black Elk who described the old ways to a white writer during the 1930s. An account of Black Elk's conversion to Christianity and his activities as a Jesuit catechist (a sort of lay minister) is available on oLive Leaf, a Canadian website that also has a comparison between burning incense and sweetgrass.

The sun dance is a revival of an ancient Native American religious ceremony, once outlawed but legalized during the 1970s. Sun dances are held every year on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. (You'll notice, by the way, I'm not linking to any clips on YouTube. Most Native religious dances are not to be photographed.) The tribal government has some "Dos and Don'ts regarding the behavior and attitudes of all people who are uniformed about one of our customs."

Has the revival of Native American religions spread too far? Some believe that's the case, as whites have expressed an interest in the Native world view and incorporated some of its features into "New Age" philosophies -- and New Age marketing ventures that take some of the trappings of Native spirituality but trivialize its spirit. Rather than feeling honored by this, many Native people feel ripped off. Sharing their unease with New Age hype, according to Wikipedia, are "adherents of traditional disciplines from cultures such as India, China, and elsewhere; a number of orthodox schools of Yoga, Tantra, Qigong, Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and martial arts (the traditional Taijiquan families, for example), groups with histories reaching back many centuries in some cases."

In 1993, a Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality was adopted at the Lakota Summit, an international gathering of U.S. and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations. It says, "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."

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