Joseph Rael, who calls himself Beautiful Painted Arrow and claims Ute and Picuris Pueblo ancestry, describes two kachinas landing in a spacecraft. Dhyani Ywahoo says that she is holder of the Ywahoo Lineage and Chief of the Green Mountain Ani Yunwiwa, and claims that her secret Cherokee lineage is charged with the care of the original instructions encoded within a mysterious Crystal Ark and the accompanying “crystal-activating sound formulas and rituals.” Physician Lewis Mehl-Madrona, who claims to be Cherokee-Lakota, says that the seminal Lakota spiritual being White Buffalo Calf Woman revealed to him that she perceives brain waves as “colorful patterns of electromagnetic energy.”

Some indigenists consider such spiritual eclecticism to be so obviously bad as to require no comment. Anthropologist Alice Kehoe makes fun of John Redtail Freesoul for selling his “Northern Plain style of southwestern fetish.” Ward Churchill makes fun of Lynn Andrews for mixing together kachinas and Jaguar Women. And contempt for eclecticism applies to the audience as well as to the message. Ward Churchill describes an encounter with a participant in a men’s ritual, who, Churchill says, intermingled his remarks on his Native American interests with “glowing bits of commentary on his ... abiding interest in a diversity of cultural/spiritual elements from Balinese mask-making to Andean flute music.”

So: is spiritual ecelcticism a sin?

The shamans of the Upper Amazon are remarkably absorptive. Alberto Prohaño, a Yagua shaman in a remote village where a satellite telephone dish was recently installed, now talks with the spirits by telephone, using the pot in which the ayahuasca is cooked as what he calls a microreceiver. He blows tobacco smoke in the pot to clear the line, whistles, puts his ear to the pot, and discusses the diagnosis and treament with the spirits.

In the same way, Amazonian shamans of an earlier generation adopted the language of electricity, magnetism, and radio. Campa shaman César Zevallos Chinchuya has said that the plant spirit places a powerful magnet in his mouth, with which he sucks out the patient's sickness; plants and mermaids bring him magnets with which to heal and harm. Don Emilio Andrade also has described his magical phlegm as a sort of magnet, attracting the pathogenic dart when he sucks at the place it is lodged. Icaros especially have been assimilated to magnetism. Zavallos says that icaros are “magnetic cures,” and that protective icaros are “magnetic shielding.”

Contemporary technology — lasers, spaceships, biomedicine — similarly pervades Upper Amazonian shamanism. The striking visionary paintings of ex-shaman Pablo Amaringo are filled with battleships protected by pyramid-shaped lasers, spaceships from the edge of the universe, spaceships from Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Ganymede, beings from distant galaxies with skin as white as paper, electromagnetic boa constrictors, singing spaceships from the constellation Kima, magnetizing mirrors, poisonous space snakes from Mars, a spaceship of elves from Mars, and, of course, doctors and nurses performing spiritual medical procedures.

My own teachers have been attended by extraterrestrial physicians speaking computer language, plant spirits dressed in surgical scrubs and masks, spirit helpers dressed as Peruvian military officers.

It is curious how often the word mishmash appears in this indigenist discourse. For example, anthropologist Lisa Aldred speaks of teachings which are “a mishmash of Native American religion and other New Age favorites, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, and Ancient Druidism.” Art historian and critical theorist Deborah Root describes her encounter with what she calls a “white Indian” hitchhiker. He was, she says, “dressed in the usual hippie mishmash of Native, Afghani, and South American styles, and he wore a headband on his center-parted blond hair.” Ward Churchill speaks of “a mishmash of American Indian rituals.” An indigenist website named New Age Fraud decries a "thrown together mishmash of bits and pieces of different beliefs." Rachel Attituq Qitsualik, born into the Igloolik Inuit tradition, writing in Indian Country Today, describes what she calls "home-brewed versions of shamanism" as being a "mishmash of Inuit cosmology, American Indian traditions, Judeo-Christian thought and the usual smattering of New Age ideas."

Interestingly, the word mishmash is itself a mishmash. One form of the word apparently dates back to Middle English misse-masche, probably a reduplication of mash, pronounced to rhyme with cash, and meaning a mixture of ingredients — a word which apparently then lay fallow for centuries. But there is also a Yiddish word mishmash, which rhymes with posh, also meaning a mixture, mess, hodgepodge, jumble, mixture. It is clear that the two words became conflated, probably in the early twentieth century, to form the wonderfully useful piece of eclectic cultural syncretism used by purists to condemn ... well, spiritual eclecticism.

1 comment:

  1. It is obvious that in the search of a spiritual identity people use what is at hand. People start attending ceremonies and fail to take the time to learn the cultural component of that culture. The results are ceremonies where everything goes, thanks to the lack of preparation of the person running them and those attending. The lack of acknowledgment and respect to the different indigenous traditions have been disastrous. One finds very flamboyant feather covered people that think that they know all about indigenous ceremonies or that there's only one indigenous tradition. This doesn't mean that people should not be welcomed into ceremonies, but that if one is to go to a Lakota ceremony that person is to act according to that nation's protocol, and that the protocol would change if one goes to an Anashinabe, Nahuatl or Mapuche ceremony. One of the best and the worse things to happen in the US is the availability of ceremonies and the very loose intertribal gatherings. Few communities with a handful of very skilled elders have been able to adopt various ceremonies and perform them with the care and protocol of the nations that were the original keepers. Sadly nowadays people think that in order to follow native traditions people have to be vision questers, sundancers, carry a pipe, go to NAC meetings, drink Ayahuasca, sweat at the lodge, participate in Ghost Dances, carry a Mesa etc. It is awesome to be exposed to such indigenous richness, but if people do not take the time to learn what is behind of each of these ceremonies and the original peoples that practice them, then we are just shallow spiritual tourists that do not honor or want to do the hard work that is part of any kind of spirituality.
    It also saddens me that people in the southern part of the continent are more willing to rescue the northern tribes spirituality that to focus on the cultural richness of their own indigenous nations. The next time someone takes out a Cofan headdress in the middle of a pipe ceremony and starts singing NAC songs that person should be held accountable and reminded of the kind of ceremony at hand.