In the ongoing debates about the relationship between indigenous peoples and outsiders — that is, largely white, urban, relatively wealthy, and spiritually eclectic outsiders — who seek access to indigenous ceremonies and spiritual practices, the question is frequently posed as to who may legitimately represent an indigenous tradition to the outside world. Let us use the term mediator for the person who transmits to a non-native audience what is claimed to be authentic indigenous teachings and ceremonies. In almost every case, the transaction between the mediator and the outsider is paid for: the outsider buys the book, pays for the ceremony, purchases a place at the workshop. In almost every case, the transaction takes place outside the context of any long-term involvement by the outsider with an indigenous community — indeed, almost always without any involvement at all. And, in almost every case, the outsider’s goal is not an increased intellectual or scholarly understanding of the indigenous culture, but rather personal spiritual growth, healing, transformative experience.
|Sun Bear (Anishinaabe)|
It has become a common rhetorical device to accuse people who accept compensation for conducting ceremonies of selling spirituality. The accusation of commodifying sacred ceremonies is, in fact, a covert way of delegitimating the mediator’s indigenous identity. The claim is that you can tell who is inauthentic, illegitimate, a thief of voice simply by determining whether the person accepts compensation for teaching and conducting ceremonies. The issue of payment becomes a surrogate for all of the problematic aspects of this transaction. I think that this claim warrants some examination.
Ward Churchill puts the claim this way: “Indians” — that is, real Indians — “don’t sell their spirituality to anyone, for any price.” Another indigenous speaker says, “Traditional Native healers do not charge for their healing and doctoring. This is not the Indian way.” Bucko writes that the accusation of selling sweats “was the most consistent accusation against individuals who run sweats on the reservation.” He writes that “just about everyone I knew was accused of this practice at one time or other,” but he himself “never witnessed financial transactions at any sweat.” Bucko was once told that a certain Lakota had put on a sweat for a group of white people and had charged them each three hundred dollars to attend. In fact, Bucko himself had attended that particular sweat; no money had changed hands, he says, and the participants were mostly Lakotas.
Most accusations, says Bucko, “are leveled at Lakotas who leave the reservation and travel around putting on ceremonies and seminars.” People on the reservation “generally claim that such people earn astronomical sums of money.” Thus, for example, Wallace Black Elk, Ed McGaa, Hyemeyohsts Storm, and Sun Bear have generally been accepted — with some grumbling — as genuinely Native American, but have earned a living teaching non-natives about what they claim to be native rituals and beliefs, and conducting rituals, for pay, primarily for non-natives. Sun Bear is a good example. Born Vincent LaDuke, he is the father of the very highly regarded Winona LaDuke, Indian activist and former Green Party vice-presidential candidate. During his life, he was, among other things, an activist on the White Earth Chippewa reservation, an extra in Hollywood westerns, and editor of an Indian newspaper, Many Smokes. As Sun Bear, he attracted a large constituency, mostly white, and was among the most prominent mediators of Native American culture to non-natives.
Thus, we find Ward Churchill speaking of Sun Bear as a “sophisticated marketeer” and accusing him of “mak[ing] himself rather wealthy by ... the selling of ersatz sweat lodge and medicine wheel ceremonies to anyone who wanted to play Indian for a day and could afford the price of admission.” Historian Philip Deloria calls him a “spiritual entrepreneur.” What was “most non-Indian” about Sun Bear’s ceremonies, says Russell Means, who is not exactly poor himself, “is that he’s personally prostituted the whole thing by turning it into a money-making venture.” The National Indian Youth Council, in a 1983 declaration, condemned Sun Bear for “lining [his] pockets.” Churchill quotes Janet McCloud, fishing rights activist and elder of the Nisqually Nation, as saying that Sun Bear would “sell [his] own mother if [he] thought it would turn a quick buck.”
|Hyemeyohsts Storm (Cheyenne)|
Indeed, given the ability of shamans to harm as well as heal, a perceived lack of generosity toward a healer would probably be considered imprudent.
Black Elk received a horse for his healings. He would have preferred cash. "It's too bad they did not give me money," he said. "They gave me only horses." Another Lakota healer, Eagle Shield, received $100, a new white tent, a revolver, and a steer in compensation for healing a paralyzed arm. Anthropologist Jacques Chevalier notes that Campa shaman César Zevallos Chinchuya required payment for healing services in goods, money, or labor on his swidden garden; and he describes how don César cured a case of intractible arthritis with five months of intensive treatment, at a cost of 2000 soles, along with a supply of alcohol, medicine, tobacco, and rifle bullets.
But note that, for this five-month period, the patient lived in don César's household, received ceremony twice a week, ate food that the healer provided, and used medicine the healer had to gather or purchase. Does anyone contend that the patient should not have defrayed the reasonable costs of this treatment — including the cost of don César's skill and time? Similarly, I am aware of no Dine singer who routinely offers a complex, difficult, and material-intensive five-day chant for free.
|Ed McGaa (Oglala)|
And there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that it was Christian missionaries who first attacked indigenous healers for their fee-for-service system. Since the missionaries were subsidized by their home churches, and offered free clinics in direct competition with indigenous healers, they could afford to forego fees, and could condemn their rivals for accepting them. The Reverend S. J. Digmann, for example, concludes an account of his confrontation with an indigenous healer by writing that Lakota medicine men "make parents pay in ponies, blankets, or other valuables, while at the Mission and at the Agency they would get medicine gratis" — and, presumably, become dependent upon this supply of medicines in the process.
And the real questions about the transaction remain — the theft of voice; the disengagement of the outsider from the struggles of the indigenous community; the indigenous tradition, dressed in borrowed clothes, slowly alienated from its own roots.