Selling Spirituality

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)

The concern for the authenticity of this mediator is legitimate, for an inauthentic mediator performs a theft of voice which can misrepresent the tradition and silence its genuine proponents. Yet the question of who is qualified to be a mediator can itself be the subject of intense debate — as intense as the debate over indigenous identity itself. As anthropologist Raymond Bucko discovered in his research on the Lakota sweat lodge ceremony, “even Lakota consultants vary on whom they consider to be legitimate practitioners.” There are, he writes, “neither consistent criteria nor universally accepted representatives responsible for judging the validity of practitioners.”

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)

I would be interested to find an indigenous culture in which healers receive no compensation for their time, their learning, and the costs of the materials used in their ceremonies. Now it may be true that many healers have devised ad hoc sliding scales for their services, based on ability to pay, and may in some cases — for relatives, in particular, or for those who could not pay — have waived compensation altogether; but providing occasional pro bono services is a different matter from accepting no compensation at all. In many indigenous cultures, such compensation has taken the form of goods — food, blankets, tobacco — and it may be claimed that such compensation is somehow different from compensation with money; but that seems to be a distinction without a difference. Similarly, there have been indigenous cultural prohibitions against exorbitant fees, and against a healer appearing overly interested in the accumulation of wealth. But that, too, is no argument against the predominance of fee-for-service systems in indigenous cultures.

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)

Indeed, if a patient did not pay, don César faced the wrath of his own healing spirits: "The patient has not paid, he is ungrateful," they tell him. "Why not give him back his sickness?" This is common among indigenous healers. Anthropologist Willard Park, writing in 1938, reports that, among the Paviotso, the determination of a fee for healing has a ritual character: "If the shaman asks too high a price, or if he asks nothing, he falls ill. In any case it is not he but his power that determines the fee for the cure. Only members of his own family are entitled to gratuitous treatment." Anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore was told by a Clayquot woman that "they believed that their remedies would lose their power if used too freely, so the doctors seldom gave herb remedies unless highly paid."

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.


  1. I've sometimes wondered how much is really known about "the Indian way," something you've no doubt pondered much more than me. But as a kid growing up in New Hampshire, I remember being fascinated with Native America/Americans from the moment my mother told me that Lake Winnepesaukah was an Indian word.

    From what I understand, the Penacook were among the first groups to make contact with European settlers - and among the first decimated populations. So much was destroyed in such a short time.

    Don't know exactly why I'm such an "Indian sympathizer," (maybe because I'm of French ancestry, lol; historically they certainly seem to have allied/intermingled with Native Americans more than the British), but I always have been ever since that moment when my mom initiated me into the reality that the place where we lived had such a short time before been lived in and loved - and named - by an entire people now largely absent. That always haunted and saddened me, I suppose because I genuinely loved my land and saw that my society had displace a large group of people who had also genuinely loved it and witnessed its unspoiled beauty as I would have loved to do.

  2. You know, even Ward Churchill himself ended up being accused of being a fake indian:

  3. The difficulty with your understanding of indigenous healing practices is that you make almost no distinction between compensation and actually setting a price for healing. I don’t think Ward Churchill, Philip Deloria, Russell Means, or thousands of other traditional minded Indians are saying medicine work should not me compensated for. What they are saying, and where the problem lies, is that the commodification (selling for a set fee) of experiences and healing ultimately performed by spirits is unbalanced.

    Giving what one can to the intermediary (shaman, medicine man, curandero etc.) is understood in these cultures. A wealthy person may give a horse or several hundred dollars for a healing, while a poor person may give a chicken or a small pouch of tobacco. What is the same for both in traditional medicine is that the healer does not set a price or even ask for compensation. The patient knows to compensate and gives what they can.

    The only type of traditional healer I know (from any tribe) that varies from this model is the shaman or sorcerer that offers services for both healing and harming. Those that would harm another for money or goods are mercenaries that don’t mind setting a price for healing work. But true healers don’t charge. And obscuring this issue by making the debate about compensation (which no one I know of has criticized) obscures the issue of why many indigenous people are angry over the cheapening (resulting in new age foolery) of their traditions.

    I would greatly appreciate another article from you on this subject as what you’ve written thus far doesn’t touch the debate at all. In fact, you have set up a ‘straw man’ in which you set up an argument no one has made in order to knock out the real argument within indigenous communities. To be fair, I humbly ask you to try again.

  4. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. You raise an interesting point -- that what is at issue here is not being compensated, but rather setting a fixed fee in advance. But I really do not think this is what the indigenist critics are saying. I think they are saying, pretty clearly, “Traditional Native healers do not charge for their healing and doctoring.” Such statements seem to me to go beyond denying that healers have had fixed fees, and to be saying that they did not charge for healing at all. The Indians quoted by Raymond Bucko are not criticizing people for setting fixed fees; they are criticizing them for charging for sweats. Of course, I may be misreading what these critics are saying, and if you can point me to a statement they have made that more clearly supports your interpretation, I would be grateful to see it.

    You are also saying, I think, that, under this system, no payment is ever considered inadequate by the healer. From the material I have seen, and from my own experience, I just don't think this is correct. It is also difficult to conceive that a Dine singer would put on a materials-intensive exhausting five-day chant without having a pretty clear idea ahead of time of just what he was going to be paid.

    But beyond all this, my point was not historical, but rather that the no-charge-for-healing argument is not about charging for healing at all. It is, instead, an attempt to deligitimate the Indianness of the person attacked. Ward Churchill would find Sun Bear's practices with non-Indians just as unacceptable if Sun Bear accepted gifts after a ceremony rather than set a fee for them. My claim is that the whole charges-for-ceremony argument is a surrogate for the *real* argument, and that we would all be better off if the real argument was the one being made. We should be talking about theft of voice, not about whether someone charges money or not.

    Thank you for bringing this up. If you have any additional historical or cultural material on this question I would be really interested in seeing it.

  5. Steve Beyer said:

    “I really do not think this is what the indigenist critics are saying. I think they are saying, pretty clearly, ‘Traditional Native healers do not charge for their healing and doctoring.’ Such statements seem to me to go beyond denying that healers have had fixed fees, and to be saying that they did not charge for healing at all.”

    Well, the critics are correct. These healers do not charge for their healing. To charge for something is to set a price or fee in goods or cash. This is not the same as donated compensation, however, based on what the patient is able to give. It seems you are still not able to distinguish between work based on price tags and work based on communal or gift based donations. A modern or “Western” version of this would be how Patch Adams and his group of doctors practiced medicine for nearly two decades without asking a dime from any patient. This is a model that has worked in native cultures all over the world for probably thousands of years. In fact, in poor communities or in tribes where the overall wealth fluctuated based on drought or game shortage, this is precisely how these peoples’ healers had to operate. In times of famine and want, did the shaman close shop because tribe members could not afford his fee? No, he didn’t, because there was no fee. And these were the times his services were needed most.

    You ask for cultural references. Aside from the many indigenous critics of fee based shamanism you already know of, I can really only reference my own experience. I’ve worked with native healers (witch doctors, shaman, medicine men/women) in the US, Caribbean, South America, and Asia. Out of every one I’ve ever worked with that refused to perform sorcery (only heal), not one has asked for any compensation for myself or any of their patients. This “asking for something” is key. Of course donations are accepted, but invariably I’ve been told across cultures that charging or price setting is a thing they mustn’t do. It is an essential to the practice itself. Those that charge are sorcerers or charlatans. This is not only what I’ve been told, but what I’ve witnessed myself. To be a true medicine person takes great sacrifice, based on a calling almost religious due to the actual spiritual nature of the work. When one patient cannot afford to give this time, or another patient flatly stiffs you…that is your test. I’ve seen it many times. One can either succumb to petty jealousies, greed, and vengeance and thus be cursed by the deformities of those half shamans called sorcerers (found all too often in the spiritual warfare of the upper Amazon and northern Caribbean), or one can take the next step in power and wisdom. When a patient cannot give or not give enough of what you might want, it can be frustrating. But who said this path was easy? It may, in fact, be the hardest of paths to walk, and those that are merely curious or not ready need not apply. To trivialize this concern by saying the *real* problem is cultural appropriation is like a slap in the face. However, it is understandable for those of us raised in Western society to have such a difficult time comprehending models based outside capital and fee-based livelihoods (even for Marxists).

    But even if you do not care about this very real concern in native medicine, it is actually essential to the cultural appropriation problem that you are focused on. You phrase it as a “theft of voice”. This phrasing is most appropriate as it is certainly a theft. But my question for you is: what thief steals anything that is not worth money? The cultural appropriators with their shaman workshops, conferences, seminars, and tours do so because they can exploit a culture or community for personal gain. Thousand dollar vision quests for middle age women and internet marketed sweat lodges give the purveyors of such nonsense a lifestyle that is ultimately only vainglorious. It is hollow and fake being harmful not only to the original culture, but to the cardboard new agers as well. My point is that if the native warriors still fighting to preserve what’s left of these traditions and cultures were to unanimously yell out, “These things are not for sale. They never have been and they never will be. Those that sell this medicine and these traditions are false, and if you buy, what you will be buying is a lie.”

    If the above message was made clear, and agreed to by the tribes, scholars, and students, the new age culture thievery would die. Not only would this message be true, but the entire problem would be solved. Cheapening and the slow death of traditions and cultures would end, true seekers would find a genuine path, and the exploiters could not gain a foothold. If it is known that what is a spiritual tradition or practice cannot be sold, who can steal it?

    I ask you to take some time, and think very deeply about what I’ve said here. The selling of spirituality is the root of cultural appropriation. And if we are really serious about solving this problem, the solution may be easier than we first thought…but how hard is it to dispel out own individualist greed first? As long as that remains, the harder it will be for some to admit the cultural and historical realities of spiritual and medicinal tradition.

  6. I have to agree with Len completely on this.

    The act of charging a "fee" for spiritual practices or healing knowledge of any kind is .. antithetical to the very spirit behind such practices if for no other reason than this knowledge does not belong to the person, but to the Animal Nations, Spirits, Ancestors, etc. which provide them to the healer.

    While I agree that criticisms of selling ceremony is used in a harmful way to slander ethical Indigenous activists and healers, in the end, these things will be taken care of by the Spirit. Having seen very closely the impact of these slanders, I can also share that I have seen how Spirit has risen to give strength to those unjustly attacked and take away that from those who are the aggressors.

    In general, we have all grown spiritually lazy and undisciplined. In the face of continued colonization and genocide, too few do the things really necessary to continue the living history of our peoples and instead we are given a steady diet of culturally relative hogwash that encourages the consumption and commodification of our spiritual ways.

    Returning the balance and spiritual power of our different lifeways will take much hard work, dedication and balance. May the Spirits of all our peoples give us the strength to walk this road. Our future depends on it.


  7. Interesting conversation. Here’s my two cents:

    Most of modern North American and European exchanges are money-based. That’s what we know, that’s how we interact, that’s the social box we expect. There are few exchanges of skill, time, and work that do not have some dollar value pre-assigned to them. You go to the grocery store, eggs are $2.59 a dozen. It’s simply a way – yes, a deeply flawed way, but aren’t they all – of communicating what something is worth. (Whether you like that arrangement or not is not the point I’m getting at, just to be clear). Dollars are a language we understand very well because it’s one we all speak daily. Most of us don’t speak chicken and tobacco anymore.

    A few thoughts on why, then, money could be a perfectly acceptable way to give back to an indigenous healer:

    Most of us in the US don’t have a fresh chicken or tobacco or house-building skills that we could legitimately trade for healing work. Moreover, we don’t often have enough of a relationship with the indigenous healer or the community he or she lives in to be able to give appropriately. I don’t know what my ayahuasqueros need personally all the time because I don’t live with them. I do know that cash helps them and helps the communities they live in. I have enough of a relationship to know that much and trust that they do well with what I have given to them. And they know me enough to know that sliding scale/work exchange becomes appropriate from time to time.

    This lack of daily relationship means we are limited to giving what we know has value and holds value for both parties. And I think setting those terms (negotiable) up front in a language that the person receiving the healing work can understand is OK.

    If indigenous healing was based entirely on voluntary giving, I suspect (scratch that, I’m quite sure) more people would get their healing done constantly, without giving much back to the healer. Here’s the line you’d hear: “Oh, I need this healing so much, I feel so good afterwards, I could do this every weekend…oh, and you know, I’m really broke and busy, probably because I need so much healing anyway, so thanks for the help see you next week, love ya, BYE!” If all of sudden it costs $200 or whatever, you have to think more clearly about why you are choosing to engage this healer, and take their work and your investment in it more seriously. I may regret making such a strong negative statement, but I the US is too culturally greedy and demanding and immature to be given healing for voluntary donation. We’d take punishing advantage of it.

    And I agree with Steve that the bigger issue is the disengagement from the struggles of the indigenous community. If most of us aren’t going to take the time to understand and connect to those struggles, then I suspect money is going to be the language we speak to one another for a while.

    I’m sorry this is not quite as clearly written as I would like.

  8. I would like to add something from experience with Sun Bear. He was a visionary and mystic of the highest order unseen and unknown to those around him who were overly concerned with materialism.

    Of all the people I have attended ceremonies with Sun Bear had access to a mastery that was very rare> I personally experienced his spiritual power directed to awakening people's inherent spiritual being on many occassions. To this day I have met very few real spiritual medicine men who can do what he did ... I believe this is where a lot of jealousy comes from...the fact that many people experienced strange, mysterious and wonderful miracles of healing and signs in nature that completely changed their lives because of Sun Bear is more the root of the controversy than anything else....Many people wish they had the power he did ...charging or not is irrelevant and was to Sun Bear also.

  9. Thank you for your memories of Sun Bear. They add a very human dimension to the discussion. I also followed the links to your truly interesting website. I will spend some time browsing and learning more about your remarkably rich background and experience.