Speaking out on the theft and abuse of spirituality

by: Shadi Rahimihttp://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096415443SAN FRANCISCO

It was a strange sight, at least in East Los Angeles.

While walking her dogs recently at Arroyo Seco Park, Marisol Crisostomo-Romo, 26, said she spotted a van with a tipi on it. Into it piled a group of white children clutching bows and arrows.

They were members of the five-week-long Camp Shi’ini, ”a Native American-themed summer camp” that is named after ”a Native American word meaning ‘Summer People,”’ according to its Web site.

The 60-year-old camp divides children into nine ”tribes” and offers activities ranging from horseback riding (in the tradition of the Navajo, Comanche and Eskimo, its Web site stated) and archery (Mohawk, Seminole and Blackfoot) to fishing (Zuni, Iroquois and Apache).

Crisostomo-Romo, who is Pascua Yaqui, immediately wrote the camp a letter and e-mailed 422 people to do the same, beseeching all those ”offended and disgusted by cultural exploitation and mainstream society’s self-entitlement.”

Her anger is echoed across the country by Natives who continue to be frustrated with what they view as misappropriation and abuse of spiritual and cultural practices.

Similar Native-themed camps, nonprofits, centers, programs, workshops,
retreats and seminars offered mostly by non-Natives thrive across the
country. And the number of non-Native people operating as medicine men
and shaman – and often charging for their services – has only grown
despite opposition from traditional elders, groups and Native activists.

”We don’t charge for ceremonies. People with real sicknesses actually
go to these people; we’ve heard of these people even taking advantage of
women,” said Charlie Sitting Bull, 54. ”That’s the danger in people
being misinformed. We battle it all the time.”

Sitting Bull is a traditional Oglala Lakota from South Dakota who said
he is a direct descendant of Chief Sitting Bull. He began noticing the
misuse of Native culture as a teenager, when he first saw a Boy Scout
troup ”dressed as Indians,” he said.

Since then, he has confronted Native and non-Native people falsely
claiming to be descendants of Chief Sitting Bull and has worked to stop
non-Native people from charging for spiritual teachings. Most recently,
Sitting Bull said he prevented a white man from charging to teach Sun
Dance songs at a Washington state bookstore, which the man had learned
from a legitimate medicine man.

Responding to a request from the medicine man himself, Sitting Bull confronted the white man, telling him he could not hold the workshop, and asking for a written apology. The man was arrogant, but eventually obliged, he said.

A non-Native person practicing Native spirituality presents a similar danger to all Natives as a Native person who practices but ”isn’t clean” – taking drugs or not ”living a good life,” – Sitting Bull said.

”They actually infect us like a sickness,” he said, referring to both scenarios.

In 1993, a decree passed at an international gathering of 500
representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota, titled
the ”Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality,”
stated that immediate action be taken to defend Lakota spirituality from
”further contamination, desecration and abuse.”

It detailed what it described as the destruction of sacred traditions,
reminding Natives of their highest duty – ”to preserve the purity of
our precious traditions for our future generations, so that our children
and our children’s children will survive and prosper in the sacred
manner intended for each of our respective peoples by our Creator.”

Among the ”disgraceful expropriation” that even then had ”reached
epidemic proportions in urban areas throughout the country,” according
to the leaders, were corporations that charge money for sweat lodges and
vision quest programs; Sun dances for non-Natives conducted by
charlatans; and cult leaders and new age people who imitate Lakota
ceremonial ways and mix in non-Native occult practices.

The decree urged traditional people, tribal leaders and governing
councils of all other Indian nations to join ”in calling for an
immediate end to this rampant exploitation of our respective American
Indian sacred traditions.”

The decree was published in a newsletter, in controversial author Ward
Churchill’s 1994 book ”Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native
North America,” and online.

Since then, an active stand has been taken by medicine men and
traditional practitioners even against ”Native healers that are out of
line,” Sitting Bull said.

Responses to the decree from non-Native people on various Web sites
explain why they engage in Native spiritual practices.

”I understand the importance of the statement and feel money is being
made by the stealing of the traditionalists,” Mark Montalban wrote. ”I
also feel that ghosts and spirits can enter your life and give purpose
and direction.”

But many Native people disagree, arguing that the appropriation of
spirituality is not only disrespectful, but also dangerous if practiced
incorrectly and by non-Natives.

”One can study Native culture all they want, but if it’s not Native
blood flowing through their veins then they’ll never truly understand
those ways and how to use them,” said Anthony Thosh Collins, 25, of the
Pima, Osage and Seneca-Cayuga tribes. ”I support the use of our Native
culture to help heal this world, but only through the guidance of one of
our own qualified elders.”

The movement against non-Natives appropriating and sometimes selling
Native spirituality is growing, with younger Natives joining the
forefront.

In her letter to Camp Shi’ini, Crisostomo-Romo explained the sacred
nature of the face paint and war bonnets displayed on its Web site,
saying, ”Non-Natives don’t have business messing with these things.”

She suggested the camp instead teach children about modern issues faced
by Native people, including the desecration of sacred sites, poverty and
substance abuse.

It is important for non-Natives to understand that Natives do not exist
only in museums or in Western movies: ”We are a people who have a
future and who want the best for our children,” Crisostomo-Romo said.

”The very notion of trying to recreate a lifestyle of a people that are
still in vibrant existence is purely ridiculous,” she said. ”Native
people are not just about bows and arrows, feathers and dream catchers.
The depth and beauty of our cultures can never be captured in a summer
camp.”

“Always remember that to think bad thoughts is really the easiest thing in
the world. If you leave your mind to itself, it will spiral you down into
ever-increasing unhappiness. To think good thoughts requires effort. This is
the purpose of training, discipline and prayer.” —Way of the Modern-Day
Warrior.

“It is time we all unite to stop the madness threatening the whole planet,
and stand together with those who go beyond words and deliver on the promise
of freedom and justice, and against those guided by greed, arrogance and
prejudice. Stay true, work in unity, confront the traitors, and dont be
afraid, and dont let our struggles die.”
Leonard Peltier