LiteratEye #36- Memo to New Age Native American Wannabes: Maybe It's Time for a Brain Dance

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, The Big One

Here’s the thirty sixth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #36- Memo to New Age Native American Wannabes: Maybe It's Time for a Brain Dance
By W.J. Elvin III
October 23, 2009

LL009-200Who wouldn't want to pop $9,695 for the opportunity to starve for a couple of days and then sit in a steamy, almost unbearably hot box for hours and hours with 50 or so other eager seekers hoping to obtain the secret to enormous wealth?

Mighty compelling. But unfortunately it recently meant death for three participants and dire illness for 18 others. The verdict isn't in as to the exact cause but apparently the tragedy resulted from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest and elevated body temperature.

The seekers were participating in a "sweat lodge" ritual under the direction of James Arthur Ray, author of Practical Spirituality: How to Use Spiritual Power to Create Tangible Results, and many other similar books.

The charismatic Ray, like many others who might be termed New Age gurus, bases his promises of wealth, healing and/or special powers on a concoction distilled from the mystical beliefs of many cultures. The sweat lodge, at least this particular version, is borrowed from a Native American cleansing ritual.

These New Age gurus are messing with practices that the – what, "Old Age" – cultures have maybe thousands of years experience in administering. Many of the groups that hold the rituals sacred not only resent the "theft of culture" but for many years now have been warning of horrific dangers awaiting novice practitioners.

The late Matthew King (Oglala spiritual elder and member of the Traditional Elders Circle): “For someone who has not learned how our balance is maintained — to pretend to be a medicine man is very, very dangerous. It's a big disrespect to the powers and can cause great harm to whoever is doing it, to those he claims to be teaching, to nature, to everything. It is very bad.”

But the hunger, the market, exists in our society so of course there are those who promise to satisfy it, usually for a good price.

In preparing a collection of LiteratEye columns along with a number of additional features for future publication, I've been reviewing works by and criticism of authors who claim an American Indian connection. Some are outright imposters, some say they benefited from a special relationship, and others were channeled their mystical knowledge, or dreamed it. A few are the real deal but are accused by some of their fellow Indians of selling out.

A good question might be, if there's so much money in it, why don't Native Americans teach their beliefs instead of leaving it to self-proclaimed gurus who sell fantasy teachings through books, lectures and retreats?

In the first place, many Native Americans who have protested theft of culture do so because they say their spiritual teachings aren't for sale. Secondly, though you can't really speak in such generalities about the myriad mini-cultures of the indigenous peoples, many Indian groups leave spiritual questing to the individual. Spirituality can't be taught, they say, it has to be experienced.

On the other hand, some groups like the Navajo have a spirituality so complex and nuanced that, for all the western academic noodling that's gone into fathoming it, it remains a misunderstood mystery.

But the quest for Indianness goes on. It dates back to the earliest encounters (see the LiteratEye #29 on Indian Peter). It has gathered momentum and was, at least to some extent, what drew bohemian artists, writers and other free spirits to the Southwest in the 1920s to create a cultural atmosphere that endures.

Coinciding, there were hobbyists, the forerunners of today's weekend re-enactors, devoting their spare time to imitation of Indian lifestyles.

Along came the Hippies, rejecting pretty much whatever their parents held dear, patching together an alternative sort of existence from bits and pieces of what they interpreted as Native American or yogic or Druidic lifestyles, whatever suited.

And now it's the New Agers, a catch-all label for today's seekers, hoping to discover some ancient technique that will make them feel like a million – or, better yet, help them get their hands on a million.

I'm writing this from inside a glass house, by the way. I think my romantic quest for Indianness probably began with collecting Straight Arrow cards from shredded wheat cereal boxes as a kid. I've bought the books and listened to the gurus, joined in rousing drum-accompanied choruses of words I didn't understand accentuated by "Hi!" and "Hey!" I've read anthropology texts and popular Indian biographies and "teachings" until my eyes crossed. I even spent time on a Sioux reservation and hooked up briefly with a little band of AIM warriors out to liberate the Black Hills.

Philip J. Deloria in his excellent assessment, >Playing Indian, says "playing Indian gave white Americans – from black-faced tea party Mohawks to buckskinned Grateful Dead fans – a jolt of self-creative power." And he goes deeper, discussing what he believes to be white America's longing that can never be satisfied, a need to be as authentically part of the land as are its anciently rooted "first people."

On the other hand, some "first people" like Pulitzer prize author Scott Momaday, have a more laid back perspective. Momady said in effect that being Indian is an inside job, not a matter for government approval or even the approval of tribes or self-appointed guardians of the race.

So if you want to change your name to "Bear Who Shits in the Woods," don a headdress and sound your barbaric yawp, get it on.

Still, that's not an invitation to lie about the blood in your veins or to claim your mystical mojo was handed down from traditional elders.

And besides, if you happen to be a seeker of western descent, you're looking in all the wrong places if you're into this New Age hokum. Just read Peter Kingsley's In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Read it a hundred times, then go out in the woods for a year and think about it, and practice what it preaches.

Like Elton John says, "Grow some funk of your own, amigo."

photo: from Michael Looking Coyote's Great Spirit Told Me guided meditation CD. Michael, also known as Michael Standing Wolf, was born in England and belongs to the Many Nations tribe of Louisiana, which welcomes those who have difficulty proving their Native American bloodline.


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


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