“A Little Matter of Genocide: Colonialism and the Expropriation of Indigenous Spiritual Tradition in Contemporary Academia”
The exploitation and appropriation of Native American spiritual tradition is nothing new. In many ways the process began the moment the first of Columbus’ wayward seamen washed up on a Caribbean beach, returning home with wondrous tales of “los in Dios.” And it has been functioning in increasingly concerted fashion, under rationales ranging from the crassly commercial to the “purely academic,’ ever since. Over the past two decades, the ranks of those queueing up to cash in on the lucre and luster of “American Indian Religious Studies” have come to include a number of “New Age” luminaries reinforced by a significant portion of the university elite.
The classic example of this has been Carlos Castaneda, whose wellstewed borrowings from Timothy Leary, the Yogi Ramacharaka, and Barbara Myerhoffwere blended with a liberal dose of his own turgid fantasies, packaged as a “Yaqui way of knowledge,” and resulted not only in a lengthy string of bestsellers but a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. So lacking was/is the base of real knowledge concerning things Indian within academia that it took nearly a decade for Castaneda to be apprehended as “the greatest anthropological hoax since Piltdown Man,” and one still encounters abundant instances of The Teachings of Don Juan and Journey to Ixtlan being utilized in courses and cited (apparently in all seriousness) in ostensibly scholarly works as offering “insight” into American Indian thought and spiritual practiced
Then there is “Dr.Jamake Highwater” an alleged Cherokee/Blackfeet from either Montana or Canada (the story varies from time-to-time), born by his own accounts in several different years. In an earlier incarnation (circa: the late sixties), this same individual appeared as “j Marks” a non-Indian modern dance promoter in the San Francisco area whose main literary claim to fame was in having penned an “authorized biography” of rock star Mick Jagger. Small wonder that the many later texts of “Dr. Highwater” on Native American spirituality and the nature of “the primal mind” bear more than passing resemblance to both the lore of Grecian mythos and the insights of hip-pop idiom a la magazines like Rolling Stone. Still, Highwater’s material consistently finds itself required reading in undergraduate courses and referenced in supposedly scholarly fora. The man has also received more than one hefty grant to translate his literary ramblings into “educational” PBS film productions.
Then again, there was Ruth Beebe Hill whose epic potboiler novel, Hanta Yo, set certain sales records during the late seventies via the expedient of depicting the collectivist spirituality of the nineteenth-century Lakota as nothing so much as a living prefiguration of her friend Ayn Rand’s grossly individualistic cryptofascism. In the face of near-universal howls of outrage from the contemporary Lakota community, Hill resorted to “validating” her postulations by retaining the services of a single aging and impoverished Sioux man, Atonzo Blacksmith (a.k.a.: “Chunksa Yuha”), to attest to the book’s “authenticity.” Before dropping once again into a well-deserved obscurity, Blacksmith intoned—allegedly in a “dialect” unknown to Siouxian linguistics—that what Hill had written was true because “I, Chunksa Yuha, say so, say so.” This ludicrous performance was sufficient to allow a range of professors to argue that the controversy [was] really just “a matter of opinion” because “all Indians are not in agreement as to the inaccuracy of Hanta Yo.” Such pronouncements virtually insured that sales would remain brisk in supermarkets and college book stores, and that producer David Wolper would convert it into a TV miniseries entitled Mystic Warrior during the mid-’80s.
And, as if all this were not enough, we are treated to the spectacle of Lynn Andrews, an airhead “feminist” yuppie who once wrangled herself a weekend in the company of a pair of elderly Indian women of indistinct tribal origin. In her version of events, they had apparently been waiting their entire lives for just such an opportunity to unburden themselves of every innermost secret of their people’s spiritual knowledge, immediately acquainted her with such previously unknown “facts” as the presence of kachinas on the Arctic Circle and the power of “Jaguar Women ” charged her with serving as their “messenger,” and sent her forth to write a series of books so outlandish in their pretensions as to make Castaneda seem a model of propriety by comparison. Predictably, the Andrews books have begun to penetrate the “popular literature” curriculum of academe.
To round out the picture, beyond the roster of such heavy-hitters circle a host of also-rans extending from “Chief Red Fox” and”Nino Cochise” (real names and ethnicities unknown) to Hyemeyohsts Storm, David Seals and scores of others, each of whom has made a significant recent contribution (for profit) to the misrepresentation and appropriation of indigenous spirituality, and most of whom have been tendered some measure of credibility by the “certified scholars” of American universities.
One result is that at this juncture, scarcely an Indian in the United States has not been confronted by some hippie-like apparition wishing to teach crystal-healing methods to Navajo grandmothers, claiming to be a pipe-carrier reincarnated from a seventeenth-century Cheyenne warrior, and with an assumed “Indian name” such as “Beautiful Painted Arrow” or “Chief Piercing Eyes.” Needless to say, this circumstance has in turn spawned a “whole new clot of hucksters such as the late “Sun Bear” (Vincent LaDuke, a Chippewa) who—along with his non-Indian consort cum business manager, “Wabun” (Marlise James)—was able to make himself rather wealthy by forming (on the basis of suitable “membership fees”) what he called “the Bear Tribe,” and 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.
As the Lakota scholar Vine Deloria,Jr., put it in 1982, “the realities of Indian belief and existence have become so misunderstood and distorted at this point that when a real Indian stands up and speaks the truth at any given moment, he or she is not only unlikely to be believed, but will probably be publicly contradicted and corrected by the citation of some non-Indian and totally inaccurate ‘expert.’ More, young Indians in universities are now being trained to view themselves and their cultures in the terms prescribed by such experts rather than in the traditional terms of the tribal elders. The process automatically sets the members of Indian communities at odds with one another, while outsiders run around picking up the pieces for themselves. In this way, the experts are perfecting a system of self-validation in which all semblance of honesty and accuracy are lost. This is not only a travesty of scholarship, but it is absolutely devastating to Indian societies.”
Pam Colorado, an Oneida academic, goes further: “The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in areas of their own customs and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and is not Indian, even for Indians. We are talking here about an absolute ideological/conceptual subordination of Indian people in addition to the total physical subordination they already experience. When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear. Non-Indians will then ‘own’ our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources.”