In the late 20th century, white Americans flocked to New Age spirituality, collecting crystals, hugging trees, and finding their places in the great Medicine Wheel. Many didn’t realize – or didn’t care – that much of this spirituality was based on the spiritual faiths and practices of Native American tribes. Frustrated with what they called “spiritual hucksterism,” members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) began protesting – and have never stopped. Who were these ‘plastic shamans,’ and how did the spiritual services they sold become so popular? Listen to find out! 

Transcript for Plastic Shamans and Spiritual Hucksters: A History of Peddling and Protecting Native American Spirituality

Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and someone else

Sarah: In September 1982, the Washington Post ran a story about a spiritual celebration called the East Coast Medicine Wheel Gathering,” held on the Hudson River in upstate New York. The celebration was led by a man called Sun Bear, an Ojibwe born on a reservation in northern Minnesota. The gathering was an extension of Sun Bear’s Bear Tribe Medicine Society, an intentional community located on over 100 acres of land outside of Spokane, Washington focused on self-reliance and living in spiritual harmony with nature. The spiritual gathering that September included chanting, pipe-smoking, and dancing alongside seminars on topics such as “Earth Awareness,” “Planetary Guidance,” “Crystal Consciousness,” and “The Path of Power.”

Elizabeth: One of the biggest pieces of advice offered by Sun Bear during this gathering was for followers to hug a tree. “A pine tree,” he told the newspaper, “has a tremendous stabilizing effect on people with a lot of nervous energy….Native people feel that everything has a life force in it, and when you can reach out and embrace a tree, you can get the energy from it into you, and this will help restrengthen you own energy.” The teachings of the Bear Tribe were based on Sun Bear’s visions, which came mostly (according to him, anyway) in dreams. “The visions told me that the time would come when people would have to turn back to a sense of balance, of harmony with each other and the Earth in order to survive, and I knew that the native prophecies spoke of a time when men, after they’d gone so far from the way of the creator, that they would look to the native American people for their direction. Because look, these people lived here for thousands of years and the plant was beautiful, and now we are about to destroy it.”

Sarah: People flocked to Sun Bear from the 1970s to the 1990s for his teachings on Native spirituality and harmony with the natural world. In an era marked by environmental disasters, increasing awareness of climate change, booming capitalism, perceived crime waves and urbanization, people sought refuge in the promise of peace and harmony offered by indigenous religious principles. And of course Sun Bear wasn’t alone. With him at the gathering in New York was a woman who went by Dhyani Ywahoo, who claimed to be descendant of a line of Cherokee priests and a tribal “Sacred Peacekeeper.” There were others too, who became well known in New Age religious circles for their teaching on Native American spirituality, such as Lynn Andrews, who wrote several books in the 1980s with names like Medicine Woman and Crystal Woman; or Carlos Castaneda, who wrote became wildly famous in the 1970s for his anthropological accounts of Yaqui shamanism; or Ruth Beebe Hill, whose best-selling novel Hanta Yo described the spirituality of the Lakota Sioux based on extensive anthropological research. There was clearly a market for Native spirituality. 

Elizabeth: But there was something specific about the market eager to buy Native spirituality –  it was white people, not Native Americans, who were searching for something “real” and “natural” in a world they believed was losing touch with the earth. Indians, on the other hand, resented people like Sun Bear, Lynn Andrews, and Carlos Castaneda, who packaged sacred elements of indigenous religious practices for sale. Worse still, Indian activists argued, these spiritual leaders misrepresented, exaggerated, and even outright invented the practices, teachings, and beliefs of Native Americans for the purpose of making money and cultivating influence. So at the height of Sun Bear’s popularity, some Native American groups sought to find ways to fight back.

Sarah: Today, we’re exploring Native American spirituality, “spiritual hucksters” and “plastic shamans” in the dense and complex landscape of New Age religion.

I’m Sarah

I’m Elizabeth

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: Let’s start by laying a little bit of ground work on the history of Native spirituality in the United States to get a sense of how generic “Native spirituality” came to be a central aspect of New Age religion. Unsurprisingly, Native Americans were not protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom to American citizens – after all, Indians were not American citizens until 1924. Much to the contrary, actually, Native American religious ceremonies were often interpreted – incorrectly – by white Americans as signs of resistance. Take for instance the Ghost Dance religion, which I talked about extensively in an episode a couple of years ago. The Ghost Dance religion preached that Indians should stop fighting, embrace peace, and seek out agriculture and education in order to find a way forward with white Americans – but that message was grossly misinterpreted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the United States Army, and Benjamin Harrison’s administration, who believed that the Ghost Dancers wanted to kill whites, which helped set the stage for the massacre Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Elizabeth: But while the Ghost Dance was one stark example, the effort to quash Native American religion and spirituality was much larger. In 1883, at the urging of Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller, the Bureau of Indian Affairs set in place the Code of Indian Offenses, which later became known colloquially as the Religious Crimes Code. This law was intended to crack down on many of the cultural practices that Teller believed kept Indians from assimilating into white American culture, things like sacred dances and songs, plural marriage, and the existence of shamans and medicine workers. In a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price in 1882, Teller wrote “I desire to call your attention to what I regard as a great hindrance to the civilization of the Indians, viz, the continuance of the old heathenish dances, such as the sun dance, scalp dance, etc. These dances, or feasts, as they are sometimes called, ought in my judgment, to be discontinued, and if the Indians now supported by the Government are not willing to discontinue them, the agents should be instructed to compel such discontinuance.”[1]

Sarah: Teller wasn’t really motivated by a desire to make the Indians into Christians, but rather the belief that these practices were hindrances to civilization. A major problem within Indian rituals was that they kept Indians from understanding the world in white American terms. Teller mentioned two practices as key examples of this stunted civilization: gift-giving and medicine workers. “One great obstacle,” he wrote to Price, “to the acquirement of property by the Indian is the very general custom of destroying or distributing his property on the death of a member of his family. Frequently on the death of an important member of the family, all the property accumulated by its head is destroyed or carried off by the “mourners,” and his family left in desolation and want.” This practice, Teller believed, kept Indians from developing the American practice of acquiring property that would passed down to one’s heirs. Medicine workers rivaled the authority of American institutions, and kept Indian children from attending schools, where they would be “civilized.” In response to Teller’s recommendation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs drew up the Code of Indian Offenses. The Code established special courts called “Courts of Indian Offenses,” which were each made up of three Indians hand-selected by the government representative (or “agent”) of each Indian agency. (Agencies were almost like diplomatic centers located in Indian territories and reservations, which served as the point of contact between Indians and the US government.) The Indian agent could bring individual Indians before this court to be tried for offenses against the code, such as leading a dance or ritual or practicing polygamy. Those found guilty were punished with fines, denied rations, and imprisonment.

Elizabeth: In the 1920s, though, Progressive era Indian reformers and activists began to push back against the regulations prohibiting traditional spiritual rituals. Several Pueblo activists, for instance, including the right to participate in religious ceremonies in their protest against land grabs by the New Mexico government – they believed that if the tribe was to survive, and have the community strength to insist on their sovereignty, they needed to enact the religious dances that held their people together.[2] These protests were somewhat successful, and in 1924 New Mexico allowed ceremonies to take place, as long as there was no mandate that all Pueblo members take part. In 1933, John Collier, a sociologist and reformer, was appointed commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs by Franklin Roosevelt. Collier had long been an opponent of the Dawes Act and Code of Indian Offenses, and had lived in the Taos Pueblo community for a year studying Pueblo culture. Collier had gone on to work for Indian reform as the researcher for the Indian Welfare committee of the Progressive reform organization, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. In 1934, one of Collier’s first acts as Indian Affairs commissioner was to rescind the Code of Indian Offenses. Collier was not messing around with his insistence that Indian agents stop interfering with religious ceremonies. In his 1934 policy letter to agents, he wrote: “No interference with Indian religious life or ceremonial expression with hereafter be tolerated. The cultural liberty of Indians is in all respects to be considered equal to that of any non-Indian group….In no case shall punishments for statutory violations or for improprieties be so administered as to constitute an interference with, or to imply a censorship over, the religious or cultural life, Indian or other.”[3]

John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, meets with South Dakota Blackfoot Indian chiefs in 1934 to discuss the Wheeler-Howard Act, later known as the Indian Reorganization Act.
John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, meets with South Dakota Blackfoot Indian chiefs in 1934 to discuss the Wheeler-Howard Act, later known as the Indian Reorganization Act. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: But of course, interference didn’t just stop overnight. Native religious practices and ceremonies often ran into other kinds of laws. In 1940, for instance, the Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of their attempt to protect dwindling eagle populations, prohibited the taking of bald or golden eagle “parts,” which included eagle feathers – feathers which were, of course, part of many Indian religious ceremonies. And conflicts over dances never stopped – as late as 1971, tribal police were still arresting Lakota Sun Dancers. Inspired in part by the harassment of Native spiritual leaders – among many, many other serious issues –George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt (all Chippewa) and Russel Means (Oglala) founded the American Indian Movement. One of AIM’s first, and most famous, actions was the 19-month long occupation of Alcatraz Island in protest of the United States government’s centuries long project of seizing Indian land. A year later, members of AIM attended the Sun Dance, lead by Leonard Crow Dog on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Leonard Crow Dog was a Lakota medicine man deeply involved in Indian activism. This was a particularly important and powerful moment for the American Indian Movement. While AIM called for a return to traditional Indian ways of life, most members were born and raised in urban areas and didn’t have strong connections to their own tribal roots. (Mitchell and Banks, for instance, were both from Minneapolis.) According to religious studies scholar Lee Irwin, “the spiritual rebirth” of Indian rights was affirmed as a union between traditional religious and political leaders espousing a revival of Native identity and a rebirth of Native religious practices as a means for political empowerment.”[4] We’ll come back to this event, and its larger significance, in a second.

Elizabeth: Even though BIA Commissioner John Collier had called a halt to government interference with Indian cultural expression in the 1930s, it took until the 1970s (after considerable pressure by the American Indian Movement) for Indian religious practice to be formally protected. In 1973 the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act required that the secretary of the Interior turn over Indian governance to Indians themselves, and  in 1978 the Indian Child Welfare Act banned compulsory education in boarding schools for Indian children. Most relevant to our purposes – in 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, or AIRFA, was passed.[5] But even legislation wasn’t quite enough to make all Indian religious ceremonies legal, especially when they came into conflict with other kinds of laws. This was particularly thorny when AIRFA collided with drug laws. Peyote, a small cactus that grows in the semi-arid regions of Texas, has been used in Indian religious ceremonies in the US since at least the late 19th century (though it has been used in Mexico for centuries). But while AIRFA federally protected Native Americans right to religious expression including the use of peyote, it didn’t stop border patrols or police from harassing Indians for possession of the substance. In 1994, Congress passed an amendment to AIRFA that stated that “the use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful and shall not be prohibited by the United States or any State.”

Sarah: I mentioned we’d come back to that moment in 1972 when members of AIM attended the Crow Dog Sun Dance on the Pine Ridge reservation. One of the early weaknesses of AIM was that it didn’t have close ties with Indians on reservations, and was largely made up of younger Native Americans focused (understandably) on modern issues. Attending the sun dance gave them a tie not only to the reservation, but also to the spiritual. The next year, AIM staged another direct action, this time near the Pine Ridge at Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre. Members of AIM occupied the territory for 71 days. The reasons for the occupation were mixed. For members of the Oglala, the protest had a specific goal – to unseat a corrupt tribal president. But AIM had a bigger purpose: to draw attention to the US government’s history of abuses as well as its failure to fulfill treaties. The protest didn’t solve anything overnight, of course, but it did draw national attention to Wounded Knee and to AIM. The protest also had the effect of reinvigorating interest in traditional spiritual practices among Indians.

Elizabeth: Around the same time, an old book, first published in1932 but republished in 1971, was making Lakota spirituality publicly accessible. Black Elk Speaks, published by a poet named John G. Neihardt, is the oral history of Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota man who had been a leader of the Ghost Dance and lived through the battle of Little Bighorn as well as the Wounded Knee. When it was first published, it didn’t get much attention, but in the 70s, it quickly became hugely important, both as historical source material but also as a religious touchstone. (As a quick aside: it’s important to know that scholars have debated, and continue to debate, how much Neihardt influenced the way Black Elk’s recollections are retold. He was a poet, and also invested in a kind of tragic, last-of-his-kind narrative for Black Elk. So scholars now try to take this source with a grain of salt, so to speak.) In his introduction to the 1979 edition of the book, a writer, activist and professor of Native American studies (and himself member of the Standing Rock nation) Vine Deloria wrote that “the most important aspect of the book is not its effect on the non-Indian populace who wished to learn something of the beliefs of the Plains Indians, but upon the contemporary generation of young Indians who have been aggressively searching for roots of their own in the structure of a universal reality. To them the book has become a North American bible of all tribes.”[6] After reading Black Elk Speaks when it was originally published in the 1930s, a religious anthropologist named Joseph Epes Brown sought out Black Elk to interview him further about Lakota religion, and later published his interviews in a book called The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Between the two texts, modern Indians had a rare touchstone for learning about traditional spirituality. Primed by the writing of Black Elk, when AIM embraced the Lakota sun dance, the movement sort of adopted religious practice and spiritual belief that was uniquely Lakota but helped it become universally Indian.

Sarah: As Lakota religion became a kind of universal belief for many Native Americans, it also started to drift out white Americans. When Joseph Epes Brown interview Black Elk about the specifics of Lakota religion, he framed it as a world religion, accessible to seekers. Black Elk himself also described Lakota beliefs and traditions in a way that paralleled Catholicism, which he had converted to in 1904. Black Elk rendered the Lakota concept of wakan tanka – usually understood as the divine sacredness of the universe – as God, for instance. Here’s a quote from The Sacred Pipe that explains how Black Elk conceptualized the Lakota parallel to Jesus Christ: “We have been told by the white men, or at least by those who are Christian, that God sent to men His son … and we have been told that Jesus the Christ was crucified, but that he shall come again at the last Judgement, the end of this world or cycle. This I understand and know that it is true, but the white men should know that for the red people, too, it was the will of Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit, that an animal turn itself into a two-legged person in order to bring the most holy pipe to His people; and we too were taught that this White Buffalo Cow Woman who brought our sacred pipe will appear again at the end of this ‘world,’ a coming we Indians know is not very far off.” They also described seven sacred rites in the Lakota faith: the canupa (sacred pipe) ceremony, the inipi (sweat lodge), the hanblecha [Hahn blay chee ya]  (the vision quest), the wiwangwacipi (the sun dance), the hunkapi (the making of relatives), the ishna ta awi cha lowan (preparation for adulthood), and the tapa [dapa] wankayeyapi (throwing of the ball). These resonated with the seven rites of Catholicism: baptism, eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination. So in The Sacred Pipe, both Black Elk and Joseph Epes Brown rendered Lakota religion as both an accessible world religion, and a parallel to Christianity, making it more relatable for non-Indians.

Black Elk with his wife, Anna Brings White, and daughter Lucy Black Elk, ca. 1910
Black Elk with his wife, Anna Brings White, and daughter Lucy Black Elk, ca. 1910 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: When Black Elk died in 1950, his nephew Frank Fools Crow succeeded him as the accepted Lakota spiritual leader and authority. Fools Crow was very involved in AIM activism, and joined them in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. But Fools Crow also believed that it was spiritually critical that the Lakota share their religion with others, both non-Lakota Indians and non-Indians. This was a requirement of the faith, he believed, because the the spiritual universe included all humans, not just Lakota, based on the central symbol of the medicine wheel. The medicine wheel, also called the sacred hoop, is a symbol in Lakota that represents the whole universe – the four directions, the continuous circle of life and death, and other symbols are depicted within it.  The medicine wheel also contains four directional colors – in other words, each quadrant of the wheel has both a direction (north, south, east, west) and a color (red, black, yellow, and white) associated with it. Frank Fools Crow taught that the directional colors represented the “four nations of the world,” or “red Indians, yellow Asians, black Africans, and white Europeans.”[7] His racial division was obviously reductive, and but it speaks to the way that Fools Crow believed Lakota religion belonged to the world, rather than just to the tribe. In a book of interviews with artist Thomas Mails, Fools Crow also explained that he believed that the Lakota were designated to be an intercessor between Wakan Tanka and the rest of humanity. Reflecting the belief that the faith must be shared, the tribe often brings in outsiders in adoption ceremonies and invites non-Indians to view and take part in ceremonies.

Sarah: I think it’s worth quoting Suzanne Owen, a religious studies scholar, here to sum all this stuff up: “The Lakota have become the primary source of Native American spirituality appropriated by natives (who are disconnected to their own traditions) and non-Natives due to, on the one hand, the Lakota’s historical and continued resistance to the government, attracting the attentions of AIM and other counter-culturalists that include non-Natives, and, on the other hand, the willingness of Lakota holy men to preserve their religious traditions in printed form with the aid of non-Native authors.” This is why, she argues, that when today it’s super common to go somewhere like, say, Lily Dale, NY and take part in a sweat lodge, or do something that’s billed as a ‘vision quest’ and not some other kind of Native ritual, because these are specifically Lakota religious traditions which became universalized through the activism of AIM and the popular publication of medicine men like Black Elk and Fools Crow.

 Elizabeth: But it wasn’t long before both Indians and non-Indians alike were capitalizing on the interest in Native American spirituality. New Age spirituality – the name given to a broad and diverse set of alternative religious beliefs and practices – boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, including everything from yoga and astrology to crystals and aromatherapy. The counterculture movement of the late 1960s had created a generation rejecting old forms of authority, such as the hierarchies of the Christian church, and seeking less rigid ways of being in touch their spirituality that (generally speaking) were more in alignment with their progressive social beliefs. Generally, the “new age” refers to the idea that humanity is moving toward, or should be moving toward, a “coming era of spiritual realization and freedom.”[8] Religious studies scholar Hugh Urban argues that the New Age is not actually all that new, but rather an continuation of new religious movements and revivals that are super common in American history, and which we’ve talked about before – things like the First and Second Great Awakening, new 19th century belief systems like Spiritualism, Mormonism, and philosophical and communitarian movements like Fourierism and Transcendentalism. The New Age is marked particularly by the focus on individual development and spiritual seeking – religion scholar Marion Bowman described this as a kind of spiritual ‘toolkit,’ where people seek “whatever spiritual tools work for her or him at any given time.”[9] The concept of the medicine wheel, the sweat lodge, and the vision quest were exported from Lakota practices as “tools” that seemed profound but also accessible, largely due to the popularity of Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe.

Sarah: During this boom in New Age religion, a couple of people stood out as particularly prominent teachers of Native American spirituality: Carlos Castaneda, Vincent LaDuke, better known as Sun Bear, and Lynn Andrews. We’re going to give a little background on each of these figures, and bear with us, because they’re each really different, and because they’re kind of enigmatic New Age religious leaders, it’s kind of hard to describe them or their teachings in ways that are super clear or linear. Anthropology graduate student Carlos Castaneda published a book in 1968 called The Teachings of Don Juan, followed by severalsequels, which purported to be the result of interviews and research he conducted with a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan Matus. In his writing, he describes how Don Juan put Castaneda through shamanic training, leading him through ceremonies using peyote and psychedelic mushrooms. The book was massively popular, and found an eager audience with the counterculture  – for instance, Jim Morrison was a big fan, John Lennon referred to his wife Yoko Ono was his “Don Juan,” the writer William Burroughs both referenced Don Juan numerous times in his writing, and George Lucas based the character of Obi Wan Kenobi on the shaman.[10] Castaneda was granted his PhD in 1973, but embraced his new identity as shaman rather than pursue academia. Apparently, Don Juan named Castaneda the “last nagual” of the Yaqui, inheriting a centuries old lineage of Yaqui spiritual leadership, and Castaneda began to describe himself as having magical powers, including the ability to read minds and shapeshift. Castaneda himself became a mysterious religious teacher, bringing students into his home in LA, where he lead his acolytes – mostly beautiful young women – through shamanic training.

Elizabeth: Sun Bear(Ojibwe) was born in 1929 on the White Earth reservation in northwest Minnesota. In the 1950s, Sun Bear was an Army deserter and an actor, appearing in the western television shows “Brave Eagle,” who went on to found the Bear Tribe Medicine Society based on a vision that told him that he needed to bring the Medicine Wheel “back to this land as places of healing, sharing, and teachings for Native and non-Native alike.”[11]In the 1970s, Sun Bear and the Bear Tribe acquired a plot of land in Washington State (which they bought with a “down payment of cash, silver, and turquoise jewelry” according to his memoir) where they created a community that lived rough, with only one power source and small, simple cabins for sleeping. A few years later, the Bear Tribe began to hold what they called Medicine Wheel gatherings, traveling across the US to spread Sun Bear’s philosophy. According to promotional materials from a 1991 gathering, they promise that a “gathering will give you the opportunity to experience the teachings of Native people – their traditions, their ways of living, and their prophecies through lectures, workshops, and participation in ceremonies.”[12] Sun Bear wrote several books, many of which argued that a great environmental disaster was coming, and urging people to prepare spiritually but also by learning to live off the land. Most of Sun Bear’s students and followers were white people, such as the two successors of the Bear Tribe (which is now called the Panther Lodge Bear Tribe Medicine Society, which is a real mouthful), Marlise Wabun Wind and Wind Daughter, who are both white women. Today, membership in the Tribe is $60 and events usually cost $200-$300.

Sarah: Lynn Andrews is a white woman from Beverly Hills who published a narrative in 1981 called Medicine Woman, which almost certainly took its cues from Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. In the book, Andrews described going to an art gallery with a psychiatrist friend and being drawn to a sepia-toned photograph of a Native American ‘marriage basket.’ But when she called the gallery the next day to learn more about the photograph, she was told there was no such item – and her friend had no recollection of ever seeing it, either. Apparently this experience sent her into some kind of tailspin, culminating in a waking dream where she saw a little girl handing her the marriage basket. She was freaked out, but got herself cleaned up and took herself to a dinner party at her friend’s house in Bel Air (!?) where she was introduced to a medicine man (!?) named Hyemeyohsts Storm. Then there’s this completely insane scene where Hyemeyohsts, like, hypnotizes all the drunk dinner party guests because they’re being insufferable, and then he and Lynn have a conversation about the marriage basket and he tells her to go seek out two Canadian medicine women (who are vaguely Lakota, but also somehow Navajo?) who can teach her about her vision. She does, and becomes a medicine woman or something, I guess, I don’t know, I blacked out trying to read the rest of this book. After her training, Andrews was entered into the Sisterhood of the Shields, which she describes as “a very private and anonymous gathering of shaman women of high degree from several native cultures around the world.” Guided by these two women, Andrews has written around 14 or 15 books, now shares the teaching of the “Sisterhood of the Shields” with women who read her books and attend her workshops. According to her website, you can enroll in her “Shaman Mystery School” for the low low price of $3100 a year (transportation, meals, and lodging not included, of course) or have a private phone call with her for just $150 an hour!

Elizabeth: As New Age evangelists like Sun Bear, Castaneda, and Lynn Andrews (among many others) raked in the cash with their best selling books and expensive spiritual gatherings, real Indian religious leaders and activists got increasingly angry. In 1980, elders from several tribes (including Frank Fools Crow) met at the North Cheyenne reservation in Rosebud, Montana and signed a document that has since been called the “Resolution of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Traditional Elders Circle.” The resolution called out those “purporting to be spiritual leaders” for sharing sacred objects, such as pipes, and teaching non-Indians under the false pretenses that they are learning the true Native American spiritual beliefs. They didn’t protest sharing the faith – in fact, they wrote that “there are many things to be shared with the Four Colors of humanity in our common destiny as one with our Mother the Earth.” Rather, they wrote “we concern ourselves only with those people who use spiritual ceremonies with non-Indian people for profit” and that since the sharing of the faith was so sacred, it needed to be offered with “great care by the Elders and the medicine people who carry the Sacred Trusts.”[13]

Sarah: In 1984, AIM, at the urging of the Circle of Elders, passed its own resolution condemning exploitative spiritual leaders that they had come to call “plastic medicine men.” The Resolution noted that spiritual wisdom had been “passed to us through the Creation” and “inseparable from the people themselves,” making the “attempted theft of Indian ceremonies …a direct attack and theft from Indian people themselves.” They specifically condemned the sale of sacred ceremonies (like the vision quest and sweat lodge) and items such as pipes and feathers. I want to quote from the end of the resolution: “Our Elders ask, “Are you prepared to take the consequences of your actions? You will be outcasts from your people if you continue these practices….” Our young people are getting restless. They are the ones who sought their Elders in the first place to teach them the sacred ways. They have said they will take care of those who are abusing our Sacred ceremonies and Sacred objects in their own way. In this way, they will take care of their Elders. We resolve to protect our Elders and our traditions, and we condemn those who seek to profit from Indian spirituality. We put them on notice that our patience grows thin and they continue their disrespect at their own risk.”

The flag of the American Indian Movement
The flag of the American Indian Movement | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The 1984 resolution mentioned Sun Bear and Dyhani Ywahoo by name, among other Indian purveyors of spiritual teaching. Because he was Indian, Sun Bear touched a particular nerve with AIM for selling out, exploiting, and bastardizing Native American spirituality. Richard Williams, who served as president of the American Indian College Fund for over a decade, wrote that “Sun Bear isn’t recognized as any sort of leader, spiritual or otherwise, among his own people. He’s not qualified. It takes a lifetime of apprenticeship to become the sport of spiritual leader Sun Bear claims to be, and he never went through any of that. He’s just a guy who hasn’t been home to the White Earth Reservation in 25 years, pretending to be something he’s not, feeding his own ego and making his living misleading a lot of sincere, but very silly people.” Matthew King, a spiritual elder of the Lakota, wrote that mixing together the beliefs of different tribes was “forbidden” because they destroyed balance. He explained that “the forbidden things are acts of disrespect, things which unbalance power. These things must be learned, and the learning is very difficult. This is why there are very few real ‘medicine men’ among us; only a few are chosen.” In other words, you can’t just declare yourself a medicine man, like Sun Bear. Not long after the 1984, resolution the Colorado chapter of AIM protested a Sun Bear Medicine Wheel gathering (which participants had paid $500 a person to attend) and through the decade, AIM protested other spiritual gatherings. In 1993, the activist group SPIRIT (Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions) confronted Lynn Andrews at the 1993 “Whole Life Expo” in LA, asking her to “admit that what she was writing about was fantasy, not Indian spirituality.”[14]

Sarah: Also in 1993, members of SPIRIT along with members of the Lakota tribe drew up another document, which was endorsed by 500 representatives of 40 tribes of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations of the US and Canada. This time the resolution had a stronger name – A Declaration of War against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality. Like previous documents, this one described the abuses of the exploiters of Indian spirituality, but was more pointed in calling out the New Age movement and the buying and selling of Indian culture. They decried seeing sacred pipes “at flea markets,” “‘sundances’ for non-Indians…conducted by charlatans and cult leaders,” and “wannabes…selling books that promote the systematic colonization of our Lakota spirituality.” The document then went on to “declare war” on “wannabes,” charlatans, and “plastic medicine men,” assuming a “posture of zero-tolerance for any white man’s shaman who arises from within our own communities … all such “plastic medicine men’ are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people” and asking Indians to “actively and vocally oppose this alarming takeover.” But the “Plastic Shamans” weren’t going to take it lying down. Lynn Andrews just continued to crank out books and run gatherings (although they were always aware protestors could show up), and though Sun Bear died in 1992, his successors Wabun Wind and Wind Daughter keep the Bear Tribe or whatever it’s currently called going. Hyemeyohsts Storm took the Declaration more personally, and at the urging of a group of other spiritual teachers, he shot back with his own response to the Lakota Declaration. (Storm wrote a book called Seven Arrows that, like Black Elk Speaks, helped popularize Native American spirituality with the white public.) Storm wrote that the authors of the Declaration had a “violent chip on their shoulder” and did not represent the Lakota people – ignoring the 500 signers who had endorsed the statement, apparently. He wrote that the authors of the Declaration, which he called “hate literature,” “live in the past … Modern Americans did not conquer Indians … Americans and our Worlds people need to hear from our Reservations. They need to learn how Humane and kind our Native People are … when this happens, other Americans will listen to our Peoples social and political needs.”[15]

Elizabeth: While Storm raised some interesting points, he went on to spin a bunch of mumbo jumbo about things like sweat lodges being a universal rite practiced by ancient Europeans, making it not exclusively Lakota. So …. Anyway, the protests by AIM against people like Heymeyohsts and Sun Bear, among other Indian spiritual gurus, really illustrate some central tensions within Native American spirituality: this tension over who this spiritual teaching is for, how it should be shared, whether it should be shared for money, and who can practice it. Sun Bear, who had not apprenticed or been trained as a medicine man, be able to represent himself as a medicine man? Is it appropriate that he personally enrich himself from selling Lakota spiritual practices to a largely white public?

Sarah: Most of the protest documents agreed that it was more or less ok for non-Natives to learn about Lakota religion and Native American spirituality in general, but how and when were important questions. Particularly offensive was the idea that deeply sacred ceremonies were practiced in a casual manner, or that (again, largely white) spiritual seekers were like religion tourists, and that ceremonies and objects from different tribes and faiths were jumbled up together.  Gordon Oles of the Haudenosaunee observed that “these contrived, pseudo-Indian activities are tantamount to a nonbeliever taking the Emblems of Communion and passing them out along the trail as a snack.” Ward Churchill, a very outspoken Indian rights activist, wrote that such ceremonies “undercut the integrity, the sanctity, of the real traditions from which they draw….Undermine them enough and they’ll disappear.” But other Indians believe that Native spirituality can, and should, be shared outside of tribal membership. Frank Fools Crow, as we discussed before, felt strongly that Lakota religion needed to be shared. Dorothy Blackcrow Mack, who is white but is married into the Lakota and worked for a long time as a caretaker for sacred Lakota sun dance grounds, has argued that Native Americans can’t control who practices a faith, and that it’s acceptable for non-Natives to engage in Native faith practices as long as they do the work. “We often told visitors that they couldn’t sun dance at [my husband’s ceremonies], but not that they couldn’t sun dance – if they were fool enough to try without understanding the depth and power of that commitment.”

Elizabeth: But the other aspect of this has to do with fraud and exploitation. Carlos Castaneda, the anthropologist who became an international sensation for his writings inspired by the teachings of his shaman, Don Juan, was revealed to have lied about just about everything from his name to his experiences with Don Juan. Castaneda claimed to have lost all of his field notes from his time with Don Juan, and then left a secondary manuscript he’d written that described his training in a movie theater.[16] Further research by Richard DeMille showed that Castaneda’s work was inaccurate in its depictions of Yaqui terminology and other details, and that the  ‘revelations’ that were accurate had already been described by anthropologists. From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, Castaneda lived in a compound near LA, where he lived with several beautiful young woman in what was essentially a high-control cult. Five of his followers disappeared in 1998 after Castaneda’s death, and the skeletal remains of of Nuri Alexander, were was found in Death Valley. The other four women have never been found.

Sarah: Lynn Andrews is still out there charging thousands of dollars for her followers to become shamanic healers and teachers in their own right, and I’m telling you, her website is worth a look if only for the deranged photoshopped pictures of her with her “power animal,” the Black Wolf. If you enroll in her classes, she’ll teach you “The Art of Stalking,” which is apparently “stalking your objective at various times in your life and stalking the energy and wisdom it will take to accomplish it” like a female wolf. Sun Bear’s Bear Tribe Medicine Society has now transformed into the Panther Lodge Bear Tribe Medicine Society, headed up by a white woman who calls herself Wind Daughter, who was an acolyte of Sun Bear but was adopted by a Muskogee Creek man named Bear Heart. This is a common element in white people who teach Native American spirituality, who claim to have been adopted into a tribe or adopted by an elder – a practice that does happen and has a very long history in many tribes, but Suzanne Owens explains that this still doesn’t entitle the adoptee to call themselves a medicine person or a shaman. While this hasn’t been made explicit in the protest documents, but Lakota spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse has stated that the seven rites belong to those who are ethnically Lakota, meaning they need to be on the tribal roll with proof of their blood quantum – not simply ‘adopted’ ceremonially into the tribe – and those who can speak the language. This also allows for some control over the ceremonies – Looking Horse has stated that limiting the practice in this way allows him to better ensure that the ceremonies are performed correctly, and gives him the ability to intervene if they aren’t.[17] Of course, this is very tricky territory – some Native Americans reject the federal government system of the blood quantum (essentially, your genealogical or “blood” proof of Native lineage) and there are big debates around how to define Native American identity.

There isn’t an easy way to end this episode, because these issues aren’t resolved. Despite AIM’s protests, and the various protest documents like the Declaration of War, people like Lynn Andrews and Wind Daughter continue to preach and teach their own versions of Native American spirituality and ceremonies. This summer at Lily Dale, a man named John Two Hawks, who has been labeled a fraud by Native American activists, will lead a seminar, and in years past, has hosted numerous sweat lodge ceremonies. And people have been harmed by ceremonies led by poorly trained, non-Native practitioners: just in 2009, two people died and 18 people were hospitalized because of their participation in a sweat lodge ceremony led by New Age ghoul James Arthur Ray. In 2011, he was convicted of negligent homicide.

Sources & Notes

Irwin, Lee. “Freedom Law, and Prophecy: A Brief History of Native American Religious Resistance,” American Indian Quarterly 21 (Winter 1997): 35-55.

McNally, Michael D. Defend the Sacred: Native American Religious Freedom Beyond the First Amendment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Owen, Suzanne. The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Urban, Hugh. New Age, Neopagan, and New Religious Movements: Alternative Spirituality in Contemporary America. Berkley: University of California Press, 2015.

Bowman, Marion. “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: The Local and the Global in Glastonbury,” Numen 52 (2005): 157-190.

Amy Wallace, Sorcerer’s Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda. Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2013.


[1] Michael D. McNally, Defend the Sacred: Native American Religious Freedom Beyond the First Amendment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 40-42.

[2]McNally, Defend the Sacred, 60.

[3] McNally, Defend the Sacred, 63.

[4] Lee Irwin, “Freedom Law, and Prophecy: A Brief History of Native American Religious Resistance,” American Indian Quarterly 21 (Winter 1997), 43.

[5] Irwin, “Freedom, Law, and Prophecy,” 43.

[6] Suzanne Owen, The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality, 41.

[7] Owen, 46.

[8] Hugh Urban, New Age, Neopagan, and New Religious Movements: Alternative Spirituality in Contemporary America (University of California Press, 2015), 5.

[9] Marion Bowman, “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: The Local and the Global in Glastonbury,” Numen 52 (2005), 167.

[10] Amy Wallace, Sorcerer’s Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda (Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2013.)

[11] Owen, 97.

[12] Owen, 97.

[13] Lee Irwin, 15-16

[14] Owen, 64.

[15] Owen,

[16] Amy Wallace, Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

[17] Owen, 86, 172. 


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