An Interview with Arthur Amiotte

An Interview with Arthur Amiotte

 

Arthur Amiotte, well-known Lakota artist, has been a friend of
PARABOLA since 1976 when “Eagles Fly Over,” the account of his first
vision quest, appeared in our third issue. His “Sacred Elk” is on the
cover of The Sons of the Wind, a PARABOLA book based on the myths of
his people.

 

Mr. Amiotte has recently completed a section on Sioux visual arts for
The South Dakota Illustrated History of the Arts (Sioux Falls, South
Dakota: Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, 1989).
Currently he is involved with the establishment of the new Museum of
the American Indian in New York City and Washington D.C. under the
auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.

 

Having several times experienced his hospitality and that of his
people, we wanted to hear what he had to say about the Native American
viewpoint on this theme.
—D.M. Dooling

 

PARABOLA: To begin with, would you explain what a Sioux giveaway is,
and how it relates to the idea of an exchange between people or levels
which constitutes hospitality?

 

ARTHUR AMIOTTE: A giveaway is a ceremony among our people where one
family invites a lot of people to attend a gathering and great
quantities of goods and foodstuffs are distributed to the guests.
There are many stories from our mythology that speak to us of times
and places when gods and human beings and animals were interacting
with each other in the sacred world. The idea of a feast taking place
at which the gods and the humans and other beings were gathered seems
central to all these occasions, wherein people come together and
”share” in something—the idea of people gathered in a circle, with
food being distributed. Our mythology tells us that when humans lived
beneath the earth, they raised a particular kind of white fruit (they
were vegetarians, and they would not eat meat). It was their role to
be servants to the gods—the Sun, the Moon, the creator gods, and the
secondary gods—and to give them this fruit when they gathered at
these occasions. So one might say that the distribution of food is a
means of connectedness between sacred principles and what we are as
human beings. It is a reciprocal kind of activity in which we are
reminded of sacred principles. Indeed the very ceremonies which have
come down to us all include the distribution of food either before or
after or during the rite itself.

 

P: The idea really is, then, that it is the gods who are fed—the
feast is for the gods. Therefore is the giveaway a three-way exchange,
between the giver, and the recipients, and the gods?

 

AA: Yes, it does go beyond just the food. One prime example of this is
during the child sanctification rite. A central part of the ceremony
is the giving away of food and goods. The family who is sponsoring the
ceremony wish to sanctify their child, honor that child, by reminding
it and blessing it in the ways of the sacred; they are essentially
saying, “We love this child so much that we wish to honor other human
beings.” So they take on another couple as godparents or surrogate
parents for this child in a ritual adoption. Central to the rite is a
time when food is placed at the child’s lips, and the people who are
to be adopted say, “I’m hungry.” The food then is taken away from the
child and given to them. Water is given to the child, and the adoptees
say, “I am thirsty” so the water is taken from the child and given to
them. Then goods, decorated garments and robes—in modern times,
blankets—are placed on the back of the child, but then the surrogate
parents say, “I am cold,” and the robes are placed instead on their
backs. Then the surrogate parents say, “You have done as a good hunka,
a beloved one, should do. You have taken food from yourself and given
it to someone who is hungry, you have taken water from yourself and
given it to someone who is thirsty, you have taken the clothes from
your back and given it to someone who is cold. This is the way it
should always be. Should you always do this then you shall live a long
life, and you will be blessed with many children, and many good things
will happen to you if you follow these principles. Even if a poor dog
should come to your door and you have the last bit of food in your
mouth, at least take out half of it and give it to this animal. Even
if you do not have anything to eat and visitors come to your house, at
least give them water. If you should remember to do all these things,
much goodness will come to you in life, you will be a fortunate
person, you will be blessed, you will have all that you need. If ever
you should forget this, then all of your blessings will be as ashes in
your mouth.”

In fact, the hunka children and those families who sponsor them take a
lifelong vow to be of perpetual assistance. It becomes their mission
in life to provide the necessities so that orphans and poor people can
continually come to their homes. When visitors come to the house, a
young girl is expected to serve food to them, a young man is expected
to help serve food and take care of their needs. On the contemporary
reservation, a trunk is purchased for girls who have been through this
ceremony. The girls have been taught to do beading and quilling as
early as possible, and they are to put this handwork in the trunk.
When visitors come, or when elderly people come that they have not
seen in a long time, all the mother has to do is give the girl a nod
and the girl goes and opens her trunk and takes out scarves or pieces
of calico and gives them to these guests. This is the means of
training the girls in this process. The young men, when they made
their first kill, were expected to cut up the animal and take parts of
it and give it to the needy and the elderly in the community.

 

P: Is there a belief that the gods are also fed by this? I am putting
this in a very literal way, but we have to understand the meaning
behind it.

 

AA: Yes. But usually the foods and the goods are purified and
sanctified, the belief being that the spirit-like selves of these
objects does indeed go to the gods, first. That is why the offering is
usually placed on the ground, it is prayed over, it is purified with
the smoke of sweet grass, and in a sense the essence of these things
becomes first of all the gift to the gods. The humans participate—but
it is like eating the oranges after all the juice has been squeezed
out, eating the peelings, as it were.

 

P: If the gods receive the essence, the juice, and the people receive
the orange peels, the goods; what about the giver? Is it a step
towards his own transformation?

 

AA: For the giver, the greatest part of the transformation is
sacrifice, to give away these wonderful things, as opposed to hoarding
them. It eventually works within one’s mind that potentially, as Ella
Deloria says (in Speaking of Indians, which was a 1940 publication),
”things are made to be given.” In time, things will come back to you,
yes. And there is a standard of quality that says: Never give anything
away that is less in quality and beauty than what you yourself would
be proud to own.

 

P: What is the cultural origin of the giveaway?

 

AA: Historically it was the transformation from an Eastern Plains,
semisedentary group of people to a nomadic hunting group. It became
necessary to modify their life style by owning fewer and fewer
possessions, because they had to move about. Prairie fires, tornados,
enemies, the hunt—they had to be able to pick up and move as rapidly
as possible. So it became common for people to own very few things.
The things they did own were transportable, unbreakable, and many
times were the only sources available for decoration. Some of the
ceremonial garb and the interiors of the tipis were well decorated,
because there was a second element at work, which was the admonition
to be industrious, not to be lazy. This meant that everyone,
particularly women and young girls, were continually making things.
They could not keep them, so according to the sacred principle of
helping the less fortunate, they were given to the orphans and the
elderly, so that everyone within the band would be taken care of. So
the idea was to make things that were beautiful, to concentrate on
technique. They would have women’s feasts when the women would get
together and display the things that they had made, when actually
there would be a competition and the elder craftswomen would judge
these things.

The idea was that you ennobled the object itself, and others within
the group, by giving them these fine things. One of the worst kinds of
insults was to pretend to retain possession over these things that you
had made and given away. The admonition is that if you think you own
these goods even though they belong to someone else, you must cut
yourself off from them and think in another way.

 

P: When is a giveaway ceremony done?

 

AA: There are numerous occasions connected with the giveaway. The
feast and the giveaway actually accompany all major ceremonies. They
are an integral part of them. They become like one of the offerings
that is made to the gods and to the people on all these occasions.

 

P: Does it accompany the Sun Dance?

 

AA: Yes. There are feasts before, during, and after. The dancers do
not eat this food, except at the first one and the last one. But in
between, there are numerous occasions. People are naming their
children, and will have a naming feast for their child. That would be
accompanied by a feast and a giving away of gifts. There are also the
hunka, or the young woman’s ceremony, or the children’s throwing the
ball ceremony. Some people have a sweatlodge near their homes, and
when they have a ceremony, an important part of it is that when it is
over, a meal is served, maybe not very much, but those who sponsor it
will provide those who have participated in their sweat ceremony with
a meal afterwards.

 

P: Is the giveaway ever a ceremony by itself?.

 

AA: No, not by itself. Let me carry it one step further, into death.
Upon the death of a person, in the Sioux tradition, there is a meal
provided after the burial. If the family has goods on hand or can get
goods, they will have a giveaway at that time. Things will be given to
the pall bearers, to the people who have come and attended the wake,
to people who have brought food or flowers, to friends of the de-
ceased; in some cases the clergy, if they are invited, will receive
things—it’s a way of reciprocating. Then, usually a year following
that, during a memorial feast, in what was traditionally the old
spirit-keeping ceremony, another, larger feast and give- away is held
to honor the deceased, at which time members of the community and
visitors from great distances and people who are significant in the
life of the deceased or the family will receive things. Then there are
other occasions; four days or a week or a month after the death,
people who are not in mourning gather things up to take to the
mourners and have a mourners’ feast, where the relatives of the
deceased are actually fed the good things that have been brought. And
because they have given away all their worldly goods, dishes, new pots
and pans, things of this nature are given to them.

 

P: At other kinds of giveaways, what criteria are there for
determining who receives goods? Are the people who come to a giveaway
ceremony all invited guests or friends?

 

AA: There are three levels of giving away. The first one, which is
considered to be the least important, is Otunhanpi. That is when an
individual person is recognized by being called up in front of the
group and is given goods. At that time it is appropriate to shake
hands or embrace the family who are giving you these things, and the
person in whose honor it is being given. Otunhanpi implies an
individual relationship between that person and the person being
honored or the family. It can mean that at some time in the past, this
person has been of great help to the family, and that their status and
their knowledge and their wisdom are very special, that the traits
this person exhibits are what the family is celebrating at this time.
For some groups, not so much the Sioux, but many of the Plains groups,
it also implies a reciprocal arrangement. There are some who would say
that some of the people who are called up are expected at some time in
the future to return something. There are people who will call up
someone who they know is getting ready to give something away in the
next month or so, with the hope of being called up at their giveaway.
So the Trickster still reigns in all of these kinds of transactions!

In this first kind of giving away, in many cases it is customary to
honor people who are of fine character, of integrity and grace. That’s
why on occasion the elderly people who are called up werehunka people
when they were young, they have given away all of their life, they are
known in every community. So, whether you know them or not, if they
are known to be of this kind of people who welcome people to their
home, who share with them, who raise their grandchildren, who
sacrifice for the benefit of others, on these occasions they are
called up and honored individually, simply because they belong to that
society of people who do that intentionally.

The second kind of giving away is what is known as ohunkesni—”the
pitiful, the helpless, the needy.” This consists of picking up the
goods and passing them around, indiscriminately, to the people who are
there, and you keep on doing that until everything is gone. Each
person takes what he is given. We make it a practice in our part of
the country to give away fine things—Pendleton blankets or jackets,
quilts, hand towels, scarves, yardage of cloth, dishes, enamel or
plastic ware, and we hand out these things, as well as giving them to
the people we call up. The ohunkesni form is the equal distribution of
goods. That implies no obligation whatsoever between the receiver and
the giver.

The third kind is known as wihpeyapi, and that literally means
”throwing away.” In other words, the goods are simply spread out all
over the ground, and whoever wants or needs them can go up and get
them, and the givers just stand back (and suffer!). This form is
considered the ultimate form, the greatest and most sacred form of
sacrifice, because you are above these “things,” you are concerned
with another realm. The idea is that well-behaved People, well-behaved
receivers, will go and choose something, maybe one or two things, so
that the next person will have something to take. But there are
occasions when there are greedy people who go and just grab armfuls
and armfuls and retreat, and do not leave anything for the remainder
of the people. So this kind of giving away implies the greater
sacrifice, but it also expects a responsibility on the part of the
receivers that they will conduct themselves modestly. There are
occasions when the givers will tell certain people to go get what they
want. That is always very embarrassing, because if you go and you’re
really humble and take the smallest thing there, the giver will be
insulted. But then if you pick too much, this would insult the giver
as well! Usually the way we handle this is to make piles: a Pendleton,
a shawl—it becomes a unit, and that is what they are expected to
take.

The last form is most significant, because that is what was usually
done at funerals. There was a time when, after the funeral, people
were allowed to walk into the house and take whatever they wanted of
the household goods, the furniture, the linens, the clothing, until
the family was reduced to absolutely nothing. Originally, they gave
away their entire tipi and all their worldly goods. But in those days,
four days later, the people would probably bring you a new tent and
new garments—not always. At that time, that kind of sacrifice could
be done, as a total giving over, as it were, to the mourning process,
to the loss of this beloved one, making oneself miserable and near
death as well, as it was also a practice to gash their legs and cut
their arms. It was this kind of activity that caused the prohibition
of these kinds of ceremonies in the early days on the reservations.

 

P: So people were sometimes left then, with nothing? They were not
taken care of?

 

AA: That’s right. The idea was that if you were a responsible
neighbor, a responsible relative, you would see to it that they were
restored to a modicum of wealth to continue their lives.

 

P: That is following a death, a funeral ceremony. In the other kinds
of give-aways, is there any kind of measure of how much you give away,
to what extent you impoverish yourself?

 

AA: Yes. It has to do with your collective family wealth. How much you
have, and the quality of the goods. In other words, if you are
following the old admonition to never give away anything less in value
or quality than what you yourself would be proud to own, that implies
then that the things you give away are very fine if you have high
standards. Then you only give away fine things, which can put a strain
on you, especially if you are an artist, or if your family are
craftsmen! There are other people who will make shoddy goods, to
accumulate a great quantity. The quantity and the quality are usually
determined by the individuals doing it, and their standard of living.
For example, there are some very poor people who insist on doing this
but they really can’t afford to have the quilts quilted, so they will
tack them, tie them. Then there are those who cannot even afford the
batting and the undersides, so they only make and give away the tops.
Sometimes the tops are made from variegated materials, they are not
color coordinated or matched.

 

P: When you speak of a “family,” what is the scope of that?

 

AA: We are talking about an extended family who have several
generations: the grandparents, possibly numerous aunts and uncles,
cousins, the biological parents, or adoptive parents, the
siblings—all contributing things that they have made or money to
purchase materials to have other people make these things.

 

P: Is there one person at the center of each family? How are decisions
made?

 

AA: The decision can be made by “the elders”—for example, in my own
family, my grandmother was the matriarch, and she often decided
things. And then as I grew to maturity, I became the head man, and my
mother and aunts were willing to participate, because it brought them
status, and now with the passing of my grandmother, that power rests
in the hands of three of my women relatives—my mother and my two
aunts are the ones who have done these traditional kinds of
activities, they are the ones who now decide which names will be
given, and when these good things will take place.

 

P: It sounds as if there is a certain fluidity of roles. If a giveaway
is in the context of a larger ceremony, then the roles are always
changing. You will be the sponsor of a Sun Dance, but during that
time, someone else might decide to hold a giveaway. So in relation to
our theme about the host and the guest, these roles are constantly
shifting.

 

AA: Yes. I was thinking about that this morning. Over the years, in
going to these different places, it is not enough for us to go as
”house guests,” and expect to be fed and housed and taken care of. We
have this tribal or group identity. When I moved to Standing Rock and
was asked to help sponsor the Sun Dance, and then on up to Manitoba,
and eventually was a major participant, it was not enough for me to go
as an intercessor and expect to be taken care of. My Lakota identity
requires that I reciprocate, out of not “me” but out of my people’s
identity. I had to take my group of people with me. Hence our
encampment, made up of relatives—we had to have “our own home” where
I could reciprocate properly to these people who had invited me. I
suppose it is comparable to a house guest bringing some of his own
food. And then you also give things to the host. Within our own camp,
we had to be able to offer hospitality while we were in a foreign
country—while we were guests, we also had to practice hospitality,
and reciprocate to our hosts.

I am inclined to think that Lakota hospitality is closely tied in with
a group identity and group mentality and group ethos, because these
things are done as a group. There is a very old ceremony done on the
Plains: When two Sioux groups would meet on the Plains—they might be
northern Sioux and Oglalas travelling—whenever they would meet, the
group that knew that it was well supplied and could do it would appear
on the prairie, and they would all sit down on their haunches, and the
other group, if it were willing to accept this group’s hospitality,
would advance singing honoring songs toward the group that was
sitting, holding their hands out toward them. In other words, it was
the reversal of what you would expect guest and host to do. Then they
would set up their camp together, and the ones that were squatting
would host the ones who came forward singing to them.

Moving into modern times, we have nuclear families who live in single
family households, but the element of hospitality can exist in any
variety of ways. If one is abiding by the traditions, it is customary,
when people arrive in a Lakota home, to immediately offer them
something to drink or something to eat, and to give them a nice place
to sit, and then possibly also to give gifts to them when they leave.
So you may be practicing a Lakota version of hospitality, but you
might be offering Belgian chocolates or espresso coffee.

 

P: What is the proper way for the guest to receive hospitality?

 

AA: To receive it with grace, fully realizing that he is being
honored, and that at some time in the future, should it occur, that he
will reciprocate in like manner. It makes the giver feel very good,
when people are travelling or coming from a great distance and are
operating at a minimum level, to take care of their needs. When guests
come, you serve them the best that you have, and you look after them,
and the expectation is that they will be pleased, that they will be
honored to be a guest in your home. If they are of a special
relationship, then you also give them things when they leave, to ease
their journey and make them feel good, because they are away from
their group. And if they are your people, or your kind of people, then
for a moment that places a reminder of who they are and where they’ve
come from, the kind of people they belong to.

 

P: What we have been beginning to see in the idea of hospitality is
that there is an exchange between two forces: the force that must be
there and the force that must move. Where that is lacking or becomes
artificial, everything seems to go astray. There isn’t any real
exchange except between these two, they absolutely have to have each
other, they must exchange, for their own lives.

 

AA: There is also a recognition of an ultimate possibility that your
situation might change—that whole possibility of loss and decline,
the whole idea of losing the family wealth. If you should not have any
food, at least you can give the visitor water. The focusing in on the
ultimate need of people to meet and care for each other. Out of that
comes all the etiquette, where you should sit in the tipi and how to
behave.

 

P: There is a different angle that comes in with the expectation of a
return. For instance, in accounts of the West Coast potlatch, it seems
this is done for the purpose of increasing one’s wealth, because other
people must, in honor, pay you back even more than you have given
them.

 

AA: That is true about the Northwest Coast people and the meaning of
pot-latch, which the Sioux people and the Plains tribes do not
subscribe to. It is a unique system of a people who live sedentarily
in a place for a long time wherein there is great wealth—the sea and
the land there are very rich and gave them a lot. There was a great
deal of trade, and there was a great influx of non-Indian goods. They
had this state system, their tribal chiefs were almost like kings.
They had absolute control over their units, their clans—they actually
owned slaves. In the Northwest there was also the concept of interest:
I give this thing to you now, and in time it’s going to grow into four
of these, and because of my status as chief, when it comes time I
deserve four of these back. And there was the system of
coppers—copper plaques representing so much wealth. All these
concepts are built on this whole abstraction of interest.

 

P: Because of the way they lived, they never had to experience the
role of the one who travels, the guest; they were always the host.

 

AA: Sometimes they would play host to other villages, but there was a
sense of “I am the host and I am going to outdo you.” When this other
group went home and decided that they could outdo the other village,
then they would invite them.

 

P: But that was a sort of artificial recreation of the traveller. The
traveller wasn’t travelling because of any need of his own, he was
travelling because someone important said, “You come here.” And then
he went back and stayed in the same place he had come from, whereas in
the nomadic tradition of the Plains, people would not necessarily go
back to the same place.

 

AA: The Northwest tradition is very foreign to the idea of the
giveaway that I am talking about. Some of the Plains groups have this
element of “tit for tat,” but possibly because they could not carry
around all this stuff on the Plains with them, they had to accommodate
to the concept of sacrifice, total release and transcendence over this
kind of materialism. In exchange, your status grew in the eyes of the
people, and you became a much respected person by how much you gave
away, not by how much you had: by the number of ceremonies you
performed, the number of giveaways your family had. So the Plains
giveaway is an acceptance of the transitory nature of materialism,
that it’s not things that really count, even though you work very hard
creating and accumulating them. The idea is that you are a much finer
and greater person by not having a great deal of wealth, and by being
able to utilize what you have as a means for ennobling the human
spirit. When you give, it becomes an act of love; you think more of
these people than you do of these goods, you think more of their
particular needs, or what these gifts symbolize. The robe, the blanket
and the shawl symbolize warmth; no one should be cold. Food is the
same way; no one should be hungry. These objects and the food become
symbolic of the basic needs that people have. When you give away food,
or pots and pans, you are saying “I love you, the people, or you my
tribe, or you my visitor, more than I love having these things or the
money or the power that it takes to have and keep these things. So I
am giving them to you now, and I expect nothing in return.”

 

P: I have a very strong impression of the sense of community and of
the need to make sacrifices for the community among your people—and
as you said earlier, that this group ethos is the basis of your sense
of hospitality. I think that connects with another understanding that
the Native American has, that the adopted American does not: that we
are all guests of the Earth, that it owns us, we don’t own it. The
white concept is that I own this piece of land, I have a deed to it, I
put a fence around it. And Native Americans are being forced into that
kind of attitude, by living in a society where it is the accepted and
unquestioned way of living.

What do you think about the young people, and the possibility of the
preservation of these traditional values, these traditional
understandings of hospitality among your people?

 

AA: I don’t know about the future of this. There are some dire things
happening on my home reservation and on many other reservations, so I
am not sure. There is great poverty and there are serious kinds of
medical conditions, all of which will affect the future generations.

 

P: How many of them still have their language?

 

AA: Probably about forty to fifty per cent still speak their language.
But you have to remember that seventy-five per cent of the reservation
population is under the age of eighteen, on just about every
reservation. It is usually the older generation of people who are
carrying on these traditions. These eighteen-year-olds have to come
into their maturity before they start doing these things.

 

P: You said earlier that the essence of the gifts given were for the
gods. Is that something that is generally understood?

 

AA: No, that understanding exists only on an esoteric level. For
instance, an honoring song: when the person is being honored, the
music is primal, it’s primordial, it’s the ultimate recognition of the
person for having sacrificed, and it’s almost to the point where it’s
unexplainable, it reaches far into one’s psyche, far into one’s
innermost self. This feeling becomes the reward for having done these
things: the intensity of the moment of that song which recognizes this
transcendence, that you have done something spiritual and good, not
explained in terms of the way I have explained it—orange peelings,
the juice, the gods.

 

P: Are those songs passed on, so that some kind of knowledge can
continue to exist in the music itself?

 

AA: Yes.

 

P: And it exists in the language itself. That’s why the language is so
important, because behind the words there is a hidden meaning, so that
even if people only learn the outer form of the words, the real
meaning is there, and it’s being preserved somehow.

 

AA: Lakota music is not one of those forms that has crossed over to be
totally appreciated by non-Indian audiences. It is certainly
appreciated by Indian people as sacredness and art. It’s one of those
things that a non-Indian would perhaps never understand. Inherent in
those sounds are the principles that we are, on some level of our
comprehension, moved by and aware of, in terms of the gods.

 

P: Is there anything in the language that expresses “please” and
”thank you?”

 

AA: There are three forms for “thank you.” For a common, courteous
thank you, a man would say pilamayelo, a woman would say pilamaye.
When you are very grateful, it’s wopilatanka. And there is a silent
form of thanking, which is to go like this [he moves his hand, as if
stroking the air in front of the interviewer’s face], which means “I
am so grateful, I am stroking your face.” That is the greatest form of
”thank you.”

 

P: There is a Lakota phrase that seems almost a “please” and a “thank
you” at the same time: Mitakuye oyasin—”All my relatives.”

 

AA: It’s a single prayer by itself, if there is a group having a
ceremonial gathering, whether it is a sweat lodge, or a night
ceremony; but it also comes at the end of most prayers.Mitakuye
oyasin: “All my relatives—I am related to all.” It’s a closure, a
recognition of relationship.

 

 

Desperately Seeking Redemption

Diane Bell, Natural History, March 1997, Vol. 106, Issue 2

 

Writing for the Lakota Times in 1991, Avis Little Eagle summed up the
growing anger of many indigenous peoples concerning the practices of
self-styled New Age shamans. Throughout the 1980s, the American Indian
Movement had protested, picketed, and passed resolutions condemning
those individuals and institutions that packaged Indian sweat lodges,
vision quests, shamanic healing, and sun dances for the spiritually
hungry. Two years later, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in
Chicago, the Dakota, Lakota, andNakota Nations issued a Declaration
of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.

 

This theme has been developed by a number of Native American writers
and activists. Ward Churchill, in Fantasies of the Master Pace (1992),
calls the exploiters “plastic medicine men” and cites them as evidence
of the continuing genocidal colonization of Native Americans.
Poet-anthropologist Wendy Rose writes of “white shamanism” as a form
of cultural imperialism, and feminist Andrea Smith, in her article
”For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life,” calls these
”wannabes” to account. Echoing the defiant stand taken in the
nineteenth century by the Lakota and Cheyenne over the Black Hills,
these activists insist that their “spirituality is not for sale.”

 

Lynn V. Andrews, the Los Angeles-based author of the highly successful
Medicine Woman trilogy says, “I write of my own experience. I am not
an anthropologist.” The books, workshops, and promotional tours of
this self-proclaimed shaman, however, have been cited as a prime
example of the appropriation and commercialization of indigenous
peoples’ spirituality. According to Andrews, the teachings of her
Canadian spiritual guide, a “Native American medicine woman” named
Agnes Whistling Elk, include Lakota, Cree, and Hopi terms and
concepts. Such eclecticism deeply troubles many Native Americans, who
see the mixing and matching of different traditions from different
tribes as an assault on the integrity of the extremely personal and
specific ties of kin and country that underpin their beliefs and
practices. In addition, Andrews writes of being introduced into the
Sisterhood of the Shields, a secret organization of forty-four women
from different Native American tribes. Andrews’s loyal readers,
however, are not deterred Over and over, as I research the appeal of
these texts, I hear, “I don’t care if it’s not true; it speaks to me.”

 

In Mutant Message Down Under, Marlo Morgan—a self-described
alternative health care provider from Kansas City—describes her
2,000-mile trek across the burning deserts of Australia with a
hitherto unknown tribe of Aborigines she calls the Real People. She
claims she must keep the location of their “opal cave” secret for fear
that the government might imprison them or blow up their sacred site.
Australian Aborigines have protested that her book is, at best,
nonsense and, at worst, a violation of their law. HarperCollins lists
her book as fiction, but Morgan continues to lecture on the Real
People as though they were real. Although exposes have appeared in the
American and Australian media, this best-seller has reached millions
of readers, many of whom report, “It changed my life.”

 

In both Morgan’s book and Andrews’s Crystal Woman, Aboriginal life is
simple. Neither author (unlike ethnographers whose careful work rarely
reaches a general audience) finds the need to grapple with the
intricacies of kinship and land-based relations among Aboriginal
groups. Both authors avoid the complexities of local languages, and
the books’ spiritual folks frequently communicate by telepathy or by
giggling and winking their way through the stories. Andrews’s meeting
with the Sisterhood of the Shields takes place in a native “village”
near a brook in the middle of the arid Australian desert. At this
unlikely site, she meets with her Native American Sisters, as well as
with female Aborigines. In reality, no group of people could travel
for a thousand miles through Australia without having to negotiate
access through the territories of many other groups. (But how
convenient for government authorities if this were true! Relocation
policies would be perfectly acceptable because one piece of land would
be as good as the next to the Aborigines.)

 

Enraged that a gullible public was consuming these
misrepresentations—and that yet again exotic stereotypes of
Aborigines were obscuring the gritty realities of the lives of many of
these peoples—Robert Eggington. coordinator of the Dumbartung
Aboriginal Corporation (Western Australia), led a group of Aboriginal
elders to Los Angeles in January 1996 to protest Morgan’s book and a
planned film. Morgan responded to the protest in a radio interview
reported in the Weekend Australian. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said,
”and my sincere apologies to any Australian Aboriginal person if I
have offended them in any way . . . please read this book . . . with
an open mind and see if there is anything. anything at all that is
derogatory.”

 

Morgan’s and Andrews’s readers often tell me that these books offer a
vision of a world in which all life forms coexist in physical and
spiritual harmony; where one person’s journey can undo centuries of
abuse; where women are wise; where, despite differences in language,
history, geography, economic status, and personal skills, we are all
one. Here is community, meaning. belonging—all the connectedness for
which the self-absorbed, postindustrial, fragmented individual yearns.
I certainly agree that we should be open to wisdom from a range of
sources, but must we suspend all critical faculties in the process? It
matters that the beliefs and practices of Native Americans and
Australian Aborigines have been put through a cultural blender. It
matters that the stories of those engaged in ongoing struggles for
their very lives are marginalized, and that these representations of
indigenous peoples are romantic and ahistorical. Morgan and Andrews
shroud their “native teachers” in mystery while telling us that they
hold the keys to true and authentic ways of knowing.

 

Marketers of neo-shamanic books and workshops claim that indigenous
wisdom is part of our common human heritage. By sharing such
knowledge, the argument goes, together we can save the planet. But is
this sharing or a further appropriation? There is a bitter irony in
turning to indigenous peoples to solve problems of affluent urbanites.
In the midst of the wealth of first-world nations, most native peoples
endure appalling health problems, underemployment, and grinding
poverty. A philosophy of reverence for the earth rings hollow in the
reality of toxic waste dumps and nuclear testing on native lands. As
Ines Talamantez, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, says:
”If the impulse is for respect and sharing, then come stand with us in
our struggles for religious freedoms and the return of skeletal
remains and against hydroelectric dams and logging roads.”

 

We anthropologists, too, have been part of the problem. Too often our
power to define “the other” has displaced and silenced indigenous
voices. Here, I am not speaking for indigenous peoples; rather I am
turning the anthropological gaze on Western cultures so that we may
understand why so many individuals seek healing, meaning, and
spiritual answers in the lives of peoples whose lands and lives have
been so devastated by Western colonialism.

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