Respect and Responsibility
This piece originally appeared in the Santa Cruz paper La Gazette, October 1994, responding to an article lamenting criticism of Lynn Andrews, a white art dealer from Beverly Hills who purports to transmit indigenous teachings from Canada, Central America, and Australia—for a high price .
What I’m writing here is partly in response to the article about Lynn Andrews in the last issue of La Gazette. It also comes out of increasing concern about how the resurgence of the Goddess is being affected by commercialization. Back in the early 70s, commercialization was one thing we didn’t have to worry about; everything was grassroots. Since the ‘80s, money / media access has become a major force shaping the players, the content and the direction of many of the most visible expressions of Goddess culture.
On the one hand, the dominant culture is getting a bigger say in the expression of Goddess culture than many long-time practitioners. On the other hand, it is portraying it in a way that threatens alliances between Goddess-venerating feminists and Native American people. How? To understand the outrage generated by Lynn Andrews, among other New Age writers, we have to be aware of the historical context.
North American religions have been under attack for centuries. European settlers started the attack by labeling Native American people as “devil-worshippers,” even burning some of them at the stake, and outlawing their religions. They destroyed and stole sacred objects, and continue to withhold them from their rightful guardians. The U.S. Army massacred Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, repressed Sun Dances, arrested and roughed up medicine people, persecuted the peyote religion: countless violations.
Much of Indian religion was forced underground, and not until the 1930s did Congress offer even the slightest legal relief to the persecution. Transmission of the old ways continued to be interrupted by the seizure and forcible deculturation of Indian children in boarding schools and by adopting them out to white families. Through all of this, Indian people have suffered from white media stereotyping of their religious practices.
Over the past two decades, Indian people have grown increasingly concerned about misrepresentation and theft of their religious sacraments. In 1984, the American Indian Movement issued a resolution against exploitation of Indian traditions by unauthorized “teachers” who commercialize ceremonies. The Traditional Elders Circle circulated a warming about “plastic medicine men” in 1990, and continues to speak out against those who claim to represent native spiritual ways for a price.
I think it is fair to say that Lynn Andrews has provoked tremendous anger among many First Nations people. On Native Net, in Moccasin Line and Akwesasne Notes, her name is almost synonymous with cultural appropriation. An Aboriginal Australian took the trouble to challenge her book Crystal Woman in the Boston Globe. Indians have protested her readings and expensive seminars, and confronted her personally.
Flora Zahara, a Native educator from Manitoba, told New Age Journal that the “Cree” ceremonies described by Andrews in Medicine Woman are unknown to Manitoba Crees, many of whom found the book presented an inaccurate and even offensive picture of their culture: “She’s making a joke out of our Native culture, our Native spirituality.”
Janet McCloud of the Northwest Indian Women’s Circle has often spoken out against whites passing themselves off as teachers for profit. “Some of them even proclaim themselves to be ‘official spiritual representatives’ of various Indian peoples.” She adds, Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.” [Churchill, “Spiritual Hucksterism,” 1990
Thomas Banyacya, Elder and internationally respected spokesman for the traditional Hopi, makes the same point: “…these people have nothing to say on the matters they claim to be so expert about. To whites, they claim they’re ‘messengers,’ but from whom? They are not the messengers of Indian people. I am a messenger, and I do not charge for my ceremonies.”
Onandaga Elder Oren Lyons explained to Z Magazine: “The bottom line here is that we have more need for intercultural respect today than at any time in human history. And nothing blocks respect and communication faster and more effectively than delusions by one part about another. We’ve got real problems, tremendous problems, problems which threaten the survival of the planet. Indians and non-Indians must confront those problems together, and this means we must have honest dialogue, but this dialogue is impossible so long as non-Indians remain deluded about things as basic as Indian spirituality.” [Ward Churchill, “Spiritual Hucksterism,” Z Magazine, Dec. 1990]
It should be a given—undisputed—that Native communities are the authorities on their own religions / cultures. If they challenge Andrews’ exposition of their culture, it means something—whether or not it is customary in the United States to consider Indian people’s feelings or opinions. In last month’s article, the writer worried that criticism of Andrews “may be hurtful to her and may be depleting to her creative energy.” It may well be that Andrews feels hurt, but what about the injury expressed by so many Indian people? Does she respond, or does she dismiss them? What about the depletion of their energy, as they are forced to explain over and over to white people why we are not entitled to appropriate their culture?
Even if Indian people were not denouncing her portrayal of their religions, there would still be a problem. Privileged whites such as Andrews get lionized by the publishing industry, which treats the rightful exponents of Native culture as if they don’t exist. This is injustice, and Andrews does profit from it. But worse, in a period of cultural genocide, when Indian societies are under unprecedented assault by the mass media, her portrayal of their traditions threatens to drown out authentic expressions. It’s as if she’s addressing a stadium with a mike and heavy amps, while the Indians trying to have a say about their own culture are being kept off the stage by security. Few in the crowd can hear them shouting, just as many women buying Lynn Andrews’ books are unaware that Indians are challenging her representations of their culture.
Andrews claims to be the first and only white member of a (secret) Sisterhood of the Shields. This group is so secret that no Native people seem to have heard of it. When one journalist asked her to authenticate that she was in fact receiving instruction from Native Elders, she claimed that they would be “in danger” if she was to reveal their identities.
This convenient pattern of amazingly self-effacing teachers was set by Andrews’ model, Carlos Castaneda, and it has other imitators. The problem is bigger than Lynn Andrews alone. The bestseller Mutant Message from Down Under recounts how a white American is stripped of her possessions and forced to go on walkabout by a mysterious “tribe” of Australians who have chosen her to bring their teachings to the world—since they have decided to abandon continued existence as a people. This goes against everything I know about traditional Aboriginal people, who are fiercely determined to survive with their culture intact. (See, for example, We Are Bosses Ourselves and Daughters of the Dreaming.) Marlo Morgan passed off her Mutant whopper as a true story until a lawsuit was threatened. In the most recent edition, she now concedes that it is fictional.
A couple of years ago I picked up a Lynn Andrews brochure selling “Shamanic Initiation Seminars” at $300 a head. The flavor-of-the-month was Aboriginal Australians. Andrews promised to introduce participants to “spirit warrior Oruncha” and teach them “to work with the Goowawa.” Attendees were also assured of an encounter with their personal “power animal.” What I want to know is, with all her book tours and seminars, how long can Andrews have actually spent in Australia? It would take much more than a year to absorb the Law of Australian Elders, if in fact she actually studied with any, and the same goes for the Maya, etc., etc. Andrews is cranking out books at such a clip, I question that she is doing in-depth study with authentic Elders.
Andrews says she “gives great honor and respect” to Native spiritual traditions, while playing mix-and-match with them and failing to respond to the custodians of those traditions who have criticized her mass-marketing of their culture, or what passes for it. True honor and respect does not produce anger and bad feelings in the honorees, or cause them to protest that they are being lied about and ripped off.
True honor and respect would include using her privilege to support First Nations’ sovereignty. When did Lynn Andrews ever use her media platform to stand up for Shoshone land rights, or call for the release of Norma Jean Croy or Leonard Peltier? Or if that’s too “political” for you, she is in a position to call white Americans’ attention to First Nations fight for their religious rights. In the last decade the Supreme Court struck down Indian rights to practice the peyote religion in Oregon, and overruled an appeal for the right to preserve Doctor Rock and other Karok sacred sites threatened by the Gaskett-Orleans road in northwest California. These would all be ways of “giving back.”
If “many people who might first be deaf to the words of an old Native North American woman” [in the words of the earlier article which argued that Andrews was actually performing a service] cannot open their minds to her words, then they are not ready for her deep spiritual teachings. They need to start at the beginning, learn to sit up before they try to fly. Catering to prejudice does not “neutralize” it. (Being deaf or blind, by the way, should not be equated to spiritual obtuseness.)
Anne Cameron, the (non-Native) author of Daughters of Copper Woman and other books, explained this some years ago in Moccasin Line. Writing specifically in response to the Lynn Andrews controversy, Cameron noted the sense of entitlement many white people seem to have, assuming they have a “right” to “share” Indian traditions. She commented that such people are not used to finding what they need on their own, but “expect to get it handed to them.”
They become very angry and defensive when told they can’t have what they want! And I have yet to find a way to explain to them that the cultural differences which keep them from understanding are the very differences which make it almost impossible to teach them what it is they so much want to know. What would be perfectly understandable to a Native person is answered with ‘yes, but…’ Tell them they have to learn the basics before they can learn the secrets, they say, ‘Yes, but…’
Cameron then contrasts those who “charge small or large fortunes to introduce the leisured middle class to the truth” with the Elders who taught her by example, “and lived lives of spiritual focus.”
Those women worked in fish canneries for disgustingly low wages, they cooked in camps, they picked berries, they were politically involved and worked for land claims, fishing rights, and child protection. What they had, they shared; they did not get rich and travel around in rarefied circles being worshipped by a clique of devotees.
Someone might object: how is Cameron different from Lynn Andrews, since she herself wrote a book about Indian traditions taught her by Elder women? I go back to my basic criterion: do Indian people value her work, and is she responsive to their concerns? To my knowledge, the answer is yes. Cameron recounted stories taught to her by her adopted Native kin; she does not claim special status for herself or pretend to transmit ceremonies or belong to non-existent secret sisterhoods. And she donates all the profits from Daughters of Copper Woman to Native women’s organizations and a writing fund for Indian women.
The passage quoted above is not a case of prejudice against privileged women, but a repudiation of the mainstream American assumption that wealth and fame equal worth, and are measures of it. It is a peculiarly American delusion to think that spiritual enlightenment can be obtained on the market, that you can buy a meeting with a “power animal.”
The white American habit of taking from Indians is so engrained that most white people do not question it, are not conscious of doing it. It continues to be a problem in the women’s community too, with white women trying to justify copying Indian ways by their own spiritual hunger. In recent years at the Michigan festival, Indian women have led protests against the growing trend of white craftswomen selling “shields,” drums with Haida or Zuñi symbols, and other items taken out of Native context. Too often white women have refused to see the pain that their assumption of a “right” to imitate (often Lakota) traditions has caused Indian women. When confronted about it, they focus on their own hurt feelings, or even get indignant that someone would dare to refuse them.
But you know what? We have to get over that mess, because in such cases white women are not the wronged party. It isn’t a question of blaming, but of acting to right the wrongs that are still being done to Indian people. Our alliances with First Nations women depend on our living up to that responsibility. And that’s a spiritual principle!
Beyond that, I don’t think Euro-American women can heal ourselves without bringing to consciousness what has been excised from our own cultures of origin. We also have a long history of religious persecution, and many Indian activists are aware of this. I was moved to hear Native Alaskan Andrea Carmen speak at a 1992 demonstration, as part of the Five Hundred Years of Resistance, about how the witch hunts repressed the European medicine ways, what many of us call the Craft of the Wycces.
Begging, borrowing, or stealing is no way to reclaim those ways, or to heal our loss. A key to making the Circle whole again is to reestablish connections to our ancestral heritages. Grounded in this way, we will be in a better position to build a multicultural Goddess movement based on mutual respect and consensual sharing. I believe that’s the only way we will be able to do it.
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