Selling Native American Soul

by Jon Magnuson

Jon Magnuson is Lutheran campus pastor at the University of Washington in Seattle and cochair of the Native American Task Force of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 22, 1989, p. 1084. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


An analysis of: the popularizing and exploitation of Native American culture. The author is a longtime advocate of the rights of Native Americans.

One cool October afternoon in Vancouver, British Columbia, I took my place in line to see what the critics had deemed the runaway hit of the 1986 World’s Fair. "Spirit Lodge," sponsored by General Motors, was a nine-minute Indian mystical experience. Crowds waited patiently in line, often for as long as five hours, to glimpse a show which had been running every ten minutes for 12 hours, several days a week for five months. Bob Rogers, director of the GM exhibit, commented that "during the first days someone had to actually stand outside and beg people to come and see it. They’d say ‘A nine-minute show? No thanks.’ "But then," Rogers said, "the world discovered it."

"Spirit Lodge" captivated audiences with scenes of an aged Indian storyteller recounting the legend of a magic canoe that could transform the initiated believer (thanks to cameras and holographic expertise) into a different time and space. It was a rare show at the fair. In contrast to the exhibits that glorified technology, the GM production hinted at an ancient, elusive mystery. With the help of 70 mm film images and a focused light crystal, actors in heavy makeup and costumes invited casual observers to participate in a third dimension filled with dreams, eagles and shadowy visions.

The commercialization of religious experience is not unique to our society or era. Yet even casual observers can’t help noticing the rise of interest in Native spirituality. Whether in advertisements for Sun Bear and his Vision Questing Seminars or in a Mann County weekend invitation to an expensive "authentic" Sioux sweatlodge ceremony, the recent marketing of Indian religious experience and ritual warrants a closer examination. This trend may be yet another example of the burden of materialism and our hunger for alternative realities. It also betrays a subtle but destructive prejudice that continues to divide and plague the American psyche.

Any casual browsing through bookstore shelves reveals a glut of books on modern spirituality that claim a vague authority by beginning with variations of "A medicine man once told me. . ." There is no sign that the best-selling Medicine Woman series by Lynn Andrews or Carlos Castenada’s almost-classic Teachings of Don Juan, the Yaqui Sorcerer have lost any of their legitimacy or attractiveness -- despite mounting criticism from the Native community. Organizations and agencies dealing with Native tribal groups put their own credibility in jeopardy by not using more discernment in endorsing such works.

As those who work alongside tribal groups know, tribal spiritual leaders are generally reluctant publicly to criticize others. This is partly due to a Native respect for personal experience. It is also, in part, due to a proliferation of spiritual leaders within any given tribal clan or Native community. These men and women lack the priestly frames of authority common to institutional churches. Equally significant, Native people are cautious as a result of the repression of Native traditional practices over generations. Although initial provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 affirmed constitutional protection for the practice of Native traditional beliefs, those basic rights continue to be threatened by legal challenges to the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978. In both northern California’s recent Gasquette-Orleans Road Supreme Court ruling of 1988 and South Dakota’s 1983 court ruling on Bear Butte, indigenous peoples lost protection of and access to sacred sites which in their view have for centuries held life-giving power and meaning. Yet despite their suspicion of the public and doubts about the government’s willingness to defend their religious rights, tribal leaders across North America are increasingly critical of Native and non-Native "medicine teachers" who proclaim themselves the carriers of revelation and special power.

Two intriguing examples of what is at stake here are the resurgence of interest in the photographs of Edward S. Curtis and the recent (now defunct) lawsuit filed against Andrews, whose books relate her training as a shaman. These events reflect the shape and complexity of what is fast becoming a source of bitter dispute and misunderstanding among Indians, spiritual seekers and their often well-meaning but uninformed allies and supporters.

Curtis’s photography is featured in displays on Native American culture and history across the U.S. and Europe. Curtis gained only fleeting respect and recognition during his lifetime; a man of extraordinary energy and talent, he died relatively unknown in 1952. The first publication of his work received mediocre reviews. In the 1970s his 20-volume work The North American Indian (1909-1930) unexpectedly re-emerged after 40 years of obscurity, riding a wave of interest in Native American life. It swiftly became the single most sought-after historical document available on the subject. A complete set sold for $73,000 in 1982, more than 24 times its original price. Anthologies about Indians, popular magazine articles and feature newspaper stories continue to publish Curtis’s now-familiar depictions of statuesque Native warriors, hunters, dancers and medicine men. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most influential of the photographer’s patrons, wrote in the preface to the original series:

"In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are not merely photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because he is truthful."

Marketing Indian religion or any product depends upon consumer expectation. In his insightful, fascinating work The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions, Christopher M. Lyman describes how Curtis manipulated both his subjects and his medium to create an image that reinforced cultural stereotypes of "Indianness." Although the subject of his portraits were from different tribes, says Lyman, Curtis frequently photographed them in the same costume. "The costume was probably a prop which Curtis carried with him to make his subjects look ‘Indian."’ Lyman suggests that we consider whose needs are being met by such depictions.

In a time of cultural disintegration such as ours the longing for a "golden age" or an "original people" is natural, emotionally comforting and even psychologically appropriate. But it is a problem, Lyman writes, when such collective longings serve to categorize and limit a people’s authentic religious expression.

Two personal incidents illustrate the consequences of such romantic projections. The first is a comment made to me not long ago by a tribal elder from Neah Bay, a village on the Makah Indian Reservation perched on the edge of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It was not unusual in the peak of the summer tourist season to have visitors roam through her community peering into the windows of the homes. "Once I asked them what they were looking for," she said with bemusement. Their reply was that "they were looking for real Indians!"

The other incident involved a young Native woman from Pine Ridge who found herself fulfilling the Indian quota on several church committees. "The less I speak," she observed, "the more they think I know, the more mysterious they think I am." Extremely sensitive, gifted and dedicated, she felt tremendous pressure to "be the Indian" in a spiritual sense; this finally contributed to a emotional breakdown. Those who work in multicultural church ministries know that such incidents are far too common, especially for Native Americans.

An even more devastating illustration of the selling of Native American soul is embodied in the controversy surrounding Lynn Andrews. Five highly acclaimed books focusing on her relations of Native spiritual teachings have built a career for Andrews, a Beverly Hills actress who has taken her Workshop "Into the Crystal Dreamtime" on nationwide tours. Medicine Woman (Harper & Row, 1980) , the initial account of her experiences, won Andrews an enormous response from readers across the country. That and subsequent books were marketed as nonfiction. Her writings describe how in the mid-’70s she became an apprentice to Agnes Whistling Elk, a Native American medicine woman who Andrews claimed was a Cree shaman from Manitoba. Jaguar Woman (1985) , Star Woman (1986) and Crystal Woman (1987) , her sequels, all became New York Times best sellers.

In 1987 1 asked a Taos Pueblo Native who is also a clinical psychologist and college professor what he knew of Andrews’s reputation among tile Cree people of Manitoba. (He has worked as a consultant among the Cree.) His comments, though guarded, were unsettling. On his journeys into Manitoba and his frequent work among the Cree he had sought to verify her claims. No one had even heard of her.

In November 1988 an affidavit was filed with a lawsuit brought by David Carson, a writer and former live-in companion of Andrews, contending that "as a result of our personal relationship, she and I composed a series of literary works that includes Medicine Woman, Flight of the Seventh Moon, Jaguar Woman and Star Woman." Jonathon Adolph, a senior editor of New Age Journal, and journalist Richard Smoley began an immediate investigation. In their New Age Journal report, "Beverly Hills Shaman" (March-April 1989) , they acknowledge that in February Carson and his attorney unexpectedly indicated their intention to drop the suit, and they document that prior to that action Carson had made claims suggesting that many of Andrews ‘s experiences were the results of his own creative imagination. David Hall, a longtime acquaintance of Carson who said he watched the two work together, claims that Andrews supplied rough sketches from her experiences in Beverly Hills, and Carson wove them into a fictional narrative describing her exotic adventures with various shamans based on his own knowledge of Native American culture. Carson has claimed he is of Choctaw descent. Both Adolph and Smoley document court papers that show that even before Carson filed his suit he had been offered $15,000 by Andrews’s New York agent.

Adolph and Smoley also collected bitter criticisms of Andrews from Native American leaders contending that she had made errors regarding geography and custom, especially in her descriptions of ancient ceremonies. In an interview with New Age Journal Andrews said that "a lot of Indians are not upset, with my work." But when her publicist was asked to provide names, she produced only two: one who described herself as a Chicano and another woman who said she had a distant Native American relative.

Andrews’s own religious experience is not the issue as much as her use of Native American references and symbols out of context. For instance, in her books her teacher Agnes Whistling Elk uses Hopi and Lakota terms, even though she is supposedly a Cree. Two of the exotic ceremonies performed by Crees in Medicine Woman are unknown among the Cree people of Manitoba, according to Flora Zaharia, former director of the Native Education Branch of the Manitoba Department of Education. Adolph and Smoley quote Zaharia as saying that "Andrews is making a joke out of our spirituality and Native culture."

The popularity of Andrews’s writings reflects a great spiritual hunger. To her credit she knows, better than most, that the American dream has moved, in these last decades of the 20th century, into a desperate search for the sacred and mystical. But for Andrews or anyone else to address this need by deliberately misappropriating and misrepresenting whatever fragments of spirituality are left among indigenous peoples is unethical and spiritually misguided. Both Native and non-Native become the poorer for it.

In the midst of this dilemma the Native voice itself proves most helpful. This past June the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders, an intertribal gathering of North American spiritual and tribal leaders, met for its 12th annual conference, this time on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. It made public a seven-page ‘Communiqué" that included the following statement:

It is important to respect the fact that some ceremonial knowledge is sacred and private, meant only for the medicine societies that are responsible for those particular functions. All people are beneficiaries of these ceremonies. It is a great offence to exploit sacred knowledge. Proper performance and participation is the duty of designated traditional religious leaders. Many of these ceremonies are site-specific in their respective indigenous nations

Warnings against exploiting Native spirituality are increasingly blunt and direct. Vine Deloria, Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux, attorney and author of Custer Died for Your Sins and God ls Red, was featured in mid-August as a key speaker at the Spirit of Place Conference at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Organizers of the event had for the second consecutive year brought together architects, theologians, geomancers and community activists to explore perceptions of landscape, geography and the meaning of the sacred. Deference was appropriately shown to the Native community on this matter. But it was also apparent that many of the participants had been heavily influenced by popular images and expectations. When Deloria was asked about the popularity of Castenada’s writings, his answer was short and succinct. "Jamake Highwater, Lynn Andrews and Castenada are all of the same genre. Their writing is interesting, but it has nothing to do with Indians." He paused, took a sip of water from a glass, then continued, "It’s about what white people think Indians should be."

If Deloria’s perspective is accurate, what are we to make of the renaissance of Native religions in North America? Is it a fiction? Ask any of this summer’s 200 sun dancers from South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation or the thousands of young Native men and women participating these days in pipe ceremonies and sweatlodge rituals in prisons and in alcohol treatment programs across North America, and they will testify to the contrary. Even now initiates are preparing for their winter dancing rituals in the centuries-old secret Seyouwin societies that flourish on the western coasts of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. What is important to understand is that Native spirituality takes specific forms among specific people, places and communities. There is no generic Indian religious experience that can be packaged and sold. Furthermore, much of the commercialization of Native religions violates basic rules governing Native Respect for the sacred: the prohibition of cameras, sketch books and tape recorders and the marketing of such knowledge for monetary gain.

As for the well-known "medicine men and women" who travel with their groupies and for-profit organizations, Ramona Soto Rank, Klamath tribal member and director for the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest, likes to remind seekers after authentic Native healers and spiritual teachers that these individuals seldom speak of themselves in such terms. Black Elk was working in a migrant worker camp in the l930s when John Neilhardt finally found him. It’s not unusual for the most noted of traditional healers in the Pacific Northwest to support themselves as seasonal fishermen and loggers.

What remains of authentic spiritual gifts should not be undervalued. Deeply experiential and personal, the rebirth of Native American religion reflects an unparalleled ecumenical openness. Those who are guests of that hospitality and openness will find it remarkable and lifegiving. It is linked, at the same time, intensely and practically, with the problems of treaty rights and land disputes that continue to ravage Native communities. This is no disembodied spiritualism that can be packaged and neatly marketed. The fusion of the spiritual life with the gritty problems of political survival, alcoholism and poverty is the real face and heart of the Native Soul. In their battle against spiritual exploitation and cultural disintegration, Indian leaders can teach those who listen the meaning of the sacred, and perhaps find hope and encouragement among conscientious new advocates and friends. Both Christian and Native religions must share the best from their respective traditions and symbols and point to a common wisdom for which the earth and our peoples so desperately cry.