In the Spotlight

News & Features
Go to Rekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
DocumentRekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
DocumentPart 1: The spirits spoke to him
DocumentPart 2: The seventh fire
DocumentPart 3: Christianizing the Indians
DocumentPart 4: One church, two traditions
DocumentPart 5: Where tradition thrives
DocumentPart 6: Ceremony and symbolism
DocumentPart 7: The healing spirit
DocumentPart 8: Returning to the Red Road
Document'The jewelry on American culture'
DocumentPreserving the language
More from MPR
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
'The jewelry on American culture'
Larger view
Frances Densmore recorded Indian songs and ceremonies in the early 20th century. But many Indians say her recordings were tainted because she paid Indians for their participation, and because the information was not given in a spiritual way. (Photo courtesy of Goodhue County Historical Society)
Many American Indians are reclaiming their native spirituality. They are following traditional beliefs and ceremonies. Some of those ceremonies were illegal for generations of Indians. They were done in secret and carefully protected. Today, many American Indians fear their faith is once again under assault -- this time from people who want to buy spirituality.

White Earth, Minn. — Almost every week Paul Schultz gets a call from someone who wants to experience a sweat lodge ceremony. Schultz holds sweats regularly on the White Earth Reservation. He gets requests from Indians and white people.

"I usually talk with them first to find out what's motivating them," says Schultz. "And if it ends up they're just curious to do an Indian thing, I don't tend to encourage them much."

Schultz says many people see Indian ceremonies as mystical, magical experiences.

"People who are just trying to search, who unfortunately are just looking for a quick easy fix. They think, 'I can handle this. I'll go to a few ceremonies and a few sweat lodge ceremonies and I'll have this down pat.' It just isn't that simple," says Schultz.

Larger view
Image Tony Treuer

Schultz says American Indian spirituality is learned by spending hours listening to elders talk and tell stories. There are no study guides or magic words to bring spiritual perfection. Indian spirituality is understood over a lifetime.

But anything Indian carries a certain mystique, and savvy business people have cashed in for decades. Now the sales pitch is often related to spirituality. The Internet is filled with offers to teach American Indian ceremonies and medicine -- for a price.

The dreamcatcher is perhaps the most common Indian object for sale. That doesn't bother most Indians. What angers them is the selling of truly sacred objects like the pipe or drum. Some people even try to market rocks as a spiritual icon.

"And people get taken for a ride all the time. I see it advertised in the paper. Sacred sweat rocks, 45 dollars apiece. And it's like, wow!" says Skip Sandman.

Sandman is an American Indian healer on the Mille Lacs Reservation. Plants and prayer are his primary tools. He refuses to share details about his healing ceremonies because he's afraid someone will copy them for profit. He says healing ceremonies lose power when they're for sale. Sandman sees great irony in paying for spirituality.

"People are grasping at any kind of spirituality and they'll pay through the nose for it. And spirituality is so simple. It's like looking at your hand. It's right here in front of us, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Sandman.

There's no way white society can expropriate this particular faith, and do better at being Indian than Indians. But, can they begin to find ways to sit and know each other better, for the sake of appreciation rather than for the sake of exploitation? I believe we do have that opportunity.
- Paul Schultz, White Earth spiritual leader

Many American Indians believe a spiritual object exchanged for money is worthless. The power is in the faith, not the object.

Tony Treuer is an Ojibwe language professor at Bemidji State University. He says there's a long history of Indian culture and spirituality being used inappropriately. Treuer says in the early 20th century, white people collected Indian spirituality like an artifact.

"An example would be Frances Densmore, who went around during starvation times and paid money for information -- and got some," says Treuer. "And no one today will use the Densmore recordings to learn spiritual information. Not just because it was tainted in how it was taken, but because it's not being given in a spiritual way. It really doesn't have a spiritual use, it has only an academic use."

The U.S. government worked for decades to end American Indian spiritual practices. Ceremonies were outlawed and people were imprisoned for praying.

Many are still suspicious of any outside interest in their spiritual beliefs. Key ceremonies like Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Lodge, are surrounded by secrecy. Details are shared only with those who go through the ceremony.

"You can't consume the Grand Medicine Society for the public, you can't consume it in writing. It's consumed internally, spiritually in the individual," says Leech Lake spiritual healer Larry Aitken. "Everything we have shared with the non-Indian public -- they've either abused it or used it for profit. And there are some things that are so private we don't share them."

Minnesota author Kent Nerburn has written several books about American Indian culture and beliefs. He's a white theologian who spent years working among American Indians. Nerburn says American Indians disagree over how much of their beliefs and ceremonies should be shared.

"(There are) those who are saying, 'This is our gift. It's our gift to the human race, and we should share it.' And those who are saying, 'No. This is not something to be shared. We gave away our land, we gave away our language, we gave away our children to the boarding schools. And now we're going to give away our spirituality for a little bit of fame, glory or money. That's an absolutely wrong thing to do,'" says Nerburn.

Nerburn says Indians have become the jewelry on American culture.

Because he's written about American Indian spirituality, Nerburn regularly gets calls from people who want to meet an Indian.

"They're not calling me and saying, 'Tell me about spirituality,' not that I could do so. It's like I'm supposed to be a conduit for these people to Indians, because somehow Indian spirituality is going to save them from some emptiness in their non-Indian reality. I don't know what that means, but it just fascinates the hell out of me," says Nerburn.

American Indian elders say those who want to own native spirituality will never understand it. But White Earth spiritual leader Paul Schultz believes there is a way anyone can benefit from Indian beliefs.

"There's no way white society can expropriate this particular faith, and do better at being Indian than Indians," says Schultz. "But, can they begin to find ways to sit and know each other better, for the sake of appreciation rather than for the sake of exploitation? I believe we do have that opportunity."

Schultz says American Indians have much to offer the rest of society, but it's not for sale.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects