Indigenous social media was buzzing earlier this summer about a public Facebook invitation for an approaching Ghost Dance ceremony, hosted by what appeared to be non-Native American people in southwestern Minnesota. The event was shared from the Facebook page of the Wind Over Fire Healing Arts Center, which gave the event the name “Ghost Dance—a Healing Event for All.”
The invitation spread quickly throughout social media, with many Native people railing on Wind Over Fire’s cultural appropriation of the Ghost Dance ceremony sacred to Indigenous Peoples, and a ceremony that also carries a history of painful loss, suppression and tragedy.
The Wind Over Fire Healing Arts Center Facebook page also displayed photos of the “Ghost Dance” from the previous year, with men and women, appearing to be white, dressed in Native American–inspired clothing. This past year was their second annual ghost dance.
“Who gave you permission to conduct this ceremony?” wrote Elizabeth Roemer on the Facebook event page.
Within days of the social media outcries, the public event was deleted and removed from the Wind Over Fire page. Even after this, Native American Facebook users and their allies took to the Wind Over Fire Facebook page, leaving scathing reviews and remarks.
“Your cultural appropriation needs to stop,” Iktomi Zizi wrote. “You're going to get people hurt playing around with ceremonies you know nothing about. Going to a ceremony a few times does not give anybody the right to perform or even act like they know about them.”
The widespread social media response made it very clear: Indigenous people were not happy with the event, and they were demanding answers from Wind Over Fire.
Mary Laven, director and founder of the Wind Over Fire Healing Arts Center, insisted that the ghost dance event is not what people think.
“[The invitation] was posted on my page,” said Laven, who is described on the Wind Over Fire website as an intuitive counselor, medium, psychic and medical intuitive. “But the event was sent out by mistake.”
Laven, a self-described Italian originally from New York, sponsors the dance, and says that everything is paid for by her but that no one is charged a fee to participate. She defended their ghost dance, unequivocally.
“I’m very curious as to why the Native people feel like their ceremonies can be taken from them,” Laven said in an interview with ICMN. “The Lakota think they’re the only ones who do the ghost dance, when European cultures do them, Chinese cultures do them. They do all kinds of ceremonies around their descendants.”
Laven also said the event was mistakenly called the ghost dance, that it’s really the ten moons dance. However, the event has been called a ghost dance before—in the summer of 2016, and before the social media backlash, the Wind Over Fire page sponsored an event also called a “Ghost Dance.” Laven now says that the ghost dance is universal.
“When you go back before [the ghost dance], the Jesuits termed it as a friendship dance, and before that, there was a ten moons dance,” said Laven. “So really, in truth, that’s what it is, the ten moons dance. But I called it what I knew [the ghost dance], because that is what was presented to me.”
Laven said the “ghost dance” the year before and the latest “ten moons dance” was inspired by a dream she had, calling her to host the ceremony.
The photos posted on the Wind Over Fire Ghost Dance event page also identified Leon Carney, resident of Chandler, Minnesota, as the “medicine man” of the ghost dance, seen wearing eagle feathers and holding a staff. Carney is not a member of any federally recognized tribe, but says that he has Native American ancestry, and can trace his indigenous roots back to the Wampanoag.
“I don’t even know if there are any [Wampanoag] members left anymore,” said Carney. “They were pretty well decimated by the English during the King Phillip wars.”
Despite Carney’s claims of decimated Wampanoag, there is in fact a Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusettes today. In light of his questionable identity, indigenous critics accused Carney of pretending to be a medicine man, playing with sacred ceremonies. Carney defended himself, saying, “Some people call me a medicine man, but I don’t know what the heck that is. I’m a certified body work therapist.”
Leon Carney also said he has been around Native American ceremonies for some time, specifically naming the AIM sundance at Pipestone, Minnesota, as an annual gathering he regularly attends.
“Where the altar is today at Pipestone, I was the one who actually dug and built the (sundance) arbor,” Carney told ICMN. “The sundance chief there is a good friend of mine, and so I understand all about the culture police.”
What’s more for Carney is that in addition to his participation in Native American ceremonies, he is also vice president of the nonprofit organization Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemaking. And in 2016, Carney hosted a ghost dance on his land, which was in fact, referred to as a ghost dance back then (according to a Facebook event page from 2016). The new version of the dance was held on his land, once again, just this summer.
“Mary [Laven] started this dance,” said Carney. “She wanted to do it, and she asked me, and I suggested that we do this as ten moons, and so this is the first year we did [the dance] as the ten moons dance. It is a ghost dance of a sort, but it’s not like the Paiute vision that was brought to the Lakota.”
After receiving a number of calls from outraged Native Americans, both Laven and Carney prepared for the possibility of protestors arriving to this year’s dance. Despite their worries, they say that the ten moons dance went on without any disruption.
“It would be great if everyone just joined together,” said Laven, discontented by the scrutiny of their ceremony and the charges of cultural appropriation. “We have enough crap. I was at Standing Rock, and I hear the Native Americans, and I had heard them.”
Still, many Native Americans are not satisfied with Laven’s or Carney’s explanations of what appears to be blatant cultural appropriation. As Native American communities continue to suffer the deep-rooted and traumatic residual effects of colonization, it does, in fact, strike a quick nerve among Native American communities to see members of the dominant society “playing Indian,” taking ceremonies, or even being inspired by indigenous ceremonies. For the masses of indigenous people who are fed up with centuries of oppression and cultural appropriation, it is more than likely never going to be “okay” for outsiders to continue to take and take, exploiting the very cultures that Indigenous Peoples are still fighting to regain.
Sam Wounded Knee, an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Dakota Nation, spoke to ICMN about his strong disagreement with the ceremonies held on Carney’s land.
“They don’t know what they’re doing, and they weren’t raised that way,” Wounded Knee told ICMN. “It’s disrespectful to not only Dakotas, and having it on our land, but also disrespectful to the Lakotas who were given that dance from Wovoka, who was Paiute.”
“They are obviously lost,” Wounded Knee said. “For them to think that they have a right to do things just because they threw us a couple of dollars [at Standing Rock], thinking they paid us off, it’s totally disrespectful.”