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Selling the Sacred: Get Your Master's in Native American Shamanism?

New Age spirituality has been building momentum for more than a century, according to scholars—who don’t like it any more than Native people do. Author Harold Bloom called New Age practices “the American religion” that “has been emptying our politics and our private lives of meaning.” A reviewer of another author, Catherine Tumber, said New Agers are “fungus-like, out of our uncontrolled capitalism.”

There is one thing the critics missed though, and that is what New Agers are doing in Indian country. Like the emperor’s new clothes, they have made a popular culture of the sacred invisible, and are selling it to the highest bidder.

A case in point is the Divine Blessings Academy, which objectifies and quantifies spirituality as a product for sale. Though an Internet outcry quickly forced the academy to take down its “Native American Shaman” program from its website, it had offered a four-year degree, a master’s program, and post graduate degree in Native American Shamanism.

This image shows a screen capture from the Divine Blessings Academy Course Catalog for Introduction to Shamanism.

Shamanism is a term used often in South America for one who is able to obtain healing through communication with spirits. Native Americans commonly refers to North American Natives, who do not use the term shaman for their spiritual teachers, leaders, or healers.

Divine Blessings is apparently accredited by the International Natural Healers Association, whose website warns, “Please use your judgement when selecting a school or practitioner. Accreditation through the INHA does not mean that these schools have received accreditation through the US Department of Education.” So, basically, it’s one New Age institution approving another.

A perusal of the course catalogue, which was obtained before it was deleted, shows that Divine Blessings Academy offers courses in: The Hopi Prophecy Stone, Smudging and Basic Tools, Finding Your Power Animal, A Form of Reiki Using Native American Principles, Creating and Using Feather Fans, Native American Mantras and Prayers, receiving a Magikal name, and dozens more. Graduation entitles the student to join the Native American Shamanism Society and to receive “a personalized full-color certificate, which will be mailed directly to the student’s home.” (Where else would they mail it?)

All of these courses are offered through downloadable PDF files. In Native cultures, all such training would be offered by a medicine person who had dedicated their life to understanding that which they teach.

“It’s cultural trespassing,” said Carol Iron Rope Herrera, Lakota elder and spiritual advisor. “And its been going on a long time. A few years ago, we had a lot of the New Agers coming into Pine Ridge and Phyllis Swift Hawk was dealing with them.”

A call to Swift Hawk shed light on the way some traditional Lakota people have dealt with the problem. “We talk to them, and let them understand the consequences. I always pray with the non-Indians. My grandmother was real traditional, and she talked about the black nation from Africa, and that they have a pipe and prayer ties. The yellow nation has a pipe and prayer ties, and we do, too. But the white nation doesn’t know which way to turn.”

Unlike the online activists, Swift Hawk’s concerns were not only about the appropriation of culture, but that unsuspecting New Agers may find themselves in danger. “Practicing ceremonies without understanding is dangerous,” she said. “We see so many deaths.”

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Other problems include local tribal members charging non-Natives as much as $1,000 for sun dances, and hundreds for sweat lodges. “If people didn’t have the money to pay, some were forced to give up family jewels and heirlooms,” Swift Hawk said. “It is up to our people to pray with all people, but when we start charging, that is not the Lakota way. I don’t hate the white race; I don’t want to see them get hurt. We have to pray together for world peace.”

So what is a spiritually starving American to do? Swift Hawk said she wishes New Agers could understand that living a spiritual life doesn’t happen right away, and said, “You have to learn the language to make the connection” with the elements, the ancestors, and relatives.

Within the culture, Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand, Lakota elder and leader, said training starts in adolescence and lasts a lifetime, with years spent learning before practicing begins. Swift Hawk commented on being a pipe carrier. When the Lakota go into the hills to pray and purify themselves, she said, “they bring their sacred objects and we respect those, you don’t just get one. You have to earn it. It took me until my 30s to receive one. To walk the life of the pipe is very hard.”

Recently close to 200 traditional people met on Pine Ridge to discuss a charter that would limit the use of sacred items and practices to the Lakota people. Swift Hawk said, “Grandpa Oliver Red Cloud wanted these ways chartered: to have a pipe, an eagle feather, or an eagle plume for a woman, they must have a tribal ID.”

The Divine Blessings Academy gives names to graduates from a teacher the student has never met. Swift Hawk said when the Lakota receive a name it has a purpose, reflects abilities and acts almost as a guide for living. “And when you pray you use your name. That is how the wakinyan (thunder beings), the White Buffalo Calf Woman, Grandmother Earth, and Tunkasila will know who you are,” she said.

Looks for Buffalo Hand also spoke kindly about Caucasians who take the right approach. “When people hitchhike and backpack all the way here from New Hampshire and come to stay and help and learn, I say sure. There was a young man who came out and he helped with the children, he delivered clothes and food, and he gained a lot of experience. He was really respectful.” Looks for Buffalo Hand said a descendant of Abraham Lincoln came out one year, and apologized for the mass hanging of the Dakota 38.

“Every one of us go through a test of reality, and has to decide between a spiritual life and a normal, civil life. I admire some of these people who come so far to learn,” he said. “Hands-on is the only way. To feel the reality of the way spiritual people live isn’t going to happen if you come and visit one or two days a year. You have to stay here.”

“Europeans forced their language and Christianity on us since the 1800s,” Looks for Buffalo Hand stated flatly. “It has diminished our way of life. But the 1851 Treaty says we are together to learn from one another. The covenant of creation law is that each and every nationality is responsible for making this world survive.”

“People from the east have the covenant of looking after the water, which is the blood of our body. The whites are responsible for keeping the air, what we need to breathe. The covenant of the blacks is the fire, the energy force, the heart and electricity that keeps the world turning,” Looks for Buffalo Hand said. “The Indian people have the covenant of the earth, which is our flesh. These are the four principles, but by living the synthetic life, of technology and the Internet, we are losing the reality of these four covenants.”

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