Selling Videos and Books on Native American Ceremony I
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Joe West
Posted on: March 5, 2001

[Editor’s note: This question is paraphrased and compiled from several email messages and phone calls.]

I am calling your attention to a video, "Native American Healing," you are selling which advertises Native American ceremony. This is wrong, and I am asking you to remove the product from your catalogue.

In our tradition, these practices should never be offered for money. In addition, we are concerned that people will try to perform these practices based on what they learn from the video. There are charlatans who are debasing the traditions by teaching them incorrectly, without having receiving proper instruction and authority from the Native Elders.

This is a serious issue for us and I am asking you in a respectful way for your help in resolving it.

Someone sent me a copy of your online ad right in your online advertisement it states that the video encourages people to try the ceremonies themselves. That’s selling ceremony.

And there’s this book, item B1311, "American Indian Healing Herbs: Herbs, Rituals, & Remedies for Every Season of Life" in which it is advertised, "Discover what is a Sweatlodge, Medicine Wheel..."

Again, thank you for helping to resolve this issue.

My apologies for the long delay in getting back to you with a decision on your request for Richters to stop selling the video, "Native American Medicine."

I wanted to give your request the careful consideration it deserves. I considered not only your opinions, expressed in email messages and on the telephone, and the opinions of others with similar concerns, but I wanted to speak to members of my staff, my family, and the native community. And I wanted to review the video myself.

As you pointed out by email, it is not just the video that is at issue but it is also the book, "American Indian Healing Herbs," for which concerns have been expressed.

At Richters it is our goal to provide information and herbs from all cultures of the world. It is not our intention to offend anyone. In fact, our mindset is one of cherishing the enriching experience of the world’s many cultures. Canada, where our business is located, is well known for its official policy of multiculturism which we take to heart. It is hobby horse of mine to tell the world about the staggering loss of herbal knowledge that is underway as modern culture steamrollers over thousands of cultures worldwide. I have argued to all who will listen that the much-lamented loss of biodiversity today caused by the loss of the rainforest pales in comparison with the loss of herbal knowledge we are witnessing just about everywhere. For example, my wife’s tribe, the Ewe of West Africa, is experiencing this very problem as elderly herbalists who have not passed on their art to the younger generation take their knowledge to their graves. The younger generation is more interested in modern culture than in their traditional culture.

In evaluating the video and the book in response to your request, I had to decide what constitutes disrespect to a culture. For better or worse, I have come up with principles that Richters will use to select products in the future.

From my discussion with you and others, it seems that the exposition of traditional Native American herbal knowledge itself is not at issue. What is at issue are the rituals and ceremonies. The concern is that readers and viewers will learn the traditions incorrectly and, worse, attempt to practice them without correct guidance from a qualified instructor. Further, it is deeply offensive to your culture to sell such instruction for profit.

I think few would advocate the extreme position that there should be no talk or discussion at all about Native American traditions. Understanding your herbal tradition requires some appreciation of Native American philosophy and worldview.

Taking these issues into consideration, I established principles by which the video and book should be judged. I decided that the critical determining points are:

1. Does the book or video treat the subject of ceremony or Native American culture with disrespect?

2. Do they show or describe an actual ceremony?

3. Do they give step-by-step instructions how to perform a ceremony?

From my interpretation of what I saw in the video and what I read in the book is that the answers to the three questions is no. I have dealt with the specifics of the book in a previous posting on our website which you can view by searching for "Spiritual Hucksterism" in the "Q & A" section.

In our telephone conversation you said that you have not seen the video in question. It is an hour long presentation by native healers Estela Roman, Teresa Barnes and Patsy Clark, and is introduced by Jim Meuninck, the producer of the video. The majority of the video is about the herbs Roman, Barnes and Clark know and use. Surprisingly, and somewhat disappointing to me, some of the herbs discussed are not even native North American herbs, but are European herbs that have been adopted by the healers.

The sections of the video that deal with ceremony are very brief and not at all explicit. Take for example the two minute segment on the sweat lodge. Clark strolls behind an uncovered dome made of branches tied together. No one else is present. There is no ceremony in progress and no depictions of what one needs to do to conduct such a ceremony or how to make the dome.

Here is a transcript of the passage on the sweat lodge:

THERESA BARNES: Sweat lodge is a sacred, primal way of healing. It is an excellent way to heal the mind spirit.

PATSY CLARK: Another aspect of Native American healing is the use of the sweat lodge. We heat stones in a fire and put them inside the lodge. We cover the lodge and pour water on the stones. Of course, this creates a tremendous amount of steam which brings about a lot of sweating. The sweat of course releases the toxins from our physical body. Spiritually, it’s our connection to Mother Earth; it’s our connection to the Universe.

We believe that because we still use the sweat and it’s the way of the ancient ones, when we go inside the lodge we sit in the centre of the Universe. We call on the spirits of the Four Directions when we are in the sweat lodge; we ask for healing and for help from them. We also call on Creator and Mother Earth. We thank the Mother for allowing us to do this ceremony.

When we come outside the lodge and we pray, we should leave all the negativities behind. We [inaudible] wounds and when we leave this lodge we should be reborn. We should’ve left behind all our negativities and emerge as a newborn babe when we leave.

Physically, of course, we sweat out toxins that we might have accumulated. We all accumulate toxins every day of our lives just because of our lifestyle, and because the planet isn’t as clean as it used to be. The sweat of course helps to remove a lot of toxins, but we also believe that we leave behind toxic emotions and maybe spiritual toxins – maybe things just haven’t been right with us.

It’s a place where we come into a balance. Both physically and mentally, and emotionally, it is a place where we become whole again.

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That’s it; that’s all there is in the video on Native American sweat lodge ceremony. This shows why I think the this video is 1) not disrespectful, 2) does not bear witness to an actual ceremony, and 3) does not give step-by-step instructions.

Later, in the Herbal News Network segment at the end of the video, Jim Meuninck demonstrates an "affordable, portable" Teutonic sweat lodge using a tent and herbs. But that segment is completely separate from the Native American sweat lodge part, and there is no suggestion that the European sweat lodge has any connection to the Native American version. There is no description of ritual or ceremony. The Teutonic sweat lodge segment is merely meant to show how one can enjoy a steam bath using a smart idea.

Having evaluated the video and book, and having come to the conclusion that they themselves are not the problem, I turned my attention to how the book and video are presented in our catalogue. Although the wording in the 2001 catalogue does not technically suggest the book and video contain "how-to" information on ceremony, or show or describe actual ceremony, one could be forgiven for getting that impression with wording such as "Discover what is a sweat lodge...".

For that reason, I decided to revise our catalogue to make it clear to our customers that the book and video are not "how-to" instructional pieces on Native American ceremony. Instead, our catalogue copy will explain that the video and book give a brief precis of what the sweat lodge and other ceremonies are, and we will add the advice to anyone wanting to learn to practice these ceremonies that they must seek instruction from a qualified Native American healer first. If you would like to contribute a listing of qualified Native American healers, we would be happy to post it on our website.

The online catalogue copy has been changed already, and changes to the printed catalogue will appear in the 2002 edition.

I hope sharing these considerations with you helps you to understand our position on the sale of books and videos on Native American healing. We want to sell such books and video without offending. It is important to Richters not to exclude any of the great healing traditions and to make information available to those interested. And it is important that each culture’s herbal knowledge is appreciated and promoted for the benefit of our generations and for generations to come.

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