Spiritual Hucksterism: Book on Native Indian Herbs and Rituals
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Lawrence Sampson
Posted on: February 26, 2001

I wanted to write you and express my sadness at your selling material, which can be, and is, used to sell American Indian spirituality. I want to personally encourage you to stop selling items such as:

Item B1311 – "American Indian Healing Herbs: Herbs, Rituals, & Remedies for Every Season of Life." From the Richters catalogue: "Discover what is a Sweatlodge, Medicine Wheel..."

Again, one of our most profound struggles today, as Indian people, is halting the charlatan-driven exploitation of our spirituality. Eliminating this material from the market would make it far more difficult for non-Indians to learn in a non-traditional manner, thereby inhibiting their ability to profit from this knowledge. Please consider this professional, heartfelt attempt, to end yet another misappropriation of Indigenous culture.

Thank you for your time.

Lawrence Sampson Delaware/Eastern Band Cherokee http://www.setaim.com/

Your concerns about the misappropriation of Native American culture by non-Indians are acknowledged and respected. We too have the same concerns about the cheapening of Native American culture and religion in mainsteam society. We aware of similar concerns of other highly spirtual cultures such as Tibetan buddhists who are seeing their secret religious practices now openly discussed, taught and written about.

Our decision to carry this book, "American Indian Healing Arts" by E. Barrie Kavasch and Karen Baar, was based on the following considerations.

1. The book is mostly about the herbs and remedies used for health. In connection with specific medicinal preparations such as "Hazel Leaf Body Rub and Eyewash" (page 101) and "White Cedar Skin Salve" (page 103) the book does give explicit instructions on how to make medicines.

2. With respect to traditional rituals and religion, the book is decidedly academic in its approach. The book describes rituals and religious practices in a general way but does not give step by step instructions and no photographs or diagrams are provided. In our judgement, the intent of the book is to satisfy in a respectful way a curiosity about Native American culture that many people share without giving the details that could be used by "charlatans."

I know that practices such as the sweatlodge are particular sore points among people who are concerned about exploitation and misappropriation of Native American practices. I will use the passages from the book relating to the sweat lodge to illustrate why we think the book is not meant to be a how-to instructional manual and is not, in our judgement, exploitative.

The sweat lodge is covered on three pages in the book. On pages 65-66, it is described thus:

"Even at puberty, young men and women cannot yet fully partake of the sweat lodge purification rites, which are still considered too powerful for them. Full use of the sweat lodge begins later, during adolescence. But at this age the tribe introduces young men and women to the privilege in limited ways, giving them, for instance, the honor of helping an uncle, father, or aunt tend the sweat lodge for other tribe members.

"The sweat lodge is a small domed structure. It usually stands alone at some distance from the dwellings and, where possible, near water. Its frame is formed by bent saplings lashed together. In some regions the sweat lodge is covered with grass mats, bundles of brush, reeds, or large sheets of tree bark. The doorway opens to the east and there is a small smoke hole in the center of the top. Large pieces of animal skins, canvas, or old quilts cover the framework when it is not in use.

"Participants take a steam bath in the sweat lodge, reciting prayers and sprinkling sacred herbs over the steaming rocks or into the fire outside. Afterward they bathe in cold water. They do this even in winter, finding it therapeutic to break a hole through the ice and take a brisk dip in a frigid river or lake following the sweat bath.

"The sweat lodge and its purification ceremonies are sacred among all tribes. Like the Scandinavian sauna and its other northern European counterparts, the sweat lodge is considered to be a fine technique for purifying and cleansing the body. But among American Indians, the sweat lodge is a deep, personal, holy experience, essential to staying well and in balance."

From page 86:

"The Sweat Lodge Spirit is part of the Great Spirit Creator itself. Some believe that the Great Spirit changed his mate into the conical, ribbed sweat lodge, which no other guiding spirit can ever overpower.

"The sweat lodge embodies the concept of the circle, sacred in all American Indian cultures and in many others around the world. American Indians see life from thousands of individual points of view, and yet they all honor the circle, often picturing it in artwork, regalia, sacred and secular accouterments, dances, and lodgings. Numerous large prehistoric medicine wheels constructed all across the high plains in North America still hold immense sacred power for native peoples. The circle is part of their basic beliefs, symbolizing the interconnectedness of all living things with each other and the Creator, as well as the connection between life and death.

"The sweat lodge structure symbolizes the combined strengths of five special powers: earth for support, stones for stamina, fire for heat, water for cleansing, and wood for ribs and heat. The entrance faces east toward the rising sun, and from this a path leads to the outer fire. Here rocks are roasted before they are carried into the sweat lodge, where they are sprinkled with water to create the steam.

"As an individual sits within the dark, often cramped, hot womb of the squat sweat lodge, facing the center pile of steaming rocks, and making offerings of prayers, tobacco, and healing herbs to the Creator, ancient traditions enfold her. Cleansing, physical purification, and spiritual strengthening are the key benefits from sweat lodge rites, but they can be a deep or even holy experience.

"The sweat lodge contains too much power for children, so it is only during adolescence that both men and women begin to have an actual, regular connection to it. Even then, it may only be occasional, depending on the tribe’s customs and the availability of the sweat lodge. Within some native traditions, the sweat lodge rites are primarily the province of the males, since it is believed that women have their monthly purification with their menses. In any case, the two sexes use the sweat lodge separately, often directed by an elder in the tribe. And men and women use different prayers, songs, and appeals to the Creator for their own special needs.

"Although the sweat lodge is an ancient practice, many contemporary American Indian men and women continue the custom, believing that it purifies and strengthens them. For young people, the sweat lodge is especially useful, helping them stay centered and connected to their life path, regardless of what it is."

I think these passages illustrate what I mean by the book’s descriptive, but respectful approach. Again, no instructions are provided, and there are no pictures to show how the ceremony is done. The authors, I think, have been very careful not to provide information that could be abused. They also refer readers to tribal centres and organizations, giving a list of contact information to such groups as the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (owned by the Pueblo tribes).

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