Just What's All This Fuss About Whiteshamanism Anyway?
by WENDY ROSE
I am that most schizophrenic of creatures, an American Indian who is both poet and anthropologist. I have, in fact, a little row of buttons up and down my ribs that can press for the appropriate response: click, I'm an Indian; click, I'm an anthropologist; click, I'll just forget the whole thing and write a poem. I have also been a critic of the 'whiteshaman movement' (to use the term coined by Geary Hobson, Cherokee critic). The term 'whiteshaman', he said, rightfully belongs to 'the apparently growing number of small-press poets of generally white, Euro-Christian American background, who in their poems assume the persona of the shaman, usually in the guise of an American Indian medicine man. To be a poet is simply not enough; they must claim a power from higher sources (Hobson 1978: 100-108). I would add that not all are Americans (nor even white). I would further add that the claim to higher sources may or may not refer to itself as shamanic. Some of those within the movement have claimed more secular intimacies with Native American cultures and traditions. Such claims, whether sacred or secular, are without the community acknowledgement and training that are essential to the position. Would it not be absurd to claim one was a Rabbi if one was not even Jewish? Or that one was a jet pilot without having been inside an airplane?
Hobson and others (Silko 1978: 211-216; Young Bear 1979: 118-120; Rose 1980: 29; Sainte-Marie 1971: 164-166) have suggested that the assumption of shaman status or its secular counterparts by such poets is a form of 'cultural imperialism' (Hobson) directly related to other claims on Native American land and lives. Defenders of the 'whiteshamans', assuming a rather profound ignorance on the parts of Native American scholars and writers, point out that the word 'shaman' is of Tungus (Siberian) origin and does not imply anything Native American. They further add that Native American writers know less of their ancestral traditions and culture than the non-Native anthropologist. Such defenses have not appeared in print to any great extent, but Native American writers have heard them over and over again.
First, the term 'shaman' is one of convenience, as is the term 'Indian'. Native American writers are well aware of the Siberian origin of the word and the scientist's tendency to name things according to a type specimen. However, the non-Native poets in question do not model their antics or poetics after the Siberian model, even when they use the term 'shaman' to describe themselves and the processes of their craft. They generally exhibit a bastardized composite of pseudo-American Indian 'style' (buckskins, paper masks intended to portray such beings as Coyote or Raven, the carrying of gourd rattles, beadwork, moccasins, 'peacepipes' and 'peacepipe ceremonies' during readings, headbands, drums of vaguely Native American model, and so on). One may be hard pressed to identify a particular tribal identity, but the obviously-intended effect is American Indian. Native Americans view this phenomenon with some humor and with some anger, wondering sadly why this particular set of symbols, this imagery, this stereotype is used to imply access to spirituality (or, to use the Greek concept, the 'muse'), when, we are quite sure, access to such powers exists in every culture. It is a belief shard by most Native Americans that all cultures were given certain gifts and a certain place by the Spirit People or the Great Mystery. That they differ from one another is not a theological contradiction nor even a 'problem'. What makes the 'whiteshaman' feel compelled to go outside of his or her own culture for spiritual and creative nourishment? And, further, to disregard accuracy?
Second, it is part of the Native-perceived arrogance of European-derived American society to believe that book-knowledge, emotional identification, andperhapsa limited participation in Native American life entitles one to be a spokesperson for or interpreter of that life. This arrogance extends, incredibly, to the claim that Indians no longer know how to be Indian! To illustrate this widely-circulated folklore, let me recall some of my own experiences as an employee of a large, university-connected anthropology museum during the mid to late 1970s. One famous anthropologist whose specialty was Northern California insisted that Northwestern California Indians were no longer familiar with their ancient form of money, long shells called dentalia or tooth-shells. The comment was stimulated by the fact that I was wearing some of these very same shells around my neckwhich had been given to me by a Yurok woman as payment for a painting. A basket specialist assured me that basket-hats are no longer worn by California Indian women; nearly every weekend such women attended the same social functions I didwearing basket-hats that had been passed down through their families and, most importantly, were still made. A woman who was both anthropologist and art collector told me that pottery was no longer produced at Laguna Pueblo; she continued to insist on this, even after I told her the names of women who produce it there. A famous ethnohistorian told me that I would never see a California Indian woman with chin tattoos; I have seen them (albeit rarely). A very well known linguist asked me to escort a group of Yuki elders around the museum and then confided to me that it was a shame no one spoke Yuki anymore; the elders spoke to each other in Yuki the entire time they were there. The 'expert' on Laguna Pueblo pottery said to me, face to face, that Indians only think they know more about themselves than anthropologists; she wanted to impress on me that my own people were pathetic. Taken singly, these episodes are not important. But taken together, and added to the enormous pile of similar events and conversations, it is apparent that a pattern exists. European-derived Americans consider themselves to be uniquely qualified to explain the rest of humanity. Coupled with this bizarre notion is the idea that natives of a particular culture are inhibited from being able to articulate themselves in a cultural context, or are merely superstitious when they try.
Why is it important to worry about this? Consider the European-derived person who is at liberty to be 'a citizen of the world', with military force if need be, while the rest of us remain bound to our provinciality. A poster popular among science fiction readers shows a 15th century European ship sailing a star-map and asks: 'What would have happened if Ferdinand and Isabella had said no?' If Indians no longer have access to their traditions and spirituality (not to mention land tenure), then it follows that they are no longer Indian. If culture, tradition, spirituality, oral literature, and land are not theirs to protect, then they are free for the taking. The anthropologist or folklorist hears a story or song and electronically reproduces it, eventually catalogs it, and perhaps publishes it. According to the culture of the scholar, it is now owned by 'science'. It has been stolen as surely as if it had been a tangible object removed by force. There is a stereotype about the 'savage' who is afraid that a camera will steal his soul. It will, indeed, and much moreas will the tape recorder, the typewriter, and the video cassette. Anthropologists do not believe that they have any effect on their own societies, but the fact is that the public does swallow and regurgitate anthropologists' conceptsusually after about twenty years. It should not be surprising to students of American culture to find that editors, publishers, reviewers, and readers prefer the nonsense of the 'whiteshaman' to the genuine (but non-stereotypical) literature of Native Americans.
Those of us who have publicly criticized the 'whiteshamans' and their cult-followers have tried to find explanations for all this that will make sense to Indian people. It has, for instance, been noted that European-derived Americans face a cultural imperative to cut their own roots to Europe. This is especially true in the various arts where the push to achieve a uniquely 'American' form has been overt. But instead of creating a distinctively American artistic tradition (or, indeed, a new society), they have flopped around in a cultural vacuum, trying to get a grip on the roots of others. The 'others' most often are those whose land base and resources have also been gripped, or who were 'gripped' from their African homeland and brought to America in chains. Thus, American ceremonies like 'Thanksgiving' are Native American in origin (not just the food, but the ceremony itself) and contemporary 'American' music is largely based on the Afro-American music of the 18th, 19th and 2Oth centuries. Were the givers to be credited, this would be finesimple diffusion of ideas and artifacts; however, credit is not placed where credit is due in either case. The roots of colonized people are grasped firmly but blindly by the rootless in order to achieve some kind of stability, however superficial or delusional. The young European-American asks 'Who am I?' And no one answers.
The more intelligent of these unfortunate young people study something of their own history and become guilt-ridden liberals. What better way to say 'I'm sorry' than to emulate the victim or to assign them superhuman qualities? And their roots resisted cutting once they arrived in America. There are powerful cultural currents flowing through the souls of 'whiteshamans'. It is useful to determine just what these are, for they 'won the west' and 'made America great'. The 'whiteshaman's' roots are none other than the 'pioneer spirit', that same colonial impetus that re-stocked the coffers of European royalty. American society in general is influenced by the 'pioneer spirit', the 'rugged individualism' of the independent colonist, and 'whiteshamans' merely express a different facet of the same thing.
It must be remembered that the society which produced its 'whiteshamans' also manufactures toy dolls for little boys called 'Masters of the Universe' holding futuristic-barbarian weapons in their overly-muscled arms, video games in which the youthful player can see his/her bombs falling on Germany, and the adult version in which an electronic Custer 'wins' by raping an Indian woman. And so the Indian of me does not differentiate between the 'whiteshaman' who steals and misrepresents my culture, and the multinational corporations that are killing my relatives in Brazil and Venezuela, radiating my Pueblo and Navajo kinspeople in southwestern uranium mines, and sterilizing myself and my sisters/daughters in antiseptic clinics run by the government. If the poet is not literally a murderer, he or she is, nonetheless, a part of that murdering thrust, that pioneer spirit, that taming of the wilderness and clearing of the jungle. The 'whiteshaman' is getting a piece of the action in contemporary manifest destiny and is, in essence and in philosophy, descended from earlier colonists, as well as related to the most brutal modern ones.
The anthropologist of me is always a little embarrassed. When I am called upon to speak anthropologically, I find myself apologizing or stammering that I'm not that kind of anthropologist. I feel like the housewife-prostitute who must go home to clean the house for her unknowing husband. She must lie or she must admit her guilt. Native Americans expect me to reflect the behavior they have come to expect from non-Native anthropologists; if I live in their camp, then I must have joined ranks with them. Or I am expected to insinuate myself in tribal politics where I have no business. Non-native anthropologists expect me to be what Delmos Jones has called a 'superinformant' (Jones 1970: 251-259), or a spy for the American Indian Movement watching their every action with the intention of causing trouble. The irony of all this is that I really am NOT that kind of anthropologist; my dissertation involves a cultural-historical perspective on published literature by Native Americans. Such a degree should be, perhaps, granted by the English or Literature Departments, but this is not the case. At the university where I am working toward my doctorate in anthropology, the English Department refused to acknowledge two qualified Native American applicants for a recent position with the statement (made to the Coordinator of Native American Studies) that 'Native American literature is not part of American literature'. In the same English Department, a graduate student recently turned in a dissertation on 'Native American Literature' focusing on four individualsnot one of whom was Native American. The four persons were all known as 'whiteshamans' in contemporary literature.
Native American literature is 'owned' by anthropology, as Native Americans themselves are 'owned' by anthropologists. Our literature is merely ethnographic, along with our material culture and kinship systems. This is not, of course, restricted to Native American societies; 4th World peoples the world over are considered as copyrightable property in the same way (see Graburn 1976 for a discussion on the meaning of Fourth World). Maori, Native Hawaiian, Papuan, Cuna, Thai, and other people around the globe have been literarily colonized just as they have been economically, politically and militarily colonized. Not so the literature of the European-derived (with certain exceptions: European-derived ethnic minorities or historically oppressed groups, homosexuals, prisoners, etc.all groups 'not normal'). My position is that all literature may be viewed ethnographically. All literatures provide information about the culture of both writer and subject. All literatures are potential tools for the anthropologistbut not one literature more so than any other. Native Americans are not 'more ethnic' than Polish-Americans or Anglo-Americans; they simply may be called upon more often and more intensely to deal with their ethnicity. What literature is not ethnic? What person 'has' no ethnicity? A short time ago I saw a section in a variety store advertising hair products for 'ethnic hair'. When I wrote a critical letter to a television manager, regarding a policy expressed on his station, he replied saying, among other things, that 'ethnicity' is a 'pseudo-word'. Ideas and feelings about ethnicity vary and tend to be emotionally charged.
I do not believe that the work of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko and Simon Ortiz is 'ethnic' more so than the work of Robert Creeley, Studs Terkel or Charles Bukowski. But you will usually not find Momaday, Silko and Ortiz in bookstores or libraries according to genrefiction or poetry. It will most often be shelved as 'anthropology', 'Native Americana', 'Indians', 'Western', or even 'Juvenile' (Indians are kid-stuff). More than one Native American writer has been startled to find their novel or book of poems promoted as 'juvenile'. One plays Indian, one dresses up and pretends (another clue to 'whiteshaman' behavior). Bookstore managers have told me that a novel by Leslie Silko will not sell as fiction because no one would buy it unless they were interested in Indians; therefore it is shelved as 'Indian'. A novel by Leslie Silko becomes merely a cultural artifact, a curio. It also happens to be some of the finest poetry available. And if a Native American writer manages to gain international prominence, as in the case of N. Scott Momaday (his 1966 novel, House Made of Dawn, won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize), the critics and literary ethnographers exclaim that the work (and author) are not really Indian but 'mainstream'. The stereotypical work of a man only marginally Indian (whose work earned the wrath of the tribe to which he claimed affiliation) was considered by a specialist in minority American literature to be more genuinely 'Indian' than the work of Momaday, whose genetic and cultural heritage cannot be questioned (his father is a well-known Kiowa artist, his mother an equally well-known Cherokee educator) (Larson 1978: 1-2).
While the Indian of me is bent double from the force of the literary-colonial cannon, the anthropologist of me is looking for cultural explanations for 'whiteshamanism' and its emotional impact. Feelings run deep on both sides and people tend to take sides on the issueeven if they are not otherwise interested in literary matters. I have found that much of the controversy over 'whiteshamanism' involves fundamental, cherished concepts held by European-derived Americans involving art, freedom and what it means to be an artist. All of us, Native and non-Native, are ethnocentric at our deepest levels. No amount of anthropological training or insight can abolish ethnocentricity (although we can become aware of it and learn to take it into consideration on a day to day basis). Rather than taking pride in their deeply rooted ethnicity, European-derived Americans feel dutybound to destroy it, to not admit it. Instead of being proud of who they are, they make 'liberal' statements about loving everybody, believing everyone to be equal, and so on. Americans want a Disney-ish world where everyone is a different shade of the same thing, everyone a member of the same culture except for those things that are 'safely' differentlanguage, food, dress, dancing, crafts. In noting this to be the case, Edmund Carpenter (1972: 97) said: 'The message is clear: "we should love them because they are like us. But that statement has its questioning brother: what if they aren't like us?'
What European-derived American can be comfortable with the notion that total freedom is pathological? Yet my father's (Hopi) people see it that way. No one would want to be that alone and that uncontrolled unless there was something wrong with them. To want to be away from people is a form of madness. The worst punishment, much worse than death, is exile or the condemnation of your people. The 'typical' American pattern, in the ideal state, is that the best way for people to live is 'free', 'unbound'. They define 'freedom' in a certain way, primarily politically, and would not think to question if it's bad or good. Freedom is why their ancestors left Europe. Freedom is why their ancestors fought for independence from Europe. Freedom is why they penetrated the frontier. Freedom is why they came in the California and Yukon gold rushesbecause if you have enough money, you can live free. Freedom is why they save up that money today. Freedom is why they go to college, send their kids to college. Freedom is why they retire at a certain age to spend the money they saved. And yet 'freedom', as they envision it, is a culture-specific value. Likewise, 'art' and 'being an artist' are culture-specific ideas that relate to 'freedom'the freest individuals in society are the artists. Artists can be eccentric, they can act however they wishonly to be forgiven, because they are artists and artists are already free. It is freedom and not creativity that arouses jealousy in European-derived non-artists. When a European-derived American hears that I give poetry readings all over the country, they invariably say: 'You're so lucky; you have all that freedom to travel. I sure wish I could.' (Could what? Write poetry? No, freely travel.) These ideas about art and freedom are the center of the conflict about 'whiteshamanism'.
In European-derived society, 'art' is separated from everyday life; for instance, an artist typically works at night instead of when other people work. It is special, elite (much of it requires formal training in 'appreciation'), non-utilitarian, self-expressive, solitary, ego-identified, self-validating, innovative ('to make it new'), unique, andin its highest formswithout rules. It is a hallmark of the greatest artists who will 'change history' that they change the rules, discarding the old. Scholars and critics refer to a favored artist as 'breaking the mold', 'flying in the face of tradition'. The 'whiteshaman' says to the Native American critic: 'You can't tell me what to write. I have a right to do whatever I want. This is art; there are no rules.' It has been my personal observation that European-derived males especially cannot stand being denied access or told no. European-derived women tend to corroborate this point. Within the context of the 'whiteshaman's' culture, truth is at stake. He or she honestly views the Indian critic as abusing artistic freedom (or 'poetic license'), as trying to restrict the unrestrictable, as trespassing. The pioneer cannot allow the native to say 'go home'.
Native American views are different regarding freedom and art. We are not a uniform people, of course, from Arctic to Tropic, coast to coast, and so my statements will be generalizations that are more or less true for most Native American societies. In life and in art, there are rules and this is good. The rules were given to us, they belong to us, and we must not only follow them, but guard them. Rules exist governing form, content, context, and personnel. Of these, context may be the most important, and yetfor the European-derived artist it seems to be negligible. A white male art teacher once said to me 'Art is everywhere'. Even the many movements that call themselves 'counter culture' or 'revolutionary' have bought into the European system enough to revolt against it and to use its structure to fuel the revolt. The 'alternative' is merely an extension of the traditional; it is not a whole new thing.
Native American views on art tend to be pan-tribal, especially now when so many diverse Native cultures are united by a single language and electronic media. Art must be community-oriented (in terms of benefits, if not actual performance), ordinary (it may be sacred, but not supernatural; nothing is supernatural), it must be useful, it must be beautiful and functional at the same time (the ideas are inseparable, for its functioning is part of its beauty and vice versa), it is good if more than one person has a hand in its production, and its completion is always an excellent excuse for a party. There are occasions where the party (or feast or ceremony) is part of the art form. The artist is not above or separated from the rest of society; she or he feels no particular desire to be recognized alone or considered different from the other people. The artist contributes a particular skill to the welfare and survival, not to mention the happiness, of the community. The art is fitted into a continuum where it may or may not change, but certainly will not be pressured to be innovative. Innovation is a consideration that is more often than not rejected by the group, but a successful, acceptable, useful innovation is always welcome. The point is that the artist does not innovate just for the sake of innovating; by itself it is not part of the criteria for 'good art'. The artist is not expected to be eccentric or in any way noticeably different from anyone else.
These ideas, the European-derived and the Native American, are obviously in conflict. It is equally obvious that people on both sides will not normally think about them as I have stated them; people just don't sit down and analyze their behavior in a cultural context. So the conflicts go on unrecognized, the 'whiteshaman' and the Native American writer occupying the same turf, but running according to a different set of rules.
Aside from the psychological and spiritual impact of the 'whiteshamans' on Native American writers, there are practical effects as well. Indian writers are struggling like others in an age of budget cuts and lack of respect for literature. Most Indians write in English and use literary forms that are European or Asian in origin. These forms are generally combined with images, subject matter and philosophy that are taken from the Native heritage. Few of us consciously think about what part of a particular poem came from what heritage, but the combinations are there to be studied. Similarly, the grand-children in America of Italian immigrants, or the descendants of Dutch sailors do not write in their ancestral languages. Yet an Italian-American is not an Anglo-American, and a Dutch-American is not an Anglo-American. Not only have we adopted aspects of form and style that are non-Native, but many of us have also adopted the concept of what it means to be a writer. Even while this concept is in conflict with Native sensibilities, we understand that, as professional writers, we are entitled to earn a living if we work hard enough and well enough, that we may profit from earning degrees in college, that if we give a reading and do a good job we will receive applause and people will say nice things about us in public. Behind all this there is the Native idea that, if we succeed as writers, we are making a valuable contribution to our communities. We become role models for younger people, we speak out at community gatherings (and may be asked to do so by those who respect our special skills with words), and so on. When we are in our Native communities, we are artists in the Native tradition. When we go to some fancy university, we are artists in the European-derived tradition (thought not all the way, because we never actually believe in it). We want our work to be read by Natives and non-Natives, to be respected, to be reviewed, and to sell.
Obviously, the anthropologist and the Indian of me can never really escape the poet part. As a poet I am continually frustrated by the restrictions placed on my work by those same people who insist that poets should not be restricted. I must always do my little Indian-dance, a shuffle and scrape to please the tourists (as well as the anthropologists!). Reading organizers ask me to wear beadwork or turquoise, to dress in buckskin (my tribe doesn't even wear much buckskin; we cultivated cotton thousands of years ago), and to read poems that have pastoral nature images. I am often asked to 'tell a story'. I have been told by 'whiteshamans' that I am only a prop to make them seem more authentic. If I read about a political issue or about something that is not part of Native American culture (as perceived by non-Natives), people express disappointment. I have yet to disappoint an audience in a major way, but those who organize the readings get very angry. One thing Indian writers are not equipped to do that 'whiteshamans' do effortlessly is this: building a cult around oneself. The 'whiteshamans' become self-proclaimed 'gurus', dispensing not only poetry but 'healing' and 'medicine', 'blessing' people. In this area, there is no competition. I do not know of a single Native American poet who would make such a claim. You will find the 'whiteshamans' at bogus 'medicine wheel' gatherings and other fad events using vaguely Indian motifs; you will not usually find them around Indians at Indian events. When you deal with cultists, you are in deep waters. A while ago, in Alaska, I spoke to a university audience and made some mention that I believed the 'Don Juan' (by Carlos Castaneda) books to be fabricated. A woman stood up and angrily shouted that I was anti-Semitic and probably didn't believe in the holocaust either. I know of no Indian writer with such a fanatical following, for Indians are taught, above all, to value the truth. The sanctity of language must not be used to abuse this value. The last thing a 'Don Juan' cultist wants is to meet a genuine Yaqui holy person. The European-derived American public does not seem to be interested in the works of Leslie Silko and her colleagues; they want the childlike, distorted stereotype offered in the lie of Hanta Yo as interpreted by the white woman who wrote it (Hill, 1977). They do not want to read works by Lakota authors to learn Lakota history; the bookjacket of Hanta Yo itself claims that it is the first time the 'inside story' has ever been toldthereby denying the existence and validity of hundreds of Northern Plains Indian authors over a century. And, as obvious a lie as it is, the American public wants very much to believe that Indians may be consigned to a safe and quiet past, to be extracted only for the entertainment provided by dancing and crafts. If the white women in America are interested in Native American women's spirituality, they turn to the sex fantasies of a white woman from Beverly Hills before they seek our genuine and beloved wise women (Andrews, 1982). The last thing a 'whiteshaman' wants to do is to meet a genuine shaman by whatever term. But it is not likely that a genuine shaman would be recognized as such, for there would be no hype, no song-and-dance in the showbiz sense.
Finally I would like to talk about misunderstandings regarding criticism by Native Americans of the 'whiteshamans' and their followers. The fear exists among non-Native writers that we are trying to dictate subject matter and form, demanding that they not write about Indians at all. The fear exists that Indians trivialize the spiritual needs of non-Natives, and fail to acknowledge non-Native perceptions of nature. The fear exists that Indian people are staking a claim as the sole interpreters of Indian cultures, most especially that which is sacred, and claiming that only Indians can make valid observations. None of these fears are true; they are irrational emotional responses to criticism that strikes deeply-felt needs and expressions, fundamental ideas about art and freedom. Remember, too, that 'objectivity' and 'empiricism' are also European-derived values in scholarship, and that even the European concept of 'The Humanities' is actually derived from a worship of the scientific method.
The problem with 'whiteshamans' is one of integrity and intent, not of topic, style, interest, or experimentation. We acknowledge the many non-Indian people who have written honestly and beautifully about any number of Indian topics, including those we hold sacredfrom the perspective of the non-Native viewing Native culture. We acknowledge the beauty of some poetry by non-Native poets dealing with Indian people, values, legends, or with the relationship between humans and an American environment. A non-Indian poet is obviously as capable of writing about Coyote and Hawk as an Indian poet. The difference is in the promotion, so to speak. A non-Native poet cannot produce an Indian perspective on Coyote or Hawk, cannot see Coyote and Hawk in an Indian way, and cannot produce a poem expressing Indian spirituality. What can be produced is another perspective, another view, another spiritual expression. The issue, as I said, is one of integrity and intent. There is a world of difference between the white woman who expresses her feelings and perceptions about Native spirituality honestly, stating that they are her perceptions, and a white woman with the delusion of having been appointed as a 'bridge' between the two cultures through initiation as a medicine woman and a sexual-spiritual battle with a powerful male being (who, in this particular book, is depicted as a kachina spirit in spite of the northern Manitoba location) (Andrews, 1982). When I discussed my view of this work with a well-known white male scholar of Indian literature, I was startled when he stated his belief that the book could be true (as it was promoted to be true) because if a person were to serve as a bridge between Indians and whites, it would have to be a white person.
One fact alone should impress scholars of Indian literature or of Indian-derived literature: not one Indian writer has attempted to step into a shamanic role or to confuse the work of a poet-singer with that of a medicine person (although a medicine person certainly uses poetry-song in their work). A few writers have claimed shamanic powers and Indian heritage, but generally they are exposed to be fraudulent on both counts under examination. As an Indian writer who was deeply impressed with the oral literature of the Catholic Church during childhood, I might write poems based on this poetic form; I might publish such poems, I might perform them (with proper intonation as in the Mass), but I would not and could not claim to be a priest. I could not tell the audience that they were experiencing the transmutation that occurs during Mass. Artistic freedom and emotional identification would not make me a priest nor would the 'uplifting' of the audience make them participants in Mass. To evoke my impression of the feel of the Mass and its liturgy does not necessitate lying about it.
So what can be done about all this? For a start, let the 'whiteshamans' and other non-Native writers understand that we are not making an unrealistic or unreasonable demand. We are only asking for artistic truth, for integrity. We have difficulty understanding why they feel compelled to lie about themselves and their work, and why cults must form around them made up of gullible, spiritually starved people who insist on perpetuating the lie. If they are genuinely wise, why don't they help their followers find wisdom expressed through their own culture, through their own spirituality? The 'whiteshamans' need to understand that their 'right' to use material from another culture stems from that culture, not from themselves. There is no innate ability that separates them from the rest of humanity enabling them to absorb and regurgitate unfamiliar materials better than the originators of that material. The only 'right' they have, when dealing with Native American derived material, is to present it as they see it, accurately, honestly, andif the material is sensitive or belongs to another personwith permission. If their response to the material is private and interpretive, we ask only that they let the reader understand this at the beginning so as not to confuse it with the genuine article. The reader should not be misled into thinking that they are reading, seeing or hearing a Native work; they must be helped to understand that they are being given an interpretation by a representative from another culture. Simply, the audience/readers should be told what the piece is and what it is not, who the performer is and who the performer is not. Most of the 'whiteshamans' have demonstrated a profound ignorance of the very traditions they are trying to imitate, and so they have mostly imitated each other. Many of them use a vaguely Native American model but speak rhetoric about 'inventing their own myths'. A mythology stemming from experiences on a city street is unlikely to include many coyotes.
The Native American people need to understand that the 'whiteshamans' did not just pop up out of the blue and decide to offend Indians. They are responding to a genuinely felt emotional need (at best) and (at worst) are exploiting other people for profit according to ways in which their society has granted them permission via their status as 'artists'. Indians need to understand that the 'whiteshamans' are acting within a cultural framework of their own; they are not acting alone, even though they may express a sense of exaggerated solitude (because the artist alone 'at the pinnacle' is preferred, in their culture, to the artist 'among the people'). They express beliefs that run through their entire society for untold generations, some of which are part of a general Judeo-Christian system, some of which are more recent American ideas stemming from taming the wilderness, gaining independence from 'mother', and climbing the mountain 'because it is there'.The individual 'whiteshamans' are not the enemy so much as is ignorance and a culture history steeped in theft. The enemy resides within the continuing colonial relationship that has co-opted Indian cultures and possessed them for entertainment and wealth. We need to understand that the 'whiteshamans' are acting according to the rules of their society and that, as artists, they are permitted (perhaps required) to be difficult to understand, avant garde, innovative, eclectic, rebellious; they are required to break out of tradition. If 'innovation' involves stealing something beautiful from another culture and reproducing it for those who have never been exposed to it, then this is permitted. How often have we heard about' a 'renaissance' in Native American writing and arts? We know that the writers and artists did not just suddenly appear out of the ether, because in our own communities we have always had them. They 'began', as far as non-Native people are concerned, when they first heard about them and, as often as not, they first heard about them through a 'whiteshaman' whose 'innovative' work was derived from our material.
Perhaps we can treaty now. If poets and artists are the prophets and expressers of history, as both European and Native American thinkers have suggested in different ways, then it may well be that our task is merely to take back our material from the 'whiteshamans', shake it clean, and bring it home. In so doing, they may begin to understand that their wisdom and spirituality has been within them all along and that they did not need Coyote or Hawk or a fist full of eagle feathers to express it. They have their own sacred ways given to them by the highest authority, just as we have.
Copyright © 1984 by Wendy Rose. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization. Ed. Bo Schöler. The Dolphin No. 9, April 1984.
Return to Wendy Rose