Fulfilling the Prophecies

One of the realizations you will eventually have to embrace in your journey is that you are fulfilling the old prophecies of several Native cultures which predicted that a day would come when all of the other races of Man would come to the red race and seek their wisdom in saving this present world.

It is ironic that I hear those prophecies repeated often by leaders of the various tribal cultures and, yet, they never seemed to be applicable when the non-Native seeker attempts to join themselves to one of those tribal cultures. Again, this is not without reason.

There was an outgrowth of the hippie culture of the 1960s that sought to return to a more symbiotic relationship with the Earth we walk on. The blossoming of the ecology movement, the rebellion against the industrial machine and the relentless pursuit of material gain, and a desire to live more simply fed the “Back to the Land” movement which spawned communal farms across the continental United States. And who better to guide them than the original stewards of those lands, the Native peoples.

Perhaps it was coincidence that the Native youth were simultaneously rising to national prominence, demanding the justice that they had been being deprived of for hundreds of years. Suddenly, the reservations became a “Mecca” for non-Native people to seek the wisdom of the people who had been repressed for so long and yet had survived.

A very complete account can be found in the writings of Vine Deloria, Jr., particularly Custer Died for Your Sins. The Native people were rather forthcoming with their wisdom, perhaps being too perplexed by the sudden interest in their culture to consider the long-term effects of such an action. Or perhaps, as with the original colonization of their lands, they could not anticipate the sheer numbers of people who would show up.

In essence, these were the original hobbyists. It was not so much an attempt to reconnect with a personal Native heritage, as it is for some of us in the 21st century, as to reconnect with the Native philosophy and cosmology. It is not hard to imagine that these people may have been seen at that time as the fulfillment of the old prophecies.

Regardless, what was apparently not anticipated was the non-Native penchant for appropriating and adapting cultural philosophies and traditions. Misuse and distortion of cultural and sacred traditions began to disseminate into the non-Native counter-culture.

Now, 50 years later, the Native elders are much more cautious about what is revealed to people outside their culture. Hobbyists are looked upon as “culture vultures” regardless of their professed sincerity. Tribal membership is safeguarded, for many reasons. Even close descendants can be denied access to the culture of their parents if they are not found on the tribal rolls.

There is little that can be done to reverse the damage and reluctance on the part of Native elders to divulge cultural information. Patience and persistence are the only avenue available, as futile as it might seem. It will be necessary to demonstrate the sincerity of your pursuit of information; to earn the trust of those who safeguard the cultural traditions you wish to learn.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the quest to reconnect with the Native culture of your ancestor must be undertaken with absolute seriousness and determination. It is a difficult undertaking, made only the more difficult by the ill feelings that those who have preceded you have left in their wake.

Among the Lakota, people of European descent are referred to as “wasichu”, which translates literally as “fat-takers”, meaning they are self-serving, seeking always to take the best of everything for themselves. It is a term that has been well-earned over hundreds of years of colonization and exploitation. It is an unfortunate reality that the current President of the United States, Donald Trump, seems to embody these characteristics and could well be called the Colonizer-in-Chief.

Perseverance in every aspect of your pursuit must be exercised. Never stop learning; seek sources of information wherever they can be found. Grasp any opportunity to meet authentic Native people; look for opportunities to serve their needs. Perhaps, in time, your sincerity will be recognized.

Nevertheless, recognize that you will always be an outsider. There will be places you will not be invited to go. There will be limits to what you are told and allowed to experience. Accept that you will always belong to the culture you were born into; that cannot be changed and it will always color how you see the world, regardless of how hard you try to think otherwise.

The prophecies predicted that the other races would come to the red race for instruction. It did not predict that the other races would merge into the red race. That would disrupt the balance of the universe. We would be foolish to imagine any differently.

Who Gave You The Rite?

The average pretendian has no more business practicing Native ceremony than any lay person does conducting his religion’s sacred ordinances. The reason this concerns me is because I have come to acknowledge Native spirituality as real and effective. What I practice I practice with the expectation that I will achieve the intended effect of each practice. I have crossed over into the realm of actual belief rather than exploratory experience and curiosity.

One of the greatest transgressions the hobbyist commits is the assumption that Native spirituality is something to be practiced casually, as a novelty or recreational pursuit. The pipe, the sweat lodge, and any other ceremony that can be discovered and emulated are regarded as sacred in the cultures from which they are appropriated. These methodologies are intended to be exercised with reverence by individuals thoroughly educated in them. Again, the incidence of people presuming to conduct pipe ceremonies and lead sweat lodge ceremonies within a few years of deciding to investigate their Native heritage is astonishing.

I can testify to this personally, to my shame. I unabashedly appropriated the pipe ceremony after watching it performed a few times by various people, without knowing if they knew what they were doing either. If you are Native, you have a pipe. And if you are spiritual, you have a pipe to use in ceremony. I was made aware of the role of a pipe-carrier in Native spirituality and decided that I should be one.

Likewise, after I had attended a few sweat lodge ceremonies, I thought I should be able to lead one. And no one ever really told me differently. A certain “medicine chief of the Eastern Allegheny tribes” kind of suggested that he should be the one to sign off on my spiritual abilities, but he was far enough distant from my group that he could not really enforce that.

When I went to a powwow in Alabama, the clan medicine man I was introduced to spontaneously acknowledged me as a pipe-carrier and was going to gift a pipe to me, so I accepted that as an imprimatur that it was so. He did eventually gift a pipe to me, which I still use and honor. But there were flaws in the process by which that was done.

First, there were no pipe-carriers among the Eastern Woodlands cultures; it was a non-existent role in the culture. That role is found among the Plains cultures, and the term even meant different things among the different nations. Second, while the lineage of the tradition by which I was acknowledged as a pipe-carrier is authentic, originating with a Lakota chief who is still living, I was never actually trained in it.

There was a misunderstanding when the medicine man offered his acknowledgement and I did not receive the pipe. Months later, I was gifted another pipe, which had been crafted somewhat to my specifications by a pipe-maker who was authorized by another Lakota pipe-maker, at a powwow close to where I was living at the time. No instruction was offered about how to use it properly; no doubt there was an assumption that I already knew.

So, the cultural path by which I received my ceremonial pipe is as follows. A Lakota chief taught a Cherokee medicine man a pipe tradition. The Cherokee medicine man acknowledged a Lenape medicine novice as a pipe-carrier and presented him with a Lakota-crafted pipe without actually transmitting the pipe tradition he had learned. Can you see the gradual disconnect? It is little wonder that I have heard that the Lakota chief was criticized for the liberality with which he proliferated his pipe tradition.

One of the principles of Native medicine is that it is only as effective as the faith the participants bring to it. Native healing is a cooperative venture involving the healer, the subject, and their Creator. The person seeking healing must believe that healing is possible and that the healer has the knowledge and ability to accomplish the healing process. The healer must believe in himself/herself and that he/she is able to channel the power of Creator to the subject using the methodologies known or revealed to him/her in the process of performing the healing.

This applies to every other practice in any given culture’s spirituality. The pipe is only as effective as the faith of each participant in the power of the pipe to accomplish its purpose. The sweat lodge will only bring healing or cleansing to the individual who places faith in its ability to do so.

There are actually many sweat lodge traditions across the various tribal cultures. Among the Lenape, the sweat lodge was primarily used for healing or community. It did not carry the spiritual significance of the way that it is utilized in Lakota tradition. But the Lakota tradition is what I learned and appropriated, essentially. It is the tradition most widely practiced among the hobbyists, I would presume, perhaps because it does carry a high degree of spiritual significance.

Yet therein lies a danger. If your practice of that sweat lodge tradition is based on actual belief in the Lakota system that it is a part of, the lodge is much more than a structure of bent saplings covered by blankets or hides. It is an interface with the realm of the spiritual; a representation of the universe. It is a place of power; power that can hurt you if it is misused.

I will not elaborate; the reader will have to interpret this as they wish. Nevertheless, it is not hard to research instances in recent history that have proved injurious, or even fatal, for participants in sweat lodge ceremonies that were conducted improperly. I suppose the underlying reasons for injuries and deaths in these sweat lodge ceremonies are subject to interpretation as well.

But the obvious parallel to this is the outrage that would be expressed if a Native medicine person would presume to perform the rituals and utilize the sacraments of Western religious traditions. Would an orthodox practitioner of the Roman Catholic faith be comfortable receiving Holy Communion from a Lakota holy man? Would they accept Last Rites from a Cheyenne healer? In the same way, the ceremonies of Native spirituality are not idle playthings.

In every indigenous spiritual tradition, the world over, there is a lineage to the practices of each tradition; the tradition is passed to a student by an acknowledged “master”, who received it from another “master”, and so forth, back a recitable line of accession. Only when the student has satisfactorily demonstrated a thorough understanding of and ability to perform a particular ceremony or practice are they given permission to use it at their own discretion. Thus, it should be imperative that we be able to recite the lineage of accession from which we derive our permission to perform any given ceremony publicly. And, if we cannot, we might be best advised to keep it to ourselves.

Honoring the Earth – Honoring the Medicine

A few years ago, my lawn tractor broke down. I could not get it to start; I concluded it was something in the ignition system. Anyhow, I stopped mowing the entire seven and one half acres we own. I still hand mow the acre or so around the house; the horses and goats nibble at the rest but, to my neighbors’ consternation, most of it now grows wild.

Somewhat simultaneously, I began to develop a serious interest in herbalism. I had long held a passing interest in natural medicine and alternative healing modalities, but I really began to study herbalism. And then I discovered what grew up in the places I no longer mowed.

Last year, my rather relaxed work schedule permitted me to do a fair amount of foraging and gathering. I began to make tinctures and dry roots and leaves. And I began to pay attention to what was growing up in the places I no longer mowed down and elsewhere.

Actually, even the part I was trying to keep mowed got away from me and I found myself trying just to keep pathways cleared to allow access to the barns and outbuildings and such. So, this year, I determined that I would make a concerted effort to keep up with the acre or so, and began to mow fairly early in the growing season with the intent to mow each week.

The front yard area and the areas toward the barns didn’t arouse my attention much. There is burdock and dandelion scattered throughout, but there is plenty of that elsewhere. I mowed around the patch of stinging nettle we allow to propagate next to the garden. But I ended up leaving the back yard area for the next day.

I had planted some flowering tree starts, which I had received from the Arbor Day Foundation, around the back yard area, so I knew I would have to be careful around those. But then I began to notice other interesting plants and shrubs around the periphery of the yard area. I realized that a sharply defined yard area no longer matters to me. There are still raspberry canes and wild roses growing at the edges of the slightly diminished yard area and what appears to be an unexpected domesticated rose bush growing in the middle of the yard area. And I found myself apologizing audibly to the canes and plants I did choose to mow off.

In the course of my herbal studies, I have read several authors, and heard at least one speaker, who talk about getting to know plants personally; going and sitting with them to “hear” what they can tell us about themselves, asking their permission to harvest from them and giving back to them to honor their gift to us. Each of these authors and speakers attribute these practices to Native origins. Indeed, I was already aware that these practices were a part of most indigenous medicine traditions.

In the course of my career as a farrier, I have grown more and more into intuitively practicing kinship with the horses I interact with. Likewise, I have found this to be true of all the creatures that inhabit our seven acres. I have come to realize experientially that we really ARE all related.

My wife has had to become accustomed to my conversations with mice, spiders, snakes, flies, bees, wasps, fleas, ticks and so forth regarding respecting our space so that no forceful confrontation will be required. Grudgingly, she is learning to do the same, though our limits of tolerance are not necessarily the same.

I find myself thinking that this post did not live up to the noble sentiment the title suggested. The words that rolled off of my fingers do not quite match what I had originally anticipated. But, really, the concept of honoring the earth is contained in the concept of honoring the medicine (plants). And, really, both concepts end up being rather elementary:

When you learn to internalize the precept that everything in the creation carries a spark of the Creator, animate and inanimate, you cannot see the world as a colonizer any longer. As I heard Chief Arvol Looking Horse state recently, “You begin to see the earth as our source, not a resource.” When you sense the kinship we share with the plants and animals around us and learn to appreciate the interdependence of everything in the web of life, you will not even mow your yard in the same way.

The Conundrum of Spirituality

It would probably be ideal if the pretendian would not even venture into the arena of Native spirituality. But that is a virtual impossibility for several reasons.

Foremost is the understanding that spirituality is inseparable from Native culture. It is integrated into every facet of the culture because of the cosmologic perspective of the Native, that everything is spiritually connected in the web of Creation. There is no activity that does not have a spiritual aspect integrated into it.

Secondarily, spirituality draws each individual to itself. We are all fascinated by the spiritual. Even the avowed atheist acknowledges that there are facets of human existence that surpass understanding, though they dismiss them as matters that just have not been quantified yet.

And, finally, the unique features of indigenous spiritual practice invite exploration by the hobbyist initiate. Curiosity compels us to explore the unfamiliar terrain of indigenous spirituality.

Thus, if you are intent on actually living in a Native manner, you cannot avoid spirituality. Yet, authentic Native peoples are not willingly forthcoming about their spirituality, and not without reason.

I have learned repeatedly that there is no faster way to turn a dialog with a Native person to silence, even with close acquaintances, than asking questions about their spiritual traditions and practices. Whether they are reluctant to answer incorrectly or just feel compelled to protect the traditions from non-Native persons who are likely to misuse and misrepresent them, it is very difficult to obtain spiritual information in an informal manner.

Should you be fortunate enough to have an authentic Native elder open themselves up to teach you, be sure to offer a gift of tobacco to them for their wisdom and then listen quietly to whatever they have to say. Don’t interrupt them with questions, as non-Native people are apt to do. They will tell you what Spirit directs them to tell you; you should not attempt to direct the conversation.

Nevertheless, for the most part, you will find that you will have to learn what you can, wherever you can, and practice at your own risk. It is my belief that our Creator accepts our spiritual practices when they are done with reverence and sincerity. We should strive to honor the traditions we can learn by practicing them exactly as we were able to learn them. Beyond this, we must rely on Spirit to guide us in other practices we feel compelled to pursue.

We should constantly seek to enhance our knowledge as opportunities present themselves. Then, when we have put forth our best effort to learn and preserve the spiritual traditions and practices of the culture we are assimilating, as we are granted permission to practice them, we should be confident that no harm will befall us. Our prayers will rise with smoke and be honored by our Creator.

More Signs You Might Be A Pretendian

If you live east of the Mississippi and own a tipi…you might be a pretendian.

If you have a medicine wheel in your back yard…you might be a pretendian.

If you won’t use a butane lighter to ignite your smudge…you might be a pretendian.

If you have ever regarded the sweat lodge as an endurance contest…you might be a pretendian.

If your spirit name involves a bird or animal near the top of the food chain…you might be a pretendian.

If your computer desktop and screen-saver are Native themed…you might be a pretendian.

If you don’t understand what all the fuss is about fashion models and rock stars wearing war bonnets…you might be a pretendian.

If you don’t understand why sports team names and mascots, brand names and logos are not appropriate ways to honor the Native peoples…you might be a pretendian.

If you think the four sacred herbs are tobacco, marijuana, peyote and ‘shrooms…you’re just ignorant.

If you don’t understand the problem with any of these…you might want to do some more research.

Editor’s Note: I recently came across a similar list older than this blog. I don’t recall seeing it before, so I don’t think I was influenced by it. But it is enjoyable.

Spirituality Is A System

When hobbyist groups undertake to embrace Native American spirituality, the approach most often utilized might be termed the “potpourri” method. Perhaps more egregious than the “Chinese menu” approach I mentioned in my post on cultural traditions, this method encourages the members of the hobbyist group to throw anything from their cultural understanding that appeals to their spiritual appetite into the collective spiritual practices of the group, much as potpourri is made by combining botanical substances with an attractive scent together with the intention that the resulting mixture will produce a symbiotic fragrance greater than the sum of its parts.

Similarly, the spiritual practices of a hobbyist group are often constructed from customs and practices borrowed from the various cultures represented throughout the group. Or, perhaps more accurately, constructed from whatever spiritual practices can be easily discovered and appropriated.

When I was with an intertribal group, we held a Green Corn feast where the ceremonial aspects were derived from Shawnee, Lenape and Ojibwe practices, incorporating elements of the Lenape Big House alongside Ojibwe prayers.

When I was the principal chief of a Lenape hobbyist group, we had a member who wanted to bring what she purported to be a Cherokee Moon ceremony to our women. And this typified my experience among the hobbyist groups. Anything from any culture that seemed useful or interesting could be incorporated into the spiritual fabric of the group.

Yet, it ought to be intuitive that the spirituality of any tribal culture should be seen as a complete system that complements their cosmology uniquely. It should follow, then, that a spirituality constructed from elements drawn from somewhat disparate cultures and cosmologies should be ineffective or impotent. Yet this ventures into territory that is more philosophic than tangible.

When I began my journey, it was infinitely easier to learn and appropriate Lakota spiritual practices because they were the most prominently documented among the resources most easily discovered in bookstores and libraries. They are also the most prominently stereotyped in movies. The sweat lodge, the pipe, and even the Sun dance are known in the general consciousness of American society. And they are still being practiced to the present.

Lenape spirituality was, until recently, a matter of history and anthropology. The Lenape people have largely assimilated Methodist protestant Christianity, but there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional spirituality in the last decade. It was reasonably well-documented, once you figured out what the appropriate primary sources were, but was no longer actually practiced.

Nevertheless, it must be recognized that Native American spirituality is not static and is subject to personalization. Among the Lenape, there were ceremonies that were regarded as the possession of certain families, having been formulated around an event in that family. The Big House ceremony is generally believed to have been formulated around 1820, after the Lenape had moved away from their traditional territory.

The longhouse religion of the Haudenosaunee, following the Code of Handsome Lake, was formulated in recorded history (as opposed to prehistory), as was the Ghost Dance religion and the Native American Church.

I have come to realize that my disagreement with a certain “medicine chief of the Eastern Allegheny tribes” is not so much about the efficacy or validity of his spiritual practices as that he calls them traditional Lenape, in that they do not seem to accurately reflect those practices that are recorded in the historic (primary) and anthropological sources. They may be a family tradition, they may be a personal tradition, but they have apparently evolved. He introduced me to a rain song that I will testify is effective; I have used it many times to break a drought. But I also know that it is a recent tradition, being less than 25 years old, and unique to his immediate following.

In formulating our own spiritual practices, and those of any group we belong to, we should be mindful of the sources we are drawing that spirituality from. Hopefully, it will be a complete body of ceremony and practice drawn from the singular source of the culture we are trying to accurately represent, as best as we can discern it. Anything else screams “culture vulture”.

Earth People

I came across a concept that resonates with me in Kenneth Cohen’s book Honoring the Medicine. I share it for your consideration, exactly as he wrote it:

“In Native American literature, the term white man is frequently a designation of colonial values–the need to dominate, divide, and acquire–rather than of ethnicity. People who superficially imitate Native Americans while denying their own ethnicity, perhaps by wearing Native American clothing and jewelry and imitating speech patterns and mannerisms, are called by a equally derogatory term: wannabees. There are also wannabees among Native American people: ‘red apples’, who are red on the outside but white on the inside. In the past, red apples were called ‘loafers around the forts,’ because they hung around the soldiers’ forts to receive handouts rather than fight against injustice or live in a way that affirms Native American freedom, sovereignty, and values.

Today we have an entirely new fruit, one with a white skin and a red heart.What should we call people who identify with Native American values and behave in a way consistent with those values? A person can be born Indian but act like a colonizer. A person can also be born white or Asian or black and act like a traditional Native American. Yes, it is possible. Not though imitation but by having the courage to follow the guidance of the heart. I have met many non-Native people who have shed colonial assumptions and learned to live lightly and respectfully on the earth. Native American elders recognize that in today’s mixed up world, race is no longer a guarantee of culture. The Creator has revealed his wonderful sense of humor in putting so many red souls in multicolored bodies!

People who respect Native American people, culture, and land and who are willing to make a personal and political stand for them deserve a proper term of respect. I like the designation suggested by a Lakota acquaintance: Maka Oyate, Earth People. The term is similar to a Cree phrase that is sometimes used by spirits (who speak through a ceremonial leader) to refer to Indian people: aks-ju-aski-wes-skin-hagun, ‘Earth-Made People.’ In the Holy Bible, the first human being is called Adam, meaning ‘Earth Person,’ because this androgynous being was formed of earth infused with God’s breath.

You cannot become an Indian if you were not born one. But you can be an Earth Person.” (page 27)

I could live with that…

On “Tribes” and “Nations”

There are no Indians in Pennsylvania. That is the official position of the state government. And, historically, that is correct. For the most part, the Indian nations had all removed themselves westward prior to the War for Independence, though, for a time, the Seneca nation extended into the northwestern corner of the state. Yet, there are still self-proclaimed tribes and nations throughout the state.

Speaking only of the Lenape claimants, there have been eight or more groups claiming tribal identity in the last 50 years. I think there may be four remaining, though one has effectively removed itself to Ohio. I cannot knowledgeably speak regarding any group claiming tribal identity from another nation (e.g. Cherokee, Shawnee, etc.). And I cannot speak of any other state or location other than Pennsylvania. My time “playing Indian” has been spent among the Lenape of Pennsylvania.

The above cited statistic should speak volumes regarding the authenticity of such claims. The fact that the Thunder Mountain Lenape Nation and the Lightning Valley Village were both established in recent memory and have both subsequently passed out of existence ought to exemplify the fallacy of their claims. The acquisitions and mergers that underlie the present composition of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania should serve to cast a shadow on their claim. And so forth.

In short, the problem is that these groups never met the most basic criteria to support their claim to a tribal identity. They do not represent a long-standing community of Native people from a single nationality. They do not have a stable membership base. They lack a clear ethnic identity and shared genetics. They do not fit the description.

For the sake of my argument, I will enumerate the most egregious flaws in the claims of the groups with which I have had any association. I do not wish to attempt to enumerate them all. Three in particular will suffice.

An actual tribal group will have documentable origins that predate history, at least orally. The membership will be closely related genetically. (When Native people refer to one another as “cuzzin”, they are generally not too far from the truth.) They will have a long-standing history in the area in which they claim to be located.

A tribal group will have an established and stable membership base. There cannot be a revolving door on the membership. Leaving the tribe is not an option. You don’t have to attend any of the functions any longer, but you cannot divorce yourself from your tribal identity and assume a new one elsewhere. Again, it is a matter of shared genetics.

Finally, an actual tribal group will have an established and historically recognizable culture base. The language, spiritual practices, customs, mannerisms, and so forth will, in essence, have been established in antiquity. There should not be numerous instances of the establishment of a custom or ceremony within the memory of the membership, unless it is the reestablishment of a custom or ceremony from another related group (e.g. there are efforts being made among the state-recognized Lenape groups in New Jersey to recover elements of their culture from federally-recognized Lenape groups in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada).

None of the Lenape groups in Pennsylvania meet any of these criteria, no less any other more minute criteria. Members come and go. Some hold dual memberships in one or more other “nations”. Close examination will reveal that the customs and spiritual practices are liberally borrowed from numerous other actual tribal cultures (e.g. Ojibwe and Lakota). And the origins of all the groups can be established to have occurred within the last 100 years.

There are no Indians in Pennsylvania, unless they have relocated from another region. Which means that their tribal identity and extended familial roots lie elsewhere.

There is one further feature of these groups that call themselves a tribe, band, village or nation that should be noted for the folly that it is: the attempt to emulate a tribal government. Perhaps it is not so evident in a group much larger than I was ever associated closely with, but my experience is that there are usually too many people with official titles. The expression “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” could have been coined from watching these groups.

I offer two examples to illustrate this and some of the other points above: When I was a village chief, we set about to fill out the roster of governmental and social structure as we perceived it. So, with a membership of about 15, we selected a principal chief, a head warrior, a medicine chief, and a clan mother for each of the three clans of the Lenape (Turtle, Wolf and Turkey).

When we joined ourselves to the Munsee-Delaware Indian Nation the next year, we repeated the same exercise, adding a clan chief for each clan and a war chief. In each instance, by the time we were finished, nearly half of the membership had received one or more titles.

There are so many points of foolishness in these accounts, I hardly know where to begin. But I will summarize, rather than belabor each one. It should be remembered that both of these groups were largely populated with people who had decided to join themselves to Native culture. When an individual is able to ascend from novice seeker to any tribal office in less than five years, there should be a red flag set for any outside observer.

If the nation is not presently at war, there is hardly a need for a war chief (though many tribal meetings could use a sergeant-at-arms). If there is not a large warrior society, there is no reason to have a head warrior. If there is no medicine society, there is no need for a medicine chief. And, in short, there is seldom enough membership to warrant that many titled offices.

Often in these groups, titles are used as a means for manipulating the membership. Pliable individuals can be pulled closer to the group leader (the personality around which the cult is formed, regardless of their supposed position in the ersatz government hierarchy). Difficult individuals can be reined in and placated. And undesirables can be excluded.

A similar case in point: There was a woman I knew from a group other than any that I had belonged to. I met her at a gathering while I was the principal chief of a Lenape hobbyist group. She was identified to me at the time as a medicine person. I met her again a few years later, when I was participating in a powwow as a storyteller. If memory serves, in the interim she had assumed a different Native name, but now she was also a clan mother in the other group.

As an aside, the individual that had organized the powwow was an archeological field assistant with no particular ties to any Native group when he organized the powwow the first year. By the time the powwow was organized the second year, he and his wife had formed a village and joined themselves to the nation this woman was now a clan mother in.

A few years later, I saw the woman in a video that was filmed in the Southwest. In the discussion that ensued on the online forum where I saw the video, I was informed that she had “moved on” and actually relocated to the Southwest. Similarly, the individual who had organized the powwow has relocated his entire village to another nation that is more geographically convenient to him.

This begs several questions, the foremost of which should be: “How is this possible?” How can an individual assume an important role such as a clan mother (the matriarchal leader of an extended family association that represents a major portion of a village or nation) and then “move on”? Yet this typifies the transient nature of the membership and leadership of these “nations”; the only constant is the personality around which the cult formed.

I can only guess at what transpired. A difference of opinion. A better opportunity in another locale. Who can say? Yet this is hardly representative of the nature of federally-recognized, historical nations.

If you are born into an actual Native culture, you are stuck with it. You can move to the city, you can stop attending the tribal functions, you can shred your tribal ID card. But you cannot change who you are or where you came from. Among the hobbyist groups, you can just relocate to another group that more suits your interests or demeanor at any given moment and never look back.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

The horse dance stick makeover is finally finished! I think I worked on it for almost two years, on and off.

A very long time ago, I was gifted with a horse dance stick. It may be one of the first accessories I had for my regalia. As it was given to me, it was quite primitive, being decorated with cloth bands, metal tacks, a buckskin collar and some buckskin around the handle area. It has always been my practice to make those things which are given to me my own, by embellishing them further. And then I honor them by dancing them around the circle at least once.

Originally, I embellished the dance stick by adding a strip of horsehair to represent the mane and adding deer hoof rattles around the buckskin collar. And I used it in the first few powwows I attended. But a horse dance stick is actually a Plains type of accessory. Before long, I acquired a dance staff that was more appropriate for my Eastern Woodlands regalia, which I have carried ever since.

A few years ago, I was inspired to give the horse dance stick a makeover. I wanted to decorate it with a gourd (peyote) stitch design which would replace the cloth bands, which were somewhat faded. And the deer hoof rattles had mostly broken off. So, quite some time later, I have finally completed the project.

I chose to use the gourd stitch to remind myself how to do it. I am much more accomplished with the brick (Comanche) stitch; I was introduced to that many years ago because it is easier to add and subtract beads from on odd shaped pieces. But the handle area of the dance stick is fairly uniform, so that wasn’t going to be an issue and I hadn’t practiced the gourd stitch for years.

This is one of those pieces that did not turn out as nice as I had hoped. The design did not end up looking like what I mapped out on the grid paper; it is obviously distorted. I’m not sure if it is because I didn’t start the gourd stitch correctly; I can’t see how the bead placement differs, but I wasn’t about to start over just to find out. I also admit that I could not follow my own design pattern; that has never been a problem previously, but this one apparently required better attention to design than I could muster.

I was inspired to replace the deer hoof rattles with horse hair tassels made with cartridge casings. The horse hair in the tassels is from one of my own horses who had died, so they honor him. If you are familiar with the Plains traditions, you understand why this is appropriate. I would have liked to use an older rifle casing, perhaps from a .45-70, but I don’t know anyone who owns one of those so I used a modern (.30-30) rifle casing.

Later this year, I will dance the stick around the circle. But I wanted to take this opportunity to relate a humorous story about a different horse dance stick.

There is a certain hobbyist group that comes to my town each year to present an exhibition for the general public. They drum and dance and offer educational insights into Native culture. They generally represent the Eastern Woodlands culture. I try to make a habit of going to their exhibition in order to see what they have to say each year.

And so it was, this past summer, that when I arrived before the presentation and perused the items they were displaying on their artifact table, I spotted a very nice, yet unadorned, horse dance stick. It was quite nice, in that the hoof representation on the end of the stick was fully three-dimensional (you can see that mine is more two-dimensional), and apparently old, in that the hoof representation had already cracked because the wood had dried out since the artifact was originally crafted. I could not recall seeing this particular artifact in previous years, so I was curious to hear the explanation that would be given when it was displayed for the public.

The explanation that was offered defied credulity. Besides misidentifying the artifact (and the tribal culture from which it came) completely, an explanation of its use was offered which was an amalgam of misapplied factoids and outright fabrication. But I know where the presenter gathered all of that from; I had some of the same “teachers” in times past. She had heard that information in some form and somehow cobbled together the explanation she delivered.

Which points up a glaring problem present in all hobbyist groups: thoroughly uneducated educators. I suppose there could be a hobbyist group somewhere that acquires knowledge and keeps it to themselves, sharing it among themselves but never attempting to divulge it to the outside public. But I have not encountered a group yet that didn’t feel compelled at some point to have a public face, through a powwow or exhibition.

If each individual in the group had thoroughly educated themselves on at least one aspect of the tribal culture they presume to represent and stuck to what they know well, this might not be such a bad thing. But that is a concept doomed to failure, even if that was the original intent.

The viewing public is, by definition, less educated than the presenter. Ostensibly, they came to the presentation because they wanted to be educated. It must be presumed that, generally, the viewing public has only a rudimentary knowledge of the material being presented, yet they are eager to gather as much information as they can to bolster that knowledge.

Consequently, they will ask questions across the spectrum of their curiosity. They will ask questions about any bit of information they have internalized from every source they can remember. Unfortunately, it is the tendency of the presenters to attempt to answer all of those questions, hazarding a guess where necessary, usually without qualifying the certainty of the answer.

But even worse, generally, is the knowledge pool from which the guess will be drawn. Most intertribal groups mix and match their information on Native culture, using what I call the “Chinese menu” approach.

Perhaps there are not many actual Chinese restaurants left. There seem to be many more Asian buffets these days, so perhaps the metaphor is unfamiliar in current times. But there was a time when a Chinese meal was ordered by selecting an entrée from one column of the menu with side dishes listed in an adjoining column. Thus, there was an expression that became a part of the common vernacular, “One from Column A and two from Column B”.

It is my contention that New Age spirituality is assembled in the same manner, so it could be equally appropriate to characterize the cultural information appropriated by most intertribal groups as “New Age Nativeness”. The formulation proceeds somewhat like the following:

An individual selects the culture they wish to represent and learns a rudimentary amount about that culture from whatever sources they can discover, written or oral. But then they encounter an idea from a different culture that sounds interesting or attractive, so they append it to their knowledge and practice. As additional divergent concepts are encountered and appended, the original knowledge becomes increasingly adulterated and unrecognizable as accurate or authentic. Nevertheless, it is passed on to other less educated individuals as accurate and authentic.

Thus, I attended a presentation on a medicine wheel garden once which typified exactly that phenomenon. It was presented at a powwow that purported to be a Woodlands powwow (representative of the nations which comprise the Eastern Woodlands cultural group). No mention was made of the historic fact that medicine wheels did not figure prominently in Woodlands culture; they are more a feature of Plains culture. The information presented was an amalgam of medicine wheel lore from several Plains cultures. The presentation included a sort of guided visualization of the four directions with accompanying symbolism. And the presenter concluded her presentation with “Nemaste”.

I walked away from that presentation thinking to myself: “I wonder how many people think they just learned an Indian word?” Hopefully, most people recognized it for what it was and didn’t consciously connect it with the remainder of the information presented. Nonetheless, for those who didn’t, there was no one to tell them that “Nemaste” is an East Indian word; not an American Indian word.

If we are going to attempt to educate the public, we had best be certain that we are delivering the information accurately and that we can cite the source from which we acquired that information. We are doing a disservice to the public and failing to represent Native culture properly and respectfully when we fabricate information. Nothing could mark a wannabe in a more negative light.

Intertribal Does Not Mean Interchangeable

I have noted previously that most hobbyist groups call themselves intertribal. This means that they acknowledge that they represent a multitude of tribal identities without claiming a distinct tribal identity. Anyone from any tribal identity is welcome to join and participate and, in theory, bring their culture with them to share with the others.

At least, they don’t try to call themselves a tribe or a nation. They portray themselves as an association of multiple tribal identities. In principle, this is a straightforward and acceptable idea. When properly conducted, it should be an appropriate place for a seeker to begin to learn the culture of his ancestors. In reality, I have yet to see this play out correctly.

I have long believed that an intertribal group should be a springboard to real exploration of your Native heritage. Of course, it would help if there were one or more people already there who have already assimilated the culture you are wanting to assimilate. The ideal model for learning the culture of your ancestors would be one of those further along the journey reaching back to pull you along.

Unfortunately, the reality is usually that there is no one in the group that knows much about any particular tribal culture. There is usually a generalized knowledge of Native life and history, gathered from whatever books can be discovered. There will usually be a fair representation of people claiming ancestry from the best known nations (Cherokee, Lakota, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), etc.), but often none of them have any depth to their knowledge of the culture they claim ancestry from. Instead, there is a much too prevalent tendency for each individual to pick and choose information from any tribal culture that appeals to them.

Times have changed since I began my own journey. At that time, it was necessary to travel to a bookstore and peruse whatever was shelved there to find resources for study. Of course, there were libraries also, but you were still limited by the interests of the acquisitions committee and donations.

Since then, the Internet has exploded and one can find almost any book ever written available through myriad sources, often indexed by keywords, which makes locating primary source information much easier. There is also seemingly limitless information available through web searches, though it is often difficult to discern the validity of any given article.

Nevertheless, this presumes that people are motivated enough to actually research the culture they claim ancestry from. This is seldom the case. People prefer to be fed information by others, which presupposes that those people have accurate information to offer. The examples here are too numerous to recount.

I once was in a group with an individual who claimed Cherokee ancestry. So I suggested some well-known resources on the Cherokee for him to use to learn that culture. His response was that he preferred resources that had mostly pictures. I’m still looking for the Classic Comics version of James Mooney’s work.

I attended an educational presentation by a group that I was somewhat familiar with and heard an account given of an origin of ribbon work on Native clothing. The story offered was plausible enough and I liked it. So I attempted to verify it through my own research, which I was unable to do. So, the next time I heard the story in a subsequent educational presentation I asked the presenter to cite the source of their information.

This was an individual who claimed Lenape heritage. The story she had offered involved the children who were sent to the Indian boarding schools. The explanation (citation of source) I received astonished me. She tried to attribute the story to oral history because the Lenape did not have a written language.

There are two problems here: The Lenape language was transcribed and written down by Moravian missionaries before the American War for Independence. It is difficult to say how many of the Lenape could actually write the language at the time, but it is reasonable to assume that there were a few.

But even more pertinent to the explanation given is that the era of Indian boarding schools began after the American Civil War, well into the historic period of both Indian culture and American culture. It is certain that if there were any validity to the account given, someone would have written something of it somewhere.

Returning to the theme represented by the title of this post, the fundamental problem of most intertribal hobbyist groups is that all tribal cultures become generally viewed as somewhat interchangeable. Customs and practices from any culture can be grafted into each individual’s understanding of the culture they aspire to represent according to any whim or fancy.

If such an understanding were kept private and personal, no one would be harmed by the blatant inaccuracies thus constructed (other than the individual themselves). But when it is disseminated to the unsuspecting public as accurate and authentic, a transgression is committed that cannot be easily corrected. It is little wonder that pretendians are generally regarded as pariahs among those raised in the cultures that are thus misrepresented.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for each individual to study the culture they aspire to represent, in as many aspects as they can. In my experience, it is likely that you will learn aspects of other national cultures in the process, but it is important to keep those carefully compartmentalized to the culture they belong to.

Likewise, it is imperative that you be able to cite the sources of your information as much as possible, and be honest when you are offering extemporaneous information (making an educated guess). Authenticity and accuracy is paramount if you are representing a tribal culture you were not raised in to the public.