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.