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Know the West

'Spiritual hucksterism' attacked in Boulder

  A former Naropa University student sued the Boulder, Colo., liberal arts college this fall, claiming "cultural genocide" and "spiritual hucksterism," amid threats of a campus occupation by American Indian activists.

Lydia White Calf and her Oglala Lakota husband, Royce, accused the co-founder of Naropa's Native American Studies program of illegally practicing sacred ceremonies in the classroom. The lawsuit, which alleges the Buddhist-inspired college defrauded, harassed and defamed White Calf, was filed Sept. 9 in Boulder District Court.

The White Calfs' accusation that instructor Eagle Cruz falsely claimed to be a Lakota spiritual leader has raised a broader question: Who is qualified to teach religious ceremony?

"It's a very sticky problem," said University of Colorado history professor Vine Deloria, a Standing Rock Sioux. "In some areas of the country it can be a grave offense, while in others it's a common practice." To Deloria, though, it's not what people teach, but who they say they are. "I've taught courses on other religions that I'm not a practitioner of," he said. "But I didn't hold myself out to be of that religion."

Naropa's lawyers, in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, argue that the courts can't make decisions regarding the "appropriate" use of Native American culture. "Under the First Amendment, the state may not intrude on academic decisions," attorney Alexander Halpern wrote.

Cruz has left Naropa University and the state, but in a letter to students, university president John Whitehouse Cobb called Cruz a "staunch protector of the dignity and integrity of native teachings."

While the issue is being fought in court, American Indian Movement leader Russell Means has made it clear he wants the university held accountable.

Means, made famous by the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, said his presence at a Sept. 9 news conference in Boulder was meant "to put Naropa on alert." Taking over the college's campus, he said, is a definite possibility.

"If this lawsuit doesn't work, I and those that I represent are going to physically challenge Naropa and their legitimacy - and that includes their buildings," Means told reporters.

* Matt Sebastian