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Know the West

Native American wannabes: Beware the Weasel Spirit


I once stayed at an upscale spa that had a Native American theme. We padded around on Navajo rugs, awoke to morning drumming and disrobed in locker rooms referred to as kivas. At night, instead of finding a chocolate on my pillow, there was a woven dream catcher. This failed to soothe my Spirit Self. In fact, I fretted: Was that dream catcher made by an impoverished person on a reservation while my fat ass was at a spa?

I've always been the guilty type. This guilt is why I'm unable to retain an open mind when it comes to my town's latest craze: Native American spirituality, known widely as the Born-Again Navajo movement. (Okay, I just made that term up.)

Although Telluride, Colo., is not approaching Sedona-like sensibilities (as far as I can tell, no one has sent an energy cone up to the mother ship), former dentists here do rename themselves Moonfeather She-Wolf and Blackcloud Dancer. Peruse the local newspaper and you might find Shamanic Healers listed next to Windshield Repair Services in the classified ads. Moonlight drumming is the second-most popular activity after golf.

Amid Born-Again Navajos (most often New Jersey-born Caucasians), spirit animals, or totems, are the latest trendy pets. I thought totems were carved things sold next to the rubber tomahawks. Of course, I also thought a sweat lodge was pretty much the same thing as a Swedish sauna.

This cultural ignorance is why I have chosen the spirit name White Dork. True, I could have picked Rainbow Claw Warrior or Crying Sunshine She-Bear, but White Dork seemed somehow more fitting. Most Born-Again Navajos have spirit animals, charismatic megafauna such as wolves, bears or eagles. I think I've finally found my own spirit animal, too: The weasel. Small and beady-eyed, symbol of irritation.

Like many Americans, I found myself "questing" for life's deeper meaning, attempting to find a less patriarchal, more nature-based spirituality. This is why I recently participated in a ceremony that involved a new moon (that is, no moon), chanting, drumming, singing off-key, rattles, water bowls, feathers and several New Jersey-born women huddled around a lump of charcoal in lieu of a campfire on the deck of a condo. (Let me remind you, I have chosen the name White Dork.) While parts of this ceremony were beautiful and meditative, I felt something was missing. Namely, a Native American.

True to form, I felt guilty, too, like I'd performed a Japanese tea ceremony at a backyard barbecue or received holy communion at Wal-Mart. I felt like a White Dork who was taking the best of another culture's spirituality without earning it, looking for a New Age quick fix instead of doing the long, hard work of self-exploration. I was a hypocrite, conveniently adopting values but not living them - communing with animal spirits and buying shrink-wrapped beef.

While much of this cultural co-opting is at heart very well-meaning, Native Americans are getting weary, if not pissed off. Members of the Lakota tribe have declared war on exploiters of their ancient spirituality. Their declaration states that they have "suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian 'wannabes,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled 'New Age' retail stores and ... pseudo religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony 'sweatlodges' and 'vision quest' programs ..."

Born-Again Navajos - if they're devout - must take this declaration of war seriously. After all, among its soldiers are White Dork and her Spirit Weasel, pathfinder of cynicism and King of the Rodent World. Together they will rain on the parade of any Rainbow Spirit Journey - and then go take holy communion at Wal-Mart.

Lou "White Dork" Bendrick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She lives in Telluride, Colorado.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Lou Bendrick