Thoughts On reading:The Spirit Always Grows Deeper On the Other Side of the Fence

A couple of days ago northierthanthou wrote a lengthy post about an experience he had while teaching on the Navajo reservation. On a snowy winter’s night he found himself with an unexpected house guest, a Caucasian man with untreatable prostate cancer who was seeking a Medicine Man to perform a sing for him.  Remembering that experience set off a riff of thoughts about healing, spiritual questing, and cultural appropriation. The post is well worthy of a thorough read, and I originally reblogged it. Then I realized I need to provide some CONTEXT for doing so on this blog.

The author, Dan Wall, wrote, in small part:

But Spiritual appropriation isn’t just limited to Native American traditions. I recall with great pleasure reading Karma Cola long before I headed out to the rez. Gita Mehta’s brutal observations on the antics of spiritual tourists in India touch upon issues quite familiar to those observing how Native traditions fare in New Age circles. Many of the characters she describes in Karma Cola appear quite as hapless as my guest sitting there reading tarot cards on his way to find a Medicine Man. Few seem quite so innocent or nearly as sympathetic.

Reading the post, I found myself resonating with the ill man, and with the author. I’ve had times of desperation and terror. I’ve participated in Native healing ceremonies for folks with possibly terminal illnesses. I’ve also been asked, and performed healings and ceremonies for people with cancer and other major illnesses. When doing so, I look to explaining the work in terms that do as little harm as possible to both Native and Non-native culture. Frequently though, the responsibilities that accompany ceremony are difficult to translate. Often, too, I find myself trying to strip away layers of misinformation and appropriation that inhibit understanding in the person requesting aid, and, all too often, myself. Those colonial misreadings and appropriations run deep! Working with feet in multiple cultures adds to the complexity, if not the confusion.

During my training I was often (and remain) more concerned about appropriation than were my teachers. Appropriation may strip ritual and ceremony of context, but not necessarily efficacy. There are many healers in the America who work from the Mestizo frame of reference, with feet in multiple cultural worlds. They follow the Mixed Blood tradition of making meaning from diverse teachings. Many are effective healers. Yet there are many charlatans as well. Dan’s thoughtful post is a very insightful look into this complex realm. I encourage you to take the time to read it in its entirety.

Do you have thoughts or experiences about the complex ground of healing and appropriation? Please share them with us!

9 thoughts on “Thoughts On reading:The Spirit Always Grows Deeper On the Other Side of the Fence

  1. i take refuge in the thought that healing is a natural part of the human experience – This means for me – that healing is a “common territory” belonging to us all (to all people). This view of healing comes from my own experience with “dying” (as the doctors called it) and various times in my life. I like the idea of fully returning “healing” to all people and groups – and making it an honored part of the human experience.

  2. I also find this a rather difficult tightrope to walk. On the one hand, Native Elders like Beautiful Painted Arrow tell us not to get stuck in the form.

    On the other hand, I remember how another teacher and I cringed while attending a pipe ceremony where a woman brought out a deck of tarot cards, explaining that she randomly draws a card to get a reading on how the ceremony will go.

    Here again, I’ll refer to BPA who also tells us not to mix metaphors. And perhaps this is the most sound advice I’ve encountered. Each ceremony carries with it an internal language of symbol and context. Disrupting these not only serves to muddy the waters, but can lead to very negative lessons for all involved.

    My own feelings seem to run along the lines that healing should be available to all who are ready for it. But I also feel that whether one picks up the drum or the scalpel, one should be properly trained, and prepared to use the instrument of their trade correcly, thoughtfully, and carefully, or be prepared to deal with adverse consequences…

  3. Yep. Time and a place for everything, so I’ve heard it said. It’s especially difficult, I think, for practitioners whose path not only fosters, but requires creativity, flexibility and spontanaity.

    Ceremony seems to straddle the line between rigidity and organic flow. Fall too far over to one side, and it becomes something else entirely.

    I’ve heard tell of an elder who, having forgotten his rattle, reached into his pocket for a pack of Tic Tacs and called in the directions with that. Seems like a perfectly “legal” improvization.

    But would we agree with the casting of Runes during a Sweat Lodge because it seemed to resonate with a particular water pourer?

    Another problem arises when people who come to a ceremony for the first time accept the words and actions of the celebrant as law. I think it behooves us as teachers to make sure we present the definitions, content, and sources of our ceremonies as succinctly and accurately as possible.

    While a ceremony obtained through prayer and vision is certainly a blessing from Spirit, one should never attempt to pass it off as anything but what it really is, regardless of how closely it might mirror another existing traditional ceremony.

    1. Yes, I decided a while ago to use whatever is at hand, when the need arises. Stones in the hand make a fine rattle. A knee and open palm make a serviceable drum, but lack reverb.

      One of the challenges we all face, I believe, is finding the balance between innovation and tradition. Sometimes changing a form honors those who have gone before us, sometimes not. I think many non-Indigenous anthropologists, politicians, and others, confuse tradition with culture. They seem determined in their claims that real (whatever you want to place here) do not use snow mobiles, axes, computers, Bic lighters….. Why, Indigenous people innovate all the time; if we did not, we would be long gone!

      On the other hand, sometimes innovation violates the SPIRIT of ritual or ceremony, or appropriates forms that are purely for local use. And yes, it is best to admit a ceremony came in a dream. But, Hey! Most ceremonies come in dreams and visions! They are innovative and keep spirit and culture alive!

  4. “They seem determined in their claims that real (whatever you want to place here) do not use snow mobiles, axes, computers, Bic lighters….. Why, Indigenous people innovate all the time; if we did not, we would be long gone! ”


    Hence the arguement I’ve heard many times about Remo vs. skin drums. Many people feel that if it isn’t skin, it isn’t alive. Yet the Mylar head of a Remo drum allows it to be played in the most adverse weather conditions without becoming thwocky.

    I even received a lecture one time for bringing one to a dance because of its loudness. Then, several years later, at another dance, a rainstorm set in. A very dear friend and Elder of mine had the only drum in the arbor that could maintain the beat for the dancers…yep, a Remo.

    We move as we must. And in moving, we must be willing to drop that which no longer serves the spirit of a tradition and the greatest good of all. The decision to do so, however, must come not from the egoic mind, but at the behest of Spirit. . .

    1. I have mixed feelings about Remo. Part of that is I have not found a Remo frame drum that sounds the way I want it to. I’m still looking though, as I have friends with marvelous Remo drums. I have a Pakistani boron that is tunable, and works in most weather conditions. I go along with you that at this juncture the choice of drum seems like an odd place for such intense debate. I also know there are many “Correct” ways to do ceremony, and many hours are spent debating which is the “truly correct” method…..

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