Lakota elders
Christina Rose
Lakota elders Phyllis Swift Hawk, Marie Randall, and Carol Iron Rope-Herrera oppose cultural trespassing and appropriation, and believe the way to learn about spirituality is to be taught by someone who has studied in a hands-on way, rather than through a book.

Selling the Sacred: Get Your Master's in Native American Shamanism?

Christina Rose

New Age spirituality has been building momentum for more than a century, according to scholars—who don’t like it any more than Native people do. Author Harold Bloom called New Age practices “the American religion” that “has been emptying our politics and our private lives of meaning.” A reviewer of another author, Catherine Tumber, said New Agers are “fungus-like, out of our uncontrolled capitalism.”

There is one thing the critics missed though, and that is what New Agers are doing in Indian country. Like the emperor’s new clothes, they have made a popular culture of the sacred invisible, and are selling it to the highest bidder.

A case in point is the Divine Blessings Academy, which objectifies and quantifies spirituality as a product for sale. Though an Internet outcry quickly forced the academy to take down its “Native American Shaman” program from its website, it had offered a four-year degree, a master’s program, and post graduate degree in Native American Shamanism.

This image shows a screen capture from the Divine Blessings Academy Course Catalog for Introduction to Shamanism.

Shamanism is a term used often in South America for one who is able to obtain healing through communication with spirits. Native Americans commonly refers to North American Natives, who do not use the term shaman for their spiritual teachers, leaders, or healers.

Divine Blessings is apparently accredited by the International Natural Healers Association, whose website warns, “Please use your judgement when selecting a school or practitioner. Accreditation through the INHA does not mean that these schools have received accreditation through the US Department of Education.” So, basically, it’s one New Age institution approving another.

A perusal of the course catalogue, which was obtained before it was deleted, shows that Divine Blessings Academy offers courses in: The Hopi Prophecy Stone, Smudging and Basic Tools, Finding Your Power Animal, A Form of Reiki Using Native American Principles, Creating and Using Feather Fans, Native American Mantras and Prayers, receiving a Magikal name, and dozens more. Graduation entitles the student to join the Native American Shamanism Society and to receive “a personalized full-color certificate, which will be mailed directly to the student’s home.” (Where else would they mail it?)

All of these courses are offered through downloadable PDF files. In Native cultures, all such training would be offered by a medicine person who had dedicated their life to understanding that which they teach.

“It’s cultural trespassing,” said Carol Iron Rope Herrera, Lakota elder and spiritual advisor. “And its been going on a long time. A few years ago, we had a lot of the New Agers coming into Pine Ridge and Phyllis Swift Hawk was dealing with them.”

A call to Swift Hawk shed light on the way some traditional Lakota people have dealt with the problem. “We talk to them, and let them understand the consequences. I always pray with the non-Indians. My grandmother was real traditional, and she talked about the black nation from Africa, and that they have a pipe and prayer ties. The yellow nation has a pipe and prayer ties, and we do, too. But the white nation doesn’t know which way to turn.”

Unlike the online activists, Swift Hawk’s concerns were not only about the appropriation of culture, but that unsuspecting New Agers may find themselves in danger. “Practicing ceremonies without understanding is dangerous,” she said. “We see so many deaths.”

RELATED: Native History: A Non-Traditional Sweat Leads to Three Deaths

Other problems include local tribal members charging non-Natives as much as $1,000 for sun dances, and hundreds for sweat lodges. “If people didn’t have the money to pay, some were forced to give up family jewels and heirlooms,” Swift Hawk said. “It is up to our people to pray with all people, but when we start charging, that is not the Lakota way. I don’t hate the white race; I don’t want to see them get hurt. We have to pray together for world peace.”

So what is a spiritually starving American to do? Swift Hawk said she wishes New Agers could understand that living a spiritual life doesn’t happen right away, and said, “You have to learn the language to make the connection” with the elements, the ancestors, and relatives.

Within the culture, Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand, Lakota elder and leader, said training starts in adolescence and lasts a lifetime, with years spent learning before practicing begins. Swift Hawk commented on being a pipe carrier. When the Lakota go into the hills to pray and purify themselves, she said, “they bring their sacred objects and we respect those, you don’t just get one. You have to earn it. It took me until my 30s to receive one. To walk the life of the pipe is very hard.”

Recently close to 200 traditional people met on Pine Ridge to discuss a charter that would limit the use of sacred items and practices to the Lakota people. Swift Hawk said, “Grandpa Oliver Red Cloud wanted these ways chartered: to have a pipe, an eagle feather, or an eagle plume for a woman, they must have a tribal ID.”

The Divine Blessings Academy gives names to graduates from a teacher the student has never met. Swift Hawk said when the Lakota receive a name it has a purpose, reflects abilities and acts almost as a guide for living. “And when you pray you use your name. That is how the wakinyan (thunder beings), the White Buffalo Calf Woman, Grandmother Earth, and Tunkasila will know who you are,” she said.

Looks for Buffalo Hand also spoke kindly about Caucasians who take the right approach. “When people hitchhike and backpack all the way here from New Hampshire and come to stay and help and learn, I say sure. There was a young man who came out and he helped with the children, he delivered clothes and food, and he gained a lot of experience. He was really respectful.” Looks for Buffalo Hand said a descendant of Abraham Lincoln came out one year, and apologized for the mass hanging of the Dakota 38.

“Every one of us go through a test of reality, and has to decide between a spiritual life and a normal, civil life. I admire some of these people who come so far to learn,” he said. “Hands-on is the only way. To feel the reality of the way spiritual people live isn’t going to happen if you come and visit one or two days a year. You have to stay here.”

“Europeans forced their language and Christianity on us since the 1800s,” Looks for Buffalo Hand stated flatly. “It has diminished our way of life. But the 1851 Treaty says we are together to learn from one another. The covenant of creation law is that each and every nationality is responsible for making this world survive.”

“People from the east have the covenant of looking after the water, which is the blood of our body. The whites are responsible for keeping the air, what we need to breathe. The covenant of the blacks is the fire, the energy force, the heart and electricity that keeps the world turning,” Looks for Buffalo Hand said. “The Indian people have the covenant of the earth, which is our flesh. These are the four principles, but by living the synthetic life, of technology and the Internet, we are losing the reality of these four covenants.”

RELATED: 7 Lakota Values That Are Difficult to Adhere to Today

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
this is crap... it was crap the very first time a white man stole the very first medicine ceremony of any of our nations and claimed it as his own.... its been going on 500 plus years and will continue 500 more... it just fascinates me that white man religion is so shallow, hollow, and basically unsatisfying to their souls that they have to steal someone else's beliefs and ceremonies...

Thomas Wade Curtis
Submitted by Thomas Wade Curtis on
"White people/nation/man" aka the Northern European descended people ~ DO have a pre-christian heritage. They are not taught this, they are not shown, the monopoly the New Age movement has on modern spirituality in the west is a travesty no doubt, and was born of the world rejecting universal religion Christianity. The cultures in the old world that held these ways were converted and destroyed in much the same way as the the descendants of the people of those cultures who brought that same destructive religion to the Native peoples of the Americas... If you care to change what is evidenced in this article, after praying with them you could point them to their own spiritual heritages after which I believe a more cohesive (respectful) interfaith dialogue might be possible, that of the pre-Christian - pre-New Age religions of their own cultures and peoples. The modern reconstruction of these forms of both religion and spirituality are housed under the blanket term "heathenry" and have several monikers: Heathenry, Ásatrú, Forn Siðr, Theodism, as well as others. odroerirjournal. c o m

niiganabiik's picture
Submitted by niiganabiik on
I saw that about the getting a degree. I once talked to an Elder at Cheyenne River. "I'm thankful for the English language." She surprised me. When I looked at her to see if she was serious: "We wouldn't be able to talk to each other." I thought about what she said. She was Lakota, I'm Anishinabe. We'd been talking about when spirits visit and I'd asked her if I'd done right because I didn't know her way of doing things. I had followed my custom and she nodded. Sometimes, I'm not sure about Christians. For there are what I call true Christians and those who use religion for their own ends. One has to watch for false teachers all the time in any religion.

hammertime's picture
Submitted by hammertime on
I agree with chata ohoyo about this...its all crap... I feel that most of the religions on the planet will eventually drive their devout followers totally insane... there is no exception to the rule....... and its folly to hold onto belifs that someone 1000 years counjoured up that you follow blindly to the grave...... The natives culture seems to be more connected with the earth which draws others to their beliefs but its still basically the same crap once you claim to be a shaman and sell your beliefs to others.. It reminds me of the Catholics who used to sell "indulgences" and "masses for the dead" back in the dark ages.... Nothing really changes.....just the players of the is still all about the money.....$$$

indianmedicine's picture
Submitted by indianmedicine on
Looks like someone is trying to profit from a poor teaching of Holistic Medicine, with a slight suggestion of Native Homeopathic application - using suggested NAI Art in its Syllabus..........It also appears that a Spattering of New Age Technique gleamed from Japanese "Reiki Technique" developed in the 1920's are included (incidentally a REIKI Level I thru VI can cost approximately $300.00 + per Level Certificate )......The State of Texas tried to regulate the "Reiki Practitioners" by a Certification Process; that actually could oversee "Massage Practitioners" that required a State License since it offered a "service" similar to "Cosmetology" that actually required a Physical Touching and "Hair Cutting Implements"..........As to the inferred "Philosophy, Theology", Texas could only apply its regulations that governed Religious Ministers....... In today's practice, if a Minister is to serve as a "Counselor", they must be certified with a "Psychology Certificate", as there is a implied "Mental or Emotional Behavior" being addressed to a Client and an implied "Trust" in their Knowledge compared to a Personal Opinion being suggested to a Client..........You can only have a "Patient" if you are a Certified M.D. or N.D., else they are a Client who are involved in a Session compared to a "Medical Treatment"..........You can include Aromatherapy, Crystal Therapy, Massage Therapy, etc. in that Service Session, however you CANNOT have the Client Ingest, Inject, or Inhale any Potion or Liquid into the Body because you are NOT Medically Qualified...........Now Traditional Medicine People study Herbs, Potions, Politus Elixirs,Sound etc., as a Traditional and Accepted Practice within their Belief System; and normal done through "Spiritual" or Religious Practices; which takes the "Licensing" aspect to different Levels and Directions.........."New Age Technique's" may touch on those aspects; but they are NOT LEARNED in Natural Medicine where they can apply that knowledge without Professional Responsibility, and certainly are not licensed in the eyes of the State to do so, no matter what is printed on their "Certificate of Completion"..........."Shamanism" is actually a term / title / position that is unique to "SIBERIA" Russia, as those Medicine People are referred to as such, elsewhere the common Title is Medicine Man or Medicine Women..........Non-Medicine people use that term as a Generic Reference for all Medicine People in error..........So the Program Title is also misleading to the novice..........Their Hearts may be in the Right Places, but their Knowledge does not even begin to touch on the practice of Natural Medicine as applied by Medicine People of The Native American Nations, Tribes, and Bands in their Belief System..........Non-Indian types do not understand the energies involved in Natural Medicine that encompass Herbs and Healing Principles of Light, and Invisible Light from The Great Spirit channeled through The Medicine People and Technique (Rituals)..........It's like confusing Apples and Oranges and calling it the same fruit.........."Buyer Beware"..........

Sean Haynes
Sean Haynes
Submitted by Sean Haynes on
Very interesting article, very interesting comments. I am a white. I live in England and I work with Spirit and have done for some time now. I was actually raised a Catholic with my heritage predominantly being from Ireland and Malta, so Christianity was strong in my family....well for some of us. I was bought up on the hell fire and brimstone type of guff which to be honest did nothing for me and certainly didn't inspire me to worship. I did actually do a stint as an alter boy but got sacked when I sniggered at a funeral after the pawl bearers dropped the coffin into the hole...wrong I know but sometimes you just can't help it. then finally I was banned from the local church because the local priest couldn't accept the premise that in the same way he took the prayers of the living to the 'dead', I bought them back again.....that was a step to far and it wasn't covered during his priest training. Do I hold any anger towards that priest? No. I understood he was just a man, no more - but he was a man of faith, for that I could at least respect him. However from that point on I discovered it's not about religion, but faith. We too have a massive movement of what the article calls the 'new age spiritual' movement - actually it's not so new and goes back thousands of years, beyond the Celtic Horned God of Hunting - Herne. We still have Druids who still practise at places like Stonehenge, we have 'witches' and everything in between. Point I'm trying to poorly make is that we live in many nations, geographically diverse, culturally different but share a common need. Life is the journey of the soul, for many , too many they are only just waking up to it, becoming 'conciously' aware. It is the nature of the beast that in typical western societies, it's all about a quick fix, so people reach out and cling onto that first thing that 'may' bring them some enlightenment. They can't and shouldn't be condemned for doing what the creator gave them the will to do......each of us has an individual path to follow back to the place from where we all started. The first nations have many ceremonies, not just those of Turtle Island, but the Nomads in the middle East, of the Aborigines on the southern continents. Another interesting point made was that basically if you want to understand a culture you need to learn their language - I am trying to learn Lakota, but I'm not terribly sharp when it comes to things like that. Does that then mean I am just 'yet another' white man that wishes to steal your ceremonies? No..Do I need an Eagle feather or a chanunpa to offer up a voice to the creator,'s not my way. Does that then mean I can't learn from my relatives, or course I can and do, even if it is only being able to read these great articles and the comments left....... As a nation you will always have peoples form all over this great globe of ours reaching out to you because historically of your unique style of 'being', and 'spirituality' . One comment below refers to the 'white religion' being shallow, there is truth in that because culturally since the rise of Christianity people have forgotten what it's all about. your of course is not he only culture that people want to explore, I dare say there are just as many, if not more pilgrimages to the Hindu temples. I have never left these shores but I do hope one day before I get to old and grumpy to visit your nations, your country - do you know what I want to do most when I get there? I want to listen to a 'story' teller. Just my pennies worth... I learnt from an early age that this wasn't for me.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
If anyone is interested I'm writing a book and am looking for interested buyers. The book will be titled "You Too Can Be A Priest - Altar Boys Not Included." It will have chapters about each aspect of the Christian religion to guide you on your way. Examples are: Chapter 1 -Stale crackers into communion wafers Chapter 2 - Turning water into wine, into profit Chapter 3 - How to blackmail through confession