Courtesy Christopher McLeod
The late Thomas Banyacya, Hopi Traditional Spokesman, is seen here in Chaco Canyon.

Spiritual Vultures: Films Explore Cultural Appropriation by New Agers

Rucha Chitnis

“This is a very sacred kiva,” says the late Thomas Banyacya, Hopi Traditional Spokesman, pointing to an ancient sacred site at Casa Rinconada in northwest New Mexico. “We are looking at the spirit of our ancestors… they are here. They are watching us. We hope they will help Native people to protect their land and sacred sites,” he says in a frail voice recorded in archival footage.

Over the past three decades, the Sacred Land Film Project (SLFP) has produced films about how mainstream American culture antagonizes Native American sensibilities around spirituality and sacred sites. Casa Rinconada is one quintessential example—a cultural hub of Ancestral Puebloans, where thousands of New Age seekers gathered for the Harmonic Convergence in 1987, littering the sacred kiva with crystals, cremated human remains and one curious looking teddy bear wax candle.

“They [Native Americans] feel deeply about this issue—that it is disrespectful and a violation of a sacred space. They have asked the Park Service to close Casa Rinconada to the public,” shares Wendy Bustard, Curator of the Chaco Canyon Collection at the National Park Service in a video clip of archival footage that the Sacred Land Film Project is reviving to share stories of New Age appropriation. “Most of our staff is traditional Navajo, which means they avoid anything to do with the dead,” explains Bustard. The kiva was eventually closed to the public after ceremonies to cleanse it from cremated ashes and human remains left behind.

“While producing films on threats to indigenous sacred sites, I spend a lot of time listening to communities all over the world explain the most urgent threats. I've been really struck over the years by the fact that universally, right up there with mining, logging, dams and land grabs, there’s deep concern about New Age appropriation of sacred places, cultural rituals and spiritual traditions,” says Christopher McLeod, Director of SLFP.

In northern California, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe can empathize with the predicament of the Navajo. The Harmonic Convergence also congregated on Mt. Shasta, a mountain deeply sacred to the tribe. “The Harmonic Convergence of 1987 unleashed an overwhelming flood of seekers, hundreds of New Agers leaving crystals and medicine wheels all over the mountain. Later, there were sweat lodges for hire, and now even cremation remains poured into a sacred spring. How do we stop this and redirect this desperate search for meaning and connection?” wonders McLeod.

The Winnemem, known as the Middle Water People, trace their ancestry over millennia along the watershed south of their revered Mt. Shasta. The Winnemem believe they emerged from the spring on Panther Meadow, where New Agers often congregate—drumming and singing and leaving offerings behind, including ashes of the departed.

“We believe this spring is so sacred. We only go there once a year to sing at the doorway of our creation story,” says Chief Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu, in Pilgrims and Tourists, a SLFP film that explores the impact of New Age tourism on Native communities in the Russian Altai Republic and Mt. Shasta. “People dumped cremations right into this spring,” she says. “Cremations are a pollutant… everyone downstream is drinking that water. Do you put cremations on the altar in the Vatican?” she asks incredulously.

Besides cleaning the offerings in the spring, the Winnemem have to contend with thousands of climbers who attempt to summit Mt. Shasta. “On our mountain we have 30,000 visitors,” she says. “Non-indigenous people need to understand that there is a way to be there, a way of walking on that land without destroying it… people can admire the meadow from the edge.”

Ann Marie Sayers, Costanoan Ohlone, believes that contrasting value systems among Natives and non-Natives lead to cultural appropriation. “These places call for humility and respect,” she says.  In another SLFP film clip posted as part of a five-clip playlist on YouTube, a white woman naively claims that in her past life she has been black, Native American, Chinese and Egyptian and should not be denied access to Native sacred sites.

“New Agers look at traditional Native [cultures] for some answers to their spiritual bankruptcy. In an effort to find themselves, they are appropriating a lot of Native belief systems, to plug into for a weekend,” says Chris Peters (Pohlik-lah/Karuk) in a film clip from SLFP’s 2001 film, In the Light of Reverence.

The Winnemem say their ceremony is delayed every year, because the spring has to be cleaned from the offerings left behind. As the Winnemem youth remove bone fragments and cremation ashes from the spring, Chief Sisk remarks, “People can live without oil. They can live without gold, but nothing can live without water.”

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