White Americans need to stop assuming Native American culture belongs to them, too

A “pow-wow” celebrating the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Festival in Randalls Island, New York.
A “pow-wow” celebrating the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Festival in Randalls Island, New York.
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
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James Arthur Ray was at the top of his game in 2009. He’d fashioned himself into a celebrity self-help guru, becoming a darling of the television talk show circuit with appearances on OprahThe Ellen DeGeneres ShowLarry King Live, and frequently Today. He had rocketed to fame after being a featured subject of a 2006 book and companion movie, both calledThe Secret, which provided a road map to personal empowerment and wealth.

By 2008 he was a New York Times best-selling author with Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, his third book. Not surprisingly, Ray’s expertise didn’t come cheap—his individual mentorship could cost upwards of $90,000, and the price tag for a weeklong “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in Sedona, Arizona, was almost $10,000. In October of that year, however, Ray’s New Age self-help empire came crashing down when three people were killed in a sweat lodge ceremony he conducted and eighteen others were hospitalized with injuries ranging from burns to kidney failure.

A sweat lodge ceremony is an ancient spiritual tradition among many Indigenous peoples that is still widely practiced today. It is a purification ritual performed inside a small lodge, where water poured on fire-heated rocks creates a cleansing steam. Ray was convicted of negligent homicide, served two years in prison for the crime, and was ordered to pay $57,000 in restitution to the victims’ families. After his release the conditions of his parole, curiously, did not bar him from conducting self-help seminars or sweat lodges.

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Indian country responded with fury, and Native media pundits pointed out all the ways Ray had gone wrong. He had violated all the protocols that Native spiritual leaders carefully adhere to, including grossly incorrect construction of the lodge, the use of improper herbs and other substances, and not allowing breaks to cool the lodge (known as “rounds”). Navajo journalist Valerie Taliman called it “a bastardized version of a sacred ceremony.” According to American Indian traditions, only spiritual leaders with many years of training are allowed to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies, and it is often a right that is inherited through family or other kinship lineages. James Ray had no such lineage or training. Many in Indian country voiced outrage that Ray received only a two-year sentence for the deaths caused by his charlatanism. And if all of that were not bad enough, Ray’s sweat lodge victims had paid obscene amounts of money to participate in a sacred ceremony that Indian people say should never involve money.

James Ray’s cultural appropriation was hardly an isolated incident. By 1993 the appropriation of Native spirituality had become so widespread that a gathering of Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people drew an international audience of some five hundred people to pass a “Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.”

Ten years later—with apparently no perceivable improvement of the situation—a proclamation was issued by Arvol Looking Horse, the Nineteenth Generation Keeper of the Sacred Calf Pipe, prohibiting non-Native participation in Lakota ceremonies. As Suzanne Owen writes, “The reasons why the Lakota Declaration and the Looking Horse Proclamation are significant documents in the debates about appropriation are due to the prominence of Lakota models in representations of Native American spirituality.”

Not that the Lakota are the only ones whose ceremonies and culture are being appropriated. As Owen notes, the proposed prohibitions, according to Lakota and other Native American activists, are as much to protect the well-being of practitioners as the integrity of Native ceremonies. Ceremonial protocol not followed correctly can be dangerous, they warn.

In their endeavors to understand how and why playing Indian manifests as spiritual appropriation, scholars have offered various analyses, all of which share several common traits. One is the recognition of non-Natives’ sense of entitlement to practice Native American cultures and religions. This entitlement is expressed implicitly as claims to Native heritage—the mythical idea that Native American heritage equals US heritage—that what belongs to Native people should be shared by all. Explicitly, it comes out as a stated right.


Rayna Green first articulated the concept of playing Indian in a 1988 essay where she argued that the phenomenon likely originates from the captivity experiences of Europeans. Transforming eventually into cultural performances that relied upon the removal and death of real Indians, playing Indian at its core reflected an inherent hatred of Indians, not love or affinity. From the Boston Tea Party forward, US Americans obsessed on vanishing Indians in a multitude of ways that translated into trying to become them, or at least using them to project new images of themselves as they settled into North America and left Europe behind.

The historical practice of white people becoming Indian is visible in the social and civic clubs where versions of Indianness were (and in some cases still are) enacted, including Tammany Hall (aka the Society of St. Tammany, the Sons of St. Tammany, and the Colombian Order), the Elks, the Lions, the Kiwanis, the Improved Order of Red Men, the YMCA’s Indian Guides and Princesses program, and the Boy Scouts of America Koshare Dancers. Even Indians were conscripted into playing Indian, with performances like the Wild West Shows of the late nineteenth century, and the projections of Indianness became ubiquitous (and literal) with the development of photographic and cinematographic technology.

By the 1960s, young white Americans were transforming themselves into pseudo-Indians and showing up in droves on Indian reservations, looking for a way of life different from the consumer-oriented Christian conformity of their parents. Indian images—however imaginary and distorted—have so infiltrated US American consciousness that they appear in consumer products in everything from butter packaging to recreational vehicles. Business names like Navajo Express (trucking), Mohawk Industries (floor coverings), and Apache Software can be seen. From Rayna Green’s perspective, each era of US history exhibited some form of Indian play. The spiritual appropriation of the New Age movement is thus only one recent manifestation of it.

By the 1980s, the hippie counterculture had evolved into the New Age movement. Lisa Aldred wrote in 2000 that this was a consumerist movement, and that while not all New Agers flock to Native American spiritual practices, “a small percentage constructs their essential identity around Native American religion.” Aldred contended that the biggest business for Indigenous appropriation was in book publishing, where “plastic medicine” authors were big sellers. Among the more familiar of them are Carlos Castaneda, with his many best-selling books on the sorcerer Don Juan Matus; Lynn Andrews, who became known as the “Beverly Hills Shaman”; Mary Summer Rain, who purported to record the teachings and prophecies of a blind Indian medicine woman she calls No Eyes; and Brooke Medicine Eagle, with her generic version of “Native American wisdom” drawn from various specific traditions.

Echoing Green, Aldred asserted that New Agers were far more interested in exotic images and romanticized rituals built on distorted stereotypes of Native peoples than they were in the sociopolitical realities of Native peoples living under conditions of colonialism. This put them in adversarial positions when Native people objected to what they perceived as cultural theft.

Among New Agers’ defenses against charges of appropriating American Indian spirituality, Aldred also found claims that spirituality and truth cannot be owned, and that “spiritual knowledge belongs to all humans equally.” Aside from the contradiction that the consumerist aspect of the New Age movement inevitably entails claims to ownership via products and copyrights, it also implies the universality of “truth.” In this case, it is a claim that all spiritual knowledge held by Indigenous peoples is universally true across the great divide of cultural difference.

Viewing the issue as based in a First Amendment right bespeaks the very different paradigms that frame dominant white society and that of American Indians. For US Americans the discourse about rights is undergirded by the rugged individualism enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights and a fundamental belief in universalism. Religion is thought to be a matter of personal choice and is ultimately disconnected from culture. The freedom of religion, then, is a matter of the rights of individuals and part of the right to pursue happiness.

For American Indians, however, spirituality is part of a broader cultural context where religion is not separate from culture. As part of the continuum of culture, an Indigenous nation’s spirituality is a reflection of the circumstances of life connected to specific places over vast expanses of time and in the context of particular worldviews and language. The origin stories, language, and worldviews of a people—and thus their spirituality—are what Native people call their “original instructions.” Those original instructions are oriented toward the survival of the people and the perpetuation of their cultures more than they are toward any promises of personal happiness or individual enlightenment (although it could be said that these are natural effects of strong, healthy cultures), and they are certainly not thought to be meant for everybody universally. In short, the frame of reference non-Native people bring to their practice of American Indian spirituality is wholly different—and arguably inconsistent with—those of Indian people.


Finally, one of the most controversial forms of playing Indian occurs at the level of personal identity claims, especially where prestigious professional positions and other material benefits are at stake. Often referred to as ethnic fraud, dubious claims to Indian identity are muddled in abstract rhetoric about the complexity wrought by colonialism or the personal right to claim an identity by choice. History is plagued with examples of non-Indigenous people passing themselves off as Indian for personal gain. In one of the more famous twentieth-century cases, the Englishman Archie Belaney pursued a successful literary career under the alias Grey Owl. Traveling the lecture circuit during the 1920s and 1930s in North America and Europe sporting full buckskins and headdress, Belaney kept his fraudulent identity a secret until after his death.

By the second half of the twentieth century, impostors were abundant, most often masquerading among the literary ranks of the New Agers. But in the 1990s a more ambiguous identity claim emerged among the Indigenous intelligentsia in academia with Ward Churchill, perhaps best known for publishing a controversial article on the heels of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Churchill’s claim to Cherokee and Creek heritage—upon which he’d based much of his reputation as a Native American scholar—appeared to have been unsubstantiated, while an investigation finding academic misconduct resulted in his fi ring from the University of Colorado Boulder. A few years later, in 2008, noted scholar Andrea Smith came under fire when genealogical searches turned up nothing to substantiate her claims to Cherokee lineage. A petition for tenure was subsequently denied at the University of Michigan.

The Smith issue would reemerge in 2015 with a social media campaign created anonymously to discredit her after it was discovered that Rachel Dolezal had falsely claimed African American heritage, prompting her resignation as president of the local NAACP. In 2012 senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren was publicly lambasted for claiming Cherokee and/or Delaware heritage on her application to Harvard Law School. And in 2015 another controversy erupted when Dartmouth’s Native American Program announced the hiring of Susan Taffe Reed as its new director. Reed is a member of a group called the Eastern Delaware Nation, which is viewed as an illegitimate Indian tribe since it has no official state or federal recognition. Genealogical searches on Reed’s heritage also turned up no documented Native ancestry. All of these cases are examples of what Native scholars call “box-checking Indians,” people who claim Native heritage in the context of college and universities (which strive to increase their diversity), knowing that they will not be asked to produce documentation to back up their claims.

Some forms of Native American cultural appropriation are clearly more egregious than others. In terms of personal identity claims, the need for documentation is troubled by the fact that American Indians are the only US citizens who are required to document their ethnicity in order to meet legal definitions, a reality scholars often connect to the eliminative impulse of the settler state.

There is undoubtedly a sizable population of people who legitimately descend from Indigenous peoples who will never be able to prove it for a multitude of reasons resulting from federal policies designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples or otherwise eliminate them. But in the case of broader sociological phenomenon like mascots and New Age posers, non- Native people playing Indian says as much about non-Native US Americans’ unsure collective sense of themselves as it doesabout their ambivalence toward American Indians. As Philip Deloria suggests, it offers the opportunity to experience a contrived sense of “aboriginal Americanness” in the face of its de facto absence, simultaneously building a foundation for and reflecting the mythological belief that Native American culture is by default everyone’s culture.

Playing Indian overall can also be thought of as “a move to settler innocence,” based on the hard-hitting essay on decolonization by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. In this framework settler innocence is the investment in maintaining the settler structure to avoid actual, material decolonization, where the restoral of Indigenous lands and sovereignty is the objective: “strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all. In fact, settler scholars may gain professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware. Yet settler moves to innocence are hollow, they only serve the settler.”

Tuck and Yang hold that ultimately decolonization must ensure the future existence of Indigenous peoples and not concern itself with guaranteeing a settler future; they argue for an “ethic of incommensurability,” meaning that although not all questions are immediately answerable, they will be revealed in time. They also acknowledge what may be perceived as an “unfriendly” delinking of coalition politics in order to achieve a decolonized future for Indigenous peoples.