New Age movement is denounced by Indians as cultural theft, genocide

December 27, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BOULDER, Colo. -- In an ancient rite of American Indians, wisps of smoke rose from burning herbs in prayer to Mother Earth and Father Sky, as the pipe-carrier intoned solemnly, "Creator, we come to you in a sacred manner."

There were Indian chants of "ho," a song about the return of the bison and some reverent words offered for "the red nation."

All that was missing was an Indian. The 40 or so people gathered in the circle, sitting cross-legged on pillows and futons, were white. They are adherents of the growing New Age movement, which emulates Indian ways in a spiritual quest.

But many Indian tribes and organizations, far from being flattered by the imitators, have denounced the movement as cultural robbery.

"This is the final phase of genocide," said John Lavelle, a Santee Sioux who is the director of the center for the Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions. "First whites took the land and all that was physical. Now they're going after what is intangible."

The National Congress of American Indians in December approved a "declaration of war" against those they accuse of exploiting sacred rituals, citing "non-Indian 'wannabes,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled New Age shamans."

Ancient Indian rites and traditions, like sun dances, vision quests and purification sweat lodges, have become staples of self-exploration used by New Age spiritual seekers, mostly in trendy, affluent places like Marin County, Calif.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Sedona, Ariz.; and here in Boulder.

At a time when members of the baby boom generation are returning to religion, many are not going back to the faiths of their youth. Instead many are turning to vision quests, trips into the wilderness to commune with themselves and nature, or sweat lodges, where the heat is used as part of a purification ritual.

The pipe smokers here, who gathered on the second-floor of an office building, over a pizzeria, are members of the Church of Gaia: Council of the Six Directions, a group named for the Greek earth goddess. The congregation of about 100 people includes teachers, pharmacists and IBM executives.

"We're baby boomers, middle-class whites," said Stephen Buhner, a founder of the church, which was incorporated in 1990.

He described his church as a blend of mysticism and ecology, a spirituality that "allows you to re-establish your harmony and proper relationship with the web of life."

Mr. Buhner, 41, said he grew up in suburban Dallas as a Methodist. He found the Methodist faith "boring and not very much fun at all." He said he experienced a spiritual revelation in 1969 while attending a Jefferson Airplane concert in San Francisco, and began a quest for an "earth-centered" religion that led him to Boulder.

His wife, Trishuwa, who does not use a last name, lead the pipe ceremony. The couple lives in a solar home on 35 acres of pine-covered land in the foothills west of Boulder, where they sponsor vision quests and the rites of the sweat lodge.

Mr. Buhner also works as a "spiritual mentor" at $20 an hour per student.

He said he knew that many Indians consider his church to be a mockery of sacred rituals. In fact, he said, some Indians have threatened harm to the church, unless it closes. But Mr. Buhner accuses those critics, whom he described as "Indian fundamentalists," of practicing "reverse racism."

"I don't think that relationship with [the] Creator is based on skin color," he said. "They can't tell me I can't pray this way just because I'm white."

But many Indians complain that their religion is being used as a kind of spiritual fashion statement and a hobby for bored, wealthy suburbanites.

"This kind of romantic appreciation has always been a problem for Indians," said Mr. Lavelle, whose group has offices in San Francisco and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. "It's the conqueror fantasizing about who he has conquered."

George Tinker, an Osage who is a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, expressed concern that whites would transform Indian culture in their own images.

"When you uproot something from one culture and plant it in another culture, it is not the same thing," he said. "The danger is that these mutations of spirituality will make their way back into the Indian world."

He said Indian spirituality focused on the larger community, the tribe, and never on the individual, while the New Age variation is "centered on the self, a sort of Western individualism run amok."

In the Boulder group, many of those who took part in the pipe ceremony, purifying themselves with smoke from smudge bowls, said they meant no disrespect to Indians.

"I don't blame them for having the gut reaction that the white people are trying to take over everything," said Pam Gershen, who works as a "spiritual healer" for the church.

"But healing the earth is something we all need to do. I'm not trying to be an Indian. But the connectedness to the earth -- that's God-given to everybody."

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