instant shamans and plastic medicine men

When I first began to cover Indigenous issues as a journalist in Canada, I ran into one humdinger of a moral quandary. I ran across ads in a Toronto community newsletter that caught my eye. The newsletter served a crunchy-granola neighbourhood with its requisite health foods stores and alternative medicine stands. I lean that way naturally (no pun intended) and have attended medicine ceremonies in my own culture. I’ve seen things I cannot explain, nor do I wish to. Somethings, you take on faith.

But these ads were something I had never seen before. Some guy was advertising sweat lodges in the Don Valley, in the heart of downtown Toronto.  He was also offering vision quests.  He would guarantee that customers who paid a certain amount would find their spirit guide and be well on the way on their new path in life. I was flabbergasted.

That got me reading. I found entire magazines usually but not exclusively published by men who had adopted strange names right out of some two-bit  Hollywood “B” western; names like Sun Bear, or Wolf-walker Arrowpoint, or Moon Shade Woman. Now I know a lot of people with genuine names that sound like that.  Names like Peaches Tailfeathers, Arnold Ghoststriker, or Mary Weaselfat. Their names don’t sound a bit fake, and they are well-respected and well-known family names out west.  The fake names resembled those that the Dead Dog Cafe’s “Spin the Wheel and Get a Genuine Indian Name Game” might produce. You would never find real people like them putting their names to ads in community newsletters or publishing their own glossy national magazines claiming to guarantee a spirit guide to anyone willing to pay the low, low price of only $600.  Frankly, they got too much class and way too much honesty.

So here I had a bunch of scam artists fleecing the naive and none-too-bright, and mostly white. Yet, I also knew that in that same city there were genuine people who conducted real ceremonies and never sought attention or payment. They were the real mckoy – not your just-add-crystals instant shamans, mostly wannabe Indians, plastic medicine men.

My quandary came down to this: How to do the story without hurting the genuine folks?  Worse, I kept running across Indians who were doing the same thing. They saw a chance to fleece people and jumped at the chance to rip them off. I had also come to realize the full extent that some of these scammers would go. Some were involved in serious crimes that included rape, major fraud and pedophilia. I was sick with worry, anxious to warn people while at the same time tying myself up in knots about tarring the real elders with the same brush.

There is no “elders” society, association or guild. They don’t carry ID cards or mount certificates or degrees on their office walls or at home, although I have seen plenty of the fakes do just that: “So-and-so has just completed a four week program in the ‘4-Stage Healing Touch” Program and is now a graduate and licenced practioner… blah, blah, blah.”

That happened years ago, but today I’m faced with a similar quandary. This time it’s the government that is behind it all. Instead of attracting genuine elders, real healers who know the ceremonies and rites, they hire people they know are in it for the buck. Or they hire people who have no idea what a healing ceremony is, but the government labels them “elders.” Worse, it compels – orders – people to attend the “workshops” put on by these fakes, and punishes them if they don’t comply. 

Today, I face similar questions. My quandary today is how to tell this story without hurting the elders but let people know that this officially-sanctioned bullshit in going on without identifying the real victims.



Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Indigenous peoples, Indigenous rights, journalism, writing

3 responses to “instant shamans and plastic medicine men

  1. Pingback: instant shamans and plastic medicine men « Shmohawk’s Weblog

  2. netaawigaabo

    Wow! My sister and I had a similar conversation about a year ago. We initially talked about an “elder” in our area and wound up talking about several in the area who were kind of the same. The gist of our conversation was how to figure out who’s the real deal and who’s not. We determined the way to do that was not to “qualify” elders but to judge them by their actions, but that presupposes you have some ability to be able to judge. We decided that one of the ways to judge was to apply a standard of don’ts, (my sister calls them “onjii’idim’s) i.e. there were things that just were not done, and if your “elder” is doing these things, then you need to cast a very critical eye upon them. I don’t claim to have an exhaustive list but you touched on some of them in your piece. One of the guys we were speaking about had business cards and brochures with a price list. Another was selling wiisowinan (indian names) at the Skydome powwow a few years back. These are the don’ts. Real elders with medicine do not advertise, will not try to sell you something, will not demand money (but it is entirely acceptable to offer) and my own bias is they will not conduct ceremonies in anything but their own language.
    Just some thoughts.

  3. Shmohawk

    I never thought about it as a list of “don’ts” but, thanks to you, I can see that this is what I was doing. Real elders are getting hurt by some of these new “official” elders. I should say: officially sanctioned elders, because that’s what the government is doing.

    The authorities can’t control what these elders do, are jealous that the elders’ methods seem to work and get them the respect that the officials crave. So these officials are now replacing the elders with “spiritual advisors” or “guides” who just as often are whites who are willing to work within their system and betray the trust of the folks they’re working with.

    But how to get access to the elders, who don’t want attention, to the officials, who don’t want to answer questions, and the people who are really being screwed – the people required to accept these new plastic medicine men and women or face punishment.

    All of that while needing to explain all of the internal quandaries as well. Thanks for commenting. It’s clearing somethings up for me.

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