He was a self-styled New Age Native American religion ‘shaman’ and a big-name author. Adored by thousands, his charms were many to his loyal fans and groupies: Learned, spiritual, and drop-dead gorgeous with those high Native American cheekbones.
The heroine in my planned novel would fall hard for him, only to discover his fallibility and phoniness. How many things are wrong with thee? Let me count the ways, you con artist. Native American religions are plural, not singular; you can’t treat them all as though they’re alike; Native American traditions aren’t ‘New Age’, they’re about as Old Age as you can can get; and Native Americans don’t have ‘shamans’. Those emerged out of northern Europe in Paleolithic times; they never reached the Americas.
Oh yeah, and also, Mr. Famous Author wasn’t Native American in any appreciable sense. His only native ancestor was four generations back, making him one-sixteenth Native. The rest was Irish-American, about as common as whiskey in the United States. He’d grown up white and became obsessed with his shred of Native blood during the New Age heyday when claiming Native lineage became fashionable for white people, with a heavy push from the new Disney movie Pocahontas.
The problem with compromised content
My character research presented an ethical problem: How to read books by similar real-world authors whose work hurt genuine Native Americans in many ways.
Spurious white claims to Native ancestry always made me squirm. The idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ caught my attention when I read about it from Pagan author Zsuzsanna Budapest. She described a Native American elder who complained about white people, and particularly New Agers, misappropriating their religions, syncretizing them and adding modern never-Native elements. Worst of all, profiting from them.
We don’t mind white people learning from our religions, he said, but don’t misrepresent them; honor their origins; and never, ever make money from them.
One of the worst offenders was ‘Beverly Hills Shaman’ Lynn V. Andrews. She wrote books about discovering ‘Native’ religious secrets and traditions from three alleged Canadian First Nations women, whose existence has always been under question. It was a staple, I’d find, of wannabe Native books: Finding receptive Native Americans willing to teach some over-privileged white dork all their secrets, because, you know, this white person is trustworthy! Another staple included the obligatory rant about white people’s treatment of Natives (but then the teachers went right back to teaching this good white person.)
The genre arguably originates from popular hippie author Carlos Castaneda in the 1960s, who also ‘learned’ ‘traditional’ ‘Mexican’ ‘magical’ secrets from an alleged Yaqui nagual named Don Juan, another teacher whose existence no one could confirm.
I based my ‘plastic shaman’ character primarily on Lynn V. Andrews, but several other fake ‘medicine people’, not all of who claim to be ‘shamans’, contributed too.
How to research responsibly
I count three ways one can legitimately read another’s work without financially benefiting them:
- Borrow books from the library (remember those?)
- Borrow books from a friend, if you have one who reads them
- Buy from a used bookstore
As a Connecticut Pagan, I knew plenty of New Age and Pagan folk, several claiming Native ancestry and practicing Native spiritual traditions. How accurate or faithful to the originals I didn’t know, but I always felt a touch uncomfortable when some introduced the practices to our white otherwise Eurocentric Pagan circles. European-based Wiccans mixing and syncretizing European Indigenous traditions weren’t problematic. They were our own.
But there’s a world of difference between growing up genuinely Native versus white and privileged. Bloodline doesn’t change that.
One friend I knew to be a treasure trove of wannabe literature, but I didn’t dare ask to borrow her books. She might get really mad if she read my novel one day and realized she’d contributed to it (and by extension, recognized herself).
I found a book or two in the library but I needed more. I bought the rest from used book stores.
A fourth riskier option is the shadier corners of the Darkweb, one I wouldn’t recommend unless you really really REALLY want the content and can’t find it anywhere else. I didn’t need to do this for wannabe Native literature, but had my characters been Nazis or Islamist terrorists I might have had to consider where to access ‘forbidden’ work.
Why some authors shouldn’t be compensated
Compromised authors don’t always understand they’re hurting others, but Lynn V. Andrews did. Lakota Natives confronted her and asked her to stop misrepresenting and profiting from Native religious traditions. She refused.
It’s important not to reward authors who hurt others, intentionally or not. Hardly a problem most of the time; one doesn’t read morally abhorrent Nazi content unless one supports the worldview but what if you’re writing Nazi characters and need the source material? Do you know any Nazis you can borrow Mein Kampf from? (Yeah yeah, ha ha!) How about Protocols of the Elders of Zion? I suspect you can find both for free on the Darkweb or in any forum featuring the Pepe the Frog icon, but I’m not about to confirm it. I don’t need the Biden administration stopping me at the border for my Google searches.
Some of the ‘hucksters’ were genuine Native Americans also unworthy of compensation. Sun Bear’s Native bloodline is well-established, as he was born and raised on a reservation. Sternly criticized by others, denounced and picketed by the American Indian Movement, Sun Bear raised ire for the same reasons as non-Native ‘plastic medicine people’: Misrepresenting Native traditions, making stuff up and of course, a quick buck. Wallace Black Elk and Grace Spotted Eagle are other real-Native examples who ran afoul of the elders.
I found used book stores the best way to source books I needed without compensating the authors. There’s a lot more variety. As I recall, my first crap-gathering voyage netted two Andrews books, a ‘kahuna’ (Hawaiian Indigenous sorcery) student, and another nagual pupil (not Castaneda, although I read him too).
I don’t like encouraging genuine cultural misappropriation, and buying new books by compromised authors does exactly that.
Other research tools include Google, of course. For fact-checking your sources consult Media Bias Fact Check, although it won’t likely report on the far more niche-y sites where I found information on Native Americans (real ones) and fake Natives containing more plastic than Halle Berry’s boobs. I did buy and read several respectable books on Native American history and cultures for a better-rounded understanding of the people my fictional romantic interest overidentified with.
This can be applied to many other morally compromised authors, you know.
I want to read Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal to get a sense for how his mind works (at least, before suspected dementia set in), so I keep an eye peeled for it in used bookstores. He’ll never miss the $20.