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Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 24, Number 3, Summer 2000
pp. 329-352 | 10.1353/aiq.2000.0001

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The American Indian Quarterly 24.3 (2000) 329-352

Consuming Native American Spirituality

Commercial exploitation of Native American spiritual traditions has permeated the New Age movement since its emergence in the 1980s. Euro-Americans professing to be medicine people have profited from publications and workshops. Mass quantities of products promoted as "Native American sacred objects" have been successfully sold by white entrepreneurs to a largely non-Indian market. This essay begins with an overview of these acts of commercialization as well as Native Americans' objections to such practices. Its real focus, however, is the motivation behind the New Agers' obsession and consumption of Native American spirituality. Why do New Agers persist in consuming commercialized Native American spirituality? What kinds of self-articulated defenses do New Agers offer for these commercial practices? To answer these questions, analysis from a larger social and economic perspective is needed to further understand the motivations behind New Age consumption.

In the so-called postmodern culture of late consumer capitalism, a significant number of white affluent suburban and urban middle-aged baby-boomers complain of feeling uprooted from cultural traditions, community belonging, and spiritual meaning. The New Age movement is one such response to these feelings. New Agers romanticize an "authentic" and "traditional" Native American culture whose spirituality can save them from their own sense of malaise. However, as products of the very consumer culture they seek to escape, these New Agers pursue spiritual meaning and cultural identification through acts of purchase. Although New Agers identify as a countercultural group, their commercial actions mesh quite well with mainstream capitalism. Ultimately, their search for spiritual and cultural meaning through material acquisition leaves them feeling unsatisfied. The community they seek is only imagined, a world conjured up by the promises of advertised products, but with no history, social relations, or contextualized culture that would make for a sense of real belonging. Meanwhile, their fetishization of Native American spirituality not only masks the social oppression of real Indian peoples but also perpetuates it.

The Rainbow Tribe: New Agers Identifying with Native American Spiritual Traditions

The term New Age is often used to refer to a movement that emerged in the 1980s. Its adherents ascribe to an eclectic amalgam of beliefs and practices, often hybridized from various cultures. New Agers tend to focus on what they refer to as personal transformation and spiritual growth. Many of them envision a literal New Age, which is described as a period of massive change in the future when people will live in harmony with nature and each other. Only in this New Age will they realize the full extent of human potential, including spiritual growth, the development of psychic abilities, and optimum physical health through alternative healing. Most New Agers contend that this transformation will not take place through concerted political change directed at existing structures and institutions. Rather, it will be achieved through individual personal transformation.

The New Age is only a movement in the loosest sense of the term. There is no circumscribed creed or defined tenets in the New Age movement. Nor are there any requirements for membership, although studies show most tend to be white, middle-aged, and college educated, with a middle- to upper-middle-class income. Estimates of people identifying with the New Age movement tend to run from ten to twenty million. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, however, because many New Age books have seeped into the mainstream and have influenced the views of people not consciously identified with the movement. The New Age is thus not a strictly defined community headed by formally recognized leaders with an articulated dogma. Rather, it is a term that is applied to a heterogeneous collection of philosophies and practices. There is a wide and burgeoning number of practices associated with the New Age, including interests in shamanism, goddess worship, Eastern religions, crystals, pagan rituals, extraterrestrials, and channeling spirit beings. "Native American spirituality" is among the most popular interests.

It is my contention that the New Age is primarily a consumerist movement. There are a minority of adherents who live together and try to incorporate New Age philosophies and practices into all aspects of their lives. Some incorporate these...

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