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DLN Issues : The Selling of Indian Culture

Selling Indian Culture

Dottie Potter, Lakota Journal Staff Writer
From the June 21-28 2002 issue

BISMARK -- The "selling out" of the Indian Culture and Spirituality for money, the commercialization of the Pow Wowwith admission fees and prize money in addition to the wrongful display and use of sacred ceremonial items is "killing the culture and killing the Pipe" according to two men who speak out to protect and preserve what is scared to them.

Kurt Johnson, a Dakota Sioux from the Spirit Lake Tribe, is a passionate protector of the Indian Culture and boldly speaks out against any abuse or misuse of it.

He gets all fired up and does everything he can to stop those who abuse and misuse his Native American Culture--the heritage and culture he learned from his grandparents and other elders--the 'old people' as he refers to them.

Johnson said, "I don't speak out for myself--I do it for my elderly people and my Grandpa and Grandma who taught me about my culture--they taught me these things that I speak of."

Another man who speaks out about the many misuses of the Indian culture and spirituality is a highly respected elder who is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

Ken Bordeaux, Sicangu Lakota and a Pipe Carrier, said, "It's cultural genocide--these 'Wannabes' are taking our sacred ceremonies and making a mockery of our spirituality."

Ken Bordeaux, Sicangu Lakota and a Pipe Carrier, said, "It's cultural genocide--these 'Wannabes' are taking our sacred ceremonies and making a mockery of our spirituality."

He added, "Those 'Commercial Indians'--most are a part of this 'New Age' group who act out of the white system--are selling out their own culture."

Johnson said, "They're killing our culture--they're killing our Pipe. If we protect our Pipe and our culture, then good thigs will come to our reservations, but that will not happen while we allow it to be abused."

Johnson and Bordeaux both said that there are so many non-indians--and oftentimes the Indian people themselves who are "selling out" their Indian Culture by exchanging culture and spirituality for white man's money.

"That is wrong--that is not right what is going on today--our culture and spirituality is very powerful and if you don't treat it right, it will turn on you," Johnson said with much conviction.

He shared some of his own experiences. Johnson ran an Indian art and crafts shop in Jamestown, North Dakota for a period of time where he did what he called "cross-trading."

"I cross-traded an eagle feather for a buffalo skull to resell--that was cross-trading the sacred for money--and you can't do that--I used it to bargain with and you cannot do that," Johnson said of his own experience.

As a result, he said that he was reprimanded by the State Game and Fish Department, paid a fine and learned that it was something that would turn on a person.

"I lost my eagle feather because I traded it for a buffalo skull and I had all kinds of bad luck that followed. I would never do anything like that again--our culture is powerful and if not used right, it will turn on you," he said with remorse.

He gave other examples of events that happened in his family or with other people he knew that ranged from death to suicide or illness that followed misuse of the sacred culture.

Bordeaux agreed with Johnson and said, "If traditions are misused or broken, many bad things will follow."

He sited several examples of events that occurred when the culture and spirituality was abused or sold for money.

"There's one solution for many of the problems among the Indian people today and that is to go back to the Culture--quit bastardizing and prostituting the culture," Bordeaux said.

When Johnson contacted the Lakota Journal, he was very upset about a situation that he came across in his travels and he believes that more people need to be aware of what is happening.

A business in Carrington, North Dakota called the "Chieftain" Conference Center consists of a motel, restaurant and convention center where there are large displays of items that are considered sacred to the American Indians.

When arriving, the first thing that the visitor or customer sees is a larger than life sculpture outside that represents an Indian man that towers way above the entrance to the restaurant and motel.

Inside are numerous items from the Indian culture and religion. There is a painted drum hanging on the wall in one of the dining rooms where many people are walking near and under where it hangs on a daily basis.

Johnson is quick to point out that a drum should never be displayed in a public place where women who might be in their "moon" or "monthly" are walking near it. "A woman is never supposed to be near the drum during that time," he said.

He explained that the drum is round, therefore it is a circle and considered sacred. The drum is the heartbeat of the Indian people and needs to be treated with great respect and honor.

The drum is very powerful--when it is played, it makes eagle feathers dance," Johnson said.

In addition to the drum displayed on the dining room wall, there is a long hallway from the main entrance where many items of the Indian culture and religion are displayed--inappropriately--in enclosed glass cases.

Among items displayed are 12 or more Sacred Pipes that are still in one piece and on public view.

According to Johnson and also Jim Jandreau, Manager of Bear Butte State Park, the Sacred Pipe is never to be displayed as it is in the restaurant.

"You never leave the Sacred Pipe put together. The proper way to display the Pipe is to take it apart and put a sage plug in the Pipe and it should be placed on a red cloth that has never been cut with scissors--the cloth should always be torn--nothing metal should ever touch it," Jandreau said.

The Sacred Pipes on display at the Chieftain were in one piece and on green or other colored cloth or no cloth at all.

In the bar and lounge are more sacred items, including a white buffalo head mounted on a wall with the neon beer and liquor signs below and around it.

Johnson said that to the Indian people, the symbolism of the white buffalo is similar to what Christ or the Virgin Mary symbolizes to white people, and that it would be offesnive to most people if a statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary were placed in the same environment--in a bar with the neon liquor signs surrounding them.

Another large display on one wall between several neon liquor signs contains a large, ceramic bust of an Indian man, another drum, a Sacred Pipe and a headdress among other items.

Owners of the restaurant and bar were not available for comments and the Lakota Journal has been unable to reach them.

However, employee Mary Kay who has worked as desk clerk and cashier at the Chieftain for 12 years, said that she wasn't aware of the sacred symbolism of the many items on display, but she agreed that it seemed to be wrong.

"It would be like displaying holy items from the Protestant or Catholic Churches--putting the Consecrated Host on public display without any reverance for the meaning," she said.

She explained that Frank Klein had been owner of the Chieftain for the past seven or eight years and that he purchased it from his parents when they retired after owning the restaurant for at least 15 years.

Kay added that the Chieftain was formerly called the "Little Chief" and was built in 1965 or 1966. The original owners were collectors of Indian artifacts, but she was unsure as to who placed the Sacred Pipes, the drums and white buffalo head on display with the other items.

"We need to protect our culture and speak out when we see things being done that is wrong--like these Pipes and these drums and the eagle feathers being abused," Johnson said.

Bordeaux, a respected elder and Pipe Carrier, said that eagle feathers are only to be used for Indian religion. When asked for his opinion of a restaurant that displayed sacred Indian items, he quickly responded with, "That's terrible and I would never go in and eat in a place like that."

A resident of Lincoln, Nebraska for the past 30 years, Bordeaux said he's been battling a museum in that area because of the Sacred Pipe on display there.

Another area of the Indian Culture that Johnson believes is being terribly abused today is the Pow Wow.

Today the Pow Wow is different from long ago. Today they charge to get into the Pow Wow and dancers have to pay entry fees. You should not charge an Indian to practice their culture--the Pow Wow committee does not own our culture--the Pow Wow should be for all to enjoy--we can not charge anybody to take part in their culture," Johnson said with firmness.

He explained that the Pow Wow is where dancers are in a circle and it's supposed to be sacred because it is a circle, but that there is nothing cultural about it today because of the money involved.

"It is no culture today when you sign and play at the Pow Wow and expect to get paid money for it and the announcers charge money for what they do--they won't announce if they're not paid for doing it. You should not charge an Indian to use the culture. These are not Indian ways," he said.

"Now it is the money--white man's money--it's prostitution of the culture. It's about competition and prize money. The elders used to be in charge of the Pow Wow. They did the announcing in Lakota or Dakota--now the announcers don't even know how to speak their language. When we charge for the Pow Wow, play the drum for money and dance for money--we are abusing our culture," Johnson said passionately.

He explained that there was no Grand Entry or registration at the real, traditional Pow Wow many years ago. It was a time when family and friends would gather--sometimes for a whole week--and there would be food for all. There were no fancy costumes and everyone participated--the old and the young.

"Now, today there are white people who travel to the Pow Wow's with trailers that are concession stands. They sell food and toys and all kinds of stuff--some of the toys are dangerous to the children--it's more like a carnival than a Pow Wow," Johnson said.

He added, "When we play with our culture, it is very dangerous. We can not take white man's money--the paper money--in exchange for the culture and you cannot combine money and the culture. The culture belongs to the Native Americans and you cannot sell our culture--it was a gift to us."

Johnson said, "My grandparents and the old people told me to 'keep this with you--always remember these things--the culture will be changin.'"

He added, "Today the culture ways are different because we let the younger people handle our culture and most of them don't even speak the language--we need to have our elders in charge of the culture."

Johnson said that his grandmother was a Sioux and he learned much from her about the traditional ways of his culture.

From the time he was four months old, he was raised by his grandparents because his father was a professional wrestler and his parents traveled throughout the country.

But, there were the summers when he could be with his parents and he remembers many times of entering the ring with his father when the introductions were made. "My father worked in the white man's world to make a living for his family, but when he stepped in the ring, he was always representing his tribe and his people."

He explained that his father was born in 1910 and began dancing at Pow Wows when he was only five-years old and continued for most of his life--up through 1992 at the age of 76.

Johnson said it was tradition at that time for the parents or grandparents to have a "Giveaway" on the last day of the Pow Wow when their child or grandchild was given their Indian name.

"My grandparents gave everything away--their team of horses, their tent, the pots and pans--they gave everything away when my father received his name--they had to ask for a ride home," Johnson said.

He added that it was a time when the announcer would also have a "Giveaway" on the last day in appreciation for the honor of being asked to announce at the Pow Wow--quite different from today.

Another issue that troubles both, Johnson and Bordeaux, is the fake Medicine Men going around selling the culture.

"A real Medicine Man is quiet. He doesn't say much and he doesn't go out and advertise or go around talking about what he has done," Johnson said.

Bordeaux, who prepared for five years before he went on a Hanbleceya (Vision Quest) and earned the right to be a Pipe Carrier, said, ""Those so-called Medicine Men are what I call 'Commercial Indians' and they have no right to carry that Sacred Pipe. It's something that has to be earned and then you have to walk on the right road and live the way of the Pipe. There's responsibility and commitment that comes with that honor."

Johnson said that his grandmother, Ringing Cloud, told him the stories of her father who was a Medicine Man.

"He had a bag with the medicines he used and kept it outside near a tree and he told the kids to never go near it and my grandma said they stayed away from it. He told them to not fool around with the medicine or the culture--it was very powerful--and that it takes a lot of courage to start walking the Red Road--it's a hard road and hard to stay on it," Johnson said.

He added, "That any Indian who considers himself a Spiritual Man should not take a Sacred Pipe in his hand and charge money for a prayer ceremony."

With sadness in his voice, Johnson said that today, even some of the elders are selling the culture.

"Our culture is our Pipe and eagle feather and our ceremonies," he said.

Another area that is of concern to Johnson is how the Inipip (Sweat Lodge) is being used today. He said, "We need to be careful where we put our Sweat Lodges. Today they put them in State and Federal prisons and it shouldn't be put there. You need a very sacred place to put the Sweat Lodge."

He explained that today a lot of people want to pray with the Pipe and participate in the Sweat Lodge ceremony, but there's no power in it for them and the reason it don't work for them is that a lot of them are not on the right road because they do not know what it's really about or believe the right way.

"Whites, Mexicans, Blacks and every nationality of people are in there--they don't know our culture. You're supposed to bind a tight circle in the Sweat Lodge and you can't have that when it's mixed," Johnson said.

He said that, "When we take that Peace Pipe in hand, we believe in the Pipe--and a week later or in between you act crazy, then go back to the Sweats--it don't work that way--only way it works is to stay on the Red Road--and that is very powerful."

Johnson said it was the responsibility of the Indian people to now allow the Sacred Pipe to end up in Pawn Shops around the country.

Bordeaux said, "There's misuse of the Sacred Pipe today and we need to protect the Pipe--don't sell it. You must not play with the Pipe or any of the Sacred objects like eagle feathers."

He explained that it's simply a matter of using deductions and common sense. "When the White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the Sacred Pipe, she brought a warning. The one guy who was disprespectful soon learned."

Johnson also believes that it is wrong for the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown and the Heritage Center in Bismark to charge Indian people to visit their culture on display there.

"They charge $10.00 for people to go into the Heritage center and look at things that should not be on display there. They have eagle feathers, drums and the Sacred Pipe on display at the museum in Jamestown--that is wrong and shoud not be allowed," he said with passion.

In addition to the inside display at the museum, there is also the attraction of the white buffalo Mahpiya Ska (White Cloud) that was acquired by the museum and is part of their herd.

Johnson tries to inform and educate people involved when he sees the culture abused and misused. He confronts the owners or directors whenever possible and encourages others to do the same.

"This is why our culture is not in a tight circle. We are prostituting those main things that were given to us--the Sacred Pipe and our ceremonies," Johnson said.

He added that the circle cannot be strong. "We want to use our Indian ways, but we have to understand that if we're not right with it--it does not work."

He emphasized that, "What I say today, I do for my elderly people--I talk for them. I was taught these things by them."

He concluded, "You should not take from your culture--your should give back to your culture."

In the meantime, Johnson and Bordeaux do what they can to protect and preserve their Native American culture when they see where it is being abused and misused. They want the "bastardizing and prostitution" of the culture to stop.



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