This is a Warning
On Rotten Wannabeism, Sage Wands, Bought Blessings, and Bad Medicine
I was writing a news story about racist sports team mascots and the jackals who support them when I got a call from a friend of mine who said he needed to get the hell out of town for the weekend. It was 2008 and we were both budding reporters at the now defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. Barack Obama had recently been elected the first black president of the United States, setting off an avalanche of hate crimes across the country by white bigots. Frightened, middle class white people were linking up with the likes of the Klu Klux Klan in places like Colorado, Nebraska, and Mississippi. Things were tense.
“Let’s go to Indian Hot Springs,” my buddy said. “I know you hate what they’ve done up there, but watching you get fired up somehow relaxes me.”
A few hours later, we pulled up to a spa and hotel near the mountain top, and my blood boiled again just as it had when I first visited a few years earlier. It was a nasty scene: a huge sign with a painting of a stoic, headdressed Indian with a massive nose stood by the door; typical ‘Native American flute’ muzak drifted out of unseen speakers; and somewhere beyond the trees a little blond boy in war paint gripped a bow and arrow and took aim at his dad’s beer belly.
As soon as we got inside I approached the employee behind the counter. “We just want day passes; no rooms,” I said to the poor, unsuspecting man. “And I want Native prices.”
“I apologize, sir, we don’t have resident discounts today,” he responded.
“I don’t want resident discounts,” I blurted. “I want Native discounts. Indigenous discounts. This is ‘Indian Hot Springs,’ right? You’re on Native land and you’re selling Native Americana and I’m telling you I am a Native and I want Native discounts.”
I even started telling him off in Lakota. Later, my friend and fellow word-slinger said that that whole scene between myself and the guy at the desk relaxed him so much we probably didn’t even need to get into the spa after all, but we did anyway – and at a discount.
Right. White folks buying and selling cultures and spiritualities is big business in this country. Courtesy of exploitation and aggressive capitalism, Native cultures are right there in the sage wand on the endcap at your local overpriced grocer as well as at spas high in the Rocky Mountains.
I’m here to issue a warning. Peace pipes for sale. Paying for peyote. Dream catchers. Buying and selling sage to cleanse your house. These are all rotten forms of cultural appropriation, and it’s what our elders call “bad medicine.”
Speaking of bad medicine, what the hell is a “sage wand” anyway? I’ve seen them on shelves at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Is this a Harry Potter thing that I somehow missed? Have we just learned after all these years that Ms. Hermione Granger is a quarter Cherokee? Sweet jeezus. Where does it end?
Hearken: you’re not supposed to buy sage! It’s only supposed to be gifted or you get up and go harvest it yourself off the hill. When you buy it, as I was told by my elders, it’s seriously bad medicine.
Of course, you might be wondering why I’m here. Sage and tobacco aren’t psychedelics, are they? Well, when you abuse Indigenous medicines, be it sage or sweet grass or peyote, there are consequences. White people call them “hauntings” and “bad trips.” Natives call them the consequence of arrogance and theft and selfish neediness.
Picture this: A white guy goes on a bad trip and says his house is haunted, and then he screams that he needs a Lakota inipi, and a blessing. We ask him where he got his sage and he says, “Whole Foods.” And then we ask him, “Where’d you get the peyote?”
“The Whole Foods parking lot.”
“Why’d you do that?” we ask. “We told you not to. Now your house is haunted and you’re deep into a bad trip and there won’t be another inipi for a few weeks because the Jefferson County Sheriffs shut down the last one because they said that an Injun’s inipi isn’t a church, it’s just a sweat lodge, and we didn’t have a permit to light the fire for the inipi – on our land.”
“What do I do, then!?” the bad tripping white man says desperately.
“What did you guys do in Scotland?” we ask. “What do you know about Wiccan?”
Okay, folks. I hope you had as much fun reading that last rant as I did writing it. Hell yes. And, sadly, it’s not far-fetched. This kind of thing really does happen – bad trips and white sheriffs who kick down inipis. Welcome to America.
Well, I’ll leave you with this: Everything of ours isn’t for sale and our cultures are not your play things. Dream catchers and sage wands and tipis and flute music and totem poles and decorative faux-bone breastplates certainly should not be a part of your psychedelic set and settings. Make your own damn rituals, man, but please don’t supermarket shop ours. Don’t cherry pick spiritualities and cultures the globe over just because they “speak to you.” There is really nothing whiter and more colonial than believing you have the right to take whatever you desire and claim it as your own.
Alright. Once again, you’ve been warned. Hoka.