Manataka American Indian Council






Editorial Comment

January 2010





Is Paying for Ceremonies A Traditional Practice?

By Lee Standing Bear Moore and Takatoka



The Smoke Signal News featured three editorials in the past three issues regarding the practice of commercializing sacred ceremonies. Sacred Ceremonies for a Price? gave an example of selling American Indian spirituality, pointed out ethical and spiritual ramifications and discussed ways people can protect themselves.  Sweat Lodge Deaths - Attributed to Greed and Ignorance reported the horrific deaths of three people and the hospitalization of dozens of others during a commercialized purification (sweat lodge) ceremony near Sedona, Arizona; and in the last issue Selling American Indian Spirituality is Big Business describes how some unethical companies and organizations are cashing in on sacred American Indian ceremonies.


This article will attempt to slice a few hairs and offer more definition to the practice of giving an offering to a native American Indian spiritual healer. Many readers are well versed in gifting practices among traditional healers and others are a bit confused by what seem to be conflicting messages.  Under what circumstance is paying for healing ceremonies ethical for both the patient and healer?  What are some examples of a proper way to give to an Indian healer? 


Some people may be bewildered by statements in previous articles that say "...accepting money for sacred ceremonies is not acceptable..." or,

"...The act of accepting money in exchange for sacred ceremonies is an admission the person conducting the ceremony owns it and thus what happens is not born by the grace of God...."   Every word of these and similar statements are true, yet hundreds of examples can be found in our history that clearly show indigenous spiritual elders did (and still do) accept various forms of payment for their spiritual services.  How can these two facts be compatible? 


It is our intent in this article to help clarify the issue and provide some practical ways to avoid being trapped by greedy pseudo-healers.    


In chapter six of his book, Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, Kenneth Cohen includes a section on asking for help from a traditional American Indian healer. 


"In Western medicine, the quality of care that a patient receives is dependent on his or her ability to pay.  Sometimes financial resources determine if the patient will receive care.  From the Native American perspective, exorbitant medical fees are a sign of contemptible professional ethics.  Native American healers never charge fixed or unreasonably high fees, because this would take advantage of the patient at precisely the time when her or she is weak and most in need of help.  When people are ill, we should be generous and help them be appreciative of their riches rather than disheartened by their poverty..."


"Because healing is always a gift and grace from the Great Spirit, we cannot put a price on it.  As armed as he or she may might be with the weapons to wage war on disease, no physician has yet fully explained what ultimately causes healing.  Whether an individual patient will respond to treatment is unknown.  Many diseases are self-limiting -- that is, the body heals itself with or without the healer's intervention." 


"In Richard Katz's compelling work Boiling Energy, the African Kung-San healer Gau expresses thoughts common to all indigenous healers:  "Maybe our num [healing power] and European medicine are similar, because sometimes people who get European medicine die, and sometimes they live.  That is the same with ours."  In the last analysis, the most any healer can do is create the most favorable condition for healing to occur." 


"Yet the fact that healing is a mystery and a grace does not quite mean that it should be free.  We must give something in order to receive.  It is an act that honors the Great Spirit, the spirit powers, and the healer, through which these powers work.  If a patient is capable of giving yet gives nothing, or if he gives something that has little personal value, it means that he places little value on the healing.  A stingy, self-centered person is not open to healing.  There is also the matter of providing for the healer.  In the past, Native American patients gave healers blankets, furs, weapons, or horses.  Today, weapons do not put food on the table, and horses do not pay the rent or electric bills.  Determining appropriate reimbursement for healing is a delicate balancing act between one's belief in traditional values and accepting the needs of modern life.


"How then, does a patient pay a traditional healer?  This can vary from tribe to tribe, and the customary offerings have also changed over time.  In the 1930's Morris Edward Opler, professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, wrote that an Apache healer required four ceremonial offerings, typically, a pouch of pollen, an unblemished buckskin, an eagle feather, and a piece of turquoise.  The patient could also give other gifts as tokens of respect and gratitude.  In 1964, L. Bryce Boyer, M.D., a researcher at the University of New Mexico Department of Anthropology, noted that Apache medicine men required the following gifts as payment in advance of a healing; tobacco, a black-handled knife, material for clothing, money and sometimes a piece of turquoise.


"A few hundred years ago, Cherokee patients commonly offered their healers a deerskin or pair of moccasins.   In the 1880's, ethnologist James Mooney observed that Cherokee healers were generally given a quantity of cloth, a garment, or a handkerchief, all of which were used in healing ceremonies.  Today, patients may offer similar practical gifts -- cloth, groceries, money -- that may help the healer to survive or other personal gifts to express gratitude.  In the Cherokee language, payment for services is called ugista'til, probably derived from the verb tsi'giῦ, "I take" or "I eat."  The Cherokee, however, like other Indian people, consider healing a spiritual matter beyond price.  As Mooney says, the ugista'ti is not "payment"  in the usual sense of the word but rather a necessity for "the removal and banishment of the disease spirit."  Helping spirits reward generous people.


"Today, a pouch of tobacco is probably the most common gift for requesting a healing or consultation.  The pouch should be beautiful, perhaps handmade.  If it is plastic and store-bought, it should be wrapped in "Indian wrapping paper"; red flannel, a piece of buckskin, or other natural material, to add a person touch.  Giving tobacco is equivalent to saying, "I respect your spirituality and request prayers for help and healing."


"The Comanche medicine woman Sanapia (born 1895) required dark green cloth, a bag of Bull Durham tobacco, and four corn-shuck "cigarette papers" to consider healing a patient of physical deformities caused by ghosts.  The patient rolled tobacco into a corn husk, lit the "cigarette," and took four puffs.  He or she then offered the cigarette to Sanapia.  Her acceptance signified a pledge to accept the person as a patient.  After the healing, Sanapia received whatever gifts the patient offered.  During the late 1960's, Sanapia treated an average of twenty to thirty patients per year, with each patient offering about thirty dollars, some groceries, and enough cloth to make several dresses.  Like other Indian healers, Sanapia was not a millionaire.


"The patient should ask a healer's family or associates how much money or other offerings are customary.  Some healers, in spite of great personal hardships and poverty, will not accept money or will not specify amounts, being unwilling to quantify the sacred.  They may, however, be willing to accept a financial gift.   Be as generous as possible; don't insult a healer by handing him a ten-dollar bill.  But don't flaunt your wealth either, as though money entitles you to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  A street person once gave a dollar with a very sincere request for help.  It felt like a million dollars.  On the other hand, if someone tries to buy services or treats Spirit as a commodity, no amount of money is adequate.


"At the Seminole Green Corn Ceremony, a speaker cries out, Malatka tagis!  "Get your donations ready."   According to James H. Howard and Willie Lena's Oklahoma Seminoles, One gives the medicine man malatka in the firm belief that doing so will make the treatment more efficacious, and that without gifts the treatment will probably be of little value.  The malatka can be money, yard goods, whatever one wishes.  Usually the doctor doesn't ask for a specific sum, but simply leaves it up to the patient and his or her family."  Sometimes, the greatest financial demand on the patient is providing transportation, food, and accommodations for the healer and his or her singers and helpers, and a feast for everyone who helps in the healing.


"Not commercializing the medicine" is one of many spiritual laws that a student or practitioner of Native American healing or spirituality must learn."



If you are still in doubt about good ways to give an offering for spiritual healing -- including all sacred ceremonies, here are examples of ways not to find out:


Wendy W. was a Jehovah's Witness Christian and bored of her life going through the motions of religious practice and not achieving true spirituality -- a closer connection with the Creator.  She lacked a deep sense of herself and felt disconnected with creation.  She explored many faiths and determined after several years that American Indian spirituality offered her freedom from stale dogma, but she did not know any spiritual elders and did not know how to go about finding a teacher, a healer, an elder with the knowledge and wisdom of traditional ways.  She found a Internet website offering a week-long seminar featuring Indian healers and ceremonies. She scraped the bottom of her bank account and paid the $800 fee and planned over the next two months to save money for lodging, meals and transportation. She arrived at the resort camp excited and things seemed right during the first day or two with all the friendly people talking about one love and unity, but something was not right about the flashy, big talking organizer and the Indian guy who was friendly enough, but seemed more interested in surrounding himself with women than speaking truths.  Things got worse over the next few days.  The promoter was consumed with staging photo shots, making a movie of the event and drumming up more donations.  The Indian guy disappeared for hours in the company of a woman from Ohio.  The culmination of the retreat was a sweat lodge ceremony where several people got sick.  People began to bicker between themselves and the organizer tried to impress the crowd with his ability to call up spirits using a hidden holographic machine.  Wendy was very sad during her trip home realizing she had nothing from the experience but a flat pocket book.


Wendy failed to thoroughly investigate the promoter and the Indian guy before investing time and money.  


John P. was invited to a sweat lodge and told to bring $100 "donation" to help defray the cost of transportation and lodging for the sweat leader.  After he met the sweat leader, put his money in the shoe box and entered the lodge, John remembered meeting the sweat leader across town several months ago. 


John knew he was duped after recalling the man lived only a few miles away, but it was too late get his money back.  It was not too late to save himself. 


The Ways of Gifting:

Also Read:

Selling American Indian Spirituality is Big Business

Sweat Lodge Deaths - Greed and Ignorance

Sacred Ceremonies for a Price? 





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