Supporting Ceremony: Crossing the Cultural Divide

by Kurt Griffith


The Neopagan movement in America has always had a most interesting relationship with the spiritual pathways of Traditional Native American ceremony. We have a lot in common; but sometimes the cultural gap can be a significant and difficult obstacle.

Be that as it may, there are many Native practices that have established themselves firmly in the many paths of Earth Religion now practiced in the New World. The Drum, Smudging, the Sweat Lodge and Vision Quest come immediately to mind. I truly suspect that most of these ceremonial techniques are universal to indigenous traditions worldwide, but have been kept most accessible for us by First Nations people of the New World.


Some Native people look suspiciously at Pagan folk, who they sometimes perceive as having lifted selected bits of their religion and practice it in a distorted way; like coyotes and raccoons stealing shiny bits from their yards. From their viewpoint, European invaders have stolen literally everything else in their world; land, livelihood, sacred grounds, game, resources, their language and even children, and here they come for their religion. They come by their suspicion honestly. What the key problem seems to be is that any religion, taken out of its cultural context, is largely without meaning. Which is where many non-native people can lose track.

When people ask to be introduced to the Red Road, I usually give them Black Elk Speaks to read. It’s a wonderful introduction to the Lakota world and a very inspiring and beautiful story. Even before the “glow” fades, I point them at Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. They come back with tears in their eyes. But you have to know the violent, humbling history and context of Native America to have a sense of where native peoples are coming from.

In no other area has there been more noise and misunderstanding than the subject of supporting and “paying” for ceremony, and the slippery distinction between the two. People in the mainstream are accustomed to paying for literally everything; from basic needs, to entertainment, to their spiritual growth. The New Age movement perpetrated a vast array of off ensive practices on, for the most part, unknowing and spiritually hungry seekers.

Many unscrupulous individuals, Native and non-Native alike, charged stunning fees for sharing what they knew, or didn’t know. These people have been roundly criticized as “Plastic Medicine Men.”

Compare that to the bizarre attitude of some parts of the “Pagan Scene” where people are unwilling to kick in $10 for the rental of ritual space, or a rehearsal room. These same folk might casually drop $25 a person for the cover charge at the Goth dance club the night before. Incomprehensible.

The tradition shared by most spiritual paths essentially states, “ There is never a charge to participate in ritual or ceremony.” But in the real world, there are legitimate logistic costs to putting up ritual and ceremony, especially large-scale ones. Even for Sweat Lodge, something as simple as firewood can be a heavy cost. While facilitators of ceremony are unpaid for their spiritual service, they still need to live. They have travel costs, and human needs like food and shelter. They invest heavily in both time and personal resources to do what they are called to do. In traditional village society, it was considered right and proper from time to time, to bring a deer to the Medicine Person’s lodge. So a little gas for his trip is not out of place. Seeing that the elders are fed and taken care of is proper and expected.

In and of itself, money is not evil. We sometimes use the phrase “green energy” to remind ourselves that currency is just energy we can exchange for goods and services at Wal-Mart. In the Native world, there is a strong tradition of Wopila, Give-away. Not only to support those in need, but also to show gratitude, and off er thanks to both the community and to Grandfather Great Spirit, Tunkashila Wakan Tanka for the good things and people in your life and blessings received. So we say, pilamaye.

Blessedly, the People of Four Quarters understand what it takes to support ritual and ceremony. One of the reasons I treasure this very special tribe is that I find its arms are wide for a hug, with sleeves rolled up to work. And we’re always willing to work very hard for something precious we value. We are going to be doing something hard and precious, grand, difficult and very sacred this summer on the Land. It will take, like everything worth doing, hands and heart and sweat and sacrifice. We welcome and thank each and every one of you.

Mitaquye oyasin. All my relations. Pilamaye!