While scrolling through Instagram, TikTok or Facebook, you may notice people who call themselves guides, healers, or coaches and boast that they can provide you with instant enlightenment and spiritual guidance to enhance your “vibration.” The end result? A path to a better you.
To be honest, I’m not criticizing anyone who seeks comfort by connecting to self-professed healers making these claims. As a matter of fact, I think the majority of individuals who pursue an understanding of spirituality outside of our normal reality are well intentioned. Perhaps they’re even seeking refuge from the violent legacy of organized religions, including Christianity. As an Osage man, as well as a Native educator, I am very familiar with how the church has villainized Native spirituality, traditions, and ceremonies.
People are fed up with scandals and hypocrisy and readily seek solace in alternative ways of spiritual expression that will guide them toward becoming better human beings. They can find that easily on social media, which is populated with a motley assortment of empaths, seers, psychics, shamans, and healers who appear to have discovered the secrets of the cosmos. These individuals will make remarkable claims regarding their abilities to give you spiritual guidance. If they are convincing enough, you just may contact them for some insight — for a fee of course.
Nothing sells spirituality to the spiritually hungry like the use of feathers coupled with generic “Native American” paraphernalia.
Unfortunately, sometimes lurking on the other side of the transcendent veil are spiritual hustlers who have little to no training in the practices they promote. Instead, they prey on the most vulnerable to enhance their bank account by charging hundreds or thousands of dollars for various services, including workshops, seminars, retreats, and spiritual counseling sessions.
I’m particularly concerned by one marketing tool that’s common to many of these hustles: the exploitation of Native spirituality and culture to boost the hustler’s perceived credibility. Along with basic social media skills and the latest beauty filter, nothing sells spirituality to the spiritually hungry like the use of feathers coupled with generic “Native American” paraphernalia.
Social media accounts peddling Native-esque wisdom are saturated with imagery such as feathers, sage bundles, abalone shells, dreamcatchers, flutes, and hand drums. Links in those accounts’ bios invite you to participate in sweat lodges, soul healing sessions, medium readings, shamanic circles, and quantum healing. Posts advertise workshops for hundreds of dollars that give you exclusive access to privileged information meant to help on your life’s journey. Hashtags like #medicineman and #medicinewoman offer glimpses of this at play.
Harmful stereotypes about Native spirituality and people
As a result of this marketing, sincere yet gullible individuals are in danger of being scammed out of their money. They may form an important connection to their guide or so-called healer, but it’s unlikely they’re learning ceremonies, beliefs, or practices as they were intended to be shared by Native communities. This matters because spiritual hustlers are not only degrading Native culture by twisting it to suit their financial schemes, but they’re actively contributing to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.
Native people are some of the most misunderstood people in the country. In fact, a significant number of non-Native respondents to one survey conducted by the Reclaiming Native Truth project believed that Native people no longer existed. Meanwhile, public schools do a dismal job of teaching our history and contemporary issues to children and teenagers. We are rarely depicted accurately in entertainment as three-dimensional human beings living in today’s society. Instead, we are predominantly relegated to the past as either bloodthirsty savages or nature-loving children of the forests crying at the sight of trash.
Hustlers will exploit the latter by wearing things like turkey feathers made to look like eagle feathers. The majestic birds are considered very sacred to tribal communities, and only their members can legally possess eagle feathers. When these swindlers misrepresent our traditions in pursuit of money, it creates confusion about who we are, and what we believe. With money as a motivating factor, the spiritual hustler can easily become (if they aren’t already) the very source of negative energy they profess to smudge against as their out-of-control ego and narcissism bleeds into, or even ruins, the lives of their followers.
Extreme cases of this spiritual hucksterism in recent history are well documented. In 2009, before the majority of Americans used social media, a man named James Arthur Ray, claimed to have learned Native American teachings, and conducted a fake sweat lodge ceremony during his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, Arizona. Ray made the lodge so hot that many of the 50-plus participants (who paid $10,000 dollars each to be there) began panicking and passing out.
The real purpose of a traditional sweat lodge is to make prayers on behalf of our loved ones for good health and healing. In contrast, Ray’s “sweat lodge” was used to expand the consciousness of his followers as well as his bank account. Ray’s financial gains and the prospective spiritual gains hoped for by the participants were completely self-serving and speaks to how a communal ceremony meant for the benefit of our relatives was corrupted into a strength test steeped in Eurocentric ideals of individualism.
The real purpose of a traditional sweat lodge is to make prayers on behalf of our loved ones for good health and healing.
Considering Ray was abusing Native traditions and had no right to perform them, Native leaders made attempts at telling him to stop to no avail. In the end, three people died from heatstroke and Ray was charged with negligent homicide. He spent nearly two years in prison, was released and now has an Instagram account (among other social media accounts) where he continues to peddle spiritual advice to a thousand followers.
It should be noted: if a non-Native person wants to truly learn more about Native culture, there are opportunities to do so in a respectful manner, depending on the community. Otherwise, paying for services and merchandise from spiritual hustlers who exploit Native culture can actually hurt Native communities and their members. It helps hustlers build a business around deceitful, and sometimes deplorable, tactics that perpetuate stereotypes about Native people. In turn, that can breed distrust in legitimate medicine people who are sincerely providing healing and guidance for their communities.
Social media scam: the red flags you should know
It can be easy to get lured in by the filtered persona of an all-knowing guru staring mystically into your eyes on Instagram or TikTok. Based on insight from my grandmother, Ina Micco, as well as my own experiences with fake and legitimate medicine people, there are a few things to consider before placing your faith in a feather-waving digital oracle using Native themed props and imagery.
For one, ceremonial items are not supposed to be flaunted to elevate one’s status. The responsibility of ceremonial knowledge brings with it humility. If someone takes pictures with sage, feathers, and dreamcatchers to promote products or a business, take caution. Constantly posting pictures with these items is nothing more than a gimmick to make the poster seem endowed with Native knowledge.
Consider asking such an individual where they learned their teachings. Spiritual matters are typically passed down by word of mouth from a mentor. Where is their community? Native healers and medicine people usually stay within their own tribal community. It is important to know to whom they are accountable. A spiritual hustler’s background tends to be vague or filled with flowery prose about personal growth or dabbling in different cultural practices.
If someone promotes themselves as a student of Native “teachings” and charges outrageous fees, requests luxury items, or wants sex in exchange for spiritual help, then they are not trying to help you but use and abuse you. These requests are never practices associated with traditional Native teachings.
Where to look for spiritual guidance
Finding an alternative to organized religion is a difficult task. Fortunately, many Native people have maintained a connection to their traditional culture and spirituality. Although some aspects have changed, the intention is the same: We’re meant to understand and acknowledge that we are only one part of a much broader universe that needs balance. Our ceremonies help restore that balance. They also request help for healing our relatives, or offer thanks. It’s understandable that many non-Natives want to be close to this as they may feel lost at times.
We’re meant to understand and acknowledge that we are only one part of a much broader universe that needs balance.
However, actual Native people use social media to educate by sharing general insights on the philosophy behind some of our teachings and traditions. Even so, there remains an emphasis on safeguarding traditional knowledge and not sharing too much detail. Spiritual hustlers often lurk on social media, looking for information to bolster themselves. When I use social media as an education tool, as a Native educator, I only speak very generally about spiritual matters and traditions I’m familiar with.
The desire to learn about Native culture and traditions is not entirely problematic. But why do non-Native people want to learn about our ways? Do they sincerely want to give back to our communities? Or do they hope to take without offering anything in return? The latter is no way to become a better person. These questions may not arise to the person casually scrolling through social media who stops to engage with content from a spiritual hustler, but they should. Really, it is a matter of respect.
Jimmy Lee Beason II is a member of the Osage Nation and a professor in the Indigenous & American Indian Studies department at Haskell Indian Nations University.