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NEW AGE USE OF INDIAN RITUALS DRAWS FIRE

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To some, Native American ceremonies represent ancient tradition and ritual that must be guarded from desecration. To others, they are rites of purification and spiritual yearning that fill a void traditional religion has left empty.

Either way, the sweat lodge, pipe and circle ceremonies endure - whether to enrich those whose ancestors celebrated them or to give life to a group of "New Age" religious enthusiasts who wrap them into individual worship.Yet some Indian leaders and tribes have denounced the so-called New Age Indian religion, whose celebrants emulate traditional Indian ceremonies in a spiritual quest.

The new religious adherents have been accused of appropriating the old ways into trendy spiritual forays, and various tribes may actually be forced to copyright their legends and rituals to keep them from being abused.

"Indian religion is very, very ancient, and there is nothing New Age about it," said George Tinker, an Osage Indian and a professor of theology at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

He said the new use of Indian rituals is exploitation and cultural robbery. "A lot of lost white people, having stolen Indian land and destroyed Indian culture, have decided to take the last thing Indians have - Indian religion," he said.

He also said Indians want nothing to do with the white supermarket of religion.

"White people have a morbid, romantic attachment to Indian tradition which, although it has been around for a hundred years, experienced a resurgence in the late '70s," Tinker said.

Wil Numkena, executive director of Utah's Division of Indian Affairs, echoes Tinker's sentiments.

"If it is white people doing it, how can it be called New Age Indian religion?" he said.

Ancient Indian rites and traditions such as the purification sweat lodge, vision quests and sun dances have become staples in some New Age spiritual seeking. Most seekers learn the rites while participating in "real" ceremonies and then incorporate them into their own rituals.

Numkena said New Age shamans are really just exploring and experimenting with Indian spiritual ways and ceremonies.

"It is all moot because the rituals have to be done in the tribal language by individuals who have been set apart to fulfill these roles in the tribal societies," he said.

"It is not just something you can pick up on," Numkena added.

His suggestion to those who are experimenting with Indian spiritual ways is to turn back to their own roots.

"Most non-Indian American citizens who are of European descent basically have not connected with their heritage," he said. "They are lost because they have no connection to their roots. They don't have a strong foundation."

Ancient Indian spirituality is community-oriented. For example, participants in a "Star Gathering" next weekend (see accompanying story) are asked not only to pray for themselves, but also for the universe.

Tinker said the New Age religion is wholly and completely individualistic in the Western European tradition.

But those who actually practice the new Indian religion disagree with these tribal leaders.

Salt Lake resident Carolyn Sanders, who believes in the way of the lodge, said that her religion is not a tainted version of something else.

"Most of the people that I have worked with have been Native American medicine people who have willingly taught me," she said. "They don't feel it belongs to any one people."

Sanders said sharing the traditions with other people may be the only way to keep them alive. She added that prophecies from several tribes indicate that the teaching will be shared with "the rainbow people, who are people of all tribes and all colors."