Thursday, April 20, 2006

David Carson and the Selling of Native American Spirituality

This story originally appeared as Rick Romancito's "La Historia" column in The Taos News, April 20, 2006

Most of the world’s orthodox religions have gone out of their ways to gain converts. A long time ago, some resorted to violence and warfare to achieve this goal. Today, the effort is more subtle, but still as insistent. Yet, among many American Indian tribes, it’s not conversion they seek, but a willingness they ask of outsiders to leave them alone to do what they must for the benefit of the world. More intriguing is the fact that, despite a still-prevailing notion, native spirituality is not all the same flavor.

What continues to stir strong emotions among many tribal people who have struggled to maintain their hard-won religious integrity — think Taos Pueblo’s 60-year struggle to regain title to the sacred Blue Lake — is a perceived encroachment upon their domain by those who claim to not only know what exactly tribal people would like to keep special, but are willing to share it with non-Indians for a price.

It must be said at the outset that most Taos Pueblo tribal members observe a native religion that is considered private and off-limits to outsiders.

David Carson is the author of the renowned “Medicine Cards” system of divination and of the recent book, “Crossing into Medicine Country: A Journey in Native American Healing” — which also is the title of a special event at the Fechin Inn in Taos, New Mexico. From Friday through Sunday, April 21-23, 2006, Carson will sign books, lecture on his experiences with spirit animals, show slides, and give Medicine Card readings.

Cost for the main event on Saturday is $100 at the door.

Popular among New Age enthusiasts and seekers of metaphysical knowledge, Carson is highly regarded for what is considered by some to be an insight into how Native spirituality and its principles can benefit anyone’s life. His critics say, how dare he.

Taos Pueblo tourism director Richard Archuleta speaking strictly as an individual, launched into an angry tirade when told of Carson’s lecture. “It just pisses me off when you get (non-tribal people) talking about Indian spirituality and making money like that ... The tribal people have been raped for a long time. And, where’s the respect that is necessary for these things? When you encounter a real (spiritual) person, they’re not going to boast about their knowledge. That’s because that’s the nature of their ways. Beware of those people that say they know the way.”

Carson, reached by phone Saturday (April 15), said he considers himself a writer foremost, along with being “a white person, who is part Indian,” Choctaw from Oklahoma, to be exact. “A lot of people put a lot of different labels on me,” he said. “But my main concern, in this world, is as a writer. I’ve never told anybody anything different.” More about that later.

At first, when asked if he knew that some Native people take issue with his Native spirituality seminars and workshops, he said, “That’s news to me.” Later, though, he said “I’ve had people telling me on the e-mail now and then, ‘Well, we don’t like what you do.’ I say, well fine. And they always say, they’ll pray for me. That’s very nice. And I’ll pray for them.”

As for his charging $100 at the door for one of his evenings, Carson said “Well, they certainly don’t have to spend it. I’m just trying to make a living. I have a big family. I’m not going to apologize to these people. They don’t know me. I don’t know them. Who are they?”

Archuleta said “it goes against the tribal grain,” which, at least among the Taos Indians, upholds the virtues of humility in the face of greater things. In many tribal communities, medicine men and women will sometimes accept gifts of cash or trade for goods or services, but few are willing to risk ostracization by going commercial with their beliefs. “It’s just not right for people to be doing that kind of stuff,” Archuleta said. “It’s a way of life. That’s my personal feeling about it.”

Carson is no stranger to controversy. In the late 1980s there was a very public lawsuit, which he became embroiled with former live-in companion Lynn Andrews, author of “Medicine Woman” and other New Age-style books incorporating Native spirituality.
In a 1989 article titled “Selling Native American Soul” by University of Washington pastor Jon Magnuson (online at, the suit brought by Carson contended that “as a result of our personal relationship, she and I composed a series of literary works that includes ‘Medicine Woman,’ ‘Flight of the Seventh Moon,’ ‘Jaguar Woman’ and ‘Star Woman.’ ”

A subsequent article titled “Beverly Hills Shaman,” published in the New Age Journal (March-April 1989), reported that “David Hall, a longtime acquaintance of Carson who said he watched the two work together, claims that Andrews supplied rough sketches from her experiences in Beverly Hills, and Carson wove them into a fictional narrative describing her exotic adventures with various shamans based on his own knowledge of Native American culture ... court papers (show) that even before Carson filed his suit he had been offered $15,000 by Andrews’s New York agent.”

The two have gone their separate ways since then. “I never talk about her,” Carson said. “I’m just a ghost in her past. You know how the law goes. You have to sign stuff.”

This weekend’s event is named after Carson’s latest book, “Crossing into Medicine Country,” which is described on the author’s own Web site as his “initiation as a conjure man—a ceremonial healer—with the Choctaw medicine woman Mary Gardener. For three years, he studied the arts of power plants and medicine animals, how to manipulate the layers of energy surrounding human beings, and how to use sacred tobacco in ritual, curing, and divination.”

Apparently, whoever wrote the text never got the memo about his being just a writer. “I’m not a shaman,” Carson said. “A lot of people put that on me, and I’ve worked with a lot of shamans, Siberian shamans, Mongolian shamans, some Azteca guys. I’ve worked with a lot of people that say they’re shamans, but I would never do that.”

And just who is Mary Gardener? Here’s our exchange:

Rick Romancito: In your book, you say that you worked with a Choctaw medicine woman, named Mary Gardener. Is she a real person or a pseudonym?

David Carson: Well, Mary Gardener was certainly a real person in Oklahoma. Are you asking me if that’s her true name?

Romancito: Yes.

Carson: Well, not exactly, but close.

Romancito: So, it’s not her real name?

Carson: It’s not her exact name, no. But, there is a Mary Gardener, who is the person that I’m writing about.

Romancito: May I ask what the reason was for changing the name?

Carson: Well, you’re from Indian Country, so you know how families are. I don’t know if you know the history back in that period in time. A lot of that stuff was not in the open. It just wasn’t. You know, I do have family, extended family, you might say, in Oklahoma, so I don’t want to offend anybody or get in any arguments. You understand?


Blogger pennyspen said...

David Carson IS Red Dog! :P

1:22 AM  
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3:02 PM  

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