BAD MEDICINE

AN OVERDOSE OF SPIRITUALITY SENT KAYLA MOONWATCHER TO THE COPS FOR A CURE.RITUAL ABUSE KAYLA MOONWATCHER DREAMED OF BEING ADOPTED BY A LAKOTA MEDICINE MAN. IT TURNED OUT TO BE QUITE AN INITIATION CEREMONY.

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Kayla Moonwatcher remembers putting the finishing touches on the sweat-lodge altar. It's perfect, she thought, as she looked around the field outside Lyons. Just right for the most important day of my life.

In three days she would be adopted there by her spiritual mentor, Oscar Brave Eagle, as his daughter in the Lakota tribe. She also would have her spirit name, Whirling Rainbow Woman, blessed by David Swallow, a medicine man from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. She felt honored that Swallow, who was developing quite a following of American Indians and non-Indians in the Denver area, would preside at both ceremonies.

All of her life she had been waiting for the day when she would be an accepted member of the Lakota. Her parents had denied that she even was half-Indian. The name Moonwatcher had been given to her in a dream by the Lakota grandmother she had never known. She'd had to seek out the ways of Indian people, studying under the tutelage of spiritual leaders. The most important had been Brave Eagle, a Lakota in his sixties who had moved to Denver from Pine Ridge two years earlier.

Through his guidance, Moonwatcher had become a sun dancer. At his invitation, they had become a team: running sweat lodges, blessing homes, conducting pipe ceremonies and providing spiritual guidance. The previous summer he had asked her to serve as treasurer for Hek Ska Wanbli, White Mountain Eagle, Inc., a Colorado nonprofit corporation that sponsored yearly sun dances near Morrison. Brave Eagle was the corporation president.

Then that fall she had opened her heart and called him father. Brave Eagle, in turn, said he would adopt Moonwatcher in the spring. And now, in just three days, no one would be able to take her birthright from her.

Brave Eagle had insisted that they go alone to prepare the site for the ceremonies, and he'd picked her up that morning at her home in Boulder. She'd chatted happily on the 45-minute drive, talking about the people she'd invited and all she still had to do to get ready. Once at the site, they unloaded the firewood and rocks from Brave Eagle's truck. Then they dug a fire pit and arranged the altar for the sweat lodge.

They were just finishing, Moonwatcher would later tell police, when Brave Eagle suddenly began talking about his relationship with his common-law wife. It was unique, he explained, because they weren't really living as man and woman. They were together to raise the children--his son by another woman and his wife's grandson.

"I just thought, the poor guy, he doesn't have anyone to talk to. It still didn't feel out of line," she says two years later. "Then all of a sudden, he blurts out, `We don't have sex...I haven't had sex in five years.' I was just dumbfounded. This wasn't any of my business."

Moonwatcher stood up, intent on walking to the truck and insisting that they go home. As she moved past where Brave Eagle was seated, she says, he touched her ankle.

What happened next will be up to a judge and, perhaps, a jury to decide. Moonwatcher contends that Brave Eagle raped her. Brave Eagle, who has not responded to Westword's requests for an interview, told police that it was Moonwatcher who seduced him.

Earlier this month Brave Eagle turned himself in to Larimer County authorities after the sheriff's department issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of sexual assault. He was released on a $10,000 bond pending a preliminary hearing in early August.

Moonwatcher, a 38-year-old woman with long brown hair, blue eyes and a butterfly tattoo on her left arm, says she pressed charges reluctantly and only after two years of trying to shame Brave Eagle into making amends. She was equally unsuccessful in her attempts to force Lakota elders and medicine men, including Swallow, to deal with the situation.

"I wanted to do this the Lakota way," she says. "I didn't want to go through the white criminal justice system. But in the end, I had no choice."

The sexual exploitation of women by people billing themselves as American Indian holy men has become an increasingly troubling topic in Indian country. It is part of the bigger issue of the co-opting of Indian religions by new-age gurus and medicine-men-for-hire--and, some argue, an inevitable consequence considering the naivete of the victims and the cultlike status self-proclaimed medicine men can enjoy off the reservation.

The problem has been decades in the making. The American Indians' revived interest in their own traditional religions coincided with that of the generation that rebelled in the Sixties against the Christian churches of their parents and sought their own spiritual paths. Inspired by the environmental movement to "get back to nature," disenfranchised baby boomers found the perfect answer in the nature-based spirituality of certain Indian tribes.

Which tribe they gravitated to, however, could be influenced by such unsecular institutions as Hollywood. After actor Dustin Hoffman tottered about the Old West in Little Big Man, a 1970 film about a white adopted by the Lakota plains Indians, then commonly called the Sioux, suddenly every Anglo-Saxon in the country seemed to have discovered some small blood quantum of that tribe. Soon whites were setting up sweat lodges and conducting Sacred Pipe ceremonies with the help of so-called medicine men. And the situation only got worse when Kevin Costner started dancing with wolves.

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