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BAD MEDICINE

part 1 of 2
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.

Authentic Lakota medicine men begin training after receiving a vision calling them to the vocation, says Charlotte Black Elk, a widely known expert on the oral traditions of the Lakota and the great-granddaughter of the medicine man Black Elk of Black Elk Speaks fame.

"Typically, most initially reject the calling, and they aren't encouraged to enter that life because it is so difficult," she explains. "Basically, they give up their own lives to be at the beck and call of their people, whether it's for healing, guidance or just to be present at an event."

The chosen ones apprentice under other spiritual leaders, a process that can last decades. They are as specialized in their training as doctors in the white culture--one medicine man may deal only with bone ailments, while another may oversee a particular type of ceremony. "We don't have any general practitioners," says Black Elk.

The Lakota test their medicine men through a process called hunbloglaka, in which they are asked to "share your vision," including who they received their training from and where.

For those not familiar enough with Lakota customs to judge such a test, Black Elk says a sure way to identify a fake is if he advertises himself as a medicine man. Medicine men don't refer to themselves as such, she notes; the title is something conferred on them out of respect by their people. "You have to go look for them," she says. "And they would help you for free or, at most, share a meal with you for which they would be thankful."

There are seven basic rites in the Lakota religion; each is practiced at certain times for specific reasons. But the advent of the new-age movement created endless opportunity for all sorts of shake-and-bake shamans and pseudo-medicine men to perform these "rituals" anytime, anywhere, for a buck.

Among the new-age medicine men were whites who may not have received any training in American Indian religious practices yet performed "Indian" ceremonies--often collages of various religions. With a smattering of Indianspeak about the sanctity of Mother Earth, actual Indians who were untrained in the traditional ways also could make a good living off the largess of their eager followers. And then there were once-legitimate medicine men who had left the reservation with good intentions, only to be corrupted by the money and adulation that came their way.

Spiritually bankrupt yuppies plunked down hefty portions of their salaries as computer technicians, doctors, lawyers and nurses to participate in sweat-lodge ceremonies, beat on drums, go on vision quests, join in sun dances and even become "pipe carriers." The result was a mixture of various traditions--Indian and otherwise--blended to white America's tastes. Indians, historically as varied in their religious beliefs and traditions as any other people, were merged into a sort of pan-Indian Everyman.

Most whites wouldn't have known a real ceremony or medicine man from a fake, nor did many of them care. The traditionally segregated sweat lodges went coed. And house blessings became a lucrative business in urban America, even though house blessings "have nothing to do with Lakota tradition," says Charlotte Black Elk. "We say a house is blessed when a good woman lives there."

Disturbed by the trend, Arvol Looking Horse, the keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Sioux Nation (which includes the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples) began speaking out against false medicine men in the early Eighties. That Looking Horse took such an interest was significant because the White Buffalo Calf Pipe is one of the most sacred artifacts of the Sioux Nation, handed down for nineteen generations. As a result, the Looking Horse who holds the pipe is respected among the various Sioux, as well as by other tribes.

"What Looking Horse says is, to us, akin to the Pope making a statement," notes Black Elk. "Once, he said that women wearing jeans to religious ceremonies caused them to sit in a way that was disrespectful to their position as women, and women stopped wearing jeans to ceremonies."  

What Looking Horse said this time was that medicine men should remain in their communities and stop peddling rituals for profit. But Looking Horse's influence was strongest on the reservation--and even there his word was not law.

Indians continued to debate whether they should teach their religious practices to non-Indians. Some argued they shouldn't be shared at all, for fear that whites would co-opt the religion and make changes that would come back to influence the traditional ways. Others thought it was acceptable to teach the practices in order to help people--but not to accept payment, which would sully the good intentions. Still others thought that if whites wanted to buy their knowledge, they should take the money.

"And there is a lot of money involved," says Avis Little Eagle, managing editor of Indian Country Today, a newspaper based in Rapid City, South Dakota. Several years ago she wrote a series of stories about so-called medicine men who were exploiting Indian religion for profit and power. "These guys get these big egos, which right away would tell someone from a reservation that they are not spiritual men or at least not anymore," says Little Eagle. "But the new-agers just feed their egos."

It isn't just the participants who can be hurt by phony or corrupt medicine men, she adds--the Lakota also suffer. Imagine how a Catholic would feel about some con man selling Communion out of his home for fifty bucks a shot. Or some flimflam man putting on a collar and setting up a confession booth on the 16th Street Mall with a $10 "suggested donation" for every sin absolved.

And when someone professing to be a spiritual leader uses his power to coerce sex, it's particularly loathsome. "It's the same thing to us as Catholics hearing that their priest has been abusing women and children," says Little Eagle. "It means ruined faith, ruined lives and ruined credibility of medicine men who really are trying to help people.

"I just hope that these women will come forward to put these guys out of business."

The woman now known as Kayla Moonwatcher says she was born in a tiny town in northeast California in 1956. As she tells her story, her mother and father were half-Lakota and half-Cherokee but lived "trying to pass as white." Neither parent had ever been on a reservation, nor were they registered on official tribal rolls. They did not tell their daughter that she was half-Indian.

Still, she says, something inside her knew. She practiced small ceremonies to honor the earth and conversed with animals, who seemed to feel safe around her. But it wasn't until she was sixteen that she learned of her birthright. She was at a family reunion at her uncle's house when she spotted a photograph in a back bedroom. It was a picture of an Indian woman in traditional dress.

"I asked my uncle who she was," says Moonwatcher. "He said, `Your father will kill me...but she's your grandmother.'"

Moonwatcher was shocked. She had been told her grandmother was dead. Instead, she learned that the woman had moved back to a Lakota reservation when Kayla was a child. She confronted her mother, who confirmed the story but begged her not to tell her father.

Moonwatcher was overjoyed to hear that she had Indian blood. She left home and moved to the San Francisco area, where she devoted herself to discovering her cultural roots by reading books on Indian spiritualism. At one point she fell in with a group of hippies who were conducting sweat-lodge ceremonies. But she became disenchanted with what she saw as a hybrid mix of Indian ceremony, Eastern philosophy and environmentalism, and left to find a more traditional path.

When she was twenty-one, Moonwatcher met a hermit near Redding, California, who told her that he was half-American Indian and half-Persian. He took her under his wing, giving her a pipe--the centerpiece of Lakota religion--and training her for her vision quest, a period of fasting and prayer in which the supplicant seeks guidance and purpose in life.

She worked as his apprentice for nearly five years. And then it was time to move on. Moonwatcher says she didn't know why, but the word "Colorado" had been coming to her in her meditations. Colorado, she thought, sounds like a place with lots of Indian energy.

Following a vision, Moonwatcher moved to Nederland during the full moon of October 1989. She was pleased to find a potpourri of people there looking for spiritual guidance and formed a group called Rainbow Bridge Centre. Through fliers and word of mouth, she offered her services as a guide for meditation, shamanic journeys, vision quests and pipe ceremonies. Soon Moonwatcher had her own apprentices.  

She also ran sweat-lodge ceremonies, both segregated and coed. One of her more successful creations was a moon lodge for women only, where the participants sweated together while discussing female issues ranging from fertility and natural birth control to incest and rape.

Although Moonwatcher didn't charge for her services, she accepted donations. "But people not raised on a reservation don't understand how to support their spiritual elders," she explains, so she also worked in a law office.

Moonwatcher was working at a law firm early in the spring of 1991 when it hired a young Indian lawyer from South Dakota. Through him, she met Oscar Brave Eagle, the common-law husband of the lawyer's mother.

Brave Eagle was a pipe carrier but not yet a medicine man; he was still studying under a holy man back on the reservation. But Moonwatcher wanted him to teach her about Lakota traditions. She told him about her vision of participating in a sun dance, a grueling five-day marathon of prayer, fasting and nonstop dancing. He invited her to join in his sweat-lodge ceremonies, and soon they were working as a team offering Indian ceremonies for Indians and non-Indians alike.

"One woman called, she and her husband were wealthy writers from California who had moved to Boulder, and they wanted to have their house blessed," recalls Moonwatcher. "She asked, `What do you charge?' And I said, `We don't charge anything...but if there is something you wish to give from the heart, we take donations.' She wanted to know how to determine what to pay. I told her that a house blessing could vary from $50 to $200; it's totally up to you. So we did the ceremony and she gave me an envelope.

"When I opened it later, it had a check for $60." Moonwatcher sighs, remembering her disappointment. "Now I know why some of these guys are just putting a price tag on things: `From now on, house blessings will be $200.' It's hard to work full-time at a regular job and still be available at any time to help someone who is suffering and needs support."

Moonwatcher continued to guide her Rainbow Bridge Centre, sometimes inviting Brave Eagle or Dave Swallow, who had recently arrived on the Denver scene, to teach the group. Meanwhile, Brave Eagle was developing his own following. People brought him gifts of tobacco, food and money as befits a spiritual leader on the reservation. He had wealthy sponsors in other parts of the country, too, and often traveled and lectured.

Moonwatcher contributed to his upkeep as well. "Fifty dollars, a hundred dollars, and usually some buffalo meat and tobacco. Whatever I could afford," she says. "And he was always humble and grateful...like a spiritual leader is supposed to be."

In April 1991 Moonwatcher was sitting next to Brave Eagle on a bench outside a sweat lodge. Shyly presenting her gifts, she told him that she felt close to his family. His young son was like a brother to her, she said. Brave Eagle responded that he considered her a daughter and would formally adopt her the next spring. He said he would ask Swallow to officiate.

A few weeks later Brave Eagle decided Moonwatcher should pursue her vision of becoming a sun dancer. To prepare for the June sun dance in Denver that Swallow would be leading, Brave Eagle suggested she observe the sun dance in Red Scaffold, on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. That was where Brave Eagle's mentor, Pete Bear Stops, lived, and Moonwatcher went gladly.

On the afternoon of the second day of dancing, Moonwatcher was summoned to the lodge of the local medicine man's daughter. Some of the other women had to drop out of the ceremony, the older woman said; Moonwatcher would dance in their place. When Moonwatcher protested that she wasn't prepared, the woman replied, "My father says you are ready."

Ready or not, Moonwatcher found herself on the dance ground. "After about two hours," she says, "I felt this wave of emotion and heard a voice saying, `You are an Indian now, and no one can take that away.'"

end of part 1


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