Dawn Everhart met her first spirit guide when she was three years old. Suffering from rheumatic fever in a small hospital room in California, Everhart was scared and couldn't sleep. She lifted her heavy eyelids and realized she wasn't alone: A sleek black panther was on her bed. It didn't scare her, though. Instead, it brought her a feeling of comfort, safety and security. For the next 33 years, the animal offered Everhart, who is 1/32 Cherokee, protection until she met a spirit guide in human form -- a Cherokee ancestor from hundreds of years ago named Ka-Wnoaabe.
Unfortunately, this spirit guide's advice caused Everhart some real problems in the physical world.
Everhart, who sometimes calls herself Dances on Water, is a practicing shaman, someone who journeys into another reality in an altered state of consciousness to meet with spirits and bring back information that helps people. She says that during one of these journeys, Ka-Wnoaabe told her she should teach classes on shamanism.
"He said, 'It's time for you to go and teach.' He even said, 'Go to Colorado Free University,'" Everhart says. He also said, "You need to pay for your time and expenses." So last year, Everhart hooked up with CFU, a local continuing-education school that offers such wacky classes as "The Shy Person's Guide to the Opposite Sex" and "Stop Struggling (With Anything)."
Everhart taught the eight-hour class at CFU every other month for a year. She suggested a price of $45 per person; of that, she received $9.25. The classes had an average of twelve students. She covered such topics as the differences between indigenous shamanism and core shamanism, creating sacred space, the medicine wheel, and sensing your power animals. Some of these are part of Native American spiritual practices.
Everhart says she was teaching core shamanism -- an amalgamation of shaman traditions from North America, Africa, the Caribbean and other areas -- rather than focusing on Native American spiritualism in her "Walking the Path of the Shaman" class. Nonetheless, that touched a nerve with Native Americans who believe that the class, and others like it, are a desecration of Native American religion. Furthermore, they believe that those who teach such classes borrow from and then corrupt Native American spirituality.
On June 26, CFU's educational director, Kate FitzPatrick, called to tell Everhart that "Walking the Path of the Shaman" was being canceled. "Celtic Shamanism," which Everhart was scheduled to teach this fall, was also canceled.
FitzPatrick says she'd received two e-mails a few days earlier from people who were upset about the contents of the class, and that ten minutes later, she got 25 more. "They were sent from private individuals who were representing Native American advocacy groups from all over the U.S. and Canada. One of them was incredibly vigilant," FitzPatrick says, adding that the decision to cancel the class "was based on what we needed to do before things became volatile. Neither of us realized that we were stepping on sacred territory."
Although Everhart isn't angry, she says she was disappointed at the abruptness of the decision. "I thought there would be more talk about it," she says, adding, "I don't need [Native American] permission, because I have communication with my spirit guide, and my information comes from the spirit world, not this world."
Niya Wi Barnes, a representative of the Walking Eagle Network Advocacy group, was alarmed after reading the course description, which made reference to the medicine wheel, a part of Native American spirituality. Barnes was one of the people who e-mailed FitzPatrick. "It is wrong for anyone to use native spirituality for moneyed purposes, and [it] has long been condemned by our tribes across the country," she said in her letter. She also said she was going to forward her message to the American Indian Movement and Councilfire, an online network for Native Americans.
Another person who e-mailed FitzPatrick added that Native American shamans traditionally learn their techniques from their tribal elders, and that "if indeed this was a true elder in the native community, she would not charge for what she does...No self-respecting medicine man/shaman charges anything for his/her services." In addition, he wrote, "We view it as another opportunity of the white culture to rip off Indian spirituality...If the practice continues, proper NATIVE authorities will be contacted and pressure brought to cease such activities."
When contacted by Westword, the e-mailer, who didn't want his name used, wrote back, "Our heritage is now under attack by 'New Agers' that try to blend several religions with our spirituality. We want these fake healers, shamans and those of their ilk to crawl back under whatever rock they crawled out from under."
On June 10, 1993, a "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality" was passed at the Lakota Summit V, a gathering of about 500 representatives from the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations from the United States and Canada.
The declaration, which is meant for all Native Americans, outlines a number of offenses against Native American spirituality, including the sale of sacred pipes in stores, people charging admission to phony sweat lodges, "sundances" conducted by unqualified leaders, and the fact that "academic disciplines have sprung up at colleges and universities institutionalizing the sacrilegious imitation of our spiritual practices by students and instructors under the guise of educational programs in 'shamanism.'" The declaration also calls for demonstrations, boycotts and press conferences as a way of taking action.
Other Native American groups also believe that the misappropriation of their religion is widespread. "Indians are one of the only groups that have to protect our spirituality because it is so often exploited for money," says Troylynn Yellow Wood, a teacher at Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios in Denver. "We are sick and tired of this."
And in a recent policy paper, Richard L. Allen, a research and policy analyst for the Cherokee Nation, wrote: "The Cherokee Nation is overwhelmed with those charlatans who fraudulently claim to be shamans, spiritual leaders or descendants of a Cherokee princess." Moreover, he noted, "Cherokee medicine people and spiritual leaders do not practice medicine for a fee nor sell 'shamanic' lessons to anyone. They do not advertise their services through any form of media, and certainly not over the Internet." Allen concludes by comparing "anyone claiming to be a Cherokee shaman" to a "modern-day medicine show and snake-oil vendor."
Walking Eagle advocate Barnes, who lives near Denver, attended the Lakota Summit and is well aware of the high number of people who pass themselves off as shamans and healers, especially on the Internet. She checked with Cherokee tribe members to see if Everhart was in touch with the Native American community, but none of them had heard of the teacher. "We are not for sale, our heritage is not for sale, our path is not for sale -- because it is in us," Barnes says. "We do not learn from dreams at night in a land where there is no village. We do not dream up prices that go with these convoluted classes. These people want the comforts of Native American traditions, but they don't have a connection or responsibility to the people in the community. If a non-Native wants to learn about our spirituality, they can come to the reservation and listen and volunteer in the community so they can understand the culture."
Everhart says she was never exposed to the tribal lifestyle, partly because her mother was ashamed of her Native American ancestry. It was only after she moved to Denver from California seven and a half years ago that she first learned about guided journeys, in a class taught by the owner of the Metamorphosis New Age Center, who Everhart says was a Cherokee medicine man. After studying with three other teachers who have written various books on shamanism, she soon learned how to make journeys into the spirit world herself and says they enabled her to meet her ancestor, who furthered her knowledge of shamanic techniques.
To get in touch with a spirit guide, Everhart lies down, covers her eyes with a cloth and listens to a monotonous drumbeat. The sounds induce alpha waves in the brain that put the mind into a dreamlike state, she says. She then states her intention, chooses between journeying into the upper, middle or lower world, and meets the spirits.
In 1994, she began a private healing practice called The Dawn of Time, for which she suggests a donation of $45 an hour, but she says she never turns people away because of a lack of money. And she defends her practice of charging fees. "If we were living in a tribal culture, the tribe would take care of me and give me blankets and food, but I have to buy those things myself and buy materials like candles and drums for the work as well."
She also points out that she leads a modest lifestyle. She lives in a basement apartment with her two cats, drives a 1984 truck, and works twenty hours a week as an insurance agent to pay for her expenses.
Everhart plans to continue teaching in the metro area and in her home. She also has a speaking engagement at the Celebration Metaphysical Fair during Labor Day weekend and will teach a class on Celtic shamanism at the Nic Nac Nook Metaphysical Bookstore in Denver on September 9.
Although she has put the cancellation of her CFU classes behind her, she did speak with her spirit guide about it to get some advice. He told her, "It's just the way it is. Now your time is done."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.