An Alaska Native leader has asked a non-indigenous shaman to cancel a pricey retreat to Juneau which she says amounts to cultural theft and the commercialization of Alaska Native cultures.
In a letter sent to the Dance of the Deer Foundation, Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl asked the foundation and its leader, Brant Secunda, to “not come into Aak’w Ḵwáan,” the traditional territory of Juneau’s Tlingit people.
SHI said Secunda and Dance of the Deer Foundation are inappropriately adopting indigenous cultural practices in pursuit of money. The retreat is scheduled for June at an undisclosed Juneau lodge and costs $1,500.
The Dance of the Deer Foundation, based out of Soquel, California, has upcoming retreats scheduled for the Bahamas, Patagonia, New Zealand, Germany, Greece and Italy.
“Shamanism was not a commercial enterprise. This is a violation of a most sacred tradition of Native peoples,” Worl said.
Issues with Secunda’s shamanic practice stem from the fact that he’s not an indigenous person himself, raising concerns over what is called cultural appropriation: the taking of minority cultural practices by majority groups, often without respect for colonial history or power imbalances inherent in that act.
Secunda’s Alaska retreat is billed as “a chance for you to step away from the hectic stresses of your daily life and to reconnect with your spiritual essence. Delve into shamanic practice and find a renewed sense of inner peace and natural calm,” according to the Dance of the Deer website. The nine-day retreat is planned for June 22-July 1 and is the 24th annual Shamanism Alaska Retreat, according to Nick Benjamine, an employee at Dance of the Deer Foundation.
Secunda was born and raised in New Jersey until 18 and learned shamanic practice through a 12-year apprenticeship with the Huichol people of Mexico in the 1970s and 80s, Benjamine said. Benjamine confirmed that Secunda’s lineage is not that of an indigenous person of North America, including Mexico.
The Foundation wrote an apologetic response to Worl on Friday, saying that those behind it regret not reaching out to Sealaska previously. They maintain that they aren’t attempting to capitalize on indigenous culture and both Secunda and Dance of the Deer Foundation have the full backing of the Huichol people.
“Though there are indeed many who have misappropriated indigenous cultures around the globe, we strongly believe that Brant Secunda is no such individual. Instead, he underwent an arduous 12-year apprenticeship and traditional training with the revered Huichol Shaman Don José Matsuwa and has maintained the wholehearted support of the Huichol people since completing his apprenticeship,” Dance of the Deer wrote. “Following this training, Don José sent Brant back into the modern world to share the wisdom he gained from the tribe. Don José accompanied Brant over 15 times to the United States and Europe, to announce publicly that he was leaving Brant in his place to carry on the way of the Huichol.”
The response letter goes on to claim that the Dance of the Deer Foundation is in constant contact with the Huichol people, but that they wouldn’t be immediately available to vouch for Secunda as they live in a remote area of Mexico. According to Benjamine, Huichol elders travel to small towns multiple times a week to correspond with the foundation. Benjamine said he’d try to provide the Empire letters or an interview with the Huichol people when they become available.
Though Dance of the Deer Foundation is not a nonprofit, it operates a nonprofit arm called Huichol Foundation, which Benjamine said provides financial assistance to the Huichol people.
Secunda is “shaman, healer and traditional ceremonial leader,” according to the Dance of the Deer Foundation website. Shamans are indigenous spiritual leaders who play important roles in many indigenous societies in North America and Asia.
The adoption of shamanic practices by a non-indigenous person is insensitive, Worl said, as it shows a disregard for the history of colonial practices that deprived many Natives of their own heritage.
“This is another form of appropriation from Native cultures and societies that began with the taking of our lands and our ceremonial and sacred objects, and now our spiritual practices,” Worl said. “Shamans played an important role in our societies in caring for the welfare of the tribe. … We support the people who have called your practices an exploitation of their people’s ancient traditions.”
Secunda and his son, champion triathlete Mark Allen, have several blog posts on the popular news and opinion website Huffington Post, with the most recent work published there in 2015. A Huffington Post bio says Secunda was nominated for a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a genius grant. The MacArthur Foundation does not inform nominees of nominations.
“Sometimes nominees do find out, but not from us,” the MacArthur Foundation’s website says. The foundation receives around 2,000 nominations a year from nominators who write letters to the program director.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.