Non-Indigenous healers asked to stop appropriating and selling Indigenous ceremony

·6 min read

Two non-Indigenous new age healers in Ontario are being called out by a Black-Indigenous woman for appropriating ceremonies in their practices.

For the last 10 years, Bonita Uzoruo has been living in Halton Hills, Ont. She's Caribbean, Anishinaabe, Cree and Métis, and originally from southeastern Manitoba.

Uzoruo said there isn't much Indigenous representation in Halton Hills, but she thought she found a connection when she saw a photo of Reverend Sheila Black leading a drum circle.

"I assumed seeing that photo that she may be Indigenous and I thought, 'oh, this is great,'" said Uzoruo.

"I wanted to connect."

On the reverend's website, Uzoruo learned that Black is not Indigenous.

In January, Uzoruo emailed Black to voice her concerns about using Indigenous teachings and drum circle — and potentially making a profit from it.

"There's a long history throughout Canada in the U.S. of the cultural genocide against Indigenous people for practising ceremonies that she is selling, that she uses as a sort of personal resumé, like the sun dance, attending sweats, being part of an Indigenous network and teachings from elders," said Uzoruo.

Uzoruo emailed Black in the hopes of opening up a dialogue, but said the response she received was disappointing.

"There was just this assertion of a right to teach it because of the affiliations with unspecified elders, community, Indigenous people, Indigenous network," said Uzoruo.

Studied 'Native American' teachings

On her website, Black says she has studied "Native American" teachings most of her life, attended sweat lodges for 11 years, is a fire keeper at sun dance and is a pipe carrier with the Lakota Nation in the United States.

Based in Halton Hills, Ont., Black was ordained through the Spiritualist Church of Canada and offers spiritual healing, weddings, workshops and funerals, her website says.

Black's website also stated her prices were reasonable and affordable.

In an emailed response to Uzoruo, Black said she began doing drum circles with a man named Anthony Barr in 2009, around the same time she began taking part in sweat lodges in New York state, and she had been performing ceremonies with Lakota teachings for six years.

Black denies accepting payment for her services.

"I never received a penny or any type of remuneration for these drum circles. I did it on a volunteer basis for approximately ten years," she said in an emailed response to CBC News.

After Black told CBC News in an email that she does not solicit payment for services, her website changed to say she accepts payment for readings. In a follow-up email, she said there is a fee for her to act as a spiritualist minister at weddings.

Rhiannon Johnson/CBC
Rhiannon Johnson/CBC

Protocol for everything

Michael Cywink, an Indigenous arts educator and curator from the Wiikwemkong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, said he came across a number of non-Indigenous new age healers in the U.S. in the 1970s.

He said they claimed to be shamans or medicine people practising different Indigenous ceremonies, and he said this still goes on today.

"A lot of people that I know don't support non-Natives taking these kinds of ceremonial situations and turning them into their money-making happenings," he said.

"Traditionally, when you do the ceremony, there is no fee."

For Indigenous people to perform ceremony, there is consent that must be obtained and protocols that must be followed, he said.

By donation only

When Uzoruo was blocked from communicating with Black, she reached out to Anthony Barr — but said she never received a response.

Barr is not Indigenous, but he told CBC News in an email that he gained permission to perform ceremonies in 2005 when he began what he calls an apprenticeship with the late Métis Elder Joe Paquette.

Barr said that Paquette told him in 2009 that he had learned everything he needed to know to perform ceremonies himself.

Barr's website states he "spent four years studying with medicine men from Garden River, Sault St. Marie in Northern Ontario and Mississauga in Southern Ontario, Canada."

"I do not think I can do it better," Barr said in the email.

"I do help people though."

CBC News reached out to Andy Rickard, chief of Garden River First Nation, inquiring if he was familiar with Barr.

"I've never heard of this man," Rickard wrote in an email.

"We've had different healers and medicine people come into the community from other places to offer traditional healing, but none that I'm aware of who are learning from any of the ones in the community."

Barr said he does not make money from ceremony and never suggests donations are accepted, though his website states "by donation only." He told CBC News he has spent thousands out of his own pocket.

Cywink said even if people are learning the language and participating in the ceremony, it doesn't mean they can lead the ceremony, adding that part of the protocol is conducting ceremonies within those languages, not English.

"Hypothetically, if I wanted to learn more about the drum, then I would have to seek out not just someone who is a drummer, but go to the elders that are drummers that have taught drummers their songs and the protocol of what those songs mean and where they fit within the seasons or the ceremony," Cywink said.

Not appropriating, Black and Barr say

Black said she is not appropriating Indigenous culture but would not facilitate further ceremonies publicly in Canada.

"I do not wish to cause any friction with anyone and will continue doing these ceremonies in private not in public. I would like to be an ally of Indigenous, not a threat."

Rhiannon Johnson/CBC
Rhiannon Johnson/CBC

Anthony Barr said he doesn't think he is appropriating Indigenous culture.

"These teachings teach people how to respect each other and Mother Earth. There are beautiful lessons that help people understand community and what that truly entails," he wrote in an email.

"If you have the knowledge to help people walk in a better way, a way that is beneficial to everyone and everything why wouldn't you want that shared? I chose to share the knowledge I acquired to do exactly that."

Uzoruo said she found Black's response to Indigenous people's concerns around non-Indigenous people leading and profiting from ceremony to be dismissive and problematic.

"I also believe that if Black truly seeks ally-ship, she would make a commitment to work with First Nations communities for improved relationships and understandings, instead of stating that she will continue to practise Indigenous ceremonies/teachings in private," said Uzoruo.

"I fear that this may become a trend amongst non-Indigenous spiritual healers, which will enable them to continue profiting from Indigenous ceremonies/teachings without having to address or be held accountable by the community."

Cywink said if non-Indigenous people want to learn from elders, they won't be turned away, but are asked to respect and not exploit what they've learned.

He said he would like to see the new age movement go away, but added he doesn't think that will happen because it has grown so much.