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  • Kenneth Cohen

Not Again! "Please Be My Medicine Man"

I often find myself in strange circumstances when non-Native people perceive me as a potential ally in their quest to misrepresent, appropriate, or step on Native American traditions. By the time they realize that I am neither a practitioner of New Age fantasies nor generic shamanism and that I am not a white man (being racially Jewish, and often seen as tribal by my Native relations), it is too late for an "Oops." My political hackles have been raised.

Last year, a white man called on the phone to ask me if I would like to join his Native American organization/tribe. The organization was certifying people as "medicine men" and "medicine women" so that they could practice natural medicine under whatever legal protections are offered as part of American Indian Religious Freedom. Perhaps I would like to join and also to offer an endorsement? I asked him if the members of his tribe shared a common original language other than English; a common, specific land base, verified in a tribal origin story; and a shared history. He was obviously shaken up and replied with an embarrassed, "No." I also asked if his group was fighting for sovereignty and if they had treaties with the foreign U.S. government. Again, "Uh, no." I explained that these were part of the definition of a tribe. I think he really meant "Oh no!" because he then said warily, "I think I have opened a can of worms." "Yes, you sure have," I rejoined. Within a few weeks of this exchange, the same organization made mainstream news when ABC, FOX, CNN, etc. covered a story about a mother who refused to allow cancer treatment for her son on the basis of "religious freedom." She belonged to a "Native American church." It was the same church that had contacted me. I wish reporters had been aware of the background story. The media never knew that the church was not Native American at all.

But the phone call last week takes the cake. The CEO of a stem cell research company left a message on my answering machine. His company was planning to open research facilities on Indian reservations and wanted to speak with me about a (probably high-paying) position as an expert consultant and witness. I already suspected what was coming. I called back. The man told me that he had heard about me through my writings and my reputation among both Native and non-Native people. This was nice to hear. His company, based in California, was doing stem cell research with cells removed from rabbit embryos. All of their facilities were, so far, in foreign countries. They were hoping to open branches on reservations across the United States and channel some of the benefits back to Indian communities by focusing some research on Type 2 Diabetes. "We have a team of attorneys, including some Native American, who are ready to protect the sovereign rights of Native people to host any business that they wish. This should prevent the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) thugs from interference and midnight raids." I was already translating his forked-tongue double talk into plain English, thinking, "You mean you would like Native people to host businesses that don't require government or environmental oversight or regulation."

I explained gently (my strategy to draw him out) that stem cell research is outside of my area of expertise. In what way does he think I can be of help? "We want you to be our medicine man and look at any issues involving traditional medicine, culture, and sovereign rights. At the very least, you could fact check legal documents and briefs to the Court." Did he really just say that? I explained very clearly and firmly, "It is completely inappropriate for you to ask me to do this. You must go to the local elders from the land and community where you are trying to establish this business and ask their permission. The answer will probably be arrived at by consensus after input from the community." The businessman was not happy with my reply. He tried a few more times and with various wording to solicit my help as, at the very least, an advisor and editor for legal documents. I refused and again insisted that he contact local elders and medicine people. From his tone of voice, it was obvious that he had not done so and hoped to avoid it. Not surprisingly, the last thing he said before hanging up was, "Well, I may need your healing services if I end up in a penitentiary."

I bet this crook and appropriator would love to take out a newspaper ad that reads, "We have dozens of white cultural experts and attorneys as well as Native descendants of the famous 'loafers around the forts' who are willing to help you turn Indian sovereignty to your advantage. If your business is illegal in the United States, why not open it in Indian country?"

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