I am a non-native woman, married to an Ojibwe man living on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation. I have been researching and teaching about spiritual appropriation for more than 10 years, particularly regarding Native American spirituality. I was appalled to see a Priceline commercial over the weekend, which featured Long Island Medium, Theresa Caputo. In the commercial, Caputo—who is blonde and appears white—smudges two clients, also white, fanning a fake eagle feather over an abalone shell filled with what looks like sage. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNgPXzlevyw) Caputo’s purpose is to bring back the negotiator to help with travel expenses. The entire commercial has an air of mockery to it.
This commercial trivializes, and mimics the ritual practices of Native Americans to amuse television viewers. I find this offensive as do many Native Americans and their allies who have been discussing this commercial on the internet. Smudging is a sacred ceremony in my husband’s culture and that of other Native Americans. The eagle is sacred to most Native Americans because it is considered to fly higher than any other bird. Eagles are believed to be closer to Creator because of their ability to fly so high. Sage is one of four sacred medicines used for ceremonial purposes in many Native cultures. It is used for purifying and to take prayers to the creator. The combination of the eagle feather and burning sage during smudging is symbolically and spiritually very powerful.
Since their arrival in the Americas, European colonialists have worked to suppress and eliminate Native American religions. The U.S. Federal government funded missionary projects through programs such as the 1802 Civilization Fund with the purpose of converting Native Americans to Christianity. Most Native American religious and spiritual practices were made illegal in 1887 with the Dawes Act. Many of these practices went “underground” at that time and courageous Native Americans risked their lives and well-being to keep them alive. In 1890, 340 Ghost Dancers—men, women and children— were slaughtered by the U.S. Calvary at Wounded Knee for practicing the religious ceremony of the Ghost Dance. It wasn’t until 1978, with the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act, that these religious rituals could be practiced again in public without fear of arrest or death. , eagle laws were change so that Native Americans could again legally own eagle feathers for religious and cultural reasons. Priceline’s use of the spiritual practice of smudging makes light of this violent history of Native American religious persecution.
I am certain that Priceline would not use the ritual ceremonies of Christians or Muslims in mockery to sell its service. Theresa Caputo would not, for example, be shown giving communion to promote the use of Priceline’s services to travel to the Italy. When it comes to Native Americans, however, the script of “playing Indian” is so deeply imbedded in the American persona that it “operates below the level of consciousness.” Sadly we ignore the use of Native American iconography because it is everywhere. I do not believe that Priceline made the smudging commercial to deliberately mock Native American spiritualities. Instead, I am certain they used smudging in the commercial simply because it is part of a long history of insensitivity to Native American issues and histories in America. I ask them to take this opportunity to do the right thing, remove the commercial from the air and apologize to those Native Americans who were hurt by the commercial.