FOR more than 300 years, American Indians have struggled to retain and practice their native religions against efforts by the U.S. government and Christian groups to eradicate them.
Now the official federal policy toward Indian tribes is to encourage self-determination, and Indian religious practices are protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Representatives of many Christian denominations joined together recently to issue a formal apology to American Indians for the role their churches had played in the historic campaign to suppress native religions.
Just when it was starting to look like American Indian spiritual practices were going to be safe from outside interference, a new and more insidious threat has emerged: the New Age movement.
Many New Age practitioners, in their quest for ``harmony with the earth'' and ``spiritual enlightenment,'' have shamelessly stolen American Indian religious ceremonies, songs and rituals, often for profit. They have defended their right to use these ceremonies, saying the practices are a part of the earth and therefore available to everyone, (a kind of New Age public-domain argument) and furthermore, we are all brothers and sisters and are obligated to share our wisdom for the betterment of humanity.
For years there have been white ``Wannabe Indians'' who have hung around Native American gatherings, adopting tribal dress, dances and even living in teepees. These ``Indian hobbyists'' have focused more on the external aspects of Native American life, and tribal people have mainly viewed them as an irritation.
But American Indians, and the non-Indians who respect us, are outraged at New Age exploitation of traditional ceremonies. A white woman I know recently entered an all-white Olympia-area residential facility for treatment of co-dependence, focusing on spouses of alcoholics, and was horrified when she and other residents were subjected to a number of New-Age ripoffs of Indian ceremonies.
She and others were given sticks, feathers and ribbons and told to make ``prayer arrows,'' then to place them, along with some rocks, facing the four cardinal directions (which had been located by a man with a compass). ``The two women leading the group led us in a song that they told us was a Native American song, but when I asked what the words meant, they didn't know,'' she said.
``I have respect for Native Americans and their traditions,'' she said, ``and I was deeply offended at what these women were doing. But when I objected, I was told my rigid beliefs were part of my problem.''
Occasionally the offenders actually are American Indian, as in the case of Sun Bear, a Chippewa tribal member who operates an enterprise he calls ``The Bear Tribe'' on a large piece of land near Spokane. Sun Bear, whose real surname is LaDuke, caters to non-Indians who hunger for spiritual experiences, and offers various services at prices ranging from $85 for a sweat-lodge ceremony to $500 or more for a vision quest. Legitimate Native American spiritual leaders would never solicit money for such ceremonies.
An annual gathering of traditional American Indian elders, along with a number of tribes, have publicly denounced Sun Bear for misusing Native American spiritual practices for profit. But he continues to be profiled in New Age magazines and featured as a speaker at profitable New Age gatherings such as the Harmonic Convergence of 1987.
A number of popular New Age writers, such as ``Medicine Woman'' author Lynn Andrews, have acquired a large following by weaving an absurd blend of Indian practices of different tribes through their writings. Andrews claims to have been trained as a medicine woman by two traditional Cree women elders in Northern Canada, yet refers to ``Kachina spirits'' from the Pueblo cultures of the desert Southwest throughout the book.
And none of Andrews' admirers seem to wonder why two Cree women would want to pass on their spiritual practices to a white woman from Beverly Hills sporting blond ringlets and a salon tan.
It is not the way of American Indians to organize demonstrations, or to do anything to call attention to themselves publicly. So when they do protest, it is because they can no longer contain their outrage. This was the case recently when about 20 Indians from the San Francisco area gathered in Santa Rosa to protest that New Age environmental activists were misusing their ancient religious symbols.
The non-Indians wore feather, plastic and papier-mache owl masks, and carried drums and rattles as they gathered to support the spotted owl and other wildlife they said are being threatened by logging.
Indian protest signs said, ``Help the owl, but don't help yourselves to our spirituality,'' and ``Do not support spiritual genocide: our culture and land systematically destroyed . . . now they want our last strength - our spirituality.''
Typically, the non-Indian excuse for borrowing from Indian traditions is, ``We're doing it in a good way.'' But is there a good way to steal from another religion or culture?
Only American Indians who have been chosen by their elders and taught the proper ways to conduct ceremonies - a process that takes years - have the right to practice these traditions.
A person who practices Judaism would not consider attempting to conduct a Roman Catholic Mass, nor would a Baptist try to lead his or her congregation in Islamic ceremonies.
Non-Indian imitation of Native American religious practices is disrespectful and offensive, and is just the newest expression of the attitude that anything belonging to or used by Native Americans is up for grabs. The misuse of ceremonies by people not entitled to practice them trivializes Indian religions and demeans beliefs, in much the same way ``Indian'' mascots of athletic teams do, with fake headdresses and ridiculous war whoops.
If New Age practitioners want to attain a higher spiritual level, they should begin by respecting other peoples' religious beliefs and by learning or developing their own traditions - not by exploiting those of a people they seek to emulate.
Nancy Butterfield, a Chippewa Indian, writes on Native American affairs. She lives in the Tacoma area.