Juneau has hosted a plethora of New Age charlatans throughout the years.
They come with Buddhist beads and all manner of amalgamated spiritual teachings: Eckankar, aura balancing, crystal healing, astrologers, numerologists, wiccans, warlocks, and Hare Krishna acolytes.
At one time or another, they’ve all traipsed through Juneau, a wealthy and liberal enclave with a weak tether to religious traditions, a place ripe for neo-spiritual movements. They hold workshops and retreats, and then move on.
Brant Secunda is the most recent iteration. He’s from New York and New Jersey, and has been leading shamanistic rituals and workshops for much of his adult life. He and his retreat goers travel the world to commune with nature in the most beautiful places on earth. His teachings allow him to journey, and retreats pay his way.
So naturally, he comes to Juneau, Alaska, home of whales, salmon, and eagles. He comes at the height of summer as he’s done many times before, he says, and in 2018 he will have a retreat once again at a lodge somewhere on the road system in Juneau. A place with cabins and tent camping. That doesn’t leave many choices.
The Aldersheim Lodge would be such a place. It has cabins. It has places for tent camping. It has whales and eagles and salmon.
Last year, Secunda’s Dance of the Deer Foundation advertised his Juneau retreat as the organization’s 23rd annual shamanic retreat in Alaska, where participants could, “Delve into the study and practice of ancient indigenous spirituality to embrace the life force of Mother Earth in one of the few remaining WILD places on this planet. Surrounded by countless eagles, breaching whales, spawning salmon, and the tranquility of the Inside Passage, this is the perfect setting to refocus your intentions and explore the connection between your inner and outer world.”
The retreat promised to deepen participants’ connection with nature, empower their dreams through daily ritual, approach sacred places of power to internalize their energy, connect with the four directions to find their center in the fifth direction, and celebrate life through the Dance of the Deer Ceremony.
It seems pretty standard for New Age offerings.
TLINGITS SAY NO
Except that Tlingit Elder Rosita Worl doesn’t want him to come. She is calling him out as a charlatan who appropriates Native culture and she finds his teachings offensive.
And Worl is a force to be reckoned with, as the president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. She is telling Secunda to stay out of her people’s territory. The Juneau Empire wrote about Worl’s letter disinviting Secunda from visiting Alaska.
Here is the full statement from the Institute:
It has come to our attention that a foundation called Dance of the Deer is planning a shamanism retreat in Juneau led by a person originally from New York who claims to be a Huichol shaman mentored by the tribe, which is based in Mexico. (http://bit.ly/2DmvetJ).
This person is charging up to $3,735 per person to attend the retreat. Fees include tuition ($1,700 per adult); lodging ($775 to $2,275, depending on whether you opt to camp or book a private suite); and a whale watching excursion ($90).
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. Shamans played an important role in our societies in caring for the welfare of the tribe. Shamanism was not a commercial enterprise. SHI will contact this “shaman” and request that he cease the appropriation of the most sacred and spiritual practices of the Huichol Indians. We support the people who have called his practices an exploitation of their people’s ancient traditions and we will request that he not come into Aak’w Ḵwáan, the ancient homeland of the Auk people.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is dedicated to perpetuating and enhancing Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. It promotes cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events, according to its website.
Dance of the Deer Foundation is Secunda’s group, and is associated with the Huichol Indians of Mexico, a 35,000-person indigenous tribe in the Sierra Madres. He’s one of their shamans.
But cross-cultural politics can be perilous, even for shamans. He’s white. And he’s from Jersey.
Secunda didn’t mean to offend Tlingits when he called them “Indians” in some of his retreat promotional material, but that was one of the key offenses that Rosita Worl locked onto. He has since apologized.
Secunda says he is a highly trained shaman. He teaches people about being one with the earth. His events center around the Deer Dance Ceremony, which he says has its origins in Huichol cosmology, dating back to the birth of the sun.
“The dance is a reenactment of creation itself and honors our sacred relationship to the light. Kauyumari (The Magical Deer Spirit) is representative of our super-conscious mind and acts as an intermediary between our hearts and the spiritual world of nature,” his literature states.
Whatever shamanism is, Secunda has made a career of it. He owns the web site shamanism.com and he associates his work with the legendary (and perhaps mythical) Carlos Castaneda, who wrote about shamanism with the Huichol.
People are attracted to these pseudo-religions out of a desire for supernatural experiences, and some spiritual teachers are gifted at communicating a web of cosmological beliefs in a convincing way.
This is what the New Age spiritualism accommodates, as seekers drift from one vague teaching to the next, from one guru to the next incarnation. It can be dangerous — and expensive — for those who are lightly hinged to reality. From such teachings, cults are born.
Secunda doesn’t exactly say he is quite a healer, a curandero, but he does perform healing rituals. And he doesn’t quite say he’ll use peyote in his rituals, because that would be illegal. But it would also be the Huichol way. He does promise to put on a show for the willing consumer.
Brant Secunda’s Dance of the Deer Foundation would be laughable to most Alaskans, but to Worl, it is a crime against shamanism.
She has the ability to make enough of a stink about it to drive him and his handful of paying participants to some other place, which would cost the local lodge owner revenue.
YELP SAYS BUYER BEWARE
Yelp.com is not normally where spiritual seekers would go to get their shaman reviews, but sure enough, Yelp has write-ups about Secunda. They are mixed. Some called Secunda a fraud, others said he is a true healer. Then again, some Yelp reviewers call the Baranof Hotel “great,” while others call it “run down.”
One reviewer who identified herself as Tlingit, wrote that Southeast Alaska is for Tlingits. She had just read the Juneau Empire article about the kerfuffle over Secunda, and although she had never met the man, added her two cents:
“What Brant doesn’t seem to understand is that Juneau is Tlingit territory. We have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years. Tlingit culture is rich, vibrant and alive! To have an outsider come with his band of New Age hopefuls to our land and describe us as “Indians” on his website is highly offensive.”
It has come down to this: Sealaska Heritage Institute is claiming shamanism for Southeast Alaska as its area of jurisdiction. No other shamans, real or imagined, need come this way.
In the magical world of shamanism, there are sorcerers and witches, spells and incantations. There is flying through parallel realities and shape-shifting. Will the dispute over shaman territory bring metaphysical warfare to the peaceful hamlet of Juneau? And if so, who will get the reality TV show rights?