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

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 ten years, Bonita Uzoruo has been working as a teacher in Halton Hills, Ont. She’s Carribean, Anishinaabe, Cree and Metis, and originally from Southeastern Manitoba.

Uzoruo 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,'” says 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 US of the cultural genocide against Indigenous people for practicing ceremonies that she is selling, that she uses as a sort of personal résumé, 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 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 email 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 email response to CBC.

After Black told CBC 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.

Two screen shots taken from Reverend Sheila Black’s website from before and after email correspondence with CBC. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Protocol for everything

Micheal Cywink, an Indigenous Arts Educator and Curator from the Wiikwemkong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, says that he came across a number of non-Indigenous new age healers in the U.S. in the 1970s. 

They claimed to be shamans or medicine people practicing 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 never received a response. 

Barr is not Indigenous, but he told CBC 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 claimed in 2009 Paquette said he had learned everything he needed to know to perform ceremonies himself.

His 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 an email to CBC. “I do help people though.”

CBC 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,” Chief 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 he has spent thousands out of his own pocket. 

Cywink says 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.” 

A screenshot from Anthony Barr’s website. In email correspondence he stated he ‘never charged a penny or suggested donations’ for ceremonies. (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,” he added.

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 would like to see the new age movement go away, but Cywink says he doesn’t think that will happen because it has grown so much.