Dancing to the Tree of Life: An Ethnography of a Neo-Amerindian Movement

By Bernd-Christian Otto


I see the traces of my dance on the soil before me, as if my feet have painted a brownish lane across the grassland. The ‘tree of life’ rises high some ten metres ahead of me, taking up half of my vision. A chorus of whistles fills the air, as if an orchestra of eagle cries pervades the sky. I have danced halfway towards the tree, imitating my own imagination of a Native American warrior’s dance. The heat of the blazing sun, high above my head, accompanies every inch of my path. Another shrilling sound emerges from the bone flute I hold clamped between my front teeth, coalescing with the sound of the eagle cries that surround me. My vision is obscured as I look through quill attached to the top of the flute, a barrier that prevents my eyes from synchronizing with one another into a steady gaze. The two feathers in my hands move up and down with my dance, both aimed at the majestic stuffed eagle in the center of the tree ahead of me, placed halfway between its root and its crown. Eagle, hear my prayer and bring it to the great spirit! The eagle flies highest of all birds, at least so the Elders say, and in doing so comes closest to the marriage of Wahkahn, the egg of all creation, and Sskwan, the sacred Great Grandfather: making love, they have become Wakan-tanka, the great spirit. I have arrived at the trunk of the tree, where I rub on its bark the light blue corn paho I have carried in my hand and which carries my prayer. Here, I humbly whisper the intention of this dance: I wish to forgive my mother. I close my eyes and make my hand rest on the ‘tree of life’, sensing the gaps in its bark. A crowd of other dancers touches the trunk close to my hand, dancers tailgate around me, hands rest on my back, connecting through me to the tree. Fragments of muttered prayers fill the air. I open my eyes to see others with theirs closed. I see tears running down checks, joyful faces covered with warpaint. My body decides to detach from the tree, to dance back to my ‘dreamspace’, some 20 meters behind me, where my sundance shield is attached. Never turn your back towards the tree, which is life, the elders say! Hence, I dance backward, keeping my chest towards the tree, my gaze fixed on the eagle at its center. I feel tired and hungry, for I have danced and fasted for over 36 hours. Yet the dance carries itself, it carries me. I am in the ‘Arbor’, a circular space some 50 meters of diameter, together with 150 other sun dancers. It is the year 2022, the countless ticks in the woods around me ususally drink Swedish blood, and I participate in the greatest ceremony that the Sweet Medicine Sundance Path has to offer. I am neither Lakota nor Cherokee, but I am a sun dancer.


Me shortly before the dance in Sweden (2022) 

The above autoethnographic narrative gives a glimpse into one of my personal experiences during fieldwork in the ‘Sweet Medicine Sundance Path.’ The narrative was inspired by Paul Stoller’s valuable suggestions regarding ethnographic writing during one of his CAS-E workshops, along with Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, according to which a dense description may at the same time function as a viable explanation – in this case for why human actors are willing to undergo such demanding ceremonies.

The Sweet Medicine Sundance Path (hereafter SMSP) is a Neo-Amerindian movement that also goes by the name ‘Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society’ (last accessed August 24, 2023). I have conducted fieldwork in said movement since 2019 and presented some preliminary findings for the first time as part of the CAS-E lecture series on November 29, 2022. The SMSP is a new religious movement with a few thousand practitioners worldwide that operates for the most part in the USA (Arizona, in particular), Europe, and Australia. It was founded or reinvented in the mid 1970s by Harley ‘Swiftdeer’ Reagan (1941-2013) – ‘Swiftdeer’ is one of Reagan’s ‘medicine names’ – and claims to teach traditional ceremonies derived from ‘esoteric’ branches of the religions of the Navajo, Sioux, Hopi, and other Native American tribes. The SMSP is a complex and multi-faceted initiatory movement whose ‘teachings’ are largely passed on only through oral encounters with so-called ‘Sacred Pipe Carriers’ – SMSP teachers who have often undergone decades of intensive training –, and its manifold esoteric practices are revealed to initiates only gradually over the course of many years.


Sun dance, Shoshone Indians at Fort Hall, 1925


In this blog post, I will focus on some basic difficulties that a religious studies scholar may encounter while classifying and analysing the SMSP. Is it a new religious movement, a neo-shamanic movement, a neo-magickal movement, or even a modernized version of a Native American tribe? There are good reasons for interpreting the SMSP as a new religious movement, for it has a charismatic founder, its highly syncretic teachings clearly resemble the ‘New Age’ Zeitgeist of the 1970s, and most of its historical claims about events prior to the 1970s cannot be verified. There are also good reasons to label the SMSP a neo-shamanic movement, for it specifically invokes Cherokee and Lakota roots and uses ‘shaman’ as an emic and self-referential category. It also embodies the ‘New Age’ idea of a global(ised) shamanism – following in the footsteps of Michael Harner – and thus consciously appropriates the ‘best practices’ of a vast range of different traditions. It could also be called a magical or neo-magickal movement, since ‘magic’ is also a frequently used emic term in SMSP publications and oral teachings; Reagan was well read in the literature on Western ritual magic and was, in particular, a Crowley-aficionado, holding membership in a variety of Western magical fraternities, including the Ordo Templi Orientis. The fourth option of classifying the SMSP as a Native American tribe is clearly the least reasonable, due to the methodological difficulties in verifying their claims of ‘authenticity’ prior to the 1970s, its disputedness among various Native American associations (see below), and the undeniable fact that the vast majority of their members are not of Native American origin. I therefore propose to interpret the SMSP as a new religious movement, leaving aside the other labels, especially that of ‘neo-shamanism.’ The main reason for neglecting the latter category is that Harley Swiftdeer Reagan was accused of being a ‘plastic shaman’ by a Lakota summit in 1993, which led to the publication of a ‘Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality’ (last accessed November 21, 2022). The semantic field of ‘shamanism’, it seems, oscillates between fraudulent ‘cultural appropriation’ on the one hand and claims to ‘authentic’ truth on the other. Using it as a second-order signifier thus runs the risk of carrying such notions – both of which I consider misleading – into the analysis.

What complicates the picture even more is that Harley Swiftdeer Reagan claimed that he had ‘downloaded’ – or ‘channeled’ in New Age terminology – many SMSP teachings through meetings in the ‘fifth dimension’ with the “elders of the Twisted Hairs Council. […] The Twisted Hairs Council of Elders […] has its origin in the Canis Major constellation, specifically from the planets within the reaches of the star Sirius” (Wahlberg 1993, 231-2). In other words, the SMSP has not only appropriated elements taken from Native American traditions (the ‘big four’ being: sundance, eagle dance, sweatlodge ceremony, pipe ceremony), but also from New Age and Western esoteric movements and authors (e.g., from the works of Wilhelm Reich, Carlos Castañeda, and Aleister Crowley, as well as practices with their origins in Western sexual magick, to give just a few examples), and from South and East Asian religious traditions (e.g., from Tantric concepts of subtle bodies, including practices that involve cacras, mantras, yantras, and mudras). In addition to that, at least parts of its teachings were possibly also the result of years-long streams of ‘revelatory events’ (Taves 2016) experienced by its founder which, whether or not one believes that they were related to alien intelligencies, added an additional layer of concepts and practices to the movement.

The study and interpretation of the SMSP is tricky for another reason. A large quantity of polemical narratives directed against both Reagan and the SMSP can be found on the internet today. In fact, from the 1980s onwards the SMSP has not only become a popular target for various Native American associations (also due to the SMSP’s claim to teach ‘traditional’ Cherokee practices of sexual magic called ‘Quodoushka’, which was strongly objected to by Cherokee associations and activists), but also for figures from the so-called ‘anti-cult’ movement. The result is that reading about the SMSP only on the internet is liable to leave the reader with strong negative impressions due to the volume and weight of the polemics from these two directions (a strikingly polemical narrative can be found, for instance, on this website (last accessed Nov. 22, 2022). This impression stands in stark contrast to my own experiences in the movement. Keeping in mind the so-called insider-outsider problem that has been much discussed in the study of religion in recent decades (see McCutcheon 1999), I would like to stress that most polemical ‘outsider’ accounts of the SMSP published on the Internet are distorting and misleading from the ‘insider’ perspective of SMSP practitioners. Even though an alleged ‘right-wing ideology’ is nowhere to be found in the SMSP, when one actually explores the movement through participation, these attacks have led the SMSP to develop the strategy of operating under the radar in order to ‘protect the path’ since at least the mid-1990s. This has resulted, for example, in the removal of all claims of teaching ‘traditional’ Native American ceremonies from their websites. This strategy may also be one of the reasons that almost no scholarly work has been published on the SMSP to date.

The SMSP’s most important group ceremony is the sundance which is held twice each year in July, first in Arizona, USA, and a few weeks later in Sweden, Europe. I took part in the Swedish Sundance in 2022, as described in my autoethnographic report at the outset of this blog. Interestingly, the sundance was officially banned in the USA between 1876 (through the ‘Indian Act’) and 1978 (the ‘American Indian Religious Freedom Act’), even though it was continuously performed in some regions, and Harley Swiftdeer Reagan in fact claimed to have been one of the first to have ‘revived’ the ceremony in the early 1980s. Comparing various descriptions and photographs of historical sundances of different Native American tribes with the SMSP sundance, I was struck by a vast number of apparent similarities. The SMSP version avoids the painful breast piercings of some ‘traditional’ Lakota versions, and probably also differs in its interpretation of the ‘arbor’ as a ‘nagual’ space where the dancer’s prayers plant seeds of ‘intent’ for what may manifest sometime after the dance in the dancer’s ‘tonal’ everyday realities. However, one of my own take home messages from my lecture was that the SMSP sundance may actually be much more ‘traditional’ than I had considered it to be while participating in and observing the 2022 dance.


Bernd-Christian Otto studied Religious Studies, Philosophy and Psychology in a M.A. program in Heidelberg and narrowed his focus to Religious Studies while writing his dissertation on the conceptual history of magic. After gaining his PhD in 2009, he joined the university of Bergen, Norway, as a visiting research fellow, where he took part in a book project entitled Defining Magic: A Reader (published 2013 with Michael Stausberg). From 2010 to 2014 he coordinated a research project on the historicisation of religion at the University of Erfurt, from 2014 to 2018 he worked as postdoctoral coordinator of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences ‘Religious Indivualisation in Historical Perspective’ at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt. In 2017 he finished his Habilitation treatise entitled ‘Ritual Dynamics and Rejected Knowledge: A Historical Study on a Deviant Text Tradition’ at the Max Weber Center in Erfurt and thus received the Venia Legendi for Religionswissenschaft. Since 2018, he has worked as a Senior Research Fellow at various institutions, among them the Käte Hamburger Kolleg ‘Dynamics in the history of religions between Asia and Europe’ at the university of Bochum, the International Consortium for Research in the Humanties ‘Fate, Freedom and Prognostication: Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe’ at the university of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and the Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences ‘Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, beyond Modernities’ at the university of Leipzig. Since 2016, Bernd-Christian Otto is a board member of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism. He is co-founder and one of the research coordinators of CAS-E. Since 2022, he is also the scientific director of RENSEP, the Research Network for the Study of Esoteric Practices (www.rensep.org).


CAS-E blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by CAS-E on September 6th, 2023.”

The views and opinions expressed in blog posts and comments made in response to the blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of CAS-E, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated.


Image credits: © Bernd-Christian Otto

© U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


McCutcheon, Russel T. (ed.), The insider/outsider problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader, London: Cassel 1999.

Taves, Ann, Revelatory events: Three case studies of the emergence of new spiritual paths, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2016.

Wahlberg, Bill Star Warrior: The Story of Swiftdeer, Santa Fe: Bear & Company Publishing 1993.

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