Quest for Truth in Marriage Basket : Author Describes Years As Apprentice to Indian Shamans

Times Staff Writer

If it were anyone else, a week in Palm Springs might have done the trick.

A well-to-do Beverly Hills art dealer, Lynn Andrews, was suffering a malaise common to people who have achieved comfort--a need to get away from it all.

But instead of seeking out a chic spa, Andrews found her way to a tin-roofed cabin on a desolate prairie in Manitoba, Canada, where she met two crones. As Andrews tells it in two books she has written, the women were Cree Indian shamans, and Andrews, a non-Indian, was about to be initiated into their secret circle.

During the 10 years she apprenticed to Agnes Whistling Elk and Ruby Plenty Chiefs, Andrews noted in an interview, she was torn between the Indians and loyalty to her daughter and film-producer husband.

Eventually, the spiritual quest won out.

'In Search of Something'

"If it had been a man having this adventure, they (readers and critics) wouldn't have been so surprised," Andrews said in a recent interview. "If they had read about a man leaving his family and going to Canada in search of something, they could say: 'Yeah, I can dig that.'

"Society has been able to accept the idea of women having careers in addition to the role of women as mothers, but we haven't gone the next step to accept a woman in search of the truth--particularly when the truth is found in a reality a lot of us are not familiar with."

The reality presented in Andrews' books, "Medicine Woman" (Harper & Row, 1981: $6.95) and a sequel, "Flight of the Seventh Moon: The Teachings of the Shields" (Harper & Row, 1984: $13.95), is not only unfamiliar, it's supernatural.

The author's quest began at an art opening in a Los Angeles gallery. A guest at the affair, Andrews fixated on a photograph of an American Indian marriage basket.

Following a lead on the origin of the basket--which, she had decided, she simply must possess--she hopped a plane to Winnipeg, rented a car and drove to the remote cabin of Ruby Plenty Chiefs.

Ruby had been expecting her.

In a welcoming rite, Ruby had Andrews assist in the butchering of a deer. Then the new friends shared a slice of raw deer heart; and the guest was left to sleep squeezed into the back seat of her car, animal blood drying on her Sassoon jeans and new khaki jacket.

This sort of humiliation and wallowing in all matter of dirt is a constant throughout the tale, as Andrews shuttles between Southern California and the Canadian steppes in search of the basket. Magical events are always counter-balanced with believable detail, for instance, when Andrews describes the sleeping bag she covered herself with in the shaman's cabin: "It was stained with oil and had a blue-and-pink Mickey Mouse flannel lining."

Andrews nonetheless accepts the fact that some readers will doubt that the story is true. "People just want to know that something is real," she said. "I felt the same way when I first met Agnes." (At least a few readers have made truce with the question by accepting Lynn Andrews' work in the same light as Carlos Castaneda's--as allegorical truth, at least.)

Andrews eventually becomes embroiled in a tug of war with the menacing sorcerer Red Dog over the marriage basket, which represents female wisdom and the power of creation. As to why a white woman from the city is being dragged into this tussle, Andrews said that "energy changes" have made it necessary to recruit non-Indians into the fight to restore balance on the planet. She writes that her assignment is "to be a bridge in this life between the American Indian culture and white consciousness."

Earth Is Female

Among the truths that Andrews says Agnes and Ruby have taught her is that the Earth itself is female and that the female principle teaches all people how to live. "If the power of women is negated, as has been in our culture, there is no one left to do the teaching," Andrews said.

"We live in a patrilineal society that has misunderstood female power. These women (the shamans) feel the earth is in danger of wobbling off and dying (due to nuclear war or other man-made catastrophes) and they feel the reason for this is the imbalance of male and female power."

Andrews currently spends much of her time applying Agnes Whistling Elk's principles to the lives of individuals. A number of men--as well as women--have responded to the message in her books, Andrews said. They come to her seeking to restore their personal balance of male and female energies.

"You don't necessarily have to go to find a medicine woman in Canada," she counsels those who seek her advice. "Everyone in your life is a teacher."

She is not the first non-Indian to be enticed by the rich world of Native American culture, but Andrews said she is trying to avoid the mistake made by others--she will not pretend to be an Indian.

She gets around not by pony, but in a Plymouth with a license plate that reads HEYOKA (an Indian word meaning woman-who-shows-how). And she does not intend to take up residence on Cree lands. Home is the same 100-year-old converted hunting lodge in a Beverly Hills canyon where she formerly lived with her family. (She and her husband are divorced and her daughter, 20, is studying fashion in Los Angeles, and recently has come to accept her mother's chosen path, Andrews said.)

"There is this idea that you cannot be spiritual and live a nice life at the same time," said Andrews, referring to the Beverly Hills digs. "But Buddha was a prince; and the universe is abundant. In some parts of Canada, people would bring me a horse and a blanket in exchange for my work. Here, it just happens to be money.

"I think Beverly Hills is where the healing needs to be done," she added. "Agnes told me, 'Your place is not on the Indian reservation.' "

Spreading the Word

There are things Andrews can do in the city to spread the word of medicine women that Agnes or Ruby could not, Andrews said. They would be lost, for instance, when it comes to dealing with actors and directors. In recent months, the author has been assisting in pre-production work on the film version of "Medicine Woman."

"I don't know that there has been a film done until this time about the spiritual transformation of a woman," Andrews said. Along with the film, a third book in Andrews' saga, titled "Jaguar Woman," is due to be released in the summer.

Saying that she shares half the profits from the books with Agnes and Ruby, Andrews denied that she is exploiting Cree secrets. "These truths are not owned by anyone," she said. "I work only in the ways my native grandmothers ask me to."

In addition to her counseling, Andrews keeps in touch with Agnes and Ruby and other members of a group known as the Sisterhood of the Shields. A society of shaman women from cultures around the world, they share a desire to apply the concept of balance on a global scale.

It's difficult to explain exactly how the Sisterhood operates, Andrews said, except to quote Agnes: "It's not a club. It's not a sorority; we don't hold meetings--and yet, we meet."

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