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Thoughts on Cultural and Spiritual Appropriation
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To Know, to Will, to Dare...
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NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
Pagan Studies II: Modern Paganism in the Americas
Article ID: 15426
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This is the second in a planned five-part series on some topics I believe are pertinent in modern Paganism. If nothing else it can accomplish the task of prompting further community questions and discussions on these topics and more.
In our last study, we looked at my own example of how to define the word “Pagan, ” and apply it to Paganism as a world religion. As a reminder, I defined Paganism as the revivification or reconstruction of the pre-Christian religious practices in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. My explanations are outlined in the first part of the series, so I need not delve into them here. Suffice it to say they have invited scores of feedback and healthy conversation which are ongoing; feedback and discussions which must needs continue as we evolve. But while this definition may serve me and a few others (as of this writing anyway) , there is still the question of “place.” Recall if you will that Pagan has a debated etymology but can at least be traced to pagus, which means, “rural, the country, originally landmark fixed in the earth.” French scholar Pierre Chuvin attempts to reconstruct the word Pagan back into the Latin pagani, meaning “People of the place, town or country who preserved their local customs.” This definition works nicely, and is the one that I will be utilizing in this second part of the series. In a sense, then, when we call ourselves “Pagan” we are calling ourselves “People of the Place, ” place being a synonym for a geographic area of land. I like to think of it in both the literal and metaphorical sense, that we all are called to revive the worship of the Old Gods and keep the flames burning. At the same time, we are responsible for the land that we do live on, and this experience I think is different for Pagans in American and Europe.
The People of the Place
“Pagan” as Pierre Chuvin defines it neatly allows for the plethora of practices, beliefs and customs that each Tradition and Group espouses (i.e. Minoan, British Traditional, Feri, Druidry, Celtic Reconstructionism, Hellenismos, Kemetic, Strix Craft, Eclectic, etc.) . We are all, essentially, responsible to be the keepers of our respective flames. But if you look closely, nearly all of the Traditions and Groups that exist are inspired by mythologies and practices from across the Atlantic, because for many of us this is where our ancestry comes from. Or at the very least Gods from these distant places come alive and call us to Their worship and honor. But whatever we find or whoever inspires us, the point is that the bulk of our mythos, philosophies and practices come from the Old World.
“People of the Place.” What place? That is the local area where you are born, you grow up, you live, and you become an integral part of a Community. In many places, which have gone nearly unchanged since ancient times, the village and local communities are the defining social parameters for many people. Customs and traditions have been passed down to help a budding member define their identity and place: mythologies, heroes, dances, social cues, social etiquette, symbols, and even dialects and jargon. Certain festivals may be shared between various communities that have a shared past (mythic or not) . But it was not just that someone became part of a local community; it was also that your community had a symbiotic link with the landscape where your village or town probably stood for hundreds of generations. Every rock, nook, herb, tree and flower had its taboos and associations. These associations were born out of ancestors who weaved a living connection that was passed down through family lines. Today we might call such practices “folklore” or the more pejorative-sounding “superstition.” But this is important to consider as we continue our study.
The Spirits of the Place
The land was - is! - literally alive with spirits. Their names are different depending on the ethnic area or religious affiliation: nymphai, wights, genius loci, principalities, dominions, fairies, or kami. But the essence is shared: the local landscape is affected by powerful beings. They are found in local springs and rivers, local groves of trees or a nearby mountain. Oftentimes these local spirits are emulated and worshipped as higher powers akin to Gods. In fact, it can be argued that perhaps some Deities are nothing more than very powerful local spirits (e.g. Celtic Danu of the Danube River, Greek Thrake who is a nymph and founder of Thrace, the Goddess Ganga is the Ganges River, etc.) . What is the difference between a tutelary Deity and a local spirit? That’s the debate that happens late-night around the Pagan bonfire, but for lack of space I won’t go into the various occult theories here. My purpose is quite different.
While many of us are descended from people who used to live in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, we have a difference that is apparent: an ocean. While many modern Pagan Traditions and Groups are inspired by the mythologies of the Old World, nonetheless the sacred places that our ancestors and even living contemporaries can touch, we in the Americas are barred from. Many of us dream of Glastonbury, Stonehenge, the Pyramids, Ireland, Delphi or Rome. We imagine ourselves going there one day when we can afford it and if we can’t live there then the second-best thing: bringing back a memento such as a rock, some dirt or even water (if customs even allows it) .
Broken Lineage in the Americas
For American Pagans, the problem is that while many of us are reclaiming the worship of the Old Gods of the Old World, we are living on a New World land that our ancestors also desecrated. I admit some of us would rather distance ourselves from such a claim. “Those weren’t my ancestors!” Or perhaps exclaiming “Well they also persecuted my people!” To be honest, we can distance ourselves however we want. Sidestepping is an effective method of denial that lots of people do in order to not have to claim responsibility for atrocities committed by their forebears. But our Pagan Elders held the Roman Catholic Church in 1999 accountable for the atrocities committed in their Name, even if the modern Church did not perform full-scale persecutions. In March 2000 the late Pope John Paul II issued an official apology and sought forgiveness for the atrocities the institution committed. For modern Pagans, while it is true that some of us are from ethnic backgrounds that were or currently are subject to intense persecution (e.g. Irish, Hellenic, Persian, Canaanite, etc.) , that kind of history should spur our Pagan brothers and sisters from those lineages to help the rest of us empathize and reach out to the disenchanted and broken Native Americans on whose land we live.
“If I were there I know I wouldn’t have participated!” No you don’t. No one knows what we would have done in those situations. But whether we like it or not, the Pagan Community in America has a responsibility to heal and repair some deep psychological and emotional wounds which have scarred the collective unconscious of those of us who live here. We eat, live, breathe and use land which is not originally ours, and the people we took it from are left in gutters or land with little resources to make something of themselves. The Gods, spirits and holy places that were alive with Their energies are smashed, toppled or abandoned. The Native American tribes were the “People of the (own) Places.” They had their own rites, mythos and connections. In short, they suffered in much the same way that our Pagan ancestors suffered. This isn’t a secret and in a way I may be “preaching to the choir.” So why am I bringing it up?
Generalizing “Native American”
Many of us came from Christian backgrounds and then were moved by something stirring deep within us when we witnessed a Native American ceremony. Whether we hear the chanting, watch them cleanse with sage, drum, or hear a Native American talk about their connection to the spirits, something inside of us “awoke.” Lots of us, in an attempt to reconnect with spirituality because of our disenchantment with the religion of our youth, began to turn towards sources that marketed “Indian Spirituality.” Who hasn’t purchased sage and wafted the smoke with feathers? Or sprinkled tobacco for offerings? Or said they have a “wolf totem?” Some of us have even taken Craft names such as “Singing Deer, ” or “Rain Dancing Spirit.” Here’s the problem: what we do not realize is that we are generalizing what it means to be “spiritual” with “Native American.” We are so hungry for spiritual nourishment that I believe we are misinterpreting our experiences. I believe that some of us (including myself) have been so drawn to something “more” that we think that means we have to mirror what we think Native Americans do in order to feel “connected.” I will probably get angry e-mails, because it will sound as if I am in some way invalidating another person’s spiritual experiences, and in Paganism that can be a huge no-no. But as an occultist, I think spiritual experiences deserve to be scrutinized to see if they lead to something greater than what we are experiencing at that moment.
Because what is happening is that, perhaps without realizing it, we are using tools and terms that we think Native Americans would have used and said in a certain way, not realizing that we are using tools and symbols ripped apart from the intended use of their originators. An example of a popular tool that is ripped apart from its cultural context is the Medicine Wheel. I see lots of these in many Pagan backyards. But with research, you’ll discover that the term “Medicine Wheel” is actually an English term and is a generalized term. It does not take into account the various “wheels” that are found in various areas, which were used by those tribes for a specific mythological purpose (2010, “The New Age and Indigenous Spirituality: Searching for the Sacred”) . We are, in short, disrespecting the People who used these things. We are also disrespecting the land; everyone did not use tobacco. In some instances you have to be careful because it can be poisonous to the local ecosystem or the animals that may feed on it. We are guilty of generalizing what “Indians” do because it looks and feels “genuine” (a term I suspect that is synonymous with “not Christian”) .
Syncretism or Misappropriation?
The term “shamanism” became very popular especially back in the 1960s. But the term can be a misnomer; there are literally hundreds of other words that were used by our Pagan ancestors to describe similar practices of trance-induction and religious ecstasy. They can seem similar to those practiced by some tribes of Native Americans, but ultimately the tools and methods are unique to our ancestral cultures because they are spiritual lifelines to our Gods. In my last article, I mentioned that it is natural for humans to be syncretic and to freely borrow and adapt practices. This is just natural evolution and will always happen. There is no clear way to sometimes draw an “ethnic boundary, ” because cultures do blend. It can also be precarious because then we can also sow seeds that can sprout racism, such as barring African-Americans from joining Celtic or Hellenic groups. Interestingly, though, according to Dr. Christine H. Kraemer, modern Pagans tend to fall on both sides of the appropriation aisle (2009, “Cultural Borrowing/Cultural Appropriation: A Relationship Model for Respectful Borrowing”) . A current example she cites is how Initiatory Wiccans feel that their name and practices have been misappropriated by many and call themselves “Wiccans” without Initiatory context. A more derogatory term is “Pop Wicca” or “McWicca” used by Initiatory Wiccans for those who use practices that mirror their own but without the Initiatory current. I often wonder: if we cannot get along in our own Pagan Communities, how can we manage to better our relationships with others?
I won’t get into the “Wicca or not” argument here. My point in using her example is because unfortunately in many cases rather than syncretism, our Community is guilty-as-charged for stealing practices and names without any context. If you don’t believe me, you don’t need to take my word for it. In 1993 the Lakota Nation wrote a statement called “Declaration of War against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality” in which they charge modern Pagans with cultural and spiritual genocide. Examples include using claws and teeth from endangered species because they are “totems.” Another example is using crow or eagle feathers in designs that mimic how “Natives” would use them. There is also a grave danger in using drugs, which are used by some Native tribes for a specific purpose, and in a specific manner to appease and cultivate the spirit, such as peyote. It clearly is one thing to be inspired, and quite another to dive into practices without context.
Healing the People and the Land
Lest you think this article is overtly negative, it isn’t meant to be. I really hope that if nothing else I can bring to light the very mistakes that many modern American Pagans have done. We most likely didn’t realize what we were doing, and to be sure most in the American Pagan Community have no idea that there is any argument between some Native Americans and American Pagans. But we do need to ask questions and sponsor healthy discussions. And, if nothing else, we need to apologize to the Native Americans. We aren’t responsible for what originally happened to them, but the wounds are still open. Some of us have ancestors in the Old World that were subject to similar persecutions, and that is why we need to help one another heal. We’ve repressed the pain over the successive generations. We need to forge relationships with the tribes that we live near and learn to cross bridges. Only by doing so will we be able to start healing our land and working together for a better tomorrow. The People and the Land are linked. We as modern Pagans are learning this. We are learning that no matter how far away we are from the Old World, the Gods in those lands will continue to call to us to rekindle the Eternal Flame. We are all called to respect one another and be keepers of the Paths that call to us.
But as Pagans in America we are in a unique position to heal old wounds. The Gods of the old lands and the new can help us to learn greatly from one another. We can learn to cherish the world that we live, because it is the only one that right now as of this writing we can call “home.” We can learn what is appropriate and what is not. We can learn how we can amalgamate with permission and how to participate with respect. We may be ripped from the sacred places of our Gods, but perhaps with dialogue and respect, we can help build new sacred places and groves in this land. We can be sensitive to the Gods and spirits of this land while bringing in our Old Gods as well. We can start anew, and our Flames can burn the brighter!
Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)
Rev. Luis A. Valadez
Farley, C. (2010) . “The New Age and Indigenous Spirituality: Searching for the Sacred.” Australia: Murdoch University. Retrieved from: http://www.academia.edu/1787909/The_new_age_and_indigenous_spirituality_searching_for_the_sacred
Kraemer, PhD., C.H. (March 2009) . “Cultural Borrowing/Cultural Appropriation: A Relationship Model for Respectful Borrowing.” Thorn Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.academia.edu/1117580/Cultural_Borrowing_Cultural_Appropriation_A_Relationship_Model_for_Respectful_Borrowing
Authors Various. (10 June 1993) . “Declaration of War against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.” Retrieved from: http://puffin.creighton.edu/lakota/war.html
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