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Thoughts on Cultural and Spiritual Appropriation
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Breaking the Law of Return
NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
Pagans and Cultural Appropriation
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Article ID: 10725
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: May 21st. 2006
Times Viewed: 9,809
When I first discovered magic and Paganism and all that fun stuff, I was in a small town whose only source for any information on the topic was a little health food store (this was before I discovered the wonders of the Internet). They didn't have much on Wicca and Paganism, but what they did have was a shelf full of books of "genuine Native American teachings". My biggest interest was animal magic, so I started with a couple of books on totemism and went from there. I also read about sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, and White Buffalo Calf Woman. I'd even thought about trying to find a real Native American teacher to teach me more about these genuine Native American ways, because they dealt with animals and nature and everything else I found fascinating.
It wasn't until a bit later, when I did have the Internet, and access to bigger bookstores and other Pagans, that I started running across ideas that went counter to what I'd been reading. I found, for instance, that many of these authors claiming to be Native were (like me) European in descent, that they'd changed their names to sound more authentic, and that some of the clans they were a part of had absolutely no tribal affiliation whatsoever. And after I started researching individual tribes (and finding out that Native America is not just one big Great-Spirit-lovin' monoculture), I wondered why so many of the books talked about "Native American this" or "Native Americans believe that", without any specific tribal reference.
By this time, like a lot of other people, I'd stopped relying on books for anything more than different perspectives. I'd formulated the basis for my own beliefs and magical practice and no longer felt the need to take things wholesale out of what someone else had written. In fact, I pretty much lost interest in studying any particular culture or tradition and instead started focusing on systems--such as animal magic--across the board. Much of what I believe and practice today, in fact, stems from my own observations and experimentation.
But recently, a decade since my first dabblings in magic, the idea of cultural appropriation made its way into the forefront of my life again. Part of it is due to moving to the Pacific Northwest, which has a significant Native American population. Some of it also has been a recent read of mine, Sarah M. Pike's sociological study of Pagan culture, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves. In this book, she dedicates an entire chapter to the appropriating of Native culture by Pagans. The Natives are beyond restless--some have even gone so far as to say that appropriation is cultural genocide, that by taking aspects of different tribes' religions and cultures out of context, Pagans are just contributing to the further desecration of their already-damaged cultures. The Pagans, on the other hand, reply that either the beliefs/gods/spirits chose them, or that the path is right regardless of genetic background.(1)
Reading more about the issue prompted me to do some research on Native viewpoints, since I've been exposed to the Pagan viewpoint for years. I quickly came across terms like "plastic shamans" and "twinkies", terms that some Natives use for white people who take Native traditions, and particularly those who then present themselves as genuine teachers of Native lore. In fact, the majority of the ire seems to be directed towards authors and teachers who aren't Native, or who might have some genetic background but absolutely no tribal affiliation, and who either learned from--or wrote--books like the ones I first came across.
There are a number of websites that exist primarily to debunk plastic shamans. Some of them simply give counter-information. One example states that:
There are absolutely NO legitimate Traditional Healers, Medicine Men or Women, Spiritual Advisors that you will find on the Internet. I make this bold statement because it is a true statement, and anyone who is really involved in Indian Country to any extent will share with you the knowledge that our Traditional Teachers are NOT found via the Internet, nor can they be.
Traditional Tribal Teachers are just that... Those that teach traditional culture teach their knowledge only to those whom they themselves believe will utilize such teachings in a respectful and honorable way for the betterment of their people. And further to this statement, they do not teach outside of traditionally established laws and circumstances, nor do they advertise themselves.
You will most certainly NEVER hear of a legitimate Medicine Man or Woman ever proclaim to be such even if they use the Internet, which is rare, as most of our honored teachers are elders of our respective tribes and most simply do not have a computer. (2)
Others go so far as to list people they consider to be plastic shamans by name. They tell why these people aren't genuine (in their eyes) and sometimes even link to their websites so that people can find out for themselves. One list even showed a couple of Pagans that I had thought were legitimate, but are being accused of fraud. (3)
Of course, this should all be taken into context. Humans are notoriously territorial and petty, regardless of culture. Pagans aren't the only ones who get into Witch wars--the name just changes per culture. I even saw one debunking website (4) that denounced another one(5) ! Still, I believe these people definitely have a point, and anyone who does incorporate Native American cultural influences into their Paganism should be aware of how they may be viewed by the tribes themselves.
The complaints may center on those who are more visible, and who openly claim to be something other than what they are (or so it's said). But there's a lot of venom aimed towards Pagans who simply incorporate aspects of some tribes' practices into their own. Everything from using silver sage to smudge a circle, to using a sweat lodge, is criticized as appropriation. Some have even gone so far as to say that a sweat set up by someone who is not trained in a traditional manner won't work. In fact, many times we're all sort of lumped into one group of "twinkies" or "Nuagers"--even if we say otherwise.
Now I, for myself, have never claimed to be anything other than the German-English-Austrian-French-Czech-Alsatian mutt that I am. I've never claimed a tribal affiliation, or given myself a made-up "Indian name" like Wolf-Runs-in-Circles. (The closest I got was jumping on the Adjective CelestialbodyAnimal Pagan name bandwagon for a bit.) I finally just settled on Lupa. It's short, it's to the point, and I like Latin. (I've yet to have anyone ask me if I'm of Italian descent. The answer is no.)
But my artwork incorporates animal parts and beadwork, and has been mistaken for Native American art before. I'm always careful to tell people that I'm white, I have no tribal affiliations, and all the designs are mine. Still, the assumptions are made. The same thing goes for my writing and presentations. My first book includes a chapter on totemism, and I've been careful to explain the differences between traditional totemism, and modern Pagan totemism. The same goes for when I present on the topic. So for that alone, I feel the need to for sensitivity and disclaimers. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but then again, I'm not the one defending what's left of my culture.
On the other hand, I don't feel the need to discard everything that is even remotely related to what some Native people do, even if it's only other people's mistaken assumptions. One comment I've seen on some of the anti-appropriation sites is "Why don't these white people just go back on their own roots instead of ours?" Well, first of all, I don't have just one heritage. Just as Native America isn't one big culture, neither is Europe. Even individual countries have numerous cultures, especially when you go back before globalization. In addition, I personally have no interest in learning about any one culture. No single one interests me. I consider myself American by birth, but the culture I have is that which I make for myself, since I don't even really resonate with mainstream American culture. However, what interest me are systems of magic and belief--like totemism, or the use of animal parts in ritual. Maybe it's just the Chaos magician in me, but I want to learn about specific items across the board, not immerse myself in a culture other than mine.
I am not going to stop working totemic and other animal magics just because somebody doesn't like my using the word "totem". Totemism is a universal concept found in almost all hunter-gatherer cultures; I use the word "totem" for its familiarity. I'm also not going to stop using silver sage to purify my artwork once it's done (along with other rituals I've developed on my own) . The animal spirits like it, and it works better than other methods I've tried. Nor am I going to change the directional colors and animals I use in my own worldview, even though they were influenced by my reading those questionable books early on. I tried changing the animals and colors to something more appropriately European once, and found that they just didn't work so well as what I'd had before.
However, I do acknowledge where all my material comes from. Most of it, honestly, is mine. When I talk or write about totems, I primarily use material from my own explorations and experimentations with them. I don't talk about the four, six, or seven totems that the books I read say are "genuine Native American correspondences!" Rather, I use the techniques and information that I've developed on my own. When I do use something inspired by another culture, like the sage, or my occasional participation in a Pagan-run sweat lodge (which I do find very effective, thanks) I do acknowledge where they came from, and that neither I, nor the people involved in them, are anything but what we are.
Then there's the wolf dancing. Anybody who's been to the fires at Sirius Rising with me has seen me dancing in absolutely nothing but a wolf skin. I can't remember how many times people have asked me what my tribe was, or who taught me that, or if I'd ever danced at a powwow. You know who taught me? The Wolf spirit, back in 2001. I had bought the skin a few years earlier, and had kept him around my ritual area. One day, I was working on artwork, and the spirit came and whispered an idea into my ear. That idea turned into me tying the skin to my own body and dancing around my living room in it, invoking the spirit into my own body so he could have a body to move in again, if only for a little while.
I learned that on my own. I didn't look at powwow dancers who incorporate skins into their regalia and think, "Hmmm, I could do that, but the fire's so hot at gatherings, and they're wearing a lot of other stuff, so I'll just wear the wolfskin." I didn't even see a powwow until a year and a half after my first wolf dance, when I visited South Dakota. The wolf dancing just happened one night, when I was inspired to sit in my workroom and play with my art supplies and the spirits.
I'm still trying to find my happy balance in all this. I don't want to give up what works for me, what has become a part of me over the last decade. Still, I want to be sensitive to people who feel that what's left of their culture is still being shredded and divvied up among the victors. And I want to give credit where credit is due. I want to admit when something is mine, rather than trying to legitimize it through lies. And I also want to admit when something has come from another culture--but also be able to say that this is why it works for me.
(1) Pike, Sarah M. "Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community." Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 123-154.
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Location: Portland, Oregon
Author's Profile: To learn more about Lupa - Click HERE
Bio: Lupa is a twenty-something who recently moved to Seattle with her mate, Taylor Ellwood. She's in love with the mountains, and thinks it's an excellent environment for magic, writing and artwork. Her first book, "Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic" (May 2006 - Immanion Press) is available, and her current project is a book on Otherkin.
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