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Thoughts on Cultural and Spiritual Appropriation
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NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
Culture Does Not Equal Race
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Article ID: 11311
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: April 15th. 2007
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Everybody has to start somewhere when it comes to paganism, magic and the like, and sometimes it can be pretty overwhelming looking at all the paths, traditions, and areas of study available to the seeker. I remember when I first became interested a decade ago I jumped into a number of topics—Norse runes, animal totems, herbalism, stones and crystals, with a mixture of generic neopaganism and neoshamanic techniques.
One piece of advice I got, and that I’ve seen tossed about quite a bit, is to try focusing on traditions and paths associated with your own biological heritage. Now, I’m a European mutt. I have German, English, French, Austrian, Czech and Alsatian (as in Alsace-Lorraine), among gods know what else, flowing through my veins and my DNA. However, during my early years I was enthralled by the idea of “Native American shamanism” and quite upset at times that my background was entirely white, especially as I really had no interest in any of the cultures my blood sprang from.
However, I had seen negative feedback online from people of various tribes about utterly clueless non-Natives “trying to be Indians”. Rather than risking the same reception, I drifted away from the books and card decks and other tools that claimed to teach “genuine Native American spirituality”, and instead developed my own practices and beliefs over the years.
I remember that on a number of occasions I had people tell me “You don’t have to be Native American to practice Native American beliefs”. Some, though not all, of these people were white, and very few of them had had any contact with the recognized tribes or had spent time on reservations. They had been raised similarly to me, in mainstream American Christian suburban households, and had discovered pagan religions on their own.
So why weren’t the Native folk themselves saying the same thing?
As I progressed in my path I began doing research on the idea of cultural appropriation, generally defined as one culture (usually the dominant one) taking parts of other, less locally powerful cultures, and using them for their own purposes, usually out of context. One theme that I kept seeing over and over again was the idea that just because someone is Native American in blood, doesn’t mean that s/he automatically practices the religion and culture of the tribe (s) of origin, even if s/he claims to.
And that got me thinking about all the people I’d met over the years who were just so proud to be 1/8 Cherokee, or 1/16 Blackfoot, and so forth, as if that somehow gave them more legitimacy in their magic and beliefs. The same thing went for those who bragged about their Celtic heritages, or how they had a suspected witch in their family tree. Yet very few of them had actually had contact with the cultures associated with their genetic backgrounds. Obviously we can’t connect with people of ancient Celtic or Norse cultures, but there are plenty of indigenous communities in America and elsewhere. However, I’ve only met one person, out of the hundreds I’ve come into contact with, who was raised within the culture whose religion she practiced and whose sacred traditions she was trained in.
People often confuse “race” with “culture”. These are not one and the same.
Race is purely biological; it’s a matter of the accident of your birth.
Culture, on the other hand, is entirely a human construct that is not dependent on the color of your skin.
However, race and culture have been strongly linked for most of human history simply because until recently we didn’t travel much out of a certain area, and so most areas had one particular race associated with it, divided up into numerous cultures. There may have been minor traits that were more common in one specific group than another due to limited choices in sexual partners, but these were linked to culture only nominally.
What I mean by all this is that you don’t have to be a member of a certain race to be a part of a certain culture. Look at mainstream American culture, for example—you have folks of all different genetic backgrounds watching reality TV, eating fast food and listening to the Top 40 on the radio. None of these are dependent upon race.
And the same thing goes for other cultures. Suppose you have a Japanese family who, for whatever reason, adopted a baby of Caucasian descent and raised it within modern Japanese culture. The only difference between that person and a full-blooded Japanese person raised identically is the genetic background, and possible racial issues associated with it. If everyone ignored the issue of race, however, that non-Japanese person would have the exact same capacity to learn the ways of that culture that everyone else did.
This also shoots holes in the argument by certain white supremacists who claim that only people of Norse descent can practice the Asatru religion and reconstructed ancient Norse culture. There is absolutely nothing that says that a person of, say, Ethiopian descent, couldn’t become an Asatruar. (To those who claim that the Aesir only love white people, I say “You know you have created God in your own image when your God hates the same people you do”.)
It’s even more ridiculous coming from Reconstructionists who weren’t even raised in ancient Norse/Celtic/insert name here cultures. Not a single one of them was raised in traditional, thousands-of-years-old ancient cultures. Even people born and raised in modern Scandinavia exist within a wholly different culture than the Vikings of yore.
And the practices of indigenous cultures worldwide impacted by colonization, genocide and other intrusions have more often than not been affected by those actions, which means that there are very few cultures left on this planet that are exactly the same way they were several hundred years ago.
While many Native Americans have tried to maintain their traditional cultures throughout the European invasion and genocides, what exists today is not the same as what was there even 150 years ago, let alone before the arrival of Columbus. This means that even these people are raised in a culture that is different in ways from that of their ancestors.
This brings me to the idea of learning about a culture that you weren’t raised in.
We don’t have any ancient Celts around to teach us what’s what. Sure, we have the modern Irish, but most of them are Christian.
Every Celtic Reconstructionist is an outsider to ancient Celtic culture. This doesn’t mean that this is a wasted path; it simply means that a modern Celtic recon’s viewpoint is going to be very different from what an ancient Celt’s perspective was, no matter how much Celtic blood you have in you.
And in the same way, a non-Native adopted into a particular tribe is going to have a different perspective on that culture compared to someone raised in it. It may be very subtle, especially as the years go on, and doesn’t make the adoptee a lesser person, early conditioning, as a general rule tends to affect our worldview later on in life.
I see no problem with wanting to practice a specific culture’s spirituality. However, if you haven’t been raised in that culture, and especially if you have little to no actual contact with it, you’re necessarily going to be taking its spiritual practices out of context. Reading a book on “Native American shamanism” or attending a weekend conference on core shamanism does not confer upon you official shamanic status in any known Native tribe.
Having a certain genetic background doesn’t necessarily predispose you to that bloodline’s cultural practices and religion. Just because you have 1/8 Cherokee in you doesn’t automatically make you an expert on Cherokee culture and religion, no matter how many books you’ve read, if you aren’t involved with the tribal culture. Additionally, there are plenty of Native folk of various tribes who are Christian and quite happy with it, and who have never set foot on a reservation.
And if you have two Celtic Reconstructionists, one who has a Celtic genetic background and one who does not, the former will not necessarily learn faster or more thoroughly than the latter.
Now, all that being said, if you feel drawn to the practices of a specific culture because of your racial heritage, there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is it wrong to be interested in a culture that comes from a totally different part of the world than your genes. However, if you want to practice the tradition within its own context, you need to get as much contact with that culture as possible. This is easier said than done.
A lot of indigenous people have become wary of those outside of their cultures simply because of the plague of clueless individuals expecting to be taught whatever they want “because, you know, all Native Americans are in touch with the land and it’s oh-so-romantic noble savage blah blah blah” or similar claptrap.
You can’t just waltz into a culture and expect to be welcomed with open arms, especially if you turn a blind eye to the less pleasant aspects (e.g. poverty stricken reservations, adoption of Christian beliefs over indigenous ones, etc).
Also, keep in mind that your race, unfortunately, can work against you. If you’re not of Native descent, you may meet some resistance when you first try to get involved with a particular tribe from people who’ve gotten burned once too many times by “twinkies”. 
And, as mentioned earlier, Norse (as well as other heathen) traditions sometimes have to deal with racists who attempt to make race and culture one and the same.
Even when race isn’t so much a problem, though, going in wholly ignorant can sabotage your efforts. Do some research first; there are website on just about everything, and many have suggestions for further reading, both online and on paper.
Remember, though, there is no book that can give you instant acceptance, and you should be wary of any book that promises to make you a genuine anything in and of itself. If anything, spouting words from the newest plastic shamanism text to someone on a reservation is just going to get you laughed at and/or ignored more often than not.
It doesn’t matter if the author claims to have studied with 43 different indigenous shamans on four continents and calls herself Eight-Elk-in-a-Row. A book is not a substitute for being a part of a culture and learning spiritual and related practices in their original context.
Now, if you choose to use these practices out of context, that’s your business. Just don’t go around saying you’re the real deal.
There’s no shame in admitting that your practice isn’t 5, 000 years old if it’s something that you pieced together yourself. Most Wiccans, after all, admit now that Wicca isn’t really the oldest religion in the world—it hasn’t made them any less legitimate for it. (If anything, the honesty in origins increases perceived legitimacy in the eyes of others.)
In the end, of course, these are all personal choices. There will always be people who wish to extend themselves outside of the culture they were raised in, and that’s just fine.
Just remember that race is a wholly different animal than culture, no matter how often they get mistaken for each other.
 "Twinkie" is a term for a (usually) white person who follows a particularly watered-down appropriated version of Native American beliefs, but calls it genuine and may even get angry at tribe members who point out the discrepancies in their beliefs compared to traditional lore. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twinkie_%28slur%29 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_shaman for more details.
Copyright: Copyright Lupa, 2006. If you want others to read this, instead of cutting and pasting PLEASE just link to this page.
Location: Portland, Oregon
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Bio: Lupa is an animistic pagan and experimental magician living with her mate and fellow author, Taylor Ellwood, in Seattle, along with a cat, a lizard, adn too many books and art supplies. She is the author of "Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic", "A Field Guide to Otherkin" (March 2007) and "Kink Magic: Sex Magic Beyond Vanilla" (with Taylor Ellwood, 2007) .
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