The Cultural Quandary

First, I want to extend a big thank you to everyone who commented on my last post about cultural appropriation. Consider this a general reply, since there seems to be a common theme among most of what people had to say.

I feel a bit like there was some misconception that I am not secure in my own path. The point I was trying to make in my last post was not “I feel unsure in my path”, but “I feel unsure about the best practices in addressing cultural appropriation and shamanism, because it seems every single possible solution that is brought up is invariably attacked by someone claiming it’s appropriation”. I am comfortable in my own balance and my practice, but I want to continue to be a constructive participant in the wider discussion of appropriation. My frustration comes down to wondering what there is beside the complaints that seem to dominate the dialogue. I’ve seen very little from critics on what’s going right; it seems no potential solution is without its attackers. It’s like being a ship in a storm with people yelling “WRONG WAY! WRONG WAY!” no matter which way we turn, and not single person saying “Here, here’s a safer path”.

Some of you brought up the idea that maybe there will always be people who are never satisfied, no matter what. On the one hand, it would seem lovely to just ignore the naysayers entirely. But I worry that if I do that, people who have felt shut out for generations will just continue to feel shut out. So the quandary is how to determine what’s signal and what’s noise, and how to navigate that without falling into old cultural patterns of oppression.

This is What Frustration Looks Like

Okay. This is going to be more of a disjointed rant than a highly polished essay, so bear with me.

I try really, really, really, really, really, really hard to be aware of issues of cultural appropriation when it comes to shamanism, and paganism in general. I do my best to address them both in theory and practice. And yet I still feel like no matter what I do, it’s still treading on someone’s toes somewhere. Not that I need to please everyone, but as a member of the dominant culture drawn to work with certain spirits in a particular neoshamanic paradigm, I like to at least think I’m putting forth effort to address the issues of racism, appropriation, and oppression in non-indigenous shamanic practices. And I’m open to more suggestions on how I can do better. I do my best to listen.

But sometimes even I get confused as to what’s supposed to be the best practice. Here are all the messages I’ve gotten from different people on what we should be doing to “do it right”:

–That’s not what shamans do! You actually need to know what indigenous shamans do, so find out more about them.
–Actually, don’t find out about indigenous non-European traditions if you’re not part of them because they’re not yours to use. Look to your European ancestors’ traditions instead.
–Don’t look to your European ancestors’ traditions because you’re an American, not German/Celtic/Slavic/etc. in culture. Create your own traditions.
–Wait! Stop creating your own shamanic tradition from your own cultural perspective! You’re appropriating by looking at general concepts from other cultures and you can’t do that! Go make something of your own without any inspiration from any other culture.
–You’re creating a tradition from scratch? How n00bish. Quit pretending and go find out what real shamans do.
–Don’t call yourself a shaman. Call yourself a witch. Except that’s not really what witches do.
–Actually, call yourself a druid. Druids are European, right? And they like trees, too!
–Or here, how about this other non-shaman term whose commonly understood connotation really doesn’t quite fit what you do and may still piss someone off?

And so forth. Do you see how this can get frustrating? Yes, these are all coming from different people; the critics of neoshamanism are not a monolithic group. And I am exaggerating and generalizing those statements above somewhat, but I’m also trying to make the point that in all the criticism of non-indigenous shamanisms, there’s never really been one good, solid answer on how to address the known issues, to include from the critics both within and outside of neoshamanic practice.

I guess I just don’t want to see non-indigenous shamanic practitioners get so frustrated with being constantly told what they’re doing wrong that they end up ignoring all the criticisms entirely, and go their own way without even considering the potential negative effects they could have. Let me say this, to be clear–I am in complete agreement that there’s plenty of fucked-uped-ness in neoshamanism. There are still a lot of people who are utterly racist and may not even know it, who romanticize indigenous cultures, and even those who knowingly misrepresent themselves for profit. I think there are good reasons for the criticism. Where my frustration is isn’t even that we’re not getting special acknowledgement cookies for trying harder to not be racist and appropriative. And while the experience of Minority A is not the same as the experience of Minority B, I’ve tried thinking about my own experiences as a woman trying to explain misogyny to people and how frustrating that can be, and wonder if indigenous people get the same sort of frustration trying to explain appropriation to others. So this isn’t just “It’s all YOUR fault for not telling me what to do!” I know the answer is to listen to the people who are oppressed, and I’m trying my very best to have my ears open to what they’re saying, to voices that have too often been silenced.

But I’m also at my wit’s end today, having watched yet another attempt to create a conceptual shamanism for a culture that never had it get torn down as racist and appropriative. There has to be some answer in between “Just ignore the critics because they don’t have anything useful to say” and “if you don’t already have a shamanic tradition in your culture then you don’t get to practice shamanism ever”. I just don’t know where that is right this moment, beyond my own personal solution that I’ve been sharing here for years.

So. What do you all think?

Cultural Appropriation 101 for Dead Critter Artists

In recent years, wearable art with animal parts has become downright trendy, particularly, though not exclusively, among twenty-something hipsters and their “ironic” ilk. Feathered earrings are all the rage, fox tails are on everyone’s purse and belt loop, and “hipster headdresses” are showing up everywhere from college campuses to Coachella.

Unfortunately, some artists are participating in an older, undesirable tradition: cultural appropriation. For decades, particularly since “going Native” became cool with the hippies in the 1960s, non-Native people have been grabbing bits and parts of various Native American cultures—or at least what they think “playing Indian” is supposed to be like. And there are those who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Native artists or purveyors of Native art, when they’re in actuality not associated with any tribe, and may even be reselling dreamcatchers and other things made in China.

So why is this a problem? Read on:

–What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the borrowing/theft of elements of one culture from another. More specifically, the culture doing the appropriating is generally more powerful than the one being borrowed from, and often there is a history of oppression and even genocide. Appropriators generally don’t think about the effects the appropriation could have because it’s part of their privilege to not have to think about things like that.

Anyone have a source for this? I got it from Native Appropriations, who were also looking for the source. Artist! We want to credit you!

Most commonly with regards to dead critter art, appropriators are cashing in on “Native American mystique”, either accidentally or intentionally misusing elements or perceived elements of Native American cultures in their art. This is not just a case of mistaken identity, as in happening to use animal parts in your work and having someone else accidentally assume it’s Native, but rather things like people “dressing up like Indians”, or mass-produced dreamcatcher car air fresheners. Hipster headdresses are an especially bad trend; these are quasi-Plains-tribe feathered headdresses, like old Indian “warbonnets” from 20th century Westerns, worn by (almost always white) hipsters for “irony”.

–Why does it matter?

There are a few reasons:

First, racial stereotyping. There are still entirely too many people who think that Indians are just imaginary beings that exist in some romanticized past, or are all horse-riding savages out on the plains, or are all unemployed alcoholics, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Artistic appropriators usually draw on the “noble savage” stereotype, where Native Americans are hyper-idealized as nature-loving, broken-English-speaking shaman-elders dispensing medicine to wide-eyed whites. That, or they draw on the “all natives wear feathers and buckskin” stereotype, drawing together some Hollywoodized smattering of supposed Plains Indian traits into a cultural trainwreck.

Second, buying “native-inspired artwork” does nothing to help actual Native people. This includes artists who may have some Native blood in their background, but have absolutely no contact with any indigenous cultures. News flash: being 1/16 Cherokee does not predispose you to being able to work with dead animals in your art, nor does it make you an expert on your distant family’s culture if you’ve had no contact with your tribe. While certainly not all Native people live on reservations and not all are impoverished or struggling with addiction, the truth is that many reservations are among the poorest places in the United States and this all too often gets ignored and even encouraged by non-natives. The money that goes to non-Native artists posing as “Native” could be going to actual Native artists, either on or off the reservations.

Third, continuing to pander to stereotypes does nothing to help these issues or the people affected by them. Playing dress-up Indian just sends the message that Native people are stereotypes, costumes, images, and otherwise not real people. Additionally, the confusion can draw attention away from actual Native artists who are trying to get their work out there and clarify what is and isn’t genuine tribal artwork. “Hey! We’re over here! Someone pay attention?” often gets drowned out by “NEW NAVAJO NATIONS SHIRT ON SALE 50% OFF AT URBAN OUTFITTERS!!!!!” If we’re going to have any hope of turning these harmful trends around, we need to be paying better attention than we have been.

Now, for some more specific points:

–Why is it bad to associate feathers and antlers and furs with Native American art? Don’t they use these things in their work, too?

Some of them do, some of them don’t. The sort of indigenous artwork you’ll find in Guatemala is very different from what you’ll see in South Dakota, which is all different from what you’d find in British Columbia, and then on into Alaska. And while many modern Native artists do incorporate these things in their work, not all stick to traditional art forms and patterns; there’s just as much innovation of new designs among Native artists as anyone else. So just as there’s no such thing as a monolithic “Native American culture” or “Native American spirituality”, so there isn’t one single style of “Native American art”.

And as a side note, if you think about it, “Native American” as a general title is a remnant of what’s happened to a diversity of cultures over the past five centuries. Most non-Natives wouldn’t take the time to identify someone as Cherokee, or Salish, or Diné. And so to those non-Native people, “Native American” is as specific as they feel they need to get, effectively erasing cultural diversity even further. “Native American” as a concept didn’t exist 521 years ago.

Anyway, back to art—yes, some indigenous artists use animal parts in their work, but some don’t. And of those that do, the exact materials they use, and how they incorporate them, varies not just from tribe to tribe, but from artist to artist. Some tribes use almost nothing in the way of animal parts in their work, or none at all; others’ art looks very different from the buckskin shirts and feathers found in some Plains tribe artisanry. For example, weaving plays a significant part in a number of tribes’ art and culture, from Guatemalan sheepherding cultures, to the Chilkat weaving of Northwestern tribes. Woodcarving is also important in the Northwest and elsewhere, and far north the Inuit are known for intricate carving of bone and ivory.

Also, assuming that ANY art with animal parts is Native or stealing from Natives is itself a form of stereotyping. This essay was prompted in part by a situation where a neopagan artist was using very personalized designs in her art with animal parts, designs that anyone even barely familiar with actual Native art would know weren’t indigenous. Someone called her out as an appropriator simply because she had a piece with an antler and some feathers. That critic was furthering stereotypes herself, by automatically equating dead animal parts with Native art, as if that’s all that indigenous people ever use. I think I’ve made the point that “Native American art” is much more than antlers and feathers, and to continue the idea that antlers and feathers is all it is is just more limiting and stereotypical.

–“So why can’t I have my hipster headdress? It’s just ‘Native American INSPIRED’”.

It’s also racist. I’ve been sorely tempted on more than one occasion to ask someone in a hipster headdress “So, do you wear blackface on Tuesdays?” Think about that for a moment. American culture (other than a few pockets of pure ignorance) has rejected the stereotyping of black people by blackface performers. We see what’s wrong with it, and so we don’t do it anymore.

But in the same way that blackface was a farcical, marginalizing stereotype of African Americans, so hipster headdresses and similar “Native-inspired” art can do the same to Indians, yet fewer people are speaking out about it. Really, how does wearing chicken feathers on your head and acrylic paint on your face honor people whose homes were forcibly taken from them, whose numbers were drastically reduced to just a fraction of what they were by deliberate mass murder, and who today still often suffer the consequences of physical and cultural genocide?

Keep it classy. Source: http://arcj.blogspot.com/2007/09/cowboys-and-indians.html with hat tip to Native Appropriations

Unfortunately, indigenous people are still all too often made invisible in civil rights efforts. So most people don’t see what the issue is with chicken feather headdresses and “Pocahotties” at cowboy-and-Indian-themed frat parties because they haven’t encountered any opposition to it. The current hipster headdress trend doesn’t help this invisibility one bit; it simply reinforces the idea that “playing Indian” is somehow okay. (By the by, this is a MUCH more detailed and eloquent explanation of what’s wrong with hipster headdresses.)

–But so and so is Native American and they said my artwork was cool!

Well, yes. Native Americans aren’t one big group in full agreement on everything. Some are going to think that there’s nothing wrong with the made in China dreamcatchers and may just think the hipsters in headdresses are silly, nothing more. Others are more pissed off about the effects they see these things having on their people and other tribes.

It’s because some of them are upset that I feel it’s worth paying attention to. If Person A isn’t upset about something but Person B is, it doesn’t mean that I should just assume Person B is full of shit because it suits my personal interests to do so, especially in a situation where there has been definite damage done to the ancestors and cultures of both Persons A and B by people not listening to them. And, on top of it, as a person who is NOT a part of an indigenous culture, I have even less authority to decide that that complaint is worthless. Finally, given the history of white people NOT listening to Natives’ complaints, to include today, do I really want to continue in that tradition of not-listening?

–So what can I do to help?

First and foremost: educate the fuck out of yourself. Check out the Native Appropriations blog at http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/ and read the archives, as well as checking out the blogroll. For a historical perspective, read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. If it seems like each chapter is just telling the same story over and over again but with different people in each, then that should tell you something about the consistency of how badly various tribes were treated. If you have a Netflix account, both Reel Injun and Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action are on instant queue. These are just a few tiny starting points, but even they can be good eye-openers.

Study up on actual Native artwork, too. Some art and history museums have collections (however ill-gotten) of artwork and artifacts of various tribes. Read up on various tribes’ artworks, both historical and contemporary. Head over to sites like http://www.nativeart.net/ and http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/native-american-art-entertainment. If you want to buy genuine Native American artwork, ask the artist about their tribal connections, and make sure you’re buying from the right people (powwows are a good starting place). Oh, and make yourself familiar with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

Second, take a good long look at your own artwork. Have you been trying to make Native-style artwork? Are you still developing your own style, and are there ways you can make it more your own rather than borrowing from others? I’ve been developing my own work for over a decade, and I still periodically look over what I’m doing to make sure that I’m not encroaching on someone’s traditional designs; it’s part of why I no longer use loomed and applique beadwork in my art, and why I no longer make dreamcatchers, as a couple of examples.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2011.

Presentation is important, too. I have a big disclaimer on my artwork page on my website and in the main description of my Etsy store that specifically says I’m not Native and I’ve never claimed to be. I’m even wary of using certain key words in my Etsy listings; I’m okay with using the fairly generic “pagan” and “shaman” as they’re a part of my background as a neopagan since the 1990s. (However, I’m also aware of how neopagan culture has itself appropriated from indigenous cultures, as well as the troubled recent history of the word “shaman”.) I’m less okay with keywords like “medicine”, even though I know that people looking for generic little leather bags will use that term, which has been drawn further and further away from its origins much in the same way as “shaman” and “totem”. But I refuse to use “Native American” on my listings (with one exception) even though it would probably get me more hits from people who don’t know the difference between a Native American artist and someone who makes stuff out of deerskin.

Third: find your own balance. I’ve explained above how I have my boundaries currently set, and those may change over time. Even writing out this article has given me reason to test those boundaries and how I feel about them. You may not be as concerned as I am, and be okay with making dreamcatchers as a non-Native person, or not see an issue with using the term “Native-inspired”. Or, for that matter, you might be even stricter and see my calling myself a “shaman” or using the term “headdress” for the wearable animal hides I make as appropriative actions in and of themselves. I can’t decide for you where your boundaries are, though I will respect you more for at least giving them thought.

And that’s really where I want to leave this for now–something for people to chew on, and think about, and discuss further. Feel free to link to this, if you like; it’s a public post.

The “S” Word

Recently I got into a Twitter conversation with a few awesome folks about the use of the word “shaman” for distinctly non-indigenous (and non-Evenk) practitioners. I’ve also read a couple of recent blog posts talking about the issue, or at least mentioning it.

I do use the term “shaman” self-referentially. I do not see what I do as being the same as what an Evenk shaman does, or what the holy person/medicine person/etc. of another indigenous culture does. Everything I do, I do with the conscious realization that I am a white chick from the Midwest, whose closest cultural appelation might be “neopagan progressive geek urban dweller who escapes to the woods when she can”. What I do is self-created and self-taught, honed by experience, but also by trading notes with other, largely non-indigenous practitioners. I am also aware that using a term that was cultivated in form and context in a largely collective, communal culture a half a world away, with largely male practitioners, and a decidedly not-urban landscape. I am quite familiar with the word’s roots.

But language is fluid. It grows, and it shifts, and it evolves over time. No matter how much we may rage against it, the current of language change can’t be stopped. It’s why I speak modern English, not any of the previous variants used by Shakespeare or Chaucer, or even earlier writers. English is especially notorious for nabbing whatever words it likes–as the infamous quote by James Nicoll goes, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. Which really does speak to the violence that English-speaking populations have done to others, admittedly.

And I do carry that knowledge of how the term “shaman” came to be assimilated into English with a broader set of definitions than the original. We first came by it through the work of anthropologists who were largely working from a Eurocentric perspective, studying people who were being oppressed, and sometimes contributing to that oppression, even if unwittingly at times, through patronizing or otherwise inaccurate portrayals. Later, the word was “borrowed” by neoshamanic practitioners, some of whom misrepresented what they were doing as indigenous. This helped the term “shaman” go from referring to a very specific practitioner in the Evenk culture, to being applied to just about anything that looks primitive (just try searching for “shaman” on Etsy sometime!).

Despite all this, I still use the term “shaman” for myself. In part, it’s because of familiarity. Just like “totem”, a lot of people in this culture have at least some vague idea of what a shaman is (in the broad sense), and it’s just easier than trying to use a new word and then explain it to everyone I talk to about this stuff, who will then most likely go “Oh, you mean like SHAMANISM!”

However, I will admit that I also feel a kinship to shamanic practitioners of various cultures. Note that I am not saying I feel that what I am doing is exactly what they’re doing. Many indigenous practitioners go through trials and training I can’t even imagine. Hell, even the non-shamanic rites of passage of some cultures would have me running hard in the other direction, happy to embrace my cowardice and childishnes (Google “bullet ant ritual” and you’ll see what I mean. Yikes.). But I have gone through my own challenges as well. Anyone who has been through graduate school knows that it’s meant, in part, to weed out those who aren’t quite a good fit for their chosen field. And the program I went through to get my counseling psych degree was both intellectually and emotionally challenging on a regular basis; there’s a reason one of the requirements for completing the program was getting at least ten hours of counseling as a client. All these things also contributed to my own growth as a shaman, parallel to their “mundane” purposes.

I choose the term “shaman” to acknowledge that I have been through these and other passages, even before the grad school process, that I have spent years cultivating relationships with the spirits, and doing work on the behalf of both them and my community (and I have a very broad idea of community, and it’s not all human). I don’t feel that it’s too proud to acknowledge the work I have shown, and to connect that to my efforts to be as close to a shamanic figure in this culture as I can be. We don’t have a single “shaman” role in this culture; it simply was never there. But I have chosen to live out roles that I feel are analogous, as much as they can be. I am doing the very best that I can with what I have on hand–and what I have is fifteen years of experience, reading, practice, mistakes, and a whole host of other day to day factors that have all built up into this path I am continuing to form as I go.

I feel that sometimes refusing to use the term “shaman” is a subtle way of saying–or fearing that someone will say–that what we do in this culture isn’t as good, or as effective, or as spiritually connected, as what indigenous people do. I am tired of the unspoken value judgement that says that non-indigenous shamanisms can’t be as good or as effective for the cultures they are created in because they aren’t as old or as well-traveled as indigenous shamanisms, that a non-indigenous person who goes and trains in Peru or Brazil or Siberia or even here in the states on a reservation is automatically practicing a path that is superior. Maybe that fear started out as a check on those who didn’t think about things like cultural appropriation, or who just read a book or two and called themselves “shamans”.

But I am tired of it being off-limits to people who have put in the work, just because that work may have been from a lot of solo trial and error instead of from a teacher of a long-standing tradition. And so as a way of acknowledging the work I’ve put into this path over the years, I use the term “shaman” in its broader context, with an awareness of its roots, a caution surrounding its weaknesses, and an eye toward its healthier cultivation in relation to a variety of traditions.

I am a shaman.

Social Justice and the Shaman as Intermediary

Right now, I’m pissed off about a number of things. I’m angry that the death penalty is still used in the United States, and that today two men, one of whom had a lot of evidence pointing to his innocence, were killed by lethal injection. I’m angry that racism still exists in neopaganism. I’m angry that many areas of neoshamanism still seem to be largely concerned with white people flying to “exotic” far-off lands and spending money that could feed families in those lands for months. I’m angry that pagans and shamans and their ilk aren’t questioning the inherent privileges associated with even being able to consider things like wilderness and environmentalism and sustainability.

We face HUGE problems these days. It’s not just whether the crops will fail or whether the next village over will send their warriors to attack us, though these can even today be massive localized catastrophes. Instead, we have systemic racism, sexism, and other inequalities and injustices. We have a precariously balanced economy based largely on promises and virtual currencies, and which favors increasingly unequal distributions of resources. We have wars involving unbelievably lethal technology, and those who suffer most are the most disempowered. Climate change is a scientifically proven reality, and regardless of whether we caused it or not, we still face the unknown consequences of this shift, never mind the things we are responsible for like numerous species extinctions. We are much larger groups of people, and our problems have escalated in scale to match.

And yet neoshamans persist in working with templates that are based on older, smaller cultures’ shamanisms. To an extent, yes, you can learn from your predecessors, but it doesn’t do a damned bit of good if you can’t apply it to your own community’s unique situation. We face greater systemic problems than ever. It is no longer enough to only treat the symptoms of the client. The shaman’s role is not just on the person-to-person level, though this is important, and will never cease to be important. But most of the material on shamanism out there is on that level alone. We need to refocus neoshamanisms in ways that increase the shaman-to-society level of engagement, because society is the matrix in which clients and shamans alike are conditioned, and an unhealthy environment makes for unhealthy people.

I maintain that the fundamental role of a shamanic figure–at least as close to anything “universal” as you can get with varied positions in numerous cultures–is as an intermediary. Shamans bridge gaps between their society and other societies; or between humans and the rest of nature; or the physical world and the spiritual world; or between the individual and their self; or some combination thereof. In order to do this, you have to be ready and willing to engage with your community to the fullest extent possible. You have to meet your clients where they’re coming from. Our job is to be the one willing to reach out when no one else will. We have to challenge our comfort zones to a great degree, more than the average person in our communities. And we have a lot more potential discomforts to face.

This is no easy task. In many ways it is every bit as challenging and dangerous, if not more so, than traversing the riskiest realms of the Otherworld. But it is our duty as shamans to be the ones to make the first move, to reach out into the uncomfortable spaces and extend ourselves towards those in need, even at risk to ourselves. Shamanism as intermediary work requires us to bravely confront both the internal landscape where our biases live, on through potential interpersonal conflict involving other individuals, and the greater systemic problems that we as a society face regardless of background (though our unique background does affect the angle at which we face the system). Neoshamanisms, for the most part, leave their practitioners woefully underprepared to approach the systemic level of things, especially the human systems.

This is what I propose we need to do as shamanic practitioners if we are to more fully take on a role as social intermediary:

–We need to stop hiding out in other people’s cultures, and root our neoshamanisms more consciously and deeply in our own.

All cultures have things of great value, and I love how globalization has allowed a greater and more varied interplay and exchange of ideas, practices, and materials around the world (though access to that interplay is still mediated to a great degree by various factors such as socioeconomic status and access to education). But cultural elements are not plug and play. If you take something out of its original culture, to include a shamanism, it is necessarily changed by exposure to the new context. Just as a shaman needs to be able to bring things back from the places s/he travels to and utilize it in hir own community, so we need to be better at integrating what we learn from other cultures into relevant frameworks for this one. Most clients in the U.S., for example, aren’t going to want to work with someone taking ayahuasca, let alone take it themselves. But what is the ayahuasca trip supposed to do, and what’s a corresponding practice that is more appropriate to this culture? Great, take your five-figure trip to Peru and have your seminar and special training–value what you bring home, but then make it useful to home. If you’re from Brooklyn, don’t try to be a Peruvian shaman in Brooklyn. Be a Brooklyn shaman who brought some neat stuff from Peru to add to your Brooklyn toolkit. (P.S. Yes, I know ayahuasca isn’t from Peru. The examples of ayahuasca and Peruvian shamanic retreats were two common examples, but not linked together by anything other than proximity in the same paragraph.)

–We need to stop hiding in the wilderness in order to “purify” ourselves of the “taint” of humanity.

This has been weighing on my mind a lot lately, if you haven’t been paying attention to recent writings here. As an ecopsychologist, I am fully aware of and supportive of the restorative powers of nonhuman nature, from gardens to wildernesses to a single potted plant on a sunny windowsill. Walking through a downtown city park is nowhere near the same as hiking through remote old growth forest. And the latter has benefits that many people may never find in the former. The problem is in seeing ourselves as divorced from the wilderness–and whether we justify it through saying we’re superior, or through saying we’re a blight, the consequence is still the same. We widen the artificial divide that we perceive between ourselves and everything else. Worse, those of us who have learned to appreciate “nature” deny others the opportunity to do the same when we enter into the wilderness to “get away from everyone else”, as though “everyone else” has no right to be there with us. Solitude is one thing. Solitude can be healthy. But when we reluctantly re-enter human civilization as some loathsome fate, we are less likely to see fellow humans as deprived of the slaking draught of wilderness we have received. Anyone is a potential client, and those who have the most negative view toward nature may be those who are in the most need of reconnecting with it in a healthy manner. If we see our role as facilitating that connection, we have to examine our biases against humanity as “the enemy”, and instead have compassion for those who may see the wilderness as a worthless or even dangerous thing. We can’t bridge that gap if we only spend our time on the wilderness’ side of things.

–We need to stop hiding behind the spirit world as a way to keep from engaging with the physical world.

Yes, many shamanisms are largely about serving the spirits. But what good is a shaman who can only interact with spirits, and can’t complete the connection back to the physical world? If you only spend your time journeying and only serve the needs of the spirits, then you’re only doing part of the job. And it’s easy to get lost in one’s own Unverified Personal Gnosis. I have seen entirely too many shamans, spirit workers, and other such practitioners blatantly displaying all manner of dysfunction toward themselves and others while justifying it as “well, the gods/spirits/etc. told me, and it fits in with the rest of my paradigm, so it MUST be true!” Word to the wise: be a skeptic, especially when you don’t have much in the way of external validation (and especially if your outside validation consists primarily of people who think and believe like you do). If your UPG is saying you should isolate yourself from people you normally enjoy spending time with (when engaged in healthy activities), or that you’re justified in self-gratifying behaviors that wreak havoc on the relationships and lives of others, or that you should make some drastic decision in the moment without considering other alternatives, then it’s a pretty good indication that you’re getting too detached from the physical end of reality. Would you do these things in good conscience if you didn’t have spirits supposedly telling you what to do? Are you just engaging in escapism to ignore the problems of the world and your own life? All too often shamanism and other spiritualities neglect to ground themselves in the physical for fear of being “disproven”, yet the strongest shamanisms are those that can successfully navigate both the spiritual and the physical.

–We need to stop hiding behind mental illness challenges as though they are the only things that define us.

Again, I am not talking about invalidating mental health issues that are genuinely debilitating. I am talking about ceasing to even try engaging with everyday society because of challenges associated with mental health, and calling it shamanism. Some shamans face pretty damned significant mental illnesses. However, there’s a huge difference between “I am a shaman with a mental illness but I do my best to work around it and use it if/when possible” and “I have a mental illness and that makes me a shaman/mental illness is what defines shamanism/mental illness IS shamanism/wheeee, I don’t need meds or treatment because I’M A SHAMAN!!!!” If you can make your condition work for you, great–I’m all for people making the best of a situation. However, once again, part of what is required of shamans is the ability to engage with general consensus reality, because that is where most of our clients are coming from/wanting to get back to. If you’re so busy being in your own alternative headspace that you’ve given up on even trying connecting with more conventional headspaces, and especially if you justify this disconnection as your right as a shaman, then you’ve lost that crucial ability of a shaman to fully bridge two (or more) disparate worlds–in this case, losing connection with the sort of headspace that many, if not most, clients are going to want to stay in, regain a place in, etc.

–We need to stop hiding behind the idea of persecution as an excuse to avoid engaging with people about whom we are uncomfortable.

I am not, mind you, talking about directly engaging people who are real threats, those who have abused or assaulted us. I am talking about moving past dealing only with “people like us” in general. I keep coming back to the example of how most Americans wouldn’t go to a shaman because they think shamanism is immoral or crazy or otherwise discredited. Fine, then. Don’t engage with them as “a shaman”. There are plenty of other analogous roles in this culture that you may be able to draw on in addition to “shaman”, and which offer more perceived legitimacy that we can use to engage with a greater population in need. Again, it’s our job to make our way into that murky discomfort zone, to approach people that we may worry would persecute us if they knew we were “shamans”. We don’t have to use that word, though; instead, we meet them where they are and go from there. If you genuinely feel unsafe working outside of your preferred boundaries, at the very least take the time to examine why this is, and what would be the risks and benefits of challenging yourself, even if it’s only in theory. It’s preferable to assuming that anyone who is Christian, or a mental health care practitioner, or politically conservative, is automatically the enemy and therefore should never, ever be offered any sort of help because they might dislike us or discriminate against us. Owning your fear and your biases is action.

Do you see a pattern here? It can be summed up as “Helloooooooo, your clients are over here, and the best you can hope for is that they’ll meet you halfway–otherwise, plan to do more than your fair share of the walking”.

Social justice cannot be rendered by people who are not actively engaged in the society they wish to see justice in. Nor can shamans effectively shamanize if they turn their backs on the society that their clients are coming from. How one interacts with society is, to be sure, a personal set of boundaries. But how is it that so many of us will push boundaries in the spirit world, and yet won’t challenge physical-world boundaries, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of our clients?

James Arthur Ray, Redux

So in case you haven’t heard, James Arthur Ray was convicted in the deaths of three participants in a sweat lodge he held back in 2009. The short version is that Ray strongly urged people, who were suffering more than is usual in this physically strenuous ritual in an improperly constructed structure, to stay in spite of vomiting and other symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion/stroke. Three people died as a result of overheating and smoke. Ray, who was running the ceremony (such as it was) was convicted on charges of negligent homicide.

While I feel terrible for those who died and those who loved them, and those who suffered and still suffer as a result of this monumental mishandling of people’s vulnerability, I’m not going to speak on that. Instead, I want to revisit my commentary from shortly after the initial tragedy. Amid other things, I spoke of the primary issue of competency:

I think the issue that stands out to me the most is that of competency. In counseling, competency means having at least an adequate, if not superior, set of knowledge and skills about a given topic to be able to effectively help a client with a minimum of risk to their psychological health. One thing I’m learning in my classes on practical skills is that no matter who you are, you will always screw up. Therapists are human, and as much as one would like to be the most awesome, helpful, effective therapist ever, there will always be those clients who just don’t work out–and the ones that you really regret because you know you could have acted differently in hindsight.

Competency is an ethical issue designed to make sure that the chances of causing harm are minimized. For example, I’m on the adult track in my program. My classes are tailored toward working with adults, and my internship will be the same. Before I could ostensibly work with children, I would have to take steps to increase my competency through education and reading, at the very least. The same thing goes if I end up having a client referred to me who is of a special population whose unique situation I don’t have experience or knowledge of.

Running a proper sweat requires competency on a couple of levels. I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether indigenous spiritual ceremonies associated with sweats are inherently spiritually better than New Age or otherwise not indigenous ones, and whether these people died because the spirits were displeased. On a physical level, though, there is a definite need for competency–how to safely construct the lodge, how to prepare the correct sort of stone, how to monitor participants for health concerns, and so forth. Psychologically, too, there needs to be competency with any sort of rite of passage or other ritual that has the potential to shake a person out of their usual headspace. I have heard entirely too many horror stories in the neopagan community of ritual leaders who led people through a particularly moving ritual–and then didn’t stick around to pick up the pieces when a participant ended up with some trauma being dredged up by the experience.

What seems to have happened here is a lack of competency on a physical, and potentially psychological, level. Did Ray know about the risks of running a sweat with that many people and that sort of construction, and how to know when something was going wrong? Did he make it clear to people that, no matter how moving an experience they were having, if they felt ill they needed to get out, and they wouldn’t have failed for admitting their limits? Did he receive any sort of training that might have included how to address these and other concerns?

And I still maintain that this is the cause of the deaths and suffering in that incident. During the trial, it came out that Ray was woefully incompetent and lacking training in a number of practices he used. This includes a lack of training in how to properly construct the physical lodge, and how to respond to a participant who is in physical distress. Additional testimony suggests that he even willfully ignored these factors, which affected his decision not to act.

I also continue to maintain that this does not prove that being non-Native, or that charging any sum of money, no matter how exorbitant, made people die. You can have a dozen white people charging $50,000 a head enter into a sweat lodge, and if they are properly trained in the construction and use of the lodge and ceremony and implement it to the greatest degree possible, then there is no greater chance of them killing anyone in there than any native person who has also received the same training and displays the same level of implementation. If Ray had happened to be Native in descent–and, hell, even if he had received the proper training but still chose to act unethically and dangerously–his being Native wouldn’t have done a single thing to protect anyone. Nor did the exact amount of money he received make him kill people. His attitude toward how to get the money was more to blame than that. You can point to any number of people who allowed the receiving of money to tarnish their judgment, but that doesn’t mean that there is direct causation between forking over cash and walking into a deathtrap, and the risk doesn’t automatically get higher with rising numbers.

Why am I saying all this? Because I am tired of seeing people who are right to be angry, infuriated, livid about what happened to a bunch of innocent people, turn their rage at a specific incident (or incidents, as this is not the first sweat lodge injury or death) into broad criticisms of A) non-Native people having anything to do with sweat lodges, B) anyone receiving money for Native or other spiritual/cultural practices, and/or C) the very existence of neoshamanism/non-indigenous nature religions/etc. Not only is it an inaccurate conflation of a number of factors that are not all causally related (and remember, correlation does NOT equal causation), but it is also ignoring the fact that there are plenty of non-indigenous practitioners of various related practices who, whether they receive money or not, are competent in whatever it is they do. You may not agree with the values associated with what they’re doing, but if they’re enacting things competently on physical and psychological levels, then you can’t accurately say they’re more likely to fuck things up, and trying to beat people with the red herrings (in this case) of racial background and filthy lucre is just going to distract from the actual problem at hand: this guy didn’t know what he was doing, and didn’t care to know what he was doing, to all appearances.

Let’s instead focus on increasing and maintaining competency. Not “What does this person believe?”, but “What is this person doing, and is it safe?” What reduces competency? Is it the proliferation of inaccurate information on how to enact certain rites when the correct information is often restricted in access? Is it people having unhealthy relationships with the money that represents resources for everyday survival? Is it mental disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it any/all of these and more? What can we do about these things that doesn’t just involve repeating “Don’t Pay to Pray!” and “You’re Doing It Wrong!”? How do we answer both the concerns of marginalized indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, and those of non-indigenous people who do find New Age and neoshamanic practices spiritually, psychologically, and personally fulfilling? This, I feel, is a lot more productive start to dialogue than the assumption that James Arthur Ray is the rule, not the exception.

More on Being a (White) American Shaman

One of the comments to my last post brought up EXACTLY why I get so frustrated with (white, college-educated, more-or-less middle class) Americans saying they have no culture or that they should abandon what culture they have.

But–YOU CAN’T ABANDON YOUR CULTURE OF ORIGIN ENTIRELY. Not without spending many years completely assimilated into another culture, and even then your experience is always going to be different from that of someone who was raised in that culture by birth. For many American neopagans, the ingrained tendency toward things like independence, valuing intelligence, emphasis on having a great deal of personal choice and preference for having many options to choose from–these things are not going to just go away. The very fact that a person is trying to rebel against the culture of origin states that they feel that they can do so–and that’s a hallmark of that independence that I mentioned. You can’t start over with a blank slate. You just can’t. Your brain is not a slate.

I remember one attempted effort at community building that I was invited to. I sat for a few hours listening to an upper-middle-class white woman with Tibetan flags on the porch of her nicely restored two-story house talk about how disjointed and disconnected everyone in this society was, and how neighbors didn’t help each other any more. She talked about creating a network of people to trade skills, to barter what they had, to automatically help any one person in the group who had a need, regardless of that need.

And it sounded incredibly naive. Here I was, sitting in a group of about twenty people, and the only person I knew at all was my then-husband. How were we supposed to feel okay about offering up our services to strangers we’d never met, when we were raised in a culture that had a lot of mistrust worked into it? Before we could have some utopic vision of collaboration come together, we had to be able to overcome this enculturated mistrust. And yet the first thing we were talking about was what skills were represented. If I recall correctly, we had one person who had a trade–plumbing or electrician, I think–and about eight tarot readers–which spoke to the extreme homogenization of the group that was primarily present. So we ran up against another problem–the tendency to seek out People Like Us, and an inability to communicate with People Not Like Us.

I see people like these trying to do things like artificially create a cohesive community akin to that found in a more communally-based culture, and seeing the efforts collapse. It’s not that they aren’t earnest. It’s that they’re trying to create something that they have little to no direct experience of, and which goes entirely against what they were raised with. Most of us were raised with the concept of nuclear families as the central building block (albeit sometimes blended nuclear families thanks to the divorce rate), but still with that emphasis on the identity as an individual within that group, with strong loyalty toward one’s own interests, sometimes over and above the needs of the group. This runs counter to many communal cultures where you put the group first, and arrange your identity as an individual around that.

My point is not to try to discourage people from improving on our culture. My point is that it’s time to quit denying that we have a culture that we come from, flaws and all. And it’s in our own best interests to play to the strengths of that culture. That doesn’t mean it has to be to the exclusion of learning from other cultures. But in order to get somewhere, you have to understand where you’re coming from and what you have to work with. Cultural elements are not plug-and-play. As I have complained many times about core shamanism (most notably this post), you can’t yank things out of a culture’s shamanism and plug it into your own and expect to get the same results. Shamanisms, like so many other things, are a product of the cultures they come from. Yes, there’s the universal human experience–for example, we have a common theme of a world tree/other vertical axis because we are upright, vertically-oriented visual creatures. But we cannot divorce this extreme macro experience from the less macro contexts of individual cultures (and subcultures).

So let’s look at the strengths of where I come from–middle class, college-educated, liberal white American that I am. Here are values that I have:

–Independence: I keep bringing this up because it is a strength. Because I am independent and was raised with the idea of developing myself strongly as an individual, I was able to create an ideal self to work toward. This included countering some unsavory trends that I found in the small town I did most of my growing up in–racism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc. My independence allowed me to deny those influences, among others.

–Self-reliance: While negatively this has been used to promote things like the misguided notion of bootstrapping, as with anything it can also be a strength. Self-reliance helped me in things like being self-employed, being experimental in my spiritual path, and being comfortable in being a solitary practitioner.

–Creativity: Ingenuity is a common thread in America. Just because it’s used for things like inventing a bigger, more gas-guzzling SUV or new ways to fuck over American workers doesn’t mean that’s all it’s for. Creativity comes up with everything from inventive protest signs to finding ways to solve the very real social, environmental, medical and other problems we face–as Einstein himself said, “”You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it”.

–Social justice: Yes, there’s a lot of injustice in this culture. But there are still many Americans who are dedicated to justice for all, including social justice. In my work in my internship, I am working with women straight out of prison who are recovering from severe addictions, and who have a high risk of reoffense. In my time here, I have learned a lot more about the efforts that are being made across the board to help “throwaway populations”, the ones that more privileged people want to pretend aren’t there, or are beyond help, just so they don’t have to put forth the work to help someone else. Just because these efforts don’t make exciting headlines doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

–Industry: That Protestant work ethic can come in handy, especially if tempered with other practices to keep it from turning into workaholicism. It’s part of what helps us actually get shit done. Surely American neoshamans can find some use for this trait?

–Opportunity: While some Americans are more stingy about it than others, we still have the core value of opportunity for all. What it takes for someone to have an opportunity extended to them, and to have the ability to actually take advantage of it, is variable from person to person and depends on a lot of factors. However, culturally we value finding and making the most of opportunities.

Things like strip malls, dishonest politicians, and massive SUVS–these are surface symptoms. It’s what they’re symptomatic of that’s really important. The values above are tools. Any of these can be used constructively or destructively, sometimes even in the same action or by the same person.

Like it or not, the values and ideals that you are exposed to for a large portion of your life do leave a mark on you that, for all intents and purposes, is indelible. You can add to your experiences and viewpoints, but there will always be at least a shadow of where you’ve been before. You can consciously claim to reject your culture, though in actuality you’re probably only rejecting certain elements of it. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to have tabula rasa, or that you’ll be able to acquire a new culture in the same way as someone raised in it. Nor can you create a new culture entirely unmarked by your past, or the pasts of anyone else involved in cutting and shaping whole cloth.

We need to own that fact. Instead of trying to claim we’re part of a cultural wasteland, I feel it is vital to embrace the strengths of the culture we do have. Disillusionment just creates illusions of its own. And those illusions can get in the way of actual progress in working against the very things we reject.