On Cultural Appropriation

I’m surprised with myself. This blog is about six weeks old (though it sometimes feels longer) and I’ve yet to do a post on cultural appropriation. Allow me to remedy this.

Cultural appropriation is a topic which is woefully neglected in neopaganism, and neoshamanism in particular. People ignore it, pretend it isn’t an issue, and it becomes the elephant in the room (hence the title of the cultural appropriation and neopaganism anthology I’m compiling, Talking About the Elephant). Part of the reason is because nobody likes to be told, “You’re doing it wrong!” There’s a strong sentiment throughout the neopagan community that if the spirit moves you, then it must be right–even if it involves taking bits and parts of different traditions and cultures and slapping them together.

Now, it should be pretty obvious from the influences on therioshamanism that I’m not one to throw stones at drawing from multiple wells. However, I exercise honesty in doing so. I make it exceptionally clear that, despite the common association in the U.S. of shamanism with Native Americans, I am a European-mutt-American neopagan with no connection to any indigenous cultures. Additionally, I have a disclaimer for my artwork, which, due to some of its components, is sometimes mistaken for Native American art. (Not that I find the comparison insulting; however, I don’t want to misrepresent my work as something it isn’t.)

Why the caution? Because I believe that there is entirely too much misrepresentation of what “shamanism” is or may be in modern neopaganism. It seems as though anything with beads and rattles, animals and drums, or anything that puts anyone in an altered state of consciousness, is called “shamanic” (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea). I’ve been called a shaman solely for the fact that I work with animal totems and animal parts. While these are components of therioshamanism, they don’t alone make me a shaman. There’s a lot more to it than that.

The other reason is, again, because even in neopaganism, shamanism is very often equated with “Native American”. Yet the bulk of what I find in books on “Native American spirituality/shamanism” isn’t genuine, being mixed with New Age and other non-Native concepts. Meanwhile, numerous unsuspecting readers run around saying that they practice the real deal–the book says so! And so they continue to have an inaccurate perception of what Native American cultures consist of, and the actual Native people end up grossly misrepresented. Often they’re victims of the Noble Savage stereotype, which portrays them all as idealized, amazingly spiritual people who live in perfect harmony with the natural world, exactly as it was done hundreds of years ago (even living in tipis!). The less glamorous aspects of the reality–alcoholism and poverty, among others–as well as the fact that many Natives are quite happily Christian, are glossed over. While it’s not all gloom and doom in reality, there are serious social issues that these books, seminars and people completely turn a blind eye to–probably because they aren’t conducive to “spiritual living”.

Finally, there’s the fact that some (not all) mainstream American neopagans who appropriate from other cultures are doing so out of escapism. All they see in their own culture is the strip malls and consumerism, and none of the potential (or the need) for spirituality in this context. I’ve heard people complaining about the flakiness and shallowness of the neopagan community, taking the worst of the bad scholarship and witch wars, and completely ignoring the creativity and growth. Nothing is flawless; nothing is totally horrible, either. I choose to accentuate the constructive and look askance at the silliness. Perhaps not everything neopagans have come up with is historically accurate or will pass the rigid judgements of mainstream society. And yes, there are some pagans who get squicked by the existence of those of us who are openly queer and genderqueer, who identify as Otherkin, who are openly kinky and combine it with magical and/or spiritual practices,or who otherwise might horrify the status quo. But, to me, this eclectic mix of backgrounds and beliefs just makes it all the better.

So I’m perfectly happy working from a neopagan perspective, while keeping a careful eye on some of the negative tendencies *some* neopagans have demonstrated over the years, particularly poor scholarship–and rampant cultural appropriation. Neopaganism doesn’t automatically include these. In fact, I prefer to be a part of both neopaganism, and mainstream American culture to an extent, because both of these environments could benefit from what I’m doing (or so I like to think). I try to raise awareness of cultural appropriation in articles like this one, and I also support the formation of neopagan-specific practices, such as neopagan totemism. As far as mainstream American society goes, while environmental awareness, including issues involving animals, is growing overall, it could still use some help. There are no shamanic figures in mainstream America; we have psychologists and doctors and priests, but shamans and neoshamans are shunted to the fringes as far as most Americans are concerned.

Working within a cultural framework that I’m familiar with, IMO, is more effective for me as an individual than trying to adopt the cultural practices of someone else. It doesn’t make my culture better than someone else’s; I’m not superior to a reconstructionist, or someone raised in an indigenous society. But I see no need, at this point in my life, to try to alter my worldview that significantly when the cultural and subcultural influences can go both ways–I can help them, and they can help me.

And this is something I encourage people to consider. You’re not wrong or bad for wanting to draw from other cultures. To me, the only crime is in misrepresentation, and in taking things that aren’t supposed to be taken without permission. But be mindful of the impact that you may have in doing so. Do the people you’re taking from really want you taking? Are you admitting that you aren’t an uber-seekrit initiate of their mysteries when all you did was read a book? And how do you feel about your own culture? Have you considered the magic that may be growing within it, or hidden away, waiting for discovery–or even something that may be your own creation?

This is how I handle things. I am completely honest about my source material and where I’m coming from. I feel no need to misrepresent myself. I use the word “shaman”, but in a non-cultural-specific manner; I use it more in an anthropological sense than anything else. (Nobody outside of a few Siberian tribes historically used that term anyway.) I’m open about the fact that I’m self-trained (or, if you’ll allow me to explain, trained by a collaboration of myself and the spirits and other entities I work with). While I read books on both traditional and neo shamanism, I do so mainly to get an idea of practices I may not have considered before. When I have a situation that I want to approach as a shaman, I don’t think “Well, how would such and such culture’s shamans do it?”. Instead, I think “What would *I* do?”–and then proceed to do it.

I may not have a millenia-old system of training behind me; and for sure, I’m the sole adherent of my path. I don’t think old equals better; I think that finding the spirits, symbols and tools that make the magic and connections happen (and being honest about their origins) is what’s important. I choose to work with what I know best, within the culture I am immersed in and will probably remain a part of for the rest of this life. YMMV.

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5 thoughts on “On Cultural Appropriation

  1. What amazes me is that people seem to think only “native Americans” have/had such concepts and don’t even take a few minutes to learn that a large amount of pre-monotheistic cultures often had such ideas in their worldview. I don’t pay much attention to how the general neopagan works anymore but is it still a case of only looking to what was done in the Americas for such topics?

  2. To an extent, yes, especially with regards to neoshamanism. Native American, and to a lesser extent Asian, traditions are extolled. European practices often aren’t seen as “exotic” enough (though nobody will admit it) and African tribal shamanism isn’t even on the map for the most part. It’s a bit different once you get into more scholarly circles of pagans, but among the New Agers in particular it’s a matter of “being like the Indians”.

  3. I enjoyed what you had to say about new shamanism. I think that people forget that a shaman serves his culture, it is not the other way around. Twenty five years ago when I came out of the jungle, trained in classical shamanism, I had to figure out how to serve my people – who lived in a world of concrete and asphalt. They had no more connection the the jaguars, birds and monkeys I had lived with during my training than the man in the moon!
    I could have clung to the old ways and attracted all the wanna-bees who were disassociated from their own culture, but I wasn’t interested in creating a Mayan sub-culture in the middle of America that wouldn’t be any more genuine than the culture we already had.

    I felt that I that needed to adapt so that I could meet my people on their terms, not the other way around. and I am glad that I made that decision. I can now relate to my people where they are, and then invite them to go deeper spiritually without asking them to forsake the good parts of their values or accept an alien belief system.

    Don’t misunderstand me, there is a lot here that I’d like to change. My native friends who criticize Western society have much heart and truth in their words, but I have always found that I could get a lot farther getting an elephant to move with peanuts and encouragement than through pushing and yelling.

  4. Ross–that’s a good way of seeing things, IMO. I want to help make the things that I have to share and will continue to relate to others things that are relevant to people in this society. I think of it as a shot of connection in the culture’s arm, so to speak–we’re so dis-connected as a culture. But there’s no forcing it; people have to come at their own pace, just like your elephant above! I feel that if I can show the relevance, without losing a realistic perspective of what I’m doing, I have a better chance of getting things through to people without watering it down.

    Of course, that’s the other end of my concerns–while I like the idea of making things palatable, I can’t deny the parts that may not be as much fun. While some forms of neoshamanism seem to take the danger out of shamanising, I think that that risk is part of what makes it important and effective both. Not everything is done easily, and while one can take as many precautions as possible, there’s always the chance of something going wrong. And people in this culture don’t always want to hear that.

    But that’s why it’s important to treat every spirit as an individual–whether that spirit is currently encased in flesh or not. Even I sometimes have to remind myself that there are no one-size-fits-all answers, and that the exceptions to the rule are often more numerous than expected (to the point, sometimes, of practically negating the rule!)

    Bah, I’m rambling and it’s late. I hope this made sense!

  5. Pingback: Occult of Personality » Blog Archive » Podcast 34 - Therioshamanism with Lupa

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