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.

Progress! And the Spirits are Ganging Up On Me….

First off, a quick note to the good folks on the Livejournal feed for this blog: I welcome comments; however, I do not get comment notifications for comments made to the LJ feed postings. Please click through to the blog itself at therioshamanism.com and make your comments there; that way I know you had something to say! Thank you muchly 🙂

I also tweaked the FAQ again, specifically the question about whether you can call yourself a therioshaman. To be honest, I’d really prefer people didn’t use that term as a self-signifier. A lot of it is because therioshamanism, at least at this stage of the game, is my personal path, created from a very specific perspective and using very specific resources (though that may change later on–read on to find out why). While it is flexible and fluid, at least let me get it into some semblance of a formalized path! *grin*

I’ve been at this for over two months now, and while that may not seem like a long time, again keep in mind that I already have a significant amount of material from over a decade of study and practice to work with. At this point I have a pretty good idea of what my basic training for the next four and a half months will be–more focus on specific elements, and then a month of work with all four traditional elements again, as I did last month, though with the experience of single-element months taken into account.

I’m better at holding to a schedule, and I will say that I have learned and developed a lot just in the time I’ve been doing this. The Earth month, as you’ve probably read, has been exceptionally important for getting me to pay attention to both the internal and external environments, though the focus seems to be more on the internal–getting my body and health into shape. I’m thinking that while the first six months’ focus on elements is meant to increase focus on the elements inside and out, that it’s important for me to get my own house into order, as it were, before moving outward to a greater extent.

A lot of the changes are little things that I notice on a day to day basis, too many to list systematically here on a blog. Needless to say, I feel more grounded and focused, and more confident as well. I’m calmer, and more likely to catch myself in the act of re-acting, rather than letting my re-actions get the best of me. I’m working to be healthier, and taking active steps to do so. And there’s so much more…and it all adds up! I’m patching the holes that I’ve noticed in my practice, and feeling less like spiritual Swiss cheese.

On another note, I received an initially alarming request from the totems and other spirits I work with recently. I was kicking around the idea of eventually putting this all into book format (not that this should surprise anyone who know this bibliophile well). I figure I’ve already had a few people tell me that they’ve gotten quite a bit out of what I’ve written here, that it really resonates with them, all of which makes me happy–if my journey can include aiding others along their paths, so much the better. Granted, a book would be a few years in the future, most likely, since this is still in the growing stages. But it’s a possibility for somewhere down the line.

So I was bouncing ideas around in my head as I was walking from work to the train station, when I got that familiar *ping* that tells me the spirits want my attention, so I listened to what they had to say.

“We want to you to teach students the way we’re teaching you”.

(This is why I added the “OMGWTFBBQ” category to this blog.)

I know people who have taken on students. It’s a ton of work. Not necessarily a horrible thing, though I have heard horror stories of student-teacher relationships that went very wrong (and didn’t even involve sex!). Aside from the time commitment, though, I don’t even have therioshamanism complete as a path yet!

So I grilled them for more information (as well as calling my mate and talking to a few friends online about the whole thing). Basically, it appears that I wouldn’t even have to think about starting this process until after my six months were done (i.e., after I get done with the months of elemental work ahead of me). And I, of course, wouldn’t stop my own training and learning, particularly since the first six months are designed to be largely self-directed. The closest I can come to a comparison would be the grad student who student-teaches a freshman course while continuing to do hir own graduate work. I also wouldn’t have to worry about long-distance students–local, in-person students only. This would cut down on the number of potential people I might have to wrangle to make this work 😉

The spirits were quite insistent about this whole thing. It does make sense, though. The spirits have been exceptionally generous in helping me along the past decade and change; they’ve given me quite a lot and asked for very little in return. I’ve always felt, though, that I owed them something for it, and this would be a good opportunity to repay them. They want this material out there, and while I have some trepidation about the whole thing, this is a vote of confidence in my favor.

I’m still going to be cautious; while the *ping* I received was one I’ve gotten used to over the years, I’m going to revisit this topic with them once my six months are over with. I want to be very sure it isn’t just my ego speaking, though I was pleased to note that my first reaction was “You want me to do WHAT?” rather than “Oh, people will think I’m so great!”. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be a good opportunity to pass on some things that both I and the totems and other spirits see as very important, and which at least a few people have expressed interest in. Still, I realize that this is a major commitment for a long period of time (of course, so is therioshamanism in general) and not to be addressed lightly. Just to be sure, I’m going to include some reading and other research on pagan teaching with the rest of my reading material over the next few months.

At this point, it’s a “Let’s see where I am in four and a half months” rather than a “Yes, I’ll do it!” situation. However, I figure that if the spirits have this sort of confidence in me at this point, it’s a good sign that I’m doing something right, at least. All the warning flags seem to be in the arena of things that I’ve seen screwed up in other peoples’ experiences, rather than a deep, intuitive/instinctual “STAY AWAY!!!”. But, as I said, we’ll see in four and a half months.

Surrogate Traditions

I’ve been reading Shamanism: A Reader, the academic anthology that Graham Harvey put together a couple of years back. It’s been an interesting read thus far, and while some of the heavier reading has been a bit tough to slog through, it’s been worth it. One of the themes that has cropped up a couple of times in this and other works on shamanism has been the role of hunting in a lot of the cultures that feature shamanism of one sort or another. Granted, the specific roles and rituals vary per culture, and even from time period to time period (there’s a fascinating bit of writing in the anthology about how one particular African tribe’s use of ecstatic trance has changed in just a couple of centuries). Still, among the wide array of spirits that may need to be placated, cajoled and/or befriended are the spirits of animals that have been killed for food and other resources.

Now, I’ve never been hunting in my life. I fished a lot as a kid (though I always caught itty-bitty sunfish way too small to eat) and I tried chasing rabbits, though I never caught one. But I’ve never done the whole get up early in the morning, take a rifle or bow out into the woods, and shoot a deer routine that so many people still go through on a yearly basis. Hell, I never even went *camping* until I was in my early twenties. My girl scout troop mostly did “girly” things like make woven potholders–the closest we got to camping was a night of sleeping bags in an old bakery where the only wildlife was a collection of roaches big enough to carry a few of the scouts off into the night.

My understanding of hunting rituals is entirely academic. However, I remain undaunted. Therioshamanism is a (neo)shamanic path for the version of reality I subscribe to. So while learning to hunt and being able to kill my own meat to be an honest omnivore is on my list of things to learn before I die, I’m not going to put spirituality on hold.

Rather, I noticed a correlation between the apparent role of hunting rituals–or rather, placatory rituals for the spirits of hunted animals–and my work with skin spirits and food totems. While I don’t acquire my own meat prior to the “buy at the market/grocery store” stage of things, and I have never hunted an animal for meat and/or pelt/etc., I still work with the spirits of the (deceased) animals that come into my life in various ways. After all, in pretty much all cases, unless there’s some sort of religious activity going on that I don’t know about, the people who did take these animals’ lives weren’t particularly mindful or respectful of the act of doing so.

So the role I see for myself is one that attempts to take up the slack, to try to right some of the wrongs done. Modern Americans may not have as tight a set of taboos as, say, traditional Inuit cultural practices, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no possibility that angry spirits could be causing problems. In fact, if my experiences have any weight, the “food” totems, such as Crab, Chicken and Pig are plenty angry for what’s been done to their physical children. How much influence they’ve had on modern Americans is another story altogether, and I’m still making progress just on getting them to be willing to work with me.

I don’t feel that the only reason I should be working with these spirits is to try to avoid further retribution, whatever that may be. Instead, I do it because I see the damage that’s been done, how upset the balance really is between humanity and other animals, and part of my goal is to do what I can to right that balance in the manner that best fits my personal reality (rather than trying to shove a square peg into a round hole).

This, to me, is *my* version of hunting rituals. I may not hunt the animals myself, but I still deal with their spirits to try to placate them and show them that *somebody* cares enough, at least, to give them notice. I don’t think I can say in good conscience that they should go back to their kin and tell them how well they were treated in death, but I hope I can at least demonstrate that they aren’t being completely ignored. And I hope, as I try to make better connections to the food totems in particular, as well as improve my relationship with the skin spirits, that I can determine what (if anything) they’ve done to voice their displeasure. After all, many (though not all) shamanic cultures considered that bad happenings might very well be caused by broken taboos or angry spirits, and the shaman’s role was to help restore that balance. (The anthology I mentioned earlier actually had a really good discussion on the “confessional” atmosphere of shamanic rituals to that effect in traditional Inuit society.)

I’m not about to go work in a slaughterhouse or a fur farm; however, I can be even more mindful of the relationships I do have with the spirits at hand, and work to achieve a greater understanding. The dynamic that I work in parallels that of shamans and hunting rituals, though these necessarily differ thanks to the particular environment and culture that I’m in. And if I can get some suggestions as to what people in this culture can do to treat these spirits better, to make them less angry, then I’ve accomplished part of what I’ve set out to do.

Earth, Continued

So the saga of Lupa Remembers Hir Body continues apace. I’m over the cold, but apparently my stomach did NOT care for the extra acid from the vitamin C in the multivitamins I just started taking a little over a week ago. This has quite firmly entrenched in my mind that what I put in my body does indeed have an effect on it. I’m now taking a closer look at what sorts of things I put into my body on a daily basis. Some of them are environmental and can’t really be helped on an immediate level, though continuing to pressure my elected reps and choosing to lower my everyday use of chemicals can have a long-term effect. Others, though, are much more in my grasp, such as what coats or combines with the food I eat. Do I really need pesticides, wax and other such things on my produce? Or hormones, antibiotics, and additives in the meat I eat, meat from animals that probably weren’t particularly healthy to begin with? The effects may not be immediately apparent, but on a more subtle level, they’re there.

I’ve been exclusively working with Earth energy in my meditations and finding that although I haven’t grounded on a regular basis in the past, it comes quite easily. It’s an almost instant connection, sort of a “thwump” wherein my energy sinks into the ground, and I literally feel like I’ve gained a few pounds. If I’m doing a walking meditation, it actually gets just a *touch* harder to walk, like I’m walking through mud. A good way for me to connect my Earth energy to that of the ground is to visualize wolf claws digging into dirt, or to think of the calcium in the dirt as being connected to the calcium in my bones and teeth.

And I’ve been learning some from my drum, and my spirits. When the drumskin first dried, I picked up the beater and began playing rhythms on the drum–without asking the spirits in the drum and beater permission to pick them up and play them. This was made quite clear to me. So tonight I went back up to try again. I was told, “Your drum is not a toy; you don’t just pick it up and play with it”. So I started by looking at the drum and beater on the floor before me, simply observing. I then asked permission to pick up the drum, and s/he agreed.

I ran my fingers over the smooth goatskin, and thought about the goat that once wore that skin. Leather is a more abstract form of animal remains in my mind than, say, fur. And rawhide is even moreso than other sorts of leather, because the texture is entirely different. So rawhide seems a lot more “manufactured” and I have to remind myself that this wasn’t just fabricated in a building somewhere. I spoke to the goat spirit (a billy goat) and asked him to show me his old home. I saw a barnyard, with other goats, with him a brown and black and white goat with horns in the middle of it all.

Next I talked to the cow rawhide that made up the strings binding the goatskin to the frame. I saw a red cow in a stockyard, just briefly, and felt my hands running over smooth-haired hide and warm skin. I felt the goat and cow spirits merge in the drum, separate yet combined in this one instrument. I looked at the pale roundness of the drum, and saw the Moon in my hands for a moment. I thought about what I should rub into the skin, which was a little dry.

Then I asked permission to pick up the beater. I spoke with the deerskin pieces that I wrapped the head in, and felt where the coarse hairs once sprouted from the surface of the skins. I thought about woods and fields, cold winters and warm springs, mosquitoes and ticks and musk in green leaves.

And I brought these all back together into my ritual space, and into the drum and beater, two parts of a whole, sacred and not entirely recognized. Then I laid them back on the floor before the altar, and said my goodnights. I would play another night, I decided. Each time I pick up the drum, I need to remember to thank the goat, cow and deer spirits. This may be a drum dedicated to my work with Wolf and Earth, but there’s more to it than that.