First of all, I’ve realized that the FAQ and Bibliography for this blog are wayyyyyyy out of date. I know they’ve been linked to recently; please be aware that I need to overhaul them.
Also, I got a lot of comments on the racism post in particular; thank you so much to those of you who shared your thoughts. I’m mostly reading at this point, but I’ve really appreciated the insights people have provided. This is the sort of thing that makes putting this blog out there even more worth it.
So. On to the main meat of this post.
I recently read Coyote’s Council Fire by Loren Cruden. It’s a collection of interview questions with a variety of contemporary shamans and neoshamans, with each section opened by Cruden’s commentary on such issues as cultural appropriation and gender issues in shamanism and indigenous religions/cultures.
The first portion of the book is Cruden’s discussion on neoshamanism and issues of cultural appropriation. It’s by far one of the most balanced and thoughtful pieces of writing on the matter that I’ve read. While she acknowledges things like the romanticization of the Noble Savage, as well as the concept of privilege, she also makes a sympathetic argument for the need for non-indigenous people to develop shamanic practices that are appropriate for our own culture–not the cultures of our ancestors. A number of things she said resonated deeply; here’s a good example:
Caucasians [who practice non-indigenous shamanism] seem to be struggling in a betweenness. Those trying to transplant traditions from their European roots find their severance from the past frustrating. Those engendering new paths are mostly cobbling piecemeal structures out of eclecticism, and those seeking an integration of their cultural roots with their current life situations are contending with Native reaction and the difficulties inherent to such an evolution. It is an awkward phase needing both more sympathy and more useful questioning than it’s getting. (p. 23)
Yes. Nail. Head. You got it.
It’s no secret that I’m critical of the shortcomings I see in neoshamanisms in general, core and otherwise. Issues of racism and cultural appropriation, downplaying the potential dangers of journeying and other shamanic work, watering shamanism down into a milquetoast New Age pablum, core shamans claiming that core shamanism is “culturally neutral”–these things drive me up the wall, across the ceiling, and out the window. I don’t want people to stop practicing the way they practice, but I want to encourage mindfulness and discussion surrounding these and other issues.
However, I also admit that I can come down harder than I probably need to, not only on other practitioners, but also on myself. And a lot of that is insecurity. Nobody wants to be told they’re wrong. I know that no matter how carefully I tread, someone’s going to take offense to the idea that some white chick is practicing “shamanism”, and no amount of trying to explain what it is I’m trying to do will help. So I think sometimes I spend too much time worrying about whether some person on the internet will think what I’m doing is right, instead of being concerned with what I, anyone I do work for, and the spirits think is right.
I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I think it’s best to just leave other people to whatever’s going to happen, and if someone gets eaten by a grue while they’re out journeying, it’s not my problem. But then I also recognize that by not talking about something, I’m doing less to change it for the better (at least, my idea of “better”). So it’s not always easy to know what to say or do, when to say or do it, and at what point to quit.
But after reading that book, I do think I need to be more forgiving–most of all, of myself. This all stems from my own insecurity and projecting it outward. And that’s not good for anyone. So I think in addition to being honest about my potential shortcomings and flaws, I also need to be honest about my efforts and successes. And I need to be okay with where I’m coming from in all this, which is:
I’m a white American. I am not German, Czech, Austrian, Alsatian (woof!) or any of a number of other nationalities of my ancestors. I have never been in contact with any of these cultures or been to any of these lands, nor do I intend to change that. I have to start from the place where I am, the Pacific Northwest U.S. I intend to stay here. Which means that I need to work on creating and improving my relationships with the land and its denizens, physically and spiritually. This includes the human community as well as what people commonly think of as “nature”. Since I am not indigenous, I cannot assume that indigenous ways of relating to the land will work for me. So I’m on my own to a large degree.
I’m also convinced, by various experiences in my thirty-one years on this planet, that the world is alive in a way that most white Americans don’t see–I am an animist. And there are spirits who need me to do things for them, and also people in my community who need me to do things for them, and the manner in which these things are done often necessitates things like me going into the spirit realm (not physically, obviously) and certain ritualized practices designed to facilitate the necessary suspension of disbelief that will trigger appropriate psychological (and spiritual) states to get the job done.
But I am of a culture that does not have a set method of relating to the land other than as a commodity, and in which Christianity is the dominant method of engaging with spirituality, and other people are often competitors for resources. None of these suit me, and I will not shoehorn myself into something uncomfortable simply to be more culturally appropriate. So I find ways to recreate a “shamanic” role that fits this culture, but also answers my needs and the needs of those I work for.
Becoming a licensed counselor is one strategy, because it’s intermediary work and can integrate spirituality in some cases, but is acceptable in this culture for the most part. But that can’t be all of it. The need I have for mythos and ritual can’t only be limited to the carefully balanced parameters of ethics, competency and professional boundaries of counseling, even if I were to integrate a certain amount of core/neo-shamanism into it at some point down the line.
And that’s where a lot of the problem is. I work with animal and other nature spirits. I have been doing so for over a decade. But white American culture, however you want to define it, doesn’t have a set way of dealing with such animistic tendencies other than outmoded psychological diagnoses (“you’re all schizotypal!”) or a Christian (not THE Christian, mind you) opinion of “that’s evil”. There’s neopaganism, but that’s a huge umbrella, and there are plenty of controversies there, too. And, of course, there’s the plethora of animal totem dictionaries and related core/neo-shamanic material out there that shamelessly imitates indigenous practices without context or apology.
Those are my only choices? Unacceptable.
But I can’t just sit here and do nothing. Not when I know what needs to be done. Not when I have spirits (or, fine, figments of my psyche, if you want to see them that way) poking at me for attention as they have for over a decade. Not when I and others who are similarly rootless have a strong need for connection and ritual and mythos and meaning. Not when I am in a good place to facilitate these things for all of us, which can help heal the wounds and insanities of our culture which helped bring about a lot of the problems we (not just white Americans) are facing in the first place.
So I’m doing my best to find a particularly meaningful way to engage with the natural world (physically and spiritually), coming out of a culture that doesn’t possess existing ways to do so that satisfy me. It’s guaranteed that I’ll screw up sometimes, and that at some point I will always be doing something that will offend someone somewhere. So I do my best to educate myself about potential pitfalls, and act according to my conscience.
And that’s the best I can offer, which I think is pretty darn good, all told.
You rock my world, Lupa.
I have a couple of observations from the peanut gallery. Make of them what you will.
– It looks like this eventually has the making of a book series/course, etc all over it because, by necessity, you’re going to have to start blazing a trail that I know a lot of other people will want to follow.
– It’s quest time. Proper physical quest time. One of the best things I ever did to work out what ‘spiritual stuff I am made of’ is visit my own genetic homelands. Not to ‘reconnect’, as such (though I was open to that), but in order to feel -to know- that what I had built for myself on the other side of the world was valid and authentic.
Sounds strange but I had to ‘prove a negative’, as it were. I needed to go somewhere where I was genetically tribal just so I could know that it wasn’t my road this time around.
Maybe that will help in your case, as well?
Again. Peanut gallery observations. Nothing more. 🙂
This really is the best any of us who are forging paths like these can do. In my work with the Norse through and in some cases alongside my reintegration of neo-shamanism into my life, the lore and words of the sagas and lore only go so far. ‘Land wights’, ‘land spirits’ only communicate so much. ‘Jottun’, or ‘svartalf’ only communicates so much, and may not even speak to what is specifically in my back yard.
The thing of it is, is that many cultures, from my view, developed their understanding of Deity and spirits through their particular cultural lens. America has no particular cultural lens and that ambiguity gives rise, in my view, to a need for one. So, I supplement what I can in my Neopagan eclecticism while still trying to understand the spirits local and national here. I’ve encountered fairy groves here in the U.S., as well as svartalfar and ljósálfar. Are they transplants? Are they native? Good question. I’ll let you know the more I talk to them.
I think that such experiences don’t lend to cultural relativism by necessity, though. I will definitely approach the Sidhe differently than svartalfar (unless spiritual experience or interpersonal relationships dictate/suggest to do otherwise), but this is as much my responsibility to do the scholarly and spiritual work to understand my contacts and relationships, as it is on these spiritual beings to communicate their desires/needs/etc. to me.
I think being honest about where we gain our knowledge and experiences from is as much about being honest to ourselves as to our community as to those spirits we forge relationships with.
The beautiful thing about the work I do, having talked with a counselor about it, is that the spiritual work, though hard, does have a profound positive impact on myself and others. Through the work of this spiritual technique, that spell, or daily spiritual work (i.e. prayer, meditation, etc.) integrating the ‘soul’ of myself and the work I hope to do as a counselor is, if not melding completely, much easier to integrate with that behind me. I hope that as time goes on you find ways to integrate your spiritual practice and counseling.
Huzzah! Hear Hear! That’s the way to do it – be respectful, be aware, and be yourself.
I’m a white American. I am not German, Czech, Austrian, Alsatian (woof!) or any of a number of other nationalities of my ancestors. I have never been in contact with any of these cultures or been to any of these lands, nor do I intend to change that.
*blinks* Eh? I’m not German, Czech etc. either, but isn’t it a bit of an overreaction to say you do not even intend to visit these countries, ever? I understand you want to emphasize your American-ness, but I was kind of taken aback. I’m definitely not an Austrian, but even still my first thought was to come to the defense of poor Austria ^^; (Also, I’m quite sure you’ve been in contact with Austrian culture, since I do blog about it every now and then, and you do comment every now and then ;] )
I do not intend to flame, I was genuinely surprised by you saying that.
I feel where you’re coming from. Only I care slightly less about the outside opinion of what I’m doing.
But I can’t help but tie the spirituality aspect with the physical aspect in terms of working with nature to create harmony for everyone’s sake. The best outlet I found for that was discovering the Rhizome Collective and their Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, which not only teaches and practices about the drastic need for sustainability for the environment, it shows how to do it while not abandoning all modern technologies so we can go back to a hole in the ground, starving and cold.. It even merges an empowering egalitarian autonomous political ideal within.
So I dunno if you will find this helpful, or if you were already aware of this growing movement(not just this particular group, I seem to be seeing more and more who are aware and informed and focused on positively and actively changing things), but, basically all that’s to say that the soil under your fingernails is one of the most intimate experiences with nature.