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.

Yes, White Americans DO Have a Culture!

One of the things I’ve periodically bumped into as a justification for neoshamans and other neopagans to draw from indigenous cultures is that “white Americans don’t have a culture”. By this they generally mean that white American culture is limited to strip malls and fast food and pasty men in suits telling us how the country ought to be run. Somehow this then translates into a dichotomy where everything that seems antithetical to this construct is considered “good”. Hence we end up with a bunch of white people playing African drums, offering rum to lwa, and shoving New Age concepts into oracles based on “Native American spirituality”.

I’m not condemning drumming, white Vodouisants, or non-Native people having good relationships with Native cultures. However, if you look at the “cultural appropriation” category of this blog, I think it’s clear that I have some issues with the way in which a lot of pagan-type folk “borrow” from cultures other than their own. Often it’s a surface treatment of the borrowed culture, with little to no awareness of the power differential between the culture of the borrower and that of the borrowed.

The other issue is that the borrowers often forget that yes, they do have a culture that they’ve been raised with and which, whether they like it or not, permeates their lifelong conditioning and approach to the world. This is why there can be such conflict when they try to insert themselves in another culture–they’re bringing more cultural baggage with them than they want to admit, and if they aren’t admitting they have it at all, then the baggage is just going to sit there and be a big problem. Just because they don’t notice it’s there doesn’t mean others don’t, either.

Let’s look at one of the hallmarks of white American culture (and, admittedly, others, though the U.S. seems to have particularly latched on to it)–individuality. As a culture, white Americans value individuality above collectivity. “Do your own thing”, “the rugged individualist”, “the lone wolf”, “just do it”–these and so many more societal messages encourage us to work independently of others. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Valuing being an individual doesn’t automatically translate to having narcissistic personality disorder. Individuals often display a certain amount of unfettered creativity because they don’t feel held back by group norms. And people in a more individual-based society can still have healthy relationships. It’s just that values and mores may be somewhat different than in a more collective society.

Many indigenous cultures tend toward being more collective. Again, this is not better or worse, objectively speaking. However, there’s a huge difference between being raised in a collective culture, and trying to create community in an individual-based culture. The way one forms relationships, the values that are applied to those relationships, and the balance between self and others are ingrained from birth, and it’s harder to learn new ways of doing these things later in life, especially as an adult. It’s not impossible, of course, but it requires more immersion than what most neoshamans and neopagans who draw from other cultures experience.

Yet time and again I see pagans romanticizing collective cultures and demonizing individuality. In doing so, they ignore the conditioning they have as individuals and try to shoehorn themselves into some artificial community construct, or, alternately, attempt to join up with a more collective culture while approaching it with a largely individualistic mindset (which they often deny they have!) In the former case, all too often these artificial communities end up with short lifespans because no one really has the skills to be able to build their scaffolding from scratch. In the latter, there are numerous examples of well-meaning but clueless white people hanging around the edges of indigenous communities, hoping someone will take them in, or worse yet, inviting themselves into the community and creating quite a mess of things.

Additionally, the conflict between individual and collective ways of being manifest themselves in some of the more arrogant manners of cultural appropriation. These tend to be along the lines of “My spirituality is MINE, and I can do whatever I want with it, and if the gods/spirits/etc. talk to ME, then I can work out whatever relationship I want with them and no one else matters!” Granted, this is an extreme; I am quite individualistic in my approach to totemism and my insistence that in this culture it’s better to work out individual relationships with the totems. However, I also urge people to be aware of cultural appropriation when looking at any other culture’s totemic system, and to be mindful of where they’re coming from when approaching those other systems.

My point in all this is not to say individuality is bad and collectivity is good. Individuality in and of itself, again, is not a bad thing. What this is meant to be an example of is how ignorance of one’s own culture of origin can seriously affect interactions with other cultures. And it affects the continuing formation of neoshamanism.

See, one of my biggest gripes with core shamanism in particular is that so many people claim it’s “culturally neutral”. Which is bullshit. Core shamanism is white, college-educated, middle-class shamanism. Only people with the greatest amount of privilege would have the audacity to say that what they’re doing has no cultural trappings, because they’re the only ones who have enough privilege to ignore cultural differences. That’s part of what privilege is about: you have the option of ignoring everyone else, while everyone else has to pay attention to you.

And I see this time and again with white neoshamans. “We have no culture, so we can plug our shamanism into other people’s cultures.” It’s racist, and it’s also separating neoshamanism from the possibilities it could have in the culture that produces so many neoshamans. If we’re so busy trying to be like other cultures, is it any wonder that we have an increasingly negative view of our own?

So how do we white American neoshamans change this? Well, first of all, by admitting that we do have a culture, which, yes, does include things like strip malls and suburbs, but includes a whole lot else, too. We need to be exploring our communication styles, our values, our biases, and how this affects our interactions with others. We need to stop looking at our culture as something to be ignored or demonized (but not go the opposite direction and try to elevate it above everyone else–white supremacy is bad, mmmkay?) And we need to understand that even “white culture” is a broad artificial construct, that the concept of “whiteness” was created to try to marginalize racial and ethnic minorities, and that there are a lot of nuanced subcultures under the umbrella of “white culture”. Plus there’s the issue of intersectionality–we are not just our race, but our sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and numerous other things that make up our social location. We can’t ignore these influences and just say we’re “culturally neutral”. It’s impossible.

Most of all, we need to stop with this whole “All people are one people” thing. Yes, it is good to acknowledge interconnection and universality. However, “all people are one people” is too often used in the same way as “I’m racially colorblind”–a nice-sounding way of absolving one’s self of the hard work of admitting there are still very real inequalities, and saying “we are all one” does jack shit to actually address or do anything about those inequalities. It’s little consolation to people who are stuck on the bad end of those inequalities, and again “we are one” originates uniquely out of a place of privilege.

And “we are one/all people are one people” is too often used to justify cultural appropriation. After all, if we’re all human beings, then we all have the right to use whatever cultural or spiritual trappings we like, right? We’re breaking down the barriers and boundaries between us, aren’t we? Except a lot of the time it’s the people who are more empowered who are busting down the defenses of minorities who use those boundaries to feel more protected. Just read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, for example, and you can get a pretty good idea of why so many Native people are so distrustful of white people–and why walking in saying “We’re all brothers and sisters” just ain’t gonna cut it.

So I challenge you to start thinking about this stuff if you haven’t already. If you’re a white, middle-class, college-educated American neoshaman like me, look at how your culture–and other social factors–affect your shamanism. If you glorify indigenous cultures over your own, look at what you dislike so much about yours and see whether that’s really warranted. Chew on this stuff. See what you make of it.

ETA: 11 September, 2012 – The comments on this blog, to include this post, are screened. If you’re going to just leave vitriolic screeds against one group or another, don’t bother. They’ll just get trashed. If you want to constructively add to the conversation, whether you agree with what I say or not, that’s fine. But ranty bits about how “all members of [group] are [stereotype]” aren’t going to see the light of day here. This is a very sensitive topic, and I don’t want this to devolve into people virtually screaming at each other. It doesn’t do anyone any good, and it won’t help you feel better, either.

How To Talk To Dead Things

So for those who don’t know, I have been working with animal parts in my art and spirituality since the late 1990s. It’s been a pretty continual process, and I’ve developed a lot of techniques both in the artistic and spiritual ends of the practice.

Being an animist, I observe spirits within the skins and bones and other remains. It’s not the soul of the animal that once wore these pieces and parts and collections of cells, but what remains–the spirit of the skin, collective spirits of hairs, etc. It’s like Russian nesting dolls–each cell has a spirit, and those add up into greater spirits, just as individual animal and plants spirits are folded over into the spirit of the Land. And yet they’re all their own entities at the very same time.

Back when I started all this, there was nothing on how to work with what I term “skin spirits”. I didn’t know anyone who did that sort of work. So, like the rest of my practice, I had to figure it out on my own. And it was a process of trial and error. First I had to realize there were spirits in these remains at all. And then I had to figure out how best to talk to them. (More on that in a bit.) And once we could converse, I had to be able to listen and act on that.

And over the years, almost everyone I met who worked with them had learned how to do so from observing me or reading things I’d written in articles, on forums, or in blogs about the practices I had created from scratch. In an attempt to spread the knowledge even further, I wrote what is to my knowledge the first (and only, at this point) book on the topic, also named Skin Spirits.

I do like hearing from other people who have done this sort of spiritual work, whether influenced by me or not. I know a lot of people who collect or make things with animal remains, but it’s only a small portion who do spiritual work with them, whether they’re literal animists, or simply see the ritual as a good practice. Either way, it’s an additional layer of respect that isn’t mandatory, but which can be quite artistic.

One thing I wanted to share was an introductory “how-to” regarding the actual process of communicating with the spirits in the remains. This will work whether you believe spirits are actual entities with independent agency, or elements of the human imagination. And it works with any hide, bone, feather, claw etc., though you may have to add in a little extra intuition if you don’t know the species! (For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to use the term “skin” in lieu of listing all sorts of remains.)

First, sit with the skin in a comfortable, quiet place. Hold it, touch it, examine the colors and contours. Get to know the actual material skin.

Next, close your eyes and do your best to quiet your mind. If you need something to focus your mind on, keep focusing on your sense of touch and keep working with the physical skin.

Now, open your mind to the spirit in the skin. If you aren’t sure how to do this, imagine a cord extending from your forehead to the forehead of the skin.

Keeping the connection open, see if any images, words, or sensations come to your attention. Try not to go in with any expectations. Simply see what happens. If you notice something unusual, observe quietly.

You might try starting the conversation yourself. When I do this, it isn’t so much words as it is a stream of consciousness or flow of information, if that makes sense. However, you can use words as well. I find that the aforementioned consciousness/information “translates” to and from words well. It’s all about how your brain processes it.

If you don’t get an immediate response, don’t worry. The spirit may not feel like talking just yet. Conversely, you might need more practice in listening to spirits. One way to help this along is to basically create a vessel for the animal to use. Visualize the animal, whole and alive, in your mind. Start with letting it just stand there. Don’t try to make it do anything else. If the animal starts to move or speak of its own volition, let it do so at its own pace. This is the spirit taking the vessel you have created and using it as a conduit for communication.

As to the conversations? That’s entirely open-ended. One thing I find useful as a topic to discuss is what the skin would like done with it. After all, I started this work in the first place because I wanted the remains to have a better “afterlife” than being a trophy on someone’s wall or a status symbol in the closet. A lot of my best artwork ideas have been ones suggested to me by the spirits whose remains I’m using in those artwork pieces.

You may find after a while that the spirits may “nudge” you when they want to talk, especially if you have them out in your home where you can see them (which I feel is preferable anyway). This can occasionally be a bit much, especially if they’re persistent. You may want to learn how to “turn the sound off” for a while if it’s getting disruptive. However, take some of these opportunities when they happen, too.

This is just the very beginning of my skin spirits work. You can find out more (for free!) in the Skin Spirits category of this blog, or (not for free, but it goes to a good cause!) my aforementioned book.