Pagan Values Month: Service

(Note: This is my contribution for the Pagan Value Blog Project 2013.)

Last week, the Wild Hunt blog featured a piece on “Pagans Doing Good. It started with a critique of paganism, the common complaint that there are no pagan hospitals or homeless shelters or major nonprofit groups. The writer, Heather Greene, then highlighted two activists who also happen to be pagan (and there are more where they came from!)

My only critique of this is that “service” isn’t limited to those who are able to devote their entire lives to activism. Most of us have households to support or families to raise or debts and bills to pay or any of a number of other obligations that we can’t just toss to the wayside to go be full-time activists. We do need these people; I admire devotion and I do admit I envy them a bit. But that is far from the end of pagan manifestations of service.

I am not, however, speaking about service to gods or spirits or other incorporeal beings. There’s a time and a place for such things, if you choose to enact them, but they are no substitute for physical-world action. A lot of it is what the measurable, objective effect of the action is. I can’t walk down the street with my primary totem, Gray Wolf, and say “This is my first and most cherished animal totem; I would like others to make offerings to hir to make hir stronger and give hir the reverence s/he is due” and expect everyone to agree with me. Many will disagree, in fact, and that’s okay. How I interact with a world that may or may not actually exist outside of my own psyche is my own to decide, and same for everyone else.

However, I can feed a stray, hungry dog on the street, and I can invite others do to so; even if they don’t have dog food with them, I can give them a bit to feed the dog so they can have the experience of helping another living being, something that may stick with them. I can take the dog to a shelter and say “Here, do you have room for this dog?” and the people there can either take the dog in and bathe it and give it a place to stay until it gets adopted, or they can refer me to another shelter. Or, if I have the room and resources, I can adopt the dog myself and change its life permanently for the better.

To be honest, if I am going to be able to only give time, effort, or resources to either of these causes, I’m going to help the starving dog. One of the central tenets of my personal approach to paganism is to default to putting this world first, because it’s the one I know for sure exists and that I can have a positive effect on. For centuries, a portion of people of many faiths have fallen into the trap of neglecting the physical world entirely in the hopes that their actions on behalf of the spiritual will gain them something in the end. And it can be easy to get so tangled up in spiritual pursuits that, while one may not willfully damage the world, one may still treat it with benign neglect and apathy.

Do I think everyone who is deeply spiritual abuses this world? Of course not. I know plenty of people who adhere to varying faiths and have devoted practices who also work to make this world a better place with concrete actions. But just as I don’t think prayer is a substitute for medical care in the case of a sick child, I also don’t think that rituals honoring animal totems are a replacement for habitat restoration, fighting for more humane conditions for farm animals, or giving what money you can afford to give to nonprofits that work to protect critically endangered species through legislation and other actions. (In my experience, the totems appreciate the efforts to help their physical children enough that yes, these things can substitute for celebratory rituals, but YMMV.)

So what are we going to do as pagans if we choose service to the world as a virtue to incorporate into our personal pagan paths? Here are a few thoughts:

–First, decide what matters most to you. What group of beings do you feel most needs your help, or that you are best-poised to help? Is the natural environment your cause, or civil rights, or government transparency? If the answer is “more than one/all of them”, which few are the highest priority for you?

–Next, determine what you can reasonably offer in terms of time, money, and other resources. It’s okay if you can’t quit your day job to go ride around on the Sea Shepherd and intercept whaling ships. (I can’t either, for what it’s worth.) Can you put aside a small amount of your paycheck each week to give to a nonprofit that is doing the sort of work you admire? Can your employer match your donations, for that matter? Let’s say you’re broke, jobless, and not physically well enough to go stomping around in the woods pulling out invasive species of plant or travel to a developing country to educate poor children. Can you send a letter or an email, or make a phone call, to an elected official or other decision-maker to let them know your thoughts on an important issue? If you at least have the time and energy and access for social media, can you tell other people about these things?

–Now, educate yourself on specific issues to the best of your ability. Be aware that often there are multiple competing ideas for the the best possible solution is; for example, on the topic of farm animals raised for meat, some people think the conditions they’re raised and slaughtered under need to be completely overhauled for more humane options, while others will only eat meat they themselves raised or hunted, and still others think nobody should eat meat ever for any reason at all. You’ll need to decide where you stand on an issue; take your time, and don’t be afraid to consider the gray areas as well as the black and white extremes.

–Once you’re ready to take action, don’t feel you have to do everything at once! Try out different things, and see what works best for you and the given issue you’re working on. You might find that you’re not a fan of going to big public hearings on potential laws, but you’re fine with making some phone calls from the privacy of your own home. Or you may not feel steady enough on your feet to make an entire garden out of your yard, but a few pea vines in a pot on your porch will work.

And if you still want to back these things up with spiritual activities like rituals and spells and the like, go for it! It certainly can’t hurt. If the powers that be help things along, so much the better.

What embodies the value of service for me, personally, is my environmental volunteering and donations, coupled with my current work as a qualified mental health professional working with addicts in the criminal justice system, contacting elected officials on a variety of levels, and talking to others about issues to let them know what’s going on. Of course, this is all my take on service and its place in paganism. What say you, dear readers?

Poison Oak as Totem

A comment on my last post at No Unsacred Place brought up the itchy, urushiol-soaked leaves of poison ivy and poison oak. I am quite sensitive to all of the plants that exude this compound, and admittedly all they’ve inspired in me has been much cursing and complaint on the occasions we’ve had too close an encounter.

Elinox, the commenter who brought these plants up in the first place, mentioned the idea of a shadow totem. A “shadow totem” is a newer concept that seems to be an odd extrapolation of Jung’s Shadow archetype; a shadow totem represents or embodies something that we fear or are otherwise uneasy with. It’s not a concept I work with myself as I find it a little too much of a pigeonhole, but I agree with the general idea that sometimes we have to face some really difficult things in our paths.

So I meditated some with Poison Oak today to consider our relationship–such as it is. Like thorns and other obstacles, Poison Oak and her kin developed urushiol as a way to avoid being eaten by animals. It does mean, of course, that poison oak is not an especially cuddly plant, and the totem was correspondingly strict about personal space, though pleasant otherwise. She’s actually quite friendly; she just maintains very firm boundaries.

And that’s a very important lesson for me, especially as a woman in a culture where women are still often treated as though our boundaries don’t exist. If we object to catcalling, or sexual harassment, or any of a number of other nonphysical boundary violations, we’re told that we’re “bitchy” or “making too big a deal about it”. If we’re assaulted or raped, there are people ready to question what we did to deserve it–were we drunk, or scantily clad, or walking alone at night, or hanging out with the “wrong people”? In the same way, simply for defending her boundaries with integrity and creating a consequence for violation, Poison Oak is vilified. How much do you hear about this plant for any reason other than “this is what it looks like–DON’T TOUCH IT!”?

This goes beyond women, too. There are so many situations every day where people are expected to yield to those who are more powerful, who have no respect for their needs or integrity or safety. The abuse of power is rampant on all levels of American society and beyond. It’s no wonder, then, that so many put up fierce defenses, even against those who mean them no harm. And it can be easy, if a person doesn’t let us in as far as we want, to vilify them for not giving us what we demand.

Poison Oak also told me to examine my own boundaries. I sometimes feel a lot of guilt for maintaining the boundaries that I do. The older I’ve gotten, the more of an introvert I’ve become, and I’ve sometimes gotten criticism for that. More extroverted people don’t always understand that introverts’ quiet and solitude isn’t about them.

There will always be people who feel entitled to my personal space–strangers who don’t understand that it’s a problem if they suddenly come up to me and start flirting, or those who feel entitled to fill an entire residential block with the loud, bass-heavy thumping from their stereo system. These people tend to complain if someone challenges them, and it can be hard to stay true to my own boundaries when they’re trying to paint ME as the bad guy for standing my ground and insisting on my comfort.

And there’s only so far I should allow others to make comment on my spiritual practices. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to defend myself against people who criticize me for being an American of European descent trying to put together an animistic practice, and from people who are uncomfortable with or even incensed by my work with animal parts in art and spirit. While being aware of what others are saying, and my own power and privilege, is a good practice to cultivate, there is a point past which I need to maintain my own integrity and preserve the roots I have set down to give myself more balance.

However, I also need to be mindful of the negative effects that my own “urushiol” can have; sometimes boundaries can be too tight. I sometimes have to make a real effort to get out and be social, not out of any fear of socialization, but simply because I am so comfortable in my personal space that I simply neglect to come out of it at all. Over time, others feel they simply can’t approach me, and so sometimes I need to demonstrate that yes, I can be sociable!

And in some ways I grew up with a certain level of entitlement that’s been hard to shake even at this point of my adult life. I was raised in a town where people were very prickly to each other, where being bullied taught me that everything is a personal offense, and where people always looked for someone to blame for whatever went wrong, even something as small as a delay in traffic. Poison Oak’s “passive” defense isn’t an open attack, and she doesn’t go out of her way to cause trouble. It’s something to keep in mind as I continue unraveling this unwanted part of my past conditioning.

By the end of the conversation, I saw a good deal of myself in Poison Oak, and vice versa. While I’m sure I’ll be unhappy the next time I end up with an itchy red rash from brushing up against her progeny’s leaves, I won’t blame them at all. Urushiol is only the protection that Poison Oak has developed over time, and it’s really rather effective. If I can’t touch or pick poison oak like I can clover or dandelions, it doesn’t mean the itchy plant is a bad one. It just means I need to respect that plant’s boundaries as much as my own.

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?

Privilege and the Broom Closet

(First of all, thank you to everyone for your kind words on my last post. I am still recovering emotionally; writing about other things is helping. Here, have some.)

So recently there’s been some talk about people jumping ship from things like Facebook over to Google Plus. It’s apparently even great for pagans.

I wouldn’t know. A few months ago, Google suspended my account after less than a month since I was listed as “Lupa Greenwolf” instead of my government-recognized name. Since my professional pen/personal pagan name wasn’t good enough for G+, my profile remains suspended–that image above is a screen shot taken from my browser when I go to the G+ page. I could change my name on this account to my legal name and still be able to live my life more or less the way I do now, but I have a number of personal reasons for preferring to be “Lupa” in the pagan community, and keeping my legal name reserved for other parts of my life. I’m not a tightly closeted person, but it’s my choice to present myself under one name or another.

I’m lucky that I was able to make that decision, because there are a LOT of people who don’t have that choice either way. Pagans who would have much worse consequences if they decloseted. People who use the internet to connect with queer, poly, or other minority folks and don’t wish to connect those to their legal names. And, of course, people who have been the victims of stalking, domestic assault, and other crimes who don’t want to make it easy for their attackers to get at them again.

If you can be out of whatever closet by choice and not force? Great! But understand that you have a privilege that many others do not. Your privilege is that you have the option to decloset (or not) and can decide whether you feel you can handle whatever negative consequences may occur without having it made for you.

So who are you?

–Chances are good you don’t have children, or at least don’t have to worry about someone trying to wrest away custody using your religion, sexuality, etc. as a lever. Or you feel that you have enough grounding to win a custody case, and so aren’t concerned.

–If you do have children, you don’t feel particularly concerned about the effects having decloseted parents could have on them in school and other situations. You feel either that there are no real risks, or you feel capable of handling the risks, and you feel that your children will be sufficiently protected physically and psychologically from the potential effects of your decisions.

–If you are in one or more relationships, you do not feel that your partners are at sufficient risk that you should stay closeted to protect them, nor do your partners feel threatened enough by potential risk to protest your decloseting, or even end their relationships with you. Or you can afford the potential loss of your relationship(s) and not be so badly financially and/or emotionally harmed by that loss that it would be better to stay in the closet.

–You also probably are either securely employed in a non-bigoted environment, can easily choose to move to another work environment, are self-employed, independently wealthy, have a spouse, partner, or sugar daddy/mama who is capable of supporting you no matter what, or otherwise don’t have to worry about your source of income being destroyed by bigoted employers/coworkers/systems.

–You’re probably fortunate enough to have people who support you emotionally and psychologically, a safe buffer of friends and/or family who will give you safe space for being who you are and who you know won’t abandon you.

–You can handle the potential loss of people who may turn on you entirely if they find out, or are capable of dealing with harassment from them if they stay in your life, or if you can’t get away from them. Additionally, you are not dependent on these toxic people for a place to live, food to eat, support in school, or in the case of minors, legal dependency.

In other words, while you may face risks due to decloseting, you feel you are capable of handling them and can consciously take them on by being public about who and what you are. You may even face the same risks as someone who stays in the closet, but you feel more prepared and able to face them than the other person.

Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, but given what I’ve seen of closeted vs. uncloseted folks, the above are very common descriptors of the willfully decloseted. It doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good person for that matter, but these are all privileges that not everyone has.

Moreover, it’s a dick move to criticize people who stay closeted to any degree, or their reasons for doing so. Not every decloseted person attacks their closeted associates, but some do. I have seen many people over the years complain about people not decloseting, whether that was the broom closet or the queer closet or whatever closet others were using for protection, I’ve seen them called traitors, and I’ve seen the blame for continuing discrimination against everyone else laid at their feet for not standing up and being visible. I’ve seen pagans say “You should have nothing to hide if you’re strong in your faith”. I’ve seen radical queers tell closeted queers that all they’re doing is milking the “benefits” of the closet and not taking the full brunt of queerphobia. I’ve seen closeted people being told that by staying in the closet, they’re actively supporting the bigots themselves.

And the criticism is always by people who are ignorant of their own privilege, sometimes willfully so. They’re people who have financial, psychological, logistic, or other advantages that many of the closeted do not, the ones I mentioned earlier. They can’t seem to see past their own self-righteous tunnel vision to see that not everyone has the same options they do, and may not be as safe as they are.

Before you start complaining about how I’m attacking the decloseted, this is what I mean by privilege: Privilege isn’t a criticism of the fact that you HAVE something; it’s a reminder that not everyone ELSE has what you have, and that affects the options each of you have access to in a given situation. The criticism comes when you forget that imbalance, and act in spite of it, and thereby harm those without your privilege.

Why is this important? As individuals move, so moves the community. If the community only moves in the direction of privilege, then it begins to exclude those without privilege more and more. (We already see this with struggles with transphobia and racism in the pagan community.) A pagan community that relies more heavily on G+, for example, excludes those who cannot be decloseted or otherwise link their legal name to their involvement with paganism.

So if you’re considering making yourself a G+ only kind of pagan, using your legal name openly as a pagan, by all means please make your decision as you will. But as you do, please remember that you get to have that privilege, and how ignoring privilege can affect the larger community over time, with each decision an individual makes.

ETA: I have since found out that the name issue with G+ has been relaxed, and have submitted an appeal to see if they’ll unsuspend my account. Even if they do, that still doesn’t solve the overarching issue of closeting vs. decloseting, which is what this post is about–G+ was just one convenient example.

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: 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 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 and 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.

Douglas Fir as a Plant Totem

Note: This is part of the Animist Blog Carnival issue TREES, hosted by naturebum.

Most of the totemic work people do is with animal totems, and admittedly I am biased in favor of them. It’s not that I haven’t done work with others, but I just think to talk about the critters more. That, and the plants tend to be more subtle in their communications. Animals–we’re loud, and impatient, and move around a lot. (Well, most of us. Sea anemones and sloths are on the low end of that curve.) Plants, on the other hand, are more deliberate and patient. And they often whisper. Volume didn’t really have to be much of a thing until there were beings that didn’t send their roots into the great, intertwined network under the surface.

And I’ve found plant totem work to be focused on different priorities than the animals’ ideas. Animal totems seem to want to be dynamic, bringing change and motion and growth. Plant totems, from my experience, tend more toward rooting the self deeper in the now, what you have to work with right this moment, maximizing the use of immediate resources before expending the self to find more. Not that this particularly surprises me; these preferences in focus mirror the very nature of the beings and their totems themselves.

Douglas Fir is one of the most prominent plant totems in my life right now, and as I’ve been working with it I’ve been reminded that I haven’t really written about this part of my spiritual experience. In a way I’ve treated the plant totem work like a long hike in which I ooooh and aaaah at the occasional sighting of an animal, but see the trees and other plants as merely the backdrop. (Which isn’t the case when I’m actually hiking; I take lots of pictures of flora that fascinate me.) I’d like to start changing that and talking more about the plant work I’ve been doing over time. So allow me to introduce you to Douglas Fir.

I am not a native of Oregon. I was a military brat, and did much of my growing up in the Midwest, not arriving in the Pacific Northwest until early 2006. And, beyond that, I am not even a native of this continent; my family primarily emigrated here in the second half of the 1800s, and I was born on an army base in Germany–technically US territory, but not of this continent.

Occasionally this non-native status rankles a bit. I am well aware of the impact that European immigration and invasion of this continent had on the peoples who were here before (and are still here, despite attempts to erase their presence and acknowledgement). And I have heard the complaints from native Oregonians about the influx of people from out of state flooding this area in the past couple of decades as it’s become more popular a place to move (even though right now the job market here is still pretty well tanked).

Yet I am acculturated to this place. I didn’t have a choice in my upbringing, and although there is certainly something to be said for being an ex-pat, it is easiest for me to simply stay in the country where I have citizenship. And I like it here, especially Oregon. The Midwest wasn’t nearly as nice a fit culturally (though the Land liked me a good deal, and I love when I get to go back to visit family as well as places).

This mixed relationship to the place and the people may be part of why one of the first plant totems I connected to out here was Douglas Fir. Douglas Fir is a native species, but the trees’ relationship to the Land here has changed dramatically since the arrival of Europeans. As people began to clear the forests more for agriculture and farming, the opportunistic firs replaced other trees in the succession of forest regrowth. And because the firs grow so quickly, they’re a common seedling chosen for replanting logged areas to maximize profit, making their presence much more pronounced than before.

Both of these factors have homogenized much of Oregon’s forest land to one degree or another. While other native conifers such as Western hemlock or red cedar do still grow here, in many places they’re out-competed by the fir. Even some oak savannahs, highly rare any more in this state, experience firs as an increasingly invasive species.

This, of course, was not solely the doing of Douglas Fir, even with the trees’ competitiveness for resources after forest fires and other nonhuman disasters. The intervention of humans has often resulted in much more dramatic effects on ecosystems. And in the same way, I did not choose the accident of my birth, though I have decisions as to where I live and how I act as an adult, to include attempting to integrate into a different culture (even if I can never completely lose the markings of the culture I was raised and socialized in).

So Douglas Fir has been helping me to not only adjust to living in this place that I have decided to make my long-term home, but also to explore the various ramifications of that decision. There’s a certain level of responsibility that I need to keep in mind as I am here, and what it means that I have consciously made this my home. Who have I affected in this decision? How can I be a part of the community without being obnoxious and even harmful? And, more abstractly, how can I combine my work with social justice with my spiritual path?

These are just some of the things that Douglas Fir and I have worked together on. Fir is more of a presence than an active guide, providing a steady energy to tap into and a quiet reminder of connectivity, but it’s all very grounding to my little animal mind.

And so you have just one example of how my totemic work has extended beyond my fellow critters. I’ll try and talk more about it as time goes on.

(P.S. My friend Paleo has done a bit of writing on more domestic plant totems over here.)

A Brief Note on Diversity

Over at the Pagan Princesses blog, there was raised an interesting prompt: The Magic of Many Voices – What Does Diversity Mean To You?

Here’s my reply, for those interested:

Diversity means accepting not only the fact that there are people of numerous races, sexes, genders, sexualities, cultures, politics, spiritualities (to include none at all), physical and mental abilities and challenges, economic and educational levels, and other social locations; but also that not everyone has equal standing, here in the U.S., and privilege may be given to some simply by virtue of the accident of their birth. True acceptance of diversity is not just acknowledging the differences, but facing the hard truth that pretending to be racially color blind or culturally neutral does not erase discrimination, oppression, or social injustice.

Here in the States, those of us with privilege are all too keen to pretend that oppression is behind us–that racism no longer exists except in rare freak incidents on the six o’clock news; that Native Americans are no longer suffering from genocide; that women really are equal and that the streets are safe for us; that the ADA has taken away all barriers anyone with any disability may face; that no teenager exploring a spiritual path other than what they were raised with has to worry about being thrown out of the family and home; that America is a grand place of equal opportunity for all immigrants; and so forth. “Why can’t we just move on from it? Isn’t this all in the past?” Well, yes. We want it to all be in the past. But the reality is that it’s still very much a sad and anger-inducing part of the present.

To embrace diversity is not only to say “Yes, there are people different from me”, but also to say “Yes, there are people different from me, and they are beautiful amazing people, and many of them face terribly ugly experiences that I may be a participant in, even without intending to be”. To embrace diversity doesn’t just mean the quick glance at colorful cultures, or the brief peck on a cheek of a different color, but to wrap one’s arms around the realities of diversity, receiving not only the warm caress, but also feel the sharp thorns sink into the flesh.

And when we are fully aware of those realities, without turning inward into the guilt which is just more self-focus–our awareness changes our thoughts, our choices, and our actions, and that is where the larger social change is born.

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?